Lean In or Step Back

Posted on 1/17/2020 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Recently, I saw an article in the Washington Post ( ) by Michele Norris that discussed the concept of “Step Back” that was used by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan to announce their pulling back from their full royal duties.

We’ve all heard of “Lean In” which suggests someone moving forward on an idealized path. Chest out. Chin up. Figure it out along the way. Watch out, world — here I come. As Norris described it, “Step Back” is “I am going to assess the landscape and figure out how to move forward on my own terms — or figure out whether the prescribed path is even the best fit.” In today’s world the best advice I can give anyone in the photography business – particularly stock photography – is “Step Back” and realistically assess the current situation.

You may love photography and produce great, creative images, but if this activity is an important part of how you earn your living it is time to Step Back and realistically assess the long term potential of this business.

It is natural for independent, self-employed business people (which most photographers are) to want to Lean In. Photographers tend to think that if they just work a little harder, cut their costs and produce even better, more images with ever higher creative values their business will prosper. There was a time – some years ago – when that worked, but the business has changed.

Not only has the business changed, but this is not a temporary decline. If you just hang-in-there and tough-it-out everything will not eventually get better. If the money you earn from your photography is important to your livelihood, and if you are seeing a decline in revenue, you can be pretty sure that things will get worse. It is time to Step Back and start exploring other options for earning the revenue you need for daily living.

There are simply too many good images currently available and the number is growing at an astronomical rate. As for stock, anything you produce will have a very short useful life because it will soon be lost in a flood of similar images. Many of these new images may not be as good as yours, but they will be easier to find.

We also must accept the fact that the people who buy our images are being required to work on many more projects in a single day than was the case a few years ago. Some art directors say that they are being asked to work on and produce as many as 10 times the number of projects as they were assigned a decade ago. Thus, they have less and less time to search for just the right image.

Another trend is the increasing use of illustration rather than photography. Many illustrators and graphic designers are turning more to illustration rather than photography to solve their problems. It is often easier for them to draw something that illustrates the concept they are working on than to find a photo. If they need elements they can go to Canva or Freepik and quickly get for almost no money something that will work for their project. Or they can just grab something off the Internet.

There is less need for still photography than once was the case. One of the advantage that photographs used to offer was that they were a “real” representation of something that actually existed or actually happened. Now, it has become so easy to manipulate and fake a visual image that viewers can no longer tell whether the visual image presented to them is an actual photography or an illustration.

There is an increasing demand for footage relative to still image and there is far smaller supply of footage clips compared to still images. However, it seems likely that in the very near future the supply of footage clips will also greatly exceed the demand and prices for usage will fall just as they have for still images.

There was a time back in the 1980’s and early 90s when I advised photographers to produce stock images. Many took that advice and some built large, very successful  collections that generated significant revenue. That was at a time when there was increasing demand relative to supply. In addition, an increasing number of buyers were finding it acceptable to use stock images rather than assigning a photographer to shoot what they needed. Now, the supply/demand situation is totally reversed.

That was also the time when we advised photographers to build their stock photo archives because there would be a continuing demand for the best sellers. They would sell over and over again and represent an important retirement benefit for the photographer. That turned out to be very bad advice of several reasons.
    1 – We had no concept of how digital technology and Internet availability would change the market.
    2 – We had no idea, or expectation, that eventually every amateur in the world would be able to participate in the market.
    3 – We did not realize that an infinite number of photographers would copy all the most successful concepts and visual ideas, and that the newer illustration of a concept would be the one most likely to get used, even if it didn’t illustrate the point as well, because the older image were now harder to find.
    4 – That usage fees would drop so dramatically, despite the fact that there was very little decline, if any, in the actual costs for photographers in producing the images.
As a result, very few of the image collections produced 10, 20 or 30 years ago generate any significant income for their creators today.

There are a few professional photographers who have been in the business for a number of years and whose annual income, after expenses, is stable or still growing. Often, these photographers are tempted to plow a large percentage of their profits back into the business in an attempt to grow it. This is a natural instinct of business people.

But, it is very important for these photographers to invest a significant percentage of those profits into IRA’s or other types of business in order to spread their risks, if they expect to have anything left when they want to slow down their production, or retire from the business all together.

Personally, there were periods in my career when I plowed every extra dollar back into the business in an effort get better equipment and grow my production. I know a number of other photographers and stock photo agents who did the same thing and ended up with little, or nothing, invested anywhere else.

Fortunately, in my case, I started putting money into other things while my business was still growing and now have a cushion for retirement.

This business life cycle happens to every type of business, not just photography. According to Professor Richard Foster of Yale University, the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. And, going forward it is likely that business type will emerge and decline even faster.
Everyone should regularly Step Back from their business and make a realistic assessment of what the future holds for their industry. Nothing lasts forever. Diversify.

Copyright © 2020 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


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