End Of Stock Photography As A Profession

Posted on 12/11/2019 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

One of many reasons for the decline of stock photography as a profession is that it has become almost impossible for photographers to get a clear understanding of the various types of imagery, and the relative degree of demand, that users want and need. Once that was not the case, but now there is a total disconnect between image creators and image users.

Back in the 1960s when I started work as a professional photographer most photographers who licensed stock also did assignments. As a result, they regularly talked to and worked with the people who were actually buying their images.  This was an important factor in making It possible for stock photography (images produced on speculation or the re-licensing of images produced on assignment) to be an important part of an assignment photographer’s annual income.

In 1976 the updating of the U.S. Copyright Law gave stock photo sales a real boost. Previous to that time images produced on assignment became the property of the assigning company. Prior to this change very few photographers were able to obtain permission to re-license to other organizations additional uses of the images they had produced on assignment.

The 1976 change gave image creators ownership of the images they produced. At that point photographers working on assignment could license one-time, limited usage rights to the assigning customer and retain the right to re-license additional uses to other customers for additional fees. In addition, if the initial assigning customer wanted to make additional future uses of an image they would need to negotiate with the creator and pay an additional fee.

In a short period of time photographers began to realize that in many cases the image style and subject matter that one assigning customer needs was exactly what many other U.S. customers (and eventually customers worldwide) were looking to use. By using stock other customers could save money compared to what they might have had to pay to hire a different  photographer to shoot a similar image. Stock customers were willing to pay several hundred to sometimes over a thousand dollars for the right image because it was still cheaper, and more convenient, than starting from scratch to hire someone to produce what they needed.

Often photographers could justify doing assignments for somewhat less than they might normally charge because given the type of images that would be produced the photographer could more than make up for any revenue lost by later licensing stock uses to other customers.

An important aspect of this working relationship was that the assignment interaction with end users helped the photographer understand what was needed.

Assignment photographers also discovered that now that they had a better understanding of what a broad cross section of image users wanted to buy, they could go out during their down time between assignments and produce imagery on speculation which could then be marketed as stock.

It should be noted here that I’m primarily talking about Creative concept images used in advertising, brochures and textbooks. It had been clear for a long time there was wide demand among editorial publications for hard news images. Systems for distributing such images had been in place for a long time.

Stock Agents

When it came to Creative images the major problem assignment photographers faced was how to make image buyers, who they would never have a chance to meet, aware that their image existed. Enter stock agencies. The agents would collect images from many photographers and provide a central location for customers to review the work of many photographers.

The agents were selective in the way they choose photographers to represent based on the quality of the photographer’s work and the type of imagery the agency’s customers seemed interested in purchasing. In many cases agents also gave their photographers specific guidance as to what to shoot and what was in demand.

In the early days, most agents retained 50% of the fees they collected to cover the cost of the services, including marketing, that they provided and paid the image creators 50% of any revenue collected from the licensing of a use of one of the photographer’s images. If nothing was used the photographer received nothing for his or her efforts.

I know a few photographers who carefully considered what their assignment customers and agents were asking them to shoot who were able to earn in excess of $1 million per year in stock licensing fees at the industry’s peak. Those days are gone forever, no matter how talented a photographer might be.

Print Catalogs

As the number of images agents were handling started to increase and the potential customers became more diverse, and spread over a larger area of the world, agents started producing print catalogs.

Most or these catalogs ranged in size from 1,000 to 5,000 images covering a wide cross section of all imagery types based on what the agency handled. The big agencies usually produced a new catalog once a year. Agency staff would carefully analyze recent sales and include images that sold well in future catalogs because they expected continued demand of the subject matter. They would also include new imagery, submitted within the last year, that illustrated the best selling concepts. They constantly tried to improve on the images that had sold well the previous year.

Among the best selling and best known catalog producers were: Comstock, The Image Bank, The Stock Market, FPG and Tony Stone Images. Tony Stone used to say that he didn’t need a big collection of images, all he needed was 5,000 of the best illustrations of the most in demand concepts. His company worked diligently to identify such concepts, find any small flaws or room for improvement in images that had been previous best sellers and produce even better images that illustrated the same concepts for the company’s next catalog.

In the mid-1990s it was not uncommon for major advertising agencies to have a conference room lined with shelves of stock photo catalogs where their art directors could go to search for images and visual ideas for their next projects.

As the number of agencies producing catalogs increased sales of catalog images tended to represent a larger and larger share of gross agency sales and revenue despite the fact that the images in the catalogs represented a very small percentage of total images in the agency’s collections. The catalogs were often distributed not only by the home office of the agency, but by many sub-agencies around the world that were also supplied with duplicate transparencies of all the catalog images which they could then supply to their customers. At one point The Image Bank was distributing over 300,000 of its annual catalogs to customers around the world.

Since these catalogs and the dups were very expensive to produce and distribute photographers were usually charged an up-front fee for each of their images that appeared in a catalog. However, sales tended to be so much better for catalog images compared to non-catalog ones that photographers were more than happy to pay the fees, and did everything possible to get more images accepted into the major agency catalogs.

These catalog were not only great resources for customers, but they were a great benefit to photographers trying to understand what to shoot. Photographers would collect and peruse every catalog they could get their hands on, from as many agencies as possible,  in order to get a better idea of the subject matter they should be shooting and the best way to approach a given subject matter. This information was crucial to any photographer’s success.


As we moved into the digital age online sites have replaced the print catalogs. Since there is very little cost in adding an additional image to an online site, the agency push has moved away from tight editing of a collection and toward collecting as many images as possible of every conceivable subject and then placing them all on the agency’s website. Then they leave it to the customers to sort through the mess and find what works for them.

At one point in its early years iStock supplied some very valuable and useful information for image creators. They not only allowed their customers to organize their searches by “Best Match” or “Newest,” but also by “Best Selling.” The search returns of Best Selling images were organized in the order of times each image had been downloaded. The first image to be shown with a particular set if keywords was the one that had been downloaded the most times in its history on the iStock site. An image that had been downloaded 100 times would appear before any image that had been downloaded 99 or fewer times. They also listed beside the preview image the number of times each image had been downloaded.

This information was extremely useful for photographers trying to understand what was in demand. They could search for subjects they wanted to shoot and easily determine the kind of images that were selling and the degree of demand for each. If the first images to appear had been downloaded 1,000 times (not unusual for certain popular subjects), the 10th 450 times, and the 100th 90 times that may be a subject matter to concentrate on shooting. The photographer could also get a good sense not just of the general subject matter, but of the style of image in greatest demand.

On the other hand, if the 1st image had only been download 100 times, the 10th downloaded 30 times and the 100th in single digits that subject might not be worth spending much time shooting more of, particularly if there were already a lot of this subject matter in the collection.

Unfortunately, photographers who had stumbled into producing a good selling image in an under served category discovered that other photographers started producing similar subject matter. When this happened sales of the photographer who produced the original good seller began to decline. (See one example here.)  A few photographers complained to iStock, and the company stopped supplying this level of detail.
People who are serious about trying to make money from the images they produce need this type of information in order to efficiently use their time producing images of subjects in demand and not waste time producing images no one wants. This became particularly true once usage fees started to drop dramatically.

Now, iStock allows customers to sort by a category called “Most Popular,” but there is a real question as to how the search algorithm makes such a determination. As I look at the images that come up near the top of various searches, I find it hard to believe that some of them have been downloaded any significant number of times by real customers.

Where Are We Now?

Today, photographers get very little guidance from any of the major agencies as to what is really in demand. The guidance they get is usually very general. They are forced to guess what customers want. They know that only a very small percentage of the images in any of the collections are ever downloaded. That percentage declines every quarter as more and more images are added (See the “percent of images licensed” in this chart).

Photographers can scour printed publications to try to determine what is being used, but such a high percentage of the images purchased are being used by obscure online sites that it is virtually impossible to make any educated judgment of what is in demand by just viewing what the average person has a chance to look at in a normal day. Photographer’s can only look at what the agencies offer and guess if it has ever sold.

On top of this the usage fees are now so low that it is virtually impossible for anyone interested in earning money from the images they produce to earn enough to justify the effort of production.

Consequently, stock photography has become an activity for “Amateurs” primarily interested in taking pictures for personal entertainment. If your goal is to earn money – and maybe a profit – for your time and effort expended, then the odds will be better if you play the lottery or make a trip to Las Vegas – even if you know nothing about gambling.

Copyright © 2019 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


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