A reader sent me this article. I thought it was interesting because it’s a question that comes up a lot with my students. What makes a photographer a ‘professional’? What do you think?
The stock photography industry has followed a classic business cycle:
- initial idea (1920s)
- long, slow early growth (1920-1980)
- quickly growing success (1980-1995)
- recognition of the “new, profitable” business (1990-1995)
- influx of many suppliers (1995-2005)
- over-saturation of market (2000-current)
- industry upheaval and chaos (2000-current)
- industry re-establishes – survivors continue in a redesigned industry (coming soon)
This cycle is like a wave slowly building momentum across an ocean, quickly gaining power and crashing into a new form. The wave cycle is not limited to stock photography – many other industries have gone through the cycle. The recent US real estate crisis was a prime example. The high tech bubble mirrored a similar cycle.
Riding the stock wave
The cycle is not a new phenomenon. The important thing to do in any business is evaluate what part of the cycle your industry falls. Too early and you have a long lead time for significant returns. Too late and you are caught in the chaos of an over-saturated market.
What to do?
Look ahead. What’s the next big thing? Where is the untapped market for photos?
As an example, in 2000 Bruce Livingstone developed a new idea in stock photography. He recognized there were thousands of talented hobby photographers who earned decent livings doing something else. This was key. Bruce started a new era of stock photography whereby he tapped into a vast pool of talent that did not require significant financial payment – they already earned a living as nurses, plumbers or lawyers.
He seized the idea that these amateur photographers could be happily paid in bragging rights – “My photography is so good it is being used commercially…” istockphoto.com pays most contributors a financial pittance – 20% or 40 cents to $3 per sale – plus bragging rights.
The success of istock has it’s roots in:
- volume (lots of talented, happy, financially stable amateur photographers contributing)
- low commission expenses (high gross margins)
- a huge market of photography buyers looking for budget prices!
It was brilliant! In less than 6 years istockphoto.com was sold to Getty for US$50million. That’s a pretty nice photo sale for Bruce and any partners.
Many photographers have looked to diversify into other agencies – hoping to stack the odds in their favour. Some look to the fine art world. Others, myself included, have steered photo businesses to include other photo work or photo related businesses as well as stock. Colin Rowe, a veteran assignment photographer, saw the need for a digital archiving service for large corporate and government clients and launched Archi-Media.ca. His business does well and is more diversified than ever.
Looking for the wave
Stock photographers who started in the 1980’s have done well. Stock photographers entering the traditional stock market recently will have to swim very, very hard to survive.
Be on the lookout. Scan the horizon. Catch a wave before it surges and you can surf a nice ride.
Last week we posted the first part of this stock mini series and touched on the history of stock photography. Today we look at trends, stock photographer’s opinions and practical ideas of shooting stock.
Stock photography has changed dramatically over the last few years – past realities are now tougher to negotiate.
Trends and points of view:
- Jim Pickerrell is a well known photographer with respected views on stock. In Rangefinder Magazine Jim is quoted as saying “there is now a huge oversupply of imagery… I no longer persuade photographers to shoot stock… there are exceptions but even the rock stars are seeing their gross incomes drop.” And that was in 2007!
- One such exception is Masterfile photographer Garry Black. He recently offered “If there is any secret to succeeding in stock it would have to be keep on producing new images! Of course there are quite a few underlying factors in this as well. The more diverse your portfolio is, the greater chance you have for sales… I have continued to produce stock on an ongoing and full time basis over my entire photographic career (since 1986). This is probably the one reason that my sales continue to increase, despite the fact that the number of sales for traditional licensed images has declined as well as the average price for those images.“
- A few years ago Getty started selling subscriptions to clients – for a lump sum the client could access photos for any purpose. That’s a tough business model for the new stock photo producer! Stock photo HarryNowell.com
- Larger agencies have started purchasing collections of imagery outright that can be resold without paying royalties. For a lump sum it can make sense for the agency or photographer in some scenarios.
- Agencies are also directing their own stock shoots – hiring photographers on an assignment basis – again no royalties – just a slick and trim stock production machine!
- Grant Heilman, small agency owner, has said “Our situation changed in the digital world with the influx of very bright, very experienced business people armed with plenty of capital.“
Garry Black offers this advice to anyone entering the stock photo industry: “… But living off of stock is next to impossible when starting out, it’s very capital intensive with small initial returns. When you’re first starting out you will need at least five years of financial backing. And then you will have to shoot stock exhaustively, building up the number of images that you have with an agent(s).
If you can’t afford to shoot stock on a full time basis, then you can expect it will be considerably longer before you’ll be able to live completely off of stock. The reality is that most photographers fail at making stock a significant portion of their income because they can’t either afford the time or the expense or both in order to produce it.”
- massive amounts of experience – thousands of hours spent honing a skill
- good timing and appropriate opportunity
Without all three elements the Beatles, hockey uberstar Wayne Gretzky and Bill Gates would never have reached such lofty successes. While today is a very different time for stock than the golden years of the 80’s there is always opportunity for photographers. The tough part is finding it.
Coming soon – Part 3 – Future opportunities
The good news is the demand for stock imagery continues to be strong. The other good news is, as a photographer, stock can be one of the most creatively rewarding aspects of the job.
There is news that is less rosy. While demand may be stable – lets face it photo imagery will always be in demand – there is far too big a supply of usable imagery in the marketplace. With too much supply comes low prices. With far too much supply comes crushingly low prices.
In the next few blog postings we will be posting some background stock industry information, current trends and future opportunities for the creators of stock imagery.
Some stock photo history:
The idea of licensing imagery started many, many, many years ago – some say as early as the 1920’s. As with many good ideas that become prominent mainstream commercial ventures there is often a large lead time needed to develop the idea.
Stock started growing to prominence as two sides – supply and demand saw a need for the idea of stock:
- End users recognized the value of the idea of stock – needing a vibrant, sunny, photo of a biplane pilot shot flying his plane is very costly to assign to a photographer. The photog has to wait for the right weather and get in the air with a skilled model. That will cost the client lots of dough.
- Photographers initially recognized they had some out takes from assignments. The work sat earning nothing. As the stock industry developed photographers recognized good photo skills combined with contacts to people with, say a biplane and pilot’s license, could turn into viable stock photo sales.
From the photographer’s perspective there was value in hpothesizing what would sell and what was accessible to capture. From the market’s perspective there was value in looking at pre shot imagery for their photo needs. The missing link were agencies who would connect photographers and clients.
Agencies like TonyStone started linking supply and demand. By the 1980’s stock was a good place to be. What a life:
- shoot what you enjoy (as long as there is a market)
- submit regularly to a good agency
- watch sales grow!
The Stock Industry – Rights Managed
Imagery was licensed on a Rights Managed basis – photos were tracked and usage histories were kept. Prices were negotiated on a per usage basis – the greater the value of the use the greater the price.
Early stock photographers watched significant annual sales as they amassed large collections of imagery available for licensing. Some assignment photographers felt this stock photo model was scandalous and unethical – a sellout!
As with any market where people are making good sales at an enjoyable task more people entered the supply chain. By the mid 1990’s things started to change. There was more supply than demand.
A new model of stock was launched – Royalty Free. Agencies started licensing imagery for a flat fee regardless of usage – no history was recorded which could cause embarrassing and expensive scrapped ad campaigns. The result of greater supply was lower pricing. Agencies undercut each other to get a greater share of the market.
Again… some photographers felt this stock photo model was scandalous and unethical – a sellout!
Photographers kept pumping out more imagery trying to sustain sales levels. Agencies tried to outdo each other. Getty (of oil fame) and Corbis (of Bill Gates fame) started gobbling up smaller agencies – like Tony Stone – trying to capture the market. Throw in the new phenomenon of the World Wide Web and you have an easier way to show off unlimited amounts of imagery on the web – the supply of imagery exploded!
The late 1990’s were a time of tumultuous upheaval for the market as the world of stock re-invented itself.
Recently, another new model entered the industry – microstock – based on ‘crowdsourcing‘ ideas. A small Canadian company, istockphoto, started the trend by sourcing imagery from accomplished non professionals – often hobby photographers – and selling it for very little money – $2-$29 per image! These rates make it very hard to earn a living especially when most istock contributors earn 20% commission – that’s 40 cents to $5.80 for each sale they make on your behalf.
Wow… many photographers feel this stock photo model is scandalous and unethical – a sellout!
And that is where we stand today. Too many photos. Steady demand. Three stock models still exist:
- Rights Managed
- Royalty Free
Who has the power? Not the photographers! There is money to be made but it is very, very tough for new photographers to establish themselves as money making traditional stock shooters of the glory days of stock.
Stay tuned for current trends in stock photography… Coming soon!