Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What I Know About The Stock Photo Industry

A blindfolded man holds an elephant by the tail in a concept stock photo about the difficulty of comprehensive knowledge.
As demonstrated by this stock photo interpretation of the fable of three blind men and an elephant, it is almost impossible to gain a full understanding of the stock photo industry as a contributing photographer.

The Difficulty Of Understanding The Stock Photo Industry
Like the fabled three blind men who happened upon an elephant and each came away with a vastly different impression of what an elephant was, we stock photographers have a very difficult time truly comprehending the stock photo industry. Each of us has a very small window to view things from, a window defined by our style, the number of images in the marketplace, the agencies that represent us, our own prejudices, and the element of “art”, that indefinable quality, that can make one image so much more popular than a close similar.

Sales Statistics
I have been told more than once that unless you have a thousand images in the market you can’t really get a reliable interpretation of sales statistics…the sample is just too small. I don’t know if that holds true in every case, but I do know that as I constantly look over my own sales reports it is exceedingly difficult to come up with any universal truths! In my own case I keep coming up with the conclusion that pretty much everything sells and some things sell far more than others. What use is that information? I suppose it means that I just need to keep producing.

A Predominance Of Concept Stock Photo
Of course, my own sales reports reflect a predominance of concept stock photos that are “post” intensive, in many cases requiring multiple days to complete just one image. I would guess that my conclusions would not be relevant to, for example, a travel shooter or a high-producing lifestyle shooter. In short, my sales reports do not give me an accurate window into the stock photo industry as a whole.

Microstock vs. Traditional Stock Photography
Another problem I have in attempting to understand the overall industry is my lack of experience in microstock. Microstock is dominating the industry, and yet, other than a dozen or so images in the TAC program through Blend (The Agency Collection which consists of RF priced images that appear on both the Getty site and iStockphoto.com) I have no first hand knowledge. Sure, I hear from friends who shot for micro…but some say things are going great, others say that micro is on the decline, and others say something in between. Oh well….

The Benefits of Licensing Images For Higher Royalties
Microstock shooters certainly don’t have the whole picture without understanding the benefits of licensing images for higher royalties. I am pretty certain that some of my images have brought far more revenues in as Rights Managed images than they ever would have as Royalty Free…and I have other images in which I am relatively sure of the reverse. Of course, I still can’t know entirely for sure because I don’t have the opportunity to see the sales results of a single image that is available in each category. In the few situations where I do have fairly similar images in the different licensing models, including TAC,   a case can be made either way. 

Selling Your Own Stock Photos Online
Then there is that whole selling your own stock photography online thing. While I have been vigorously pursuing my own version of this for the last three years a case can be made that my own experience actually clouds my ability to see the whole. While there are doubtless many photographers who successfully support themselves through selling their own stock, my experience is that after a significant amount of time and effort it is hard to see how I could ever fully support my self with such an endeavor. I make close to two thousand licenses a month through agencies and only a handful through my own efforts. I can’t imagine how I could deal with the volume of transactions that would be necessary to support myself! That no doubt clouds my perception of the stock industry as a whole.

What I know About The Stock Photography Business
So even though I have this totally distorted view of the stock photo business I will go ahead and share what I believe I know at this point:

1.              Most people are not making significant money in stock photography, but a few are doing quite well. Success therefore is possible.
2.              There are many different ways of achieving success as a stock photographer. Some photographers achieve success through massive production, some shooters through amazing images, and others through niches or even a mastery of the Internet.
3.              The biggest challenge for a stock photographer is to get one’s work seen.
4.              The future will see a merging of different license models and price points (as in micro and traditional images available side by side).
5.              Shooting the same thing you have always shot actually does seem to work for some people!
6.              The key to success, if there is such a thing, is attitude.
7.              If I do know anything about achieving success in stock photography, it is subject to change at a moments notice!