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Decision-Making

Will Cheesy Stock Photos Soon be a Thing of the Past?

Being a stock photographer should theoretically work like a toll road. Build a highway once, put a gate in front of it, and then collect a toll for every use. But what do you do when the landscape shifts, when other roads are built around, or intersect with, your toll road? Rocked by new platforms and changing norms, stock photographers have had to adapt their businesses in the age of digital, crowdsourcing, and unlimited replication.


Stock photographers are the unknown artists behind some of the most replicated images in the world: the winter wonderland from your first desktop background, a woman laughing over a smoothie, a colorful umbrella in a sea of shiny black ones. Whatever their subjects, stock photographers share a replication-based business model a world apart from gallery shows or editorial spreads. But with the rise of crowdsourcing and unlimited replication, the business is quickly shifting, which begs the question: what’s the value on an image in an age when everyone carries a camera in their pocket?

Stock photography has come a long way since the 1930s, when Otto Bettmann fled Nazi Germany for New York, hauling two trunks of prints, photos, and negatives with him. His timing was good; photo-heavy magazines like LIFE and Look were on the hunt for pictures worth a thousand words. Editors hammered on the door of Bettmann’s New York office for access to filing cabinets with images of monks, mothers, and Marilyn Monroe. Bettmann rented the photos out for single use to monetize the collection. In 1995, Bill Gates bought the archive to bulk up his collection at Corbis, the photo library company he owned.

Around that same time, Mark Maziarz, a Utah-based photographer with a love of the outdoors, began to corner the stock photo market in Park City, where he built his portfolio by capturing his extreme sports pals cliff jumping. By now, he has 190,000 photos of slopes, storm clouds, and streams in his stock files and he’s licensed nearly 10,000 of them. On a typical day, he sends his kids off to school and then tramps around in the mountains, searching for the perfect shot to spark the fancy of clients like Disney, Dell, and Hyatt. “It’s a beautiful way to spend time,” he says. “It’s good for your body, mind, and soul.”

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This is what your office looks like when you work in the backcountry. Photo by Mark Maziarz.

Maziarz estimates that 99% of his income comes from 1% of his photographs. The former Northwestern economics major says the recurring revenue model is part of what led him to this line of work. His business has come a long way since he started, when he averaged $327 a sale for licensing photos. Now the highest price Maziarz ever licensed at for a single photo is $13,800 for an image of a bobsledder speeding around a snowy track. “It was a fun and good way to make a living until basically the Recession,” he says. But the average sale rate has dropped significantly since. 

Two key elements have reshaped the industry. The first is microstock, which uses the internet’s crowdsourcing principle to open the playing field to any photographer who wants to license an image. Microstock came to fruition as the Recession hit, when both hobbyists and editorial photographers discovered a new income stream in a struggling economy. Microstock sites allow customers to buy images with almost unlimited usage rights, often for single digit costs. Photographers can upload their images to a platform and the marketplace takes it from there. The mid-tier of photo licensing is royalty-free, which offers similar liberal usage rights but typically charges customers in the hundreds of dollars per license. 

Then there’s rights-managed, where very specific usage (like a billboard) and time constraints are set for an image. If a client wants to use the image again after the contract dates, they’ll have to renegotiate the terms. Whereas Maziarz licenses on a rights-managed system, charging hundreds of dollars per photo use, microstock photographers have swelled digital databases with photos available at a fraction of the cost. All in all, the pricing contrast is about as drastic as the difference between buying an e-book from Amazon, and a signed limited edition from TASCHEN. 

In 2012, Barcelona-based photographer Antonio Guillem shifted his career towards microstock, and has sold over a million licenses across various platforms. This past year, his stock photo of a “distracted boyfriend” became a viral meme. Guillem’s goal? Snapping a photo that will sell thousands of times on microstock sites like Fotolia (which, like 99U, is owned by Adobe). “This is my full-time work,” he says. “My idea is growing my business without increasing the fixed expenses, taking a few photos with many sales of each one.” In 2016, Guillem netted $220,000 in revenue.

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The infamous “Distracted Boyfriend” photo by Antonio Guillem.

To plot which image will take off, Guillem illustrates intangible concepts, like “success.” (One of his biggest sellers shows a woman pumping a fist as she receives good news.) Keywords are incredibly important. People creating slides or brochures may know what concept they want to illustrate, but not necessarily how. The title of the photo of the woman getting good news is “Euphoric winner watching a laptop on a desk winning at home.” He has 6,900 photos in his portfolio and is selling 1,600 images a day. 

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The “Euphoric winner watching a laptop on a desk winning at home” photo by Antonio Guillem.

Guillem may be good at anticipating what will lead prospective clients to his photos, but Latoya Dixon Smith, an engineer turned photographer from South Carolina and one of the top selling photographers on Colorstock, an ethnically-diverse image marketplace, uses data to predict what will make a best-selling photo. Dixon Smith holds focus groups and sends surveys to business owners in the health and wellness space, asking what type of images they’re missing. Aware that not every single customer is a clean-cut model from central casting, clients “want to see edgier-looking people,” she says. “I do as many options as possible that don’t look like everything else that’s already out there” That basically means less boring white people, and shooting tattoos, women with shaved heads, bodies that are larger, and skin that is darker. One of her most popular health and wellness images is of an older woman with short hair graying at the temples.  “It did really well because that photo was unique,” says Dixon Smith.

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This is one of Latoya Dixon Smith’s best-selling health and wellness-themed stock photos.

There’s an element to stock photography that feels like ghostwriting. A photographer is responsible for a massive body of work with little recognition. In Guillem’s case, that doesn’t matter to him. He does take artistic photos, but his stock photos are a business venture. “If it doesn’t translate into sales, recognition doesn’t interest me at all,” he says. “I never think about art when I shoot.” Maziarz, on the other hand, is disappointed by the moments when he sees his work in the wild without credit. “I put heart and soul into my photos,” he says. “It’s important to have my name associated with it.” In Dixon Smith’s case, artistic identity doesn’t always come from the work she puts out. Sometimes, it’s the images she holds back. “I try to keep something for myself,” she says.

“Whatever type of artist you are, always maintain something for yourself.”

Looking at the industry through an artistic lens, Maziarz sees a lot of positives. Cheesy, staged stock photos are dropping off in favor of more natural scenes. Maziarz suspects it’s driven by the culture of spontaneity that sprung up with Instagram. “The photos that are successful on Instagram convey a real emotion,” he notes, “They don’t have a set-up feeling.”

While these photographers build businesses models independently, the success of people like Guillem and Dixon Smith activates strong market forces across the industry. Maziarz doesn’t mind a little free-market competition from the other photographers who have entered the stock field. “There’s a lot more competition, which in itself is actually good, but I want it to be smart competition,” says Maziarz. Otherwise, it can lead to an overall devaluing of the market. “Once you start giving away photos for so cheap, it’s hard to ask for more money,” he says.

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It.


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