Taking Stock

By Lewis Blackwell, Chief Creative Officer of Evolve Images and Editor-at-Large at publishers PQ Blackwell

© Lewis Blackwell

If you are a photographer and you don't have any images in stock, then I have to assume one of three things.

  1. You have and make plenty of money and don't need to chase it any more.
  2. You are opposed to stock.
  3. You have heard it's hard to make any money these days from stock.

There could be other reasons but these ones stand out... and for most of us, the first point can be dismissed.              
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                © Mardis Coers/evolveimages.com

At this point, I should say I have a vested interest in the subject as a partner in a new stock photography business, Evolve Images, and a track record in the industry. However, I have often been outside the industry and still have reservations about much that goes on.

I can put my hand up as a creative director, editor and author (various award-winning books, websites, magazines, and more) and assert that I dislike much of what is sold as stock photography. For me, there's as much connection betweeen the mass of stock photos and the potential of photography as there is between, say, global fast-food burger outlets and fine dining. On the other hand, stock photography is a means to support and develop photography and photographers, as long as we don't get sucked down into the depths. Or the burger bars.

So bear with me to understand why I want you to help fuel a new revolution in stock photography. As with all revolutions, it helps to know a little history.

© D Sharon Pruitt/evolveimages.com
© D Sharon Pruitt/evolveimages.com

Once upon a time stock photography looked like a great way for a talented photographer to earn extra money from doing what they loved best. In addition to plying the trade of assignment work, it offered a way of getting rewarded for the images you really wanted to create.

© Lewis Blackwell

That was way back in the 1970s - for which I am recounting the rose-tinted reflections of others. Anyway, not so long after, stock photography started to deviate into a way of damaging a photographer's reputation. 

Some time in the 1980s and through the 1990s the business of selling stock took over and nurtured the creation of imitative and crudely commercial work. By  the turn of the millenium it was possible to make a seven-figure annual income from working just a few months of the year creating the most bland imagery. Many worked under pseudonyms – which can be a clue that people are not proud of their work. What they produced by the yard for stock needed to be differentiated from their more refined creative work. It was not about great images, so much as great stock images... a different beast. Back then a good shot could really make a lot of money if you had the high-impact conceptual cloud, droplet of water,  god-light sunset, smiling handshake, aided by good distribution.

© Lars Hallstrom/evolveimages.com

As word of the cash got out, and as digital came in, and as clients started to depend on and demand more from stock, many emerging photographic talents applied themselves to the idea of including stock as part of their portfolio. From being unrecognised in photographic awards, suddenly images created for stock were standing out in quality and quantity. A new generation of photographers embraced stock with enthusiasm and, literally, gave it their best shot. Or shots.

That gets us to about 2005. At which time microstock (ie. Istockphoto, Shutterstock, Fotolia, et al) started to become visible. They crowd-sourced images and sold pictures very cheaply. Some of them were great for the price, with participants often simply happy to see their pictures used. Most were of modest qualities for modest prices but gradually and then rapidly the volume of sales grew, the profile of microstock businesses grew, and this attracted more content and more clients. Buyers started to shift a little, and then a lot, from more expensive suppliers and into microstock. And photographers stopped getting such a good return on images in traditional stock, while those prepared to work in a tightly commercial way to pile it high and sell it cheap in microstock did all right. Some of them built businesses to pump out hundreds, even thousands, of images a month, to keep their shots at the top of the search engines. Quality was a hygiene factor, while quantity and price was vital.

Compete in microstock if you fancy it. But there's a lot of competition there and you have to be a serious business operator to make a good return. For photographers who see themselves more as practising an art or a creative craft, the focus needs to be on finding a marketplace for quality rather than quantity, and for handing some of the business thinking over to a trustworthy agent. There was and is still many hundreds of millions of dollars left in traditional stock though, with signs that a lot of clients remain happy to buy under that model, especially with new simplified licensing models.

The challenge is for a photographer to find the agency that is sympathetic to the work they produce. Then check around as to how they deal with photographers. It's a partnership in which, as a photographer, you want somebody representing your work in a way that benefits you in both cash and reputation.

© Jake Wyman/evolveimages
© Jake Wyman/evolveimages

So, on the topic of cash, what are you going to make?  Well, not much unless you have the right imagery, and the right amount of it, to place in front of the right kind of customers. Hence think carefully about what you want to shoot, or can shoot, or have in your archive, and what agency seems to represent that to best effect to the appropriate clients.

There's important differences to understand between those who target commercial clients and those who are more editorial. There are niche collections that sit tight around travel, or science, or medical, nature, etc. There are those who take in large piles of images with little editing, and those who are very tight on the edit. (You may want both – the tight editor for your best work, and the open edit for the rest of the files.)

All these choices, and the general disruption around expectations, are challenging. But it strikes me that this is no bad thing. The stock photography industry has gone through a radical shift brought by digital technology and the impact of commercial changes, where a cottage-industry has been invested in and to some degree 'rolled up'. That which can be commoditised has been commoditised. Costs have been stripped out, differences built on, scarcities and exclusions have been often overcome.

© Ron Fehling / evolveimages.comIt's a kind of democracy now – anybody can try their hand as a stock photographer today. Upload some pix to an agency direct, or send a link to a photo-sharing site page, and see if somebody wants to take you on.

For 99 per cent of photographers, it is important to see stock as a potential additional revenue stream, not the primary one. From the many photographers who will take a stab,  get some images represented, few will make an impressive income. But as a by-product of portfolio work, perhaps any bonus is acceptable. And perhaps it is good that few can make a full income out of stock: the best images in stock tend to come from those whose talent is being fed by also shooting in assignment, developing art projects, and creating other work. The quality end of stock is best served by photographers who are developing themselves to communicate as best they can, rather than just cannibalise tired old money-making images that stock is known for.

© Ron Fehling / evolveimages.com 

So why would you consider it?  I hope, because you see it can be part of a way of stimulating and funding a growing portfolio. It should also be a little more revenue, or if you are fortunate quite a lot more, to put alongside other revenue streams – assignment, print sales,  licensed products, lectures and workshops, etc. - and overall build a business to support your passion.

The mixture of creative stimulation and financial reward is exactly the same reason the partners in Evolve Images came together. And I think these are reasons that I would apply to those competitors and colleagues that I admire in the industry too. In my mind, I see strong analogies between making and distributing photography and various other creative trades. For example, the fashion business: there is a great deal of boring clothing made by sweatshop labour but it doesn't have to be that way. Great fashion design, and well-made clothing by talented craftspeople, can continue to thrive if not dominate. And so this can and will happen in photography. Any photographer reading this I would hope wants to be on the side of creativity and originality, rather than copying and repetition.

For the photographer, you need to understand what it is that you like to create most, and where that might find a market. And it is a global market: almost every photographer is capable of producing images that could find a market, or markets, around the world. Stock photography is a good way of reaching around the world, and also understanding who wants to pay for your images. So have you taken your images to the market? 

Lewis Blackwell is Chief Creative Officer of Evolve Images and Editor-at-Large at publishers PQ Blackwell. He has written numerous books,  including Photowisdom (Chronicle), and he chaired the Business of Photography seminar for the World Photography Organisation.