Stock Photo Agencies – Designed To Fail

Posted on 9/1/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

The basic operating structure of how most stock photo agencies acquire and market images has not changed in 15 to 25 years. Image creator produce and submit their work to an agency. The agency may reject some of it, but most will go into an online collection that customer can review. When a customer finds something she wants to use she pays a fee and the image creator receives a percentage. The agency’s job is to manage the material, make customers aware that the collection exists, license use of the image for whatever they can get and collect money.

Over the years more and more of what is submitted gets accepted. Less and less guidance is given as to what customers want. The image creator is expected to know what to shoot, or just create whatever they like and hope some customer will want to buy what they have produced.

While this system worked well earlier, as the world and the market have changed it is no longer an efficient way to service buyers, or provide a marketplace for creators trying to earn a living producing images. The system is designed to fail. It will not work much longer without some serious modifications.

Professional vs Amateur

There will always be plenty of photographers who will supply agencies with images of the things they like to shoot. Amateurs photograph as long as they receive enjoyment from the effort. The money they earn from such pictures is unimportant. They will continue to supply as long as the extra effort, over and above the actual fun part of taking pictures, does not become too burdensome. The question is, “Are the images amateurs produce what customers want to buy?”

Professionals try to determine what customers want to buy and shoot more of that type of picture because the money is important to them. In order to consistently produce images that customers want, they need accurate information about what customers are buying. They cannot afford to produce based entirely on gut feeling and guesswork. As usage fees fall and the percentage of images licensed relative to the number produced decline, the professional must become much more efficient in order to earn enough to sustain a business.   

Some production companies can produce a high enough volume of images to determine from their own sales what is in demand and what isn’t. They can adjust future production accordingly. But the production company’s information will never be as good as what the agency dealing directly with the customers could provide based on all its sales.

Who Needs Professionals

Another big question is, “Can stock agencies supply all the images customers need, solely from amateur production?” An amateur photographing subjects that interest him or her will happily spend much more time time and money producing the images than he or she will ever earn from licensing them. If the agency can get enough of what it needs from amateurs, then it doesn’t need professionals.

My gut feeling, based on lots of years of experience and observing what I see being used, is that a very high percentage of what is being licensed, particularly at high dollar values, are images produced by professionals. My guess is that 80% or 90% of stock revenue is generated by people who are trying to earn a living from stock photography; people who spend time studying the market and trying to focus on producing more variations of what the customers have been buying.

Imagine my surprise recently when talking to Benji Lanyado of Picfair. While about half of the 3 million images Picfair represents have been produced by professional stock photo production companies that study the market carefully, Benji spends a lot of effort trying to recruit amateur suppliers. The amateur’s work represents the other half of the collection.

I asked what percentage of sales were from the professionally produced images. I expected him to tell me 80% to 90%. He said, “It's roughly around 60% from the non-professionals to 40% to the professionals and production houses. It changes according to how we tune our algorithm, and some months we definitely see more from the production houses. What's interesting is that customers are either one or the other - they either buy exclusively the classic stock from production houses; or they buy exclusively the more alternative, grungier amateur-produced images.”

Is it possible that the experienced producers are not aware of what customers really want because the only real information available to them is based on sales of images they have produced in the past? Benji added, “while the production houses are experts at producing images people are looking for, they aren't' experts at the modern, less contrived aesthetic that many buyers want. Conversely, the amateurs are fantastic at getting the modern aesthetic right, but they don't know what it is they should be shooting.”

Benji acknowledges that it is “early days” for Picfair. Things may change when they get a much higher sales volume. Picfair’s experience may be quite different than that of larger agencies. In addition, they may be reaching a totally different clientele than the larger agencies.

But, this just points to how important it is for producers to have more specific information about what is selling, not occasional broad generalities.

Agencies may stick with the old strategy of operating as if all information about sales is proprietary, but it may do more to destroy their business than sustain it.

The really sad thing is that most agencies don’t even know (even if they won’t share it) how much of their revenue comes from professionals who are having trouble earning enough to sustain continued production; the percentage of professionals who are cutting back on production because they can no longer justify the expense; or the percentage of their revenue that comes from amateurs who will continue to produce even if they earn little or nothing for their efforts.

Copyright © 2016 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:  


  • Paul Melcher Posted Sep 1, 2016
    It could also be that buyers going to Picfair are looking for amateur photography, as you call it. One company's example does not define the market, especially as young and insignificant as the one you mention. To be more accurate in your projection, you should ask Getty for example, who licenses both pro and amateur photography. Doubtful they would tell you but considering their market share, they have a much clearer picture.
    Furthermore, style can be replicated ( and it is). Believing that only amateurs can produce the more authentic content that buyers want is an antiquated concept put to rest by a myriad of pros that have no problem imitating the Instagram style. If only it was that simple.
    As of today, no one has the tools to predict content demand. It will change soon enough as solutions are in the works, but it the meantime, it is pure speculation (or cheap marketing) to define the market as being "more this than that".

  • Christine Osborne Pictures Posted Sep 1, 2016
    I found this post interesting. In the case of my stock library World Religions, 50% of images licensed have been/are by amateurs.
    Whenever I was contacted by a photographer interested to contribute, I made the time to advise on what was required. With a name such as "world" religions, it was clear when I launched the collection, that I could not manage the travel required on my own work alone, hence my invitation to join for any amateur that met the required standards. It worked well and I enjoyed being a mentor, as it were. On the other hand, with the knowledge of what the market needed, at least one amateur supplier went off and submitted to a far bigger agency. I was disappointed, but of course I realised it could not be helped.
    In order to boost our reputation, I recently published a complete book (with deep captions) using 365 of our best images. See www,

    Thank you.

  • Christine Osborne Pictures Posted Sep 1, 2016
    Again re. stock libraries, I omitted the url for the website which supplied the more than 350 images that appear in Among Believers.

    Thank you.

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