3TRENDS FOR GETTY PHOTOGRAPHERS
March 29, 2007
When I recently asked Getty photographers if their royalties were going up or down I was quickly flooded with responses that indicate a high level of dissatisfaction and frustration. I promised anonymity so I won't identify respondents by name, but I will include comments that went well beyond the simple survey questions.
Seventy-eight percent of the 69 respondents said that so far in 2007 their revenue has been down compared to the same period last year. Of the 22% who said revenue was flat or up, all but two had added new images in 2006 that grew their previous total by 5% or more. Thus, it is entirely possible that for these people the increased number of images was the principal reason for the increase in revenue, not an improving average return-per-image.
But even adding images wasn't enough to grow revenue. Two said they had grown their number of images on the site by more than 20% and one by close to 50% and their gross revenue was still down. One photographer said, "Overall, my net royalties received per-month from Getty are down 30% to 40% from last year, even though I have 15% more images on the website." Several indicated that the downward trend has been going on for longer than one year and one said his sales have been "on a financial downhill slide for 3 years at Getty." (It is worth reviewing the overall average return-per-image statistics in Story 898.)
One photographer who has submitted a lot to Photographer's Choice said that his annual royalties had been on a nice plateau from 2001 through 2005, but that in 2006 they were down 25%. He added, "PC is starting to seem like a waste of time and money."
Still another said, "My stock photography career is backsliding into a 'hobby grade' income. And though I can see my income ultimately getting lower, I still feel it is at a level at which it still makes some sense to contribute. I am actually redoubling my efforts as a kind of 'last hurrah'. I am submitting to RF for the first time, and RR as well. In fact, I am concentrating on RR as there is less competition in searches. I'm curious to see if I can maintain, or regain, any income. But the writing appears to be on the wall. I can pedal twice as fast for a while, but I will never be able to pedal 4 times as fast, and that day is approaching without a doubt."
Keep in mind that these comments are from experienced professionals, many of whom have been represented by Getty for years and first started working with Getty at a time when the company was being very selective in the photographers they chose to represent.
The photographer who is "concentrating on RR because there is less competition," may want to consider the response of an Iconica photographer who said, "I have noticed a real drop off with Iconica from when it moved to RR. About the same number of sales but in amounts that are much lower. Revenue is off maybe 40 percent. It is a great comparison for RR vs. RM as they are the exact same images. Not a good move for me."
In a recent count Getty had 139,175 RR images on the site, 13% of the combined total of RM and RR. It is also worth noting that in Q4 2006 when RR was introduced the average-price per-image of combined RM and RR dropped 7.3% from $546 to $506. This, and the above photographer's experience, certainly indicates that RR could be a drain on revenue rather than a way to increase it. However, it certainly does please the customers.
Photonica and Iconica were acquired from amana in May 2005 but some of the photographers whose work was represented by these two brands are not too happy with the results. A photographer said, "At the beginning, my royalties went up (higher than with Photonica, despite the fact that my Getty commissions were 30% rather than 40%-50%. Then, after a number of months, my Getty sales began to go down and have continued to go down."
Another said, "My Photonica returns have dropped considerably in the last five or six months so that I am now seeing about half the revenue that I was previously receiving from Getty. And at the peak Getty was earning me about half of what amana was making from the same images just before the Photonica West takeover."
One Photonica photographer indicated that he was "somewhat happy with my net," but one of the things he likes best is that he now receives royalty checks monthly instead of quarterly as was the case when the company was owned by amana. This photographer also looks at stock photography as a "supplement," not a primary source of income. In general those who considered stock photography a supplement to their primary source of income tended to be much happier than those who have tried to make stock photography their principle business.
One respondent said, "It seems to me that Getty is offering photographers less and less (lower income, diluted exposure, competition with low-priced microstock) while they are demanding the same or higher level of commitment (exclusivity, in most cases a $50 per image fee and time consuming digital preparation of images)."
In his Q3 2006 conference call to investment analysts Jonathan Klein told them that Getty Images had plans to open its "content taps" to all professional photographers. He also said, "Be under no illusion. Photographers are clamoring to give us more content, not less, and they will embrace this." (See story 884, October 25th)
Maybe new photographers are "clamoring", but existing Getty contributors certainly seem to be having second thoughts and are pulling back.
Communicating With Editors
A major frustration for existing contract photographers is that it has become much more difficult to get images accepted and loaded on the site than it had been in the past - even when the photographer is willing to pay the Photographer's Choice participation fee.
One photographer said, "We are at a loss in finding a good contact with Getty Images. We have never been able to speak to the same person twice."
Another photographer with an RM contract said, "I have asked on three occasions -- one voice and two emails -- for a contract that would allow me to submit to RR. To date, and after nearly a year of requesting, my PC editor can't seem to get me the RR/RF contract."
A photographer who had contributed to every Photographer's Choice opportunity until the end of 2005 is now having trouble getting images accepted. Due to falling returns this photographer did not contribute anything in 2006, but has recently tried to add new images to PC and is having great difficulty in getting the data exactly as Getty's computers want it. "One period in the wrong place and the whole CD is thrown out," he said.
A third photographer reports, "edits have been taking 3 to 7 months. Art Directors and Editors seem to have been assigned too many photographers. The "Traffic" staff was fired in the restructuring of the company, and it seems that therefore it is another 3 to 6 months until the work appears "Live" on the website, once I have turned it in final files to my Art Director. So it is now taking 9 months to a year to get work "Live" on the website."
He continued, "The Keywording is terrible, and at times the image title is wrong, making all the keywords wrong. I must inspect images in new uploads and write Getty to fix the keywords which takes 4 weeks or more."
He also complained that, "Third Party brands seem to be uploading images at alarming rates." In fact, when we counted the Image Partner images the numbers do indicate very high Image Partner participation, particularly on the RM side of the business.
These numbers show the degree of competition that Getty photographers must face from third party brands. The Image Partner images hurt Getty photographers in two ways. First, the photographer's older images, which would sell if they could be seen, are pushed so low in the search order that they are out of competition. And secondly the photographers are having great trouble getting new images into competition with those of the Image Partners, even though the Getty photographers are paying $50 each to have their images uploaded.
There are indications that the Image Partners are finding it a lot easier to get their new images uploaded than is the case for Getty photographers. Part of reason for this is that they are uploading in larger batches than photographers, and also they have staffs trained to comply with all the constantly changing Getty requirements that are difficult for individual photographers to keep up with.
Getty also benefits from selling Image Partner images rather than those of their contract photographers because the margins are better with the Image Partner images. The Image Partners have to do all the same work that Getty is now requiring of the photographers.
Cuts In Editing Staff
In October 2006, in and effort to cut costs, Getty made some significant reductions in staff. As a result there seems to be less communication with photographers and less guidance as the photographers plan shoots. In addition, it is now taking much longer for a photographer to get his production where it can start generating revenue.
One photographer whose revenue is falling commented, "My production is very much reduced, and I am not doing big expensive lifestyle shoots for them any more, particularly with the lack of guidance and art direction that they used to offer. I am not prepared to risk up to $25,000 for a couple of days shooting, without some guidance from them...and then some moral obligation to take a good number of images, once they have given that guidance."
He went on to say, " I also wonder if they know what they are doing. I have one shoot that was even held up at a session for Getty's Premier Producers in London as an example of a really successful shoot, and I have achieved 8 sales from 35 images in a year! Another shoot that they told me they were not keen on has had at least 4 sales a month from 7 images."
Another photographer complained, "I have not received any input, e-mails, feedback, newsletters or communication from Getty to help me focus on producing images. In addition, they like to cherry pick 1 or 2 images from an entire shoot for their website and then not allow similars or sisters from that shoot to go to other agencies."
"Last week, I needed some tax info from Getty and found that I can no longer reach a human. I have to leave an e-mail or voicemail at a generic corporate address and pray they get back to me at some point. It all seems like an effort to cut their costs, contact and commitment to photographers."
(It should be noted that these aren't problems that have just developed since October. They have been getting steadily worse for a long time as Getty has reduced staff and support.)
Still another photographer explained, "I am supplying new images from personal trips, but I am not investing any more money in shooting specifically for Getty - it's just not worth it."
The experiences of still another photographers are revealing. He said,
"I submitted a batch of about 200 new images last year, only to (A) have them lose the submission because my Seattle editor was canned the week of my submission; and (B) when I re-submitted, I found out they only wanted them as a Photographers Choice submission, since they were wildlife and 'unreleased travel imagery'. I don't know when I was switched to being PC-Only."
"So after agonizing about declining royalties and the $50 fee, I scaled back the number to 80 images and submitted them during the first quarter '07 PC window. I gave my new editor (now in Ireland) a heads-up since I didn't want the submission lost again. Got a note from him saying that the next day was his last day and that I would have a new editor in a few weeks.
"The word I received a few weeks later from the now-anonymous "Dublin Creative" was that they needed me to re-submit. Since it was my first all-digital submission, I apparently didn't clean things up properly and the entire submission was rejected for technical reasons. So I'm now going to have to go through them with a fine-toothed comb (ie., go back to the RAW files, be more careful about the conversions, plus re-caption/etc.).
"As a side note, I had been using Aperture to catalog the images and do minor tweaks with them. Some of the images had been converted in Photoshop, then imported into Aperture, so quite a few images had had multiple edits on them, accounting for at least some of Getty's complaints.
"Some of these errors were undoubtedly my fault and I will re-tweak and re-submit them, though the amount of workload, fees and declining overall sales at Getty is making me explore other options for future submissions. It certainly has bounced this (re)submission down to the bottom of my to-do list. Other sites are MUCH easier to submit to and the process is often much more automated for uploads. If Getty's royalty yield continues to decline, I can't see anyone having the time to fool with it and still pay the mortgage."
And still another photographer commented, "Getty has a good deal going for themselves: not only do they take the lion's share of the royalties, but they get photographers to pay for Getty's file handling, keywording and uploading expenses. Additionally, they have frequently changed the submissions mechanics, foisting much more work onto the photographers. (With each new email, they claim the new procedures will get our files uploaded sooner, but I sure haven't seen an improvement.)"
Paying To Upload Images
With all this negativity one thing that surprised me was that when I asked the question, "Has the $50 fee per-image discouraged you from contributing to Photographers' Choice?" almost two-thirds of the photographers said NO. However, 46% are no longer submitting to PC. As one photographer put it, "It's not really the $50 per se, but the lower return per-image that is discouraging. RF Photographer's Choice seems particularly bad business when the percentage royalty return is only 20%."
Another photographer added that he was giving PC one last try and, "if these (images) don't yield the investment back quickly, I will run, not walk, to find other ways to market the images."
In summary, a female photographer who always offers sharp insights said, "There are too many photographers and too many pictures, so more and more the supply exceeds demand. This drives prices down, and the number of pix per photographer licensed every year is coming down."
"Getty is a distributor, not an agency. After being a boutique outlet with some of the best shooters in the business and very strict editing policy, it now subscribes to the "Crazy Eddie" stores' principle: dump truckloads of merchandise (Image Partners, newly purchased libraries, Lifesize, wholly owned, whatever) on top of other stock, and someone is sure to buy it. Quality doesn't matter anymore: it is a game of numbers and this precious shelf life. So, if you contribute, you may as well send in the same kind of images every 6 months, because your "older" material is already buried, and sinking lower and lower in the search return order as you are burning your new submission disc."
Is There No Optimism?
Despite the general pessimism, not all photographers were as negative. One who has been a professional in NYC for 20 years and who has made a major commitment to stock photography in the last three years had this to say.
"I am optimistic. My work is selling well enough over this three-year period that I will be able to make a living on stock soon.
"I don't think that the individual freelancer has to look at this as a volume commodity business as you often suggest that it is. By producing fewer images that are carefully crafted and original, I am getting traction in the marketplace. I am hopeful that my unique creative vision will trump cut-rate off-shore out-sourcing and micro-stock over at least the medium term.
"China dumps millions of luxury handbag knockoffs, legal and illegal onto the market every year, yet the real luxury goods makers still make a fortune every year, globally. Could there be an optimistic and relevant point comparison between the luxury goods business and our profession, and the reasons why we both sell product?
"When an image buyer goes online to search, maybe he uses similar keywords every month, possibly because he has the same job, or he has the same clients. Does that image buyer develop a memory for images or groups of images that he has already seen? Maybe he scrolls through these images to look deeper into the search order to find something new. I think that this is complex stuff, and I'd like to know more about it. For me as an image producer, my bet is that strictly worrying about search order and how close to the top of the pile my images appear, is overly simplistic in terms of understanding real image buyer behavior.
"It seems to me, that when Getty Images buys a brand, that brand starts to look like all their other brands. - I know that I am not the only person to hold this opinion. This suggests to me that a publicly held corporation with a vertical management structure can't produce in-house creative diversity in artwork. This presents an opportunity for someone like me who is a freelance outsider to sell distinctive artwork in a sea of trend research.
"Today, I am working on a small still-life editorial photo assignment for a New York based financial magazine. I am working online with a very nice assistant photography editor, and I am on my 12th revision, and we are not done. This is why I want to do stock."
But another New York photographer said, "They (Getty) had been steering me towards RF for a while. They said RM income would decline and diversification was the future. It was clear to me that I had no future with the company. The promise of 20 percent payment versus the same fixed cost of my overhead and high cost of producing images in my area of interest (business, lifestyle) was hard to swallow. At that point I said I won't give them the 80/20 split and stopped contributing. Stock is over saturated with images easily available to buyers. It's a buyers market. I'm moving out of stock. Starting over at age 54. I have found new interests in photography and realize that this change is necessary for me as a creator, and am taking what comes with a positive frame of mind. Stock for professional producers only works in volume not quality, now."