In several previous musings I have lamented whether the freelance stock photographer still has the capacity to earn a livelihood from his craft. In a nutshell, I would suggest if old business models are utilized—and by old I am referring to pre-2008—the chances of success are quite minimal, at best.
The savvy and intrepid freelance stock photographers working today have to be on the forefront with business acumen and possess the creative vision to execute what will be in demand 18 months in advance, not duplicating what is in vogue today.
Just think back a few years when apps first became available, everyone was shooting with a “sepia app” because we could make a current-day photo look as if it were old—a really cool trend. Next was cross-processing, then grunge, and so on. As each trend came along—and was seen as being in vogue by the advertisers who were buying these pictures—the photographer who already had this material was best positioned to earn money. Meanwhile the trend-following photographers were catching up, and by the time they got their material produced and positioned in the marketplace two things had happened: the trend had moved on to the next best look, and the market was now oversaturated with tens of thousands of similar images. Consequently, for the trend-following photographer, the return on the investment was insufficient to maintain a positive cash flow.
As best I can tell from monitoring stock photo production over the past few decades is to suggest the time span of a trend has shrunken considerably with the availability of digital production and delivery. When I started shooting stock, a picture had an average lifespan of at least five years due to the production time agencies required to produce and distribute those big lavish print catalogues. Today, material can be up and online within weeks of production. However, this fast-changing market also means photographs have a much depreciated shelf life based on the fact that most image libraries work on a waterfall approach. This means the last image in is the first image seen and subsequently pushes all the other images down in the pecking order. There is such an oversupply of images that only the very best images survive to make sales after just one year.
With an acceptance that trends will tend to adjust in as little as 18 months and, consequently, that images have an equally short shelf life, the photographer then has to recognize that the material has to not only produce sufficient cash flow to make the shoot a success, the image also has to produce that return on investment (ROI) quickly.
Fortunately the one relatively constant denominator in stock photography has been concepts; in other words, we should consider what concepts will continue to be in demand regardless of trends. History has shown there are three constants, and I don’t see these changing anytime soon. The categories of companies that buy pictures to promote, advertise and inform are the same companies the stock photographer should be astutely in sync with: Business, Health and Wellness, and Lifestyle.
Should landscape and nature be your schtick, then you would probably be well advised to keep the day job or, at minimum, have a good means of income supplement. Simply put, there is an oversupply in these fields, and photo buyers know where to get these types of pictures for free. (And you can’t beat that kind of pricing.)
Stock photography is one tough business and is not for the meek or underfinanced. However, I believe there is still room for the very best to succeed…the very best business people that is.
Micro-Managing Your Stock Portfolio, Part II
Micro-Managing Your Stock Portfolio, Part III
Micro-Managing Your Stock Portfolio, Part IV
Micro-Managing Your Stock Portfolio, Part V
Micro-Managing Your Stock Portfolio, Part VI