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Is Stock Photography a Scam?

by John Bennet

Does anyone really make money from stock photography? You have to assume that they do, otherwise the industry would have collapsed by now. But when you look at the numbers, things just don’t seem to add up.

Is stock a scam?


How Stock Photography Is Supposed To Work

If you’re a professional photographer, the idea is that you can effortlessly increase your income by entrusting surplus images to a stock agency to sell for you. These are files that would just be gathering digital dust on your hard-drive anyway, right? So effectively it’s free money. And for non-professional photo enthusiasts, stock looks like a good way of paying for your hobby while having fun. Win/win.


How Stock Photography Really Works

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Firstly there’s the problem that relatively few clients are willing to spend big money on photos (say to use on a billboard). Meanwhile, only a similarly small percentage of photographers will be of a high enough professional level to sell their images to these well-paying clients. Meanwhile, the bulk of clients are seriously low-budget, and the majority of photographers are seriously low-talent.

If you’re one of the top-tier photographers, and can regularly sell images for advertising campaigns, good for you: perhaps you don’t need to read this article. Certainly, major stock agencies such as Getty can pull in very big clients. So anyone who can secure a contract with an agency of this caliber may appear to be winning.

But if you’re a reportage photographer, working on long-term stories in distant locations, this can mean a lot of money going out on travel and living expenses. And even if you are a high-earner, don’t expect the agency to pick up these bills for you.

Not only this, but stock agencies also take a huge percentage of any licensing fees your photos generate. Fees vary, but in practice you might not receive enough to even cover your expenses. And here we’re talking about the top end of stock.

Meanwhile, the majority of agencies’ business comes from lower-budget clients. The only way that an agency can make good money from these smaller clients is simply by having a lot of them. And in order to attract a lot of clients you need to offer a lot of photos. Like really a lot. This means adding more and more contributing photographers, and charging lower prices. Both of these actions push quality down, in turn scaring away those precious high-paying clients.


Increasing Demand, Decreasing Fees

Ironically, with the rise of internet-based self publishing, there’s probably more demand for stock imagery now than ever before. But a blog that merely makes a little income from Google ads and Amazon referrals clearly isn’t going to have money to throw at good quality stock imagery. Something from one of the free sites will do; a credit: “photo via Flickr.” Or at most a $1-cheapy from a microstock site.

This means that on a platform such as 500px you’ll be lucky to make between $5 and $50 for every image licensed. On microstock sites it’s more like $0.25 to $5. Clearly at these rates you’d need to sell an enormous quantity of images for stock to become anywhere near profitable.

Effectively then, you have a few major players at the top who are perhaps doing OK out of the industry, and everyone else scrabbling around for crumbs at the bottom. I hate to say it, but statistically you are likely to be at the bottom. At least for now, But even if you are a genuinely good photographer, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to earn a living from stock alone.

Perhaps you are a professional photographer who anyway spends most of the time shooting? This way you might regularly have images to spare, or can quickly shoot a few extra photos specifically for stock while on the job. In this case, stock might seem like a good way of adding a few more dollars to your income with a minimum of effort.

I wouldn’t bet on it: even just editing, uploading, and tagging all those spare images takes time. If you are a successful professional photographer, you will probably not have that time.

What’s more, it doesn’t help that even once you’ve agreed a price for your photos with a stock platform, sites such as 500px are known for then discounting these agreed prices very heavily. In the case of one user, this meant that images that should have been priced at $748 actually ended up netting the photographer a grand total of $8!

Beware 500px’s (Very) ‘Flexible Pricing’

It’s hard to see how this could ever be profitable.


The Customer Is Always Right

Stock is always just a watered-down version of whatever more serious, more creative, and more accomplished photographers are doing at any particular moment in time. If you’re a stock photographer, clearly this is not something you’ll want to hear, but the simple fact is that stock photos are not shot for artistic expression. They exist for no other purpose beyond making money.

For this they need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Stylistically, this means following what’s happening elsewhere in the world of photography; producing a more commercial, more easily accessible, and cheaper version of what sells – in the hope that you’ll get a piece of the action too.

There are of course exceptions to this, and some more discerning clients are no doubt frustrated by the generally poor quality of stock images available. But ultimately, no matter how talented you are as a photographer, stock is made for the client. It’s made to sell – not just once, but repeatedly. To do so, it will need to appeal to a wide audience.

To be sure, stock was never a fantastic opportunity for photographers – even in the golden age of stock, the numbers were always weighted towards the agency. But at least back in the days before cheap digital cameras and internet stock sites there were far less people shooting. So even if you might only have received 30% of a photo’s sales price, as long as you sold enough inventory it could still work out profitable.

The problem is that there are so many photographers out there now, all competing for the same pot of money. All trying to give the market what it wants in order to secure those elusive licensing deals.


100,000 Hipsters Can’t Be Wrong

But how can an aspiring stock photographer tell what the market wants? Market research of course: looking at the photos that sell. Unfortunately this means that the world is now inundated with literally hundreds of thousands of near-identical images. Thankfully we’ve moved on from the “business man running through airport with briefcase” that was so inexplicably popular in stock photography 10 or 20 years ago. Yet he has merely been replaced by more contemporary cliches:

– Flatlays of MacBooks, coffee, and analog SLRs on wooden tabletops

– Identikit bearded hipsters in hats and sunglasses

– Bland “startup” meeting rooms with people pointing for no apparent reason

– “Healthy” food shots that have been so heavily retouched they look anything but natural.

– “Adventurous” travelers in front of mountainous landscapes, arms outstretched to greet the sunrise.

And that’s without getting into downright weird stock cliches, such as “women laughing alone with salad” (yes, really).

Women Laughing Alone With Salad

We have to assume that clients genuinely want this stuff, otherwise nobody would bother shooting so much of it. Presumably it’s designed to appeal to those with disposable income: i.e. Millennials and Gen Y.  But even if there’s a market for such photos, stock photography sites are now totally overrun with these images.

For example, type the phrase “friends having fun” into a site like Shitterstock (a typo, honest) and you’ll find over 1,000 results. All featuring very similar-looking groups of twenty-somethings waving their arms in the air or taking a selfie at a festival/beach/party. Invariably these photos are shot against flared sunlight; and apparently treated with the exact same Lightroom filters.

There are over 1,000 of these photos on one site alone remember. How can you possibly compete with this? Sure, it might be what the average client really wants. But they’ve got it already. By the hard-drive full.


There Can Only Be One Winner

OK, so you’ve got a plan. You’re better than this. You’re going to innovate instead: put something on the market that nobody else is offering. Maybe this way you’ll rise above the ocean of mediocrity and finally see some real cash?

You can certainly try. But even if it works, and you identify something new that actually sells, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll spawn 1,000 imitators. And then you’re back to square one again.

Perhaps you’ll be happy to make some money for a while. But then it’s the next photographer’s turn. And the next. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a full and regular income out of stock.

Yet all the while somebody is consistently making money on every single photo sold. It doesn’t matter if it’s you who makes the sale, or any one of thousands of other photographers: either way a good chunk of the fee goes into the agency’s pocket.

So let’s go back to the question we asked at the start: does anyone make money from stock?

The answer to this question is a resounding yes. With the unfortunate caveat that it’s not photographers.

Let’s be totally clear, stock is a scam: a rigged game that benefits nobody but the owners of stock sites. Don’t do it!

Photo D.G.