We believe there is still money to be made in stock, but right now it’s not simple or straightforward and the industry is still very much in transition. We do think that if these above issues get worked out there is hope for the professional photographer to continue to make a good living shooting stock. RM still has its place; in our experience, sales have remained strong for very high-quality production shoots and very unique images.
Jeremy Woodhouse: If you can get a traditional stock contract this is still the best way to go. With the proliferation of low cost microstock in the market it will be hard to be “seen” and unless you are sending in 1000 plus images per month you will not earn enough to make a living.
As far as the traditional stock market goes, the line between RF and RM is so fuzzy now that, apart from the restriction placed on usage, there is little difference in quality (or earnings). The big problem is that I am seeing many sales in both RM and RF for under $5 per image. Agencies are rewarding their big clients with package deals where they can get traditional stock images at microstock prices and we as photographers, who are at the bottom of the food chain, pick up the scraps. On the positive side, I would like to think that the secret to any level of success is to think outside the box, fill in the holes, and create good, unique content and lots of it.
Randy Plett: It depends on what you shoot, but I’m leaning toward microstock. I’d say if it’s very location specific or highly specialized images with a limited audience, go with the higher-priced RM or RF models. Microstock images are more generic and reach a much larger audience because of their lower price point.
The price of an image should be determined by its actual market value. The value of an image is becoming less these days as a result of supply and demand (do you know anyone who doesn’t have a digital camera?). Some of the agencies are adjusting, and some aren’t. The newer microstock agencies are inflating their price points because they can. That is, the market will bear the higher price because it still seems fair. On the other hand, it appears that many traditional stock agencies don’t want to budge—and rightfully so in some cases. However, in most other cases their search results show bland, outdated images that can’t compare to the newer, fresher work coming out of microstock agencies. So unless you shoot some very unique images, most of them should be submitted to microstock agencies. And quickly, before their value goes down further.
SB: Are stock agencies still an option? How tough is it to get into one and how do you find one?
Shannon Fagan: Until the direct licensing realm takes off, agencies are absolutely the way to go for making money in stock. It is currently easier than in the recent past to obtain contracts to contribute to most agencies, given that submissions and the number of photographers participating are on the decline. “Crowdsourced” appeal for submissions in microstock have made it vogue so that anyone can participate and be given a contract. The best research as to which agency is ideal is done by reading the forums, the blogs associated with the business, and meeting the photographers associated with the agencies.
Lee Torrens: Unless you have extremely unique images or a sought-after brand, stock agencies are the only option for those who want to achieve a decent sales volume. The alternative, selling direct, requires a lot of work for even minimal sales. Stock buyers know they can get a larger variety and a better user experience from agencies, so it takes something very unique to get them to use the site of a single photographer. Getting into a microstock agency is usually very simple and easy. Just sign up and start uploading photos. Two of the most lucrative agencies require a test submission so they can see that you’re able to produce the kind of imagery they’re seeking, which presents a significant barrier to those without stock experience.
Getting into a traditional stock photo agency is usually more difficult. They’re not set up to deal with a large quantity of submitters, so they need to be selective about the photographers they use. They will require you to demonstrate appropriate images you’ve produced in the past and they’ll want to know that you intend to produce appropriate content on an ongoing basis. Those at the very top aren’t even taking on new photographers directly any longer. To get into those agencies today, you need to go through an intermediary agency. However, there are lots of open opportunities for stock photographers to get traditional RM and RF contracts. Interested photographers just need to seek them out.
Sam Bloomberg-Rissman: For me, stock agencies are the only option. I do not have the time or the desire to be a marketer. Other aspects of my life take up a large part of my time and do not allow me the ability to do the hard work necessary to sell my images on my own. Agencies are able to get my images in front of buyers who would never see my images otherwise.
Agencies are tough to get into, especially the big ones like Getty and Corbis. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get into one. Evaluate your material. Look for agencies that sell similar work. The smaller agencies like Blend and SuperStock are more likely to be open to taking on new talent. I also suggest diversifying. Don’t put all your eggs into one basket, and that also means don’t put all your eggs into the stock basket. The unpredictable marketplace signals to me that you need to hedge your bets. My income from stock fluctuates drastically. This is not an industry for someone who needs the comfort of a steady paycheck.
SB: Is there anyone selling traditional stock of travel and nature or have those images gone?
Sam Bloomberg-Rissman: Travel images are a tough sell in today’s saturated marketplace. I began shooting travel imagery but had to move to lifestyle stock because I could see the market drying up. Yes, it is still possible to sell traditional stock travel images, but it’s getting harder and harder. The problem isn’t one of microstock versus traditional stock. The real problem is that there are now millions and millions of images that are easily accessible to consumers. This isn’t a problem for buyers; in fact it’s an amazing time for image consumers. Making a go of it as an image producer on the other hand is harder and harder. I personally have taken a step back from stock as my main source of income.
Jeremy Woodhouse: I guess there are still a few of us out there. I still make almost all of my living out of travel and nature. However, I have seen a 60 percent drop in income over the past three to four years, but, granted, I was around during the time when we were making big bucks—a time where we thought (and hoped) the party would never end.
I was one of the first Photodisc photographers when RF went online in the early 1990s, so as such I was the pariah among the old-school RM shooters, much as the microstock guys are among both RF and RM shooters today. I never compromised on my nature or travel imagery and always sent my agencies the best work I knew how to produce so my RF work could compete with the best of the RM images out there.
As the market changed I moved more into RM and today out of the some 9000 images that I have in stock at least half are RM. I am hoping that there will be a shift back toward more exclusive imagery where we can make hundreds of dollars per image rather than hundreds of cents.
Randy Plett: Travel photography, for the most part, exists in the realm of lower value pricing. Why? Because millions of people love to travel, see new things, and take lots of pictures along the way. Thus a photo of the Eiffel Tower may be virtually worthless as a result of the already large supply.
There are obvious exceptions, but you must be willing to pull something out of your hat creatively, or take some serious risk getting to those places that other people won’t go. I recently went to Somalia in search of unique content. The few images I got will not even come close to paying for the trip, but they are doing well under iStockphoto’s Vetta collection.
There is other value that I receive in the form of a unique experience. Generally, my attitude is that if I break even while traveling, then I am happy. So unless that amazing photo of the Eiffel Tower that you got is really, really good…get it printed and hang it on the wall.
SB: What does the future hold?
What specific advances in technology has created opportunities for stock photography?
Shannon Fagan: A significant advancement in technology that should be mentioned here is the allowance of crowdsourced material on the Internet. These online platforms allowing users to do their own work to submit and upload have clearly revolutionized the business.
Probably the single most significant advance is the developments we’ve seen for the ability to direct license affordably. The catch to this advance is that despite the technology change and drop in overhead cost to direct license work, the user base to buy direct is still quite minimal and discouragingly nonexistent. This advancement is still awaiting the continued erosion of the agency model and further development of search technology to allow faster, easier, and more defined access to the images that buyers want…and can get directly from the photographers. Direct licensing adoption by photographers, naturally, is also slow to take off for financial reasons. It’s difficult to make money in direct licensing unless one’s subject matter is very niche, rare, and difficult to obtain within the vast amount of agency options available. However, expect this to be a growth area in years to come.