Are There Positive Indications Of Growth For The Stock Photo Market?

Posted on 6/11/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Stephen Walker recently read a report about Shutterstock’s IPO plans on APhotoEditor.  He then posted the following on the ASMPstock group on yahoo.
    Do I read this correctly to say that micro and traditional RM, RF are growing at a pretty good clip? Micro more so!

    I am back in college now finishing my Business and Commerce degree and have become fascinated with personal business models. Photographers can choose to participate in the current market conditions with a new business model of a mix of micro and traditional RM, RF OR complain on how it used to be. I see these numbers as a strong indicator of growth and positive for stock shooters (emphasis mine).

    The crowd sourcing of the micro world is weeding itself out and as always the good shooters rise to the top. Micro is about high quality, high quantity shooting. That is not for all shooters. In this model you'll make your money in volume. Traditional is all about high quality and production. Your choice!

The Wrong Conclusion

In my opinion Walker has come to exactly the wrong conclusion. First, a big part of the APhotoEditor report was pulled from the mention of a BBC Research report in the Shutterstock S-1 filing with the SEC. That report, prepared in 2008, predicted that the size of the market for stock photography would exceed $5 billion in 2013. I’m not sure where they got their numbers, but I think they have no basis whatsoever in reality. I estimate that the worldwide market for still images and illustration in 2011 was $1.445 billion. Put stills and video together and I think they will be less than $2 billion at the end of 2012. (See my story on the Stock Photo Market Size to see how I got to those numbers.

Yes, the revenue generated by microstock is growing compared to the higher priced RM and RF. Much of that growth is because microstock has been raising their prices, not because they are selling more images. Shutterstock had a lot of growth in unit sales in 2011, but a good part of that was because they were taking market share from their competitors. iStockphoto’s unit sales dropped. iStock grew revenue because more of their sales were from images in there higher priced brands, but many of those uses are now more expensive than RM. So how much more can they raise the price?

There were 58 million downloads of Shutterstock images in 2011. Sounds like a lot of demand. These downloads generated $120.3 million in revenue. That averages out to $2.07 per image downloaded. (Shutterstock managed to round this number to $3.00 in their S-1. New math?) Shutterstock has 35,000 contributor. So on average the annual gross sales of a contributor’s images are $3,429. Shutterstock doesn’t tell us what royalty percentage they pay contributors, but my estimate is that it is around 20% or a little lower. Thus, the average contributor earns under $700 per year and has 543 images in the collection. Of course some of the top producers who concentrate on shooting the type of subject matter that is in very high demand – and do it very well -- earn much more than this.

I believe that today there are more microstock contributors that earn in excess of $100,000 annually than there are those who earn this amount producing RM or traditional RF. Many of those who are successful at microstock are production companies, not individuals working alone. Anyone who knows anything about microstock has heard of Yuri Arcurs. Yuri has images with everyone, recently launched his own site -- -- and earns in excess or $4 million a year. But, Yuri has a staff of over 100 and huge overhead on top of that. Are there individuals ready to compete at this level?

It is also interesting that over 350,000 photographers and illustrators have applied to Shutterstock to become contributors. Only one out of every ten has been accepted and the requirements to become an approved contributor are becoming tighter and tighter.

People keep saying that more and more images are being used on the Internet and therefore demand will continue to grow. But, are customers paying to use those images or are they taking the pictures themselves or stealing? PicScout offers a service to search professional sites for images and compare them with the databases of image distributors to determine if each use was legally licensed. They have determined that 85% of the images they find were either never licensed or are being used beyond the terms allowed in the license.

I estimate that between 125 and 150 million images were legally licensed for use, worldwide, in 2011. A little over 1% of those were licensed as RM. Approximately 2% were licensed at traditional RF prices and the rest came from microstock companies. Overall, in the last couple of years there has been very little growth in the number of images licensed. Companies like Shutterstock have seen a big jump in units licensed, but such increases are mostly at the expense of other companies which either go out off business or see sales declines, rather than because there has been a growth in total images licensed.

In 2007 GettyImage earned $560 million from its Creative Stills collection (RM and traditional RF). Based on gross revenue figures released recently I estimate that Getty’s Creative Stills division generated about $200 million in 2011. (See Getty Images 2011 Revenue: Creative Stills Declines)

And yet the number of images that photographers continue to produce and make available for licensing grows at an astronomical rate. So as a business major Walker should ask himself if it makes sense to train for a profession where:
    1 – There is a huge oversupply compared to demand.
    2 – The microstock business has matured and overall demand is growing at a very slow pace.
    3 – There is absolutely no way to control the supply
    4 – Supply will continue to grow unabated regardless of demand
    5 – The prices customers are willing to pay for the product will continue to decline as it becomes easier and easier for customers to find a cheaper substitute that will satisfy their needs just as well.
    6 – Distributors take the lions share of revenue generated and the contributor’s share keeps decreasing.
This is not complaining about how it used to be. It is about taking a hard look at the potential for earning a living as a photographer. If photography is just a hobby; fine. Have fun. You’ll make a little money. If you support yourself in some other way, and are just looking for a fun way to earn some extra income in your spare time; great. But if you are looking for a way to support yourself, think carefully. Sure, there will a few people who do very well, but it will likely be because they are very smart businessmen with great business skills, and a lot of luck rather than because of the quality of their photography. And even then the odds are against them.

In future those who want a career in photography should look for staff positions (few and far between) or assignment work where they are guaranteed a fee upfront for the work they produce. And think of stock as entertainment and a supplemental income.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-251-0720, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jun 12, 2012

    An old Henry Ford line ... "People say I CAN and I CAN'T --- and they are ALWAYS right!

    You think gloom & doom--- and you call that YOUR reality. I can tell you that we are seeing a real swing back to major sales again in last 6 months, and many of us are doing real well in RM (and probably RF) stock.

    But you can never see it positive and you say you have the statistics etc. Sure, it is not as good as it was all thru the Golden 80's & 90's and early 2000's ..... but there still are lots of people willing to spend money on stock photography. Yes, Yuri has a big gross, but he has so LITTLE in net because his expenses are so very high! He & I have talked and he says Microstock can NOT be the way of the future to make big dollars --- you can not sell your pictures that cheaply and make money easily at all. One hundred people in his business --- do the math on salaries, benefits, offices, costs, travel, etc. and take that away from the gross he takes in.

    The secret is produce many images and keep your costs (and ego) lower.

    Please show some positive --- there are positive things happening, but all you think is "I CAN"T". And that is a disservice to some who also need to see success in people who ARE DOING IT!

  • Steve Debenport Posted Jun 13, 2012
    I agree with Bill. I hear so much doom and gloom from Jim and others that one with no experience in the market would assume that no one's making any decent money in stock. I'm just 5 serious years in the microstock market, and from my experience I'm seeing year over year growth. Exceptional growth at that.

  • Tom Zimberoff Posted Jun 18, 2012
    The gist of this article seem to have come in response to something like a college student’s fifth-party interpretation of a statistical report cited in Shutterstock’s IPO filing. For the record, it was published by BCC Research, a market forecasting firm based in Massachusetts. I’m sure the “BBC” citation in the article was just a typo. Nonetheless, BCC has since published an even rosier market forecast: Report Code: IFT030C; March 2012. Although my personal conclusion about the stock photo market size is lower than BCC’s, it is far higher than Jim’s. But BCC’s is the only authoritative analysis—right or wrong—investors will pay attention to. And I think Stephen Walker’s remarks were accurate.

    If data like BCC’s is cited or even spun by corporations or individual entrepreneurs for their own benefit, more power to ’em! The Commercial Photography market is so narrowly and steeply vertical that it astonished me to find any professional market analysis at all. And who can be blamed for appropriating it to pitch one’s business model to investors! As far as they’re concerned, caveat emptor! Salesmanship is a good thing. As far as photographers are concerned, it’s irrelevant. Personally, I think the market size is plenty big enough for sufficiently capitalized companies to take share away from one another and, yet, grow the entire segment larger than it is today. That said, no amount of analysis will have—or ever could have had—any influence on the revenue of individual photographers. None of what continues to be lamented today by photographers has much to do with market size.

    Although I realize that Bill Bachman’s more sanguine comments about the opinion expressed by Jim pertain to stock photos and not the assignment biz, I had to chuckle when I read about the “Golden 80s & 90s and early 2000s”. From a typical photographer’s economic perspective, what was so golden about those decades? Stock was just gathering steam; and I harken to a gilded era in the 60s (end of) and 70s, when freelancing came to greater prominence and photo agencies first began to flourish. That’s because staff shooters got laid off in droves. Everyone who ever looked through a camera groused about declining income back then, which has declined inexorably ever since. There continues to be a corresponding din of grousers accompanying the rasp of an economic ratchet, which began lowering the boom before the ASMP (and even Magnum Photos) was founded, back in 1947. My point is that, even in the golden years, photographers undercut each other on stock photos leaving a nasty, lingering legacy.

    The state of economic dystopia for photographers has always been self-sustained, a result of ignorance and carelessness. That too many get paid too little cannot be pegged to market size and revenue. Peg it to this kind of assertion instead: “My portfolio shows I’m just as talented as, say, Annie Leibovitz; so, if I charge less, publishers will surely hire me to save money; and I’ll get more work and higher fees as my reputation grows.” Well, there’s a marketing incentive for ya! Does it work—even for temporary market penetration? And then there’s reputation. Regrettably, if a photographer does get hired on that basis, he is forever stigmatized by a scarlet letter: “C” for cheap. But the rubes keep on coming. And, sure, the buyers get promoted by their bosses for saving money. But instead of securing more profitable fees for Cheapo and other competing photographers next time a job rolls around, the buyers get smaller budgets to work with because they’ve proved, yet again, how easy it is to get talented photographers to work for peanuts. From that point on even Annie gets offered less. Does anyone disagree with that historical generalization?

    Additionally, a case can be made that companies like Corbis and Getty perpetrate a “race to the bottom” on price. But is it really their fault? Sure, those who are now distributors used to be called photo agencies. (They bought them out from under us, the dirty rats.) The latter acted on behalf of photographers. But the photographers, themselves, have allowed the commercial ecosystem to degenerate. Few people have picked up a camera just to start a small business. Photographers want to support their art and have it support them. But they hardly seem to care about how to do it. Or maybe it’s impossible now, considering how an accumulation of self-inflicted wounds have festered, generation after generation, under the delusional conviction that some kind of benign neglect will heal them. The problem that persists today is caused by a lingering infection, not the result of changes in the marketplace. Perhaps you will try to pity me for believing in a cure, but I’m certain technology will come to the rescue.There is indeed an economically viable future for pro photographers. But I digress. I’d like to respond to Jim’s bulleted points:

    Jim, I think you are conflating two separate market segments. The problem is not an oversupply but an inappropriate and unnecessary mash-up of pro and amateur content into ONE low-price bin. It is counterproductive to put a Wal-Mart sign in front of a Cartier store.

    Since the film-and-processing barrier went away, the ease and nearly-zero cost of digital capture has, of course, made "sharing" photos possible. That, in turn, led to a burgeoning inventory of “just-good-enough” pictures available to all sorts of buyers online. There are exceptionally good pictures among them too—with a pun intended for EXCEPTIONALLY. But my point is that two separate markets exist: one for COMMERCIAL publishers (e.g., ad agencies, corporate communicators, and editorial media); and one for CONSUMER publishers (e.g., bloggers and small-business Web sites et al.)

    The latter market barely existed a decade ago, having begun a bit earlier with the confluence of analog Desktop publishing and PhotoDisc’s “royalty-free” model. It was brilliant. Then, fortuitously I suppose, along came digital distribution. Why should bloggers or dentists be expected to know about negotiating licensing fees for intellectual property rights! They need and deserve a down-and-dirty means to pay for pictures to put on their Web sites. It’s a new and separate market. It has not been treated as such. The fact that commercial buyers can pay the same radically low prices as consumers for some of the same content is an inadvertent windfall. The work of hapless professional photographers was carelessly dumped into the same bin with a far greater number of amateur photos. There was no place else for it to go.

    One can blame the distributors for exacerbating this conflated market by declining to—or being incapable of—segregating content into two separate bins for commercial and consumer publishers respectively. On the other hand, they don’t have the technology to do it. And, frankly, I don’t think they care. (That’s an economic vulnerability.) Nevertheless, the fact that rights-managed work is too often priced below its cost of production is predicated on an artificially conflated market. It’s not farfetched to claim that the two can—and I’m sure will—be segregated. Just for a moment, assume that that’s a given. Suspend doubt. Can you explain why that wouldn’t solve the problem.

    One can also say that the COMMERCIAL photography segment matured a long time ago too. By comparison, it has appeared to shrink because of the exponential rise of the CONSUMER photography segment. In fact, both segments will continue to to be sustainable indefinitely.

    Beware of absolutes! Suspend your disbelief again. If technology can segregate professionally-produced content and simply deny it to CONSUMER publishers at unprofitable (to the content producer) prices, is that not control?

    Well, yes and no. That’s incongruous with your statement about market maturity. It’s more accurate to say supply will grow but inventories will get stale. In fact, instead of GROW I would say REPLENISH. Quality too will—well, if not grow, be sustainable at a higher level.

    Your presumption is that the cheaper product will continue to satisfy customer needs. That’s not a good bet. As more and more pros go belly up, the consistent availability of useful content will decline to the point that professional, commercial publishers will find circumstances unsustainable themselves. They will ultimately pay sustainable market prices for quality and exclusivity.

    Yes, that’s true right now; in large part due to subagents; death by a thousand cuts, literally in the economic sense, for pro shooters. Another cause is the conflation of the two markets. In an age of digital distribution, there is no need for those practices. It is entirely possible for a company to sustain huge economic growth while providing sufficient revenue and profitability to its constituent sources of content. Those who cannot will lose market share. That will be the new competitive ethos in the photography business in the near future.

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