RF In Your Future?

Posted on 3/22/2003 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



March 22, 2003

Many photographers are still adamantly opposed to producing Royalty Free stock. It's time
for them to re-think and re-examine that position. There are two principle reasons for a

photographer to get involved in stock photo production:

    (1) it offers a great deal of flexibility relative to working on assignments, and

    (2) it is a way to earn a good living.

Production Flexibility

From the photographer's point of view both RF and RM offer the same production flexibility.
You can shoot for either market on your schedule rather than having to wait and react to the
customers' schedule when they make an assignment. This is a big advantage provided you have a
satisfactory way to market your production. It is with relation to marketing that RF
offers significant advantages.

With the industry consolidation it is becoming harder and harder to get RM images where they
can be seen by customers. There are fewer outlets and they tend to be more selective than
they were in the past. RM images must be in some type of digital catalog or on a portal in
order to sell. The number of requests for file research has dwindled markedly and as a
consequence most agencies are only accepting images that they intend to digitize. The
opportunities to place images in RF are limited also, but some photographers may be able to
get more images into the RF market than they can get placed with RM outlets. If that is the
case the photographer ought not to reject the RF opportunity out of hand. I believe most
photographers who shoot exclusively for the RM market should be exploring the
possibility of doing some shoots for RF.

We know that sales of RF images are on the rise and sales of RM images (in terms of numbers
of images licensed) and on the decline. In the last three quarters in 2002 Getty Images
figures show that customers were buying about twice as many single RF images as RM. This
does not take into account the number of buyers purchasing RF discs and using multiple
images from those discs. Thus, the RF share of total images used may be quite a bit higher
than 66%. While these are only Getty's statistics, and we certainly must take into
consideration the fact that many smaller companies sell only RM images, it is clear that
many buyers are finding what they need among the images offered as RF. Overall, there are
clear trends in the industry toward using more RF imagery and less RM.

Klaus Tiedge, the leading photographer for the RF production company ImageSource has
produced over 40 discs for that company and says, "If I had 3000 images in the RM market I
think I would make more money, but I would never get a chance to put so many pictures into
stock agency catalogs." Tiedge supplied RM images to Zefa, The Stock Market, AGE and
Premium for several years before he started shooting RF two-and-a-half years ago. Now 80% of the new
images he shoots go into RF because they are willing to accept much more of what he produces
and get the images to market faster. (To see some of his work go to
www.klaustiedge.de . Also see the
Story 545
"Journey Into RF".)

Earn A Good Living

Some photographers are concerned about the low unit price for usages, and the lower royalty
percent of the gross fee collected. They ask, "how can you make any money when the images
are being sold for such low prices and you only receive a 20% royalty?" The answer is that
the volume of units offered for sale, and the volume of units sold may make up for some of
that low fee per unit. The critical issue is not the price or the royalty percentage, but
the total dollar return on either an annual basis, or on the basis of the time invested if
the photographer only does a few projects.

Getty's recent re-launch of its RF site has dramatically improved the pricing for single
image RF sales. Getty has divided their PhotoDisc offering into three different levels œ
Red, Green and Blue. The pricing is as follows:

























Approx. No. Images   




This seems likely to do a number of things.

  • First, it is likely to significantly improve Getty's total RF revenue and the
    royalties RF photographers receive from sales of their RF images. This will be particularly
    true if the images are "new, contemporary images" that fall into the PhotoDisc Red category.
    As far as we can tell photographers will have no say as to the category in which their
    images are placed. That will be up to the Getty editors.

  • Second, it opens the door to more flexible pricing of single RF images. Getty can pick
    and choose the category in which they put new images and how long an image stays in that
    category. If there is a good selling image in the Green category they can easily move it up
    to Red and jack up the price. Green images that never sell can be moved to Blue to bulk up
    that category and maybe improve sales of those particular images.

  • With three levels of pricing it becomes easier to adjust price in the future based on

  • Finally, the fact that Getty has raised prices makes it easier for all the other RF brands to
    raise their prices. Overall, everyone who licenses RF is likely to see improved revenue in
    the coming year, even if the number of uses stays relatively flat.

When RF started out the pricing was extremely low and that was a major reason for
photographer's strong resistance. As pricing improves there may be less resistance. In
February 2000 PhotoDisc prices were $24.95, $79.95 and $149.95. Now, three years later if we
compare these prices with the Green level pricing there is a 100% rise in the lowest price,
an 88% rise in the price for a 10MB file and a 67% rise in the price for the largest file
size. If we compare the 2000 prices with the "Red" level there is more than 100% increase at
every level. All this indicates that the pricing of RF imagery may finally be reaching a
more realistic level.

What can you earn from RF?

Even at the pricing levels before Getty's recent increase some photographers have been
making significant money from the licensing of RF images when they are able to get a
significant number of images into the RF marketplace.

Getty currently has 185,571 RF images on its site. In 2002 Getty's gross revenue from RF
sales was approximately $127 million. All these images were not on the site for all of 2002,
but had that been the case the average total sale would have been $684 per image. If the
photographer gets 20% of this it would be about $137 per image. Multiply that by a file of
100 or 1,000 images and it gets to be some interesting money. There are also indications
that once the images are in the archive they sustain income at this level for several years.
This is a ballpark figure, but at least it provides some perspective. Sales for any given
images will vary greatly depending on the type of subject matter and the demand for that
subject matter.

I know photographers with a significant number of images on the gettyimages.com site that
are earning in the range of $210 per image per year and others that are earning about $36
per image per year. It is likely that the return from the gettyone.com site is higher on a
per image basis than is the case with some of the other RF portals.

I know at least two photographers who are earning approximately $300,000 per year from their
RF production and there are a few that I suspect are earning quite a bit more than this
amount. These photographers are very productive and pay all their production costs so the
$300,000 is not profit, but gross revenue before expenses.

The key to success is to be able to generate a volume of images in a relatively short period
of time and to get them online where customers can find them. RF is not for the photographer
who spends a day creating the perfect image. In many cases all images for an 80-100 image
disc are shot in 2 to 3 days of shooting time. (This does not count pre-production and
post-production time). It is often possible to get many more RF images accepted than RM
images so even though the average return per image promoted might be much higher with RM
than with RF the total dollars generated by RM may be lower.

It is important to consider total earnings, not the potential earning from a single large sale. Just
because the photographer occasionally licenses rights to an RM image for a very high fee
doesn't mean that at the end of the day he will earn more from making a few sales for high
RM fees rather than lots of sales for low fees.
However, the only way to determine what you might be able to actually earn is to "test the
waters" and produce some RF images.


Another thing to consider when deciding whether or not to produce RF is how aggressively
your images will be marketed once they have been produced. What are the distribution
channels for the images? (You can about some of the distribution channels by looking at "Subjects
In Demand", Story 544 .)

Most larger companies now offer both RF and RM, but they seem to be putting more emphasis on
promoting the RF side of their businesses. Part of this is because they are selling more RF
units than RM and RF seems to be the growth area of the industry. Part is because they seem
to be adding more new RF images to their collection than RM, particularly in the high demand
subject areas. Part is because print catalog marketing of RM images isn't working as
effectively as it had in the past and most agencies are reducing the size and frequency of
their print catalogs, or dropping them entirely.

In general the pitch seems to be, "Here's our new, cheap RF offering, and, oh by the way, if
you need RM images we have them too." Looking ahead, I believe more emphasis will be placed
on promoting RF than RM.

Also, RF images tend to be more widely distributed through multiple sales outlets than RM.
Because they are a commodity the strategy of most RF producers is to place the product with
as many outlets as possible. There seems to be no limit. With RM, on the other hand, most
companies are still trying to protect their brand by limiting the marketing outlets they
use. This means that fewer buyers are likely to see a given RM image than will see one that
is sold as RF. (Henry Scanlon discusses this multi-channel marketing strategy in Story
547 .)

Limiting Supply

While volume is the key, it may be difficult to get a lot of images accepted by either the
major RF brands or the RM agencies. Many photographers who have a lot of images in RF (and
thus are earning high dollars) were able to achieve this position during the period when the
RF companies were aggressively building their collections. Now, most companies are looking
to fill holes rather than add a lot of new content quickly.

As customers have changed their work practices and moved to searching for images online,
there has been a recognition by the seller that the volume of images that were placed in the
files in the 80's and early 90's are no longer needed. Too many images were chasing too few
customers and the simple process of managing all these images had become a tremendous
burden. Agencies had tended to accept any good image without much consideration as to what
was already in the file on a particular subject. Now, partly because of the costs of
scanning, keywording and image storage the strategy of most marketing companies is to be
very selective in what they accept. Also, better tracking and analysis of sales data has
enabled companies to make tighter judgments about what might be needed in the future.

Digital technology makes it much easier to distribute relatively few images to all the
potential markets worldwide. Sales representatives may be needed for specific areas of the
world and user groups, but it is no longer necessary to have the number of images that was
once the case. In addition, since the sellers of RF can easily make arrangement to sell
images produced by another company they don't need to produce similar images for their own


In preparing this story I asked several agencies a number of questions and received answers from
Getty Images, Comstock, ImageSource, Stockbyte, Image State, Rubberball and
Thinkstock . If you are interested in getting involved in RF production the following
responses may help you understand the differences between various RF production companies. Many
RF marketers also have guidelines for photographers on their web sites.

  • Are you interested in recruiting new photographers to produce RF content?

    Getty Images, ImageSource, Stockbyte, Image State and Rubberball said they are
    interested in seeing new images from new and existing artists.

    Comstock said, "Yes and no. 'Yes', in the sense that we are actively and energetically
    producing RF images with a variety of photographers; 'no' in the sense of your use of the word
    'recruiting'. It has always been our philosophy to work with a relatively small number of highly
    productive and creative photographers, and have never found that 'recruitment' was required. For
    some reason (maybe its karma) the photographers who work well with us and do well with us find
    us, via one means or another. In addition, we are approached constantly, through our website, by
    photographers of all calibers, including the highest."

    Thinkstock was the only one that said "No for now." They explained that they are a niche
    image supplier and their business plan does not include being a major image portal. (Thinkstock
    images are available on several other portals.)

    While most companies like to work with relatively few photographers who are very productive, they
    also find that they need to bring on new people that approach the subject matter in a
    different way -- with a different style and new eyes. For this reason there are likely to be
    opportunities for those who have never produced RF. On the other hand, some of those who have
    been producing RF for years may see their sales drop because the files are saturated with imagery
    in their style.

  • Are you more interested in photographers who will come to you with enough images on a
    particular subject to produce an entire disc, and who have ideas for disc projects, OR

    Are you looking for photographers with a distinctive style who are willing to shoot under your

    Getty Images said, "We employ both methods, however, the trend is towards several
    photographers providing imagery for a specific disc or collection. On the separate topic of art
    directing photographers, we can work with them as closely as they would like. It is often helpful
    to work closely and with the results of our creative research, to create the most relevant and
    creatively on track imagery."

    Image Source and Rubberball said they consider both and Image State also
    considers both with the decision being dependent on the subject matter and the sales potential.

    Stockbyte pointed out that they are looking for both, but they are interested in acquiring
    material for a fixed fee. Thus, they tend to work more with those who do production shoots for a
    buyout fee. They are also interested in receiving images from those who have, or can create, really
    unique material which can not be done on a production basis, but in those cases a fixed fee for
    the work is negotiated.

    Comstock said, "Unquestionably the latter. In my experience, great stock images come from
    a two-step process of first 'harnessing' and then 'unleashing'. Harnessing is the process of
    identifying inherent talent and then providing that talent with ways to think about things that
    forms a channeling principle. Then that talent must be unleashed, within that context, to find
    its way. No, I'm not talking about 'market information'. As an example, when a talented
    photographer first comes to us, I might say, 'If you don't understand Flamenco dancing, you don't
    understand stock photography.' Which, of course, sounds preposterous. But eventually they will
    understand what I mean. Then it is time for their own particular, unique talent to be unleashed,
    fueled by the understandings absorbed during the harnessing process. If you harness but don't
    unleash, you get serviceable but dull images. If you unleash without harnessing, you get creative
    flailing. Does that mean we never consider 'collections' to issue as RF? No, sometimes we do.
    But it's rare. And it's no fun."

  • Will you combine images from several photographers to make a disc on a particular
    subject or is your goal to have each disc shot by a single photographer?

    Comstock, ImageSource and Image State produce an entire CD from the work of one
    photographer. Rubberball prefers to work in the same way because it is "cleaner", but they
    said "The ultimate goal is to produce a project that contains images the customer considers

    Stockbyte tends to combine the work of several photographers on a single disc, but feels
    that it doesn't really matter.

    As pointed out in their answer to an earlier question Getty tends to use images from
    several photographers for a specific disc or collection.

  • If your production operation is located outside the U.S. are you interested in working
    with U.S. photographers to produce any of your products?

    Everyone seems to be prepared to work with U.S. photographers, even when their headquarters are
    located outside the U.S. It is not clear what type of problems would arise in working closely
    with an art director in such situations.

  • Do you market any RF images that are only available as single images and not a part of a

    In general there seems to be much more of a tendency to add single images to the RF collection
    rather than feeling that every image has to be part of a disc. It seems that several things may
    be happening here. A shoot may produce a few good images, but not enough for an entire disc. In
    that case the single images are added to the web site and maybe later when someone else produces
    more images on that theme a few images may be added to a new disc. Or a shoot may produce some
    images that are good, but don't exactly fit the theme of the disc, and
    as a result are just put on the web site. Or the shoot may produce a lot more variations than
    they want to put on a disc for the disc price. In that case they will put some on the disc and
    just add others to the web site.

    Comstock on the other hand currently only markets RF images that are also available on one
    of their discs.

    Rubberball says that currently a greater ratio of their images are being produced as
    singles instead of as a part of a CD and Thinkstock says that "More than 70% of our
    collection is single images."

  • What are the characteristics you are looking for in an RF producer?

    ImageSource says they are looking for photographers with "imagination, ambition, creative
    dynamism, intelligence and a sense of adventure". Image State looks for "creativity,
    versatility and flexibility".

    Stockbyte looks for a "creative eye, yet the baility to see and create images which will
    work for stock - productively!"

    Getty Images looks for "photographers with a contemporary style able to produce high
    quality material that meets the needs of our clients".

    Comstock says, "We just look for great communicators whose medium of choice (often love)
    is photography. It's the 'visual voice' that counts. In today's market, which is very, very tough
    for photographers, it usually requires a tapestry of approaches. We might hire a photographer to
    shoot RF on assignment for us, while also representing their work on consignment in our RM
    division or Flat Rate division. The idea is to put together a package that allows the
    photographer to make a living and keep shooting. Some of that income will be derived from the
    assignments we give them, some from sales of their images in our other divisions. What we avoid
    are the technicians, sometimes really great technicians, who spend their lives flipping through
    magazines looking for images they can copy."

    Rubberball wants "Someone who recognizes what sells to the biggest segment of the market
    and shoots accordingly. We may be tired of shooting a certain style, but we still focus our
    efforts in that area if it is strongly supported by the market."

  • If photographers are interested in shooting RF how would you recommend they contact

    Getty Images: Regardless of where a photographer resides, they should contact our Artist
    Relations team by email, at newartistsUS@gettyimages.com.

    Comstock: Through the Careers section of our website at www.comstock.com

    ImageSource: Please contact creative@imagesource.com, include sample images or a link to a
    website. The main contact is Stephen Mayes.

    Image State: Recommends that photographers have initial discussions/communication with
    them by emailing info@imagestate.com. Submissions will be requested after the initial dissusions.

    Stockbyte Contact at info@stockbyte.com

    Rubberball: Via our direct number 801-224-6886 or email photos@rubberball.com

  • Approximately how many new artists do you expect to add to your current list of image
    providers in 2003?

    ImageSource expects to begin working with 20 to 30 new image provides in 2003. Image
    hopes for at least 100 and Rubberball says 2 or 3, but says they could work with
    more if they are familiar with the market and easy to work with. Getty Images doesn't
    have a specific target but is always looking for quality over quantity.

  • Do you pay a royalty on sales Or a fixed fee for shooting an assignment?

    Getty Images said they pay royalties and doesn't seem to be interested in projects where
    they would pay a fee for shooting an assignment. ImageSource and Image State do
    both, but work with photographers on a royalty basis for most of their images.

    Rubberball typically pays a royalty on sales, but on occasion they'll pay a fixed fee.
    Rubberball wholly owns a lot of the images in their archive and pays royalties on only about 5 to

    Since Comstock wholly owns all of their RF images they hire photographers to do
    assignments for a fixed fee guarantee plus additional incentives for productivity. This can take
    the day rate to $3,000 per day or more for top shooters. Stockbyte pays a Fixed Fee for
    the images it acquires either by paying a fee for an assignment or by purchasing images outright.

  • Will you accept images that are captured digitally, or must all images produced for your
    products be shot on film? If digitally, what is the minimum file size?

    Most companies have become much more interested in receiving images that are created and captured

    Getty says they will accept digitally captured images but they must conform to their
    technical standards which are a minimum of 48MB at 300dpi. ImageSource will accept high
    quality digital files that are a minimum of 55MB TIFF, Image State wants files that are a
    minimum of 50MB TIFF and Stockbyte wants a file size that is 48MB RGB.

    Comstock said, "Yes, absolutely, so long as they are extremely high quality. As you know,
    there are a huge number of variables when it comes to 'minimum file size', but, suffice it to say
    that we work with only state-of-the art standards."

    Rubberball prefers digital (if they're captured correctly on a high-end camera such as a
    Canon 1Ds or digital back). Minimum file size is 14 inches at its longest dimension at 300 dpi.

    Thinkstock now has a 100% digital workflow starting with image capture. "While we scan
    legacy analog images, all new work begins and ends in a digital format. If we were to bring on
    new content partners, we would request that all image submissions be RAW digital files from a
    short list of approved cameras."

  • Copyright © 2003 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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