What Are “Real Photos?”

Posted on 2/28/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Recently, I was contacted by a Business School student who is developing an app that “will be used by internet publication firms, as well amateur and professional photographers.” He asked if I would provide some insight into the industry, specifically on topics such as photographer compensation, and the market share of "real photo’s" vs. stock photos. Here’s my response.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “real photos” vs. stock photos. My guess is that when you use the term “real photo” you are referring to pictures that were taken candidly of something that happens in front of the photographer with no pre-planning, arrangement or organization of the situation. There are an increasing number of such photos in the stock photo libraries.

You may also be distinguishing “real photos”, from those taken on assignment by either a professional photographer or an amateur. In such cases the photographer might have been asked to produce the best possible photograph of something specific. In such a case the photographer might have chosen attractive people to be in the picture, cleaned up any mess in the scene, and made sure the scene was lit properly so it didn’t look like it was shot in a warehouse (assuming it wasn’t being shot in a warehouse). I think think such photos are also “real photos.”



Possibly, the photographer might have been photographing something for his own, or his company’s use, or for his company’s website. After having taking the picture he decided to make it available in a stock photo collection in the event someone else might like it and decide to use it. To my mind that’s also a “real photo.”  I don’t understand your distinction.

I think all stock photos are real photos. They are just photos shot without a specific request from a customer or end user. The photographer chooses to take the picture because he/she believes there might be someone out there who could find a use for it. If you want to see a few stock photos that I believe are great photos take a look at this link.



Now to get to your questions. Based on my research, I believe there were about 317 million stock photos licensed in 2016 for use somewhere in the world. (See here) A few were used in magazines, newspapers and corporate advertising, but the vast majority, and an increasing percentage, are used online. Also a lot of the 317 million are downloaded and paid for through subscriptions and never “used” anywhere. No one knows how many are ever used, or fall into any of the above categories.

Determining actual revenue is a little easier, but still not that precise. There are some very wild numbers floating around out there.

Based on my research, and my 50 years in the business, I believe the gross annual revenue worldwide from stock photos and illustrations is about $1.7 billion. Graphic illustrations probably make up 25% to 30% of this revenue so actual revenue for photos, including those used for editorial purposes, might represent about $1.2 billion. Stock video clips add about another $600 million to the $1.7 billion bringing total stock image revenue to about $2.3 billion. Much of the footage is historical and comes from major motion picture and TV production companies. Because of the Internet there is a growing demand for video clips and a declining demand for still images.



I estimate that about 30% of the revenue generated comes from U.S. users; Another 8% from user in the rest of North and South America. About 43% comes from UK and European users; 14% from Asia including Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and India; and about 5% from uses in the Middle East and Africa. The actual number of images used in each region breaks down about the same way. U.S. and some European users may get fewer images for the dollars they pay while user in other parts of the world may pay lower prices and thus get more images for the dollars they spend.

The average price per image licensed is harder to figure, but here are a few numbers that may help. The average gross sale price of an image licensed by Shutterstock is about $3.02. The image creators receives about 30% of that, or $0.91. A huge percentage of the images licensed by Shutterstock are sold through subscriptions and most image creators receive $0.38 for each  image used, no matter how extensive the use.

iStock licenses fewer images at slightly higher prices so image creators probably average somewhere between $1.00 and $2.50 per image used. The iStock sales operation is currently being restructured and most creators expect that royalties per-image-licensed will fall.

I have reviewed 2015 sales reports of some of the leading Getty Images photographers. Getty is considered the top-of-the-line supplier of stock images. Based on the sales reports I have examined 60% to 70% of the images are being licensed for $25 or less. The average license fee for this group of images is between $4.00 and $7.00. The image creator gets 20% to 35% of these license fees. A significant percent of these images are used on the Internet, but there are no precise numbers available. Getty does license a few images at much higher prices, but the higher priced sales are rare and not anything a photographer can count on.

Most professional stock photographers have seen their annual revenue drop 80% to 90% since 2007. Most photographers who have tried in the past to earn a significant portion of their income from stock image licensing are turning -- or have turned -- to other ways to earn a living.

Increasingly, the people providing stock images are amateurs who are “playing around” and tend to give up when the see making their images available for licensing is more trouble that its worth. Despite those who drop out, Shutterstock has over 190,000 registered contributors (photographers and illustrator). Only about 14,373 of these have more then 999 images and their images make up 77% of Shutterstock’s total collection. On average these photographers are earning about $1.19 per-image in the collection, per-year. While this is an average, a very small percentage of stock photo producers earn significantly more, but for each one who earns more there are a significant number that earn much less.

No one knows how many photographers are actually participating in the stock photo market, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were over 500,000. Nobody has any idea what percentage earn how much because all these people are small independent contractors. They don’t report how they earn money from the pictures they produce (was it a wedding, a family portrait, a picture someone used on a poster, something used on the Internet, something used for wall art or maybe a major print ad), or how much they earned for each type of work. In addition, some report their photography revenue to the IRS if photography is their major source of income, but a huge percentage do photography as a sideline and don’t report the revenue to anyone.

How much should a photographer be paid if he/she is going to produce a “real photo” to a customer’s specifications. One thing that certainly should be considered is the amount of time it is going to take to do the job. In most cases the time to get to and from the job should also be factored in. If I’m taking a picture for my regular employer who is paying me a regular salary that’s one thing, but if an Internet publications firm calls me and wants me to take a picture across town, at certain specific time, then the time it take me to get to and from the job and any waiting time is also a cost of my doing the work. In addition, when I get home, it may be necessary (highly likely) to spend additional time on the computer editing and preparing the digital files for delivery to the customer. The client should also expect to pay for that time.

Of course, if a “real photo” is something some snapped with their cell phone while engaged in their daily routine the photographer certainly didn’t spend much time to produce the image. Maybe, $1.19 is a reasonable amount of money for that kind of work. But then the photographer must decide if this picture is something she wants to make available to everyone and allow them use it any way they wish.

If the photographer wants someone they don’t know to be able to find this image among the billions floating around the Internet, the photographer may need to write a caption and provide some keywords so someone else might be able to find it. So far, no one has come up with an app that can determine what a potential user is thinking, without any direct written or verbal communication from that user. Maybe that’s what your app will do.

Pretty soon, the photographer who snapped this “real photo” has invested a good portion of her day making this photo available so others could find and use it.

But, if this is the photographer’s hobby; earning money for time invested is unimportant and the photographer may be happy to donate her time so others might enjoy and benefit. Then the photographers shouldn’t expect to be paid anything.


Copyright © 2017 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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