Stock Photography Future

Posted on 9/8/2020 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

A young man studying photography wrote recently and asked if I could supply him with some accurate stock photography analysis. I told him I could, but he wasn’t going to like what I had to say.

I have been in the photography business for over 60 years and reporting on the stock photo industry on for the last 30 years. It has been a very satisfying career, mostly because I was born at a time when the industry was entering a growth phase.  In my best year as a photographer I earned about $175,000. But in the last decade, or more, the industry has been in serious decline. Last year I earned about $6,500 from my newsletter and $300 from my photo archive. 2020 will be much worse as most photographers who used to read the newsletter have given up on the business and moved on to other things. They no longer need the information.

Unfortunately, you and your classmates were probably born at the wrong time to pursue careers as professional photographers. It has nothing to do with your skill, talent, training or willingness to work hard. Your starting at a time when the industry is going downhill fast. I don’t see anything on the horizon likely to result in a turnaround. Covid-19, and the U.S.’s incompetent response to it, are making a very bad situation much worse.

Demand for images grew significantly once it became possible to deliver quality images online, but that demand has now reached a plateau. I don’t foresee anything likely to grow that demand. Meanwhile, there is already a huge oversupply of images relative to demand, and an ever growing number of people who are able to produce reasonably good images, and who want to earn at least part of their living licensing rights to use of those images.

Inaccurate Info Available

I’m glad you recognize that daily internet sales pitches like this are scams. They promise that for only $3,000, (or maybe more) you can learn all about how the market is going to grow by 8% a year in the next 5 years. (They have totally ignored the likely long-term effects of Covid-19.) Check out this story.

One of the easiest way to tell these pitches are scams is to look at their list of “market leading companies.” Masterfile, at the top of their list, went into bankruptcy in 2017. They owe image creator almost $2.6 million and have turned over management to DesignPics a struggling company.

BlendImages has folded and the images are now being handled by Tetra. Rubberball was purchased by Getty Images almost a decade ago. SuperStock makes very few sales, but hasn’t paid some contributors in more than 2 years for the sales they have made. In their list of “market leader” they don’t even mention the real leaders GettyImages, Shutterstock, AdobeStock and iStock (division of Getty) which probably generate 66% of total industry revenue.

Here are some stories I’ve written about Global Market Size.

Global Market Size in Feb 2016
Market Size in 2018
Potential For Growth, November 2018
Growth Potential in 2020

I think the total market today, counting editorial and footage is probably about $2.6 billion and two-thirds of that is generated by the big 4 including: Getty Images (and its subsidiary iStock), Shutterstock and AdobeStock. Overall revenue is flat. More customers are paying for images, but they are paying lower and lower prices, so the net result is no increase in revenue and possibly an overall decline. The only people making any money are the owners and investors of the companies that have found ways to exploit image creators. See this story.

On top of that, royalty rates have steadily declined and the royalties available are being spread among more and more creators so almost none of the people producing images are earning any kind of reasonable money. In addition, possibly as much as 25% of that gross revenue is not for photos at all, but for graphic illustration. Costs for graphic artists and illustrators (including people doing CGI) are less than those of photographers and proportionally there are fewer of them. As a result, most graphic artists and illustrators are probably earning more relative to time spent than the average photographer.  

I urge you to check out these stories in particular.

Shutterstock Ten Year History

Analysis of Getty 2018 Sales
Getty Shuts Down Rights Managed Licensing
Future For RM Photographers

Adobe Stock Revenue
Adobe Images In Demand

One of the things you learn from the Adobe analysis is that the only way anyone can possibly make a living from photography is to live where the cost-of-living is very low like India, Thailand, Russia, Ukraine or Eastern Europe. It is virtually impossible for photographers in North America or Western Europe to have successful businesses based solely on producing images. Things will get progressively worse as the equipment makes it easier and easier for anyone to create good pictures and more images are available for free. Also see.
If your going to stick with photography focus on video rather than stills.  It is harder for people who need video to create what they need themselves than it is to create stills.

I strongly advise that you get a much broader education in college than just photography. If you want to stay in the graphic arts field and have any talent as a graphic artist that is a much better place to be. Most buyers of photography are graphic designers working for companies. They use photos, but often add to them and create the full design of the finished product the company needs. They design the product and then either look for what photos they might need or create an illustration themselves. They have a much better chance to advance within a company. There will be a need for people with these skills long after there is no more need for professional photographers.

Focus on CGI (computer generated imagery).

Death of Photography as a Profession

No Bottom Line On Pricing

EyeEm – most suppliers aren’t interested in selling their work, just showing it off.

Future Demand for Photogaphy

Will Photo Assignments Go The Way Of Stock

Still Images Or Video

Footage Revenue Surpasses $570 Million

VisualSteam Survey

An increasing number of photographers are finding that the way to make money is to organize images for families. My daughter used to operate a stock photo agency. Now she runs My Memory File.

Please recommend this story to young people considering a career in photography.

Copyright © 20200 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


  • Ron Graham Becker Posted Sep 11, 2020
    Jim, thanks for all the work you put into this article. It's realistic and a truly sober perspective.

  • George Oze Posted Oct 3, 2020
    I agree with most of what is written, but not all. My primary agency was Superstock where i made reasonable amount of sales and the team was very helpful, but now after the acquisitions they went through they do not even send out sales reports anymore. They dried up. On the other hand shooting into the predicted trends or filling gaps in stock libraries can be rewarding as my sales are going up, but royalties are steadily dropping effectively canceling off the numerical increase of sales. I am surprised that RM images selling very well.

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