Perfect Storm For Stock Photographers

Posted on 4/28/2006 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



April 28, 2006

In October 1991, a confluence of weather conditions combined to form a killer storm in the North Atlantic later referred to as the storm of the century. The movie "The Perfect Storm" tells the story of the crew of the sword-fishing boat Andrea Gail who decided to continue to go out to do the only thing they knew how to do to earn a living despite all the warning signs of potential disaster.

In stock photography there is currently a confluence of conditions that have developed much more slowly than any weather system, but may be no less dangerous or more controllable than the weather.

There are three key foundational changes, all of which originally seemed positive, but which are coming together in a way that could create a Perfect Storm for stock photographers. The development of two of them are uncontrollable. Photographers have some choice with the third. They are:

  • The development of the internet

  • The development of the digital delivery of images.

  • The decision of many professional photographers to produce images on speculation.

Let me begin by discussing the production of images on speculation. For stock photographers today it seems logical and very natural to spend time and money, and even base an entire business on, producing images without any guarantee that there is a real demand for any specific image (not just a general demand for imagery) or that the images so laboriously produced will ever sell.

Producing images on speculation without an assignment dates back, at least in some degree, to the 1940's. But for many years it was considered a very risky endeavor and something that should be done very cautiously. The focus of nearly all professional photographers was on getting assignments. In some cases magazines refused to commit to an assignment, and would only pay a space rate, but the photographer could get a pretty good idea of what the magazine might actually accept before risking much time or money. And if the photographer did one or two jobs that were rejected by a particular publication he/she certainly wouldn't produce more aimed at that publication. ASMP continually sounded the alarm, "Don't shoot on speculation."

In the 1970's all this began to change. As I see it for two major reasons. First the 1976 change in the U.S. copyright law gave creators the copyright to their work instead of giving the copyright to the company who paid to use a work. The only exceptions were for salaried staff photographers, and creators who agreed in advance to a "work for hire" contract.

Secondly, the advertising community began to discover that there were many fine images available as stock, and that stock wasn't just second level "outtakes". In addition, it was usually cheaper. At that point a few entrepreneurs began to produce high quality stock images of high demand subjects and the credibility of stock among advertising buyers improved even more.

It is important to note that a key element that gave the idea of shooting of stock images on speculation a kick start was that demand was much greater than supply. From there we move forward with the development of the internet and all the changes it has wrought including the ability to make digital images available for search and delivery of usable digital files.

From the buyer perspective there are at least four changes from conditions that existed in the 1980s and 1990s that make their job easier and enable them to get the images they need for less.

  • It is now much easier for customers to find a broader selection of images faster than was possible before. Search engines improve steadily and get more efficient. The variety of images that solve any particular creative problem is continually expanding.

  • The internet has made it easier to find free images or to steal. The tracking of unpaid print uses has become more difficult because customers no longer need a piece of film in order to get good reproduction.

  • In the old environment multiple shots of a news event were needed because every user had a simultaneous need for his or her own piece of film. With digital that need disappears. Therefore, fewer people are needed to produce images of the same event. Or to put it another way, if there are the same number of people producing as in the past, the chances that an image from any one of them will be used is much less.

  • Online sites are coming into being (commonly referred to as micro payment sites) designed to build community among a large number of buyers, making it much easier for the buyers to communicate with each other, and SHARE RESOURCES. Sites like iStockphoto are designed to facilitate a barter arrangement among individuals, not to enable those individuals to earn significant revenue from the images they produce. This works to the advantage of the buyer who has access to images for which the cost of production has been paid by someone else, and who wishes to use images produced by others at the lowest possible cost. That buyer can "trade" his images for the ones he wants to use in a complicated barter network. While it is possible to be just a buyer and not a supplier the "community" aspect encourages sharing, and could not work for long if there weren't a steady stream of image suppliers.

    This business model is likely to grow in importance and usefulness for image buyers. But, it is unlikely to benefit sellers who produce images in the hopes of earning revenue for their efforts, and have no interest in using images produced by others. While this group of buyers may represent new customers coming into the market at the lowest possible price points they are unlikely to generate much additional revenue for photo distributors and even less for photographers.

    The distributors who facilitate these transactions can make money at the low price points because they receive a share of each transaction fee and have no cost of production of the images. The only thing the distributor needs is a sufficient, continuing supply of usable imagery, and all indications are that this will not be a problem.

Distributors are also making the situation more difficult for photographers working on a royalty basis.

  • More and more they are moving to wholly own images so the images can be offered in multiple ways at multiple price points, particularly as part of subscription packages. This provides some immediate short term revenue for those lucky enough to be the image producers, but in the long run it is bound to reduce the number of royalty based images that are licensed annually

  • Competition among the major distributors is driving them to push for greater and greater supply (which costs them nothing if it is being produced on a royalty basis).

    For a while Getty was the only dominant portal for creative images and as such could apply some controls on supply. They keep supply somewhat in check by being very choosy in what they accepted. But in 2003-2004 many competitors -- primarily among them Jupiterimages but many much smaller companies as well -- began to work out systems that would enable them to make effective use of the Internet to market images. At that point supply began to explode as everyone tried to have more images than the other guy.

    Under the old system it was very difficult to get an image accepted for marketing, but once the photographer had an image in the database (or catalog) it was likely to generate significant revenue for a long period of time. Now the useful life on an image is getting shorter and shorter. Photographers who couldn't get many images accepted recognized that they couldn't earn much from producing stock and went off to do something else. Now most of these checks have been removed.

    In most industries manufacturers tend to control supply relative to demand. If there is soft demand then they cut back on production. In the stock photography industry it seems impossible to control supply because the producers are all independent and have little understanding of the degree of demand. They are encouraged to produce by sellers who want more and better -- so long as production costs them nothing - and by the fact that a few industry leaders are still able to earn significant, if declining, revenue from stock.

Photographers also contribute to the conditions that are creating this Perfect Storm.

  • With digital creation it is easier for photographers to create, and make available online, a much larger number of images than was possible in the past. This has led to a huge oversupply, relative to the demand, in nearly all subject categories.

    If you don't think there is an oversupply consider the following. Between November 2003 and February 2006 Getty Images had a 129% increase in the number of RM images and a 163% increase in the number of RF images on the Creative section of its site. During that same period the number of RM images LICENSED increased by only 14% and the number of RF images by only 19.5%. And Getty applies more controls on adding new images to its site than do most other distributors. Clearly the odds that any professionally produced image will sell have been greatly reduced.

  • For photographers it may be true that producing a greater volume of images will work to increase revenue - partially because the new images get a higher position in the search order. But if a particular photographer's increase is not exceeding the overall growth in volume of the images available he or she will probably be losing ground. And the more everyone produces, and makes available for marketing, the wider the gap gets between supply and demand because demand remains relatively flat.

  • It is easier for amateurs, hobbyist and non-professional photographers to show their work to potential users and buyers. Many of these images are very good and some are outstanding. Photographers who couldn't get accepted by a major agency in the past can now participate in the market, particularly through sites like,, and Thus, people who are not trying to earn a living from their photography are taking market share.

Photographers who are producing images on speculation should consider all these factors and determine when it is time to stay on the beach rather than go out in the storm!

Copyright © 2006 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 301-251-0720, 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:  


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