Changing Stock Photography World

Posted on 11/19/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (10)

As happens every fall there is a whirlwind of photo conferences – PACA Annual Conference, Visual Connection and PhotoPlusExpo (all in New York), and this year Microstock Expo in Berlin.

Actually, it’s the second edition of Microstock Expo organized by Lee Torrens and Amos Struck. The first was in 2011.

In light of everything I’ve seen and heard between October 20 and November 17, 2013 I’ll make a few observations. Others may read the tea leaves differently. If so, I would be happy to publish your thoughts and different ideas. Here are a few of my takeaways.


One attendee at both PACA and Microstock Expo described PACA as “my mother’s bridge party.”  It is a collection of old friends getting together to try to understand what had happened to the business model that had been so successful a few years ago. In many cases they are also in denial.

PACA, of course, is an organization made up of stock agencies that offer Rights Managed and traditional Royalty Free license to use the images they represent. Many are struggling. There are some new start-ups most with specialized niche collections. But the aim of the old guard, as well as the new entrants, is to sell to a high-end market that is clearly in decline. A few customers are still willing to pay decent prices for the images they use and those are the customers PACA members are addressing. For the most part they have decided that the segment of the market that is not willing to pay decent prices is not worth addressing.

Nevertheless, in order to hang onto old customers they have been forced to lower prices. They often license rights for less than what is charged for premium microstock. Alamy says that 22% of the images they licensed in 2012 were for fees less than $25. Our analysis of Getty contributor royalties indicates that at least 25% of the images Getty license are for fees less than $25. If these low prices resulted in significantly more sales that might not be so bad, but that doesn’t seem to be what is happening.

PACA has become much more accepting of microstock distributors than it was a few years ago. But there is very little indication that most PACA members are ready to change their licensing strategy, or feel that it could work for them even if they tried.

PACA seems to be fighting a losing battle to protect image copyright. More and more images are being used without proper permissions. PicScout says that 85% of the image uses they identify on the Internet are not properly licensed. The organization is certainly putting up a good fight and trying to improve the business climate for its members. They are working to get legislation passed that will make it easier to enforce copyright, but very little real progress seems to occur.

RM customers are often confused by the complicated licensing agreements that define what they can and cannot do with the images they purchase. (See: Buyer Confusion About Rights)

Many of the top photographers PACA members represent have either pulled back on the number of images they produce, or stopped producing altogether. They are no longer earning enough to justify continued production and have moved on to other lines of business.


A few years ago there was an entire track of seminars devoted to Stock photography at the three-day event. For the last two years there hasn’t been a single seminar. It is almost impossible to find anyone in attendance with an interest in stock photography. The stock photographers in attendance are taking seminars about how to use social networks to market themselves (mostly as assignment shooters), to protect their copyright or to learn video skills in anticipation that will be the market of the future.

Microstock Expo

Then we come to Microstock Expo where we found a vibrant mood of excitement, enthusiasm and hope. There were 212 people in attendance, about half were image creators and the other half agents and service providers. This conference had a creator focus while PACA is focused on how agencies and distributors can make money.

Before the conference I surveyed about 70 of the image creators who would be attending and got a 40% response rate. Only one reported a revenue decline in 2013 compared to 2012. Over half reported 10% or more revenue increases. The attendees were certainly among the most successful microstock producers.

Some shooters that license their images at RM and traditional RF prices will be quick to point out that these image producers are not representative of the tens of thousands microstock shooters, most of whom make very little because they only license few image use and they are at the low, low microstock prices.

Based on the analysis I’ve done over the years I feel sure that today there more microstock and subscription shooters earning over $100,000 a year in royalties than there are people who license their images at RM or traditional RF prices. There are also probably more microstock shooters earning over $500,000 a year than traditional shooters.

Sure, it is very difficult to reach these levels. Today, it is probably more difficult on the traditional side than on the microstock side. Sure, a huge percentage of producers on both sides sell very little and often don’t recover their costs, particularly if they think their time has any value. But, on the whole, I believe those engaged on the microstock side of the business are happier, more successful and have a more positive attitude toward the future than traditional shooters.

Changed Industy

Here are a few elements related to how the industry is changing.
  • A much higher percentage of the images used are being used online.
  • Customers need a lot more images.
  • Customers need flexibility in how they can use the images they purchase because their needs change rapidly.
  • Customers want to know that when they purchase an image they can do anything they want with it.
  • Overall customer budgets have not increased. Therefore, they need to pay a lot less per-image than they did in the past. They also like a system that will allow them for a fixed annual price to get all the images they need regardless of what they happen to be of.
  • Given the oversupply of images and the relatively short life span of an image use, very seldom is there a case where the customer needs exclusive rights

Pricing Models

The industry has two basic pricing models -- (1) Usage Based and (2) iTunes.  

The Usage Based (UB) model started with RM. RF was introduced as a simplified UB model. RF fees have a few varied with file size and collection. There are limits (500,000 print impressions) and a few others. But, for the most part they are much simpler than RM.

However, customers are pushing more and more for an iTunes model. They are willing to pay a little for the convenience of being able to quickly find something that fits their need, and in order to avoid the anxiety of being illegal. But, raise that fee too high and they will find another way to get what they need, and, if necessary, accept a limited risk of being caught.

The fee they are willing to pay has no relevance to the value or cost of production of the image. If enough people happen to like a particular image it can generate significant revenue, but going forward it is unclear whether enough of a given creators’ images can sell for a combined total of enough to cover the overall cost of production.

Many top creators have decided they won’t be able to cover costs and are pulling out of the industry.


The leader in selling images today is unquestionably Shutterstock. With its subscription pricing model it comes closest to the iTunes model customers want. Of all the stock images licensed, by all the stock distributors in the world in 2013, I think Shutterstock will license about 58% of them. This is somewhat deceptive because given the way the subscription model works customers pay to download a lot of images they never use. Nobody knows what proportion of the more than 100 million images customers will purchase in 2013 will actually be used, but the image creator gets a small royalty for each image download regardless of whether it is actually used.

It is also important to understand that 40% of Shutterstock’s revenue comes from single image licensing, not subscription. They started at the bottom of the food chain and are moving up while everyone else – in one way or another – is moving down. The Shutterstock fees for single images are around $10 per image compared with around $1.40 to $1.50 per a subscription download.

An increasing number of major organizations are also paying Shutterstock higher fees that range up to about $400 for extended licenses. These licenses vary and may cover print runs higher than 500,000, use of the image on products, or permission for multiple art directors to use the same account. Creators occasionally get royalties in the range of $100 for the use of a single image.

For more on Shutterstock read my analysis of their 3rd Quarter 2013 conference call.

These are a few of the highlights. I’ll expand on some of these subjects later.

Copyright © 2013 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:  


  • Ellen Boughn Posted Nov 19, 2013
    You have unfairly characterized the recent PACA meeting by failing to mention the great presentations by Shutterstock, Foag, EyeEM and others that have nothing to do with somebody's Mother's bridge being a party of old friends. There's that and it too is valuable but to this old girl...there were many more young faces than old.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Nov 19, 2013

    You know I love you, but you still have the opinion the "sky is falling". My sales this year & last have been up from the few before. It is not all negative, believe me!

    The thing is simple: Some people want good salable imagery and are willing to pay for it. That is who I want to sell to.... I do not want to sell my images for $1 and make $0.20 each. I would rather drive a truck.

    I also KNOW the business well and work hard at it, getting images out, shooting all the time and have a staff that prepares the images. I also am deep into stock footage clips. That is in contrast to many beginners with a new camera and they just want beer money. I have never worried about them because they do not take the business seriously, do not get model releases, do not shoot what sells, etc.

    In my seminars and books, I teach the RIGHT way to sell stock.... and it has helped many get started and become successful. You say no one wants to hear about selling stock -- I disagree. If anyone wants to have me speak on the subject -- and break all the negative myths -- I am available often around the country. In last two years I have spoked in ten states at camera clubs and at ASMP meetings .... topic"Stock Is NOT Dead!"

    It is still a good business -- yes, tougher than it used to be. But if you know the way to do it successfully, it can be so rewarding ---- both financially & personally. What could be better than shooting what you love and having it sell around the world??

    So people who want to think positively, here is my website:

  • Christina Vaughan Posted Nov 20, 2013
    I couldn't agree more with Bill. Yes, the market is tougher than it used to be - but in many more ways, much more professional as it needs to be approached as a business. Image Source pulled out of working with Microstock agencies this year because we believe premium is not only about the product and price but the placement. We are seeing unprecedented post-recession growth in revenues, in average transaction values and ROI to our Photographers - all in the premium sector - and I appreciate Bill's positivity - we are fortunate to work in an industry we are all passionate about - global visual communication - and what could be a better way to earn a living than Shooting great Photography and selling it around the world. I might have to sign up to one of his seminars or get him to cost-host with our workshops that have been so popular across the globe! :-)

  • Ellen Boughn Posted Nov 20, 2013
    I respect both Lee and Amos for their efforts to create a new and vibrant conference to address a different group of photographers and know that both of them respect PACA and CEPIC.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Nov 20, 2013
    Thanks, Christina for your comments. If we approach this business professionally and shoot what the industry NEEDS in stock, we can be successful.

    Too much talk is about Microstock and beginners being forced to use Microstock cause as Jim too often states "There is no better way". There is a better way and you CAN still be successful in this business.... to all the "doom & gloom" people!

    And yes, Christina, I would be willing to co-host a workshop with you some places if our schedules can match. Contact me. Anything to spread POSITIVE thoughts about our terrific careers!

  • Jaak Nilson Posted Nov 21, 2013
    Stock industry is flooded with informaton about microstock. Traditional stock is still closed area. Agencies are pretty closed. It is almost impossible to get Corbis or Getty direct contract. Via aggregators only. There is no good dicussion about macrostock in forums.

    I add an one comment of head of one aggregator agency.
    "In fact we now see RM prices below the premium micro RF prices."

  • Sarah Fix Posted Nov 21, 2013
    I must have attended a different PACA event. I thought it was the best conference in years and heard similar sentiments from others. PACA created a dialogue with many new technology innovators. It was incredibly productive for Blend.

    I would also say that along with the changes you've pointed out in the industry, that it is also true that Blend has shown growth in Rights Managed for the past couple of years and continues to find success licensing high production content at premium prices. There is still a market for premium RF and RM but the images have to justify the price and be competitive.

  • Ellen Boughn Posted Nov 21, 2013
    Agreed, Sarah. And very well stated.

  • Jaak Nilson Posted Nov 22, 2013
    Blend is of course a very good agency. Blend is successful thanks for its owners who are the best photographers and started business at right time. 15-25 years ago. All these photographers have a good placement at Getty. And direct contract with Getty too. All big agencies loves their moneymakers so it is one of the reasons why they still earn pretty well. Placement.
    So it works for some handful contributors only.

    It is truth that some buyers are still ready to pay very high price for right images. We can see it at Australian Imagebrief. They sending out everyday information about buyers requests. It is interesting that all these image requests are not exclusive.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Nov 23, 2013
    Everyone here has good points! I would just suggest that we all stay the course, continue to produce great images and sell them for a FAIR price. If GOOD photographers would NOT agree to sell their images at ridiculous low prices in Microstock, we could go great lengths in turning the industry around a lot. What pro wants to sell his/her images for $1??

    Sure, there are people who bought a camera recently who will post images for a dollar for beer money and to say they are "published"! But don't let those beginners pull the industry's prices down!

    I still feel positive about our images Jim & everyone, so I hope that can help others. I am speaking whenever I can around the world, so maybe I can come near you guys to give a lecture to photographers sometimes. My title usually is "Stock Is Not Dead!!"

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