Recession Proof Photography Niches

This might be a bad time to be a banker, an investor, a property developer or… well, just about anything really, but a few branches of photography are still bringing in the cash. In fact, some types of photography might even be doing better than ever.

There are no current figures easily available that cover every aspect of photography but it’s a safe bet that the difficulties faced by both the car industry and the advertising industry mean that car photographers are feeling the squeeze at the moment. And while couples are continuing to get married, worries about job stability and income should mean that wedding photographers will need to emphasize their lower-priced packages rather than the deals that deliver everything, all-in with the frills on top. Stock photographers, and in particular microstock photographers though, are one group that do seem to be sitting pretty.

In November 2007, Getty Images predicted that revenues from its iStockPhoto division would reach $262 million by 2012. The microstock site had earned $71.9 million that year and was expecting to make $122 million in 2008. Chief Operating Officer Kelly Thompson, however, recently told Photo District News that iStockPhoto  would clear $200 million this year already.

Fewer Stock Sales, Higher Stock Prices

That suggests that producers of low-stock images are still looking at boom times – good news for the mostly part-timers who create them. But as Dan Heller points out, the statistics hide as much as they reveal. The old microstock model of a dollar an image (and cents for the photographer) is now giving way to higher priced photos. iStockPhoto recently introduced its Vetta Collection, which charges between $20 and $70 for a high quality image submitted by one of its exclusive contributors. Other microstock companies are pushing subscription plans which appear to offer greater value but which in practice result in more money earned from fewer downloads to locked-in buyers. The one-dollar image now tends to apply to the kind of tiny low-res images that compete only with Flickr’s CC-licensed photos.

Microstock companies then might be making more money but it does look like they’re coming from fewer sales. Again, that should be good news for photographers. It means photos are more valuable than they might have thought. Or alternatively, that stock photos are worth exactly what microstock’s critics said they were worth and that the microstock companies have been underselling them for years. Either way, being able to make more money for fewer sales is still good news for microstock photographers.

And tough times have turned out to be surprisingly good too for real estate photographers. That may appear surprising. With house prices a fraction of the amounts they were worth a year ago, Realtors should have fewer incentives to splash out on marketing. In fact, as our previous post pointed out, there is in fact very little correlation between the price of a property and the desire of a Realtor to pay a photographer to shoot it. The difficulty of selling particularly high-priced homes  may even act as a disincentive against making the investment in professional photography.

“Generally, photo shoot prices are more tied to time spent on the job or licensing for different usage than the home price,” real estate photography specialist Larry Lohrman told us. “Realtors selling upper-end homes are more likely to use photos for magazines and fancy brochures than [they will for] lower-end homes. However, upper-end homes can take years to sell and Realtors may lose the listing and never get paid for their marketing (photographer) costs so Realtors are cautious with their marketing dollars.”

In practice, real estate photographers have found that the glut of properties on the market has led Realtors to look for new ways to help their homes stand out – and those methods include professional photography. As a result, real estate photographers have been able to raise their prices. Hopefully, that’s a trend that will continue after the property market recovers when Realtors recognize the value of professionally-shot images.

Star Photos Still Burning Bright

And a third photography niche that doesn’t seem to have been too bothered by the collapse in the economy is celebrity photos. Perhaps most famously, British weekly OK! has just paid $500,000 for what it claims are the last pictures of Michael Jackson alive. He’s on a stretcher and not looking very well. Forbes notes that in comparison to other celebrity shots, that half-million dollar fee is small change. It was less than a year ago that People and Hello! paid between $11 million and $15 million for pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s twins. That might suggest that the celebrity photo market has suffered a horrible collapse but all of the ten most expensive celebrity images are posed shots that show either a star with a baby or a star in her wedding dress. A snap of a very sick-looking singer is always going to be worth much less in terms of extra sales, website traffic and branding for the magazine. It’s not a feel-good image.

As long as an exclusive celebrity picture can sell as many as 500,000 extra copies though (and Forbes claims that the picture of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s oldest son, Shiloh Nouvel, which cost $4.1 million in 2006, moved an extra 800,000 copies), the prices for them will always be big. Movies remained popular even in the Depression, and the same is likely to be true of paparazzi and celebrity pictures even in this recession.

So the picture for photographers who hope to make money during difficult economic times isn’t entirely bleak. The value of the photos you can upload to stock sites is rising even if the number of sales is falling – and that means more money for less work. If you can get your foot in the door of real estate companies, you should be able to catch a niche on the rise, and if you can persuade Hello! to let you take a family portrait of some A-list celebrity, you should certainly have plenty of cash. All you then have to do is figure out where to invest it.

3 comments for this post.

  1. AUGUSTO Said:

    I agree with you that stock is still growing with the crisis, even though I've been working on that for not a long time. In the last months I do see less sales, but more money coming in.

  2. Denver Engagement Photographer Said:

    I have never quite gotten into stock, and while it might be lucrative, that's why I keep my day job so I can work on what I really enjoy, and not have to worry about what's going to put food on the table. My recent more fine art type of photography work is proof of that.

  3. F.57 stock photo blog Said:

    I think this is a slightly simplistic view on the stock industry. Yes there is still plenty of turnover and prices in the micro sector are on the up. This has to be balanced though with the ever increasing dilution effect of more contributors and more images. Also those contributing to more traditional agencies are seeing trend towards lower licence fees as they compete with micros and struggle with buyers from industries that are suffering.


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