Stock Photography Today; A Reality Check Is In Order

Many photographers wonder about the state of stock photography now and in the future. There are many questions and a good deal of controversy about the answers. Some of the big questions include: how are traditional stock and microstock competing? Is there still money to be made in stock image licensing? How tough is it to sign up with a stock photo agency? Nature and travel images were once the backbone of traditional stock, but how are these images being sold today? To create stock images for today’s market, will you have to pay for your own production and sets for “lifestyle” photography? What’s next in advances in technology, search, and stock photo user behavior?

Photos Shannon Fagan

These are some of the questions we posed to our panel of photographers to help guide you through today’s confusing and constantly shifting stock photo market. First, though, let’s define some terms.

So-called ”traditional” stock photography is a term that has developed over the past several years to describe the original licensing basis of the business pre-dating “microstock” emergence. In its purest form, the term “traditional” licensing refers to Rights-Managed (RM) and traditional Royalty-Free (RF). Generally, participation in the traditional sector of the business is from professionally trained photographers who produce high quality and/or uniquely identifiable images with pricing based on individual image use (for RM) or on file size (for RF). Sales are usually handled by a stock photo agency (also known as a stock photo distributor) with a royalty percentage of the licensing fee going to the photographer.

Photos Shannon Fagan

Microstock photography is comprised of lower priced, royalty-free imagery. Content creators of microstock imagery include professionally trained photographers, semiprofessionals, and amateurs, as well as general consumers and even tourists. Historically, microstock has been a sector of the industry comprised of those who wish to earn additional money from their assignment photography careers or from their hobby interests in photography. Images are bought by clientele in the form of credits online. The manner of image agency distribution is similar to the sales channels seen on the traditional side of the business. Generally, traditional and microstock agencies uniquely position themselves competitively on the basis of price.

For this column we selected a wide variety of professionals with different voices and opinions and suggest you evaluate your own situation first when deciding about stock. There are no “right” answers but we do offer some thought-provoking ideas from: Sam Bloomberg-Rissman (, Trinette Reed and Chris Gramly (, Randy Plett (, Lee Torrens (, Jeremy Woodhouse (, and Shannon Fagan (, who is the Chair of ASMP Stock Imaging License Committee International Business Developer for Photography in China.

Photos Trinette Reed Photography

Shutterbug: What’s the best route to go, traditional stock or microstock? How do you recommend making this decision? How do you realistically make a profit in stock sales?

Lee Torrens: For most photographers it will actually be both. Those who shoot highly specialized stock are more likely to want to choose one or the other, but there’s never anything forcing someone to choose. Most of the top microstock photographers have content in the traditional stock market and more and more of the top traditional stock photographers now also have content in microstock as well.

There are a large number of factors which affect the decision and it will be different for every photographer. Assuming a photographer’s primary objective is maximizing revenue, it’s simply a matter of looking at what they can shoot well. Some images earn more in the traditional market, while others earn more in microstock. If a photographer is better at, has better access to, or prefers shooting one particular type of image that will likely determine which market is better suited to them. But again, for most photographers it will likely be a combination of both.

Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images/Stone

Making a profit, like anything, comes down to smart business. There are still many people who report being profitable in the traditional RM and RF markets, so it can be done. In my experience, those people are smart in leveraging their assets, travel to stock production hotspots in different parts of the world, have drastically downsized their productions, or live in cheaper countries that still have great locations and models. It’s no longer realistic to have large productions in the more expensive countries such as the United States.

Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images

Shannon Fagan: Because of the narrowing profit margins for stock recently, it is advisable that the business owner/photographer take a long look at their personal (non-financial) interests for shooting stock. Make sure that one is in love with and passionate about the business. Have fun with it! It would not be a bad thing to make a list of the pros/cons of operating under different methods; perhaps one for a custom assignment take on the business (RM), and another for a catalog take on the business (microstock). Highly creative pictures are required in both models of operation, but the “how to” for achieving them is completely different.

Making the business models into profit centers is about regular calculated submissions of diverse material over time. It’s ideal to also submit diversely to a variety of high-profile stock agencies. Realistically, to make a secure living in stock, it is a full-time endeavor because of the tediousness of the submission process, the planning process, the learning curve, and the time to break even for the investment made. It can supplement an assignment business, but shooting stock should continually be on the contributor’s mind.

Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images

Trinette Reed & Chris Gramly: Our hope is that eventually these distinctions between traditional stock and microstock will cease to exist and that there will be agencies that have both traditional stock and microstock and RF and RM all in one place, with different price points based on quality of production, casting, and/or concept.

This is already starting to happen, but it’s been a very slow process of change. Image buyers have moved over in droves to microstock and the quality of microstock now (in our opinion) equals and often surpasses that of traditional stock, so now the only distinction between the two is price. When you look at a high-quality image on a microstock site that is selling for $10 versus the same quality level of image and production in RF that is selling for $350, it just doesn’t make sense and this is confusing to buyers and to photographers.

We think what needs to happen in the industry is for content to be priced on quality and production level, not on whether the image is microstock or traditional stock, labels which no longer make sense. There are buyers coming to microstock sites that are not price sensitive and are willing to spend more money for the right image. Unique images or high-quality productions may sell less in volume, so it doesn’t always make sense for a photographer to take the risk to spend a lot on production if the image is selling for microstock prices. If a photographer spends money on an image that is difficult to produce, that image should cost more for the buyer.

Photos Randy Plett

If this doesn’t happen, the end result is that photographers end up shooting low hanging fruit—images that are cheap to produce that they know can sell hundreds or thousands of times. The result is that the collections end up all starting to look the same and holes develop in content.

It is almost as if entire collections need to be re-edited and images need to be placed in the right price points based on quality. There are many traditional stock RF images that have stopped selling that should be in microstock at a lower price point and would probably sell well there. Conversely, there are many microstock images that should be selling at traditional stock prices. Obviously this is a huge undertaking, but right now the way collections are randomly priced based on the traditional stock or microstock label and not based on quality/level of production does not seem sustainable.