Cutting Out The Middleman

Posted on 12/18/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (5)

As fewer and fewer stock photographers earn enough from the licensing of their photos to justify continued production, some suggest that instead of letting stock agencies pay them 20% to 30% of the small gross fees collected to use their images, they should sell their images directly to customers. In this way they would get higher prices and keep 100% of what the customer pays.

On reader asked, “Why don't you write something about how individuals could "re-track" and sell images themselves, keeping 100 percent with zero for the'd do a real service if you could...”

While sticking with the stock agencies may not be a satisfactory answer, going it alone also has problems.

The first step, of course, is setting up your own site where customers can view your work. There are companies like that will help with this. However, once you have a website with a few hundred photos, how will potential users find your site?

You may have a list of a few organizations that use the kind of work you produce. You’ll need to find email addresses for the people within those organizations who do the purchasing of  photos. Then you’ll need to regularly send them email’s to remind them who you are and the kind of work you do. You’ll probably need to send them sample pictures so they can see exactly what you do.

There is a big question as to how often you should send such emails. Many image buyers are so swamped with emails that they delete almost everything without reviewing it if the email doesn’t come from someone with whom they already have a working relationship. Certainly, getting emails too frequently may be a turn off.

When potential customers need a photo will they search several individual web sites, or do a blanket Google searches. If they do use Google will your images be the ones Google delivers? With any keyword search Google delivers about 1,000 images out of the hundreds of thousands their algorithm probably found. How do you get your images into that top thousand?

You could pay for Google ad words. That might generate some interest if you have high quality work in a targeted specialty, but it is hard to predict how much that might cost and how many image you might need to license just to cover your advertising cost. One thing to keep in mind if you decide to go the ad words route is that Shutterstock spends about $150 million a year on advertising and marketing. A significant percent of that is spent on ad words. So if someone is searching for an image to use in their project there is a good chance an image from Shutterstock will be shown long before yours.

In 2018 this advertising helped Shutterstock license rights to about !75 million images. However, in the last 3 years they have seen very little growth in the number of images licensed annually despite spending roughly the same amounts in advertising and promotion every year.
Demand is not growing.

Another thing to consider if you’re emailing pictures or posting them on Facebook, Instagram or other websites is whether you should watermark them. If you don’t watermark they may get used without credit or compensation. On the other hand, a watermark may distract from the power of the image.


Suppose a customer wants one of your images. How do you establish a price for your work? You know what it cost to produce the image. You have a rough idea of how many images you’ll be able to license annually and how much profit you need to earn in order to justify continued production of new images. That should help you establish a price-per-single-usage. But the customer may not want to pay anywhere near that much. There are probably a lot of other similar photos easily available to the customer for much lower prices.

One pricing guide that many professional photographers have used for almost two decades is Cradoc fotoSoftware. However, the vast majority of today’s customers aren’t willing to pay these prices unless they really need the specific image, and there is no reasonable substitute to be found anywhere.

In 2016 Petapixel published some price suggestions, but in many cases they may not be high enough unless the photographer can generate a huge number of sales.

Another option is to go to the stock agency websites and check out what they are charging. However, the reason you decided to sell directly and not use the stock agencies is that even if you were to be able to keep 100% of what they charge in most cases that would still not cover the costs of producing the images. If you check out pricing on the Getty Images website some of it will seem reasonable, but Getty usually offer huge discounts to the listed prices.

Getting Paid

Once you’ve settled on a price with a customer you might upload a hi-res digital file and expect the customer to send you a check. Most customers don’t want to be bothered with the administrative hassle of making separate payments each time they need a new image. That’s why they like the subscription and Premium Access deals the stock agencies offer. They can make one payment a month and then download many images from many different photographers until their subscription runs out.

In addition, they usually know that each photo will cost the same regardless of subject matter, or who created the photo. If they go to individual photographer’s for the images they need everyone will be charging something different.

A very high percentage of photos are purchased via subscriptions. For this reason alone it will be very difficult to get most customers, particularly the big users, to turn away from the large agencies that offer subscription deals and a variety of imagery from tens of thousands of different creators.

More on a possible solution to this dilemma later.

Assuming that your customers would be willing to make a separate transaction for each individual use, most would prefer to use a credit card. You could set up a Pay Pal account that will enable customers to pay by credit card, but that will cost you $30 a month, plus a percent of each transaction.

In China, WeChat Pat and Alipay have developed a pay-by-phone systems using QR codes that enable virtually all small businesses to accept instant payments from anyone who has a phone. Eventually, such systems will undoubtedly make it easier for individual photographers to receive payments directly from customers, but currently that is not anywhere near as widely available in the Western world as in China. In addition, when the West decides to adopt this strategy it will likely be resisted by the banking community.

Completing Transactions 24/7

For stock photographers most of the transactions do not take place in your local community or even in your own country. Only about 30% of the images licensed worldwide are licensed in the U.S. The percentage of uses in other countries is even less. Thus, if you hope to maximize sales worldwide, you will probably need to be able to respond to customers, agree on a price and deliver the image 24/7 anywhere in the world.

Customers usually have very tight deadlines. If you are out producing new images, or doing something else, you may not be able to respond in a timely manner when the customer needs the image. That is sure to quickly turn them off.

Thus, you will probably need a system of fixed prices for various types of uses and a way to automatically deliver the hi-res image immediately after proper payment has been credited to your account. This will require a much more complicated search and delivery system than just building a simple website where your images can be viewed.

Solving The Subscription Dilemma

What is needed to replace the efficiencies of the stock agency system in the eyes of customers is a one-stop site where many photographers could place hi-res versions of their images. Then customers would still have only one place to go to find a broad cross section of images from many photographers. Each photographer would also need to be able to establish his or her own prices for the work.

When uploading images, it should be possible for each photographer to stipulate a set of fixed prices for various types of uses. To make it easier a few standard price lists might be supplied for new contributors to choose from. The photographer might choose one set of prices for his easy to produce images and higher prices for images that cost more to produce.

In any event, when an image is chosen by a customer, the price schedule the photographer has chosen for each specific image would be shown to the customer. In some cases, customers might also be supplied with the image creator’s contact information enabling them to negotiate, but in such cases it might take several days to complete a transaction. (Some of the exclusive deals stock agencies currently negotiate with customers require several days of back and forth to complete.)

Each customer would be able to pay a fixed amount of money into an account, in much the same way as they purchase subscriptions now. Once they have chosen an image they want to download, the amount specified by the photographer would be deducted from the customers account and paid directly into the photographer’s account (minus a small transaction fee). This operates in much the same way as Pay Pal currently works. Customers would also have the option of making separate payments by credit card each time they want an image, rather than setting up a fixed account.
    (This payment system would also operate in much the same way as operates today. Each day I get brief summaries of stories from major publications around the world. I establish a Blendle account for $10.00, but only pay between $0.15 and $0.49 for the specific stories I want to read. I don’t need a regular subscription to any of the publications. When I’ve used up most of the money in my account I get a notice to “top up” my account. I don’t pay for anything I don’t really want to read.)
Of course, there would be some cost in setting up and operating such a system. There would be marketing expenses to make potential customers aware that the system exists. A standard percentage could be deducted from the amount paid the photographer for each transaction in much the same way the stock agency system currently works. The fees deducted might be less than a current stock agency royalty share, particularly if the organization was operated as a non-profit.

For the image creators there would be two major advantages. (1) They would be able to set their own prices. (2) Their share of the payment would be transferred to their bank account instantaneously whenever a customer makes a purchase.

While such a system might provide image creators with a fairer return on investment, someone will have to go to the trouble of building the technology, recruiting photographers to participate and make potential customers aware of the site’s existence. It seems unlikely that will happen quickly.

In the meantime, and assuming most photographers need to earn enough from their work efforts to support themselves, photographers might want to look at something other than stock photography as a way of earning their living.

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:  


  • Steve Heap Posted Dec 18, 2018
    Hi Jim
    There is a wordpress plugin that helps stock photographers create their own agency and automatically deliver the image at the required resolution 24 hours a day. Mine is at The main issue is that even though the images can be found on Google, few people are willing to buy. I sell perhaps one image every three months! It has turned into a vanity project - no commercial return.

  • Bob Prior Posted Dec 22, 2018
    I have often wondered what would be the outcome if ALL stock photographers STOPPED supplying images to libraries who don’t pay appropriate fees? Or for that matter refusing to supply images to ‘buyers’ at below realistic prices. What would be left? Amateur images maybe but at lease photographers who retain their self esteem and in time ‘users’ users will see ‘amatuer’ images achieve amateur sales results not something high level professional clients wish to embrace.

  • Norm Eggert Posted Dec 22, 2018 is a good alternative. The site is relatively small, but has a nice mix of photographs. It is quick and easy to search for a particular photographer (each photographer has their own site) and to search for a particular photograph. The photographer sets the price, although usually I find that the buyer tells you how much they have to spend on a particular photograph. The good news is that the selling price is usually considerably higher than what you would have received from a stock agency.

  • Charles Cecil Posted Dec 22, 2018
    Most of what you describe in the first three paragraphs of Solving the Subscription Dilemma is offered by PhotoShelter. They currently have tens of thousands of photographers using their services to host their websites. The PS search engine will search every photographer’s images and show you the combined results. You price your own images, so that easy-to-produce images can be cheap and hard-to-produce ones can be expensive. Images can be downloaded 24/7 through the software that comes with the PS website. PS takes 9%, leaving the photographer 91%. It’s true that you have to pay a monthly fee (or an annual one, slightly discounted) pro-rated according to the number of GB of storage you want, but the fee is reasonable. I’ve never understood why PS has never marketed itself as a stock agency rather than just a website hosting service. If they were better known they could be an alternative to the mega-agencies that pay less and less to the photographer.

  • Brian Smale Posted Dec 27, 2018
    I completely agree with Charles C. Photoshelter has been a terrific service for me. It might not work for well for more generalized imagery, but if you have some very specific subject matter that can be searched for on the main search engines, it can work well. 90% of my salable stock is editorial portraits of specific people, often in business or tech. e.g.: John Smith, CEO of ABC Corporation, which is an easy search term. As long as you are careful to enter good info for SEO, your images will show up in search. Some clients complain that my rates are too high, (I generally use the default numbers from the FotoQuote plugin on Photoshelter), but most others have no problem with the rates, and there is a method on Photoshelter for a potential client to negotiate for a different price. I don't sell a huge amount of stock this way, but like Charles says, I set my own prices and keep about 90%. I feel very good about not taking part in the downward spiral of stock pricing, and it's almost completely hands-off. Of course, this doesn't solve the problem of some clients having to use a big agency like Getty because their company has a subscription.
    Years ago, my first agency (Onyx - which I loved!) got merged in to Outline, and then Corbis. I had one exceptionally good sale with Corbis, but otherwise the numbers were pretty dismal. I tried listing some with Redux for a couple of years, but the numbers were well below dismal. Nothing personal, I liked all the people I worked with at those agencies, but the numbers just didn't work.
    BTW Charles, a few years ago Photoshelter did try to set up a service that was a dedicated 'stock' agency, but it didn't work very well, so they killed it. They do have a new service called Lattice, that is a bit like a Pinterest board for photo editors. I've just started looking in to that as a way to get a bit more attention on my images.


Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff