Stock Photography’s Evolution

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Scientists gathered at the 1911 Solvay conference — Public Domain

Within the commercial world of photography, there are a bunch of different niches in which any photographer could develop their career; and Stock Photography is perhaps the easiest market to get access to, but is also a very crowded place to be. Being aware of trends, and being able to deliver unique and fresh work will always be your best card to play if you want to become a successful Stock Photographer. Basically, Stock Photography is the supply of photographs under a specific usage license for a vast array of purposes from magazines and billboards to social media posts.

Stock photography has been around since the 1920’s, and it has been slowly evolving since its early beginnings when H. Armstrong Roberts made a bunch of people signed model releases allowing him to make profit from that image’s future reproductions. Almost a hundred years after that, stock photography is making a whole different approach in terms of how photographers gain benefits with their images even when they are offered for free.

The Early beginnings

The 1920’s and especially the 1930’s where a dark time for the United States, and cost saving solutions where more than appreciated back then. After the innovative move from H.A. Roberts, a lot of publishers and advertisers decided to rely on stock photography as a more secure way of doing their stuff.

As time went by, Photography Archives slowly swarmed all over the place. This sprout the imagery offer for agencies all over the globe, and the imagery distribution efforts for photographers as well. Photographers were empowered to do what they pleased as long as they comply with the imagery rules set by the archive.

From printed Catalogues to Online Resources

Even though when there were a lot of these archives, Stock Photography was just about to start its democratic dynamic. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s if an agency wanted to access these vast amount of images offered by the archives, they had to subscribe to them directly or at least via a third party broker. After becoming some sort of member, catalogues started arriving to the agencies. These catalogues where beautiful photo books cramped with photos and photos about pretty much everything, and some of them were created around a themed concept.

The first big event regarding the transition from printed to digital stock photographs availability happened in 1991 when a company named Photodisc began selling CD ROMs with packs of images. Beyond the solutions digital stuff carry on, they also offered the imagery on a “Royalty Free” model. Before this, an agency had to pay for a license for each particular purpose of a photograph. With a Royalty Free license model, agencies had the opportunity of using those images without the paying royalties or license fees for each use, copy or volume sold and even without counting periods of time of use or sales.

Due to the wonders of the internet, there are countless stock photography resources (which in many cases combine vectors, illustrations and video as well in their portfolio). The biggest names out there are perhaps Gettyimages and Shutterstock.

How Much a Single Image Could Return to Me?

Back in the old days being a stock photographer was a pretty interesting career because it wasn’t as crowded as it is today. My personal opinion is that newcomers need to be aware of trends, and also have done their homework right in terms of benchmark. There is nothing flattering about doing the same image that has been reenacted more than a thousand times by everybody else. This scenario shouldn’t let you down at all. There are a lot of start-ups sprouting every day, and they need images for showcasing themselves, and nobody wants to use the same overused stock photos like the “jump to success” or “the call-center” one.

There are several categories for measuring a single image return for a photographer these days, and they all depend on the license given to it. These licenses could be as easy to digest like “Royalty Free” to extremely complex agreements from both parts.

  • Microstock: For a single “Royalty Free” image sold in Shutterstock (in the most basic plan, a single image costs $10 for a buyer at Shutterstock) they give back to you $0.25, ergo 2.5% of their earnings.
  • Midstock: For accessing a midstock payout in Shutterstock you need to comply with a various set of criteria, and you could reach a decent amount of $120.00 per sold image (depending on the license linked to it as well).
  • Macrostock: Here is where the serious money is, hence the tremendous complexity around it. Here a single image profit can theoretically have no limits at all. Let me tell you a short story, once upon a time I was involved in a project where we needed to know how much we needed to invest for a super exclusive license. Basically our client wanted to have the photographs we were about to use for their billboards only for themselves, forever. These prices aren’t just floating around the “contributors” page of these stock photography websites. We requested more info, and we got a phone call, each image’s license reached $20,000.00. We told our client the response from Shutterstock, and they just stopped whining about being the absolute owner of the images and decided to hire a photographer for the project instead.

Stock Photography has evolved so much, that nowadays photographers are willing to publish their high-end quality images for free.

Why on Earth Photographers are giving their Images for Free?

While some photographers are worried about their images being stolen (and covering them with hideous watermarks) some of us are actually publishing high quality versions of our images for free. Are we nuts? I don’t think so. After contributing to Unsplash, I’ve found out two valuable things:

  • Since I’m a street photographer, model releases aren’t my thing at all. Therefore my images rarely pass through “traditional” stock imagery vaults like Adobe Stock for example (which is the most generous out there indeed and less crowded as well). At Unsplash (or any other free stock photo website) my images make it through smoothly.
  • Working for free isn’t the same as working in exchange of something actually useful. With Unsplash I have actually made some pretty interesting exposure, and since I’m just posting my portfolio, people have contacted me to pay $5.00 or $10.00 for a single image from my website. That is way above Shutterstock payments for microstock, and for pictures that I actually feel passionate about.

Again, if you want to build a career with Stock Photography, you need to deliver trendy and fresh stuff, which is a good challenge for becoming a better and more creative Photographer. Please share your experiences with stock photography with us on the comments below.

Originally Published at Light Stalking

Scholar & Writer on Photography | PhD Student | Photographic Guidance

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