state of the stock photography industry

3426567494_f758e5523eDespite the fact that photography is a major part of my working life, I haven't really written much online about it. The major outlet of my collection is via 'Stock Agencies' online and marketed directly. I work with a number home and abroad, such as the international nature specialist Oxford Scientific Films, the US-based Superstock and Spanish AgeFotostock. The basis of this includes building a large database of images, for myself primarily of expeditions and wildlife. These are then marketed via specific licences to advertising companies, newspapers or any other image user globally.

Needless to say, the industry has taken a major hit due to the global economic downturn and photographers relying on stock as their source of income, as opposed to commissioned photo-shoots, have suffered. Professional, 'traditional', agencies such as those I contribute to are now classed as 'macrostock' due to the arrival of a new business model which is a threat to all professional photographers.

Microstock is where images are sold without control over their use, in bulk, for fees which are usually less than a dollar. They have become exceptionally popular, following the digital photography explosion, with hobbyists and those who don't rely on selling images to support themselves. With good reason, picture editors have welcomed the influx of cheap and unrestricted imagery. The problem comes due to a combination of factors.

Firstly, those who do not rely on photography to pay bills are often so thrilled about being seen in print that they will almost give their images away to be published. This is combined with the fact that picture buyers will often target vulnerable amateurs on networks such as Flickr and ask to use images for a commercial publication and offer no payment - only a credit line. This is often enough for the hapless photographer with their entry-level dSLR. Many even offer their images up for free use, albeit not for commercial use, through policies such as 'creative commons'.

It is a development of the free 'Opensource' revolution occuring online. Whilst the display of photographs online is surely one of the best things about the internet, it also inevitably brings amateur photographers into direct competition with professionals. The result is that the professionals simply cannot afford to compete as they cannot live on $50 a year raised through a microstock agency.

What is not often considered is the tangible cost behind something as simple as a photograph. Equipment costs, travel, computers, professional software and models all cost money and so to sell an image for a dollar can simply not offset the overheads of a professional. The end result is likely to be the collapse of a great number of photographic businesses and freelancers. This will deprive the image market of the very highest quality work which can often only result from an experienced professional committing large amounts of time. The professional photographer is in danger of demise and reduction of the microstock market share could be the key to reversing the trend.