Changing Photography Business

Posted on 3/7/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Over 60 years ago I decided that because I enjoyed taking pictures I wanted to pursue photography as a way of earning my living. I’ve had a great career, but as a profession things have changed dramatically. For anyone starting out today it is much more difficult to get a foothold – and much less likely that you will ever earn reasonable money – taking pictures for a living.

When I started out more training and practice, as well as more expensive equipment, was required to consistently produce good pictures than is the case today. But, more relevant to my success may be the fact that there was much less competition. In the last century amateurs who took pictures for their own enjoyment found it very difficult to show those pictures to anyone other than family and their closest friends.

In the last couple decades that has changed dramatically. There has been an explosion in the number of images available for viewing by anyone. Consequently, the value of most images has dropped through the floor.

For a long time one of my goals in business has been to try to help photographers figure out how they can maximize earnings from the images they produce. I have no problem with those who want to freely share their images with others and never expect any compensation for their efforts. But, it is my hope that there will continue to be a way for a few photographers to earn a reasonable living from the images they produce.


It is hard to determine how many images are on the Internet, but back in May 2014 Mary Meeker said in her annual Internet Trends report for Kleiner Perkins (KPCB) that people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day. That’s 657 billion new photos per year. (Copytrack says that currently 2 billion images are being uploaded every day.)?

Instagram now boasts more than 800 million users (aka photographers) worldwide, and according to the latest estimates, in just 10 years up to 84% of internet traffic in the United States is expected to be visual. The volume and flow of information coming our way is positively tsunami-like, which creates quite a problem for content makers.

I’ve been unable to find a figure for the number of images that were already on the Internet at the time of Meeker’s report, but it was probably way in excess of 657 billion. However, if we just look at the images that have been added in the last 4 years, and assuming no growth in the rate of images being added there would be at least 2,628,000,000,000 there now.

Compare this figure with the number of images photographers are actually trying to license. PicturEngine says they have identified 1,200,000,000 unique image. That’s a lot. But, nothing compared to the Free images available. Maybe there is another one billion professionally produced images that PicturEngine hasn’t identified, but I doubt it is that many.  Shutterstock has 180,000,000. A huge percentage of them are seldom, if ever, seen by a customer and many are also being licensed by other agencies.

Professional photographers will never stop the majority of image creators from making their images available for FREE Use by anyone, but there are a few things that could be done to improve the situation for those who would like to be paid a reasonable fee when someone uses one of their images.


One of the key factors is curation. With the trillions of images available, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the right one for any particular purpose by simply stumbling around the Internet. The major image licensors are trying to use various technological search optimization techniques to solve the problem, but on the whole these technological solutions don’t seem to be making it easier for customers to find the images they would like to use.

It is often suggested that if photographers would do a better job of keywording that would solve the problem. But what we seem to be discovering is that it is very difficult to describe all the key elements of an image with words. And even in those rare cases when it might be possible the searcher must use the exact same words or they won’t find the image. Often customers must see what they want before they can describe it.

As collections get larger and larger the words searchers use produce too many results that searchers don’t have time to review. When searchers add more words to narrow their search they often miss images that might have been perfect for their needs because the photographer failed to add those additional words to the search terms for the image.

More and more customers are turning to smaller, carefully curated collections like Stocksy where the images included have been carefully chosen by experts who have a familiarity with the kind of imagery their customers are seeking. A number of other smaller, specialized collections still have this kind of curation. The search time required is becoming an increasingly important factor for many customers. If their budgets allow them to pay for the images they need, they tend to go where they can find what they need quickly.

The problem with curation is that so far it requires human input – technology just isn’t doing the job – and human input costs money. At the prices established by the major agencies such curation can’t be justified.

The big agencies have decided to pursue a strategy of adding more images to their collections as fast as they can and leaving it up to the customer to sort through these huge offerings in order to find something they can use. Long range this doesn’t work for the customer, but at today’s prices it is hard to see how agencies will ever be able to justify curation.

I’ve offered one partial solution to this problem in this story. Customers who license images are also providing the agencies with a degree of curation, but there doesn’t seem to be much indication that the agencies are taking advantage of this information.


Providence is another issue for many image users that separates images produced by professionals from those of amateurs. Commercial users need to know if an image is a truthful representation of what it purports to represent? If there are people in the image, does a release exist that allows use of the image in the way the customer plans. See this story.

The vast majority of users may not even recognize that this is an issue. The risk may seem small until the creator, or the subject of the image, discovers the use and complains.

Most customers who use images in ways that help them promote a product or service recognize that this is a critical issue. Rather than looking for Free, they are usually happy to pay for images from a trusted source in order to insure they have legal protection. The vast majority of people images that can be found on the Internet offer no such protection and can expose the user to significant legal risk.

Given the technological advancements that are being made, and the resources easily available on the Internet, it won’t be long before anyone sitting at a computer can create a “fake” image of anyone doing anything that can’t be distinguished from an image taken with a camera.

It won’t be long before someone sitting in Moscow could create an image of President Trump in almost any world environment, saying anything they want him to say, and no one will be able to tell whether it is real or not. What Trump says might even make sense. But then that might be the dead give away!


While the demand for stock images (that customers pay money to use) may be headed toward a decline there will still be customers who need pictures of their products or specific business activities. The only way to get such pictures is to pay someone to produce them.

Photographers seriously interested in earning money for the time they spend producing images may need to look for more of this type of work.

There will also be publications that need a picture of a certain person or event and they will need that picture delivered in a matter of minutes or hours. In such situation the publication will need to contract with someone they can trust to produce an image that accurately represents what happened at the event.

There may not be as much need for this type of work as there was in the past. Some publications may be more willing to accept anything from anyone as long as it is free. But they run some risk to their credibility, and that may be a risk they can’t afford to take to save a few bucks.

In any event, from the photographer’s point of view it may be more important to seek out opportunities to work for people who need specific images rather than devoting all their efforts trying to earn money from images they have shot on speculation.

Image Creator Locator

Photographers also need to recognize that every image they license for use by a customer is likely to end up on the Internet. At that point one of those people looking for Free images may see it and decide to use it.

The potential user has no easy way – and often no way at all – of knowing who took the image and whether it is one of the very small percent of images that need to be licensed rather than just being free for anyone to use.

If photographers expect to be paid for the use of their images what is badly needed is some way for potential image users to determine if an image is free to use or not. This won’t stop all the stealing, but a lot of people want to do the “right thing” if they just know what the right thing is.

Check out this idea for an Image Creator Locator as one possible solution.

Story Telling

Another thing to consider is the importance of using images, not just to catch the eye of a reader, but to amplify an important story. One of the best examples is the recent Time Magazine March 5, 2018 cover story “The Opioid Diaries” with photographs by James Nachtwey.

Too often when we talk about “story telling pictures” we think of a single photograph. While each photograph can tell a story, a series of photographs accompanied by text can tell a much more powerful story.

All the stories don’t have to be earth shaking, but putting text and pictures together in an interesting.

Copyright © 2018 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 301-461-7627, 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:  


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