Competing With Amateurs

Posted on 6/6/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

In two recent stories Know Your Return-Per-Image and Stock Photo Production Costs I discussed two very important issues for anyone trying to earn a portion of their living from stock image production.

The issues boil down to (1) clearly understanding the cost of producing your images and (2) the return you’re receiving from sales of those images. No business can survive if it spends more to produce its products than it earns from sales.

There was a time when virtually all stock images were produced by individuals trying to earn a substantial portion of their living from those images. In the past decade that has changed dramatically. Now, a very high percentage of stock images producers are part-time amateurs who earn very little for their efforts. From an economic point of view, creating stock photos has become a losing activity for most producers.

But, amateurs are happy to spend money to pursue this enjoyable hobby. In addition, they receive personal satisfaction when a customer actually uses one of their images.

Technological developments in the last two decades, or so, have made it easier and easier for amateurs to compete with professionals and make their images easily available to customers who might want to use them. The quality of amateur produced images is often equal to and sometimes better than images produced by professionals. But, the huge over supply, and the willingness of amateurs to make their images available for prices below cost, has driven prices down to the point where very few photographers are able to earn a profit from the images they produce.

Many amateurs take pictures of their friends or family and things that occur in front of them in their daily lives. Seldom do they plan or organize a shoot unless the activity involved is something they would do anyway, regardless of what the situation might generate in the way of images or revenue.

It might be argued that these amateur photographers have no cost-of-production, particularly if they are using their phone to take the pictures. A significant amount of post production time may be involved including the adjusting and color correcting the digital files, removing brand identifiers, keywording, gathering releases of people and uploading the images to a stock agency. But, for the most part this work requires very little out of pocket expense, just time. On the other hand, these photographers could be doing something else more enjoyable with their time.

Thus, if these people can earn a $1.00 or so, per-image, per-year, it’s all profit. It may not be much, but maybe enough to go to a nice restaurant a few times a year. And, they have the personal satisfaction of knowing that someone liked their image enough to pay a little something to use it.

The increasing shift from professionals to amateurs is not likely to change. There is no reason why the amateurs should or will stop doing what they enjoy. Even if there were some way to shut out the amateurs (which there isn’t) a high percentage of former customers are now capable of easily producing many of the images they need -- or finding free images -- rather than paying for those produced by professionals.

If these amateurs can produce everything customers need, at no cost to the photographer, then there is no way people looking to earn a portion of their living by producing stock images can ever compete. Those trying to hang onto a career need to accept the realities of this marketplace.

What Are Some Of These Realities?

1 – Clearly when the AVERAGE Shutterstock contributor has 680 images in the collection and earns around $600 a year a huge percentage of photographers are not earning enough from their efforts to make stock photo production a viable business. What we don’t know is the percentage of photographers who actually earn enough to consider stock photography a viable business.

A few photographers have a significant multiple of images licensed annually compared to their images in the collection, but for most it takes a very large multiples to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of production in a reasonable period of time.

2 - When iStock was supplying more details about sales I was able to determine that the top 430 contributors out of over 100,000 had produced more than one-third of the images in the iStock collection. I estimate that their work generated well above 50% of iStock revenue in 2015.

If top producers begin to disappear it seems likely that the agencies will not have sufficient supply of the type of imagery their customers want to buy.

3 – To produce effectively at today’s prices professionals need more detailed information about the images that are actually selling, and how frequently, in order to focus their efforts on producing more of the subjects in demand. However, neither contributors nor agencies want to share that information for fear that it will give others a competitive advantage in knowing what to produce more of. As a result, everyone loses.

4 - Usage fees are so low that it is impossible for many experienced producers to cover costs.
At the prices charged in 2006 professionals could afford to produce a lot of images that were licensed only once, or not at all and still earn a reasonable return on their overall investment.
If all images must be offered at the same price – regardless of the cost of production – then image creators can no longer afford to waste time and resources for which there is little demand. They must focus on high demand subject matter. In order to do that they must have better and more detailed information about actual demand.

5 – Agencies don’t want to raise prices on popular images for fear competitors would then know more about what is popular. Also see.

Many customers would be willing to pay more (often quite a bit more) for the images they need, particularly if there were a better system for separating the “wheat from the chaff” making it easier for those customers with a reasonable budget to quickly find the images in greatest demand .

6 – None of the major agencies are prepared to risk raising prices for fear the others won’t follow and customers will turn to their competitors. See Can Getty Raise Prices?

7 –  Stock agencies have never been concerned about production costs. As a result, they make no effort to determine whether planned shoots, that tend to be costly to produce, generate more sales and more revenue than the “real life, catch as catch can” images being supplied by amateurs.

If images that are costly to produce generate a huge percentage of agency revenue -- as I believe is the case -- agencies run the risk of not having the images their customers need when image creators can no longer afford to produce. This laissez faire attitude toward supplying  serious producers with the information they need to operate more efficiently may eventually hurt the agencies. The longer they wait to recognize this, the harder it will be to fix.

Agencies may soon discover that many of their major suppliers have given up producing because they no longer feel a need to consistently lose money in order to subsidize customers and agencies.

8 - Serious producers are often hampered by a lack of information as to what is really in demand. The information supplied to producers about their own production is often in a format that is very difficult to analyze. The lack of more detailed information about agency sales overall makes it very difficult for professional photographers to work efficiently.

9 – Given the huge oversupply of images the useful life of the average image appears to be getting shorter and shorter. While useful life analysis of the best selling images is difficult, no one appears to be making any effort to determine the trends and the long range impact this might have on the stock photography business.

Also see: Two Categories Of Image Suppliers      1/8/2018

Copyright © 2018 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:  


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