The Stock Photography Market

Posted on September 18, 2011


One of the things I hear from family and other photographers is that I should be selling my images as stock images. To me, since the turn of the century, there really hasn’t been a market and I don’t see this as a profitable option for most photographers. Hopefully, I can explain why in this blog.

Stock photography is where a photographer produces a high number of generic images that can be used for any number of things. The goal is to produce usable images that people find useful for things like advertising, books, cards, and just about anything printed. Most of the stock photographers spend an incredible amount of time capturing different images, different themes, and torturing models (for most models, these images are torture). There are several firms out there, Corbis and Getty being the largest. The images are then sold based on usage by the people who use them. Prices tend to be around $100-$600 per image per use for an average, and the company who promotes your works and sells your images can take from 50-60% of the revenue. For most photographers prior to the early 2000s who were doing this, the work was good and created that cushion to stabilize some of the ups and downs of the portraiture business, and provided a decent extra income.

Since the early 2000s, this all changed. Photographers started marketing directly to any clients that would use their images directly. Smaller firms opened that fostered “Microstock”, or where photographers would accept significantly smaller amounts for their images under a “sub-licensing” or “cross licensing” agreements. By 2010, a lot of amateurs and pros had saturated those smaller firms, often accepting anything they could get and allowing their images to be royalty free (royalty free means you pay once for the image itself, and you can use it forever without any additional cost). The net effect was that the people who produced these images were getting smaller and smaller amounts of money. The market was also saturated. What used to bring in $100-150 for a use now brings in $0.50-1.00. Clients love this, but the market is highly saturated and too much stock is out there. Add to this, marketing irregularities and that many photographers frequently weren’t paid for their work when it was sold.

For photographers to produce quality images, these aren’t acceptable amounts. Yes, there are those individuals who can get paid $5,000-$25,000 for an image. But, even when talking with those individuals, that is very rare and not something that is normal even for those who can get paid this amount (I have been told it is more like winning the lottery than skill in producing the image). The result of royalty free markets were that the images didn’t produce for as long, and the payments to photographers decreased dramatically – often producing 95% less revenue. Because the images wouldn’t produce income for as long as the previous stock market had, royalty free distributors (and some normal distributors) are taking higher percentages of the money when they do sell the images. If you are an image buyer, there are so many choices that the likelihood of finding just the right images is rare – often where buyers just settle for the first close image they find. To give you an example of this, just search Google images and see what you come up with for images. For buyers of images, this can be overwhelming. The last nail in the coffin of this area is that there are no set standards for licensing images. Each photographer and stock organization have different standards. Without a set standards, no one can be sure that images are being used in accordance to their “authorized” use. Frequently, smaller companies use images and then trade to their friends the images that they purchased. In larger companies, they have collected “libraries” of images that are shared across their subsidiaries. The net result is that images are being sold for free and photographers don’t receive anything for their work.

The future for stock image producers doesn’t look promising. With even more people with digital cameras producing images and willing to accept pennies for their images, the revenue potential is horrible. Once an image is sold, its production life is shorter due to many factors. This all means that photographers selling stock have to spend more time marketing their images, and less time producing images. To make money, the photographer has to spend more time producing more images to produce any real income. It is a never ending cycle. Changes have to occur, or the stock image market will disappear.