Changing Photography Business

Anyone interested in a career as a photographer – as well as photographers in mid-career — should carefully examine how the business is changing.

If we look at image use on the Internet it is undeniable that more images are being made available for viewing. Here’s some numbers:

  • It has been calculated that from the invention of the camera to the year 2000 a total of 85 billion photos had been produced. Thirteen years later that figure is now 3.5 trillion.
  • There are 140 billion photos on Facebook with 250 million daily uploads. Half the Facebook posts today are images.
  • There are 40 million daily uploads to Instagram or 14.4 billion a year. During Hurricane Sandy1.3 million photos were posted to Instagram at a rate of 10 photos per second.
  • Photobucket has 10 billion photos from 100 million registered members.
  • Flickr had 2.98 billion photos available for public viewing at the end of 2012. They and was adding photos at a rate of 518 million a year, or 1.42 million per day

However, for professionals this is not good news. More image use does not mean more demand for professionally produced images. It does not mean that there will be more opportunities for photographers to earn their living taking pictures. In fact, the opportunities to earn a living as a photographer are declining. Here’s why.

Growth In Digital Delivery of Images

1 – Advances in camera technology have made it possible for many former commercial customers to produce the images they need themselves. They no longer need to hire a professional photographer. A significant percentage of the images used for commercial organizations are produced by staffers whose primary job is something other than photography, or by part-time freelancers who support themselves in other careers.

2 – The vast majority of the photos taken today are produced by part-timers. For most of them the joy they receive from taking pictures is more important than any money the images might generate. Knowing someone else appreciates their images is more important than money. Many are willing to work for very low, or no, compensation.

3 – The Internet has made it possible for amateurs to easily show their images to the world right beside  images produced by professionals. From the customers perspective the “best” image for their purposes is often the one produced by an amateur, not someone who is trying to earn a living taking pictures.

4 – There is a tendency among image users to see something on the Internet that they like; right-click it and use it. This type of activity is increasing and there is very little that can be done to stop it. Many who try to enforce their copyright find that it is more costly in time and treasure than they are ever able to recover.

5 – Of all the images used today, nothing is paid to use the vast majority. PicScout searches the Internet for uses of professionally produced photos that are being licensed by many of the largest stock photography companies. Of the images they fine 85% are used in ways that are have never been authorized by the creator or his/her representatives.

Credits: Laura Stolfi | Stocksy

Credits: Laura Stolfi | Stocksy


How Are Image Used

1 – In the past most of photographers earned the bulk of their revenue by producing images for some type of print use. (Wedding and family portrait photographers excepted.)

A – Newspaper and magazine publishers earn most of their revenue from advertising. Ad revenue in the U.S. in 2011, even including online revenues, was less than half what it was in 2000. And the decline continues.  See here.

B – In the traditional print publishing model advertising covered 80% of costs and subscriptions the other 20%. Today’s, customers are unwilling to pay enough in increased subscription costs to offset the loss in advertising.

C – Lower revenue has resulted in significant staff cuts and a reduction in the amount of space available for pictures.

D – Increasingly, people get more of the information they need from online sources rather than through print. See here and here.

E – Advertisers are moving away from print and using other strategies, including online, to reach customers. As a general rule online users are unwilling to pay for content.

F – A couple years ago the New York Times reported that its online ad revenue was one-tenth of what they received for ads in the print edition despite the fact that significantly more people were reading the online stories than were reading the print edition. Based on a 2012 Pew Research study on the State of News Media advertising in the current Internet model is only covering about 3% of costs of producing the content.

G – Adding to the editorial photography problem:

1 – The public has less and less confidence that there is any such thing as accurate and unbiased reporting. A large percentage of the public believes that most of the information the news media delivers supports already established biases. In many cases the photos will be used to support a particular bias, not to illuminate any truth.
2 – Access to those who make the news – politicians or sports and entertainment personalities – has become more and more controlled and restricted. The press is fed information that supports the position the newsmaker wants to project. There is less and less opportunity for independent and objective analysis or investigative reporting.
H- The most likely scenario for the future seems to be that people will get more and more of their information online and for free — or at an unreasonably low cost relative to the real cost of producing it. Most of the information will be socially, not professionally produced. There will be problems with reliability. Biased information will be presented as objective. Wading through the massive amounts of available information will be difficult, since very little of it will have been vetted by trusted editors.



1 – Textbooks used to be a big market for still photography. In some senses it still is. But over the last decade publisher have dramatically cut their total outlay for photos mostly by continually demanding more rights for the same fees they used to pay. In many cases they have simply made more use of the images without obtaining permission for the extra use.

The education market is also moving rapidly from delivering printed products to digital. See here and here. When it comes to digital uses educational publishers will:

1 – Use more images,
2 – Use more video instead of still images,
3 – Demand unlimited rights to the image they purchase,
4 – Pay very little for these uses.

The royalty rates will be based on the actual number of times the image is viewed and will be very low. (See here.) Based on current trends it may be necessary for 300 students to click on a page where a photographer’s image is shown, or on the image itself, for the photographer to earn $1.00.

Pricing Trends For Stock

The main driver of declining prices is huge oversupply. Consider that on PacaSearch customers can find over 170 million images available for licensing and on PicturEngine over 200 million unique images. Most of the images in PacaSearch are also available on PictureEngine. A significant percentage of these images were produced by part-timers. Also consider these numbers compared to the numbers we listed at the top of this story. A very small percentage of all the images we see are licensed usages.

Over the last two decades the industry has continually moved to lower priced models. 20 years ago all stock images were licensed based on usage (known as Rights Managed). Royalty Free was introduced in the early 90s offering unlimited use at dramatically lower prices (and a lower royalty share for the image creators). After an initial growth spurt in the use of RF sellers began to raise prices. This resulted in RF becoming too expensive for many users.

Microstock was introduced. Initially, it was possible purchase rights to a microstock images for about $1.00. Over the last few years the quality and the fees to use a microstock image have risen, but despite the increase very few photographers can make decent money selling microstock. Most microstock sellers are amateurs. For these people the income they earn from photography is a supplement, not intended to be their total support.

As microstock prices rose Subscription started to take a larger share of the market. In 2012 Shutterstock which earns the majority of its revenue from subscriptions licensed 76 million image usage rights. Their average price per image downloaded for the year was about $2.25. Photographers received about 20% of that. On average each image on the site was downloaded 3 to 4 times.

I estimate that worldwide about 145 million stock images were licensed for use in 2012. Of that number the breakdown by usage type was:

Usage Type

Average Licensing Price

Gross Images



Rights Managed

$300.00 (many for less than $50)


Traditional Royalty Free



Microstock (Single Image)






Now we have at least two new lower priced entries into the market. Smartphones with 8MP chips are here and 41MP chips are on the horizon. Several sites are encouraging people to supply images taken with their Smartphones. These include: Alamy, iStockphoto, Scoopshot and Foap.

At the moment most images produced with smartphones are being licensed at microstock prices, but as the volume of available images increases prices are sure to fall. Also, given the potential volume, the odds of any imge selling will be even less than with microstock. These photos will certainly have a major impact on the market in 2 to 3 years.

The newest offerings are systems that generate fees based on the number of times consumers interact with an image they find on the Internet. Three such services are Getty Connect, Stipple and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Image Quest. The Getty system offers royalties of a few thousandths of a penny per transaction.

Cutting Out The Middleman

One of the problems image creators face is that a huge percentage of the revenue generated goes to middlemen not the creators. Twenty years ago image creators received 50% of the fees customers paid to use their images. Today, not only have average usage fees dropped, but in most cases creators only receive 20% to 30% of the fee charged — and sometimes even less.

It seems unlikely that any of the new strategies will produce significant revenue for image creators. It will also be impossible for creators to engage in direct to consumer transactions without the assistance of organizations that consolidate imagery from a broad group of creators and make it easy for consumers to know where to go to find the imagery. These organizations will take the lions share of the revenue collected.

In the past most freelance photographers developed direct business to business relationships. In those cases they kept 100% of the fee negotiated. This is ideal if the photographer can find enough customer to sustain his business, But, now businesses have more options and the number of such relationships is declining. In addition, there is intense competition for the available jobs that are left.

Role of Illustrations

We are also seeing more use of illustration and less use of photography by graphic designers and other users of visual content. In 2005 89% of the images Shutterstock licensed were photos. In 2012 that percentage had dropped to 61%. That means that almost 30 million of the images Shutterstock licensed in 2012 were illustration or vectors. Graphic images are easier to read on small devices. Illustrations and vectors eliminate the problem of having to find real situations to record. The artist invents what is needed in his head. Illustrations eliminate the problems of building sets, finding the right light, paying models and releases. With illustration whatever the creator can imagine can be created.

In addition, “real” has become less important. Today, it is extremely difficult to tell what is real or manipulated. The rise of Photoshop has caused most viewers to assume everything is manipulated. The use of CGI is growing and it will expand the possibilities of the unreal.


Credits: Juanjo Grau | Stocksy

Credits: Juanjo Grau | Stocksy

Video may offer some potential for those who want to try to earn a living in the visual arts. Certainly as information delivery moves more to online and mobile devices there will be more demand for video than stills. The video that will be most in demand in the future will be much more dependent on story, rather than just beautiful clips. Many of these stories will be short, from 30 seconds to 3 minutes in length.

Some still photographers are shooting video clips. For the most part these are designed to be a second or two in an ad rather that being the whole ad. It was estimated at the end of 2011 that the worldwide market for such material was about $394 million, but a big part of this is segments pulled from TV productions and major films and often used in other major productions.

In my opinion the individuals who will be successful in this field will be those who learn how to tell short interesting stories, not just shoot video clips. Here are a few sites to look at for ideas.

While there will be a huge demand for short videos in the future there will also be a lots of competition. Most good videos will tend to be a team effort rather than one person doing it all. The skills needed are script writing, videographer, narrator, someone to capture sound and editing. It will be rare for one person to be great at every aspect of a production.

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 April 16th, 2013 in Editorial
  • Wow, phenomenal post jim, very thorough and accurate, thanks 🙂

    For some additional info on how many images there are around, I produced a short video last year showing ‘roughly’ how many images are on the internet, you might want to check it out:

  • Wow, phenomenal post Jim, very thorough and accurate, thanks 🙂

    For some additional info on how many images there are around, I produced a short video last year showing ‘roughly’ how many images are on the internet, you might want to check it out:

  • cobaltstock

    That is a great post with a lot of information Jim, thank you! And thank you very much for buying from stocksy, this is the first time I see stocksy images in use! 🙂

  • Adrian

    Great and very informative article! Thank you!

  • You got a really useful blog I have been here reading for about an hour. I am a newbie and your success is very ]much an inspiration for me.
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