Clients Push for Speculative Design Work

Posted on 7/31/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (4)

Designers are currently upset at the increasing push by customers toward doing spec work. As a photographer, I’d like to offer a little perspective.

Back in the 70s and early 80s, the rule among professional photographers was to never shoot on speculation. Do not leave your studio to shoot anything, until someone has agreed to pay you for your time and creative skill. That was a nice principle, but our customers—graphic designers—wanted pictures for less, and they wanted to know exactly what they were going to get for their money before they committed any of it to a project. This is understandable, because assignment shoots seldom worked out exactly as planned.

Some photographers, myself included, started shooting on spec, because assignments were hard to come by and we found we could re-sell, often multiple times, many of the images we produced. This enabled us to end up with a profit for our time invested, even though our designer customers were getting what they needed at a deep discount compared to commissioning a shoot.

But it was not long before those discounted prices were not low enough. Perhaps the designers’ own customers got used to paying low fees for photos and wanted an even better deal. As a result, designers expected even lower fees, and the royalty-free model was born. Traditional photographers yelled and screamed about royalty-free licensing, much like designers are screaming about spec work now. But designers loved it, and rights-managed sales for mid-level uses—anything other than major advertising campaigns—started to decline.

For a while, there was rapid growth in royalty-free customers, and some producers made good money. After a few years, the customer base for royalty-free stabilized, and in order to grow revenue, producers started raising prices. In a two-and-a-half year period during the early 2000s, Getty Images more than doubled its royalty-free prices.

This got to be too much for many designers, and they started looking around for cheaper images. At first, they traded images among themselves online, for credits. No money changed hands. When costs of storing the available images on a Web site got to be high, companies operating these sites started charging small fees to cover online storage and delivery costs. A small portion of these fees went to the creators, but the lion’s share went to the site operators. Microstock was born.

Amateur photographers and those trying to break into the image-licensing business love microstock, because it gives them a chance to make a few pennies and know that their images are good enough for someone to want to use them. Professional photographers have found it almost impossible to produce enough volume and make enough sales to sustain a business in the microstock arena. A few of the top microstock photographers make good money, but the rest earn less. For example, iStockphotos’s top 45 contributors make over $100,000 per year each, but contributors that rank below 125—out of 60,000, in terms of total sales—probably earn less than $20,000.

Designers also love microstock because they get some very good images for virtually nothing. This helps them deal with their own customers’ declining budgets and, in some cases, take home even more of the overall fee they charge for their design work.

Now, the same thing is happening to designers that happened to photographers. They are not going to be any better at reversing the trend than photographers were. There will be fewer and fewer design professionals, because fewer and fewer customers will pay their prices. More and more of the work will be done by amateurs, mostly untrained, who create designs as a sideline to some other way of making a living, or simply as a hobby. Software improvements and Internet access to customers will make it easier and easier for these amateurs to operate.

Spec work does take advantage of young and inexperienced designers, but many of them see it as the only avenue for breaking into the profession. Education programs will not stop them from trying. These new entrants hope that someday there will be enough work, so everyone can earn a decent wage. However, based on my 45 years in the photography industry, that does not seem to be the way it works out.

One blog points out that, “Designers are highly trained professionals that deserve to be respected and paid a decent wage for their work.” That is what photographers thought too.

Another comment I found on a Web site designers frequent is: “It’s time to take this discussion outside of the design community and educate our clients and show them the value of real design work.” This is almost word for word what photographers were telling their designer clients in 1991 in relation to royalty-free stock. Such attempts at education accomplished nothing.

I wish designers good luck. Photographers still want to work with them when possible. Meanwhile, many photographers are out looking for another way to make a living in order to support our families.

Copyright © 2009 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:  


  • Fred Voetsch Posted Jul 31, 2009
    Wonderful article!

    The key, as far as I'm concerned, is to understand that this is reality and "educating" buyers will accomplish nothing. Each of us, whether photgrapher or image seller (I am both) need to have some sort of strategy based on reality in order to survive.

    As I love to say and other photographers hate to hear: if you want to avoid competition you should have picked a job that takes a bit more skill than just pushing a button.

  • Dexter Lane Posted Jul 31, 2009
    What was it that Painters said when photography arrived on the scene?

    What was it that Real Photographers said when those upstarts with Leicas started popping-up on every street corner- something about any dimwit now being able to press a button and get an inferior image...?

    What was it that film shooters said when digital started gaining traction?

    Every democratization of technology, by definition, allows the unschooled masses to produce a product in less time, and with less effort and learned skills.

    Everybody loves progress, but nobody likes change.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jul 31, 2009

    It seems ironic.... you now sadly state that it is hard to be a full-time photographer in this day of RF and Microstock. And it indeed is much harer to be respected and paid what an image deserves (look at eht Time Magazine cover for $30 and that amateur photographer is proud that he is "published".... as he goes to his shoe saleman job probably!

    But the funny part ios that only YOU and David Walkker of PDN were teh two people telling photographers years ago..."Better get on the RF Bandwagon!!"

    You and I have had arguments over the years about that I will not sell RF and you pushed and pushed so many photographers to sell RF, Microstock, and any way for a few dollars. Now the truth emerges and it "ain't pretty!."

    I guess the theory is be careful what you wish for and what you suggest... it may well come back and bite you on the butt!
    Orlando, Florida

  • Don Farrall Posted Aug 1, 2009
    All of my designer friends work for advertising agencies or marketing firms. These companies offer a lot more than just "design work"; they offer strategic marketing, research, distribution, interactive production, film/video production, and on and on. A single designer producing work on a moon-lighting basis is no competition for a full service agency. I'm not sure I understand what segment of the marketplace is at risk here. I do follow most of the rest of the article, though I think the description about the birth of microstock is a bit simplified. Microstock started with a much heavier emphasis on illustration and a general distain for photography. It grew because there wasn't a hill to climb for entry. In my opinion, exclusive entry to Getty and Corbis was a big contributor to the birth of microstock.

    I don't shoot work for clients on spec, but I have some agency clients that are very aggressive about seeking new business, and I will almost always produce anything they need for a pitch for no fee. This policy has always proven to be worth it. I suppose some would consider that spec work.

    Don Farrall

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