Disrupting Stock Photography

Posted on 6/14/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Tom Zimberoff has written a very long and detailed story on Distrupting Stock Photography which makes some strong points about how the industry got to where it is today. Toward the end of his report he outlines a new business model which he calls “Business Made Easy For Photographers.”

Tom is an experienced photojournalist who has been in the business for more than 40 years. He has shot covers for Time and Fortune as well as worked on advertising campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood movie studios, and the United States Navy. He created PhotoByte®, the first successful CRM/licensing-and-billings software for commercial photographers. He lives in the San Francisco area and founded a venture-funded startup during the Dotcom bubble, More recently, he created the StartX tech-company accelerator affiliated with Stanford University.

Among the points he makes are how the stock photo industry changed when Getty Images and Corbis decided to move away from a focus on supplying images to medium and large corporate and commercial users of images, and aim toward selling images to shopkeepers, startups, freelancers and individual consumers to illustrate web pages and blogs.

To go after this new market the agencies were forced to lower prices dramatically. But, as they dropped prices for the new customers they were unable to find a way to establish a separate pricing strategy for their original customers who have very different imagery needs. The imagery the traditional customers need is often more costly to produce than what bloggers and web page developers will accept.

Unfortunately, the Getty and Corbis founders had no understanding of the costs involved in producing the product they were selling. Unlike, most industries where the creator of a product has a clear understanding of his costs, and makes the product available to the middleman retailer for a fixed price that covers costs and profit, the stock photo industry was established on the principle that the middleman would negotiate the best price possible and pay the producer a percentage of whatever the middleman receives.

This traditional system worked well when middleman operators were former photographers and had a clear understanding of what it costs their suppliers to produce the products they were licensing.

Initially, the new operators brought in former photographers to staff their operations and they were able to keep prices at a reasonable leave. But many of these people were soon replaced by salesmen and bean counters who had little understanding of what was involved in producing pictures customers wanted to buy. They assumed there would always be sufficient product to sell and that it was up to the photographer to find ways to cut production costs if they were no longer making sufficient profits.

Then the bean counters made the decision that they way to grow revenue was to have more product to sell. They began to focus on growing the size of their collections, which meant turning to the tons of images produced by amateurs.  They have failed to do a careful analysis of what their customers wanted and then pass that information in detail on to the product producers in a way that would help them more efficiently produce what is needed.

Eventually, it comes down to “can ‘professional’ photographers earn enough to make it worthwhile to expend their resources and time?”

Many professionals have made the decision that they will only produce new images if they can make the activity profitable. And many have also determined that is impossible and consequently moved on to something else.

But, as the middlemen see it the amateurs have arrived in droves to replace the professionals. Amateurs take pictures for fun, and ego. All they want is to know that someone likes what they are producing. Some compensation is an indication of appreciation, but for most “profit” is unimportant. The problem may be (and nobody knows for sure) that to a large extent what the amateurs are producing is not what the customers want to buy.

Today, probably the single most important things for stock agencies to do is determine the percentage of their total sales that result from images created by professional photographers trying to earn a portion of their living from the images they produce. They need this information in order to understand if they can survive offering only amateur production. If they don’t need “professionals” fine. But, the “professionals” will only participate in the market if they can earn a profit.

Business Made Easy For Photographers

Tom outlines a new business strategy for those who want to pursue photography as a profession. I’m skeptical that it will work but there is no question that something different is needed.

The strategy that I think has the best chance of success is one of Basing Price On Demand as outlined in the following three stories. This strategy won’t achieve as high a prices as the one Tom proposes, but I think it has a better chance of being implemented.

Growing Revenue In The Future

Escalating Price Based On Demand

Growing Revenue At Shutterstock

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 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.  


  • Peter Dazeley Posted Jun 15, 2018
    I totally agree. Its difficult to understand why stock image companies avoided having creators on their Boards.

  • Lech Białasiewicz Posted Jun 15, 2018
    Good article. Do big agencies still need professionals ? - it would be great to know.

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