In recent years, stock photography has become a contentious topic among professional photographers. Some professionals have embraced the industry, viewing it as an opportunity to make money. Others are less optimistic about the industry, as it makes licensing photos as cheap as possible, devaluing the hard work and creativity of photographers.
But there’s one thing both sides can agree on: the stock photography industry has been incredibly influential. Stock photos are everywhere, on and off the Internet. Whether you realize it or not, many images on billboards, websites, and even magazines are from stock photo agencies.
How did stock photography become so important? Will it remain as powerful in the future? And how can photographers best navigate such a huge industry?
This article will explore how the industry has evolved and what photographers can expect in the future. You’ll get answers to the following questions, and from there, you can decide for yourself whether the industry is helpful, harmful, or somewhere in between:
- How did stock photography begin?
- How did the Internet affect stock photography?
- What is stock photography like now?
- What is the future of stock photography?
How did stock photography begin?
While the history of stock photography may seem irrelevant to photographers focused on making money now, knowing how stock photo agencies began can be helpful for understanding how the industry currently works. After all, despite all the changes the industry has gone through, its foundation has remained the same.
Stock photography dates back to the 1920s and 30s. Back then, many stock photo agencies were led by photographers, seeking to make more money with their images. For example, American photographer H. Armstrong Roberts created one of the first stock images during a portrait shoot by an airplane. He asked everyone in the group to sign model releases, so he could ultimately sell the image.
That doesn’t sound so strange nowadays, but turning a photo into a product to sell was a cutting-edge idea back then. Photography was so new that no one had yet created a big store or collection of images to sell.
Otto Bettmann was the first person to see amazing business potential in this idea. Trained as a librarian in Germany, he was struck by how eager scholars were to see censored images. He realized how valuable images could be and began to collect photographs as an investment.
By the time he immigrated to the US in 1935, he had amassed 15,000 photos, packed into two steamer trunks. A year later, he established the Bettmann Archive with these images, tidily organized with a card index similar to a library.
This card index made the Bettmann Archive unique and appealing to publishers, advertisers, and designers. It allowed them to find images easily, regardless of the topic. Finally, they had a “library of pictures” to work with, rather than hiring a photographer for each photo they needed.
But this library wasn’t free. It was still a business, and clients had to pay for each image they used. That’s where things got tricky.
As photo historian Estelle Blaschke points out in her excellent article about the Bettmann Archive,
Bettmann rarely paid for the images he collected. He simply photographed them himself with his 35 mm camera and sold the reproduction rather than the original.
Often, Bettmann found these interesting images by browsing public libraries, like the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress. At that time, libraries had no rules about photographing materials. They were focused on protecting books, not visuals, so Bettmann could easily take out his camera and photograph anything for his collection.
He didn’t see this as a problem, either. “Issues of ownership or copyright were ignored completely,” as Bettmann wanted to “liberate” the images, making them easier for everyone to see. Even after copyright laws for photography changed, “the Bettmann Archive rarely credited the photographer. The reproductions were deemed to have become the property of the archive once a collection was purchased or reproduced.”
Though Bettmann recognized the value of images, his business was ironically built on getting images virtually for free. Then, he sold the images for prices ranging from $50 to $3,000 in 1981, according to a New York Times article.
“For example, a small picture he bought for a few francs during a Sunday stroll among the Seine picture stalls turned out to be just the background a photographer needed for a Vogue cover. He paid the archive $1,000 for one-time use.”
Customers came to the Bettmann Archive not because it was a cheapest, but because it was one of the easiest and largest collections to look through. That changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when computers and the Internet began to transform the industry.
How did the Internet affect stock photography?
Stock photography went through a massive change in the 1980s and 90s, when photos were first digitized and put on the Internet. This transition meant that photo archives could be huge without demanding extra physical space. Images could also be found more easily by typing keywords instead of going through a card index.
Suddenly, there was nothing to stop companies from combining their collections. The Bettmann Archive was one of the first collections to be sold, first to the Kraus-Thomson Organization, then to Corbis (a stock photography company founded by Bill Gates), and finally to Getty Images.
Getty Images was especially focused on acquiring as many stock photos as possible. There’s even a whole section on Wikipedia about Getty’s acquisitions, big and small.
What did this transition mean for photographers? At first, it didn’t change anything. Most of the stock photo agencies continued to work traditionally, licensing images with royalties and giving part of the profit to photographers. (That is, unless the images were historical, such as the photos collected for the Bettmann Archive. Then, the stock photo agency took all the profit.)
But at the start of the 21st century, as more and more images became available online, a new type of stock photo agency emerged. Beginning with iStock and Alamy, these agencies offered royalty-free images for an affordable price.
Called “microstock,” this business model immediately attracted advertisers and publishers that didn’t need unique photos. They didn’t care if other businesses were using the same image. They just needed cheap images to fill space on websites, brochures, and other materials.
Microstock created a whole new field of photography that revolved around generic images and ideas that could fit a range of contexts. For example, photographers would shoot scenes with themes like “teamwork” and “success,” perfect for any business, anywhere.
Despite the relatively low prices, photographers who specialized in microstock could actually make a decent income during this time. Because the market hadn’t been saturated with images yet, there was a higher chance of selling the same image hundreds of times. Even if the price was low, all those downloads added up to a good profit.
That was the “Golden Age” of microstock for photographers, at least in terms of income. Aesthetically, though, the field was full of clichés. The boom of generic images couldn’t last, as it lacked something important to customers: authenticity.
What is stock photography like now?
When microstock agencies first emerged, generic photos were the basis of the industry. But ultimately, all those perfect, smiling businesspeople didn’t have the emotional depth and connection that customers were looking for. The images weren’t powerful enough to be shareable on social media, either.
For this reason, the “look” of microstock photography has shifted over the past 10 years, moving away from clichés and embracing more authenticity. Recently, Depositphotos examined this shift in their project, “Stock Photography Then and Now: The Rise of a New Aesthetic,” where they describe some of the differences between microstock images now versus 10 years ago.
For instance, they’re now seeing more clean, casual shots with real people, natural light, and imperfections. “In 2019, clients and photographers prioritize the mood and feeling in shots, and pay less attention to technically correct shots. It is unique perspectives and real-life imagery that define the market today, by representing diverse cultures and backgrounds.”
This change also reflects how marketing has changed in general over the past 10 years. In the past, photography was mainly used to sell products and services, but now it’s also used to sell a lifestyle, especially on social media.
In other words, lifestyle photography (which aims for authenticity) has become the norm. While you might see dazzling photos with flawless models every now and then, the majority of big companies now fill their Instagram feeds with engaging images, showing the beauty of life in all its imperfections. They want shots that are “real” and emotionally moving because that’s what people will like and share.
This new aesthetic embraces unfiltered shots and rejects extreme photo retouching, as well as heavy post-processing like HDR photography. Any edits are subtle, keeping the image as real-to-life as possible.
Instead of creating perfection in Photoshop, popular stock photographers are now “highlighting imperfections for a creative edge.” They rely on unique angles and great lighting for interesting shots, and they choose real people to photograph rather than professional models.
The appearance of (micro)stock photography has certainly changed in the past decade, but what about the financial side of the industry? Can photographers still earn a decent income from stock photography?
While the Golden Age of aesthetics may be on the rise, the Golden Age of income is certainly over. Photographers now struggle to make a living exclusively from stock photography, since the market has become saturated with images. For instance, Shutterstock alone has over 300 million images with 200,000 more added every day.
The prices have only gone down, too. Whereas stock photography was once split into rights-managed licensing (specific prices for specific uses/durations) and royalty-free licensing (one price, unlimited uses/duration), now it’s almost entirely royalty-free. That means lower prices and a lower payout for photographers.
Moreover, most stock photo agencies partner with other agencies, so if you upload a photo to one agency, they could make a sale through another agency, splitting the profits before they split their share with you. In other words, you may take 10%-20% on a sale that was already cheap.
The only way to make real money with royalty-free licenses is to have a massive collection of great images, which takes a lot of work. You need to upload hundreds if not thousands of high-quality, unique images to generate enough income to meet the minimum payout amount, which can range from $25 to $100. Otherwise, you may wait years before receiving money, if ever.
Instead of viewing stock photography as a gold mine, professional photographers now approach stock agencies as a source of small but steady passive income. It’s not enough to live on – nothing like stock photographers used to earn – but it’s something.
What is the future of stock photography?
While stock photography has changed significantly in the past 100 years, one thing has remained the same. The industry is still focused on licensing images, catering mainly to publishers and advertisers, not photographers.
While stock agencies do value the work of photographers, there’s frankly no scarcity of images nowadays. Thanks to smartphones and digital cameras, high-quality photos are commonplace, so stock agencies can easily keep prices low. The supply far outweighs the demand.
So where should photographers go from here? If they can’t make a good living on stock photography, should they give it up? How can stock agencies continue to attract them, if not with money?
The main reason photographers continue to engage with stock photography is the sense of community and fun they get from it. Many amateur photographers contribute to stock agencies simply because they enjoy seeing their images sell. They may also like interacting with other stock photographers in forums or shooting topics that are trending.
In some ways, it’s like a photo contest that never ends. The payout may be small, but there’s no cost, either, except for time. And it can really help motivate amateur photographers who want to improve their skills.
Stock agencies are starting to lean into this community aspect of the industry, too. For example, EyeEm uses its app to host events and connect photographers with clients like Lufthansa, sourcing images from specific destinations. And Depositphotos recently held a photo contest on Instagram that inspired a lot of great images.
This community engagement will likely only continue in the coming decade, as it benefits both the stock agencies needing images and the photographers wanting community and a purpose for their photos.
As for the financial side of stock photography, it’s possible that the industry will eventually embrace rights-managed licensing again, particularly if the push for authenticity continues to grow. After all, if the same image is on 30 different websites and Instagram accounts, it doesn’t matter how authentic it looks. Users will still recognize it as an inauthentic stock photo.
Moreover, Google doesn’t rank stock photos as well as unique photos, found nowhere else on the Internet. This means that sites full of stock photos typically don’t rank as well as sites using original photos. (Check out this article, “Are Stock Photos Bad for SEO?” for more details about that.)
If a company relies on the Internet to get customers (as many businesses do nowadays), ranking well on Google has a big impact on their success. So if using royalty-free stock photos leads to a lower ranking, companies may start to demand another business model – one that provides actual uniqueness, not just the appearance of it.
In the end, this shift towards authenticity will hopefully lead to higher compensation for photographers. But regardless, the industry will have to continue evolving in order to provide real authenticity.
(All of the above photos, except for the portrait of Otto Bettmann, are stock images sourced from Depositphotos. Check out their project about new aesthetics of stock photography if you’re interested in creating stock images in today’s market.)