Will Hobbyists Take Over?

Posted on 1/22/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

A frequent question from professional stock photographers is: “Will hobbyists take over the market?”

Before answering this question, we must first define the concepts of “hobbyist” and “professional.” I define a professional stock photographer as one who earns his entire living from taking pictures, on speculation, and licensing rights to them. A hobbyist also licenses rights to images he creates, but looks at the revenue generated from this effort as a supplement to his primary source of income.

It is important to recognize that the labels of hobbyist or professional say nothing about the quality of the work produced. Some images produced by hobbyists or part-time stock photographers exhibit as much technical skill, craft and creativity as the best produced by professionals. At the same time, some images produced by professionals are very pedestrian.

Using these definitions we must admit that, even before the introduction of microstock, a high percentage of the images being licensed as rights-managed stock were—and remain—produced by hobbyists or part-timers. Very few photographers are able to earn their entire living by licensing rights to stock images. Most have always viewed their stock revenue as a supplement to their primary source of income.

Some will say a professional photographer is someone who earns his entire living from taking pictures. Thus, photographers who shoot weddings, events, or work on salary for a corporation and occasionally license rights to stock images would be considered “professional.” Defined this way, professionals include many very part-time stock shooters.

It should also be recognized that some who started out as part-timers move on to earning a full-time living from stock. Such transitions happen with microstock shooters as well as those supplying images to traditional outlets.

As we learn more about those selling microstock, it is becoming clear that hobbyists are not taking over the stock photo market—despite the fact that there are somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 photographers, most of them hobbyists or part-timers, supplying images to various microstock sites.

An examination of iStockphoto’s top sellers reveals that those making the most the sales are very active stock producers, not part-time shooters. Over 70% of those with images on iStock have had five or fewer downloads. They are the hobbyists. A very small percentage (less than 0.5%) of iStock photographers are producing the kind of images most people want to use. One third of all iStock sales are made by 250 photographers, while the company represents over 60,000 contributors. Many of these 250 photographers, and perhaps a few others a little further down the food chain, are professionals by most definitions—and some are making serious money.

On the other hand, if we look at rights-managed sellers represented by Getty, Corbis, Jupiterimages and others, we find that a very small percentage of them earn enough from stock alone to support themselves. Are rights-managed sellers more professional simply because they are betting their images will sell for big bucks (which seldom happens), while the microstock photographer focuses on volume?

Hobbyists are not taking over the microstock market any more than they are taking over the traditional market. There are simply many part-timers engaged in all segments of both markets.

Copyright © 2009 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.  


  • Lester Lefkowitz Posted Jan 22, 2009
    Possibly a better ordering of the two camps would be those who are concerned about earning a decent return on their investment, and those who are satisfied with telling their friends they've had some pictures published (their return on investment being measured in ego-dollars.) Then the top microstock producers clearly are "professionals."
    But the 60,000+ hobbyists who only have a few sales a year, and are happy to settle for a gross annual income of $5.78, still take away a big bunch of sales from "professionals" (like me). Life is tough!

  • Rio Helmi Posted Jan 22, 2009
    Hey Lester,

    What to do: the very tools which have been created over the years to bring photography to new levels don't only benefit pros. Those of us who worked with rolls of our favorite films, building the reflexes to get focus and exposure right (especially for the particular emulsion you were shooting), developing the films exactly the way we wanted it and so on, now have more time to concentrate more on the actual image. The new amateurs get to do the same thing. In the end it's the image-ination that sets the image apart.
    As a consequence of the ease with which one can make an acceptable (from the technical point of view) image there is just a mass of rubbish out there. If someone can't make a decent living out of creating rubbish because an amateur made a better picture, it's annoying to the pro but in the end that's the risk the pro takes if he/she creates rubbish. There are plenty of "pros" who only see photography as income only. But there are of course pros who make great images and can't make a living for a variety of reasons. That's sad, because it just means meaningless images will drown out important work, and someone who should be able to make a living doing something they love and respect can't.

  • Jagdish Agarwal Posted Jan 23, 2009
    Well said Rio,

    I remember someone once told me, from Monday to Friday shoot for your sole and on Saturday and Sunday shoot for your soul. Then you will be happy.

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