Taking stock

The market for stock photograph seems to have been in decline for many years. Most photographers with whom I correspond feel that the collapse of sales and prices has accelerated in the last five years or so.

Personally that was rather a blow. My career directing large scale computing projects came to an end with the 2008/9 financial crisis.  That in itself was not a disaster although I had planned to do it for another five years to improve my financial security. I was ready for a change and planned to get much more serious about my photography, and writing. Unfortunately my stock sales went into freefall at the same time.

Even so, I became more diligent and thoughtful about my stock photography, most of which was generic editorial stock. The editorial market has generally had lower prices but made up for it in part by higher volumes. I have been shooting stock photographs for various libraries for twenty years and made a useful income from it despite not being able to commit much time due to demands of a high-level career. Unfortunately since my change of direction even though I was shooting more, and better, stock made little impact on sales. It would appear I am not the only one that is suffering but some established names seem to do reasonably well but one gets the sense that even they are having to work harder to maintain income.

So it was time to take stock. With the pitiful fees, down to £0.38p for a licence through one agency, I was not motivated to carry on being a busy fool. The fees did not justify the time spent let alone the cost of equipment, travel, insurance and the like. So, at the end of 2014 I stopped seeking out generic stock and gave up submitting to the mass market libraries.

My income did not drop, I continue to make the same pittance from the images I already have with libraries but it did give me a sense of liberation. I dabbled with news photography, I have always enjoyed photographing actuality, sport and news, but soft news too is a hard way to make a living. Especially if one is just starting out and having to build contacts with customers and those who can provide access to news events. I should say I have never really found it particularly difficult to get accreditation to events I wanted to cover, the problem is finding sales opportunities in a crowded market.

That is probably the point. Everybody is chasing the easy or, at least, the obvious opportunities. Indeed, most photographers (and writers for that matter) are chasing the traditional markets through the same third parties they have always used, even though such effort is clearly no longer viable. The generic stock libraries (Alamy, Getty, Corbis et al), have so much content that they can make money (at least in theory) from scale. Such aggregators can make thousands of sales and make , say, £5 on each which quickly becomes a significant amount of money. Unfortunately, individual photographers only see an occasional sale at the same £5 which does not cover costs let alone time. The libraries are one of those unusual businesses who get their inventory free, they only have to pay for it on sale and then only if they actually manage to collect the fees owing.

So I have taken nearly a year out to rediscover my enthusiasm for photography and to understand what I can offer as a photographer. I have concentrated on shooting what I wanted, personal projects with perhaps a more artistic intent (others can judge whether I have succeeded). It has proved my interest lies with real life, actuality, rather than generic stock or even conceptual studio work. What is now obvious to me is that generic editorial stock is effectively dead as a source of income. But I believe there are opportunities.

The fact that most, including many very talented, photographers are still pursuing a flawed traditional approach takes them out of the game as competitors for those who can see the market for images afresh. Photographers have always complained about technology and change undermining the market. I saw it with 35mm cameras, then with automatic cameras and the rise of the (film based) stock libraries in the 1970s and 80s. Old school photographers complained while those who embraced the changes and the new reality prospered, many of those who seized their chance forty years or even ten years ago are now the ones complaining  about digital, microstock and all the other reasons why they are not making money by actually giving the market what it now needs.

That is what we need to grapple with and urgently if we want to continue to make a living from photography. It is where my business planning will be going over the next few months. It is time for me to finish my sabbatical and use the lessons and rediscovered love of photography profitably. I will be sharing my progress here on M-dash.

Reference:

Although it is about photojournalism much the same debate was in full flow 20 years ago, see the special American Photo, 1996 special issue for 7th Visa pour l'Image Perpignan..

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