Photographer Income Trends

Posted on 12/16/2005 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



December 16, 2005

As we race toward the end of 2005 a few successful and experienced stock photographers have provided me with detailed income figures that point to some surprising and disturbing trends. In summary they indicate:

  • That you can actually earn more by selling your images as RF than as RM.

  • That search order position and increased competition are having a major impact on revenue.

  • That Getty's Photographer's Choice is no longer the great deal we once thought it was.

  • That at the rate things are going the return-per-image from other less demanding distributors may become a more attractive option.

One photographer whose stock income is probably in the top 15% of all stock photographers, according to my 2003 survey, recently sent me his figures for the first nine months of 2005. He has images on Stone, TIB, Photographer's Choice and PhotoDisc.

The figures he provided showed the gross monthly sales figures of his images on each of the brands for the first nine months of 2005. The results per image are very revealing. The average per-image gross for each brand were:


9 Months

12 Months







Photographer's Choice



Photo Disc



I would remind the reader that according to the calculations I did in Story 775 Getty's average return for RM in 2005 was $413.19 and for RF $558.02 so this photographer is doing significantly better than Getty's average with every brand except Photographer's Choice.

It should also be noted that he had a $24,000 sale in September 2005 through Stone. For him, this is a very unusual occurrence. If we back that sale out of the gross then the total revenue for September is in the same range as all the previous months. Without this sale his average per- image would have been $434 for Stone for the 9 months.

I have extrapolated these 9-month numbers to a full year so we can come up with an average return figure for the entire year. The net that this photographer receives is about 33% of the Stone, TIB and Photographer's Choice gross numbers and 20% of the PhotoDisc number. Thus, the photographer's return for each image in the file is:


Avg. Per Image, 12 Months





Photographer's Choice




RF or RM?

It is interesting to note that the total of the photographer's images in the three RM brands is almost exactly the same as he has on PhotoDisc. If we calculate the average of what he is receiving from all the RM brands combined, its works out to $156.87, about 25% less than he is earning per-image from the RF images on PhotoDisc. And this is with the $24,000 sale included. Also, I'm sure the photographer would claim that his best images are being licensed as RM.

    (The principle reason that photographers want to stick with RM is they want the opportunity to make big sales, and they believe that and the higher royalty guarantees them more income. But the reality is different. Photographers really need to consider how frequently the big sales are likely to occur, and the impact they are having on the photographer's overall decision to continue and to ante up placement fees in order to market images as RM.)

Another photographer sent me figures of his net from Stone, Taxi and Photographer's Choice. These figures are from November 2004 through October 2005 (a full 12 months) and break down on a per-image basis looks like this.


Avg. Per Image, 12 Months





Photographer's Choice


His average per-image from the combined total of all the RM images is $176.95.

Finally a third photographer sent me numbers that showed that the average she received per-image from Getty for RM picture sales in 2004 was $287.48 per image. On the other hand in 2005 there has been more than a 50% drop and the average is down to $140.19 per-image for the year. (I extrapolated for the month of December in order to provide a full year of results.) This photographer also indicated that her return from Photographer's Choice images was much lower than the return overall.

While this drop in a year when Getty's overall revenue grew is bad enough, in the last two months the return-per-image has dropped even further and was down to about $6.70 per image for each month, or at a rate of about $80 per-image for a full year. It is also worth noting that this photographer does not produce people and lifestyle pictures that tend to go out of date, but rather the kind of imagery that has a very long useful life.

I would call your attention to the fact that this third photographer's 2004 revenue was higher than either of the other photographers in 2005. I do not know if the revenue from the other two was higher in 2004, but I suspect that might have been the case.

Why Are Returns Falling?

There seems to be only two explanations for the precipitous drop in return-per-image. The first is that increased competition on is causing a rapid drop in return-per-image (Note Story 775). And the second is that a lower position in the search results is also having a negative impact on the return.

I suggest that everyone review Stories 578 and 681 to get some idea of how search result numbers changed between the fall of 2003 and 2004. It would be appropriate to repeat the 681 analysis by brand, now that it is a year later, but given the number of additional brands that have been added in the past 12 months the task would be monumental. Nevertheless, it is obvious that each one of the new brands has to get some position in the search return order and that tends to push the old-line brands down. In addition Getty has added Photonica and Iconica and given them top billing along with Stone+. That also pushes Stone, Taxi and TIB further down in the pack.

What About Photographer's Choice?

It is clear from the numbers above that the returns from Photographer's Choice are no longer matching its reputation. Shortly after PC was introduced in the Fall of 2002 it was reported that the returns-per-image were significantly higher than the returns from Stone, TIB and Taxi. At that time there was much less competition and PC was high in the search return order. Photographers wanted to get more of their images seen so they began supplying lots of new images, despite the cost of $75 per image for the placement.

These figures would indicate that times have changed drastically. It could be that lesser quality images have worked their way into PC and are affecting the average. But with these three photographers I think that is not the case. I am more inclined to attribute the drop to increased competition from Getty's "Image Partners" and to PC's lower position in the search order.

However, Getty's official position in response to photographer complaints is that PC is "well represented on" relative to the size of the collection. They claim that PC is "better represented than many of the major Getty Images collections, with the second highest number of slots per image".

Many photographers are still making decisions based on the good press that PC earned when it was introduced. They need to look hard at their numbers, and the trends, before they ante up any more money to get more images into PC.

Introduction of Photonica/Iconica

Some PC photographers are upset that the images from Photonica and Iconica photographers are getting higher positions in the search results than their images which they paid $75 each to get on (Photonica and Iconica photographers paid nothing.)

The PC photographers also report significant drops in their sales since June 2005 when Photonica and Iconica images first went online. Most feel that has nothing to do with image quality, but rather search result position.

    (Getty photographers see reported sales the month after they are made, but there is a four-month lag before they receive their royalty payments for those sales. Thus, only in the last two months have their checks begun to reflect the current realities of the search order positioning that began in July when Photonica and Iconica images went up online.

    It should be noted that the first photographer's sales were only through September and the second's through October. Thus, given the four-month lag time, in neither of these cases will the July change be evidenced by revenue received. Only the information from the last two months that the third photographer gives us some indication of where return-per-image might be headed.

    I would also note that the PC survey I am presently conducting on the site (See story 784) may not give us a complete picture of the change that has taken place, but it will provide valuable base line information for an additional survey I will conduct in the middle of 2006.)

Another possible explanation is that since the Photonica/Iconica keywords were uploaded with little or no modifications after the company was purchased, that company may have done a much better job of keywording -- giving the images more options to be found by customers -- than Getty has been doing with the PC images. Getty denies that this is an issue.

Traffic on various forums indicates that Getty has been receiving a stream of complaints from photographers about search order positioning. While in responses to photographers Getty evidences concern and promises that they are looking into the problem, realistically there may be little they can do.

The simple fact is that there are a lot more images coming in from many Image Partners, as well as from new brands Getty has acquired. Meanwhile the overall number of images licensed is not increasing. Consequently, buyers have more choice and the average image has less of a chance of being chosen by a buyer. Getty could adjust search order for PC, but then they will get complaints from photographers or partners whose images are in other brands.

It is in Getty's best interest to offer greater variety and selection to its customers. But that may not be in the individual photographer's best interest as each tries to continually out produce the other guy in order to stay ahead of the averages.

New Images In The Future

To add to the problem Getty has announced that they have plans to do 750 shoots in 2006. It is believed that most, if not all, photographers chosen to do these shoots will be required to agree to a work-for-hire arrangement so Getty wholly-owns the imagery.

Once they have wholly-owned imagery it only makes sense that they would give it a favored position in the search order. This is likely to further reduce the chances of other images to be licensed.

Image Partners

As more and more small agencies rush to get accepted as Getty Image Partners they need to recognize that this issue of reduced return per-image not only affects photographers, but could also affect Partners as well. The spread between the return Getty is delivering and that of other distributors is narrowing.

As Getty accepted more images, the odds of any image selling become less and less. Given the search order position that a small supplier is likely to get, the royalty percentage they will receive and the hoops they will be required to jump through in order to get their images on it may make more sense for some of them to give more serious consideration to other distributor options rather than Getty.

Copyright © 2005 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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