Stock Photography Sucks

Posted on 10/28/2009 by Allen Murabayashi | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Ed.: Allen Murabayashi, CEO of PhotoShelter, recently acknowledged the company’s “ill-fated attempt to bring diversity into the stock photography market while giving the photographer the majority of sales,” a venture he was forced to shut down for economic reasons a little over a year ago. Murabayashi also shared his view on the state of the industry—a view that everyone engaged in, or planning to enter, the business of producing or selling stock photography ought to carefully consider. – Jim Pickerell

At the time we shut down the PhotoShelter Collection (and probably still), many photographers felt duped, and hurt that we did not give it more time to mature. But now that we are many months away from that traumatic event, I can restate the following: Stock photography sucks. I am not talking about the people who shoot it. I am talking about the state of the industry.

A small group of people used to make a lot of money in stock—as they should have. It was hard. It was often expensive to produce. There was no digital, and there was no Internet. But around the turn of the millennium, things changed dramatically. Technology intersected with a business model (namely, microstock) and created a massive disruption—a paradigm shift.

The hobbyist had a marketplace, and he had the tools, in-camera and in Photoshop, to rival if not exceed the quality of many pros. He had disposable income to buy equipment, which the manufacturers loved. Stories about guys making $100,000 per year emerged. Social networks like Flickr helped create a community for the photo enthusiast—a term that used to conjure up “guy with camera” taking creepy nudes at a camera club down by the shore. First movers of these new marketplaces like iStockphoto and Fotolia made millions. Most importantly, the people who traditionally paid a few hundred dollars for an image were now paying $1, because budgets were getting slashed.

The average stock photo simply is not worth what it once was.

I consider myself to be a pretty decent photographer, but when I search for an image on iStock, I am blown away. There are some very good photographers with Photoshop skills that make up for any lack of talent or equipment.

And the proof of the paradigm shift to me? I have purchased iStock images when I determined that I cannot shoot something better myself. Why spend two hours setting up a shot to come up with something inferior, when I can buy something for a few bucks?

Should I be hung? Next time your spouse asks you to help throw together a marketing brochure for his or her company, what are you going to do to get that nice photo of a clock?

So as I was saying, stock photography sucks. It is not that you cannot make money; it is just much harder than it used to be. Generalists will not survive. We have enough yellow rubber ducks against seamless. You have to specialize and understand who is buying to really succeed. Guys like Masa Ushioda will be fine, but maintaining a staff with salary and benefits to produce seasonal content while facing downward pricing pressure from another one of your properties... Forget it.

Where does that leave us? There are probably enough stock photos out there already to satisfy most needs for a long time—at least at the price that buyers are now willing to pay. So photographers who are reliant on checks from Getty should get used to these getting smaller. (I know, you already are.) If buyers cannot find what they want, they will probably still commission photography—but if you want to compete at that level, you really need to be a good photographer, not just a guy with a camera. There are fewer individuals making enough money from stock photography to support themselves. Ttraditional marketplaces like Getty are reaching around the darkness; while it was still a public company, iStock was its only bright spot.

Do not enter a market at the end of the lifecycle. You will always get burned. If you want to play the stock photography game, do not leave it up to chance to make sales. Understand who is buying the images you are shooting, and make sure your marketing plan includes them. This might mean building a clientele and licensing directly. It might mean moving to footage. It might mean none of the above. Like so many creative endeavors in life, the best creatives are not necessarily the ones who succeed. The average photographer with superior business sense will continue to dominate.

Ed.: Despite the discouraging words of its CEO, PhotoShelter is in the business of helping strong photographers succeed online and feels there is power in the online marketing approach for specialist stock shooters. PhotoShelter recently released several free research reports to help photographers better market their work using Web sites, search engines and Google Analytics.

Copyright © 2009 Allen Murabayashi. 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


  • Fred Voetsch Posted Oct 28, 2009
    One of the more useful and honest articles I have read in a long time.

  • Michele Vitucci Posted Oct 28, 2009
    I agree with Fred Voetsch!

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