I’ve long been in two minds about the whole stock photography business, for many reasons. Today I’d like to explore some thoughts around the whole ecosystem. One thing’s for sure, though: the market for photographers is getting worse.
On one hand, stock is a very obvious way for a photographer to make money from his or her images; you sell a license to use them for whatever purpose at whatever price. An agency does the aggregation: there is benefit to scale here; a large library is more likely to be searched by potential image buyers simply because of convenience and choice. In this way, the 500-pound gorillas pretty much have the market sewn up: both the eyes of the buyers (typically, agencies, companies, creatives) and the photographers. It’s very difficult – make that nearly impossible – to make any money out of stock if you are your own agent unless you are already a famous photographer and a popular market for your images exists; the simple reason is one of visibility. Nobody is going to find you amongst the rest of the people clamouring for attention out there. And that’s not even taking into consideration the difficulty of maintaining a current, large and searchable catalog for people to find an interesting/ useful image of yours that they might want to license in the first place.
Suppose you sign up with an agency: there are two types. One which accepts any and all comers, and one that is by invitation/ or review only. The former will either price everything at a flat (read: low) fee, and leave the buyers to sort out their own QC, assuming that volume will make up for quality; the latter will charge significant amounts of money and only accept/ represent good images. Needless to say, I think the former type of agency – frequently referred to these days as ‘microstock’ – is probably best avoided by a good photographer; your images will not get the value they deserve, unless you can drive huge quantities – and if they’re that good, you can always easily find representation by one of the better agencies. The latter agency adds a certain prestige – e.g. Getty – however, is not without their drawbacks. They decide what has commercial value and what doesn’t; the upshot is that most of the images accepted are very clinical and lacking in personality or individual style. You may not get that many images in the library as a result.
I think it’s worth taking a short detour on the mechanics/ economics of how these things work, for those readers who might not have had any experience with stock in the past. Unless your images are incredibly unique, famous, or the kind of thing that involves celebrities in compromising positions, you’re almost certainly never going to get bought out directly; the agencies will represent you by putting your images in their catalog and making them available for sale. Depending on the commission structure, you will get varying amounts of money as a one-off or repeat payment for use of your images, but only when the image sells. And typically even then, there will be a significant – up to three month – delay between sale and payment to you. On top of this, the agencies all take a huge cut of the pie: up to 80%, in some cases. Even for the better ones where the images are rights-managed and the contract price depends on usage (as it should; an image that’s used exclusively for an international campaign has more commercial value than one that’s a little banner ad on an obscure website) – this is still the case.
Here’s the paradox: you might well get invited to join – Getty has been running a program for several years now where they invite selected photographers off Flickr* – and you might be rather pleased with yourself, and rightly so. You’ll then notice they select a) your best images, and b) usually those that have people in them. The trouble with this is twofold: the people are the simple bit: for commercial use of a person’s image, you need to get a model release from them. And this isn’t going to happen in candid reportage situations. (Editorial, non-commercial use is different and you do not require a model release.) The more troubling part is that they will probably only take your best images; at this point, read the fine print carefully. Once an image is represented by an agency, you won’t be able to sell it yourself or get another agency to represent it; the simple reason is one of rights management: you wouldn’t want to see another company using an image if you supposedly paid for exclusive rights!
*I applied to join independently several times in the past, was rejected, and then suddenly invited after somebody bothered to look at my Flickr stream. Go figure.
Now I’m sure you see the problem – if you release the rights to your best images, that means you are no longer in full control. Technically, you could be sued for selling prints of your own work, depending on what licenses are active and how the prints are used. The agency will sell the image rights to a client at whatever their rates are; you might find this too low, or get a better offer, and be unable to do anything about it. I’m glad I realized this before putting too much of my A-grade material into the Getty pot; even more so considering they keep between 50 and 80% of the royalties. Of course, the paradox is that if you don’t put good images in, then you’ll never sell anything and you might as well not bother…
…or not, perhaps?
I think there is still value to stock, but like any tool, one has to be discerning in the application: either submit material shot specifically for purpose, or material that has no other artistic or commercial value; in essence, your B roll. If you’re starting out, have a more experienced eye look over your potential submissions before they go in, just in case you submit something you should really be retaining full rights to later on. Even though the rates are pretty criminal, I’d look at it this way: a small amount of something is better than the whole amount of nothing, especially on material that’s otherwise worthless. This is definitely NOT the case for your A-list images though: as with everything, if you don’t value your own work, who else will? I’m sure it’s pretty clear that stock agencies are not in business for the altruistic promotion of photographers; they’re there solely to make money, and like any business, as much of it as they feel they can get away with. We may maintain the attitude of ‘a bit of something is better than all of nothing’, but ultimately you as photographer must retain final veto over both the usage and value of your images. MT
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