Top Pros Stop Shooting

Posted on 8/13/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (6)

Many rights-managed and traditional royalty-free production companies are having trouble finding photographers willing to shoot for them. Many of the photographers who were rights-managed and traditional royalty-free stars five to ten years ago have given up shooting stock, or at the very least dramatically cut the number of images they produce and the amount they are willing to spend production.

Some companies are offering incentives to their existing stable of photographers if they introduce a new photographer to the organization who becomes an active contributor. Others are offering their most productive shooters a higher royalty share in the hopes that they will plow the extra royalties back into producing more images—just like the old days.

Monthly royalty checks have declined to the point where many photographers feel it no longer makes economic sense to risk the upfront investment required to produce marketable images. It is hard to find anyone who will produce as many images for rights-managed and traditional royalty-free licensing as they did in 2007 or 2008. If photographers can find a subject that has no cost in terms of props or models, they might shoot it, but even that requires an investment of time.

Given the way the business seems to be headed, most photographers feel it is better to spend their time looking for ways to earn money that provide a surer guarantee of a reasonable, and more timely, return on investment.

A photographer—who most would consider to be among the most successful in the industry today—spent between $7,000 and $8,000, not counting his time, producing several shoots in June 2009. Over 300 images were accepted by his agency. Earlier this month, he received his first quarterly check for the use of those images. It was less than $1,000. At that rate, perhaps in another year or so, if prices don’t drop further, he’ll make his investment back and maybe earn a little for his time. We cannot call that “profit,” because that will really be just paying himself a minimal salary for the time invested and the use of his capital; profit should be over and above a basic living wage.

Three or four years ago, Getty Images began doing lots of wholly owned production shoots, because its contributors were not supplying imagery its data showed was in high demand. The company’s art directors planned and organized shoots and hired the most experienced and successful stock shooters to do the work. The photographers were paid a flat fee, with no royalties, for unlimited exclusive rights to their work.

After about a year, Getty abandoned the project. Rumor has it, the imagery produced did not generate enough of a return, in a reasonable time period, to offset production costs.

Getty went back to encouraging photographers to produce more and shoulder all the production expenses themselves. That did not work all that well. All this occurred before the recession hit and Getty lowered its prices by an average of 30% to 40% in order to maintain previous sales volume. This, of course, did not improve photographer royalties. Somehow, during all of this, the cost of producing images did not decline at all. Photographers who were trying to earn their entire living from producing stock images were forced to re-evaluate.

When those who had been Getty’s main source of imagery no longer contributed the volume of material the company thought it needed, Getty went looking for other sources. Viola, there was Flickr. The nice thing about most Flickr images is that the photographers are not taking pictures to earn a living. They are happy with a little money for their work, even if it does not cover cost of production. They were not expecting to get anything anyway.

Yet given the way Getty originally set up its relationship with Flickr, the Seattle company still had costs. It had to edit the work and make sure the keywording was satisfactory. That may have been too costly given the return from sales, so the next step was to eliminate the costs of editing and keywording, and let Flickr host the images. All a Flickr photographer has to do now is put a notice alongside his or her Flickr images that basically says, “if you are interested in buying this image, call Getty.” 

Brick walls

Many readers will dislike this story because it is so negative. It is one thing to tenaciously stick to your principles and the way you have always done things, but it is another to recognize when you are facing a brick wall. I am not saying everyone should give up; I do not believe in no-win scenarios. But when you’re facing a brick wall, rather than banging your head against it in continual frustration, it may be better to look for a way around it that will allow you to achieve most of what you want and be happy.

Here are a few questions that may help in finding a new path:

  • Do you want the security of a staff position?
  • Do you want the flexibility of a freelancer?
  • Do you enjoy most of the non-photographic things that are involved in managing and operating a business?
  • Do you want to take pictures of what you want, when you want?
  • Do you care what the subject is as long as you’re taking pictures and satisfying a customer’s need for reasonable compensation?
  • Do you like solving the technical problems that arise when you’re asked to photograph something you’ve never done before?
  • Is there a particular subject you want to photograph? Are you really more interested in the subject than taking photographs?
  • Do you enjoy working with computers?
  • Do you enjoy meeting new people? Are you good in social situations?
  • Do you love dealing with brides?
  • Do you want to the maximum revenue you can earn for a minimum amount of work?
  • Do you want more time with your family?
  • Do you want a comfortable retirement?
  • Do you want to retire young?
  • Do you want to be recognized by your peers as a great photographer?
  • Is it more important to be recognized as a great photographer or artist than to earn money from your efforts?

Brick walls are there for a reason. They show us how bad we want something.

Copyright © 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:  


  • Mary Kate Denny Posted Aug 14, 2010
    Good article and right on. It is what we know the business to be now.
    The quote "Only those who risk going too far know how far they can go" applies, but to use common sense at this point is important if you want to make a living.
    It is necessary to think outside of the box and find new ways.
    Your questions should be sent to incoming photographers for reality check.
    MK Denny

  • Jagdish Agarwal Posted Aug 14, 2010
    How right you are. We also did a shoot, two years ago, for one of the top agencies. The art director flew down from USA to India. We spent about US$4000 and over 150 images were selected. But till to-day, we have not even received US$500 from stock sales.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Aug 14, 2010
    Golly, Jim, I must be doing something wrong! (or right) As you know, I still shoot all the time AND ONLY RIGHTS MANAGED. And I am NOT with Getty.

    But I shoot as much as I have in many other years and do quite well. Not as much as in stock's heyday, but still plenty for me. You know the numbers because you & I have talked. I still travel (expensive I guess you would say) but they still sell well in RM.

    What am I saying? Well, you can NOT be all "gloom & doom". The problem for most photographers is that they submit to RF and Microstock. Then I agree.... YOU CAN NOT MAKE A LIVING IN MICROSTOCK!!!

    I hope you will help beginners by leading them AWAY from Microstock rather than telling them to do a little of everything like you often do. Selling pics for $2 and making less than $1 each is really discouraging to any photographer.

    There is still money to be made with the right images, with the right agencies, and in Rights Managed Only. I have many people who read my newest book and are doing well shooting great stuff and knowing how to do all the things needed.

  • Scott Barrow Posted Aug 14, 2010
    Hi Jim,

    I have to agree with Bill Bachmann. I have the greatest respect for you and have since I first went to a seminar of yours in DC in 1975. However, I have stopped reading your posts several times over the last 5 years because they were just too depressing. Too often the message is "gloom and doom." The focus is on the big players who are the cause of the downward spiral of pricing. That said, our stock agencies are a valuable element of our businesses and we need to appreciate their efforts as well as encourage the hiring of motivated sales people, not just order takers. We also must give them permission to say "no" sometimes in order to keep pricing reasonable. Photographers need to remember that it is their creativity and effort that makes the whole stock engine possible. By shooting photographs that express our views and interests and then making the marketing of them part of our personal business plans we can reestablish our individuality. I not interested in being an interchangeable part of the stock commodity business. Currently I am in the process of rebuilding my own stock site and see the marketing challenge as just another part of building my own brand. My hat is off to Jim Erickson for his energy and style along these lines. You, Jim Pickerell are THE stock photo guru. We could use your help and insights on how to carve out or reclaim the market segment that wants to work directly with photographers in order to find the freshest and most creative images possible. You did that in the '90s with Stock Connection followed by Ari Kopelman with Direct Stock. We need a new approach and you could be a major help. Marketing our own work could make the whole process fun again. And as we should all remember, we got into this business because photography is all about fun.

  • John Harris Posted Aug 16, 2010
    Better to recognize the consequences of the price/volume model even if the reality is "depressing". Picture researchers tell me it is harder to find a decent picture now than it was 10 years ago - so the qualitative effects may now be creating opportunity.

  • Robert Henson Posted Aug 16, 2010

    Yesterday I had a very long conversation with one of our veteran photographers. He's been in the business for over 20 years. He said "sales are down, but man, not sure why all the doom and gloom, I still make a great living -- not as much as a couple of years ago -- but I'm just fine." Of course, everyone has their own perspective on what "making a living" means. This shooter has content in RF and RM collections and he creates imagery that continues to be in high demand. He does a lot with image compositing, he keeps his overhead low, but he produces new content every month for Blend Images and Getty as well as a few smaller agencies. Based purely on extrapolation and conjecture, I estimate he brings in north of $500k in stock sales per annum.

    Let's be careful not to conflate one of the deepest recessions in history with the advent of micro-stock / flickr / subscription. Blend had its largest gross sales month in October of 2008. November of 2008, sales dropped substantially. It wasn't subtle. And we weren’t alone. It would be a stretch to believe that suddenly the entire world of art-buyers discovered iStockphoto on the same day. Not coincidentally, the sales drop was perfectly in sync with the wholesale destruction of the financial markets. Basically, everyone stopped spending on marketing overnight. Since this time, we've had up months and down, but our sales were off about 20% in 2009. They will be marginally higher this year. I do accept that there is too much fungible, easy to produce content in the market, and that iStock has essentially single-handedly force a price correction that was bound to happen as technology allowed for much lower barrier to entry for content creators. Now, more than ever, it’s hard to generalize about our industry. There are many, many, stock shooters who have seen the low-hanging fruit from which they relied for most of their sales, disappear. There were too many photographers, shooting the same subjects, over and over again the same way. It turns out, that a lot of that of ‘classic’ stock shots are very easy to produce (something we all knew but perhaps left unsaid.) But we all did it, and we all made a lot of money doing it. That business model was fun while it lasted. Frankly, I still get checks every month from shots that are 15 years old – love that. (In your example above, earning $1,000 the first quarter the shots are generating revenue is a decent start - how much will that $8k earn for this photographer over 15 years? I imagine it will be a great investment.) It amazes me when I analyze our sales data just how far and away some shooters generate per image returns compared to others. There are qualitative differences between stock photographers. It's difficult to approach "stock shooters" as a single homogeneous group. Just as it is important not to think of "the stock industry" as it was 10 years ago -- with so much media/content available, worldwide, instantly with increasingly diverse licensing models, it's difficult to define. Blend's revenue mix continues to evolve and change. We have new "products" coming out this year - including HD motion, and content for subscription and other lower price/high-volume models. Not all content will perform well in every licensing model and not every photographer will be successful in re-engineering to engage successfully with the complex world of image licensing we live in today.

    Rick Becker-Leckrone, CEO, Blend Images

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