Death Of Photography As A Profession

Posted on 8/4/2020 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

I define Professional Photographers as individuals who are earning a significant portion of the money they need to support themselves and live comfortably from licensing use to the images they produce. The number of such individuals is disappearing rapidly. All indications are that the number will continue to decline.

The decline is particularly apparent in North America and Western Europe. It some countries where the cost of living is low, some photographers may still be able to earn enough to support themselves and their families.

More and more very experienced photographers who used to earn substantial six figure incomes, and in some cases even seven figures, have seen their incomes drop to 10% or less of what they used to earn in good year.

Those few who once made very good incomes may still be able to survive on 10% of what they used to earn, particularly because they were able to save and invest in the good years, and are now nearing retirement. However, more and more of the mid-level who never quite reached these high incomes and those who have recently started trying to earn their living taking pictures are really struggling.

Unfortunately, the situation is not likely to get better.

There are several reasons for the current state of affairs
    1 – The equipment needed to take pictures has improved so much that anyone can pick a camera or a phone and take a reasonably good picture.
    2 – Very little training or experience is needed to get acceptable results.
    3 – Consequently, more and more people are taking the pictures they need themselves. Weddings and events that used to require a professional photographer are being shot by friends and family. Corporate events are shot by some junior assistant as a sideline to his/her regular job. In business, more and more who need pictures produce what they need themselves.
    4 – There are tons of fee images available on the Internet.

    5 – A high percentage of the print uses of images that formerly paid good money have disappeared.
    6 – More and more image uses are on the Internet rather than in print. Internet users tend to need more and more images, but for the most part are unwilling to pay much for what they need.
    7 – It has become very easy to grab a professionally produced image online, or from a printed publication and use it for any purpose without any compensation to the creator. Many users consider this normal accepted practice and their right.
    8 – It has become very easy to use Photoshop, Lightroom or other image manipulation software to manipulate an image taken by someone else and make the original image unrecognizable.
    9 – Given all of the above fewer and fewer image users are willing to pay much for the images they need.
    10 – The major companies in the business of licensing image use have lowered their prices so much in an effort to try to hold onto customers that the portion left to pay photographers barely covers the photographer’s costs let alone providing a profit for the time and work invested.   
    11 - Most photographers are independent operators working on a project by project basis, not salaried or long contract workers. Most projects tend to be short term taking a day or less to complete. As a result, it is usually very difficult for a photographer to estimate how many projects he will be able to complete and be paid for in year. This makes it very difficult for photographers to determine what to charge for each project. Many tend to under-price many of the jobs they accept resulting in insufficient annual income to cover their cost of living.
Consider the following figures and trends of two major sellers of stock images.

In 2006, the last time Getty Images provided a detailed earnings breakdown to the public, their Creative Images division (RM and RF) generated $634.1 million. The average license fees were $536.25 for an RM image and $242.50 for RF. They licensed a total of 1,767,214 uses of which 973,933 were RM and 787,281 were RF. The average Return per Image in the collection was $327.

In 2018 Getty’s gross revenue for its Creative Collection had dropped to about $280 million and the average price per image licensed was down to about $29. One third of the licenses were for fees under $5.00.

As of the beginning of 2020 Getty stopped selling RM. Photographers tell me that Getty is licensing a significant number of uses for $0.17. Photographers get a 20% royalty share or $0.03 per use.

In 2006 Getty had about 1.9 million images in its collection and licensed 1,767,214 uses during the year. Currently Getty has 28,827,172 images its collection and probably licensed 11 to 12 million uses in 2019. For photographers that means they will see one license annually for each image they have in the collection. The gross sale price per image in the collection would be about $11.50 and the gross annual royalty earned per image in the collection would have been about $2.30. Getty licensed a lot more uses in 2019 than in 2006, but the increased number of licenses didn’t make up for the much lower prices and royalties.

For the last two years Shutterstock’s growth trend has been flat. In 2017 gross revenue was $557 million; in 2018 it jumped to $623.3 million; in 2019 it was $650.5 and they are on track to do $641 million in 2020.

Since the beginning of 2018 Shutterstock has licensed an average of 45.8 million images a quarter with a low of 43.7 and a high of 47.7. In the last two quarters they are trending down. It certainly seems possible that despite a growing worldwide demand for images they may have all the potential users willing to pay even a few pennies for an image. In the first quarter of 2018 they had 197 million images in their collection. Now they have 359 million, a 55% increase.

At the beginning of 2018 they had about 1.8 million total customers. Currently they are reporting 1,981,585 customers. The percentage of Enterprise customers (large businesses) is declining. More and more customers are finding that they can get by with cheap subscriptions. They don’t really need more than 10 images a month. The number of subscribers in the most recent quarter increased to 223,000 compared to 173,000 in 2019. Many of these subscribers are paying $49 a month for the right to use 10 images.

At the beginning of 2018 Shutterstock had over 350,000 contributors. At the end of 2018 that number had jumped to 650,000. Currently they are reporting 1.4 million contributors. Based on estimated 2020 revenue and an approximately 28% royalty structure the average contributor will earn a little less than $125 in 2020 and have approximately 256 images in the collection. Thus each contributor will earn about $0.49 per image in the collection..

More images or more contributors don’t seem to generate more revenue and they leave all image creators much worse off.

More and more of those who enjoy taking pictures and working for themselves, need to find some other way to generate the revenue they need to support themselves and look at photography as entertainment and a hobby, not a way to earn their living.

Copyright © 2020 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


  • Steve Heap Posted Aug 4, 2020
    The $0.49 per image in the collection is interesting. Do Shutterstock break out video sales and video assets separately? If not, this is strictly speaking an income per online asset per year? I do calculate this for my own images and It has been at $0.60 per image per year for the past seven months, $0.67 in 2019 and $0.98 in 2018. In 2015 it was $2.03! Pretty pitiful....

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