The death/demise of stock photo agencies?

I think that anyone who has had their photos with stock photo agencies over the past twenty or thirty years has seen how the business has changed. With every good thing that happens there sometimes seems to be two bad things that go with it.

My memory with dates might be off by a few years but it seems to me that when I started designing websites for a national newspaper chain here in Canada, around 1993, the internet was very much in it’s infancy. Not many people had computers let alone ones that were connected to the internet. I don’t think many people using it at the time could have predicted how important a role it would play in our daily lives.

Shortly after I left print for digital, I remember seeing a website devoted to selling stock images online. I think and am probably wrong, that it was something like iStock. I had a bunch of large format transparencies with a traditional stock agency here in Canada and didn’t see the practicality of buying an, at the time, extremely expensive drum scanner to sell stock to what was at the time, a very small audience.

Fast forward almost twenty years and it’s incredible to see how far we have come. Not only is traditional, film photography almost non-existent, stock photo agencies are almost universally digital.

During that time, the way that we purchase music and movies has also changed. The last few Blockbusters in our part of the city have closed forever. I can order my movies online through my cable provider. I no longer have to make the trek down to the local music store to buy a DVD to purchase my music. It can all be done online.

The business model because of the internet has changed the way a lot of businesses operate. It has also meant the demise of some. Look at newspapers. Who today has a subscription to one? If you do you are in an ever shrinking minority. If you can get the same product quicker and cheaper than the traditional way, you probably will.

A few years ago, something very significant happened to stock photography that I think will make most stock agencies become the newspapers of the publishing business. They started offering subscription based models to larger clients and Rights Free images. Rights Free is something that I would never in a million years consider. Perception is everything. Give cheap, unlimited use once and they forever expect it. It’s short sighted thinking that I think has the larger stock agencies in the crosshairs of change.

The bottom line for the agencies is growing. With digital photography becoming cheap and accessible to a greater audience, there has been a flooding of the market of high quality, digital images. With a greater supply than demand, prices have dropped through the floor and Getty Images has led the charge with this marketing. I think that in a few years large stock agencies like Getty will long for the good old days. Why? The internet.

I have submitted images for the past few years and have made a decent amount of money from something that I do ONLY for my own personal enjoyment. Once a year, give or take a few months, I resize, label, retouch, etc., the images that I have shot and submit them to various places. Once the images have been accepted, I cannot sell them, except for prints or if I happen to produce a book that showcases my works.

With increasing frequency, I have been contacted directly by client wanting to bypass agencies like Getty. They see something they like on the internet for a project, like an annual report or an international advertising campaign and want exclusive rights. One agency told a client that for exclusive rights to use a photo of mine that it would cost them $25,000 to $35,000 to buy it outright. From that sale, the agencies commission can be from 50-80%. If the artist is lucky, they might get half of the sale although most contracts are of a 60/40 split in favor of the agency.

I’ve had few REALLY large sales recently where given the choice of picking photos that I had with an agency or picking a different image that I had not yet submitted, I got the sale. Given the choice of many smaller sales throughout the year where an agency is practically giving photos away for ridiculously low prices or keeping them on my website for a few LARGE sales annually, what would you do?

The stock photo business is going the way of the music business, where the artist controls their sales. Major record labels are becoming like newspapers, large clumsy dinosaurs with far too much overhead to survive the new digital economy and I think stock photo agencies have pegged themselves in the same unfortunate position by alienating their talent by selling photos either by subscription or on a Rights Free model.

I have a few hundred new images sitting on my hard drive from the last fifteen months. What do I do?

Happy shooting,

Dan

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~ by Dan Jurak on January 28, 2012.

12 Responses to “The death/demise of stock photo agencies?”

  1. I think I’d resist the urge to give any more images to Getty – their split is 80% for them and 20% for the photographer on Royalty Free and even Rights Managed is only 30% to the person who took the photo and was in the right place at the right time.

    Heck, Apple and Amazon both give their app developers and their eBook authors 70% of the proceeds – I think it is truly outlandish what Getty keeps versus pays out to their content creators.

    By the way, I have lots of images with Getty – but they aren’t getting any of my new stuff….

    Another good post, Dan.

  2. @ Jeff, the Getty/Flickr arrangement that I think you are referring to is a great example of a large corporation soiling the bed that they sleep in. Sure they can make a ton of money, initially from naive photographers but in the long run they are turning away talented shooters and setting an example to clients that photography is a cheap commodity. They know that at the moment they have the upper hand when it comes to marketing but that is only because the really talented art directors or buyers haven’t yet discovered that they most talented shooters are marketing themselves and cutting out the middleman.

  3. Good post Dan. I am still in the early days of photography purely for personal interest. Jeff (I follow you on flcikr) mentioned Apple. The learning from Apple is – if one has end-to-end control the rewards are higher even if being niche. And, if a mistake is made one still has full control to fix it.

  4. Dan, regarding those pictures sitting on your hard drive: as far as I know there area couple of different ways to sell image rights directly. Some of them are automated (you upload pictures to your website, a company such as Fotomoto crawls your page and you can then offer your viewer (among other things) digital licensing options. Other places work a little bit like agencies but you have “your” place on their homepage and you can, again, offer licensing. You could also simply start your own web gallery (similar to your prints page but with more pictures?) and ask potential customers to contact you via email.

    I think you are right in the long term, but it can be difficult to get potential customers to view your own homepage. That said, if you are well known enough, not giving away 50%+ sounds like it is worth it!

    Just curious: what do you think of “amateurs” giving away (sometimes low-res) photos with creative commons licenses (e.g. non-commercial BY-NC-SA etc.)?

  5. @ Christop, thank you for visiting and commenting.

    Those are all very good suggestions to marketing your photos. About getting known, it didn’t take very long before I was getting emails from my website asking about stock photo sales. I imagine that the most important thing is to get an audience for your photography. Just as there are musicians who got their notoriety from youtube or some other website, there are photographers, successful ones at that who got noticed from posting on the more popular photo sharing websites.

    Companies like Getty won’t be hurting for a while but I predict that they’ll be in the same situation as newspapers are now. People no longer seek out a paper for their first choice in the news. The larger corporations know that there is a surplus of quality imagery and treats it like any other commodity. More competition among photographers means lower prices for photography. Happily, I don’t support myself from my shooting anymore. I only do it because I enjoy it but I still will NOT give it away.

    About creative commons and the like, to each their own. For some people it seems to be a great thing to have someone to even want to use one of their images. That hurts people trying to earn a living from photography but each of us can do whatever we want with our images. I hear stories of profitable companies trying to get photography for nothing. Turn that around on them, would they ever GIVE you their product or service just because you ask them? I doubt it.

    Thanks again for visiting Christoph.

  6. You speak truth. I am much happier getting the occasional large (and rewarding) sale through my Flickr account than I am spending half my day rolling up pennies to take to the bank.

    Enjoying your work — keep on posting.

  7. @ Sean, long time no see. Good to see that you’re around. There’s actually a great forecast for tomorrow (Saturday) morning, hopefully… :)

  8. My forecast is “4H speak-offs”. Maybe Sunday?

  9. The forecast for here is fog overnight. Fog in the morning and fog Saturday evening. Here’s to hoping that I can FINALLY get out and get a few photos.

  10. Thanks for sharing this post with us,nice work,good luck.

  11. I fully agree with your assesment of not chasing small rewards-as photographers our energies are better suited to being creative and valuing that creativity — my flickr account has made some big sales with no advertising which suites me fine, I love photography and being creative, not making the stock companies rich. My few photos on All Canada Photos stock agency will stay there but they are affliated with the big stock agencies. my take from sales will be very small indeed. thanks for your informing article,
    cheers,
    Evan Spellman

  12. I had the same thoughts and came to the conclusion that a self-hosted stock collection (http://photo.aseev.com/) will be more beneficial. Which is the easy part. The most difficult is marketing it.

    P.S. At the end of the article you mention “Rights Free model”, which is, probably, Royalty-free.

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