Pro Stock Photographer Future Dim

Posted on 1/21/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

In the near future, the vast majority of professional photographers will be unable to earn enough from producing stock images to offset their cost of production.

There have always been two major problems for stock image producers. First, even in the best of circumstances, photographers have no idea how many customers will want to use the images produced. Second, photographers do not know how many others are simultaneously shooting something very similar. If you cannot estimate potential revenue, how do you manage costs?

In addition, photographers often have little information on how many similar images are already available for purchase. To some degree, this can be overcome by searching existing databases, but this process can be very time-consuming. Nevertheless, the fact that nearly all usable images are now available online makes such research infinitely easier than it was 10 or 20 years ago, when most marketable images were only available as film in stock agency files.

Photographers trying to produce stock should also recognize that art directors or graphic designers who produce stock as a sideline have a huge advantage in understanding supply and demand. Part of a graphic designer’s day-to-day job is searching files to determine what is available. Because graphic designers are image buyers, they likely have a better idea than photographers of what customers need.

Supply and demand disparity

Despite these disadvantages and limitations, stock photography can still be a profitable business, if demand greatly exceeds supply. Back in the 1980s, this was the case. Some earned substantial incomes from stock, because there was much more demand than supply for almost every subject. Often, mediocre images were used because they were the best the customer could find on short notice. Photographers producing higher quality images were able to continue to do well through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Now, there are few, if any, subjects where there is not a very high and constantly growing supply of quality images.

Inventory growth at select Web sites, 2007-present

Web site

December 2007

January 2010


















Demand for traditionally priced images, on the other hand, has been relatively flat throughout the last decade, with a decline that corresponds to microstock’s introduction to the market. Goldman Sachs pre-acquisition projections of Getty Images’ creative stills revenue and the company’s return per image offer further detail on these trends. From 2006 to the beginning of 2009, microstock experienced dramatic growth in demand, offsetting some of the losses on the traditional side and becaming the hope for many. However, there are indications that in 2009, even microstock began to see a leveling in sales.

Meanwhile, supply is growing. The table at left shows that some Web sites have more than quadrupled their inventories between the end of 2007 and now. (For background, here are some additional 2008 numbers.)

Internet evolution

The Internet introduced three developments that will lead to the demise of stock photography as a profession:

  1. Image databases. These make it possible to review a broad cross-section of imagery on a particular subject quickly. Previously, even it someone had a better image than yours, there was a good chance it would never be seen because the customer had to go to so many different places. Most customers limited their search. Thus, the actual supply of imagery was not as big as it first appeared when counting all the available images in all the files.
  2. Online image delivery. The ability to deliver usable image files online has streamlined the transaction process.
  3. Microstock pricing.

Declining print

Until the Internet developed as a market, virtually all still stock images were used in some form of printed product. Now, the use of print as a means of communications is in an unstoppable decline. This would not be a problem, is fees paid for online uses were similar to those for print, but Web fees are at best between one-tenth and one-thirtieth of former print pricing. Production costs have remained the same, if not grown.

Growth in unauthorized uses

Given the ease of copying online digital files, more and more image are being used online without compensating the creator. But unauthorized uses are not limited to online. Even some of our best traditional print customers are making much more extensive uses of images than they have licensed rights to do.

Put it all together, and it is time for stock photographer to look for a new line of business.

Copyright © 2010 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:  


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