Shannon Fagan: The Future Of Stock Photography

Posted on 7/8/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Shannon Fagan is a former President of the Stock Artists Alliance and an Advisory Board member of the Young Photographers Alliance.  In the past 18 months, he has attended every major industry conference to gather information on stock photography and licensing’s current direction.  He has contributed both Rights Managed and Royalty Free images directly to Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Blend, Image Source, Cultura, Spaces, Tetra and many other brands. He has a deep knowledge of the stock photography industry, both from personal experience, and from his role helping other photographers develop their businesses. The following summarizes a few of his thoughts that were first published on Greg Ceo’s blog.

1.      How would you describe the changes in the stock photography industry over the last 5 years and how have these changes have affected your peers?
The changes in stock photography are similar to changes in all intellectual property pursuits, i.e. music, writing, news and art, where the product can be offered and licensed over the Internet. All of these endeavors have seen significant evolutions since around 2004.  I point to that year specifically as it was the year the Canon 1DS Mark II camera was first introduced. iTunes was made available a year earlier.  

2004 was a bellwether year for photography. The Imacon virtual drum scanner was replacing more expensive traditional drum scans. High resolution professional grade digital capture on a 35mm camera system was available at nearly half the price of a medium format digital back. The commercial photography industry was moving away from film and towards exclusive use of digital. Licensing agencies wanted digital files delivered on DVD and a couple years later wanted everything delivered online. We saw the first of agency staff layoffs. Agency support for their leading photographers declined and the photographers were saddled with more of the burden of preparing images for market. There was a massive buying spree of smaller agency collections by large umbrella distributors. Wholly Owned content became the dirty word in the industry.

Jump forward five years, and we’re now full of new buzz words: 5D, Red, micropayment, and crowd-source. In the next five years crowd sourcing will have a significant impact on the photography business. These years will be painful for those aspiring to be professional photographers. Both the stock and the assignment sectors of the commercial photography businesses will suffer as a result of crowdsourcing.

2.   Are professionals leaving the ranks of stock photographers and saying no to stock shoots?

Yes. It’s systemic and will continue for the foreseeable future. When the supply of images exceeds demand, the price at which they can be licensed naturally declines. If production costs remain flat, or increase due to the necessity to raise the level of quality; profitability decreases. This trend reached a tipping point in 2009. On average, expense outlays on a per-image basis now exceed returns in a reasonable time frame. Thus, there are insufficient profits to reinvest in producing new images. Professionals are intelligently diversifying their businesses away from stock photography and into other less risky ventures. For some, these new ventures are not even in the realm of commercial photography. Some photographers have retired, others have determined that this is an ideal time for a career change. Many contributors have taken a hiatus. Once they have moved on, these stock photography professionals are unlikely to return to the business as new ventures will occupy their time.

3.   How will stock production change?

By next year, photographers will no longer be producing the kind of imagery that costs an average of  $100, or even $50 per final selected image to create. Two to three years ago, these were the numbers professional photographers used when trying to develop production budgets. At that time they were barely achievable, but today production budgets for those who continue to shoot are half what they were twelve months ago. For every photographer there comes a point where it is no longer possible to cut the budget and still continue to produce marketable pictures.

4.   What should a photographer spend to make a stock image and expect to make a profit?

Ask ten different photographers and you’ll get ten different answers. Shoot at the lowest cost you can, including for free. When starting out, shoot everything that you can at no cost or low cost.

5.   What changes do you expect over the next 3 years?   

Within a year agencies will recognize that most of their professional contributors have stopped submitting stock images on a regular basis. It is already occurring, but it will take more time to assess whether this process is a mere blip on the sourcing map, or more permanent. Looking at all of the causes on a macro economic scale, I suggest that the decline will be a permanent one.

6.   Will you continue to aggressively shoot stock in the next year?

I have plans for several ventures for which the jury is still out. I won’t say that I’m necessarily exiting stock or commercial photography, but I will say that I’m paying very careful attention to the “need” vs. the “want” of the entire marketplace; for price, for competition, for creativity, and for challenging invigoration.

7.   How long will the average image sell well in a major stock collection?

Two years. The jury is admittedly out on this one. No one, industry wide, can give an adequate measure for it. No doubt, some images will sell for years. The number of years an image will sell robustly on a month to month basis is clearly declining industry wide.
8.     Where will agencies get new images?

To offset the decline of imagery being produced by experienced professionals, agencies will aggressively recruit new photographers. The vast majority of this new talent pool, perhaps over 90%, will be part-time photographers. They will need to have some other stable, full-time, professional career that pays well enough to allow them to engage in the photography business as an advanced hobby. The images they produce will certainly earn some revenue, but are unlikely to offset costs to a degree that provides significant profit. The industry is focusing more than ever upon newcomers and transitory participants. These photographers will play a crucial role in the new licensing community that is focused on making images available at low prices.

The time it takes to recruit new talent vs. the actual return on investment in number of shoots will become a central agency conundrum. What is saved by not using more experienced photographers will be lost by the overhead salaried time it takes to see these new recruits off to perform independently on their own.
Agencies can no longer afford the time it takes to guide photographers, produce shoots, art direct, edit and prepare images for marketing and distribution. The photographers must do all these tasks on their own initiative.

Copyright © 2010 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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