An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Stock Photography Industry

The stock photography industry is in trouble and nobody knows how to save it. Currently three market forces are buffeting stock photography. The first force is an oversupply of images. The second is the rise of licensing models that are unsustainable and the third is the current economic slowdown in the industries that use the large share of stock imagery.

There is little that we can do about the oversupply and the current economic slowdown. No new policy from the market leaders, and no high-minded ideas on a photography news groups is going to increase the ad pages in Time Magazine or convince thousands of newer photographers to stop submitting images as microstock. What we can do is affect the perceived value of images.

The every popular Micro Stock as allowed our every image user – from multinationals to small businesses – to buy for a buck what they used to buy for several hundred dollars. No increase in volume is going to make up that difference in revenues. A minority who invested in the microstock circus early have made money but I predict as time goes on these success stories will dwindle as oversupply makes the investment less and less worthwhile.

I have nothing against the concept of low-priced licensing like the Micro Stock model; In fact I think it is a good way for beginning photographers to connect to buyers who need ok images. The problem I have is when market leaders who are selling premium images play this game.

I don’t want to dwell on why I believe that selling a Lexus at the same price, as a Kia is silly. What I want to offer is a possible way out of this rabbit hole.

Let’s start treating microstock in a logical, market-enhancing way.

Let Micro Stock be the farm team of our industry. Let Microstock be the place where beginning stock photographers learn how to produce sellable images and where small businesses, educators and non profits learn how to pay for images instead of “borrowing” them from the internet.

Our distributors need a systematic method of making sure that their microstock collections stay clean of high value images. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? When images appear on the Microstock sites that have more value, being produced by photographers with more talent these images and photographers should be immediately promoted to the major collections where they can be sold at sustainable price points. If this policy was enacted Micro Stock would enhance our industry instead of helping erode it.

I would also urge our distributors to stop pitching Microstock to valuable commercial and publishing clients. For businesses where quality images are an important part of their communication and branding, make them pay what our images are worth to them, which is far more than a buck.

This idea of protecting the value of premium images also applies to the growing trend to offer major clients access to premium collection images for minimal fees. Getty Images’ Premium Access program and Jupiter’s Unlimited Plus product come to mind, and I’m sure there are many more under the radar. While I can understand the market need for preferred pricing and for subscription access, programs I again feel that allowing all images to be sold this way devalues all images. If a manufacturer wants to have products in all price points, the usual method is to develop different production for each of these markets not just to lump their premium and basic goods into one bargain basket. If a company needs access to premium quality images, they should make sure that the pricing reflects the high value of both their client’s needs and their images’ worth.

I have been in the photography business for 19 years now. One of the lessons that I have learned is that it can take years to build up a reputation as a source for great creativity and only a couple of days to destroy that hard-built reputation. I have learned the power of walking away from a bad deal. I have learned the difference between being busy and being profitable. I have learned that often that best way to get a client to say yes is for me to say no. I plead with our distributors to learn these basic lessons. I urge them to once again have faith in themselves and the imagery of their contributing artists. I also urge photographers to be more aspirational in their stock output. I believe that photographers need to think twice before playing the volume game of Micro and RF stock and start playing the quality game of RM stock. I think that for most photographers they will find more artistic gratification and increase income from playing in a higher quality market. Better pictures, more money, what’s not to like?

I am publishing this open letter in order to open a dialoge. I invite other industry stakeholders to tell me why my ideas will not work and to share with me their ideas on how to put our industry onto a healthier track. For we are at a point in time where all of us need to come together to share our views and work together for positive change. Otherwise, we can expect more and more talented people from across our industry to end up sharing a place in the unemployment line.


Zave Smith

Leslie Hughes Wrote:

I read your article with interest. I would love to speak with you sometime about it. in the meantime, here are some thoughts to consider. I take a similar but different approach. I wrote an article some time ago for MacTribe that spoke about crowd sourcing and the pros and cons and how photographers were going to need to think about how they shoot and what and when to put through to what is simply a new channel. I don’t think you can stop and am a market person. I believe that if there is a demand which there is, someone will respond. So the key – which is the similar part – is to educate the photography community not to be silly in filling that pipeline with cheaply priced images of the “Lexus” product. How I differ a bit is that I don’t think necessarily that this is a talent issue but a product cost and channel management issue. You don’t put the good stuff in the cheap channel. And that is where I see a huge problem that will hurt so many good photographers.

If it takes little money and is fast to produce, than one may be able to produce it for microstock going forward – and s/he who does it best may be able to make money (I think). I am guessing this is what is behind the Getty decision to get into this initially plus the belief that content and the internet will move ever more toward a direct to consumer environment and high volume, low priced opportunity. It would be fascinating to explore how to create images that did not involve the “high priced talent” but maybe we create the opportunity for interns and as you say the farm team to learn by shooting what we know is needed. Focus the high end talent on the high end product. I like to use fashion as a metaphor. Mizrahi has done pretty darn well with his line for Target. But he does not use the same materials, not the same production process. The eye and design sensibility is pretty darn close and people love it.

Any way, I love the high end – please don’t misunderstand me. I think there is opportunity there for the right people. I also agree there is an over saturated market and that there will be more consolidation because of it. However, I also see that so much of how we live in the world is driven by the internet and we are moving away from transaction to collaboration. There is a mass market on young consumers who don’t respond to print in any way. Images and visual media will be an ever increasing part of online collarboration and clients and consumers will want inexpensive access to an ever abundant supply. We want to ensure that those that play in the space do so in a way that ensures integrity and the ability for creators to maintain control and make profit.

Interesting discussion and I love the you are willing to put in out there.

Leslie Hughes

E q u i d y n e V e n t u r e s


About Zave Smith

Commercial Photography for Advertising.
This entry was posted in advertising, Art, Commercial Photography, Getty Images, lifestyle photography, Photography. and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Stock Photography Industry

  1. Terry Runion says:

    Zave, Great Blog! I do have to say this is a train, that is rolling and cannot be stopped , so what are we to do?

    Personally , I think all your points are totally correct, but I don’t think we will be able to change a thing.

    I do however; offer this, we must come up with some creative ways to use this paradigm shift to our advantage. I would be very interested in your thoughts and others as how we can use this in a positive manner to excel at our craft.

    What are your thoughts?

  2. Mark Bolster says:

    The big agencies made this mess (with help from too many short sided photographers) and they are the ONLY ones who can get us out of it.
    Your ideas are good. At least as good as any I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot.
    Thanks for the post!
    Mark Bolster

  3. John Madere says:


    Your open letter to the stock industry was extremely well written and helpful. My 40% contract with Corbis comes up for renewal in a couple of days. I don’t intend to sign it. Only a few years ago my stock income with Richard Steedman’s The Stock Market was around $60,000/year simply from submitting my outtakes from corporate assignments along with a few personal shoots. The geniuses at Corbis and Getty have managed to reduce that to about $1500 last year. From what I can tell the only hope for stock photographers to make a decent income would be for enough of the talented serious photographers to join just one large stock photo agency that is being operated as a co-op. That agency must have a contract that prohibits it from ever being sold to a corporation. Without that we will all be jeopardizing our long term futures. Can anyone tell me if such an agency exists now? It seems to me that allegiance to that agency would be essential to the survival and financial viability of all stock photographers.

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