How Unemployment Hurts The Employed Professional Photographer

Posted on 10/11/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Unemployment in the United States may be affecting freelance photographers in some not so obvious ways. While many photographers and designers have either lost their jobs or are under employed what we often forget is that those who still have viable businesses may now be competing with the unemployed as they produce new images as a way or earning a little extra cash.

In the U.S. there are 14.9 million unemployed. True unemployment including underemployed and part-time workers who want full-time employment is over 26 million. Not all of these are teenagers and day laborers. Many are experienced professionals and 6.2 million have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks. If we were to add the unemployment in Europe to these figures the numbers would be much higher. Statistics in the UK showed that nearly three times as many people launched self-employed jobs in the last quarter as there were people who lost their jobs.
Some of the unemployed and underemployed own cameras and computers, purchased before they were laid off, and that’s really all they need to launch a career as a photographer. Professionals will argue that they need a lot more in the way of equipment and experience to make a living as a “professional” photographer. That maybe true and maybe the majority will never produce much in the way of saleable imagery. But, that doesn’t mean they won’t take a share of the market for still images away from the professionals.

If you were out of work and had been sending out resumes for months without any positive response, or if you were waiting for a final decision on a job that is supposed to be opening up, you might be ready to try almost anything that would occupy your time and offer the possibility of a little extra income.

In the world today it is very easy to launch a still photography business. In January 2010 Shutterstock had 208,000 contributors. Currently, they have over 254,000 contributors. That’s almost 50,000 new people who have not only submitted images since the year began, but had at least some of their images accepted for marketing. Certainly, the vast majority of these people will never be very active, nor will they earn much in the way of revenue, but every one of their accepted images could be good enough to take a sale away from a “professional.”

Jon Oringer, Founder/CEO of Shutterstock, says, “We are more interested in adding high quality images than in rapidly growing our total number of contributors.” Nevertheless, he adds, “We think Shutterstock is a fair and welcoming marketplace, where a good image can achieve high sales regardless of who the contributor is.”

It is also becoming increasingly common that those in information and communications businesses are less and less interested in hiring hire full-time employees. Employees mean benefits. Employees mean HR hassles. Employees are on the books whether they’re needed or not. What employers want are self-employed, contingent workers who can be “hired” for specific, time-limited projects. In the photography business this has been a reality for a long time, but now it seems to be getting worse.
While the number of staff positions is declining, there does not seem to be a corresponding growth in the number of stock images being purchased. From 2006 to 2008 there was a huge growth in the number of microstock images being purchased, but in the last couple of years the number of units licensed seems to have reached a plateau. The number or RM and RF images licensed have been at a relatively stable level for a number of years. The good news is that hasn’t changed much as a result of the recession. But what has changed is that traditional prices have dropped significantly and the numbers of competing images available as RM, RF and microstock have dramatically increased. This reduces the chances of any particular image being licensed.

According to a Career Builder survey 26% of all workers laid off in the U.S. are looking to start their own businesses. There is no easier business to start than that of a freelance photographer. It requires virtually no capital. The photographer doesn’t even have to work regular hours or full-time. It is a business that can be very seductive, and only after the photographer has invested a lot of time and energy does he or she discover how difficult it really is.

Another advantage to freelance photography is that it is a business someone can engage in while still collecting full unemployment insurance payments provided the individual has been laid off from a full-time job and meets the “approvable job separation” requirements. One disadvantage, of course, is that freelance photography is unlikely to result in immediate revenue, but if a person is out of work it may provide some hope.

Copyright © 2010 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:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Oct 11, 2010
    Jim... while they are at it, talk them into maybe writing a few law wills or divorces on the side also.

    You seem determined to take the PROFESSION of PHOTOGRAPHER and suggesting "everyone make a few bucks here". Why don't you talk people into being REAL photographers.

    You are retired in photography. I wonder if you were younger and still "in" the business if your view of all these absolutely PART TIME hackers would change. I know I would suggest you tell them to LEARN the right way, not just lunch money!

  • Jagdish Agarwal Posted Oct 12, 2010
    Last week we started negotiating for a job that needed eight photos. Selection was done. Online price calculator indicated about US$200 each. Client bargained and bargained. We came down to about US$100 each. Client offered about US$60 each. We accepted. Client agreed to pay in the next one hour. Next day client informs that he was able to get similar images from microstock. This is the true state of the stock photography industry........

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