Are There Positive Indications Of Growth For The Stock Photo Market?

Stephen Walker recently read a report about Shutterstock’s IPO plans on APhotoEditor.

He then posted the following on the ASMPstock group on yahoo.

Do I read this correctly to say that micro and traditional RM, RF are
growing at a pretty good clip? Micro more so!

I am back in college now finishing my Business and Commerce degree and have
become fascinated with personal business models. Photographers can choose to
participate in the current market conditions with a new business model of a
mix of micro and traditional RM, RF OR complain on how it used to be. I see
these numbers as a strong indicator of growth and positive for stock
shooters (emphasis mine).

The crowd sourcing of the micro world is weeding itself out and as always
the good shooters rise to the top. Micro is about high quality, high quantity
shooting. That is not for all shooters. In this model you’ll make your money
in volume. Traditional is all about high quality and production. Your

The Wrong Conclusion

In my opinion Walker has come to exactly the wrong conclusion. First, a big part of the APhotoEditor report was pulled from the mention of a BBC Research report in the Shutterstock S-1 filing with the SEC. That report, prepared in 2008, predicted that the size of the market for stock photography would exceed $5 billion in 2013. I’m not sure where they got their numbers, but I think they have no basis whatsoever in reality. I estimate that the worldwide market for still images and illustration in 2011 was $1.445 billion. Put stills and video together and I think they will be less than $2 billion at the end of 2012. (See my story on the Stock Photo Market Size to see how I got to those numbers.

Yes, the revenue generated by microstock is growing compared to the higher priced RM and RF. Much of that growth is because microstock has been raising their prices, not because they are selling more images. Shutterstock had a lot of growth in unit sales in 2011, but a good part of that was because they were taking market share from their competitors. iStockphoto’s unit sales dropped. iStock grew revenue because more of their sales were from images in there higher priced brands, but many of those uses are now more expensive than RM. So how much more can they raise the price?

shutterstock logoThere were 58 million downloads of Shutterstock images in 2011. Sounds like a lot of demand. These downloads generated $120.3 million in revenue. That averages out to $2.07 per image downloaded. (Shutterstock managed to round this number to $3.00 in their S-1. New math?) Shutterstock has 35,000 contributor. So on average the annual gross sales of a contributor’s images are $3,429. Shutterstock doesn’t tell us what royalty percentage they pay contributors, but my estimate is that it is around 20% or a little lower. Thus, the average contributor earns under $700 per year and has 543 images in the collection. Of course some of the top producers who concentrate on shooting the type of subject matter that is in very high demand – and do it very well — earn much more than this.

I believe that today there are more microstock contributors that earn in excess of $100,000 annually than there are those who earn this amount producing RM or traditional RF. Many of those who are successful at microstock are production companies, not individuals working alone. Anyone who knows anything about microstock has heard of Yuri Arcurs. Yuri has images with everyone, recently launched his own site — — and earns in excess or $4 million a year. But, Yuri has a staff of over 100 and huge overhead on top of that. Are there individuals ready to compete at this level?

It is also interesting that over 350,000 photographers and illustrators have applied to Shutterstock to become contributors. Only one out of every ten has been accepted and the requirements to become an approved contributor are becoming tighter and tighter.

People keep saying that more and more images are being used on the Internet and therefore demand will continue to grow. But, are customers paying to use those images or are they taking the pictures themselves or stealing? PicScout offers a service to search professional sites for images and compare them with the databases of image distributors to determine if each use was legally licensed. They have determined that 85% of the images they find were either never licensed or are being used beyond the terms allowed in the license.

I estimate that between 125 and 150 million images were legally licensed for use, worldwide, in 2011. A little over 1% of those were licensed as RM. Approximately 2% were licensed at traditional RF prices and the rest came from microstock companies. Overall, in the last couple of years there has been very little growth in the number of images licensed. Companies like Shutterstock have seen a big jump in units licensed, but such increases are mostly at the expense of other companies which either go out off business or see sales declines, rather than because there has been a growth in total images licensed.

In 2007 GettyImage earned $560 million from its Creative Stills collection (RM and traditional RF). Based on gross revenue figures released recently I estimate that Getty’s Creative Stills division generated about $200 million in 2011. (See Getty Images 2011 Revenue: Creative Stills Declines)

And yet the number of images that photographers continue to produce and make available for licensing grows at an astronomical rate. So as a business major Walker should ask himself if it makes sense to train for a profession where:

  1.  There is a huge oversupply compared to demand.
  2.  The microstock business has matured and overall demand is growing at a very slow pace.
  3.  There is absolutely no way to control the supply
  4.  Supply will continue to grow unabated regardless of demand
  5.  The prices customers are willing to pay for the product will continue to decline as it becomes easier and easier for customers to find a cheaper substitute that will satisfy their needs just as well.
  6.  Distributors take the lions share of revenue generated and the contributor’s share keeps decreasing.

This is not complaining about how it used to be. It is about taking a hard look at the potential for earning a living as a photographer. If photography is just a hobby; fine. Have fun. You’ll make a little money. If you support yourself in some other way, and are just looking for a fun way to earn some extra income in your spare time; great. But if you are looking for a way to support yourself, think carefully. Sure, there will a few people who do very well, but it will likely be because they are very smart businessmen with great business skills, and a lot of luck rather than because of the quality of their photography. And even then the odds are against them.

In future those who want a career in photography should look for staff positions (few and far between) or assignment work where they are guaranteed a fee upfront for the work they produce. And think of stock as entertainment and a supplemental income.



About The Author:

Jim Pickerell has been involved in the stock photography business for almost fifty years as a photographer, Macro agency owner, and newsletter editor for the last 20 years. He has lived through the industry changes and is often able to supply useful perspective to those new to the business. Jim publishes, a subscription service and where readers pay to read individual stories. To receive a FREE email every Saturday that includes summaries of the new stories posted the previous week click here, and then click Subscribe to confirm.
Posted on June 12th, 2012 in Editorial | tags: ,
  • ingwio

    Well spotted, Jim.

  • Totally Agree with this article, I’m no superstar in the microstock industry but I’ve come to the conclusion that microstock is just a non sustainable model, and I think that’s why even Yuri has pulled a leg out of it and started his own agency, to me that sounded like a smart move and he’s not stupid, he understood the trend already some years ago.
    So yes, IMHO, if you want to make a living in photography surely the future is not in microstock, or at least not in microstock as primary source of income, no way.

    Just my 2 cents

  • Jim, do you have the same opinion regarding contributors who focus on illustration or video?

  • I am not persuaded by your analysis of the price mechanism in terms of stock. There has always been a huge oversupply of images. In the old days a magazine wanted iconic images of London for a travel feature. It contacted all the likely agencies that it uses and each sends in a selection of dozens of transparencies. The editor has hundreds if not thousands of pictures to choose from and can ask for thousands more if needed. In a general sense the supply is immaterial because the fee will be decided by negotiation over the use. This was how it was. It is not an increasing supply that has changed this model it is the new models of competition based on under-cutting price. And those photographers who support these models are responsible for feeding the beast.

    Would you offer an economic analysis of the price mechanism in operation in stock photography bearing in mind that each image is unique and that not simply a unit of supply.

  • Sam

    Good question Eric,
    personally, I think that there is way less Illustrators than Photographers in the microstock world, which means less files/supply, not to mention the skill needed to generate high quality Vector image.

  • Excellent article Jim! I’d like to say just a thing: for me results that Getty Images had $857.6 million of revenues in 2007 and not $560 million. Is that right? Or the informations here are not valid?

  • Getty Images did have $857M in revenue for 2007 and $878M for the last twelve months ending March 2008.

    I agree that you are not likely to get rich as a stock photographer. However the margins and growth at Shutterstock are very attractive. Corporations need easy sources of legal content and services like this can be very profitable. It’s a bit of an oligopoly with iStockphoto/Getty, Corbis and Shutterstock.