What’s wrong with this picture: The state of the stock photo industry

What’s wrong with this picture?

Stock photography pricing

Well, let’s see…  for one, we have a situation where photographers are being expected to produce high quality work and let anyone from individual bloggers to multimillion dollar corporations to license the work that drives their marketing and profits for pennies.

What does the photographer gain in return?  Enough money to:

  • park his car for two minutes
  • buy 1/3 of a postage stamp
  • enjoy 1/10th of a cup of coffee
  • buy a half a stick of “penny candy”
  • pay for under 1/8 of an inch of seamless background paper

I’m afraid I am having difficulty finding any one thing this royalty rate will pay for… other than a stock photo which should be licensing for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars!

How the industry came to this sad state of affairs is fully explained in an article in the British Photography Journal entitled: “Stockpiling trouble: How the stock industry ate itself.”  Written by the former founding executive director of the Stock Artists Alliance, this article provides very knowledgeable insight into how the stock photo industry has consumed the very foundation it depends on to survive.  It is a must read for any photographer, whether you shoot stock or not.

Unfortunately this is not limited to stock photography.  It seems to be the new business model that has emerged in a number of industries: a parasitic model where profits are temporarily sent skyward by feeding off the people who produce the product, and off of the very foundation of the the industry as a whole.  This works only in the short term and only for the owner who sells out and cashes in before the signs of erosion become too visible (as in the case of iStock and the Huffington Post).

I do disagree with the article on the overall premise that stock photography is dead.  It is far from it and clients are still very welling to pay fair prices… I still find I have art buyers would would rather license directly through me at fair prices than run the risk of finding out that cheap microstock photo has been used in way that will harm their brand..

As with all cancers, the stock photo industry is actually consuming itself and it doing so could quite well solve the problem for us.  The big agencies are finding they can’t survive on the low prices they put into existence either and they are passing down increasingly worse terms to their contributors in an effort to stay afloat.  As they do this, the contributors are leaving the game.  I know a couple of the heavy hitters who are now weary of spending more and working harder to produce a higher volume of work for less money each month.  One stopped shooting microstock completely about a year ago.  The other is now licensing his new work directly where he can demand fair prices. Another stopped giving his work to one specific agency after they introduced some new unacceptable terms.

Thanks to ANOTHER bad contract put out by Getty, photographers are up in arms against Getty and many are moving their work elsewhere rather than accept the terms. iStock exclusives went on the warpath a short while back  when iStock cut what are already the lowest percentage rates on royalties even further.  Fifteen percent of nothing is about as bad as it can get.

I’m also noticing ads popping up on the new with the microstock agencies advertising for “contributors.”  This would indicate that even  the amateurs wanting to break in are seeing through the favorite microstock lie that all you have to so is invest more money into your shoots, and shoot higher quality work in return for pennies and you will get rich.  It is pretty easy for anyone to look at the numbers and see it ain’t gonna happen!

It can seem that the big bad corporate giants hold all the cards and there is little a photographer can do other than bend over and take it.  This is a complete reversal of the truth.  Without the photographers who create the work, they have nothing to “sell”.  They have no business at all.

The solution is to have nothing to do with the stock photo agencies until they once again realize the value of the people who create the work they depend on and work to protect our earning power… and our ability to finance the cost of creating it.

There are a number of ways any photographer can move to direct licensing of work.  A number of outfits such as PhotoShelter provide photographers the means to license stock themselves.  And while it can seem a tough haul to get on the map, one photo license at a fair price can equal well over 7000 “downloads” at a microstock agency.

If you feel there is simply no way you can cut ties with your stock photo agency, at least take a moment to write them a letter expressing your disapproval for the lack of respect and devaluation of your work.  And take some time to learn healthy business practices and pass them on to your associates.

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