Why Successful Photographers Are Unhappy

Posted on 5/10/2007 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



May 10, 2007

    I recently did a brief survey of Getty photographers and wrote a story (943) entitled "Trends For Getty Photographers". In general the photographers who responded to the survey expressed a general level of frustration and dissatisfaction. After I published the story I received several more comments and one photographer supplied me with some very detailed information about what is happening in his business. This story outlines that information.

    The point should be made that while this story is about Getty, it is illustrative of what is happening to a significant portion of photographers with all agencies. Not only Getty, but every agent would be well advised to compare what they paid each of their photographers in 2004 with what was paid in 2006.
    For those photographers whose revenue rose also compare the number of images they had in play at the end of 2004 with what they had at the end of 2006. If a photographer's average RPI went down he's probably not too happy, even if revenue stayed the same or went up. This will give you a good indication of the photographers who are likely to be continued producers.

If the successful ones are unhappy, what about those who aren't as successful?

Some people working on the agency side of the business can't seem to understand why photographers making lots of money are unhappy.

Recently when I sent out an email asking Getty photographers if their royalties were going up or down I was immediately flooded with responses indicating a high level of dissatisfaction and frustration with 78% or respondents saying revenues were down compared to the same period in the previous year. (See Story 943 on my site.) Of the 22% who said revenue was flat or up, all but two had added a significant percentage of new images in 2006. 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.

After the survey was completed I got several more responses and one photographer gave me a very detailed explanation of what had been happening in his career. I would like to share this with you. This photographer is an aggressive producer and certainly one of the more successful photographers contributing images to Getty. I estimate that he is at least in the top 5% of all Getty photographers, and maybe higher.

He started contributing to Getty in 2001 and in 2004 had 250 images on the site and was earning royalties of about $120,000 a year. In 2005 he averaged about $20,000 a month boosting his annual revenue of $240,000. Sounds great! But he had images on Photonica and in the middle of 2005 he lost the Photonica revenue as it now became Getty revenue. Counting the additional images he added to Getty and the Photonica images he ended the year with 550 image on the Getty site. Thus, more than double the images earned him about double the revenue.

Once Photonica was made a part of Getty he saw an immediate 30% to 40% DROP in revenue from his images that had been on the site 2 years or more. If this were a race you could say he's running a lot faster and staying even.

But then he hit 2006. In the early part of the year his average monthly check was about $16,000. He added another 300 images in 2006 bringing his total to 850. Once the images had gone up they boosted his monthly average to about $20,000. But, by November, with all those additional images his monthly return was already falling and had dropped to about $17,000. In the first quarter of 2007 average returns per month were continuing to fall.

Let me graph what's happening:

Averge Return Per Image









Getty Overall Average

40% Photog. Share

This Photog Average













1H 2006




2H 2006








Getty's overall average return per image was calculated by counting the total number of images on the Creative section of the site in November of each year and dividing that into total revenue for the previous four quarters. It has been going down significantly. This photographer's revenue is well above the average, but it is dropping at about the same rate. And it is the drop that is the concern.

Yes, this photographer is making a lot of money, but his costs are going up too. And he must to put an increasing number of images into play just to stay even. He's finding that in order to produce those new images his costs have almost doubled in the last two years in spite of doing everything he can think of to cut his costs of operation and production. Part of this is natural inflation, part is that he has to travel more, use more expensive models and day-rate assistants instead of staff. In addition he is getting a lot less support from Getty and is expected to do more and more to prepare the images for submission than was the case two years ago. This means additional staff costs (as Getty cuts support staff).

This photographer, as is the case with most top producers, is supplying images to a number of brands. The average RPI with these brands is much lower than Getty. On the other hand some of them will accept a lot more images than Getty will accept. In addition they often offer active art direction, partial production support and back end post production raw processing. And they get the images online faster. All these things enable photographers to accept a lower RPI and still cover production costs and make some profit.

This photographer is still making it work, but he is also recognizing that he has to run faster and faster to attempt to stay even and he's not sure how long he can keep up the pace. In addition, he's not staying even.

This photographer's experience is not unique. I hear similar stories from lots of photographers. Most of them have been in the business for a long and a lot of them are looking for some other way to make a living.

It is hard for agents to have a clear understanding of the costs a photographer has to produce the images he delivers. At the very least, I would recommend that each agent have a clear understanding of how much revenue they are producing for each of their photographers, and the trends. Compare what each photographer received in 2004 with what he/she received in 2006. If that number is going down then they're not going to be producing much longer, if they haven't already stopped. If their revenue has gone up look at the number of images each of those photographers had on the site in 2004 compared to 2006 and calculate their average-return-per-image. If the average RPI is going down he/she may not continue to produce much longer. Your only happy photographers are going to be those few where the average RPI has been going up. My guess is that will be a very small percentage of your total contributors. Interestingly, one of the reasons many micropayment photographers are happy is that their average RPI has been going up - admittedly from a very, very low base. But the trend is in the right direction and that gives them reason to hope.

Looking ahead, there will be many fewer photographers whose aim it is to earn a living producing stock images. A larger and larger share of the images used will be produced for purposes other than earning money. Earning money will become less and less of a motivating factor for photographers who make their pictures available as stock. Agents will find that a higher percentage of the photos they receive are outtakes from other projects rather than being shot specifically for stock. The vast majority of professional photographers will be forced to focus on productions where they can get upfront income, and from which they can later put some of the images into stock. To a great extent professional stock photography will go back to what most of it was in the '70s and '80s -- outtakes from assignments.

Copyright © 2007 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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