Facebook Pixel So You Want to Be a Stock Photographer, Part II

So You Want to Be a Stock Photographer, Part II

Preface:  There will be no images included in this entry. The point is to have the reader start reviewing the work of  great stock shooters. Stock photography is work and part of that work is research.  In this entry I have dropped names and agencies.  Now the research begins. Check out Part I of this series here. -DW

Stock photography has been going through an evolutionary process since the beginnings of photography as a popular hobby, and continues to be an industry in search of itself. The foundation is well established, but the end means is being continually in a state of flux by technology.

From its inception stock photography has been the process of making photographs on a speculative basis, for the most part, and despite the changes in the industry this notion has not changed.  Up until the early 1980’s, the collectives and libraries concentrated on global spot news, photo essays and photojournalism with a particular emphasis on editorial content.

One of the most respected of these original agencies, Black Star, who opened their doors in 1936, and remains a force in the editorial world to this day.  Many of the leading magazines, such as Time and Life, owe countless covers and visual content to Black Star, and its stable of noted photographers such as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and other others.

Capa, Cartier-Bresson, and fellow photographers George Rodger and Chim Seymour would eventually move on and start the agency Magnum Photos. Magnum also attracted the best shooters of the day and concentrated on covering global wars and human interest photo essays.

Both Black Star and Magnum continue to be leading editorial content providers and are very selective of the photographers they will represent, ensuring editorial integrity as a cornerstone of their respective businesses.

Although there were stock houses concentrating their efforts on licensing commercial and advertising photography before the 1980’s, Miller Services and  Comstock were several of earliest libraries that blazed the way for photographers to have the possibility of earning a living shooting stock images exclusively.  As commercial image libraries matured, along came the likes of Tony Stone, Masterfile, Image Bank and many others. These agencies would license image rights, as opposed to selling a picture in what was known as a Rights Managed business model. Consequently an advertiser licensing the image could be assured of not having the image also licensed by a competitor, and this exclusivity came with a premium pricing formula.

Several of the early agencies accepted image out-takes from assignment shoots; however, they soon realized good stock photography had a unique look and feel and those agencies that didn’t maintain high content standards were eventually swallowed and spit out by the dedicated and exclusive stock houses.

During the so-called heydays of the 90’s and early into the new millennium, skilled stock photographers were experiencing annual sales figures in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more.  Many photographers would claim their average license fee was in the vicinity of $400 per license, and monthly revenue with the better agencies could be estimated to average around $17.50 to $20.00 per image on file, per month, and with some select artists that number was much higher. These were no longer the days where stock images were outtakes from an assignment, but highly executed imagery with very sophisticated and targeted approaches to visually portray the art directories anticipated copy writing.

In the early 1990’s Corel™, out of Ottawa, Canada, started buying images outright for inclusion in CD bundles that being sold to a relatively new player in the field – desktop publishing.  By the mid-90’s Adobe Photoshop™ was coming into the mainstream, and digital camera’s of some consequence were starting to appear by the year 2000.  Next was the digital revolution and the start of a whole new business model in the world of stock photography.

In 2000, based out of offices in Calgary, Canada, a new upstart called iStockphoto would turn the stock photo business into a period of uncertainly.  Based on a concept of primarily giving access to amateur photographers the opportunity to earn a few bucks from their pictures, microstock was born. No longer was stock photography the exclusive milieu of dedicated full time image makers.

Seasoned stock photographers had difficulty comprehending why anyone would want to give an agency their work for a royalty as low as 15%, especially when traditional stock was providing photographers, on average, 50% of the license fee. There was even further confusion when the micro agencies demanded the photographer ensure the image was categorized, captioned, keywords applied and a myriad of other backend metadata duties became the requirement of the photographer; this work that had previously been completed by the agency as part of their cost in the Rights Managed world.

Many cigar chomping photographers dismissed this new revolution that came crashing at their doors in the form of microstock. Within a very few years there was a deluge of microstock agencies available to photographers —mostly amateurs with no previous skill or training—but with the technology advances in both cameras and post production software it quickly became inevitable this tidal wave was here to stay and would be a storm that would inflict change in its evolutionary wake.

Many agencies today continue to offer Rights Managed content for their clients, clients who require the knowledge that they have the opportunity to license an image with some degree of exclusivity. These rights managed images continue the trend of being highly executed stock images with unique looks and feel. The same agencies also offer Royalty Free images for those clients who are not concerned if their business competition uses the same images in similar media.

While microstock initially featured the work of amateurs, there have been professional photographers who have learned how to make the model work for them, and, indeed, work very well. However, the majority of microstock contributors continue to be the part-time pro, or amateur, who are complacent with potentially earning a few bucks for pizza and beer.

It really is anyone’s guess at this juncture what the long term prospects for stock photography as a business will be, and whether the photographer will have the capacity to develop a successful business model. The one thing that is showing trends is the very fact that a phenomenal number of images are being loaded to stock photography portals every day. As with any business, stock photography also subscribes to the concept of supply and demand. With such an oversupply of certain categories the price for images has plummeted. In some cases agencies are giving away images for free in an effort to keep those potential clients who are browsing their site.

One thing is certain, good stock images will always be in demand. The question is whether they can be created and marketed in such a manner that everyone can earn a living? With a royalty retention of 20%, or less for the photographer, it is highly unlikely the ROI (Return on Investment) will be sufficient to justify being a full-time, exclusive stock photographer.

Who knows, in 5 years everything will probably have changed again.

Postscript:  In Part III we will start discussing the process of how to learn what makes a stock photograph. 


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Dale Wilson
Dale Wilson

is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner
Garry Black.’

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