"Can an individual photographer actually make money shooting stock imagery today?"
I know full-time stock photographers who are making substantial six-figure, after-tax incomes, but their number is declining. In many cases, the annual revenue is declining. Most got into the business 15+ years ago when it was more forgiving. Several of these photographers are seriously considering going into another line of business.
If everything were to remain as it is, with some exceptions, it will be very difficult for an individual photographer living in the United States to earn his entire living from producing stock photography. It may be possible for someone living in Romania, India or China, but not in the U.S. economy. However, I am hopeful that a few things will change, and many photographers who are struggling will be able to do much better in future.
All traditional agents recognize there is a huge, new customer base that didn't exist three years ago. 85% to 90% of the images licensed in 2007 were sold at microstock prices. Many customers would be willing to pay more. Probably nothing near traditional usage fees, but given their numbers, relatively small increases in the average price per usage could dramatically increase gross revenue for many photographers.
Traditional agents are exploring new pricing strategies in an effort to figure out how to reach this new customer base. Â Major modifications to the ways we currently license rights will be required. RM, RF and microstock strategies will all need alterations and adjustments. Anyone who insists on sticking with one of the existing strategies is likely to be a loser.
Demand for images that will be used in print is declining and will continue to decline. At the same time, demand is a growing for images that will be used online and in other electronic forms. Photographers and image sellers need to reorient their thinking to this new market. Microstock sellers may be doing a better job of this than traditional sellers.
Prices for electronic uses are likely to be much lower than those for print, but the volumes could easily offset lower unit prices.
In the past, we've sold images to publishers who then distributed massive copies of the image in magazines, newspapers, brochures, textbooks, calendars, postcards, posters, etc. In the future, many sales will be one unit at a time, direct to the consumer at a fraction of the price previously paid. But because there will be hundreds of new sales for every one made, it will be possible to earn more money.
Consumers may be becoming more discriminating. They may have more specific and narrowly defined interests and be willing to pay directly. As we think about selling direct to consumers, new delivery systems will need to be developed and new methods to collect payments for small transactions designed. Microstock has made important steps in this direction, but I'm not convinced the systems offered are the total solution.
Amateur-produced imagery will play a much bigger role in the future. For many, licensing rights to images will be a supplement, rather than a primary source of income.
In tough times, it is often harder for the bigger companies to make necessary changes because they are inertia-driven. Smaller companies with new ideas tend to be the risk takers. Test all the new ideas you can find. Don't get hung up on trying to do things the old way. The next few years may not be easy, but there are likely to be new opportunities for those who want to make a living taking pictures.