Saturday, March 6, 2010

Jim Pickerell Interviewed: The End of Stock Photography As A Career....

A tidal wave of change for businesses or individuals, with possibly dire circumstances, is illustrated with this picture of a wave about to hit a businessman
A tidal wave of change is overtaking the photography world, both assignment and stock photography.
Jim Pickerell has done it all in Photography, from war correspondent, to stock agency owner to industry analyst and publisher of the highly regarded stock industry newsletter Selling Stock. Jim gives us a thorough rundown on his view of the future of stock and suggestions on how to adapt to the changing industry.

Jim, can you share with us your journey into and through photography, into stock, and finally, establishing yourself as the premier industry analyst and commentator?

In high school I worked in a camera store, sold cameras and photo supplies, and processed customer film using the “dip and dunk” method. I attended Ohio University for two years where I majored in photography. At that point I felt I needed more time to practice what I had learned before I finished my degree. I also knew that I had a selective service military obligation after college, so I joined the Navy as a photographer. After Navy photo school was assigned to the Navy photo lab in Yokuska, Japan. Later, I became a Tokyo based staff photographer for Pacific Stars & Stripes, a military newspaper circulated to all military instillations in the Asia/Pacific region, and traveled all over the area on assignments.

After four years in the Navy, I went to UCLA and three years later received a degree in Political Science. During this period I did lab work for UPI and one summer I served as a National Geographic Magazine intern. The day my UCLA class graduated I was on a plane to Tokyo to begin a career as a freelance editorial photographer.

After a summer in Tokyo where I worked hard, but generated almost no income, I got a one-month temporary assignment from UPI to go to Vietnam and cover for them until they could send a staffer out from New York. When my month was up I decided to stay in Vietnam because living was cheap and it seemed to offer more photographic opportunities than anywhere else in Asia at the time, but even that wasn’t much. This was 1963. There were about 15,000 U.S. advisors in country, no U.S. combat units and for the most part it was pretty quiet. I was the only non-Vietnamese freelance photographer based in Saigon at the time. The other two Western photographers were Horst Fass of AP and the New York photographer who replaced me at UPI. A few other Westerners came in an out from time to time, but no one stayed long.

Three weeks later the Vietnamese military overthrew their president, Ngo Dinh Diem. I was the only photographer in Saigon shooting color that day. Earlier that year Life Magazine had decided that they wanted to try to use a color shot from the major news story in the world each week. I came way from that event with my first pictures in any national magazine and a Life cover.

I covered the war in Vietnam for three-and-a-half years with occasional forays into other parts of Asia. During that period I wrote and illustrated a book called Vietnam In The Mud, which sold out its first printing. In 1968 I returned to New York, still with the vision of a career as an editorial photographer. After 8 or 9 months my wife and I moved to Washington, DC.

In Saigon I was in demand as a war photographer, but New York and Washington had plenty of experienced photographers covering business and politics. I was a nobody I began looking for more commercial work. Short of funds, and with a new daughter, in 1969 I took a staff position with Aviation Week & Space Technology. This was the worst year of my photography career. I liked photographing airplanes and manufacturing, but the magazine didn’t have a travel budget for a photographer and I spent a lot of time sitting around. After a year I went back to freelancing with more of a focus on government and commercial assignment work.

All this time I had been submitting outtakes from assignment shoots to several stock agencies. In fact, the Life cover (November 15, 1963 - was a stock photo as I was shooting on speculation for Black Star that day. Stock sales became a small, but growing part of my overall income. The 1976 copyright act changed things for stock photographers who now owned their production rather than it being owned by the client who assigned the work. More photographers began to produce stock and customer interest began to grow. I began to spend more time in between commercial and some annual report assignments shooting stock. Stock sales became a steadily growing share of my total photography income.

In the early 1980’s I helped establish the mid-Atlantic chapter of ASMP, served two years as Vice President, two as program chairman, two as President and a member of the National Board. One of the issues that arose while I was a national board member was whether ASMP would publish a new edition of their Stock Photography Handbook and pricing guide. The board decided not to do it, but I felt such a book was needed and decided to publish one independently.

The first edition of Negotiating Stock Photo Prices, which featured charts with recommended prices for all types of rights-managed stock photo uses, was published in 1989. I continued to update the book through the 1990’s and the fifth edition was published in 2001.

In 1990 I began publishing Selling Stock, a subscription based newsletter printed six times a year that dealt with all aspects of the stock photography industry. In 1995 we began delivering the articles online as well as in the printed version and steadily increased the frequency to the point that Julia Dudnik Stern and myself average three stories a day five days a week. At the end of 2006 we gave up the printed edition entirely and went exclusively to online delivery.

In 1993 my daughter and I started a Stock Connection, a general interest rights managed stock agency that gave photographers a 75% share of sales. This was the highest royalty share available at that time. Later we found it necessary to reduce the royalty to 65%, but are still operating on that basis. Today we also represent some royalty-free, but the concentration is still in rights-managed sales. We represent a collection of more than 200,000 images from over 400 photographers.

We are on the verge of launching a new online information service – PhotoLicensingOptions – that will expand beyond stock photography and deal with the business side of photography and every possible way that photographers can earn money from the pictures they produce.

One of the hallmarks of my career is that it has been one of continuous re-invention.

Let’s get down to it; can people still make a living at stock?

NO -- with a few exceptions. (1) It may be possible if the photographer lives in Eastern Europe, various parts of Asia or other places where the cost of living is low. (2) If the photographer has very low expectations in terms of living standard. (3) If the photographer already has a large collection of imagery in distribution channels he can probably “make a living” for a while provided he cuts his costs and transitions into some other type of photography that guarantees a fixed fee for work produced. Gross stock revenue will decline. (4) And finally, many photographers will be able to supplement another income source with what they can earn from stock licensing, but they will not be able to support themselves on the income from stock licensing alone.

For photographers living and working in the U.S., I think it will be almost impossible to realize a profit from images produced now and going forward. The demand, even for microstock is leveling out or declining, and there is way too much over supply of every subject matter. The supply of good quality imagery will continue to grow at a much faster rate than it has. Prices will continue to fall. As a result no one will ever be able to earn as much as they earned in the past from stock photographs.

 Stock can be a supplement to other sources of income, but not a living.

There is a lot of speculation about “tablets” like the Kindle and the iPad possibly leading the way for more image use and therefore a possible boon to stock photo licensing. Do you have any thoughts on that?

The iPad, in particular, has the potential to become a widely used tool in the field of education. Currently, I believe worldwide licensing of stock photography for educational purposes totals something in the range of $350 million a year, but that figure is more likely to decline than grow as a result of the introduction of the iPad.

A lot of images will be used on iPads, but that doesn’t mean professional photographers will be earning more from licensing rights to still images. For the past five years, at least, book publishers have added something like the following to their requests for rights to use a picture in a printed book.

The requests have included, “the right to publish the picture in an unlimited numbers of electronic uses on the Internet, or in any other electronic product now in existence or yet to be invented, for 10 years from the date of invoice.”

Most image sellers have been agreeing to these terms for little or no additional money. Consequently, the rights for most of those iPad educational uses in the next decade have already been given away. Getty Images has been a leader in this giveaway. Find a rights-managed image on their site and you may reproduce it inside a printed book in any size from postage stamp to double page spread and print an unlimited number of copies, for 7 years for $267. If you also want electronic rights for the same book and time period it is available for an additional $120. If you only want to use the image in an electronic book the price is $92 for 10 years. And because publishers tend to be large users of images Getty offers them much more favorable bulk deals.

The theory that there could be a “boom in stock photo licensing” assumes that publishers will continue to print all the books they are currently printing, plus the electronic versions for the iPad and Kindle.. However, I expect the use of printed books to decline rapidly as school systems switch from printed books to electronic. It is likely that professional photographers will lose many more sales than they gain.

For an analogy think of how the demand for right-managed and traditional royalty-free images has declined as microstock and the demand for it has grown. There are a lot more image users now, but the overall revenue from licensing rights to stock images has declined in the last few years. So in one sense there may be a “boom” in that more imagery will be used, but the implication of the question is “will there be a growth in revenue generated” and to that question the answer seems likely to be NO. In addition, the revenue that is generated will be spread among a much larger group of photographers with much more of it going to part timers and amateurs.

Interactive Electronic Whiteboards

The buzz word in delivering educational information today is “Interactive Electronic Whiteboards”. These systems normally include a computer with an Internet hookup, a video projector and a large white board on which the image on the computer screen is projected. The computer can be operated by touching the image on the whiteboard with either one’s finger or sometimes an infrared stylist. The user can write on the board with a colored stylist or fingertip and the information can be easily stored. In some applications students, each with their own personal computer, sit in a classroom, view the professor and the whiteboard at the front of the class, but also have all the information that appears on the whiteboard on their computers in front of them and can interact with each other and make and store their separate notes.

A basic system can be had for about $3,000, and of course that price will drop soon. It is easy to see how the iPad will become the student’s, or the teacher’s, portable computer within this system.

Such systems are not just being used in universities but also installed in K-12 classrooms across the country. In October 2009 the Detroit public school system inked a $40 million, multi-year contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to install its “Learning Village” electronic system throughout Detroit schools. When HMH gets around to licensing rights for use of images in the Learning Village program, and on iPads, I am sure they will argue that the image is not worth anywhere near as much as it was worth in a printed book and therefore want to pay a lot less than $92 for such usages.

These electronic systems will enable school systems and teachers to exercise a lot more control over their lesson plans. School systems will be less dependent on publishers than they have been in the past and will customize their curriculum and lesson plans to a greater extent. They will use the Internet as a resource. When they want photos they will go to Google, Flickr and microstock sites first. People who want to sell to the education market will have to find a way to sell quality work to individual teachers and school systems at very low prices and hope that volume will make up the difference.

The iPad and Interactive Educational Whiteboards are video friendly mediums. I believe there will be a lot more demand for short videos and a lot less demand for still imagery.
Think about science classes. Can magnetism be explained better with a still picture or a short video? What about dissecting a frog? I looked up “dissecting a frog” on YouTube and found 459 videos. Most were not very good and could have benefited from professional lighting, professional camerawork and good sound and narration, but where do you think teachers will go to find visuals that will inspire their students?


The iPad will be a boom to the education industry, not professional photographers. Elementary students will no longer have to carry heavy book bags, just a simple iPad. They will learn using the tools of their future careers, not outdated 20th Century ways of learning. Tests and additional resources will be available to students wherever they are. Teachers will be able to test and grade online. School systems will save huge amounts of money compared to what they previously spent on books. No longer will university students have to pay $1,000 for the books they need for a semester’s study. They will upload all the educational materials they need onto their iPad for a fraction of that cost.

The need for tons of paper to print test books will be reduced. Trees will be saved. Trucks to carry books to market will no longer be needed. There will be less need for book distribution outlets, or at the very least the need will be for a very different type of distribution outlet. There will be less need for complete packages called books. Experts on various issues currently found within books will discuss their research and findings in shorter articles and teachers will compile a series of such articles into course curriculums.

The world is changing, but not necessarily for the better for those photographers who want to continue to operate based on 20th Century rules.

Comparison shopping tools, such as Spiderpic, are starting to spring up. Do you think those tools will have any real impact on the industry?

Spiderpic will have a major impact on the microstock and subscription segments of the market because it is so easy to compare prices when the price is based on file size. It will be much harder to effectively compare prices on the rights-managed side of the business because there are so many other variables.

Microstock sellers will be pressured to go exclusive and not put their images on multiple sites so some companies can maintain higher prices. When the distributor licenses images as either single images, or part of a subscription the company competes against itself. We also know that those who market the same images through multiple sites always make more money than those represented exclusively by one company. 

Dan Heller and Jim Erickson are at opposite ends of the photography spectrum, and yet each appears to be making direct sales work. What can we learn from their success? Does their success bode well for the rest of us?

I don’t know enough about Dan Heller’s business or what he earns from direct sales to speak intelligently about his business model. I have done an extensive story on Jim Erickson and believe there are a few keys to his success. First he is a very good photographer and there will always be a few who are the exception to the rule.

One of the important elements of his success in stock is his strong assignment business. His assignment customers are regular users of his stock. Working closely with art directors on assignments also helps him understand what is needed in stock and I’m sure aids him in developing concept ideas. He also generates enough revenue that he can justify building a very effective site and publishing regular catalogs of just his work. In addition, he had the advantage of building his career when the business was much more viable – on both the stock and assignment sides - than it is today.

Given how the business has changed I do not believe that someone with the same degree of talent and drive could ever achieve what Erickson has achieved as a still photographer.
Timing is important and the heyday of stock photography has passed.
Getty has just added social network licenses to their pricing for RM images. Included are commercial and non-commercial categories. Do you think that the problems of image theft, and the attitude that theft is OK, can be overcome enabling the use of photos on personal blogs and social networks to be monetized?

Unfortunately, I don’t think in today’s society the problem of image theft can be overcome. There is a general attitude in our society that individuals are “entitled” to all kinds of things for which they shouldn’t have to pay. Information on the Internet is just one of those things.

That said, the fact that so many microstock images are being purchased for small uses on the Internet is evidence that a significant number of people are willing to pay something for images. This may not be because buyers recognize that images have any value, but rather because images have been organized in a manner that makes it easy for buyers to quickly find something that works for their projects and thus saves them time. It should be recognized that buyers might not feel any responsibility to pay creators for their efforts; they’re just paying for convenience. The same thing can be said of iTunes.

On the other hand, the creator is getting something rather than nothing for his efforts. The big question is whether that something will be enough to justify continued production on the part of the creator. In the long run, I doubt it will.

Which pundits do you think we should be paying attention to (beside Selling Stock)?

It is natural for people to want a short list of experts to follow. It’s helpful if those experts agree with what the reader wants to hear. But with the technological changes taking place in the photography industry, I’m not sure that any of the pundits (me included) have many of the answers. One of the things that makes prognostication difficult in the photography industry is that there is almost no good, solid public data upon which to base decisions or opinions. Very few individuals or companies make data related to their business operations public.

That said, I think photographers should be listening to everyone who speaks at the annual PhotoEast conference. They should be listening to the leaders of the trade associations and everyone who has written a book about the photography business. To make matters more difficult there are many different aspects to the business of photography, stock photography being only one of them. Part of what each individual must do is figure out whether it is advisable to focus on just one aspect of the business or to work in several different areas. The answer may differ for each individual.

One of the things I’m trying to do with my new site is bring together, in one place, information from experienced experts who work in all the various ways that it is possible to earn money (and hopefully in many cases earn a living) from taking pictures. I want to offer a variety of differing opinions in each subject area from individuals who have enough experience, or have done enough research to justify their point of view.

I want to make useful information easy to find. At that point it will be up to the reader to determine which part of that information will help him or her increase earning from the images produced. Some of this information will also be available in other places on the Internet. But, it is often hard to find. I’ve found that when doing an Internet search it is often necessary to wade through a huge amount of dross in order to find a few useful gems. Photolicensingoptions will deal with a narrow focused issue – the business of photography – and find the gems for readers to consider.

Can you give us a quick rundown of which agencies you think are currently doing the best job for photographers?

Best is a relative term. The stock photo industry is in such a state of crisis that it is hard to say what the best course for any photographer might be. Photographers need to recognize that while agencies are “empowered to act on behalf of the photographer” they are not necessarily acting in the photographer’s best interest. Most agencies are seeing a decline in sales. The goal of most agencies is to maximize profits and that is not necessarily in the best interest of photographers. Most agencies are cutting costs and trying to honestly and fairly service the photographers who have been with them for many years. It is not a good time to jump into the business either as a photographer or agency/distributor.

I favor agencies that try to give photographers a larger share of the revenue collected. I favor agencies that make an attempt to price based on usage rather than file size, but I must acknowledge that the concept of pricing based on usage is waning and pricing by file size is growing more and more popular.

The agencies that focus on selling at low prices, direct to consumers, (microstock) are experiencing the most growth, but the prices are so low that the vast majority of photographers will not benefit.

Consumers do not want to search through hundreds or thousands of sites, each using different search methods, in order to find an image they can use. Consequently, they tend to go to sites where they can find a wide range of imagery of a broad cross section of the photographic community. Thus, photographers need a central place where consumers can go to find their work. But, for the most part these sites make little effort to set prices at levels that are favorable to photographers and they take an unreasonable share or the fees they do collect.

Many agencies make very few direct sales, but instead serve as consolidators of images that are then shipped to a wide range of distributors in order to reach a larger customer base. This may be a necessary service, but a further cut is involved, often leaving the image creator with a very small percentage of the unreasonably low fee that was paid in the first place.

Photographers should make every effort to put the exact same images with as many agencies as possible on a non-exclusive basis. Different agency editors will select different images for often, unfathomable reasons – and that’s OK. In some cases several agencies will select the same image and that’s also OK. Each agency will have some customers that the others will not reach and you want your images to have a chance to be seen by everyone. Some photographers will do well with one agency and other with a different agency. It is usually difficult to predict which agency will be most successful at selling a given photographer’s images. Be suspicious of any agency that wants to be the exclusive representative of your images and make sure they are offering you a significantly better deal than if you place your images with several agencies non-exclusively.
If you were shooting stock (hey, maybe you are…), would you be shooting for RM, RF or Micro…or some combination?

I think rights-managed (RM) is on the way out. It would be nice if customers were willing to pay to use an image based on the value they receive from using it, or to some degree the cost of production. But, that day seems to be passing. No matter what the subject matter there are too many good alternative choices available at much lower prices. Why should customers pay more? Part of the theory behind RM is that customers need exclusive rights to certain images. Some do, but there are way too many similar images competing for those occasional exclusive sales.

Exclusive sales make sense if the photographer is producing something that fulfills a specific need for the customer, and a fee has been negotiated upfront before the work is done (an assignment). But they make no sense when the photographer is shooting on speculation and trying to produce what some unknown customer will want sometime in the future and when the photographer has no idea how many other photographers are simultaneously producing something similar.

Thus, RM images must also be licensed for non-exclusive use and because the price is negotiable agencies often license RM images for prices far below non-exclusive royalty free images. The other problem with RM is that because the photographer and agency must make sure they can track all image use so they can license exclusives when requested, it becomes much more difficult to broadly market the image through multiple distributors.

Royalty-free (RF) has a market advantage over RM because it is non-exclusive. Thus, it is much easier to offer it for licensing through multiple-distributors. However, it is much harder for the average photographer to effectively participate in the RF market. Selling RF through one distributor only (many photographers do this on Alamy) is not a very satisfactory solution because the photographer fails to reach out to all the customers who deal with other distributors. Most RF production companies want to work with a few very experienced photographers who are prepared to produce high-volume. Consequently, most photographers find it very difficult to effectively participate in the traditional RM market.

The other problem with traditional royalty-free is that microstock will eventually cannibalize it because microstock offers the same unlimited use and is cheaper.

I have a problem with both royalty-free and microstock because they price based on file size rather than how the image is to be used. File size has very little to do with the value the customer receives when using an image.

The use of microstock will continue to grow while the use of images priced using the rights-managed and traditional royalty-free models will decline. However, microstock prices are so low, and the share of the fees paid the photographer so small, that it is hard to see how a photographer can earn a reasonable amount of money for his efforts. In addition, the volume of images being added to the collections is growing at such a rapid pace that most photographers will never earn enough to justify the effort they put into producing the images and preparing them for market.

Microstock is trying to find ways to raise its prices without losing its base. It has defined different bodies of work as being of higher quality and priced these images at a higher level. The problem with this strategy is that the higher priced images will never be used by the customers with limited budgets. Thus, those who only license their images at the “higher prices” lose potential sales. The system works for distributors because they don’t care which images sell as long as every customer goes away with something, but on average it doesn’t work to the advantage of photographers.

Microstock has defined a few types of uses as requiring “extended licenses” which in some cases may be negotiated. More use types should fall into the extended license category. Even as it is now the microstock pricing system has grown into something much more complex than the pricing system for traditional royalty-free and it promises to get more complex.

I believe we need a pricing system that makes every image available at all price points rather that arbitrarily assigning each image to a particular category of use based primarily on price. Above a certain base level, I don’t believe it is possible to define certain image groups as being of “higher quality” quality is in the eye of the beholder. Often very basic images are used in ways that justify a high price and the supposed “high quality” images are just what people with small budgets need. We should forget about licensing rights to stock images for exclusive use. When someone needs exclusive rights let them hire a photographer to produce an image on an assignment.

I favor a system that licenses images based on how they will initially be used, but also offers unlimited future use. Customers demand this kind of flexibility because they are unwilling to accurately predict or track future uses. Such a system is not perfect, but it is better than the alternatives we have today. It would be open to some misuse, but no more than the today’s misuses. It is not fair and reasonable to charge businesses the same to use an image as someone whose use is for a personal blog or a school project.

I want to believe that most customers will be honest in disclosing, to the best of their knowledge, how they intend to use the images they license. However, I also recognize that this may no longer be the way most people operate in today’s society. PicScout provides a service to search the Internet for images represented by certain agencies. They find that 85% of the uses they identify are unauthorized or used beyond the original license. It has also come to the attention of many in the industry that for more than a decade major book publishers have been printing many more copies of books than they licensed rights to print. Given these examples maybe there is no way for photographers to get reasonable compensation for their efforts. Maybe the whole idea of licensing stock images as a business is no longer practical for a photographer.

When I first got into stock photography in the 1960s the idea was that stock images were outtakes from assignments, or occasionally something you shot when you had nothing better to do than sit around drinking a beer. There was no great expectation of earning money from such images, but if you did it was a windfall and not something on which you should base a business. Most stock photographers need to return to this way of thinking. If you have the images and you don’t mind the extra administrative work necessary to make the images available for marketing than put them into the market and see what happens. (The administrative work wasn’t as big a problem in the 1960s as it is today because all you had to do was ship the raw film to your agency and you received 50% of any sale made.) But don’t expect any return and look at what you get as a windfall. If your goal is to earn a living taking pictures then focus on projects that provide a guaranteed return when the images are delivered.

I have been predicting that eventually RM, RF and Micro would all be sold on the same sites…and yet Corbis and Veer have just gone in exactly the opposite direction. Veer is no longer selling RM as Corbis attempts to more clearly differentiate its brands. Is this the way the industry is headed?

I think Corbis and Veer are struggling to find a model that works, but I don’t think this new strategy will be successful. I agree that all sites should eventually have images available at all price points.

For such a system to work I believe all the images will have to be priced either on the basis of file size, or of use. As we look to the future I don’t believe a mixture of both will work for very long. I favor a use-based system, but there must be a wide range of defined uses -- some very small uses where the fee is only $1.00 and moving steadily up the scale until we come to certain advertising uses that command thousands of dollars. There must be a system that allows the best images to be used for personal as well as commercial purposes.

There needs to be a system that stops trying to define what is best and price it differently. Every customer’s idea of best differs from that of every other customers depending on particular need at a particular time. Editing often rejects more images that would sell in the right market than it keeps. Let the customer see it all, decide what is best and be charged a price that has some relation to the value he will receive depending on how the customer intends to use the image.

Where are the “Rays of hope” for stock photographers?

I think we should remove the word “stock” from this question. It should be “Where are the ‘Rays of hope’ for photographers?”  Photographers have developed skills at seeing and in taking pictures. Shooting stock is not the only way to earn money in photography.

Photographers must recognize that dramatic changes are taking place in the business and it is time to adapt. At one point all professional photographs were produced on glass plates and tintypes. Next they had to be shot on 8x10 of 4x5 sheet film. After that came the 35mm single lens reflex and color. Then we entered the generation of digital with sharper images and more control. Also note that the effective lifespan of each of these methods of producing images became shorter and shorter.

The next stage of communicating with images may be moving more toward video and away from stills. My advice to photographers coming out of school is to throw away the still camera and focus on video. 

But the ray of hope is that many of the photographic and business skills already learned can be re-applied in new ways in the visual communication business. It is time for everyone to be considering reinvention. A few may find it unnecessary, but no one should be confident that they will be doing the same kind of work three to five years from now that they are doing today.

Many of your customers will be trying to make old strategies work. Do what they ask, but look for new customers who are on the cutting edge of new ideas. The ray of hope is that those customers are out there.

You have a new project… Can you tell us about that project?

I have been writing about the stock photograph business in _Selling Stock for 20 years and involved in stock photography for over 45 years. I am absolutely convinced that it is time for everyone in the stock photography business to start thinking about re-invention and transitioning to some other line of business. There are many other ways photographers can use their skills to earn money.

We hope to publish articles in that will explore all the various ways photographers can earn money from the images they produce. We will examine new developments and trends in each aspect of the business. In this way we hope to help photographers identify and transition into more lucrative and satisfying aspects of the photography business. We plan to provide our readers with a continuing steady stream of quality information from experts in the various photographic disciplines. Initially there is a focus on what is happening in stock, but that will change quickly so check back frequently or sign up for our regular weekly email that summarizes the new stories available.

Readers pay a small fee to read stories of interest. There is no charge unless the reader actually intends to read a particular story. The goal is to bring all the best information on the business of photography together in one place. has operated on a subscription basis with readers paying $195 a year for a daily service. PhotoLicensingOptions is designed to provide the same quality of information, but at a price of $1.00 or $2.00 when the reader finds something of particular interest. In this way anyone can easily determine, without making a huge initial investment, if any of the information offered is worth the price.

As an agency owner and industry analyst, what are you doing to prepare for the future?

We are looking for ways to maximize the return for our photographers as long as possible. We are also trying to be frank and open with them and help them understand that they need to be thinking about re-invention and transitioning to some other line of work. None of the photographers we represent are totally dependent on us for their livelihood.

We also anticipate that there will come a point where it may be necessary to close the physical agency operation, but given the way we have structured the business that can be accomplished and still keep revenue flowing to our photographers as long as anyone is interested in using their images.  

What is the one piece of advice you can offer us veterans who can’t be dissuaded from pursuing stock photograph?

Expect your annual revenue to continue to decline. If you are under 55 the stock photography business will be dead as a way of earning a living long before you are ready to quite working. Plan ahead. Recognize that I am not saying the photography business will be dead, just the stock part of it.

Do you have any advice for newcomers to the field of stock photography?

If you are taking pictures just to have fun, enjoy yourself. If the money you earn from taking pictures is an important part of your support, then look for customers who will give you an assignment to shoot pictures for which they have a specific need and for which they will pay you immediately after you have completed the job. Make sure the pay is sufficient to justify doing the work. If you can’t be happy shooting that kind of pictures then look for another way to earn a living.

Instead of just thinking about how to take a pretty picture of a happy couple that fits some ethnic stereotype learn more about how that picture is to be used. What is the picture supposed to communicate and how do consumers react to such communications? Expand your knowledge beyond just photographic techniques and learn about other ways of communicating information. I recognize that this is easy to say, but hard to do because everyone has a limited amount of time, but those who can do it will be the ones who succeed.

Many of your clients will be trying to make old strategies work. Do what they ask, but look for new clients who are on the cutting edge of new ideas.

And finally, are there any last thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

My career in photography has gone through many stages of reinvention. For me photography has always been about a way to earn a living that was exciting, interesting, challenging and ever changing. I have never been concerned about creating art. I’ve always been more interested in finding clients who would pay me a decent wage and delivering to them the best I knew how to do and more than they expected. None of my images will be remembered as great, or fine art, but I’ve mostly enjoyed the work and I’ve had a lot of satisfied customers. Often when it came time to make a career change I would agonize over it and think things would never be a good as they had been. Almost without exception the work ended up being more enjoyable and satisfying than what I had been doing previously. Aim for enjoying what you do and giving your customers the best you can do. The rest will take care of itself. 


Unknown said...

Kudos to you John and to Jim for such a generous outpouring of insight and commentary.

Some may take issue with a few of the points Jim makes, but as he admits "I’m not sure that any of the pundits (me included) have many of the answers."

There is indeed a profound transformation taking place in the world of photography.

One key point I have stressed elsewhere is that I see a movement away from licensing of solitary images to meet other people's needs and towards the rediscovery of photographers' own voices as publishers of their own work.

John Lund said...


I agree that there is a transformation and I think publishing our own work is going to be very important. I do think it will be a long transformation process though!



Unknown said...

For a point of reference, Clay Shirky of NYU has perhaps the seminal article on the wrenching change we are undergoing. Writing about newspapers he says:

"That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing....Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify."

also see his video on BigThink "The Next 50 Years of Media Chaos".

Photographers have been slow to grasp the full impact of the change because we have been looking mainly at our own businesses, but it is the entire media and communications landscape that is being transformed and photography, editorial stock and advertising, is just a small part of it.

John Lund said...


Thanks for mentioning Clay. I think every photographer should read that article!


Unknown said...

I see no reason why micro sites cannot adjust their licences so that the fee matches the user. Micro prices for the new market of micro users, and scale of higher prices for non micro uses. This combines elements of both RF and RM. This will take some time to evolve but there will be an ongoing need for stock photography and that means photographs have to be kept interested. A lot I read about the stock industry seems to be about the USA as though it is the whole world and its future. It's a bit of an introspective and narrow in scope.

Carl Pendle Photography said...

Probably one of the most depressing assessments of the stock industry I've read in years. If I was a full time stock photographer I might it extremely difficult to get up in the morning to start work after reading this. While I don't see the stock industry through rose coloured glasses, being a stock shooter myself, I certainly don't see why the outlook does have to be this depressing if you shoot well researched material and know the market well.
Thanks for posting this John, I'd love to hear your reaction to it - being a very optimistic blogger I doubt you agree with everything he said.

Michael Chiapputo said...

I have to say this was a very good article. The only point I would have to disagree with is about the educational textbook industry and the introduction of Smart Boards and iPads to the mix.

Time will tell however, I do not expect any drop in prices to the text book end users (i.e. college books). There was a big story about 6 months to a year ago on the educational textbook industry (the major publishers) and what they were doing with the new technology. Interestingly enough they were setting up to actually make more money through electronic distribution. How you say? Think about this... a textbook is sold & then resold & reused at a lesser price many times over. The publisher is not necessarily making money after the first sale. With the electronic versions of the book, they are working towards making it as hard as possible to have that book not be portable to another person. This creates a new sale for the publisher each time. Think about how many times a book is resold through channels outside of the publisher today. That is a lot of increased sales. So, the thought that textbooks will go down in price due to the introduction of the new technology (which will indeed save the publisher money) will undoubtedly not be passed on to the consumers.

In fact, think of no more college book stores. Consider a world where all college books are purchased "rights managed" online with no book store in the middle.

I do agree with the analysis that the photographer does in fact lose in the end. Outside of the photographer, there will be many other casualties along the way (warehouse employees, book stores, shipping companies, print shops, etc.). It is all an evolution.... for better, for worse.

John Lund said...


The more I know the less I know! I do believe it is going to get more difficult, not less difficult, for the stock shooter. And while I do not share Jim's pessimism (he would probably call it realism), I don't seem to have the analytical mind to figure all this stuff out. I base my limited optimism on the fact that I am still earning good money (though it is harder), and their are still a LOT of clients licensing images for very good prices.

Thanks for the post!


Diane Macdonald said...

Thanks John for sharing all sides of the stock debate, whether views are popular are not. This is what real education is. And your statement of "The more I know the less I know" is one of my favorites no matter what the subject matter. The article was a great read and certainly adds to my belief that "The more I know the less I know!"

Andrew Ptak Photography said...

Good job as always John.

I was glad to see Jim Erickson mentioned - my hero! While Iknow your blog concentrates on creative and business concepts, any chance on an interview with Jim regarding technique?

I can't tell you how many hours I've spent looking at his work and being amazed at the amount of post-production his work entails. His use of sky and clouds just blows me away and I'm pretty sure that many of them don't even belong to the landscape he is using them with, yet they are the perfect, contrasting match.

If you could digress for once and include Jim and his technique,you'd make an old geezer very happy. Cheers!

John Lund said...


Jim is on my list...but it is a long list! I will put a feeler out to him shortly...keep your fingers crossed...he is one of my "heroes" too!


John Lund said...


Jim is on my list...but it is a long list! I will put a feeler out to him shortly...keep your fingers crossed...he is one of my "heroes" too!


Unknown said...

John, Thanks for posting Jim's comments. While I generally agree with Jim's outlook in regards to generic stock images, stock photographers with a specialized file and a customer base that is still producing publications, whether they are printed and/or digital will still survive.

I have found in the last year or so, that after a prospect or client was not able to find needed images at their usual agencies, they would find me with a very limited subject selection but lots of depth. And great customer service. You are forgetting all the photo buyers and researchers who are over worked and underpaid with short deadlines and the right images trumps low fees.

Have you looked at some RF and micro site with dozens of similar images? I have also found value in marketing my images from the 60's and 70's to customers I would not have though of five years ago.

Jim, you're right about someone starting out today making a living exclusively from stock photography. But with 40-50 years under their belt, they may find markets we never dreamed about. Us oldies just need to keep scanning, shooting and marketing our images and hope the the best!

Ron Sherman

Unknown said...


Any chance for a counter-point arguments to Jim's? Jim has a viewpoint from his experience that is negative.

If I read and believed everything Jim say's about the industry, I would give up and not even get out of bed in the morning.

He has years of running his business and his expertise, but guys like Jim Erickson or Stephen Kennedy with his specialized collection are proving that there is a future in stock.

I should would appreciate a different viewpoint and perspective from another industry consultant/specialist.

John Lund said...


There certainly are stock shooters who are still doing well, and my own sales at Blend Images are actually on the upswing. I think what Jim is saying applies to the vast majority but that there are exceptions...those who shoot what the market really needs and do it creatively.



John Lund said...


I think a counterpoint is a good idea. I will try and think of you have any suggestions?



Ellen Boughn said...

I agree that the images that are easily recognizable as 'stock' will not generate any thing like the revenues of the past. But I don't think that this multimillion dollar a year business worldwide is going to come to a full stop either.

What I'm most optimistic about is a flowering of creativity ignited by a proliferation of publishers of photo blogs and websites like FlakPhoto. Extraordinarily creative work now doesn't get stopped at the door of the stock agency because it won't have "multiple" sales. In the sea of images, the truly great will have more value and I believe the social web will help rise them to the top for direct sales as the image user tires of the endless, duplication of the same old stock photos.

Usage fees will more naturally come to be based on the value of the image itself..factors like creativity, originality, uniqueness and reputation of the photographer. This will happen as a consequence of referrals across the social web to photographers licensing direct in a fashion that enable them to set price multipliers for each image. Unfortunately in any creative business it's lonely at the top. Go ahead call me crazy!

Ellen Boughn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Lund said...


Your crazy! There, I said it! But I think your comment is a very possible scenario. While I do believe making a good living from stock is becoming more difficult, I don't think it will ever go away. There will always be advertisers who understand the importance of an image that adds value to their message. The stock shooters who do well will be the ones you can create such images and get them distributed well.

One of my main concerns right now is that agencies like Getty are selling their RM images for such low amounts.


Anonymous said...

I too started selling stock pictures nearly 40 years ago. Started dinodia over 20 years ago. It has been difficult but it has been fun too. Let passion for photography be the drive. Rest will take care of itself.

jagdish agarwal/dinodia/india

Unknown said...

Very interesting read. Thank you John and Jim!

Michael said...

Hi John,

This was a great read and seems to mirror a lot of what Jim posts about on his newsletter. While I agree with most of Jim's insights, and while I appreciate the thorough research behind his opinions, much of it (especially the bits about being the end of careers) is based mostly on personal opinion or by being on the pessimistic side of downward trends.

We all agree that income and profitability trends are on the decline and how microstock has been responsible for the biggest dents in traditional photographer paychecks. But to say that it's impossible to make a living, going forward, in stock is off-the-mark. Yes, it's easier if the photographer is living where cost of living is cheaper and talent and resources are also cheaper, but easier and cheaper access don't make great pictures. And great pictures with clear concepts are what continue to sell.

There are certainly variables within "great pictures and clear concepts" that further elevate the power of an image, but it has little to do with region/country and cost of living. The most creative and innovative and prepared photographers will always have a chance to get a leg-up on the competition and make a living and a profit. Being creative and innovative and prepared also extends beyond the photo production process. It's also about business practices -- promotion, networking, relationships with stock agents, hustle, etc.

It certainly won't ever be as easy as it was 10 years ago to make a very good living off of mediocre images. Those days are gone. And they probably should be. The evolution of quality in stock is incredible -- at Getty, at Corbis, at Blend, at Superstock. The list goes on and on. Thinking about this can be either very disturbing or very exciting. I prefer to get excited and brainstorm about how I can stay involved and continue creating (and being pleased by) images that clients pay a premium for. I have my frustrations too and I do see the challenges associated with shrinking RPIs, but it's certainly not at a level to make me want to change careers. No way.

And in terms of other photographers having success in this business, the numbers (of photographers and their incomes) are still quite high. I'm sure there's a range of salaries, but one photographer (with not a lot of overhead) making royalties of $5K-$10K per month is nothing to pooh-pooh. And in that range there are a LOT of photographers. And this is traditional RM/RF photography. I'd argue that there are very few microstock photographers in this range.

In any event, I do believe that we're all in agreement on the trends and the various levels of crisis in the industry and on most of what Jim is talking about. My only real qualm is with our difference of opinion on the viability of the stock photographer career, going forward.


Ellen Boughn said...

I'm not a photographer but my income is down in the same range as most of the photographers that I speak to.That could be blamed on the decrease in funds that photographers have to pay me. But my husband's rare book business is down by that same percent. As is that of a friend who owns a successful restuarant.

The top microstock contributors report the same decline. Why doesn't anyone blame the overall recession for at least some of the falling revenues in stock? I do.

Will incomes return to pre-recession levels. No. Will housing prices return to bubble levels? Not for years and years, perhaps a decade.

Consider that we enjoyed a stock photo bubble and now we don't. Adjust your overheads, work smarter and lower your financial expectations. These are the smart things to do.

John Lund said...


I appreciate your thoughts...and they match may own very closely. Thanks for posting!


John Lund said...


My "gut" tells me that the recession is to blame for about half the drop in revenue. I do think it is a good reminder for all of us that there is more at work here than just what we see in our own industry!



Unknown said...

Great read - thanks Jim and John for your insight.

Photographers should make every effort to put the exact same images with as many agencies as possible on a non-exclusive basis. Different agency editors will select different images for often, unfathomable reasons – and that’s OK. In some cases several agencies will select the same image and that’s also OK. Each agency will have some customers that the others will not reach and you want your images to have a chance to be seen by everyone. Some photographers will do well with one agency and other with a different agency. It is usually difficult to predict which agency will be most successful at selling a given photographer’s images. Be suspicious of any agency that wants to be the exclusive representative of your images and make sure they are offering you a significantly better deal than if you place your images with several agencies non-exclusively.

I couldn't have stated this any better.

Unknown said...

My number of images in stock is modest, and they are all RM, but the problem I have is learning how to define the difference between RF and RM - the business decision to choose which path of selling. Can anyone point me to a place for info? Thanks.

Andrew Ptak Photography said...

rjgreenphoto - I have a simple rule of thumb for this:-

RM - anything that has a release or that I have put a lot of post production into.

RF - a shot that anybody could have taken.

In short, shots I "take" are RF, shots I "make" are RM

Not scientific, I know, but it feels like the right thing to do for me.

Rahul said...

Awesome discussion and thanks all for sharing your thoughts. All this chaos means there's also opportunity and the trick is finding out where it is. The future probably won't look like the past though.

donfarrall said...

A few years ago Mr. Pickerell was fairly strongly suggesting that traditional stock shooters should be diversifying by submitting to microstock sites. He spent a lot of time making the case that there was money to be made in the microstock arena. He even challenged me personally to start submitting to microstock sites. I protested at the time, because I could see that while a few good photographers had made some money in this arena, I felt strongly that the model was not sustainable, from a contributors point of view. Microstock projects an impossible - possibility, by suggesting that single images carry more potential than they really do. The pyramid effect has only served the agencies. The jump to the microstock sites by competent traditional stock producers has only served to hasten the down turn for all contributors, in all arenas, even the good producers who once made some money in microstock.

I do agree that it is increasingly difficult to make a good living in stock photography alone. Clearly there are fewer individuals who can make it happen.

I do assignment and stock, and I like the balance, but I do miss the days when I could be more confident about investing in stock shoots. It is increasingly difficult to justify a big investment in stock production, and this is leading to an overall "dumbing-down" of stock imagery.

I remain as convinced as ever that microstock is not a viable venture for a competent image producer. The pie is just cut into too many pieces.

Don Farrall

Fair Trade Photographer said...

Don Farrall, well said. There was a typical 'gold rush' with microstock. The only people who ended up with the 'gold' were:
1) the really early, really good microstock photographers who did it as a full-time, big-budget job
2) the companies running the microstock sites

Now the market is so saturated with microstock companies, microstock images, and hundreds of thousands of 'microstockers' that the pie is not just in too many pieces, it has simply disintegrated.

This has been a dark tunnel for traditional stock shooters, but I see a little light...

another technology game-changer that means that any company which values its reputation will cease to use microstock images on their websites.

And the technology?

For a good example, take a look at:

Unknown said...

I would agree that much of the recent decline in stock income for many photographers and agencies was due to the bad economy.

The truth is, like so many sectors of modern business, we simply don't know how the market will play itself out. What we do know about the stock industry is that the buying habits of customers and the different pricing models of RM, RF and Microstock continue to adjust each year, as they have for the past two decades.

Just as we all thought that RM would go away when RF came about, we're all scared that Microstock will take all the business. This simply not true, and as the economy starts to get back on its feet, photo buyers will start to spend money on quality imagery again.

Yes, the bottom line is an important factor for most business, but so is market perception. A customer that wants to appear more prestigious will spend more on their marketing. It's human nature- people equate money to status.

After months of dismal sales, I'm starting to see some decent RM income again, and in fact, last month I had the biggest single RM stock sale ever in my fifteen year career. Money is starting to be spent again, and as things pick up, incomes will rise again.

Noone has more experience in this game than Jim Pickerell and I've heeded his advice for many years. I agree that market saturation will continue to make things more challenging for stock photographers and that smart shooters will need to diversify to stay afloat. However, I don't agree that the stock photography business model will simply dissolve for all of us, especially for those who continually produce fresh imagery that reflects current trends, styles and fashion.

Unknown said...

Hello John,

I do understand most of things you are saying. I do agree with many statements of your article.

I went to Corbis and found your shots there and they were great and very creative but...

The shots are belonging to visual trends of time when they've been taken (5-10 years ago). As a very active classic stock photographer I do really know that the life longevity of an image in stock industry is relatively short. And you have to run quicker and quicker adjusting your images to permanently changing visual world...

What I want to say is that it is more and more difficult to find your place in stock photography market and make living out of it. And I do agree that you have to combine stock and assignment photography. Which is also not easy. But difficult doesn't mean impossible!

Frankly: it looks like you gave up and stopped competing in classic stock...

John Lund said...


To view my most recent work go to: .

I am wondering what you mean by "classic stock". I am doing the same kind of work I have always done....



Anonymous said...

What strikes me in discussions about the "stock market" is that participants invariably treat it as if it's just one market - seen by each participant from the perspective in which they themselves contribute.

The reality is that stock licensing is infinitely nuanced within multiple broad categories, and the business realities of each category will vary widely. The future prospects of "editorial" stock is likely to differ from that of "lifestyle" stock photography, for example. We can't just paint the entire market with one broad brush.

I believe Jim Pickerell is correct with respect to editorial book/textbook photography in general. Print publishing is slowly dying, and I don't think online media will pick up the slack for a long time.

I know less about the ubiquitous lifestyle/business categories, but given the extreme supply of stock in these categories (99% of which I would consider very ordinary), I'm amazed shooting lifestyle stock is still a viable business for anybody. It wouldn't surprise me if the future for this kind of stock photography is also very bleak.

On the other hand, some specialty subjects, highly creative imagery and shots with high production value could very well hold their own in the future. The cream rises to the top, and anyone who is able to set him/herself apart and avoid competing on price is likely to do well.

Another thing to consider is that oversupply eventually will result in reduced production. I expect more photographers to exit the business - either by choice or necessity. And the price competition among stock libraries will eventually lead to some of them going under. Unfortunately, before that happens, more damage is likely to be done to both stock prices and to photographers' bottom lines.

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim said...


Jim's statement "Let’s get down to it; can people still make a living at stock? NO -- with a few exceptions." is difficult to assess or analyze without a definition of "make a living at stock."

Did Jim indicate what income range he is using to define "make a living at stock?

Interesting interview, thanks.

Unknown said...

freOne very important note from my point of view.

Talking about RF stock photography, first thing that comes into client's mind is that it is a choice between cheap micro stock and expensive normal stock imagery.

But in fact it is a big hidden lie behind it.

So called "extended" image license in micro in many cases comes just to a very decent price for RF photo (sometime $100-200). And in normal stock as we know many sales are really extremely cheap for relatively low res files and not so expensive even for hi res.

And the tendency shows steady increasing prices in micro segment (sometimes smartly hidden by selling smaller size of files for the same price as they previously use to sell larger files) and steady falling prices in normal stock.

All these means that we have micro segment which has creatively weaker imagery in comparison with high end normal stock imagery and more or less same prices in both segments of RF stock.

I think that bringing this information to wide audience of final users is a very important goal for our segment of stock photography !

Unknown said...

One very important note from my point of view.

Talking about RF stock photography, first thing that comes into client's mind is that it is a choice between cheap micro stock and expensive normal stock imagery.

But in fact it is a big hidden lie behind it.

So called "extended" image license in micro in many cases comes just to a very decent price for RF photo (sometime $100-200). And in normal stock as we know many sales are really extremely cheap for relatively low res files and not so expensive even for hi res.

And the tendency shows steady increasing prices in micro segment (sometimes smartly hidden by selling smaller size of files for the same price as they previously use to sell larger files) and steady falling prices in normal stock.

All these means that we have micro segment which has creatively weaker imagery in comparison with high end normal stock imagery and more or less same prices in both segments of RF stock.

I think that bringing this information to wide audience of final users is a very important goal for our segment of stock photography !

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

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andrew bret wallis said...

Thanks for the insight.
Having only recently discovered the site, I have a lot of catching up to do...
I understand Jim's pessimism in terms of the future of stock... sadly this is also the case for commissioned photography (lower rates, fewer clients willing to dig deep, fewer "genuinely" creative briefs to sink your teeth into)
I see and feel this change working its way like a tsunami right across the whole industry, dismantling as it goes.
Having said this, I have never been afraid of a good fight & whilst I have adapted and evolved my business to cope with the lower predicted turnover and tighter constraints on budget, new technology has repeatedly come to my aide in recent years: Such as the evolution of the DSLR to replace my medium format system - at a fraction of the cost; the ability to shoot video clips with my DSLR using the same lenses, more portable and cheaper lighting systems, the ease of buying equipment, props and shopping for services more cost effectively through the internet; selling to a truly world-wide audience through any of the stock channels...

And.. whilst I wake up some days and mourn the passing of those big pay cheques, creative assignments with limitless time & budget, regular clients with broad smiles and fat wallets... things are "still" better for me today then they ever were back then!
In the past, I used to be bound to my studio, with a receptionist, assistants, at the mercy and whim of an agency art director with seemingly no home to go to... whereas today, I work from my home / studio, go for a walk or cycle if I feel like it, take time out with family & friends, work the hours that suit me and - best of all - leave my mobile behind... Ok, so I'm not planning on being a millionaire in retirement, but I still put in the hours behind the camera and in post production and get a monthly pay-check which covers my costs & shows a profit. Best of all: After 25 years as a pro, I still love photography & wake up excited about the day ahead.

I guess a true artist can & will "always" make sacrifices to do the thing he or she loves?

Best regards,

Andrew :)

Anonymous said...

Loved your comment Andrew.
If you wanna get rich photography is not for you, but if you wanna have a cool life-style and enjoy your work photography is still great. And I do believe in the future of stock but there won't be any easy money, that's fine with me. If my daughter says that she is bored, I can honestly that I'm never bored because my job is so exciting and challenging. :-)