Surviving the Death of Stock Photography

Photographers might be a varied bunch but there’s one thing they can all agree on: prices are dropping. Times seem to be getting harder for photographers who want to sell their pictures, and they’re hardest of all for those who have been making a living licensing their images. It’s a feeling with some foundation.

FotoQuote, an industry-standard program that uses sales records to track prices and suggest usage fees, was launched in 1993. Since then US inflation has amounted to just over 50 percent but according to Cradoc Bagshaw, a professional photographer and the program’s creator, usage prices have not generally kept up. Some advertising categories may have risen by half over that period and prices are higher for non-editorial use with low circulations and small print runs, but higher end usage has seen a sharp falling off and most usage categories have suffered cuts once the effect of inflation is taken into account.

Publishers Aren’t Supposed to Be Talking

And it’s not just the prices that are being squeezed. Clients are also pushing for looser licenses, demanding more usage while paying less money. Those changes to the pricing model may have an even greater effect on a photographer’s bottom line than the amounts paid, argues Cradoc.

Textbook publishers, for example, began demanding that image licenses be extended to five years; they’re now asking for ten years without offering to pay additional fees. Photographers would also demand additional payments if a book that included their image was revised. Publishers began expecting the original price to include those revisions if less than 10 percent of the content was changed; in the last year or so, they have upped those demands to 25 percent, and refusal is seen as a deal breaker.

“These publishers, who aren’t supposed to be talking to each other, seemed to come up with the idea at the same time,” says Cradoc. “Rarely are books revised more than 25 percent.”

Photographers are certainly feeling these changes in their pockets but they’re also feeling them in their relationships with buyers. Larry Ulrich, a photographer with almost 40 years’ experience and the owner of a small stock company representing the work of eighteen photographers, reports that clients were easy to work with when photographers could dictate the prices based on experience and industry standards. Now sellers have to work within the budgets of their buyers.

For Cradoc Bagshaw, the pressure on pricing and usage is coming primarily from the market’s two main suppliers: Corbis and Getty. A cartel of agencies large enough to define the market, he says, is preventing prices from rising with inflation and in some cases pushing them below the cost of production.

“Much of this is possibly caused by the business practices of Getty,” says Cradoc. “They are setting much of the model that photographers have to compete with when they are pricing images, but they aren’t constrained by the same costs in producing the images that the photographers have to deal with.”

It’s Enthusiasts’ Fault

Larry Ulrich places the blame elsewhere, on new photographers who are more interested in seeing their names in print than in receiving payment for their talent. Major stock companies, he argues, offer small percentages because of the increased supply of low-priced images from photographers who don’t consider the cost of production or the need to make ends meet.

“So many of these individuals have come into our profession after success in other professions where they adhered to their own industry standards for pricing,” says Larry. “But once here, how much money they make isn’t a necessary goal.”

It’s hard though to estimate the effect that enthusiasts are having on pricing, even indirectly. Cradoc Bagshaw notes that buyers are using images wherever they find them, even placing microstock pictures on the cover of Time. Getty’s Flickr collection is growing daily too, introducing the market to part-time photographers with real talent. That increased demand will affect certain kinds of uses. But professionals, he notes, are still selling stock, often by taking advantages of the new technologies. Larry’s own agency has remained competitive by cutting costs, increasing productivity, and by no longer sending film to buyers. He also helps his customers save time by supplying them with high quality, highly targeted images, a benefit with real value in a crowded market. Model releases supplied by professionals are also likely to be safer than those supplied by amateurs, says Cradoc.

And the new technology is opening new opportunities too. The latest edition of fotoQuote contains 86 new pricing categories, bringing the total to 304. Of those new categories, 35 are for video stock footage, an area that Cradoc predicts will be a big part in photographers’ future income opportunities. Photographers can use the same equipment that they use for stills, delivering usable video at competitive prices.

“Also there is more protection from the likelihood of the amateur photo hordes producing something usable than there is with stills,” he argues.

That’s good news for photographers, not so great for traditional video producers who may find themselves feeling like stock photographers.

Whether the changes to the photography industry are good or bad for photographers though, and whether they’re caused by small-time enthusiasts, giant photo agencies, or the combined pressure of both, change is happening. Photographers need to learn how to swim in the new waters, making the most of opportunities as they arise. Instead of setting prices, demanding tight usage restrictions and negotiating from a relatively strong position, they have to get used to asking how much the buyer can afford to pay and deciding whether that’s an amount that they can afford to accept, even if that means saying no to a figure that doesn’t take the cost of image production into account.

And reliability and reputation are key too. When the market is filled with supply, shoppers want to buy products that they’re familiar with and from sellers they know and trust. Those are assets that can help generate a feeling that even if prices aren’t rising, at least your own income is holding steady.

7 comments for this post.

  1. Priscilla Tienkamp Said:

    Great article. I'm currently doing research on how photographers will (have to) professionalize their business in the future and my conclusions are about the same.

    However, I've also noticed that as photographers are entering the video market, video producers are also entering the photography market. That's why it's not sure if photographers will actually profit from this development.

    It does seem that photographers need to develop their skills in other activities in order to survive, whether it's doing a video production, giving presentations or teaching others about photography. These side-activities will also help to promote their core business, as they are presenting their work as a photographer in new markets.

  2. Steve Said:

    Ah yes Larry Ulrich, blame the enthusiast. Saves having to do any serious examination of self or industry.

    Anyone who wants to use the internet for distribution has to work within the rules and conventions of the ecosystem of the internet. Maybe Mr Ulrich should have thought about this when everyone else did - several years ago.

    I enjoy the more democratic nature of the current model but I'm not scared of a little competition and fully accept that change is as much a part of business as the profit and loss statement.

  3. painters Said:

    As a digital photogapher and multimedia developer, i have to agree with the theory that photographers must deversify in order to be competive in thr emerging marketplace.

  4. Charleston Wedding Photographer Said:

    If you don't diversify then other photographers in your area are going to adapt and leave you behind.

  5. Thom Gourley Said:

    The times they are a changin'. Guess that the hustle has to become my new routine: Putting together a patchwork of outlets that, taken on total, could bring in a living income. Still beats a desk job...

  6. Carroll Seghers Said:

    Ultimately, the market for stock is driven by its buyers, just like every other market. Demand vs. supply is the major factor when an item is perceived as a commodity. How did photo images come to be perceived in this fashion? There are many reasons, but I feel that high quality photo manipulation software is one of the key ones. The transition of ad imagery from print to online is another. Technology changes things forever.

  7. tom walker Said:

    Like any thing.(product or service) Over supply will hurt it. Even kill it. Once there is a lot less folks willing to work for what is being offered...pricing will stabilize....Till then the white knuckle ride to the bottom will continue !
    - tom

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