Opportunities for Professional Stock Photographers

Posted on 6/19/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

More and more young people aspire to a career in photography. They sell some of their images and believe that, if they work hard, they can be successful. Often, they hope to become full-time stock photographers, so they can shoot what they want, when they want, and eventually achieve fame and fortune. Yet the hard reality is that opportunities for professional stock photographers are in a decline, which will continue in the years ahead.

The operative word here is “professional.” More and more people earn money from selling their images, but fewer and fewer earn enough to support themselves solely by that endeavor.

Notably, the terms “professional” and “amateur” are in no way a reflection on the quality of the work. Today, many of the images being produced by novices are of greater technical quality and artistic merit than those produced by many professionals. In this article, the term “professional” simply describes someone who earns his entire living by licensing rights to the images he creates. An amateur may earn some money, even a significant amount, but not enough to not engage in some other type of money-making activity.

In particular, this is an issue for the photographer who wants to focus on shooting stock, rather than on finding customers who will hire him to take pictures on assignment or as a staff photographer. Professional stock shooters will see decreasing opportunities, despite the fact that we have become a more visual society and more and more images seem to be used every day. Here are a few of the reasons.

1 – Improved cameras have made it easy for anyone with little or no experience to produce quality images. As a result, more and more customers are able to produce the images they need.

2 – There is a huge oversupply of excellent images, compared to 10 or 15 years ago. This oversupply relative to the number of images needed by customers has been growing at astronomical rates.

3 – Over the last few years, there has been no growth in the number of stock images licensed at traditional prices, and it is possible that there has actually been a slight decline that is unrelated to the significant decline that has occurred in the last few months due to the financial crisis.

4 – There has been growth in demand for microstock. At iStockphoto, the leading seller in that segment of the industry, the number of images licensed has grown from under 4 million in 2005 to 25 million in 2008. However, there are some indications that microstock growth may have reached a plateau. If that has happened, the odds that any particular microstock image will be licensed will decline, because the number of images available to customers will continue to grow dramatically.

5 – Unfortunately, the normal laws of supply and demand do not apply in the stock-photo industry, because an increasing percentage of the suppliers are not concerned with profits and will continue to produce, even if doing it at a loss.

6 – The Internet has made it possible for easier distribution of the images produced.

7 – Overall prices will continue to fall as more and more customers find that they can satisfy their needs with a lower priced product.

8 – Production costs will not decline, and more will be required of producers in terms of labor in order to participate in the market.

9 – There are two major ways that still stock images are used – for advertising in magazines and brochures, and for editorial purposes.

    a – Advertising is moving to the Internet and away from printed publications. Still images used on the Internet tend to be smaller than those used in print, and each use generates a smaller fee.

    b – The use of editorial printed products is in decline as consumers get more of the information they need online.
    c – It used to be necessary for many photographers to cover an event, because each publication needed its own piece of film from which to make separations. With the development of the Internet, every publication in the world can easily have simultaneous and instantaneous access to every available image. This access offers customers much greater choice of imagery than was previously possible. Thus, fewer photographers are needed to produce the necessary imagery.
    d – The Internet is a medium that favors video over still images. Thus, expect to see more and more uses of video for online advertising and editorial purposes—and fewer still-image uses.

11 – When still images are needed online, they will increasingly be frame grabs from video.

• • •

For potential solutions to this dilemma, see “Engaging in the Business of Stock Photography.

Copyright © 2009 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.  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jun 19, 2009
    I completely agree with your statement that the internet is going to slowly leave still behind for motion. We as people love to watch motion for information over still imagery. We can pull strong 50 mg. Tiffs from our Red One shoots so the customer can now have both available for all their needs. This is just one way the business is morphing there will be new changes soon but it is hard to speculate who those changes will benefit the distributors or the creators. There is still a lot to come. Thanks for the info great piece.

    Jonathan Ross

  • Lanny Ziering Posted Jun 21, 2009
    I think the mix between still images and footage will continue to shift toward footage. That said, still images will always hold a significant portion of the market for imagery used by publishers and advertisers. The frozen moment will always be used by those who need to get the attention of viewer and to powerfully tell a story. Imagine a webpage with 4 areas to display imagery and all of them have footage running. If I wanted to get the attention of viewers of that webpage, I'd replace one of those pieces of footage with a gripping still image. I'm willing to bet I'd get more clicks than the other three. Footage will continue to come on strong, but don't underestimate the power of a still image--especially when it's shot by photographers like Jonathan and other great stock shooters.

    My 2 Cents.
    Lanny Ziering

  • Bas van Beek Posted Apr 30, 2012

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