Going Pro: Image Oversupply

Posted on 8/2/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

The "Going Pro" series
State of the Internet Market
State of the Print Market
Photography as a Career
Photographers should be aware of the number of images already in online databases and recognize that any images they produce will be competing against those that already exist.

In 2009, ImageShack had 20 billion images; Facebook had about 15 billion. In February 2010, it was reported that over 2.5 billion photos were being added to Facebook each month. News Corp.’s Photobucket currently has more than 8.2 billion photos; Yahoo!’s Flickr is in fourth place with over 4 billion.

While the images on the first three are mostly shot by individuals for their personal use and have very little value to anyone else, many of the Flickr images are available for various types of commercial use. About 135 million are available for free use under Creative Commons licenses. Of this number, approximately 35 million are restricted to non-commercial use only, leaving only 100 million available for unlimited free use. Google indexes the Flickr site. As microstock prices rise, some customers who have been paying for images may turn to free sources like Flickr.

Often Flickr images are not keyworded effectively, which can make customer search time consuming and difficult, but as Getty does more to promote Flickr sales many photographers are likely to improve their keywording. Do not be deceived into thinking all the images on Flickr are of poor quality. There are plenty of fine images, and professional buyers are using them every day. Flickr photographer Todd Klassy earned more than $20,000 in 2009 and licensed rights to one image for advertising use for $10,000.

However, those interested in a freelance photography career should be most concerned about the images on sites that are specifically designed for the purpose of licensing rights to end users. These images have been keyworded, model released when necessary, and for the most part subjected to an editing process that winnows out duplicates and images of lower quality. The following provides a breakdown of the number of images in a few of the larger and most popular collections as of May 2010.

Microstock market

Microstock distributors license rights to images at very low—micro—prices. There are four major distributors in this category. The costs to use these images vary depending on file size and most are in the $1.00 to $40.00 range with the average price per image file downloaded being between $6.00 to $10.00. In many cases the same images are on all four sites, and many others as well, so we can’t just total these four numbers to determine the number of unique images. My estimate is that there is something in the range of 20 million unique images on these four sites.

Table 1. Top microstock distributors: Collection size
Agency Collection (images)
iStockphoto 6,837,000
Shutterstock 11,332,581
Fotolia 9,056,403
Dreamstime 8,556,710
Another interesting factor concerning supply is that there are 230,299 photographers and graphic artists contributing to Shutterstock alone. My guess is that there are over 300,000 photographers continually adding images to these four microstock sites.

However, a very small percentage of the images make most of the sales. In the case of iStock about 8% of the images in the collection belong to the top 200 out of more than 100,000 image producers. The images from those 200 producers generated more than 29% of total revenue in Q2 2010.

Traditional market

Traditional agencies and distributors license rights at higher prices than microstock and use two different strategies for establishing prices. The oldest system is rights-managed (RM) where the price is based on how the image will be used. The other model, developed in the early 1990s, is royalty-free (RF). In this case the price is based on the file size delivered. Usually the customer has unlimited rights to use the RF image files purchased. Currently, most agencies and distributors offer images using both pricing models. However, when the photographer submits an image to a distributor for licensing he must designate the licensing model and from then on the image must always be licensed using that model.

The following are my estimates of the number of unique RM and RF images (not available in one of the other collections on the list) that are available for licensing through a few of the larger distributors that license images for traditional commercial and editorial uses.

See Table 2 for the inventories of some of the largest traditional distributors.

Table 2. Top traditional distributors: Collection size
Agency Collection (images)
Alamy 18,960,000
Newscom 15,000,000
Getty (creative) 2,500,000
Getty (editorial) 6,000,000
Corbis (creative) 1,000,000
Corbis (editorial) >3,000,000
Associated Press 6,000,000
Reuters 5,000,000
DPA, Germany 7,500,000
Bloomberg 290,000
Total 87,250,000
On top of this we must consider all the smaller collections not also distributed by one or more of these larger distributors. That number is hard to estimate, but an additional 30 to 50 million unique images is probably in the ballpark. All of the 150 million or so images itemized above are digital files available in online databases for immediate research, download and use by potential customers.

An interesting historical sidelight is that back in the early 2000s after Getty Images and Corbis had made a series of major acquisitions, both companies claimed they each had 70 million images in their collections. The major difference is that at that time the images were mostly film, not scanned, and in many cases not tightly edited. The only way to locate a specific image from among this 140 million was through laborious manual research. No one requests manual research today and only a tiny fraction of this 140 million were ever scanned and keyworded. Thus, most customers searching through digital files today will never find, or even know of the existence, of most of those images from a decade or more ago.

Why should you care?

Some people argue that the number of images already in file is unimportant because something different will always be needed and there is no way to estimate the number of images that will be needed in the future. However, that does not mean that if you do your very best to produce the images you love that you will be rewarded economically. You may simply contribute to the oversupply without producing much that anyone wants to buy.

Long range, there may be no way to estimate the number of images of any particular subject matter that will be needed. But there are many ways to engage in the activity of professional photography. If your goal is to earn a living (my definition of being a professional) it is better to examine the various options and the current trends and make judgments about how to spend your time most productively.

There may be very little demand for the kind of image you most enjoy producing. If that is the case then you will need to decide whether to pursue your art and your dream regardless of the cost, or to pursue a different aspect of the photography business, or something else entirely. You can always pursue your art as a hobby, but recognize it for what it is if your goal is to earn a living. A different approach to the business of photography may provide you with slightly less satisfaction as an image creator, but offer a better overall quality of life outside of work.

The purpose of this series is not to tell you what to do, but to provide you with data that will help you make educated decisions about your future. Maybe someone will discover a new use for still images and maybe a new market will develop, but there is no indication on the horizon that such a market for still images will ever exist. Until such a new market is identified it may be best to build a business plan based on the market that exists.

Some customers will always want something different. That’s fine if the customer is willing to pay enough to cover the cost of producing the image. But the stock photographer who is producing images on speculation at his own cost and risk must determine whether there will be enough future demand for the images he produces to cover his costs of production. For the freelance stock photographer being aware of existing supply and assessing future demand is a critical issue.

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 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.  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Aug 2, 2010
    Great images will always sell.... but don't sell them fo Microstock. Sell them RM and you will make some serious money!


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