Stock Photography is like the Gold Rush. And that didn’t end well.


Daryl Lang at PDN reported that Getty Images is shutting down its wholly-owned stock division. This division was staffed by researchers, producers and photographers who shot specific themes which were considered to be trendy or evergreen (e.g. a NASCAR-like racetrack shoot without logos or other IP problems). The intent was to own the images outright so that royalties need not be paid to photographers.

It’s been just over a year since we shut down the PhotoShelter Collection – our ill-fated attempt to bring diversity into the stock photography market while giving the photographer the majority of sales. At the time (and probably still), many photographers felt duped, and hurt that we didn’t give it more time to mature. But now that we’re many months away from that traumatic event, I can restate the following: Stock photography sucks. I’m not talking about the people who shoot it. I’m talking about the state of the industry. But let’s digress for a moment.

A brief primer on the California Gold Rush. In 1848, a guy found some gold near Sacramento. Despite attempts to keep the news quiet, word got out pretty quickly, which set in motion a migration of some 300,000 people to California around 1849 to prospect for gold.

The early entrants into the scene made some money, and the merchants that were supporting the Gold Rush (anyone heard of Levi’s?) also did quite well. Innovation thrived as prospectors looked to become more efficient at finding gold. But as the field got crowded, and the gold became increasingly harder to extract, many people actually ended up losing money. And today, to be a player in the gold market, you need a massive infrastructure to mine and extract gold (and apparently a lot of acid). (and sure, gold is selling for $1000/ounce, but that’s arguably a reaction to currency fluctuations in an uncertain economy rather than usable demand).

Oh yeah, about stock photography….

A small group of people used to make a lot of money in stock — as they should have. It was hard. It was often expensive to produce. There was no digital and there was no Internet. But around the turn of the millennium, things changed dramatically. Technology intersected with a business model (namely, microstock) and created a massive disruption. You want paradigm shift? This was a paradigm shift.

The hobbyist had a marketplace, and he had the tools (in-camera and in Photoshop) to rival/exceed the quality of many pros. He had disposable income to buy equipment which the manufacturers loved. Stories about guys making $100,000s/year emerged. Social networks like flickr helped create a community for the photo enthusiast — a term that used to conjure up “guy with camera” taking creepy nudes at a camera club down by the shore. First movers of these new marketplaces like iStock and Fotolia made millions. Most importantly, the people who traditionally paid a few hundred dollars for an image, were now paying $1 because budgets were getting slashed.

The average stock photo simply isn’t worth what it once was.

I consider myself to be a pretty decent photographer, but when I search for an image on iStockPhoto, I’m blown away. There are some very good photographers with Photoshop skills that make up for any lack of talent or equipment. And the proof of the paradigm shift to me? I’ve purchased iStock images when I’ve determined that I can’t shoot something better myself. Why spend 2 hours setting up a shot to come up with something inferior, when I can buy something for a few bucks. Should I be hung? Next time your spouse asks you to help throw together a marketing brochure for his/her company, what are you going to do to get that nice photo of a clock?

So as I was saying, stock photography sucks. It’s not that you can’t make money. It’s just much harder than it used to be. Generalists won’t survive. We have enough yellow rubber ducks against seamless. You have to specialize and understand who’s buying to really succeed. Guys like Masa Ushioda will be fine. But maintaining a staff with salary and benefits to produce seasonal content while facing downward pricing pressure from another one of your properties….forget it.

Where does that leave us? There are probably enough stock photos out there already to satisfy most needs for a long time — at least at the price that buyers are now willing to pay. So photographers who are reliant on checks from Getty should get used to it getting smaller (I know, you already are). If a buyer can’t find what they want, they’ll probably still commission photography. But if you want to compete at that level, you really need to be a good photographer, not just a guy with a camera. There are fewer individuals making enough money from stock photography to support themselves. The traditional marketplaces like Getty are reaching around the darkness, and while they were still a public company, the only bright spot was iStockPhoto.

(The one bright spot in the Getty announcement, if you can call it that, is that this ends “wholly owned” content and puts the rights back in the hands of the photographer — at least as far as Getty is concerned)

Don’t enter a market at the end of the lifecycle. You’ll always get burned. If you want to play the stock photography game, don’t leave it up to chance to make sales. Understand who is buying the images you’re shooting, and make sure your marketing plan includes them. This might mean building a clientele and licensing directly. It might mean moving to footage. It might mean none of the above. Like so many creative endeavors in life, the best creatives aren’t necessarily the ones who succeed. The average photographer with superior business sense will continue to dominate.

Speaking of stock, come join me for Ellen Boughn’s panel at PhotoPlus Expo on Thursday at 1:15pm at the Javitz Center in New York. It’ll be a great time to learn from the panel or throw tomatoes. Either way, hope to see you there!

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 19 comments for this article
  1. photoeditornyc at 11:51 pm

    Dear Sexist Pig: do you have any idea how many times you refer to photographers as MEN in this article? Are you really that narrow minded that you have to use phrases about “guys with a camera (twice), guys finding gold & guys like Masa Ushioda?” wow… you really have no idea what a sexist you are do you? i’d just DYING to hear your views on women in photography? but then again, according to you it’s all just a big BOYS CLUB then isn’t it… signed… a diverse minded, non-sexist man…

  2. Allen Murabayashi at 11:56 pm

    @photoeditornyc you crack me up. nice of you to read so deeply into my use of “his” since english doesn’t have an non-gender specific pronoun. do you really want me to write his/her with every single instance? it’s great to be “outraged” and miss the point completely. i have the utmost respect for women beginning with my mom and my sister all the way to all the female photographers i know from suzy allman to ami vitale to kristen ashburn and beyond.

  3. Scotch at 4:07 am

    Thanks for laying out so clearly the state of the stock photography industry and the intersection of technologies that caused the disruption. I wish your article was compulsory reading for all the enthusiastic photographers forking out good money for e-books claiming how easy it is to make money from selling stock images. Typical sales page hype: “I have now created a fool-proof system that lets YOU earn money from your photos and you can get started in just a few minutes … if you have a bunch of photos on your computer right now you could be sitting on a gold mine. You could be earning money from each of your photos! Now its your turn to make a ton of cash just by using your digital camera!” Maybe it’s part of the learning curve – not only about stock photography, but also about learning there’s no easy way of making money with a camera. Scotch

  4. Allen Murabayashi at 4:58 pm

    @mark: not sure i’m following your logic. archives can be used for much more than stock photography. and individuals selling stock directly is a very different proposition than the current system. @ian: you’re right.

  5. dbltapp at 8:26 pm

    One could argue that photoshelter’s business model has doomed it to failure. The company markets to photographers, yet seems to keep its clients’ stock libraries a secret from potential photo buyers via lack of marketing. Will that stymie clients efforts to sell their images via photoshelter, driving those shooters to microstock and canceling their photoshelter accounts?

  6. Rudi Theunis at 1:18 pm

    Allen, You seem frustrated. I think it is as it is in every aspect of any professional life: only the best in one specialization, preferably a niche, will make big money. Grtz, Rudi

  7. Fastmediamarco at 8:21 pm

    Great post Allen I see this as the beginning of a conversation. I recently met someone who thinks that in a few years most imagery will be free…supported by advertising, that’s one side of the debate I guess. In any case, I posted a link to your post on my magazine here: Let me know if you want to have a chat about this. Thanks for breaking open this discussion. Marco

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