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Many emerging photographers think they’ll turn pro by turning to stock photography as an outlet. In the old days, that wasn’t a terrible strategy. Back when rights-managed images were the rule, rather than the exception, stock fees could run into the tens of thousands of dollars for a big commercial job. The agencies took less from the sale than the photographer back then, and the Internet didn’t exist so there was no iStock Photo. When I started selling stock in the 1980s, we didn’t face the fact that there were 10,000 copies of a bald eagle sitting on his nest available on every corner.

Now, most of the big agencies are gone or merged together. The new stock contracts offered by most of the big agencies are unacceptable to the thinking photographer. Instead of tens of thousands of dollars per sale, your lucky to make ten cents on a sale. Micro-stock has been a boon to some companies, and even a few photographers, but for the most part, it’s killed the traditional stock business.

Is it likely to change any time soon? Yes, it’s likely to get worse. Currently, there are some big names still making money in stock. Most of these photographers have “grandfathered” contracts that pay at the old rates, keep the images in a rights-managed category, and provide prominent position in the agency marketing materials. But as these photographers retire, there will be fewer big stock success stories. Instead of one photographer making $10,000 on an image, there will be 5000 photographers making $2.00 on an image.

My prediction is that the long tail effect will end up making it nearly impossible for all but a few photographers to really thrive in stock. Ten years from now, it will be a pipe dream.

What’s the answer? I am not sure. I still believe that independent, niche-based stock can survive or perhaps even thrive for a few more years. But at some point in time, (probably well within my lifetime) there will be so many images online that exclusivity will rarely exist.

The business models moving forward will need to be based on other ideas and approaches that turn photographers into brands. We’ll need to differentiate ourselves based on something other than pictures. Everyone will have an eagle picture at some point. Selling pictures will be too competitive to make it possible to survive. I liken this to video stores in the late 80s all spending big bucks to advertise movies. I always thought that was the wrong approach. After all, every video store had the same movies and an ad for a movie simply sent prospects to the NEAREST store for that movie, not necessarily the store that was advertising the movie. When photography becomes a commodity – you don’t want to be in the picture business. You want to be in the YOU business. Read Dane Sanders’ book for more on this topic.