Stock Photography: Flawed Business Model

Posted on 10/29/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Stock photography is changing rapidly. The most serious issues facing stock photographers are:
    they have no idea who their potential customers are;
    they don’t know what their customers are looking for in the way of images; and
    they don’t understand how their customer’s businesses are changing.
Most stock photographers create images based on a guess of what image users will want sometime in the future. It is also worth noting that most photographers are poor guessers. It is not about producing great, high quality images. There are countless beautiful, perfectly executed images that never sell. The image has to fulfill the customer’s need, and it hard to understand that need if you don’t know who the customer is or have never had any communication with him.

Alamy says that in 2012 they licensed rights to about 360,000 different uses. (Some images were used more than once so the number of unique images used was less.) Currently, Alamy has over 41,410,000 images in its collection. Less than 1 out of ever 100 images in the collection is ever licensed. That’s very bad odds.

Some traditional agencies supply their photographers with broad guidelines as to the kind of subjects that are in demand. Occasionally, the information is targeted to certain industry segments, but prior to going out to shoot the photographer almost never knows that a specific company is looking for photographs of a specific subject.

It is often months after an image is delivered to an agency before the photographer knows if anyone liked it enough to use it. RM and traditional RF photographers eventually learn which of their own images were licensed, but almost never receive feedback about the best and worst sellers for the agency.

Microstock photographers get instantaneous feedback (often before use) whenever one of their images is licensed. But they don’t know who is using it, or in what context. At many microstock sites photographers can also see the kind of images in every subject category that are most often purchased, not just their own sales. With such information it is possible to make more rational decisions about where to expend future production efforts.

This is not meant to say that microstock is the answer. Rather, I want to point out how seriously flawed the stock photography is in general as a business. This is particularly true at a time when there is a huge oversupply of images coupled with very rapid changes in the kind of imagery many customers need and declining prices.

Perceive Value of Stock Images

In addition to lack of communication with customers there is a declining perceived value of stock images. Here, at least three major factors come into play.
    First, there is a huge and every growing oversupply of stock images. In most cases customers have a wide variety of choices that will fit their needs equally well. When competing sellers are going after the same business discount prices result.

    Second, there is a shift from single, broad marketing and communication pieces aimed at the whole world to a whole range of narrowly focused pieces targeted at small segments of the larger market. In such cases the customer often needs more images, but overall budgets have not increased. Thus, users try to license multiple images for no more than they would have been willing to pay for a single image previously.

    Thirdly, most images are licensed by stock agencies or image distributors. These companies tend to operate on the principle that any price is satisfactory so long as it is sufficient for the agency to cover its costs. A royalty percentage will often not cover the producer’s costs.
Stock photographers shooting on speculation have no idea, at the time of creation, what a customer might be willing to pay to use their image. In today’s market it is likely that the photographer will spend much more in time and money to produce an image than he can ever hope to recover from licensing it.

Assignment Photography Comparison

When a photographer is asked to take on an assignment there is a conversation with the client. The photographer comes to an understanding of what the client needs and then goes out and produces the images to the best of his ability. He doesn’t waste his time shooting things that are of no interest to the client.

The photographer and client also come to an understanding of what the job will cost. If the photographer determines that the price offered is insufficient he doesn’t have to do the work and will move on the something else.

Customers will not pay more for an image than it is worth to them. For many customers images have very little perceived value given how they intend to use them. While there are many new customers most of them were doing without professionally produced images before. The cost of producing an image has no relation to what they are willing to pay.

The trick is finding those few customers who need something that is not available elsewhere and who can justify paying what it costs you to produce the images.

As image supply rises and prices fall it becomes ever more important for photographers to have a clear understanding of what the client needs and only begin shooting when they are sure they will be adequately compensated for their efforts.

If you shoot pictures because you love what you’re doing and costs are not an issue, Fine. But, if you’re looking at photography as a business and need revenue to support yourself and your family you should rethink what you’re doing. To help you in that regard, I recommend The ASMP Guide To New Markets In Photography.

Copyright © 2013 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:  


Be the first to comment below.

Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff