Selling Stock: Industry Trends

By Janet Smith

You might call a market vibrant if it attracts top-tier investors, posts annual sales of about $2 billion and is marked by innovative and evolving distribution centers and ever-easier entry.

But for many photographers, the market for stock photography has become far less attractive during the past decade.

Jim PickerellLong-time industry observer, author and consultant Jim Pickerell says, "There is a huge oversupply of images. Prices are dropping. In many cases, royalty percentages (to photographers) are also falling. And the number of people producing stock images and trying to get a share of the stock-photo pie is growing at an astronomical rate. Many very experienced stock photographers are cutting back dramatically on production or getting out of the stock photo business entirely."

To understand what is behind the scene Pickerell and others describe, it helps to know some basic terms:

  • Rights-managed stock includes traditionally licensed images, with prices based on specific uses and offering the option of exclusivity. It is often the most expensive choice for buyers.
  • Royalty-free stock pricing is based on the size of an image (in pixels) and includes broad usage categories, sometimes with limits, such as time, on their use. There is no option for exclusivity.
  • Microstock is lower priced yet, with the costs based on the size of the images and fewer – if any – restrictions on time and media use. Forget exclusivity.

By many accounts, by the mid-1990s, stock photographers producing good quality images did well under the rights-managed model. Demand was high and supply relatively low. Solid prices for image licenses allowed a trend-oriented photographer to make a good – in some cases, very good – living.

But digital photography and the Internet changed that.  Those licensing stock photography were looking for easier, cheaper ways to get the pictures they needed. They didn’t want to pay relicensing fees for images they wanted to use again or for longer. Royalty free images made that possible. Buyers paid standard prices, based on file size, which gave them nearly unlimited use of the images. Rather than negotiating individual licensing agreements, buyers could sign up for subscriptions and download the pictures they wanted.

In a 2011 column for the British Journal of Photography, Betsy Reid, former executive director of the now-defunct Stock Artists Alliance, an education and advocacy group says “By the early 2000s, collections had moved online and, while revenues remained robust, growth slowed as the industry matured and competition increased. Stock distributors launched a host of reactionary tactics in response, including reducing royalty rates, expanding sub-distribution agreements, offering micro-level pricing to top customers and producing wholly owned collections. The net effect was the redistribution of industry revenues, with less going to the photographers and more to a widening web of distributors and aggregators.”

In recent years, the stock-imagery market has continued to change. More and more people, equipped with digital cameras and smartphones that produce better-quality images than in days past, are marketing stock photography for extra income – not necessarily a living – and distributors eagerly exploit their work. Add in the long-standing Internet practice of illegally downloading images, and you can understand photographers' negative outlook.

Craig Peters, Getty ImagesIn early March, industry leader Getty Images, with a reputation for aggressive copyright protection, turned the business on its ear with an announcement that it would make available for free, about 35 million images for "non-commercial use" websites, blogs and social media. Craig Peters, Getty's senior vice president of business development, content and marketing, told the British Journal of Photography the move simply recognized the reality of today's Internet. Getty's decision to allow people to embed images also returns a lot of control to the company.

Getty maintains control by using an image player, much like YouTube or Vimeo video players, to display a photo on a Web site.  Full copyright information will be included in the embedded player, as well as a link back to Getty's licensing page.

It also will allow Getty to sell ads in the future and collect data from users. Company officials point to YouTube, Instagram and other services that use embedded content to promote their brands, drive traffic to their sites and generate advertising revenue.

Contributors can't opt out of the embed scheme, but in an email to contributors, Getty said it would share ad revenue with them based on contract royalty rates. When that revenue will start flowing is still up in the air. 

The data collected from users also could give Getty critical insight into the type of imagery the marketplace wants.

The embed player announcement came just months after a new agreement between Getty and Pinterest. Getty gets a fee from Pinterest for metadata on Getty collection photos pinned on the site. Getty uses its PicScout image recognition technology to identify Getty images on Pinterest and then provides metadata for the images. Contributors get a share of the fee Pinterest pays.

Getty photo editors also search Flikr, seeking images they think might sell. They respond to requests to license images found there. Getty offers rights-managed and royalty-free licenses for pictures in its Flikr collection, totaling more than 600,000 images. Contributors sign an exclusive agreement with Getty for the pictures the editors select from among those uploaded. Flikr contributors can find out what types of images Getty is looking for on Twitter by following #gettyimageswant.

Some companies, such as Scoopshot, EyeEm, and Foap, are looking to increasingly pervasive smartphone pictures for crowd-sourced, on-demand photography. In addition to contributor-submitted photos, buyers can propose assignments or “missions.” Using a company’s app, photographers respond to the request, upload their pictures and get paid if their photos are licensed. With Foap, contributors must rate five other contributors’ work before they can upload their own.

But as Pickerell points out, it doesn’t stop there. Google and Bing are making it easier for image buyers to find free pictures. They filter searches to find only images with Creative Commons licenses that allow broad use without payment.

Stocksy United Home PageMidstock,” he says, is yet another variation on pricing. He points to Stocksy United, a photographer cooperative launched in March 2013 and the brainchild of iStockphoto founder Bruce Livingstone, as an example of midstock pricing.

Livingstone says he came out of retirement after selling iStockphoto to Getty Images, because he wanted to help photographers better control their careers.

Stocksy is set up under Canada’s Cooperatives Act, which is the reason Livingstone moved from Los Angeles to Canada to start his new venture.

 “Photographers are involved in everything from marketing, budgeting and decisions about the direction of Stocksy.” Livingstone said.

He said he wanted a standardized pricing system not dependent on subscriptions, credits or discounts. Prices are primarily based on the size of the image. Everything is royalty free. 

Pricing starts at $10 for the smallest royalty-free image. The photographer gets 50 percent of a standard purchase, Livingston said.

Photographers must agree to become shareholders and agree to the terms and conditions on the use of the photography.

Stocksy reached its goal of signing 500 photographers in its first year. The cooperative's plans call for adding no more than 500 photographers a year.

Bruce Livingstone, Founder Stocksy UnitedEach photographer gets one share, paying $1 when he or she makes the first sale. Stocksy also promises up to 90 percent of the profits will go to photographers, with a “performance dividend” based on sales. The cooperative announced in a March 26 news release that it had a profitable first year, but did not release figures on how much it earned nor how much money was distributed to member photographers.

Livingstone, who has moved to the position of board chairman, said photographers could see how operating money is spent. Stocksy will share its audited numbers with the members.

“We’ve got a world of experience in this business,” he said. “We’re coming at it with fresh eyes with the co-op model.”

Brianna Wettlaufer, a founder and former vice president at iStockphoto, has been named the cooperative's new CEO.

The most consistent advice offered photographers is not to put your eggs all in one basket. Stock sales are no longer reliable as a sole source of income. But that’s not to say there isn’t money still to be made.

“If … photographers still want to try to produce and sell stock images,” Pickerell says, “I suggest they research what is already out there. In the Internet environment, this is really very easy, (but) I think few photographers do it. Check out what is already available on Getty, Corbis, Alamy, iStock and Shutterstock and the number of images in each collection.

“Keep in mind that if a collection has 5,000 images customers will probably only look at the first two or three hundred available on a subject. Depending on how the search return is organized, any image you produce might be near the top for a few weeks or months, but if it isn’t licensed immediately and several thousand images share the same keywords, your image can very quickly get so low in the search return that it will never be seen by anyone.“

Pickerell recommends photographers spend time identifying customers who need pictures the customers can’t produce themselves.

“That said, if the photographer has already produced images or can get the secondary rights to images that will be produced on future assignments, then the photographer might be able to earn a little extra making such images available as stock.”

Scott McKiernan, CEO Zuma PressScott McKiernan, CEO and founder of Zuma Press, (and NPPA vice president) a news, sports and entertainment agency that offers rights-management sales, says, “Everything’s changing, but there are a lot of opportunities. Every photographer can benefit from agency representation. Agencies should be part of your plan. People who have been successful are shooting constantly, moving it fast and moving it cleanly.

“Get (your photos) to a distributor; don’t let them sit on your laptop. … The appreciation level (for good photography) is going up. We shouldn’t feel bad about our world. What matters is great imagery getting used.”

Reid concluded her 2011 column with this advice: “Photographers can no longer afford to hang out a shingle with the moniker 'good photography at a reasonable price.' The differentiators for success are as follows: highly distinctive imagery reflecting a clear and compelling aesthetic vision, marketing savvy, sharp business skills, adaptability and persistence. Today’s professional photographer must deliver nothing less.”


Janet Smith is a freelance writer based in Colorado. Formerly, she was the editorial page editor and managing editor at the The Island Packet in Hilton Head Island, S.C. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in business administration.