Ross on Unity, Pricing and Quality

Posted on 7/1/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (6)

Ed: Jonathan Ross is one of the most successful stock photographers in the business today. His work is available at all pricing levels including rights managed, traditional royalty free and microstock. In a presentation at the New Media Conference held as part of the CEPIC International Congress in Dublin, Ireland, in early June, Ross offered his thoughts on where the industry is headed and what is needed to move ahead. Following is a transcript of that presentation.

Today’s market has, or is slowly moving into, three tiers of pricing: micro, midstock and macrostock. The addition of the newest model, microstock, has caused an adjustment in the distribution of revenue. Each model has sought to supply its buyers with images they need at prices they can afford, but also prices that create enough return to enable photographers to continue to invest in making better and stronger images for the final end-users of the future.

Instead of pointing fingers at those who started the drop in revenue, it is to everyone’s advantage to “right this ship” so all three tiers—microstock, midstock and macrostock—and the buyers can continue to profit and meet their financial needs.
One issue that has arisen is the extreme price drop from macro to micro. It caused the entire industry to suffer a great loss of revenue. Given the difference in licensing structures, rights-managed images may not have gotten get hit as hard as traditional royalty-free, which has had to struggle through the price shift to find its new market so photographers can continue to produce at lower returns in royalties.

As with new models in every line of business, buyers swarmed to micro because of the huge price savings. The low prices also brought new buyers that could not afford macro RF in the past.

Instead of pointing fingers at those who started the drop in revenue, it is to everyone’s advantage to “right this ship” so all three tiers and the buyers can continue to profit and meet their financial needs.

One could argue that macro RF was extremely overpriced and left the market open for undercutting. It could also be noted that before micro, the average sale price for a macro RF shot through one of the top agencies was just over $100. Yet such arguments exemplify looking to the past and continuing frustration, instead of an attempt at making the three tiers of stock work in harmony for everyone in our future.

I am involved in all three tiers. First, I am a co-owner of three macro collections and a direct supplier of my own content to 20 others. I also have 3,500 images in microstock collections and 10 resellers for my company, so I have a vested interest in all these models meeting their buyer’s needs.

A large part of the battle for dollars, as I see it, is that some truly excellent imagery ends up in micro, where it does not return nearly the revenue that both agencies and image creators should see for their efforts. Yes, a handful of micro photographers are making good returns, but these are typically the people that got in early and thus retain a strong hold on the top-selling images—partially because customers can search by "most downloads," as well as because these photographers usually have the strongest photos for this market.

One way this can be changed is to increase microstock prices for the top-quality, most popular images. If an image is selling for $1, increasing that return by 20% means the markup would only have to be 20 cents. It would not reduce overall sales or remove buyers from the market. With the possible exception of subscription brands, it would only produce more money for agencies and their photographers. For top-quality imagery, pricing should be raised even further; iStockphoto’s Vetta brand is a move in the right direction.

Distributors have suffered as much as photographers. They have seen their profits drop over the last few years, so this pinch is felt at every level.
If photographers are able to make a reasonable income, they can continue to produce stronger and more salable images for their distributors, who have suffered as much as photographers. They have seen their profits drop over the last few years, so this pinch is felt at every level. This highlights that we are all in this together, and we need to rally to make the future even stronger than what we are experiencing. The sooner we remove the walls and really start to work together, the better off we will all be. The closer we become as an industry, the better we will understand what each party needs to stay in business and support one another. This seems like a win/win and an opportunity for continued creative growth.

Subscription is a market that I would rather not go into at this time, because I don't see how to correct the massive loss in sales that it has caused for the industry. When a buyer can stockpile images into a library at 250 images per month for pennies per image, we have a concern for the future of the entire industry. We are seeing more and more of these images being used by multimillion-dollar companies to promote their products.

I find it shocking that a major company or magazine cover would use a micro subscription image to promote itself. Sellers no longer value their ad campaigns like they used to, which suggests a shift in advertising that we need to understand much better,  if we are going to find a balance for all three image markets. Of course, this is a generalized observation; there are still many companies that know the importance of using top-tier design agencies and imagery to attract the greatest number of buyers. But there is still a change taking place.

I am a big believer in diversification. I have as many images in as many marketplaces as possible, so when financial shifts occur, I am as covered as I can be. In addition, I always invest in emerging markets to understand their place in our business model and its future. I have collections I would rather create for because my goal in life is to create beautiful images that support buyer’s needs. When returns drop as dramatically as they have it makes it very difficult to continue to create strong and powerful images for the market. It eats away at the creativity that was once the strength of stock and creates a “copy war” of sorts, as many photographers try to recreate each other’s best sellers instead of being passionate about their own work and looking a bit more outside the box.

Frustrated photographers tend to blame their problems on those who have adopted a different business model. I see this as a waste of time and effort—an unproductive use of energy. As image makers, we need to unite and stop blaming each other. As agencies and photographers, we need to unite to maximize the return for everyone. If we start with truly open communications between all groups, we will find that the benefits and the team level will manifest positive results that will sky rocket.

Our goal as agencies and photographers should be to work together to keep some form of stability in our market. The actors guild did it along with other companies and it keeps everyone still producing great work and allows for the best of the best to rise to the top where buyer benefit by having a variety of top quality products to choose from.

If the three models of stock, which are quite often owned by the same large corporation, could start to try and set a unified standard, this industry could thrive like never before. Remember, buyers need images, and that is why stock has been such a lucrative business option for so long. When the door opened for a battle of who can sell the most images for the lowest price, the race to the bottom began. The drop of stock pricing has also affected the client need to hire commercial photographers as well. Check your local city: job opportunities are down for commercial shooters as well.

it has become clearly evident that image uniqueness and growth of creativity are slowing, as photographers mastery of their craft gives way to a growing reliance on the next new plugin that can make their photos more interesting.
Another option that has potential is agencies giving higher returns to their photographers through a larger share of royalties. This would encourage the production of more high-quality imagery and help foster the best photographers for tomorrow’s market. Current returns are at a point where old-school stock shooters are quitting and new photographers have stopped going to school to learn their craft or apprenticing under an already successful professional. We can still create beautiful image, and the slow loss of professional education and competence is partially offset by the growth in photographic software—but I feel as artists we are moving towards a group of copycats that have little understanding of the business or been given the most fertile soil to grow in.

In the 13 years I have been in stock, it has become clearly evident that image uniqueness and growth of creativity are slowing, as photographers mastery of their craft gives way to a growing reliance on the next new plugin that can make their photos more interesting.

HDR (high dynamic range) imaging is a great example. Done well, it produces images that are easier for the photographer to create and can be extremely beautiful. Yet the photographer still needs the understanding of design and composition to truly bring the image to life. That is extremely important to the buyer, but it seems to be slightly threatened at this time. Combine education and mentoring with the new tools that we have available in the market, and we could be exceeding everyone’s expectations of what the mind can produce when it comes to photos—on an industry-wide, massive scale, as opposed to just the handful of truly talented people we have at this time.

To conclude, if the pricing structure and the split between agency and photographer can be altered by a small margin, and if we work towards getting the next generation of photographers back to school or into mentoring programs, our industry would not only generate higher revenues, it would also produce work that inspires both buyers and photographers.

Copyright © 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:  


  • Rahul Pathak Posted Jul 2, 2010
    Jonathan's got a great perspective. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jul 2, 2010
    I have been pushing for many years for the industry to work together. Show me a way to do that and I am "all in".

  • Yva Momatiuk Posted Jul 2, 2010
    Some good ideas but also some glaring holes.
    According to Jim Pickerell, more than 70% of people contributing images to the current market are not professionals. They have jobs or other sources of income, and often do not care how much they may license their photos for-- as long as they can produce, market them, and see them used. So, Jonathan Ross's idea: " Our goal as agencies and photographers should be to work together to keep some form of stability in our market" is not realistic. The man who received $30 for his picture adorning the cover of Time magazine not long ago was apparently happy, and so were other non-professionals: what a coup! It has been said that organizing photographers is like herding cats, but trying to organize people who like to see their work used but often do not need the money must be like herding flies.

    Yva Momatiuk

  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jul 8, 2010

    You can find a hole in every comment. Yes there are some cases where things have changed for the worse but some of us are still making a great living at shooting stock. I hope you can find a plan that works and then maybe you'll take the time to share it with others but I don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Giving up is a guarantee you'll be working at Wall Mart some day. I am trying to unite the photographers in our business, what is your plan? To many Henny Penny's in this business will manifest into what I am trying to avoid.

  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jul 8, 2010

    I am not the leader of some great revolt, it takes all of us working together to make a change. If most stand around and wait for someone else to come up with an idea we won't get many ideas. If you would back it then why not add some ideas that might work. If not you are also out of a job.


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jul 8, 2010
    Hi Rahul,

    Thank you for the support. It amazes me that so many people are ready to quit and not think. Then if you do come up with an idea these days all you get is " It won't work " No effort to help fix it just negativity that is a sure fire way of this all going down the tubes.
    There have been many cases in mans history where the masses said we are doomed and a few people stayed the coarse and proved them wrong. It is a shame that everyone is so beaten without putting up a fight or coming up with some form of change. Most just want to sit back and complain and say it can't be done. If they follow that road the will only create their destiny.


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