Business Trends
The State Of Stock Photography
Expanding The Definition Of Usage

I know this is a big topic to cover in a column so we will turn to Jim Pickerell for help. With 40 years photography experience including over 25 years in the stock industry, Pickerell is a widely published author and industry veteran. He is editor of the worldwide newsletter "Selling Stock" (www.pickphoto.com/sso) and co-author/publisher of Negotiating Stock Photo Prices, Fifth Edition. Pickerell and daughter Cheryl own Stock Connection (www.scphotos.com), a stock agency currently representing selected images from more than 400 photographers.

Terms And Conditions
Let's start with a basic explanation of some current popular terminology. As stock photography has changed it has altered and expanded the definition of "usage," a key element in stock sales. Controlling, selling, or leasing "rights" to an image is what it is all about. The first term is "rights controlled." This is generally used for assignment photography (creation of new images) where the photographer and the client discuss the image use in advance and the client buys some usage with the photographer in complete control. Some photographers sell the maximum usage, some sell very specific usage. Usually there is a stated agreement on how the photographer can reuse the images later.
Pickerell goes on to explain the terms generally used today in stock photography (reuse of existing images). He says, "There are basically three different types of licensing in the stock arena: Rights Managed, Royalty Free, and Subscription."

Rights Managed: This is what I used to call Rights Protected, but Pickerell says Rights Managed is more commonly used today. He continues, "The key distinction is that specific rights are licensed and the price is based on the usage. The uses can be tracked and thus there is the potential to ensure the customer that the image will not be used by certain other parties. In most cases if the customer is given the price for a non-exclusive usage fee and a higher price for some type or exclusivity, customers will almost always take the lower price."

Royalty Free: The price is fixed based on the size of the file delivered and the customer is free to use the image any way they want (with some exceptions). Pickerell tells us, "The vast majority of these sales today are single image sales, not a CD. Royalty Free prices have been rising and in some cases, for certain kinds of use, they are higher than Rights Managed prices."

Subscription: Customers pay a small monthly fee to use as many images as they want from an archive. Pickerell says, "There are some variations in the model, but basically you get the same kind of rights that you get purchasing a Royalty Free image at a much lower price. It is hard to tell how successful these companies are, but as Royalty Free pushed its prices up there were those who wanted cheaper images and this opened the door for the Subscription model. Much of the imagery is either shot by staff of the company or purchased outright from the photographer, so there are no royalties."

Shutterbug: In your most recent survey, you said the results were not what you expected. How did photographers surveyed do overall?

Jim Pickerell: The 2003 survey was done for sales in 2002. The photographers reporting didn't show as much of a drop as I had expected. In 2003 I think that most photographers with the major agencies (Getty, Corbis, and a few others) saw an improvement in their royalties. They may never see the kind of money some of them made in the mid-90s, but things are getting better. A major factor is sales of images that were in the system two or three years ago. They are not necessarily making that much money from images produced in the last couple of years due to the difficulty of getting them accepted. Getty photographers who are allowed to pay to place images on "Photographers Choice" are finding that those images do very well.

Photographers not with the major agencies are finding it very difficult to make enough sales to make it worth their trouble. Small agencies are struggling. Very few customers request file research anymore. If the image isn't online it doesn't sell and most of the small guys can't get enough images online to keep customers coming back to check their sites.

Photographer/Agency Relationships
Next, let's look at the business issues and the relationships between the stock agencies and the photographers.

SB: Last I checked, the mega-merging of stock agencies and contracts left photographers seeking out alternatives to major agencies for selling stock.

JP: Photographers are still looking for alternatives and now tend to work with several agencies rather than just one. It has become much harder to get images accepted at any of the major agencies. Photographers who have contracts are doing better and some are very happy, but it is very difficult for new photographers to break in.

SB: I understand there are three marketing alternatives: independent stock agencies, stock portal websites, and photographers maintaining their own websites. How are they working?

JP: In general the three marketing alternatives you describe are correct, but there are a lot of subtleties. The independent stock agencies who have websites do okay if they have a niche and if they had a good loyal customer base, at least before web searching started taking over. However, most new customers like to do their searching on sites that have a broad cross section of imagery from lots of agencies. Thus, it is hard for the small specialized sites to penetrate the market to any great extent.

The two biggest major agencies are Getty and Corbis, but in one sense they are also portals because they accept third-party providers. Those third parties who can get on these sites are doing very well. Then there are pure portals like www.alamy.com that take on images from agencies or photographers, but do not have any imagery that they own themselves. The other kinds of portals that do well are www.Picturequest.com, www.Workbookstock.com, and www.Veer.com.

SB: What about photographers who maintain their own stock websites?

JP: The main problem for photographers with sites is marketing. How do they get customers to look at what they have? A photographer's site can be a very useful tool for getting assignments, but most such sites are not very good for selling stock. Most photographers have trouble drawing real buyers to their sites. The people who come tend to be browsers, not buyers. They want to go to one location, enter keywords and have images from many photographers come up. The main solution for photographers is to try to get as broad a cross section of their imagery as possible on the portals and hope for the best.

SB: Finally, how is 2004 shaping up for you?

JP: Stock Connection faces all the problems of the small independent agencies as far as direct selling is concerned. Stock Connection focuses on getting the imagery it represents on as many portals as possible. The main advantage for photographers dealing with Stock Connection is that we help them get their Rights Managed images scanned, keyworded and up on a variety of portals to give the photographer the best chance to make sales.

At the moment Stock Connection does not produce any Royalty Free products, but we do offer Royalty Free images produced by other companies to the customers coming to our site. It has become very apparent that most buyers want to go to sites that offer a good selection of both Rights Managed and Royalty Free images. They tend not to go to sites that are Rights Managed only. Consequently, we offer our customers both options.

For more on the stock photography market check out these websites: Selling Stock Annual Survey, www.pickphoto.com/sso; and StockArtistsAlliance, www.stockartistsalliance.org.

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