Stock Photography’s Fatal Flaw

Posted on 12/8/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (4)

Image creators need to recognize that there is a fatal flaw in the stock photography business model.

There is no way to control supply relative to demand.

In the best case photography producers have a very sketchy understanding of the demand for any subject category. In most businesses there is a way to gage demand. There is a way to determine the number of pink shoes that have been sold in the past relative to the number of brown ones. Manufacturers don’t suddenly stop making brown shoes and covert their entire assembly line to pink. Retailers may stock a few pairs of a new item, but they will wait for some evidence of demand for the product before placing a big order.

Competitors may take market share from one another as a result of better marketing or customer services, but each will manage production based on the demand for their specific product and not flood the market with product no one has shown any indication of wanting..

With stock photography every product is unique. There is no way to sell an image, or tell if it will sell, until it has been manufactured and made available to customers. The elements of creativity, uniqueness or quality of workmanship may have nothing to do with eventual customer demand.

Photographers have no way to determine past sales history of a particular image, or category of subject matter. (The best they can know is the results of their own limited number of sales.) Distributors (particularly the large ones) have comprehensive data, but don’t share it with their producers. In the microstock segment of the industry more data is shared, but for the most part it is not organized in a way that would help photographers make wise shooting decisions.

In most other businesses statistical sales information and sales trends would be available to people in the production departments of companies. In some industries trade association even collect and share industry sales data for the benefit their members.
    1 - As a result there is an ever increasing flood of images totally unrelated to demand. Many of these images are of very high quality.

    2 - Amateurs, with no particular interest in earning a living from the images they produce can now easily enter the market

    3 - The Internet has made it easier for customers to comparison shop than was the case in the past.

    4 – These three factors lead to a continual decline in the price as customers are offered more and more choices.

Raising The Price

Photographers want their representatives to maintain a certain level of pricing for their work. But as customers have more choices and opportunities to negotiate the amount they will be willing to pay will naturally decline.

Agencies would like to charge higher prices, but someone with similar material will always undercut them. At that point the agency is faced with the choice of either lowering its price to make the sale or losing the sale entirely. When that happens an agency will almost always make the sale at the best price it can get.

Many photographers would like for their agency to withhold their images until customers are willing to pay what the photographer believes the images are worth. In some cases photographers will remove their images from the agencies they have worked with and only license them directly to customers. This will almost always result in fewer, if any, sales. In those rare cases when there is (1) absolutely no substitute for the image and (2) the customer absolutely must have some image, regardless of cost, then the customer may end up paying the higher price.

However, such situations are very rare. The more images that are easily available for consideration the easier it becomes for the customer to find a substitute. When no substitute is available the customer may still refuse to purchase at a higher price because given her planned use she cannot justify paying the price. Both (1) and (2) must be operable in order for a sale to be made at a price higher than the customer wants to pay.

Why were we able to get higher prices before?

When images were stored in plastic sheets and an editor had to pull a selection and send them to the customer for consideration it was a time consuming process to do comparative shopping. Even when a better image was available at a different location it was extremely difficult for customers to shop all potential sources for the “right” image. Distributors could obtain a favorable position in the market based on customers service. Most customers simply settled for the best image they could find quickly and easily. Then they moved on.


Some will argue that demand is growing at a rapid pace due to a growing use of imagery in the electronic environment. If that were the case then lower prices would not be a problem because volume would make up the difference. Available sales statistics over the last couple of years does not reflect such growth. I will acknowledge that between 2005 and 2009 there was a rapid growth in the demand for cheap imagery, but that demand seems to have leveled out.

There may be growth in the use of images on the Internet, but a large portion of the images used tend to be either personally produced imaged, images that are available for free or images that are stolen. There is no published evidence that would indicate that the number of images customers are willing to pay anything to use (irregardless of how inexpensive they are) has been growing in the last two years. There is lots of anecdotal evidence that the number of images used in print is on the decline.

In the stock photo environment the retailer (distributor) keeps asking for more and more production of everything regardless of any analysis of actual sales. This benefits the distributor because the production comes at no cost to him. Statistically, the more inventory the distributor has the more something is likely to sell.

The losers are the producers, not the distributors.

Copyright © 2011 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:  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Dec 8, 2011
    If that is the case Jim then you and I are both out of a job : )


  • John Lund Posted Dec 8, 2011
    Kinda makes me feel like a Salmon...swimming against the current until...a...never mind.

    John Lund

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Dec 8, 2011
    Jim, there is more competition, etc today than before, yes ..... but the SKY IS NOT FALLING! You always seem to say it is...

    Think more positive, shoot better images, don't sell them for a dollar on Microstock, think like a buyer when shooting, shoot things that sell universally, keep busy shooting,, and all photographers will do better.

  • Paul Melcher Posted Dec 9, 2011
    Comparative shopping was easier under the plastic sleeve era as an editor would send a similar request to several photo agencies at the same time and receive then all at once. They could then, on the light box, display and compare images next to each other.
    You can't do that with websites.
    I think it's great time we stop thinking of the stock industry as a traditional supply/demand model because clearly it is not and never has been.

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