Photographers Quitting: Why Should Investors Care?

Posted on 3/28/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

After reading my previous story investors in stock photo companies as well as image buyers may ask, “Why should we care if professional photographers stop producing stock images?”
  • The number of photographers submitting images keeps growing.
  • The number of new images in the image collections keeps growing.
  • For every photographer that drops out there seem to be 10 new photographers who take their place.
  • At Shutterstock, at least, the number of images licensed seems to be increasing each quarter.
  • Getty Images may have some problems, but that’s more due to bad management decisions than an overall decline in the sale of images.
Does it really make any differences if an image is taken by an amateur or a professional? Amateurs produce some very good images. If amateurs are willing to continue to supply images, even if they earn little or nothing for their efforts, and buyers continue to buy what is supplied, why should I be worried?

At Shutterstock the average price per image downloaded has been increasing:
    Q4 2013    $2.43

    Q4 2014    $2.68
    Q4 2015    $2.86
That looks like things are headed in the right direction.

Some Things To Think About

1 – At Shutterstock in Q1 2015 the average price per download was $2.87. Downloads relative to revenue generated seems to have flattened out in 2015 despite the fact that they have had an increasing percentage of higher dollar sales via their Enterprise accounts. One would think higher priced sales would up the average.

– One of the data points major agencies fail to provide when they talk about the number of contributors they have is the number of those contributors who submitted at least one new image in the last 12 months, and maybe more to the point who submitted 100 new images in the last 12 months. (To get a little feel for this check out this iStock story.)

When agencies report their number of contributors it is the total number of unique individuals who have ever contributed an image to the collection, during the history of the organization. A huge percentage of them hear about the possibility of earning some money from the images they love to produce and submit a few images. For a while, some work very hard at trying to submit more images and become better photographers. But they quickly learn that a lot is involved that isn’t very much fun. Keywording, uploading, and spending time digitally correcting images aren’t what most people consider fun.

A handful of contributors figure things out and each year contribute a huge percentage of the new images to the collections. (The trend of that number would be very interesting.) In many cases just because someone contributes a lot of images doesn’t mean they earn significant money. And, of course, each year’s contributors only represent a minute percentage of all those who have ever contributed to the site.

3 – Another data point that would be interesting to track is the percentage of similar images being accepted into the collections. A similar is one of several images shot of the same situation at the same time with very slight variations. Sometimes, if they are of people the variations might be a slight change in expression or angle of view. The theory is that a customer may generally like a particular situation, but not certain specifics, so give the customer lots of choice.

Giving customers this kind of choice can result in a sale that might have been lost otherwise. But it can also waste a lot of the customer’s time if she is forced to scroll through a lot of similars that are of no interest whatsoever.

Increasingly, the collections seem to be accepting more and more similars rather than narrowing the acceptance down to one or two images that an editor feels are the best. This is an empirical judgment based on observation, not hard data. In the race for larger collections, image creators submit more similars in an effort to stay ahead of demand. Agencies have relaxed their acceptance standards.

As far as I can tell, no one is tracking whether this is increasing or decreasing sales for the agency. Certainly, from the image creators point of view almost all are making fewer sales per image in the collection than they have made in the past.
4 – Yes, amateurs do occasionally produce some very good images, but are they adequately covering all the areas of demand? Amateurs tend to take pictures of things they enjoy doing such as travel, scenics and pictures of friends.

While buyers often use this type of imagery, in addition there has been a perennial need for people in business, general business situations, business concepts, technology and medicine to name a few.  Ethnic, multi-cultural and gender diversity are also extremely important in every category. In situations with people it is important to pay attention to clothing, the expressions and the general staging of the environment so it looks natural. Amateurs often don’t bother paying this kind of attention to detail.

Some buyers want no elements in the image that distract from the main story the picture is trying to tell. Others say that “distractions can add believability and realism to the picture.” Professionals at least pay attention to these issues, but no one is sure which sells more frequently and the agencies aren’t supplying any data that would help.

Amateurs do whatever they feel like at the moment, and hope it works.
5 – There are so many images in most collections now that we may not need many more for years. But, those high producers have to keep pumping out new images in order to keep some of their work high enough in the search return order in order for some of the images to be seen.  

With the current upload strategy, the industry is adding more image that will never sell than ever before. That can be seen to some degree in Shutterstock’s percent of images in the collection licensed (see Chart). Much better data could be developed if anyone cares. If they have the data they are not sharing it with creators, and certainly not acting upon it.

In the short term there may not be any major shifts for investors. But, long term is an industry that relies totally of amateur suppliers a good thing? Think the uberization of photography.

Copyright © 2016 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:  


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