Why would anyone do stock photography

In the last couple weeks, my nephew and a long time student both asked me if they would be wise to start producing stock imagery to be licensed through agencies or photo libraries. Though reusing existing imagery is a part of my business, I worked pretty hard to discourage them. In the process, walked them through the question “why would anyone do stock photography.” In doing so. I realized the form of my answer would be useful to any one considering getting involved in stock photography.

Though the question came from two different people, one version of the question highlights the essence of how both photographers raised the same question, a question that I get asked at least once a month.

“I sent links to my latest images to a number of friends; one of them is a retired editor who worked at a book publisher. In response, she wrote to encourage me to try several photo agencies that she said book editors that she knows have used.“

My simple reaction was “don’t do it, don’t do it!!!” After a minute, I realized I had an obligation to explain why, (and then I could still say “don’t do it, don’t do it!!!”)

Though editor/friend had worked in publishing, I am guessing they never worked in the bowels of a book publisher’s photo department. Photo editors at most publishers these days work under difficult conditions at best, where the only thing that matters is speedy acquisition of images, securing the maximum rights to those same images while paying minimal fees.

The photo agencies that best meet those criteria (both technologically and in terms of price) are the proverbial “800 pound gorillas” of the stock photo industry, Getty, Corbis and the like. To reinforce their market dominance, those same agencies increasingly have special contracts with major publishers giving extra discounts to those image users who license high volumes of images. Though certain smaller stock photo agencies exist (and I happily work with a few of those) they are an ever shrinking minority.

The file cabinets in my office hold records, contracts, sales reports and shut-down notices from easily a dozen agencies that have closed in the last twenty years. Some could not afford the high cost of the technology required to compete. Others saw the prices spiraling downward and decided to retire early (or leave the business all together.)

Many other bloggers have chronicled the death spiral of the small stock photo agency, so I will skip that. What I will do is talk about “Why I still do stock photography.”

The average photographer considering doing stock photography thinks of it as “easy money to be made on the side” while they do their other “day job.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Making money in stock photography requires 20 to 30 hours per month every month (at least.) During that time, I am creating new images, archiving old images, sending them out to agencies, tracking which agency selected which images, etc., etc., etc.

That 20 to 30 hours per month is built into my life as just a part of my business and I am ruthlessly efficient in that process, so for me it is still worth it. When people ask me if they should do stock, I ask “do you want to spend 20 to 30 hours per month, every month of your finite free time on that?” Some of the questioners start to rethink the idea after hearing that.

An example of my obsession with that same efficiency is that I make perfect exposures (in terms of RAW files) when I capture the original images. Otherwise, I usually dump the less than perfect exposures. I do all my cropping in camera and I do as little as possible in post-production in order to save time. Many photographers are undisciplined when it comes to getting the correct exposure/composition when making their initial capture, which is a key to wasting time in stock photography.

I go on to add that if a photographers starts working with any agency, that agency will be expecting the photographer to submit 200 or more images every month. They may not keep 200 per month but they will be expecting it. In line with that point, the key to making money in stock is working with multiple agencies since no one agency, despite what they claim, can reach all the potential buyers. A few more of the questioners considering pursuing stock photography start rethinking the idea after hearing that.

I then point out how most (but not all) of the contracts with the stock photo agencies are horrifying and totally written to the advantage of the agency. Sure, I can refuse to sign them but that really is cutting off my nose to spite my face.

Finally, I point out that on average, I get my first payments for any images I submit to agencies only after about three years. Having to wait three years from “click” to “check” discourages a few more photographers.

After getting past all those hurdles, you now know “why I work doing stock photography.” I am not suggesting anyone else should, but after having read this blog, at least they will be full informed if they choose to do so.

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