Pros Stop Shooting: Point/Counterpoint

Posted on 8/24/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Top Pros Stop Shooting” received an unusual number of comments, most of which disagreed with the opinion presented in the article. Since some of you may have missed these, here they are—along with an editorial response.

Comments have not been edited.

Mary Kate Denny

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 a reality check.

Jagdish Agarwal

 Jim, 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

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

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

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.

Rick Becker-Leckrone

Jim, 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 forced 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.

Jim Pickerell: Round 2

I certainly acknowledge that there is a lot of what can be referred to as “doom and gloom” in my stories. I wish I could find more positive things to say about the industry, but stock photography is not the business it was in the 90s and it never will be again. Change happens. Sometimes, it is very disruptive. I am trying to help my readers understand what they need to do to move ahead in life, which will be quite different from what worked successfully for many in the past.

Stock photography is about selling volume, not creating the most artistic image that may sell once, or not at all because it is so unique that it doesn’t exactly fit the needs of any customer. Back in the 90s, there were relatively few images available on any subject, so photographers had a chance to make multiple sales at relatively high prices. Since then, the number of rights-managed images licensed annually hasn’t grown, but thanks to digital technology, customers now have many more choices. Even for the best photographers, this dramatically reduces the odds that any one of their images, no matter how good or how creative, will be licensed.

Traditionally, most stock photography was licensed for print use. There is a decline in the number of printed products as well as the number of pages in most publication. The new and growing ways to get information are the Internet, iPads and mobile devices. These new customers need pictures, but the prices they are willing to pay for the images they need for these uses are a tenth of less of what they used to pay to reach the same number of consumers. If might be nice if everyone who sells pictures would charge ten times as much, and if we could make it impossible for people steal or give their pictures away, but these things are not going to happen. It would also be nice if we had world peace, which is about as likely.

The availability of microstock imagery has forever changed the landscape. Initially, microstock images were sold at ridiculously low prices, but in less than five years the average microstock price has increased somewhere between 500% and 800%. Microstock prices are still too low given the cost of producing images, but at least they are still going up. Meanwhile, traditional sellers have dropped their prices dramatically in an effort to hang onto their customers. This was not by choice; customers would go somewhere else to get the images if traditionals didn’t adjust. The little bit of good news is that, for the most part, the traditional sellers have been successful in keeping their customers at these lower price points. They are still licensing rights to about the same number of images as they were four or five years ago.

Some like to place the blame for the industry’s problems on the recession and argue that everything will get better once the economy improves. I am not conflating the recession with the advent of microstock. Microstock and its impact were occurring long before the recession. In fact, microstock has also seen some decline in its rate of growth since the recession arrived. Microstock has grown because it started out being significantly cheaper and now provides images of equal and sometimes better quality given what the customers want. In addition, the microstock process of searching for images and transacting the sale offer the customer more flexibility and convenience than is the case with traditional seller sites.

The other thing that is changing independently from the recession is the demand for printed products. This has had, and will continue to have, a severe impact on the traditional business which is so heavily dependent on its images being used in print. The world is on track to move away from print uses and more toward electronic. Traditional sellers are not prepared to price their images for small uses on the Internet or to market to those buyers. This paradigm shift has very little to do with the poor economy and will not change when the economy improves.

There is no way to put a good face on these facts. Sure, a few photographers who have been in the business for a lot of years and have large collections can live off a few hundred thousand in annual sales even if their gross revenue is down 50% or more from what it was in their heyday. But there are fewer and fewer of them left.

The key to success now is to (1) design shoots that cost no money to produce, but which (2) generate unique images that aren’t similar to those already done in abundance by someone else, and the images must also (3) be in high demand by customers so when they are licensed individually for low prices the combined total sales will generate enough revenue to make the effort worth the trouble. Meeting all three of these requirements is almost impossible, but going forward the photographer who wants to earn enough from producing stock images alone to support himself and his family will have to be able to do this on a consistent basis.

Some people say that a rising demand for imagery will solve the problem. But there is no indication that there has been any increase in demand for rights-managed or traditionally priced royalty-free imagery in the last few years. In addition, there are indications from iStockphoto’s numbers that the demand for microstock is leveling out, admittedly at a much higher level than the traditional business, but leveling nonetheless.

In theory, traditional sellers could take some market share away from microstock, but it is hard to convince customers to pay more for something when they can get an equally good solution to their problem at a much lower price. Besides, traditional sellers haven’t figured out how to let the microstock customers know they exist. They have lowered their prices, but they are not selling any more units than they were four or five years ago. They are giving their regular customers better deals but are not picking up new customers in any meaningful numbers.

Microstock sellers have discovered a market for imagery that annually buys (forget about all the images that are being stolen or used for free) about 100 times as many images as are licensed as rights-managed. Granted these customers are usually licensing the uses for very low prices, but this is where the market is headed. We’re not going to change that trend by wishing it would go away. We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. We’re not going to reverse it. That leaves us with a conundrum. In this new environment is it possible to focus exclusively on producing stock images and have a successful career? If not, then the photographer must find some other revenue source for the bulk of his income needs and look at stock photography as a part-time, supplementary source of income.  

Many photographers are quite happy operating in that manner. They might not get to spend as much time taking pictures as they would like, but they are not living on the edge or starving economically. 

Back in 1975, everyone in the industry was saying, “Don’t shoot on speculation.” Re-sell outtakes from assignments where the production costs have been paid for by someone else, but don’t make an upfront investment of time and money without being sure of receiving adequate compensation for your efforts. Of course, at that time demand was much greater than supply and speculative shooting worked very well for many photographers. But, that’s not the world today or going forward.

Bill Bachmann’s often repeated claim that you can’t make a living in microstock simply isn’t factual. A lot of photographers are making a living shooting microstock. In fact, I believe statistics demonstrate that there are more microstock sellers than rights-managed sellers earning over $100,000 in royalties annually. In fact, better statistics are available on microstock sellers than rights-managed, because most rights-managed sellers are embarrassed to divulge what they are really earning. Granted, the microstock number is a smaller percentage of the total of those making their images available for sale as microstock. Also, given the way the images are marketed and royalties are calculated, the early microstock adopters have tremendous advantages over those just starting out. But in the rights-managed arena, those who have been in the business for a number of years and built large archives have a similar advantage over newcomers. 

We do a great disservice to photographers when we encourage those just getting into the business to think they can build a career around shooting stock images exclusively if they will only license them at rights-managed prices. Earning a good income from stock photography simply won’t happen that way.

If they want a career in photography, they are going to have to do something else in photography in addition to producing stock images. They had better develop a strategy from the beginning that includes some other income producing work in addition to licensing rights to stock images.

Scott says, “We also must give them (agents) permission to say "no" sometimes in order to keep pricing reasonable.” No photographer I know of is telling their agent that they must make sales no matter what the price. Most are telling them to hold the line on pricing. But the agencies are caught in a dilemma. They are trying to keep their customers coming back rather than going to microstock.

“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,” contends Scott Barrow. Stock photography is not about establishing your individuality. Shoot fine art, if that is what you want to do; stock is about understanding what customers want and delivering it. Photographers certainly can express their views and interests and establish their individuality, but if they want to sell stock photos their views, interests and individuality had better be in sync with what customers want to buy. There is a difference between fine art photography and stock and the way it is marketed. Those getting into the business need to clearly understand such differences.

There will always be a few exceptions, but any photographer starting out who seriously wants a career in photography should begin by doing some non-stock related work and building a client base for that work. Shoot stock as a sideline and only go into it full time when the revenue generated from the sideline becomes so great that you can support yourself, your family and your retirement goals. This is another place where the microstock business works to the photographer’s advantage. With microstock once the images have been submitted they are usually accepted or rejected within a couple weeks and immediately uploaded to the site. Almost immediately the photographer begins to get sales data and can determine whether the particular subject matter is likely to be successful. With RM, it often takes two years before the photographer gets any real indications. 

Earlier this week, I was talking to a successful stock agent who is in regular contact with lots of image buyers. What these buyers are telling him is that while Getty Images used to be the first place to go to get images, now the first place they go is iStockphoto.

Barrow mentioned Jim Erickson, but a big part of Erickson’s stock success comes from the relationships he has built with his assignment clients. He has built a strong assignment business and those clients not only use his stock, but also recommend him to others who need stock. He is also aggressive in his personal marketing. In the future, it will not be enough to produce great images, or to have a good agency representing your work. Photographers will need to build and effectively market their personal brand.

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:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Aug 24, 2010
    Times are tougher now, Jim, but you still tend to think that everyone should start by sending images to Microstock for a few dollars. You justify that in ways that make no sense.

    I do agree that beginners (and intermediate) photographers would be wise to have other areas of photography to make money as they start out. That could be editorial, wedding, portraits, commercial. I agree 100% with you there. BUT WHY do you always say then "throw some into Microstock" right away and learn how to shoot??

    Jim, I have NEVER heard you remind these photographers that IF they send them to Microstock (or RF) they can NEVER retrieve them again EVER and sell for more money in RM. You have NEVER stressed to your audience that important problem in the future!! So later, when they perhaps become more successful, they can NOT GET THEM EVER OUT OF ONE DOLLAR SALES MICROSTOCK SYSTEM! That could well hurt them horribly to have all that material forever in the discount rack!! Many of those images could sell for years & years. Surely many of mine do.

    I, fortunately, have many clients that DO NOT WANT TO GET A CHEAP IMAGE TO RUN THEIR CAMPAIGN WITH!! They want something that everyone else is not using in Microstock to set them apart. Yes, real small images in brochures work well with cheap images.... but not anything that you want to set apart from the masses.

    Your "gloom & doom" may apply to your vision, Jim, but many of us are living examples of making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in selling the RIGHT way and not with your gloomy predictions! In the last 25 years, I have made well over a million a year in stock sales in most of those years.... I must be doing something "wrong" in your thinking.

    I still give two-day lectures around the country in PPA & ASMP Chapters on the way to be SUCCESSFUL in stock. My newest book also tells photographers how to do it correctly. I get letters and visit many people who have heard me by attending a seminar of mine, or have read my book "Remember The Joy", and they are success stories! I find great joy in that and they must not be listening to your thinking that they must sell cheaply in Microstock. They, like me, take pride in sales that are large and worhty of the images they have produced. They don't buy itno your idea of "don't shoot anything that takes too much time because you must get them out cheaply because they sell cheaply".

    So, Jim, it is not "CHEAP OR NOTHING", believe me!! We do agree on some things, my friend, but we do not agree that you should START by giving everything away cheap so you can see trends!!! PERIOD!

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