Part-time Photographers: Are They The Future?

Posted on 8/13/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Will part-time photographers be able to supply all the future needs of professional photo users?

This is one of the most interesting questions facing the stock photo industry today. There is no question that part-time photographers occasionally produce beautiful, creative, exciting images. Sometimes these images are better than anything produced by full-time professionals.

A rapidly growing percentage of the images found in the stock photo collections are being created by part-time photographers. These part-timers tend to photograph real-life activities of things happening in their daily lives. The market says it wants more real life image so what the part-timers are producing should be exactly what the market needs. But, is it really?



The issue is not whether we should somehow get rid of part-time photographers, but whether they will produce enough of the specific subject matter customers want.  If not, how can we somehow encourage more full-time professionals to do the hard work of determining what customers need and then working specifically to produce more of that type of imagery?

The answer to the question as to whether part-timers are currently supplying everything customers need should be relatively easy to determine. The data is available at the major agencies. If these agencies are interested in their long-term future, they should be looking at this data. But, I’m not sure any of them are. Here are several questions they should be asking.



1 – How many of its individual still image suppliers did the agency pay more than $30,000 in royalties in 2017?

My guess is that very few creators earned that much and their number has been declining rapidly in the last few years. All this has happened while a huge and rapidly increasing number of part-timers have been loading up the image collections with new images.

If an individual creator doesn’t earn at least $30,000 annually, that creator is, by definition, a part-timer and likely engaged in some other primary activity as a means of support.



Maybe a photographer just starting out, and living with parents, can devote his/her full-time efforts to producing stock images and get by on somewhat less. But $30,000 is a reasonable starting point for this data analysis. It is also possible that some part-timers may be supported by spouses and are more than happy with a small additional supplement to their major family income.

In addition, we need to keep in mind that some suppliers earning more than $30,000 may actually be a team of individuals working together to create the images supplied to the agency. The collective team members need to earn enough to support more than one family group so $30,000 may not be nearly enough.

Finally, some agencies with non-exclusive agreements with their suppliers may argue that just because they are not paying a supplier $30,000 doesn’t mean the supplier isn’t earning a lot more in combined earnings from all the distributors who represent the work. However, the few major suppliers who own a significant percentage of the market should be able to make a rough estimate as to how much more a given supplier might realistically be able to earn from all other sources and whether this is enough to support one’s self.

2 – What percentage of the company’s total revenue did the images produced by those earning more than $30,000 represent?

If those earning more than $30,000 in royalties only represent a small percent of the total revenue generated then the problem may be nothing to worry about, but I suspect that is not the case.

At the beginning of 2016 I estimated that 430 contributors out of more than 100,000 iStock contributors supplied about 8.7% of the images in the collection and were responsible for about one-third of the images licensed during the company’s more than a decade of history. I believe it is true of most agencies that a very small percentage of contributors are responsible for a very large percentage of sales.

I also reported at the at time that the top contributors were adding fewer images.

3 – Has production by major suppliers declined in the last few years?

Clearly, more and more of the full-time suppliers are pulling back on production of stock images and turning to other ways to earn a living. They can no longer earn enough from stock image production to support their lifestyles.

This is also happening to some degree with the part-timers who are earning much less. They may still be taking pictures, but they have discovered that what they earn from the stock agencies is not worth the trouble they must go through to submit the images.

The degree to which this is happening to part-timers is unclear. But, the focus of this article is on full-time producers.

4 – Of the revenue paid to full-time creators, how much comes from new images and how much comes from images that have been in the collection more than two years?

If there is a decline in the production of certain types of imagery, it is certainly possible that customers are choosing older images that have been in the files for several years. If image creators leave their images in the files once they stop producing new work, there may be more than enough of what customers are looking for to satisfy their needs for a long time.

Is there a trend that would indicate that customers are making more use of images that have been in the files for several years despite the huge number of new images that are being added every day? If so, is that an indication that much of the newer imagery is not what is really needed?

What percentage of the images downloaded in 2016 or 2017 had been in the files for two years or more when they were downloaded? How will that trend change in 2018 and 2019? We certainly hear reports from photographers that images that have been in the files for 5 years, 10 years or more are still selling reasonably well despite the glut of new images? Why?
Maybe the industry doesn’t need as many new images?

5 – If the imagery provided by these major stock image suppliers represent a significant portion of revenue, how will loss of that revenue affect the company?

If the images from a few major full-time producers only represent a small and declining percent of gross revenue, then there is nothing to worry about. But, I suspect that is not the case.

If I happen to be right, then it may be time to develop a new strategy for encourage at least some of the top producers to supply more of kind of imagery customers have shown they want to buy.

6 – If the major suppliers stop producing, will customers simply buy what the part-timers are offering?

When what they are really looking for is no longer available will customers use whatever is available because they have no other alternative.

Some may be able to go back to hiring photographers to produce what they need. It will cost significantly more but it may be their only alternative if they must have certain photographs. Others may turn more to illustration, or do the work in-house.

All these are question the major stock agencies should at least be considering if they hope to be in business for many more years. They cannot just assume that somewhere in “more images” will be everything customers need in the future. If they get rid of all the photographer who are willing to study the market and try to produce more of what customers say they need, they may find that customers will desert them.


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.  

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