The Future Of Stock Photography

Posted on 9/22/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Photographers still ask me, “Is the Hellman & Friedman’s acquisition of Getty Images good or bad (for photographers)?” As far as I can see whether or not Getty is owned by H&F doesn’t make a whole lot of difference for photographers. Getty will continue to focus on giving customers what they want and licensing rights to as much imagery as it can. It’s probably good for investors because they cashed out at a good price when the value of their stock was going down. It’s probably good for Getty management because they have more flexibility to think long term. It’s probably good for H&F because they see the business going in a different direction and the current Getty management team can take them there. And in five years H&F will be able to sell their position for a profit.

But, the real question for photographers trying to license their work through the Creative section of is “Will I be able to earn as much (or more) as I have in the past by continuing to market my images through the Getty site?” For the vast majority the answer to that question is almost certainly No.

These photographers want to produce quality images and sell them for premium RM and traditional RF prices. The size of that market is declining and there’s every reason to believe the decline will continue. Getty earned $560 million in 2007 from selling Creative images. The company expects revenue from these customers to be $460 million in 2008 and to further decline between now and 2012. (See Goldman Sachs report.) Some of that decline may be due to the state of the U.S. economy, but that’s not the major driving factor. The principle reason is a change in buyer and supplier attitudes.

Different Direction

What’s this about “the business going in a different direction?” The majority of Getty’s revenue (80% three years ago) comes from licensing rights to high end Creative imagery. That’s their core business. Again the Goldman Sachs report tells the story. In 2007 65% of Getty’s revenue came from Creative sales. But by 2012 revenue from that source is expected to drop 38% and represent only 29% of total revenue. In that same five years iStockphoto revenue is expected to be 3.64 times greater than 2007 revenue; Editorial 2.09 times greater; Footage & Multimedia almost double; Other lines of business 3.66 times greater and B2B music will be a $46 million line of business.

Getty isn’t moving in this direction because they want to get out of the traditional photo licensing business, they’re making these moves because this is the way customers are moving and they’re trying to stay ahead of them. There are a number of issues that need to be considered.

Image Supply

As sales decline the supply of images is increasing dramatically. Getty Images has 2.3 million images on and that number hasn’t increased all that much in the last couple years due to much tighter editing and the movement of a significant number of images to Punchstock. But the effect on image creators is that for the same amount of time invested in image creation they get fewer images where customers can see them and these images have a shorter useful life. Alamy went from 4 million images in 2005 to 11 million in 2007 and is now at almost 14 million.

When talking about supply we can’t forget the images available at microstock prices. iStockphoto has 3,590,000 images on their site and Fotolia has over 4,158,000. In many cases the same images are on both sites, but certainly there are well over 5 million microstock images in total and many are of equal quality to those found on traditional sites.


Alamy will be mentioned often in this analysis because more detailed statics are available from them than from any other licensor of images at traditional prices. The price-per-image licensed by Alamy has remained about the same over the last two years. Thus, the average-return-per-image in the collection has dropped significantly and seems likely to continue its downward spiral. Alamy’s sales went up 18% in 2007, but nowhere near the growth in images. Getty’s prices-per-image licensed also remained relatively stable over the last two or three years through 2007. However, average license information is no longer available due to the H&F acquisition. There is some indication that Getty’s average prices may have begun to drop since the Fall of 2007 when they instituted a $49 web use price and Premium Access (PA) pricing for certain volume users. (See Photographers report that the number of PA sales for prices of $10 or lower is increasing as Getty tries to compete with microstock. There is no indication that making images available at these lower prices is significantly increasing sales volume. Other distributors report that they must lower prices in order to remain competitive. But the lowered prices are not bringing about offsetting volume increases.


More images are being used. So why aren’t sales growing for tradition sellers? In a word – Microstock. iStockphoto sold 10 million images in 2006 and 17.55 million in 2007. There have certainly been increased microstock sales in 2008. Other microstock sites are seeing similar growth. By way of comparison in 2007 Getty Images licensed rights to about 1.5 million images from the Creative section of its site. Again, based on the Goldman Sachs estimates, if prices were to remain the same until 2012, Getty would be expected to sell something less than 1 million Creative images.

Given the increasing supply and improved quality of microstock it’s becoming easier for customers to find an image they can use in the microstock collections. The price differentials are so great that buyers who don’t need exclusivity can’t afford to ignore microstock.

Customers Driving The Model

Designers want images at low prices. The image is part of the total package that designers sell. If the designers can get images for less they can sell their product to their customers for less. Or in some cases they can charge the same they have always charged and put more money in their pockets. Or as one designer put it, “I use microstock whenever I can because I can save my customer money and put a little more in my pocket.” He sees this as a win-win for everyone. Those whose sole source of income is producing and selling photography don’t agree.

At one point stock photography was a way for photographers to continue to be productive when they didn’t have assignments. They could produce images on speculation. Shoot what they wanted, when they wanted and they might earn some extra money. It was fun and it helped them hone their skills. It gave them something to do in their down time. A few got so good at stock production that they gave up doing assignments.

Now the designers are doing the same thing. Nothing is going to stop them.

Rise Of The Amateurs

The market is being taken over by people who view photography as a hobby and source of supplemental income, not a way to earn earning a living. For them earning are unimportant compared to having fun, improving their skills and receiving encouragement from their peers. They earn their living from other sources. The Internet and technological improvements in equipment and software have made it possible for such people to effectively compete with experienced pros. Long range it is impossible for those who need to earn a living to compete in this environment.

A significant portion of microstock shooters are graphic artists. As buyers of photography they have the artistic skills and a clear understanding of what is in short supply. Their principal source of income is creating designs for customers. Such designs often contain photos. The price for such projects is often a flat fee that includes the necessary photos. If they can obtain images inexpensively, most can earn much more from their design work, than they could ever earn from licensing images at higher prices. Thus, many microstock photographers have an incentive to keep prices low so any user for any project can obtain all the images they need for a very low price.

Will Microstock Eventually Die?

Some wishful thinkers believe that eventually photographers will stop supplying new images to microstock when monthly revenue starts falling. It will become clear that most can never earn enough to justify the continued effort. This has the ring of what RM photographers said about RF back in the early 90’s. The only thing that seems to have slowed it down was when a cheaper RF (Microstock) became available.

Certainly some microstockers will stop producing, but there seems to be a steady stream of new entrants to take their place. reports they have over 4.6 million images from more than 120,000 photographers. Most of those photographers also have some of the same images on other microstock sites so it is hard to tell how many photographers actually participate in the market, but the number keeps growing every week.

There will always be a certain type of image that customers will be unable to find in microstock. But it seems unlikely that such images will sell for high enough fees, or in such volume that a photographer will be able to build a profitable business around only shooting such imagery on speculation. High ticket sales of unusual images will not be enough to sustain a business. The successful photographer, shooting on speculation, needs to sell a lot of average images at average prices to sustain a business and its those sales that microstock will definitely take away.

Finding niche subjects that no one else is covering adequately is difficult. Once a photographer trying to sell through the traditional market decides on a subject he wants to shoot I strongly advise that he search several microstock sites for that subject and be absolutely sure he can produce significantly better images than are available as microstock. Finding uncovered subjects like the air conditioner repairman ( I wrote about in September 2006 will be increasingly difficult.

At that time, I was looking for a picture of an air conditioner repairman for a small yellow pages ad. Getty had one picture of someone working on a major industrial system. Corbis had three pictures, two on industrial systems and a nice one of a home system, the kind of picture the customer needed. Jupiterimages had nothing. iStockphoto had 20 images of two guys working on a home system, all taken on the same shoot.

One of iStock’s images had been downloaded 171 times and the total downloads for all 20 images over 16 months was 829. I recently took another look for this subject matter. Now, there were 34 images in that category (another photographer added some) and a total of 3675 downloads. Corbis and Getty still have the same number as before, and Jupiter is showing Corbis’ pictures. There are a huge number of customers who want to use this subject matter and the only place they can find it is in microstock.

Customers may still be producing approximately the same number of printed pieces as they have in the past, but whenever possible, they are looking for less expensive pictures. When they can find cheaper images, it frees up the overall budget for other purposes.

Returning To Assignments

Long range the only solution for most photographers trying to earn a living from just taking pictures will be to focus on assignments. Don’t go out to shoot something until you have someone lined up to pay for it and be sure that the one-time fee is enough to cover your time, expenses, overhead and profit. Twenty-five years ago, the rule in the industry was “Never Shoot On Speculation”. Then a few people discovered there was enough demand, for certain types of imagery, that they could make more money by shooting the right things on speculation, selling them multiple times at prices below the cost of production and making them available for immediate delivery. Speculative shooting boomed and here we are today. The only remaining question is not whether you will have to do something else, but how long you can hang on through the decline until it becomes a necessity.

Copyright © 2008 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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