The Stock Photo Lottery

Posted on 2/22/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (7)

RM, RF or Micro” received some interesting comments. Indeed, usage-based pricing is not going away; there will always be some demand for exclusive uses, for which customers will be willing to pay significant amounts of money. The question is how much and whether or not it is wise for most photographers to chase these customers.

Stock photography is like a lottery. In the lottery, there are different games with different levels of risk. In games where you can earn the most for your investment, the odds against winning are huge. When the chances of earning something are better, the potential for big winnings is usually not that great. No matter which game you play, there is no guarantee you will earn more than you invest. A few players will hit the jackpot. Many of today’s photographers would have a better chance of profiting if they were to invest in lottery tickets rather than producing images for licensing as stock.

Less than 1% of total images licensed today are licensed based on use under the rights-managed model. All the rest are licensed based on a one-time fee that allows unlimited and multiple uses—the royalty-free model. If customers are looking for the freedom to make future use of an image in some still unknown way, they are not likely to consider any rights-managed images. If customers have budget considerations, they are not likely to think of rights-managed images.  

One way to level the playing field a little is to offer rights-managed imagery alongside royalty-free and microstock. If the customer finds a rights-managed image she likes, and knows it is unlikely the image will ever be needed for another purpose, she may be able to negotiate a price she can afford. This is particularly true if the use is small. Alamy and Getty Images offer some prices at near-microstock levels for small electronic uses.

But the reason photographers offer their images for rights-managed licensing is not because they hope to make $5 to $49 sales, but because they hope to hit the jackpot with a multi-thousand-dollar sale. It is this hope of hitting the jackpot that is so unrealistic; the odds of it happening are infinitesimal. Since 99% of the images licensed today are royalty-free, rights-managed sellers are chasing 1% of the market. Moreover, a huge portion of these buyers are not interested in exclusive rights, but rather are perfectly satisfied with non-exclusives, with price being the primary motivating factor.

As to pricing itself, high-dollar rights-managed sales are the exception rather than the rule. In many cases, a rights-managed image is sold for less than royalty-free. According to Alamy’s figures for the third quarter of 2009, the average royalty-free price was $177, while the average rights-managed price was only $118.

Consider a group of 100,000 images licensed for various uses under all the different licensing models. 97,000 of them were licensed as microstock or via subscription, 2,000 were priced at traditional royalty-free levels and 1,000 were licensed as rights-managed content. Of that 1,000, most were licensed for non-exclusive uses—and for the most part, at low prices. Alamy’s third-quarter 2009 average price for a commercially used image was $289, and $103 for an editorial image. It stands to reason that no more than 10, and probably less than 5, of a 100,000-image pool were licensed for exclusive or limited exclusive uses with fees exceeding $2,000.

Between 75 million and 100 million images are licensed worldwide each year. Those who choose rights-managed licensing are only going after 1,000 out of every 100,000 sales. A few of the top photographers with lots of experience shooting the right kind of subject matter and solid reputations in the buyer community can get a much higher percentage of the big sales than the majority of sellers. Some agencies will sell a lot more than others. Before quality microstock was available, there were probably about the same number of exclusive sales, but their percentage of the total was much higher, because the total number of sales was much, much lower.

Photographers need to realize that stock photography is a game of percentages. It is not about having great images. It is about having the right image, in the right place, at the right time. There is no predicting what the right image or the right place will be. Todd Klassy’s Flickr-hosted image of seats in a football stadium sold it for $10,000 for an ad. Was there any way of predicting that demand? Will such a photo ever be needed again by anyone? What are the odds of earning some money from the photos you produce?

Despite several readers’ assertions, I want to emphasize that I am not at all convinced that placing one’s images in microstock is the answer. There are a few exceptions, just as there are a few exceptions on the rights-managed side of the business. A few lottery winners also hit the jackpot each week. But in all cases, the winners are all a very small percentage of the players.

In my opinion, the best system for licensing rights to stock images would be to make all stock images available at all price points (with the exception of offering exclusive rights). Image prices should be based on certain broad categories of use. Some of the smaller uses could also be limited by the file size delivered. But until such a plan can be implemented, photographers must face the reality that most images are purchased using the royalty-free pricing model.

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:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Feb 22, 2010

    I don't know where you get the idea that 1% of images sold are RM. That figure I think you are pulling out of a hat.

    Alamy, which you love to talk about, probably sell 35% or more RM... and I know athat Getty does sell much much more than 1%.

    Why do you keep pushing people away from RM?? Do you like hobby photographers only? Almost NO ONE can make a living or have a profession as a photographer on RF and especially on Microstock.

    I feel you are directing people away from careers in photography. I do just the opposite. If you want a CAREER as a photographer, don't even condsider Microstock in any way!

  • Don Klumpp Posted Feb 23, 2010
    Gee Jim, before I jump off the stock photo bridge without my bungie cord, which lottery ticket are you touting this week?

    Micro shooters remind me of a hampster running on a wheel in his cage. Most eventually will tire and realize that from their sales they aren't making enough to buy food much less break even from all their efforts.

    RM has been extremely good to us for the last 30 years...why quit now?


  • John Harris Posted Feb 24, 2010
    Hi Jim
    yes I agree with the above. We are finding buyers who want high quality work and are willing to pay proper rates across "The long tail". The veracity of data and professional ethics of realism are critical to a lot of clients.
    John Harris

  • Larry Minden Posted Feb 24, 2010
    I completely disagree with you on this one Jim. RM pricing has nothing to do with hoping for the rare really big sale and everything to do with offering a premium product at a price commensurate with the magnitude of exposure. As such RM offers fair pricing to both licensor and licensee.

    Moreover, we have very little pressure to change from a long established, largely editorial customer base. Sure they'd love it if we offered micro prices but other than textbook publishers, few are trying to push us from our RM perch.

    I agree 100% with Bill, Don, & John above - been licensing RM successfully for nearly 30 years and whereas I've known many shooters doing very well under RM, I've only known agents and NOT photographers who made out well with RF. Jeez - do the math, the photog keeps 20% at best w/ RF and up to 50% (yeah we still pay out half) from RM. Why would any serious photographer shooting creatively consider anything else?

  • Leslie Hughes Posted Feb 25, 2010
    JIm - I have to agree with the comments above and want to add that "doing the math" is key. First, I don't think you are right but putting specifics aside, you are talking about volume when you say a small number comes from RM. You have to look at revenue as well. Whatever the number, revenues are still clearly higher for RM - just look at Getty and what we know about Corbis. Your article on Alamy even speaks to their high RM although it is mostly editorial. For an agency, they can pump images through a pipe if they have "suppliers" and reduce their costs to very little when they are not creating and this allows them to sell low priced images - but as a photographer you would have to become a machine or be one of the early providers to have enough mass to really make a killing. And you can still only reduce your costs so much. Rights managed is more about understanding strengths and the market and as Larry said, offering a premium product at a price commensurate with the magnitude of exposure. In my experience with clients - the information value of sales is still and will always be critical. This still is a key differentiator. I work more with clients and photographers today but have lots of agency experience. Clients use a value equation to determine the image - Quality + Price = Value. Sure there are other things but those are at the heart. And the project they are working on determines where they weight the values. RF is fast and easy and that works a lot of the time for the obvious uses. But RM has been a most consistent and stable category for SO long because of demand. Not supply. Hope this makes sense...

  • michael swiet Posted Apr 23, 2012

  • michael swiet Posted Apr 23, 2012

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