Fixing the Business of Photography

with a Data-driven Marketplace

Tom Zimberoff
Jul 26 · 74 min read

Introduction

Have photographs lost their economic value? One might make that case by connecting the dots, from photo agency consolidation and the transition from film to digital image capture, the conjunction of crowd-sourcing with the World Wide Web and social media, to underserved publishers and the sorry circumstances that challenge photographers who try to earn a living.

The good news is that photography (both still & video) remains vital to every aspect of commerce. Business needs photography. Its demand is both enduring and universal. Living, breathing photographers are in no danger of being replaced by AI or computer-generated images because, if it were even plausible to supplant cameras and lenses entirely with algorithms, the mind’s eye of a photographer would still have to invent and code what would pass for photographs. CGI is just a twenty-first-century photo accessory.

Taking pictures is effortless.

The business of taking pictures is NOT effortless.

Given that the economic power of original photography is unequivocal for commercial brands and media companies to inform and connect with their own customers, it is, however, increasingly hard for them to find commercially useful pictures. It should therefore be clear that the economic issues confronting photographers are directly related to issues of utility facing publishers. The question should be, Is photography underpriced?

Shutterstock and Adobe, the two publicly-traded companies engaged in photo distribution, agree it’s underpriced. So do their privately-held competitors; mostly startups but including giant Getty Images. Public records uphold that assertion. And to their dismay, they have all been unable to raise prices substantively. Despite combined sales in the billions of dollars, revenue remains flat.

These companies swap revenue back and forth with each other like squeezing air in a balloon. If one earns more, the others earn proportionally less, and vice versa. They’re all vying for market share, but unable to grow the overall size of the market; neither individually or collectively. The reasons are:

  1. They can’t raise prices because buyers complain about the poor quality of contenet.
  2. They can’t increase quality because the prices they charge, constrained by their own business model, are too low to attract better content.

Money is left on the table that buyers are willing to pay for dynamically replenished, professionally-produced photographs.


I studied classical music at the University of Southern California before pivoting to photojournalism. I’ve covered hundreds of historical and breaking news events published in major periodicals worldwide. I’ve shot hundreds of portraits, including magazine covers from John Lennon to Steve Jobs plus two sitting American presidents (Carter and Reagan) for the covers of Time and Fortune. I’ve also shot advertising campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood movie studios, and the US Navy.

Tom Zimberoff circa 1980s

My career-long body of work, literally a ton of film, was acquired for conservation and academic research by the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. My portrait prints are collected by museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery in London.

I created PhotoByte®, the first successful CRM/licensing-and-billing software for photographers. And I wrote the book, also literally, about the business of photography: Photography, Focus on Profit (Allworth Press, 2002). It has been used to teach at colleges across the country. It is timelier today because better technology is available to fix the problems I wrote about.

I founded a venture-funded startup during the “dotcom bubble” and, more recently, was accepted into the StartX collaborative community of startups affiliated with Stanford University.

I was also represented (consecutively) by two preeminent international photo agencies, Sygma and Gamma-Liaison, until they were acquired in the 1990s by Corbis and Getty Images respectively. I went to great lengths to remove all of my physical film and all digital traces of my work from these two online exchanges. Despite my having forbidden them to license my work, I discovered they were still doing so — for insulting and paltry fees. Over the years, I received very small checks in the mail from Getty Images for photographs — I did not shoot.

The evidence I cite for my conclusions stems from empirical observation; interviews with photo editors, art buyers, and creative directors; business research firms; the US Bureau of Labor; interviews with industry executives; public company shareholder reports; plus a poll I conducted with 9,500 working pro photographers. That poll yielded 1,087 responses (11.4%) and includes granular detail about their workflow practices.

By the end of this treatise, it should be clear to the reader that photography is indeed underpriced, why it is underpriced, and how underpricing adversely affects industry-wide productivity and growth. It should also be clear how the proprietor of a new and more equitable marketplace, armed with data-driven technology, will better serve publishers and boost revenue across the board, including a sustainable income for photographers.


Dispelling Marketplace Misconceptions

Commercial Photography is Not What You Think

It’s not simply an inclination of market forces that keeps prices down. It’s because the most sought-after imagemakers in the world deliberately withhold their premium content from online sales.

The most talented and self-respecting photographers refuse to “join the crowd” of camera enthusiasts who contribute photos to online vendors whose business model is pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. They understand, as do their clients, that crowd-sourced photos are too commonly available and too often used by too many different parties. They dilute and undermine the quality of available inventories. Such a commodity can hardly be expected to command higher prices.


In the context of this paper, when referring to professional photographers (videographers too), I mean those who are contracted to shoot jobs that are published across all forms of mass media by their own clients, to whom they grant reproduction rights and from whom they receive direct payments. Payments are commensurate with the terms of a written copyright-licensing agreement executed between them. Different terms are negotiated for each and every transaction, whether it’s for the publication of a photo resulting from a commissioned job or the publication of a pre-shot stock photo.

I do not include photographers who shoot weddings and other social events, whether they do so in a career capacity, professionally, or not. The ultimate criterion for their exclusion is that they do not shoot, and they are not hired to shoot, pictures for commercial publication.

Also see the section below entitled The Enterprise and Consumer Segments [of the Commercial Photo marketplace] are Served by Two Mutually Incompatible Sets of Photographers.

It should go without saying that photographers who are full-time employees of any company, other than their own, are excluded from this marketplace.


The Significance of Data

Underlying the vicious circle of low prices predicated on insufficient professional contributors, and vice versa, is an even more fundamental issue: the topic of data is missing from all discussions about the business of photography. In fact, the data themselves are missing.

Not one company collects or analyzes the symmetrical information flowing back and forth between photographers and the clients they shoot pictures for. Despite the billions of dollars they generate each year doing business with each other, no real-time market intelligence exists for pricing photographic publication rights. Not even Adobe, which touches the work of virtually every imagemaker on the planet, can “see” transactions. Do they wonder why they cannot garner the right to monetize all of the unpublished pictures and rights-reverted pictures that pass through their Creative Cloud?

The Creative Cloud, as its Adobe-branded name implies, encompasses a creative workflow. But Adobe lacks the wherewithal to integrate the creative side with an administrative workflow to support the financials of photographic production itself. In other words, if Adobe built business-management into their workflow they’d have to create an entirely new infrastructure that allows photographers to conduct business directly with paying customers. But that is anathema to middlemen like AdobeStock (formerly Fotolia, for which Adobe paid $800 million) for fear of losing their coveted position between hundreds of millions of photos and hundreds of millions of customers. However, without the kind of data that can only be acquired by connecting sellers directly with buyers, revenue will remain flat.


To have an informed discussion about the future of photography, three misconceptions must be dispelled. Here are your noise-canceling headphones:

1) Image curation and post-production processing pose grand problems for artificial intelligence to solve on behalf of imagemakers.

NOT TRUE. This is routine stuff. Creatives have bigger fish to fry.

……………………………

2) Blockchain addresses issues that keep photographers up at night.

NOT TRUE. In the Commercial Photo industry, blockchain is hardly necessary to establish intellectual property ownership or provenance. Blockchain is categorically incapable of “protecting” either the legal or economic prerogatives of copyright holders. Straightforward ways to do that already exist, although they can and should be automated. Moreover, relying on a “distributed” or “decentralized” inventory of pre-shot stock photos would only create new problems, not solutions, for publishers, making it harder still to find the right pictures.

Blockchain technology may potentially have a separate utility for the sale of works of art, unrelated to licensing commercial photo reproduction rights.

……………………………

3) There are millions of photographers.

PARTLY TRUE. In fact, there are only about 150,000 working commercial pros worldwide (earning billions of dollars in fees collectively). Many more photographers who claim professional status earn their livings shooting weddings, head-shots, and “grip-and-grin” events. Despite their use of cameras in common with commercial photographers, they are not hired by corporate brands and editorial media companies to shoot pictures for publication.

Many additional claimants are camera enthusiasts who enjoy “sharing” photos. Many are quite good — better than good. Sometimes they earn a few extra dollars. It’s not enough to buy a new lens.


The commercial photography industry is governed by an idiosyncratic back-office workflow that doesn’t so much mirror how photographers and publishers make money as define how they do it. It is the structure they rely on to conduct business.

Photographers and publishers alike are aware of how back-office innovation has languished throughout years of indifference while technology continued to advance on the creative side, particularly the sexier science of digital image capture. Indifference led to wholesale neglect of administrative best practices; so that, today, the business side of photography, including billings and payments, limps along on 1990s technology. All transactions, but for the lowest-dollar retail sales of insignificant reproduction rights, still rely on paper: Your check is in the mail.

The incumbents’ complacency, beginning in the mid-1990s with their wholesale acquisition and consolidation of photo agencies, led directly to the attrition of professional photographers from the online marketplace and, in turn, the effects of data insufficiency on the quality of photographic content available to publishers.


Recognition of Two Separate MARKETS

Photography’s commercial value is habitually undermined by businesspeople with no photographic experience and by photographers with no business experience. Both are to blame for a persistent way of thinking — sadly mistaken — that one business model can serve two totally separate markets. That’s the first reason, not the only one, why no one has been able to raise prices in either market

These two markets exist side by side. One is not a segment of the other. They abide by two totally different business models. They make money two toatally different ways. They have two totally different sets of customers who use photographs for two totally different purposes. It’s what little they have in common, only the word photo, that drives confusion:

  • Commercial Photo, the business of licensing intellectual property to corporate brands and editorial media companies for publication
  • Social Photo, the retail sale (not licensing) of tangible memorabilia to consumers for their personal use (e.g., photo albums)

Note: Social Media — not to be confused with Social Photo — is not a photography market per se. Social Media is an advertising conduit. It is a medium. It is not “the media.”


Market mixup is aggravated by a failure to recognize that two separate segments exist within the Commercial Photo market. (They have nothing to do with Social Photo.) Each segment serves a different set of customers:

  • The Enterprise segment serves brand advertisers, corporate communicators, and the editorial news media.
  • The Consumer segment serves shopkeepers, freelancers, startups, and very small businesses.
“RESIDUALS” IS AN INDUSTRY TERM OF ART FOR PROFESSIONALLY-PRODUCED STOCK PHOTOS. Every pro photographer loses tens of thousands of dollars in income, year in and year out, by keeping their residuals out of circulation, away from online vendors who would routinely commodify them.

. . . of customers within the Commercial Photo marketplace:

  • PRO-SOURCE photographers are called on many times over by the same discriminating Enterprise companies. They are paid fees commensurate with the wide-ranging budgets and market reach of this clientele. They are entrusted with huge creative and budgetary responsibilities. Their clients’ reputations on Wall Street and Main Street — revenue too — can be on the line with any given job they shoot. Sometimes these photographers work alone, albeit reporting to art directors and photo editors; sometimes they work with large support teams. They are often required to shoot in a studio or travel to distant locations. Photojournalists are incuded in this segment.
  • CROWD-SOURCE photographers are, today, the overwhelming contributors of pre-shot stock photos to the Consumer segment. They also shoot so-called “gigs” to satisfy the limited and low-cost Web-publication needs of freelancers like themselves. Their repertoires may include grip-and-grin photos and headshots taken at public and private events for publicity purposes; maybe informal illustrations for local realtors and restaurant menus too. If the opportunities present themselves, crowd-source photographers may shoot crossover gigs like weddings and bar-mitzvahs in the Social Photo domain. Repeat business is the exception, not the rule. Besides, repeat gigs are unlikely to go through a middleman.

THE BUSINESS MODELS THAT SEPARATE ENTERPRISE PHOTO FROM CONSUMER PHOTO ARE AS DIFFERENT AS THE GAMEPIECES AND RULES THAT SEPARATE CHESS FROM CHECKERS

The pro-source Enterprise and crowd-source Consumer segments of the Commercial Photo marketplace are as profoundly different as chess and checkers are two different games with two different sets of rules. Their similarity begins and ends with a playing board, just as any similarity between Enterprise and Consumer begins and ends with a camera.

Pro-source Enterprise, ironically the most lucrative segment of the most obvious business in the world — literally obvious, lies hidden in plain sight. Big corporations along with an aggregation of smaller companies spend many billions of dollars each year to make sure you see the photographs they produce every day, aiming to influence the financial, cultural, and political decisions you make every day. Lay familiarity with wedding photographers and camera-toting tyros who enjoy seeing their personal pictures shared online cannot offer any insight into the arcane business of licensing commercial photography for publication. (See Life’s a Pitch section, toward the end of this paper, about investors.)


It should be clear, by now, that consumers are a distinct class of customer. They represent the broadest possible audience targeted by major brands and media companies to be influenced by commercial and editorial messages through mass publication.

Only when Enterprise and Consumer are acknowledged as separate segments of one market, with each segment serving a different class of customers, is it evident how one hand washes the other.

It is vital to understand that photographers who proactively contribute stock photos and shoot “gigs,” regardless of talent, are consumers themselves. They are simply camera enthusiasts. They are not career professionals. They have no Enterprise clients.

It is also vital to understand that, just because you, the reader, may not be personally familiar with any pro commercial Enterprise photographers, they do still exist. They still shoot jobs. You see their pictures every day. They generate more revenue that the photographers you are familiar with.

Enterprise companies license photography to reach out to consumers. Consumers are their customers. Any photos downloaded by consumers were created by other consumers who, like themselves, may also be freelancers or small business owners. Because photo downloads are dirt cheap and “shared” with little discretion, they are limited to trivial publication at correspondingly trivial prices.

Photographers who serve Enterprise are rock stars. Those who serve the Consumer segment are the bar bands. They’re all in the same business, more or less; but only when Enterprise and Consumer are acknowledged as separate segments of one market, with each segment serving a different class of customers, is it evident how one hand washes the other.

There is no B2C segment (business-to-consumer) in Commercial Photo. B2C only works in the Social Photo market.

The vast majority of buyers in the Consumer segment of the Commercial Photo marketplace (C2B), even though they are technically businesses, are just too tiny to set aside budgets for either producing or licensing photography. Their customer base is likewise tiny. They pay nominal prices for nominal market reach as the need arises.

It is not plausible for any individual photographer to have enough consumer customers to earn a living; to make up for the low prices consumers pay with a high-enough volume of sales. Nor is it plausible for any single photographer to amass a big enough and diverse enough inventory of stock photos to satisfy an entire segment. The only kind of business capable of reaching out at scale to consumers is a middleman who can aggregate an immense inventory of pre-shot photos from an equally immense number of camera enthusiasts.

Therefore, if there really was such a thing as a B2C segment in Commercial Photo, it would be the mirror image of C2B. In either case, only the the “2” — the middleman — makes money. That, in itself, limits the range and quality of content they can offer their customers.


Commercial Enterprise brands and media companies — the licensees, or buyers — have an abiding respect for intellectual property and how it works. They work directly with the photographers who create it.

Each one of these photographers is an independently owned business serving many commercial enterprises, each one with a need to publish pictures. Yes, these photographers can be called freelancers, but they all write checks to the IRS as S-Corps, C-Corps, LLCs, LLPs, and sole proprietors. They don’t have other jobs, and they don’t do “gigs” per se becasue they don’t perform on-demand services for ordinary consumers. Instead, they have clients: other S-Corps, C-Corps, LLCs, LLPs, and sole proprietors. That is to say, they do business with other businesses exclusively; businesses that are often exponentially larger but structurally the same. Enterprise commercial photographers operate in a business-to-business (B2B) market segment. There are no quick transactions for cash or credit card payments in the Enterprise segment.

Most Enterprise buyers have an existing one-to-many relationship with commercial photographers, just as most commercial photographers have an existing one-to-many relationship with Enterprise buyers. Together, they have a history of cultivating long-term client relationships. But these relationships exist offline. Of course, buyers are always scouting for new talent, just as photographers are always pitching new clients. But any role for a third party to initiate such relationships is tertiary at best.

There is a role to play, however, for a third party to help maintain these existing relationships; to do so by streamlining the ability of sellers and buyers to work on projects together and, also, to optimize economic outcomes for both sides. Those goals are achieved by connecting sellers and buyers online. The de facto result is a nexus for B2B transactions; a source of symmetrical data for a data-driven marketplace. That marketplace levels the economic playing field for sellers and buyers, then tilts both sides toward their facilitator in the center of the revenue stream. This capacity for transaction facilititation consolidates the marketplace.


Sidebar: Nuance can be the enemy of understanding. The preceding section is filled with nuance. But as long as hegemonic thinking prevails — call it “conventional wisdom” if you will — no startup company can achieve a competitive advantage in the crucible of the marketplace.


A Break with Tradition Put the Brakes on Revenue

There are two Bs in B2B representing two sets of businesses, each set’s members being all of a kind. One set sells, the other set buys:

  • Photographers (licensors/sellers) create and own intellectual property
  • Publishers (licensees/buyers) license IP for their own use

The 2, of course, is a middleman whose role is to facilitate selling and buying between the two Bs in a steeply vertical space; vertical because they deal only in photographic publication rights. Together, these sellers and buyers of publication rights make a marketplace.

If middlemen do not acquit themselves equitably, when they don’t serve both sides of a marketplace on a par, it becomes dysfunctional. In lieu of the photo agents that middlemen displaced — poof! — the sudden and total shift from B2B to a retail-consumer C2B model resulted in two consequences, with objections voiced loudly and clearly by sellers and buyers alike:

  • Photographers say, “We’ve lost control over pricing our own work.”
  • Publishers say, “We’re flooded with lesser-quality content.

The two outcomes are underscored by 1) a growing mediocrity of stock photos; 2) an overabundance yet confounding lack of exclusivity of stock photos; 3) a sore relationship between creatives and middlemen; 4) premium content that never makes its way online; and 4) the fragmentation of billions of dollars in commissioned jobs revenue.

Because of its large —in fact larger — B2B segment, Commercial Photo cannot be run like a typical retail-consumer marketplace; not if success is tied to productivity and growth.

Photo agents used to represent the best interests of the photographers they represented, whose talents they nurtured and whose economic prerogatives they protected. They made sure that the cost of a photographic reproduction license, whether it was for a pre-shot or made-to-order photograph, varied in accordance with its commercial value to the publisher. It would include a margin of profit for the agent, too, of course. But every deal was win-win — and win: the seller won; the buyer won; the agent won. Agents understood that both parties to a transaction enjoyed equal standing — as customers. But a new kind of middleman, having usurped the role that photo agents once played, and having done so with no hands-on experience, stands as a barrier preventing photographers from connecting with their publisher-clients online.

Middlemen treat photographers, collectively, like a wholesale supplier of a raw material. They cynically call it “imagery,” taking it down a notch rhetorically from photography, videography, and artwork. Despite the fact that middlemen want to raise the price of imagery, they cannot because end-users, their customers, won’t pay more to dip into a resource that is already diluted by a higher ratio of mediocre images to superb ones. That’s one reason why middlemen have to charge one low “royalty-free” price, to give their customers wholesale access to an enormous inventory.

The RF model is supposed to give buyers greater choice. But it’s a false choice. It’s false because only a relatively few good photos stand out in a vast sea of crowd-sourced imagery. They are the ones that get chosen over and over again. That’s why, to everyone’s chagrin, so many different end-users end up using the same pictures.

This is a serious SNAFU. It happens every day. Somebody wasted a big marketing budget. Somebody lost their job.

Middlemen are unable to increase the concentration of unique and useful images in their inventories because better photographers won’t contribute. They won’t contribute because reasonable compensation is not forthcoming. So middlemen have to accept “imagery” from the same suppliers they have come to rely on; those who are less concerned about making money than professionals. Consequently, the supply chain is diluted even further with mediocre content, less useful to buyers.


The rationale for middlemen to compensate photographers with royalties is disingenuous because there is no economic correlation between royalties and crowd-sourcing.

In the photo business, commerce is all about the association of photos with products and services, and less about the photo itself. It’s about how useful any given photo is to convey a commercial or editorial message. If a published photograph helps persuade the masses to take action of some kind, to buy a product or service or to better understand an idea, its publisher pays a fee in keeping with how many people are expected to see it over time.

Photography copyright holders (the photographers themselves) earn money by licensing photographs to one client at a time who purchases the rights to publish them, so they will be seen by a specific set of people, to achieve a specific outcome. The more people a client expects to see any given photo(s), the more money the client pays the copyright holder. There are no royalties involved in such transactions (except, perhaps, to a product’s patent holder; nothing to do with the photo).

The Commercial Music marketplace has its own Enterprise and Consumer segments. On the Enterprise side, consider the example of a theme song. A corporation may purchase a license to exclusively associate itself or its products with a familiar piece of music; e.g., Microsoft’s use of the Rolling Stones’s “Start Me Up” comes to mind; also the Who’s “Who Are You?” associated with the TV show “CSI.” Or think of almost any recent automobile or computer manufacturer’s appropriation of a pop tune for its TV commercials and online video presentations. Corporations pay a lot of money for the privilege to use that music to promote themselves.

In the music business, tunes don’t come from crowd-sourcing; but revenue comes from crowd-listening. There is no crowd-viewing corollary in the photo business. Not only are music composers (the copyright holders) paid royalties, but performers and producers are paid royalties too. They’re all paid by music publishers. In other words, a music publishing company divvies up royalties between those responsible for selling, or distributing, as many “listens” as possible; whether characterized as “plays” in public spaces; on the radio; in a movie; on a Las Vegas or Broadway stage; the number of times streamed; albums sold; or tunes downloaded, etc. Aside from the occassional depiction of some silly, salacious, or newsworthy event that has “gone viral” on social media, how often and for how long are people going to search for a photograph and pay every time they look at it? Only advertisers who pay for access to you, the looker, make money.

Whether it’s the latest picture of a piano-playing cat or a plane crash, there should be an alternative to simply giving it away on social media and letting advertisers make all the money. That’s not an inconceivable idea; but there’s no marketplace set up for that today, for timely and newsworthy photographs; whether opportunistic or well planned, whether shot on a Nikon or an iPhone, to make money in direct proportion to how many times they are viewed.

It is credible, though, to sell limited numbers of physical prints of one photograph for a one-time cost to each buyer. Each print is, of course, valued for its scarcity and because of how appealing it is to own one of a few beautiful handmade objets d’art. But that describes the business of selling art, not the underserved business of licensing photography. If one compares selling photography-as-art with, say, selling tickets to a musician’s performance in concert, well that’s ridiculous. Who’s going to buy tickets to watch a photographer shoot pictures? If anyone insists, as some people do, on comparing music to photography, the only halfway plausible comparison is between stock photos and Musak (“elevator music”). That’s still a big stretch.


Book publishing is perhaps the best example of how royalties are supposed to work. Publishers pay royalties to authors and reach out to a marketplace filled with potential readers — customers. But they negotiate a separate deal with each author. An advance payment is often part of the deal to buy exclusive rights to a book from its author. It means publishers and authors collaborate to fulfill their creative ideas. They partner in the production of content. A publisher’s overheard includes assigning an editor and designer to each book project, not to mention actual printing and physical distribution costs accrued; and, afterward, they’re often engaged in advertising. Any given publisher may have dozens or hundreds of books to sell, but writers are painstakingly and authoritatively curated (before they become authors). Publishers help authors build audiences. They carry the imprimatur of longstanding cultural contributions. There is fidelity and transparency in their relationships with authors. For every book a publisher sells, its author receives a verifiable royalty payment.

On the other hand, stock photo middlemen aggregate millions of different photos from hundreds of thousands of different contributors who are anonymous for all intents and purposes. The photographers pay all of their own production costs; no advances or shared expenses are forthcoming. There are no terms to negotiate; it’s take it or leave it! The vetting of photographers is nominal; even less so for their photos. There are just too many. Can AI sort out the best ones? Hardly, considering the source.

The upshot is the creation of massive inventories to be sold by subscription: an all-you-can-eat buffet for one low price. The middlemen keep as much as eighty-five percent (85%) of gross revenue, sometimes more, paying out an obscenely diluted royalty against an already penny-ante cost to millions of subscribing buyers. This practice limits the quality of content.

With a very few outliers notwithstanding, contributing photographers typically earn less than $300 — PER YEAR! Most earn nothing at all. One has to ask, If middlemen charge end-users so little, why do they keep so much; especially when they pay nothing to manufacture the goods? The system is dysfunctional. That’s why so few professionals participate. That’s why publishers are underserved. That’s why industry revenue is flat.

To keep themselves honest, middlemen should accept sales commissions from photographers, not pay royalties to photographers. After all, the photographers own the photos. It is they, not the middlemen, who grant reproduction rights to end-users. But Getty Images, AdobeStock, and Shutterstock act like they are the owners. Their hubris belittles the value of intellectual property.


Getting to a Solution: Fixing Jobs Fixes Stock

If you want to get people to do something, make it easy. Remove the barriers!

Conventional wisdom says better stock means more stock. But more stock simply means more stock. Too many choices but too few good ones is really no choice at all. Not even AI can fix that.

It’s clear to see that prices remain static while online inventories continue to grow larger because the ratio of mediocre to suberb imagery keeps pace with growth in the size of inventories. But the issue isn’t just about better quality stock either. As commercial Enterprise buyers will tell you, better means a slimmer inventory, with a cap on size but continuously replenished by the same photographers they hire to shoot jobs; new photos displacing older photos that have either been used too often or have been sitting on the shelf too long, not used at all.

Buyers do not want crowd-sourced photos. Buyers want consistency, dependability, and exclusivity. They want to be assured that, when they discover a photo, it hasn’t already been published by someone else; perhaps by a competitor, unbeknownst to them.


Let me clear up one last widely held misconception. Even though photographers use platforms like Instagram effectively to promote their commercial availability or showcase their art, or both, so-called “influencers” on social media play no role at all in the photography industry itself.

Don’t let that surprise you. Influencers are not paid to provide photographic services, but for how many “followers” they attract, given their respective talents for garnering “fifteen minutes of fame” (as per Andy Warhol’s timeless dictum). Real celebrities can be influencers too: athletes, musicians, movies stars, etc. They all get paid to guilefully display or deliberately pose with name-brand products, thus making tacit commercial endorsements to their followers.

It’s called “product placement,” of course. It’s an effective way to advertise. You already know that. It started in the movies with, say, a beer bottle placed with its label facing the camera in a scene featuring MOVIE STAR’S NAME HERE. Some brewing company paid for that. But it gets more interesting.

Influencers with large followings are often financially sponsored by advertising agencies who employ professional “ringers” to shoot pictures that merely look like user-generated content. But it’s not UGC at all. Pros are hired for their ability to reliably produce an “amateur-looking aesthetic.” Attribution of the resulting pictures is, shall we say, disingenuous. The point is, social media is just another medium for advertisers who pay professional photographers to create content the good old-fashioned way: they pay them.

I’ve coined a word for the use of photographic technology on social media: pixting.

Pixting is to photography as texting is to literature. It means engaging in perfunctory conversation by utilizing pictures instead of words across a digital medium. It’s visual smalltalk; the appropriation of a one hundred and ninety-year-old technology called photography for visual chitchat. Anyone can string a few written words together; that doesn’t make them authors. There are a lot of people walking around with cameras; that doesn’t make them photographers.

Do professional photographers use social media? Sure they do. But it’s a means of self-promotion (marketing) for the most part, to get the attention of clients who will pay them real money to shoot real jobs — including for publication on social media itself. Can an image first published on Instagram be picked up for use in a commercial ad? Sure, why not?


A photograph, whether it’s shot on assignment or chosen from a pre-shot inventory, acquires tremendous value when it becomes associated with a market brand. Corporations spare no expense to protect such commercial assets. They are created by an elite class of professionals.

Photographers are professional not because they say they are, but because their clients say they are. They are elite because they are paid by an elite clientele of publishers. They are regularly entrusted with big budgets and even bigger creative responsibilities. When their clients need stock photos (e.g., if a tight budget or a looming deadline makes a made-to-order shoot impractical) they want access to the pros’ unpublished and rights-reverted photos, the ones they’ve already shot and will continue to shoot: their residuals.

But residuals are practically unavailable for licensing and re-licensing because, even if they weren’t deliberately withheld from online vendors, they are fragmented into tens of thousands of separate pools. Fragmented and offline, they are effectively off the market. So, how does a publisher tap into this scattered but continuously recharged trove of premium content?


The Magic of Workflow Automation

No one picks up a camera just to start a small business. Photographers hope, first and foremost, to support their art. They’d like to think their art will support them too. But they rarely have the wherewithal to navigate the world of business and shoot pictures at the same time. It’s harder, still, because so many photographers are one-man bands who spend too much time behind a desk and not enough time behind a camera. Online workflow automation is rudimentary at best, practically nonexistent. Cashflow makes sucking sounds.

  • Photographers don’t know how much to charge because each job is different: different client, different budget, different reproduction rights; different production costs. And photographers competing with each other have different overhead; unclear how to address the the challenge of staying competitive and profitable at the same time.
  • It’s difficult to remember which line-item production expenses to include in each job estimate or invoice.
  • It’s impracticable to pick up a phone to call a lawyer, to compose a written copyright license, every time a photographer picks up a camera.
  • Neither licensors nor licensees are reminded when publication licenses expire.
  • State sales tax rules are applied haphazardly, exposing photographers to audits and potentially crippling fines.
  • Electronic photo delivery to clients, after each job, is fragmented by countless FTP sites and photographers’ distrust of Dropbox et al. Some photographers still put hard drives in a FedEx box.
  • Clients wait too long to receive invoices because photographers are up to their necks shooting one job and weeks behind with “paperwork” from previous ones.
  • Photographers wait even longer to get paid—by check. And it’s counterproductive for photographers to subscribe to myriad on-line payment apps used by as many different clients.

If workflow between sellers and buyers is offline, the content they produce and the revenue it generates are offline too. A twenty-first century middleman’s role, therefore, is to bring sellers and buyers together online, not to keep them apart, so they can produce more content and generate more revenue. That sounds more like the role of a true agent, or a broker.

Absent respect for the economic concerns of photographers, no middleman will ever be given the privilege by photographers to broker their residuals. But by connecting them online with their existing clients and automating their commissioned-jobs workflow, a broker can consolidate pro photographers under one virtual roof.

It is axiomatic that where photographers go, their content goes. It is their intellectual property. They own it, lock, stock, and copyright. That principle applies no matter who paid to produce it, unless a photographer relinquishes copyright in a written and signed agreement as per federal law. (Copyright will be discussed later.) It is no mere assumption that publishers follow the content.


It is not hard to see how connecting photographers with their existing clients online will consolidate them. It’s also plain to see how, in turn, consolidation prevents inventory bloat and the overuse of individual photographs for buyers.

To consolidate photographers — and their residuals too — a broker must answer the three questions topmost on the minds of every single photographer:

• How much should I charge for each job?

• How do I compose a copyright license on each invoice?

• How can I send out accurate invoices on time, and get paid faster?

  • The App facilitates workflow, pricing, and capture of residuals.
  • The Exchange facilitates downloads and payments.

This is a new idea: a proprietary marketplace where photographers and publishers can interract directly with each other because the middleman is transparent.

There cannot be three Facebooks or six Googles. Those companies became institutions because, ultimately, there remained only one of each in its class. Right now, there is no “go-to” marketplace, no home for the worldwide community of commercial Enterprise photographers and their clients to congregate and do business. Once there is, it will be possible to intercept the symmetrical information that flows back and forth, and to apply the resulting market intelligence toward optimize economic outcomes for sellers and buyers and a broker in the middle of their revenue stream. It will capture photos too — passively and seamlessly — already edited and curated, and, of course, with the photographer’s consent during routine electronic file transfers (job delivery/fulfillment). Self-assigned personal photo projects are also captured.


The Marketplace automates e-invoicing, e-delivery, and e-payments. The broker, or proprietor, offers a number of FREE services in addition to a menu of subscription-billed value-added services (SaaS), in exchange for the exclusive privilege to market photographers’ residuals.

Payments are transferred to photographers’ bank accounts electronically, immediately upon download of digital photos by clients, in exchange for the broker’s right to capture and backup residuals during the delivery process, as part of the Marketplace’s routine workflow. It acts like a virtual filter.

Rights-managed prices are tailored by machine learning to each photographer’s economic profile vis à vis other photographers in the network, in tandem with each Enterprise end-user’s “media-buy” (i.e., the budget they allot for audience reach). It’s worth noting that the broker does not pay royalties, but automatically gets paid a sales commission.


For publishers, consolidation means radically improved Digital Asset Management for a myriad of jobs, both during and after their production, in tandem with access to a previously untapped reservoir of dynamically replenished stock produced by the top pros they have vetted themselves. It means pro-sourced, not crowd-sourced.

For photographers, consolidation means de facto control over pricing their own work and relief from the back-office drudgery of running a business; freeing them from the “administrivia” that eats up time and keeps them from shooting more pictures. A consolidated marketplace gives them more time to take pictures, provides better cash flow and profitability, and adds a new income stream through licensing their residuals.

For both, billings and payments are simplified by automating that process online.

The broker who connects them, gets to exclusively monetize their jobs workflow and their residuals.


Why is the passive capture of digital image files so important? Because only amateurs and part-time camera enthusiasts account for proactively uploading images to the stock photo pipeline.

The key to creating a catalog of premium, professionally-produced and dynamically replenished stock photos is to abandon the idea that professionals will PROACTIVELY upload their residuals.

Photography lives at the intersection of art and commerce. One would expect that intersection to be in the cloud. But it’s not. The downside for commercial photographers is that rights-reverted photos, their outtakes and personal pictures — their residuals — are practically invisible to buyers online. These photos, these assets, despite their high-value to buyers, are stored on RAID arrays (i.e., hard drives) in photo studios and home offices, hidden like cash stuffed under so many mattresses. To be off-line in an online economy, they earn dividends for no one. It is estimated that residuals are worth an additional $3B in sales annually.

Fixing jobs, first, fixes the stock photo pricing conundrum by integrating their transactions on a single platform and using the data for one to price the other. That practice, in turn, attracts the top pro photographers to join the Marketplace.

The ability to automate and monetize the commissioned jobs workflow initiates a dynamic cascade of premium residuals into the stock photo pipeline. Once connected, once agency is restored online, both literally and figuratively, it’s easy for photographers to see for themselves how their clients will gain long-desired access to residuals at prices that make everybody smile.


Any wary photographer will ask, what difference is there between a Facebook or a Google surreptitiously collecting private information, versus a broker who collects data about photographers and their clients? The difference is that only the photographers and their clients who create the data can use the data. Data give the broker actionable market intelligence to use on their behalf, to make doing business with each other more productive. There is NO monetization of data with third parties; no data sharing outside of this close-knit and closed network; no pernicious effect on privacy.


By contributing their pictures to stock photo vendors, camera enthusiasts have found an outlet to show off online. They can earn a little bit of money too; as much as a few hundred dollars per year — if it’s a good year. It’s “found money.” But you can count those who actually make a living shooting stock photos on your fingers and toes.

Commercial Enterprise photographers, on the other hand, have to bring home the bacon. But they’ve learned that, even if they try to license stock photos on their own, no matter how low their prices, high-volume sales are out of the question because they’re too fragmented to make a dent in the market. They have no reach as individuals. So they rely on shooting more lucrative jobs for a cultivated clientele, instead. And they continue to resist efforts by well capitalized aggregators to get them to upload their premium photos. Otherwise, it would be like looking through the wrong end of a lens; crowd-sourcing belittles their work and their income.

Crowd-sourcing hurts buyers too. It’s a matter of tens of thousands of highly experienced, authentically curated contributors serving Enterprise publishers versus millions of random contributors serving millions more ordinary consumers who want to decorate their websites. It’s a matter of premium content licensed at rights-managed prices for commercial messaging versus mediocre content sold like the commodity it is. The Enterprise and Consumer segments have different needs. They don’t play in the same sandbox.

Instead of making empty promises aimed at attracting professionals, only to funnel them into a commodified sales channel clotted with amateurs, it’s time to let pro-sourcing coexist with crowd-sourcing.


Commercial photographers are disproportionately few, yet their influence is global.

Working commercial pros number about 150,000 worldwide. Together, they generate more than $6.5B in fees by shooting jobs each year. That revenue is not only fragmented but less than it should be.

Recently-funded photo startups, including EyeEm, Meero, and Ocus epitomize “deja vu all over again” or we’ve seen this movie before. Each one claims to have “on-boarded” tens of thousands of pro photographers and, by implication, professionally-produced content. But they’re all the same photographers.

These credulous contributors mistakenly assume they’ll get better sales exposure by placing their work on multiple exchanges. But buyers who encounter the same dross at every turn don’t see it quite that way. It’s a waste of their time. As with every other aspect of crowd-sourced stock photography, it’s impossible to protect or enforce exclusivity.

Because of the sheer number of photos uploaded, however, odds are that some terrific examples will turn up in circulation. But they are the same terrific photos seen repeatedly across multiple vendors’ websites. More to the point, the terrific ones get lost in a rising sea of mediocrity, increasingly diluted by too many millions more not-so-terrific examples. This flood of poorly curated pictures is continuously overtopping an already bloated inventory. Call it photobesity.


These startups also claim that they can match buyers with “pro photographers.” But they make no distinction between the kinds of pros who shoot weddings and those who shoot multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns.

Outliers aside, photographers who contribute to startups such as these may call themselves professionals, and their work may have been accepted on the basis of their claims; but they have no clientele to back them up.

It is naive to think that any vendor’s success corresponds with how many proactive photo contributors they can recruit. Buyers already complain about how hard it is to find the kinds of photos they want amongst so many tens of millions in any given vendor’s inventory. And it’s not because they can’t find any good ones; IT’S BECAUSE THEY ALL FIND THE SAME GOOD ONES, EXACTLY BECAUSE THEY’RE GOOD.

A great photo, once it’s discovered by one buyer, will inevitably be discovered by more buyers. It will be sold over and over and over again dirt cheap. Thus overused, it is published too many times in too many places by too many different end-users. That’s bad for buyers with brand identities to protect. And it’s bad for photographers trying to make a living.

Enterprise buyers are particularly frustrated because they have to comb through inventories that have already been picked clean by individual consumers and VSBs who outnumber them exponentially. According to information available on Linkedin, it often costs big companies more money to find a useable photo than what they might pay for a license to publish it.

This state of affairs is encouraged by how easy it is to collect staggering numbers of photos by crowd-sourcing them, and because consumers are less picky than corporations about quality and exclusivity. According to the Visualsteam.com 2019 annual survey of commercial image buyers (conducted by a professional team of marketing consultants), it takes twice as much time just to find an image, today, as it did four years ago.

Identical photos found on multiple photo exchanges sit gathering digital dust on the virtual shelf for far too long. It’s worth saying again that, just because most stock photos are created by amateurs, doesn’t mean they’re no good. But it does mean the best ones, the most useful ones, are few and far between. Quality — better to call it usefulness — is inconsistent when image inventories are restocked incoherently, by casting a broad net with no means of separating the desired catch from the dross, with no effective curation. Boatloads must be uploaded just to find a few that are worth a publisher’s time and money to download.


To incentivize commercial Enterprise photographers to connect online and institutionalize pro-sourcing, the Marketplace can integrate their existing creative workflow with its proprietary business-management workflow, without changing the way they work — except to streamline the process.

Practically all professionals use either Capture One® or Adobe Lightroom® to cull a set of “selects” (another industry term of art) from amongst the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of pictures they shoot during any given photo assignment. They use one or the other of these software tools to weed out duplicates, mis-flashes, out-of-focus frames, poor exposures, shots of their feet, and images that are irrelevant to the client. Once these “outtakes” are eliminated, the remaining selects are treated to what is called “post-production.” This is the industry term for a combined process of fine-tuning, editing for composition, color correction, cropping, retouching, and special effects. At the point where post-production is complete, selects become residuals. These perfectly polished pictures are finally delivered to the client.

But digital post-production adds to the time suck that keeps photographers away from their cameras, away from shooting new jobs. Only in recent years has it become expected for them to perform this task themselves and absorb the cost. It’s the same as if photographers had been told to process their own film in the darkroom with chemicals, without getting reimbursed, instead of dropping it off at a photo lab and rebilling it to the client.

Today, there is no established protocol to bill for digital post-production. Outsourced film-and-processing costs, once marked-up and re-billed to clients, used to be a reliable profit center, particularly when shooting for lower paying editorial clients. Post-production becomes a profit center, once again, with a jobs-workflow app reestablishing best practices.

Pros are keenly aware of the value of their residuals, which include the good ones that don’t get sent to the client and the ones whose publication rights revert back to them after the client’s publication license expires. But even if pro shooters didn’t expect to be ruthlessly exploited by the incumbents, it’s unlikely they could find time to curate, caption, and proactively upload all of their residuals on a regular basis, in addition to doing unpaid post-production chores, busy shooting jobs as they would rather be.

I am not suggesting that artificial intelligence could do the trick. AI is not up to the task of professional editing and curating, which rely on the myriad talents and inscrutable subjectivity that vary from one human to the next. The real question is, How do you keep the riffraff out? How is it possible to get a critical mass of meticulously curated residuals — along with the photographers who created them — onto one e-commerce Exchange where publishers, who are perfectly willing to pay fair market prices for publication rights, can easily find them?


Now that selects can be delivered electronically, a simple API and a mouse click copies them from Capture One or Lightroom to the Marketplace Exchange where they are embedded with production and copyright metadata, then sent on their way to the client.

Along their way, the selects are backed up to the cloud. The Marketplace, having netted these pre-curated selects “on the fly,” allows their copyright holders, the photographers themselves, to determine, first, if they want them brought to market; and, second, under what terms. This passive-capture process, too, is automated. The point is, the proactive step — the roadblock — is eliminated.

Selects are, in effect, pre-filtered — twice, in fact: first, by the clients who selected and commissioned the photographers to shoot them in the first place, and, second, by the photographers themselves, who edit their own work, keeping only their best selects. The result is a dynamically updated, collective inventory of professionally-produced residuals; the best-curated assets of all photographers in the Marketplace. They are all backed up to one exclusive inventory in the cloud. The commercial value of this inventory is vouched for by an entire network of sellers and buyers.


This special inventory, filtered through the Marketplace, is immune to the kinds of catastrophes that can defeat the inherent lack of security in studio, office, and home computers or backup devices: physical theft, fire, flood, earthquake, tornado, ransomware attacks — you name it. These precious photographs are protected by their very nature of being perfect digital copies that exist offsite and online.

One other thing. In analog days, selects were placed in a dark cool draw, in acid-free envelopes, where they would remain in an archival state for hundreds of years. Now, digital images must continually be backed-up and, then, backed-up again periodically to newer media, so it will be subject to machine retrieval in the future; perhaps by means yet unforeseen. But state-of-the-art backup can be kept current by the Marketplace.


Any photographer who tries to bill for anything other than a commercial publication license for intellectual property will find no on-ramp to the Marketplace. It self-selects for Enterprise photographers exclusively because they have already been given the thumbs-up to shoot Enterprise jobs by their own clients. Therefore, when Enterprise buyers search for stock, they are assured of finding pictures created by the same talent they and other Enterprise buyers already know they can count on.


How to Price a Picture

Photography’s value is memorialized by the familiar axiom: one picture is worth a thousand words. Undeniably true. Think of trying to advertise a product or service without pictures! Such obvious intrinsic value can hardly be downplayed. But photography’s monetary value has been downplayed indeed. The average cost to download a photo from an online vendor is under four dollars.

Again, the reason for such abominable prices is the scarcity of commercially useful content produced by professionals. With that in mind, let’s examine how prices for pre-shot residuals might be determined by looking at data for made-to-order jobs; so that, in both circumstances, they can count on the usefulness of professionally-produced pictures.

Ultimately, a data-driven marketplace will be imbued with the same kind of authority for pricing photography that Google enjoys for ranking Search results. The information it uses to suggest prices for millions of commissioned jobs, with the help of machine learning, will be extrapolated and used to price stock photos too. It will, of course, exclude line-item production costs that pertain only to jobs; therefore assuring pre-shot photos will still cost less than made-to-order photo assignments.


Whether a photographer has been in business for two weeks, working out of the trunk of her car, or shooting for twenty-five years with a 9,000 sq. ft. studio and a full staff of production assistants, the How much should I charge? question always looms large, every time she picks up a camera. The answer is different for each photographer and also for each job.

In the past, photographers have relied on guesswork and hearsay to come up with a price for their work; whether it was a commissioned job or a stock photo. They’ve never had enough information, or the right information, to calculate the commercial value of their work.

Other than licking a finger and holding it up to see which way the wind blows, there was no accurate way to quote a competitive price. It was counterproductiveto rely on surveys because one hardly knows which, if any, participants were truthful; and rarely is the number of participants in the survey revealed, let alone how many of them were actually profitable. Just as bad was to rely on hearsay from personal confidants whose costs of doing business, profit margins, and goals would certainly not be the same as yours. But actionable market intelligence gleaned from a machine learning matrix, a Pricing Engine, determines what to charge without aiming too high or too low, and without aiming at the middle. It suggests an optimal price.

A Pricing Engine analyzes symmetrical information from all transactions throughout the Marketplace. Job by job, learning as it goes, it weighs each photographer’s production costs, profit margin, and reputation in tandem with the buyer’s current budget, history of payments, and intended market reach by publication rights requested, to factor in the actual commercial value of a given photograph to the buyer.

A well rounded photographer can’t roll downhill when it comes to pricing his own work.

NOTE: I eschew using the term artificial intelligence (AI) because the Pricing Engine doesn’t try to mimic human behavior, a signature characteristic of AI. Machine learning, often described as one flavor of AI, relies on patterns and inferences found in data to arrive, in this case, at different answers to one important question: How much do I charge? It’s a decision tree, an algorithm that helps photographers both accurately and competitivly price their IP and their services in the marketplace. The more data it analyzes, the smarter it gets over time.

Chicago GSB Professor & Nobel laureate Eugene Fama famously said, “Prices reflect all available information.” His theory about pricing Wall Street stock market assets holds true in the consumer-retail stock photo market too.

When a photographer’s client receives e-notification that a job is ready to be delivered, one mouse click accepts the photographer’s Terms & Conditions and initiates the download of selects. Electronic payment of the Invoice/License of Rights to the photographer’s bank account is effected when the download is complete, with a transaction fee going to the Marketplace broker.

Each job is memorialized in a Virtual Paper Trail. As a result of both automating and integrating a back-office workflow with a creative workflow, the Terms & Conditions for granting reproduction rights, the copyright-licensing “legalese” itself, plus all other documents from first estimate to final Invoice/License of Rights, are embedded with each digital photograph associated with its corresponding commissioned job.

When a client’s reproduction license expires for any given photo, or, as the rights reserved by the photographer pertain to any unpublished photos made during a commissioned job, permissions can be obtained by the same client, or subsequent clients, to license and re-license the photo(s) in question at fair, rights-managed market prices. Again, the Pricing Engine suggests a figure in accordance with each individual photographer’s economic profile vis à vis the buyer’s budget.

Notwithstanding every other bit of “administrivia” that preoccupies a photographer’s time, coming up with a bottom-line price for a “simple” photo shoot can be as complex as budgeting a scene in a movie. The Pricing Engine not only automates this chore, but gives it accuracy and credibility. All this capturing, analyzing, and annotating takes the buyer’s history into account too.

To get the ball rolling, the Pricing Engine incorporates the answers to a few simple questions posed to each photographer when first registering as a member of the Marketplace:

  • What salary (annual take-home pay) do you wish to earn?
  • How many jobs do you expect to shoot each year?
  • How much money goes into a savings/retirement account each year?
  • What’s your annual cost of business? (A checklist of direct and indirect overhead expenses is presented.)

A Marketplace with the underpinning of a data-driven Pricing Engine does not have to support cheap consumer sales or try to compete on that front to be stunningly successful, although it will ultimately take those kinds of sales away from the incumbents.

For example, when the Marketplace detects a big buyer, say Procter & Gamble, shopping for a portrait of a model with an inspiring smile for a Crest toothpaste landing page, it won’t accept a one-price-fits-all $3.40 sale: the status quo. Instead, a fee commensurate with P&G’s market reach is quoted, reflecting the image’s true commercial value to P&G itself. It is not uncommon to be in the five-figure range for a website; getting higher for a full-on campaign that includes print, point-of-purchase, and broadcast. The photographer pays a thirty percent (30%) sales commission to the Marketplace proprietor. It all happens automatically, of course. But if the buyer is a local dentist, surely more than $3.40 will be quoted, but the price will be fair and affordable — perhaps in the low three figures, without exclusivity — for a dentist’s website.

No longer can middlemen impose so-called “royalties” on photographers (e.g., 15% on a piddling $3.40 sale) just because it’s convenient for them, and because they have no data to gauge a competitive price. With the availability of market intelligence and de facto control over pricing their own work, it is reasonable to predict that increasing numbers of ordinary camera enthusiasts will deny their photographs to Getty Images, AdobeStock, and Shutterstock, just like the vast majority of pros do already, and choose to license their work through a company that has no need to exploit them.


Historical Perspective

One secret to a great marketplace is a great middleman. Today’s middlemen didn’t so much disrupt the photo marketplace as buy it. That didn’t make them great, just big.

In the mid-1990s, with no hands-on experience in photography, two “startup” companies, Corbis and Getty Images (controlled respectively by Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Getty of the Getty Oil family inheritance) were in worldwide competition with each other to acquire stock photo collections. Both plainly saw how to make money by rolling up legacy photo agencies into one big ball, and funneling those many smaller and fragmented revenue streams into a single torrent of cash: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It had became clear to Gates and Getty, early on, that photography was the perfect product for the new phenomenon of electronic commerce. There were no manufacturing costs (photographers paid their own production costs); only nominal warehousing costs (digitized files were stored on servers); customer demand was high (all those new websites); profit margins were huge (mass volume sales); and there were no shipping costs (no FedEx or UPS trucks).

Gates and Getty pulled off a shrewd consolidation play, in the best tradition of private equity investing, irrespective of the havoc it played with photographers’ careers or the cultural, commercial, and historical underpinnings that account for the value of photography in the first place. But these self-imposed middlemen sidestepped organic growth to pick the low-hanging fruit of a consumer-facing opportunity in a booming e-commerce environment. They saw how much photographs were worth to their respective bottom lines. But the care and feeding of photographers was incidental to their respective costs of doing business. The writing was on the wall. The artistes were tolerated until what came to be known as crowd-sourcing grew widespread: an open call to the general public for submissions; an effort to obtain more content at no upfront cost.


Sidebar: Buying a traditional photo agency, unlike buying a record company which includes a library full of songs and valuable publishing rights, or buying a Hollywood movie studio that comes with a library of classic films, and other than some notably large collections of timeless and historically valuable photographs that were already in the public domain, the photographers owned their photographs outright. They owned the copyrights. The agencies did not.

Due diligence aside, that came as a rude surprise to Getty and Corbis. Most shooters who had been represented by agencies had run for the hills and taken their photographs (on film) with them, as soon as they realized what Corbis and Getty were up to, rather than let their work be systematically devalued.


Before crowd-sourcing, these new middlemen aggressively recruited contributors to replenish their “stock” when pictures became too stale or outdated. Not many established pros heeded the siren’s call; the Corbis-Getty juggernaut had long since cut them out of the profit proposition. But some photographers took a gamble. They willingly relinquished their copyrights to future photos they would create by signing work-for-hire contracts with the new masters of the marketplace. It meant they gave up ownership of their work — their own businesses too — in exchange for a minor measure of economic security.

The idea was for middlemen to anticipate market demand and tell their own in-house photographers what to shoot. But economic security turned out to be ephemeral. Work-for-hire contracts forced photographers into an employee-like situation without any of the health or retirement benefits employees were due. Yet they were now expected to shoot all kinds of subject matter for bosses who paid them next to nothing; and they owned nothing.

Eventually, even producing in-house content became too costly for Corbis’s and Getty’s bottom lines. They could squeeze photographers, but they couldn’t cut the cost of film & processing, or travel, or props, etc. So, they tried a new approach. When a gap in subject matter became evident in a vendor’s inventory, they sometimes bought an entire archive of film from one photographer or another who had specialized in, say, pop music or astronomy or sports. These archives would be digitized for online licensing. Some photographers made a lot of money on those deals. But soon enough the well went dry.

The advent of crowd-sourcing was a fortuitous turn of events for Corbis and Getty because, when there were no more archives to buy and too few self-respecting pros would sign-on to shoot for them, they faced an existential problem. Then they got lucky. Photography “went digital.”


The late 2000s ushered in a conjunction of universal broadband with the eclipse of film (i.e., the fast uploading and downloading of digital images culminating in Kodak’s 2012 bankruptcy). It was now possible to crowd-source digitally-captured photos. Of course, everybody had a digital camera; and the cost of film was zero.

Sidebar: Because Getty, today, is practically the only game in town, they maintain contracts with a small number of photojournalists who shoot breaking news and other editorial content.


Initially, Gates and Getty hired people to run their companies who cared deeply about photography and photographers. Whether by resignation or firing or just plain disillusionment, however, they left in quick succession.

Today, there is no longer anyone at the helm with firsthand knowledge about where to steer the ship; how to maximize the commercial value of photography. By the time a younger generation of photographers and photo buyers habituated to crowd-sourcing, an institutional memory loss prevailed. So, too, were the next generation of UI/UX designers and engineers building one-sided technology platforms that maximized revenue only for middlemen.

Despite the dedicated work of professional guilds that lobbied to establish best practices, and the buyers who adopted them, a tried-and-true methodology of productivity and profitability got lost in a fog, forgotten and consigned to oblivion.

Three of those guilds, the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), American Photographic Artists (APA), and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) have long promulgated a fair and simple principle enshrined in federal copyright law: the more one pays for reproduction rights, the broader one’s market reach through publication.

Sidebar: The ASMP started out as a labor union in 1947. A federal court ruled it was illegal for ASMP members to be represented by a union because members were not employees; each photographer was an independently-owned business. The upshot was that the ASMP became a guild. A guild can lobby for legal rights and legislation, but it is forbidden to collectively bargain for wages or fees, as a labor union can with employers. Incidentally, newspaper staff photographers are salaried employees.

When image capture “went digital,” Corbis and Getty didn’t so much pivot as meander. While continuing to focus on the consumer segment, they ignored the lucrative B2B Enterprise segment. It remains underserved today. However, they can, and should, be credited with recognizing a new class of customers that developed hand in glove with the World Wide Web: freelancers, shopkeepers, startups, and very small businesses (VSBs) who previously had little need to publish photographs or produce videos; nor did they have the wherewithal to find and pay for such things. Suddenly, they had to fill an exponentially increasing number of websites with cheap pictures.

In other words, the new middlemen didn’t win the market so much as create a segment they could win. But in the wake of their serial acquisitions of old-school photo agencies and film, they left an institutional knowledge vacuum: a photographic memory loss.


When Corbis and Getty Images first imposed their high-volume, low-price business models, they set the bar low for the entire industry. They would tell you, rights-managed pricing was impossible to enforce in an online economy; that it was destined to be replaced with a royalty-free model. Apparently, no one but working pro photographers understood that it was a bad idea, in the long run, to deliberately devalue intellectual property as an asset. But that’s what the middlemen did. The upshot was to drive high-end commercial business away — and photographers away — from the online marketplace.

Amateur camera enthusiasts, less concerned about making money but nonetheless proud of their work, were given an outlet for their photos on the World Wide Web. It’s hard to find fault with that. The only real sin committed by the consolidators is one of poor business judgment: the recklessness of tossing premium content into one bargain-basement bin with cheap crowd-sourced content.

Professionals were offered shelf space inside the store, but only if they would share it, side by side, with amateurs at pathetic prices. It took the wind out of their sales (pun intended). As time went on, lower licensing fees fostered an insidious notion amongst publishers — the corporate bean counters, not the art directors that pictures viewed on a screen were worth less than those seen in print. Baseless as that opinion was, it stuck. Thereafter, because Enterprise buyers, too, were publishing content online, it was expected to cost less simply because it was online, instead of in print.

It didn’t take long for professionals to lose control over pricing their bread-and-butter business of shooting jobs; which made it harder for them to stay financially solvent enough to remain available for those very same clients who relied on their talents for visual problem-solving. They had little recourse against a powerful alliance of capital and the supersonic pace of change it wrought.

The world looked less picturesque to photographers. In what suddenly became an almost entirely consumer-facing market segment, middlemen stopped supporting the traditional relationship photographers enjoyed with Enterprise photo buyers. Crowd-sourced contributors made professionals superfluous with the kinds of customers they served. Small business owners and freelancers, having only just developed a need for photography, were happy with low prices and blasé pictures. At the same time, Enterprise customers enjoyed a windfall, paying the same cheap licensing fees. But their advantage was vitiated by the increasing mediocrity of stock photos available online. More to the point, almost every photographer who had relied on licensing residuals for part their income, even to provide for their retirement when they stopped shooting, lost trust in middlemen who practically gave their photos away; often without permission and at prices so low that the same photos had to sell many times over to many different buyers to be profitable — a profit that only the middlemen would see.

There is no other way to describe it. The vendors’ disdain for photographers, and their ignorance about how the photo business had been run equitably in the past, spawned an adversarial relationship that persists to this day. They played a zero sum game. A younger generation of photographers has little knowledge of this acrimonious history and how it continues to adversely affect their careers. Seasoned professionals nurse a deep-seated antipathy for the way the incumbents encouraged dysfunctional pricing practices to evolve, and continue to do so because they have lost the means to serve Enterprise customers without cannibalizing their Consumer-segment sales.


As the biggest industry player, not due to competitive superiority but deep pockets, some laypeople, and younger photographers too, have inferred that Getty Images is some kind of exalted bastion of photojournalism; that it’s supposed to be a feather in any photojournalist’s cap to be a “Getty photographer.” Getty Images is indeed a behemoth. Even Corbis was recently subsumed by Getty in cahoots with Chinese investors (more about that later). Getty puts its name on prestigious grants that foster the work of a few photojournalists. And they sponsor events and conferences that pros attend. But the fact that one sees Getty photo credits everywhere belies the fact that most of those photographs were acquired long after they were shot, with Getty having had no role in their production, economic or otherwise, except to vacuum up distribution rights.

Getty Images has never represented more than a few hundred of the tens of thousands of working photojournalists. These hardworking, courageous, intelligent, and insightful imagemakers persevere in spite of Getty’s machinations. It is with gross hypocrisy that Getty management has laid public blame for the existential problems now facing photojournalism on social media and Search platforms, instead of acknowledging how its own cofounders, Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein, are personally responsible for creating industry dysfunction in the first place. Their economic assault on photographers began before the advent of the World Wide Web. It continues today. That’s not just personal pique inveighed against a perceived injustice but a widely held industry opinion.


Is the picture getting clearer? Consumers are a class of customers, an audience targeted by brands and media to see and be influenced by photographs that convey commercial and editorial messages through mass publication. It is vital to understand that consumers do not create photographs for those purposes. They have no Enterprise clients.

Consumers create photos for their own personal use and satisfaction. A fraction of them are occasionally paid to shoot “gigs” for other consumers’ websites — for not much money at all. Any photos they may download are created by other consumers who, like themselves, are also freelancers and small business owners; but not freelance photographers or photography business owners. Because downloaded photos are dirt cheap and “shared” with little discretion, they are limited to trivial publication purposes at correspondingly trivial prices.

Mediocrity is baked into the Consumer segment of the Commercial Photo market because consumers can only afford to pay low prices. Middlemen can, therefore, only make money by selling cheap photos to millions of consumers. They pick mostly the few that stick out in an inventory diluted by filler. This state of affairs is encouraged by how easy it is to collect staggering numbers of photos through crowd-sourcing, and because consumers are less picky than corporations about quality and exclusivity.


Back in the day, traditional photo agencies made good money for themselves and the photographers they represented, despite being fragmented throughout the United States and Europe (with a lesser presence in Asia and elsewhere). Agencies flourished from the 1940s through the 1990s; but their heyday lasted from about 1970 to 1995. Agencies came to prominence when magazines, in the 1950s, beginning with those in America published by Time-Life, divested themselves of staff photographers to save money, and began to hire freelancers.

A French anthology memorializing the great photojournalism agencies

Photo agencies took up the slack, making sure there was always a photographer in the right place at the right time, on location around the globe, anticipating public interest in feature photo stories or to cover breaking news. They were outsourced photo departments, entire staffs on twenty-four-hour call. They negotiated deals with magazines, making sure they and their photographers got paid; and they steadily amassed residuals to be syndicated for further publication, a supplementary source of income. The agencies were highly competitive, trying to scoop each other with exclusive coverage of this story or that.

Some agencies were cooperatives, owned by the photographers themselves like Magnum Photo. Some were independently owned, creating a home for larger but carefully vetted “stables” of talent shooting editorial assignments like Sygma. Some agencies marketed proprietary collections of stock photos, including historical archives in the public domain, like the Bettmann Archive. Some re-licensed residuals primarily to commercial advertising and corporate clients, like The Image Bank.

Agents served buyers well, too, because they stood for high quality and guaranteed exclusivity when it was required. Some agencies co-produced photo stories with their photographers, paying half the production costs in exchange for half the revenue. Photos were shot on film, of course. The agencies delivered black-and-white prints and color slides. Messengers, Federal Express, and United Parcel Service were indispensable.

These photo agencies were not wire services like the erstwhile United Press International (UPI). Nor were they like others that survive today, including The Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and Agence France-Presse (AFP). Wire services actually hire photographers as employees (“stringers” being the exception) and own the copyrights to what their employees create. Wire services cater mostly to newspapers and, sometimes, magazines. Incidentally, the AP goes back to Pony Express days in the mid-nineteenth-century American West; founded as a non-profit cooperative by several newspapers.

Neither photo agencies nor wire services should be confused with “reps” (artist representatives), who were — some still are — talent agents procurring assignments for a few star photographers in the worlds of advertising, fashion, and corporate communications.


Today, the industry is undergoing another round of consolidation. Beijing-based Visual China Group (VCG) bought Corbis and 500px. Getty, having been bounced back and forth between two private equity companies, Hellman & Friedman and The Carlyle Group, is once again in the private hands of the Getty family. Adobe bought Fotolia, to gobble up more quotidian content, and has since struck distribution deals with EyeEm and Stocksy. Getty, too, has a distribution deal with EyeEm; another example of content overlap. ImageBrief’s implausible low-balling business model folded like a cheap shotgun. So did Blend Images. So did Meero. And Twenty20 can’t make ends meet. Even Flickr, the enthusiasts’ photo-sharing site, was bought by SmugMug. But stock photo startups continue to pop up like mushrooms in an investment-market mulch. I predict that they, too, will fall victim to an industry already cannibalizing itself; big fish eating small fish just to acquire more content. There are only small fry left.

To wit, VCG, immediately after acquiring 500px, did a distribution deal with Getty. And having acquired the unprofitable Corbis company from Bill Gates for pennies on the dollar, they did the same thing. Remember, Corbis had been Getty’s arch-rival. Getty’s CEO at the time of the deal, Jonathan Klein, boasted sardonically, “Lovely to get the milk, the cream, the cheese, the yoghurt and the meat without buying the cow.”


Google may be the only company big enough to bully Getty Images; and with fewer scruples about intellectual property attribution. Getty was powerless to stop Google from “scraping” photos off of its e-commerce exchange and letting Google Photo’s own users freely copy them without giving credit to, or paying, the photographers who created them.

Getty sued Google. But, after awhile, instead of risking loss in litigation, Getty signed a cooperative distribution deal with — wait for it! — Google itself. Google’s View Image button is now a Visit Image button that links back to Getty. But Google is still free to use Getty content in all of its own products and services. Emphasis is on the word free.

Jeff Widener — AP via Corbis via VCG via Getty

Guess who came out ahead on that deal! Photographers have no say in transactions like that, despite the fact that they own the copyrights to all of the photographs in question. It’s just one more reason why pros are loathe to “join the crowd.” That is to crowd-source.

Incidentally, along with millions of other culturally iconic photographs, the Chinese now have digital distribution rights to, and perhaps outright ownership of, the famous 1989 Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” photograph. Many images like that one could disappear at the discretion of the Chinese government, now that VCG controls them.

Making photo distribution deals with sub-vendors to get access to more content is cheaper than buying whole companies and their archives outright. But it further dilutes the income of contributing photographers. As already stated, such deals overlap content from one vendor’s inventory to another’s, all hurled together into one big bargain-basement bin, making it harder still for buyers to discover original content.

Photographers who contribute their work to any given vendor’s inventory can expect to see their work distributed by other vendors, too, even competing vendors with whom they had no intention of making a distribution deal, whether they like it or not. For example, EyeEm’s collection is now distributed by both Getty and Adobe. Contributors may rationalize that more buyers will see their work, download it, publish it, and pay for it. But any extra income they might hope to receive is offset by progressively diminishing royalties, as an ever-expanding hierarchy of sub-vendors takes a percentage of a percentage of a percentage out of the original deal the photographer struck with whichever vendor was higher up the food chain.

Each and every professional commercial photographer loses tens of thousands of dollars in income, year in and year out, by keeping their content, their residuals, out of circulation, away from online vendors who would rush to commodify it. That’s billions of dollars in combined revenue lost annually.


Cameras, lenses, lights, and photo-editing software have flourished with technological innovation since the dawn of the Digital Century. But that’s been all on the creative side. The business side of photography is riven by technological indifference. That’s regrettable because it had always been possible, from the get-go, to shape technology to serve all marketplace participants, rather than upend the way they work for the sole economic benefit of middlemen.

For example, Getty Images wasn’t based in Silicon Valley; but, early on, they boarded a train of thought headed in that direction. The Valley is fixated on “sharing” and a so-called “gig economy” extolling on-demand labor for simple services and quick transactions at low prices. Uber and Airbnb are the two best known instantiations. However, unlike Uber, whose riders and drivers are universally interchangeable, and Airbnb, whose renters and landlords are also universally interchangeable, contracting a photographer for a commercial shoot — for publication by an Enterprise-level business — is a highly subjective matter. It is usually the result of a cultivated, long-term professional relationship.

Vendors who crave the competitive advantages that on-boarding professionals will bring are obliged to remember that publishers are the photographers’ clients, not theirs.

The very meaning of the word professional was skewed, if not deliberately skewered, by Silicon Valley’s obsession with quick, cheap, and simple. The fallacy is, you can’t collar the first person passing by with a Nikon on a neckstrap to shoot an ad campaign for Toyota or Pepsi — or Nikon for that matter. You can’t call TaskRabbit or Angie’s List to shoot a magazine cover for Wired or Forbes or a brochure for Boeing. On the other hand, a realtor who needs some staged pics of a living room, or a plumber who needs a headshot for his website, can indeed get by with “gig-ified” photos on demand. But if you are the chief marketing officer for a large corporation, an ad agency creative director, or the picture editor for a popular publication — online or in print — you’d be nuts to get someone to snap pictures with an iPhone or to hire someone who just took her first DSLR out of the box weeks earlier — or anyone who shoots living rooms and headshots.


Photo vendors who crave the competitive advantages of getting professional contributors on board are obliged to remember that end-users — publishers — are the photographers’ clients, not theirs. The revenue that vendors earn comes from photographers, not from downloaders.

To be on the receiving end of economic respect may not matter much to enthusiasts, happy and proud to make a few extra bucks here and there with their cameras. But for vendors to harbor a notion that it’s okay to pay so-called royalties to photographers, instead of acknowledging that it is the photographers who actually pay them with sales commissions, is both incorrect and insincere. How can middlemen justify keeping eighty-five (85%) percent of gross revenue, they charge end-users so little per picture and pay none of the manufacturing costs? It is obscene.

Photographers pay their own overhead, including the administrative costs of running a business plus photo production itself, which often includes travel, models, studio rent, and investment in many tens of thousands of dollars, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, worth of camera and lighting gear. They employ photo assistants and often direct larger crews of freelance stylists, designers, technicians, location scouts, and producers. Commercial photographers are not interchangeable links in a commodified supply chain, as conventional lay wisdom would have them — as the incumbents would have them. Is it any wonder they withhold their content from those who would exploit them?


The ability of photographers to establish professional relationships with paying clients depends as much on the practice of professionalism itself — adhering to best practices — as it does on talent. In that context, the complexity of any given licensing deal requires all parties to memorialize their agreements in writing. But it is nearly impossible for photographers to pick up a phone every time they pick up a camera, to call a lawyer to compose a copyright-licensing agreement.

There is no such a thing as an ordinary invoice for either a commissioned photo shoot or a pre-shot stock photo sale. In this industry, an invoice is a legal document, a written agreement between two business entities. It is a contract. That includes invoices for editorial assignments shot for magazines by freelance photojournalists too.

Each invoice contains explicit language that spells out a copyright holder’s terms for granting reproduction rights to a publisher, to let the publisher copy a photograph; hence copy rights. And it specifically denies those (copy)rights not granted. The breadth of rights granted depends on how much, or how little, the client pays. More than a simple statement of demand for payment, a commercial photographer’s invoice memorializes the terms and conditions of a deal, and keeps it from becoming an ordeal.

Commercial Enterprise photographers must come up with an Invoice/License of Rights that results from a workflow that looks something like this:

Copyright is a No Trespassing sign for intellectual property. It establishes legal notice of IP ownership. Copyright is not something a creator has to request or apply for, to establish ownership. Copyright ownership is the default condition; it exists from the very moment a photograph is created; from the moment the shutter button is pressed and thereafter. Copyright is the tool creators use to monetize their work, the sine qua non for establishing conditional terms for the licensing of IP by someone other than its creator.


When creating an invoice, commercial photographers will specify two discete line-item fees: an assignment fee and a usage fee. They are always billed in tandem, and always in addition to the expenses and taxes itemized on the same invoice. The price of a photograph intended for publication in any medium is the total of all fees and all expenses, It appears on the bottom line, literally, of a photographer’s Invoice/License of Rights.

Fees + Expenses + Taxes = Bottom Line

The “bottom line” is the price.

The assignment fee (synonyms: camera fee, shooting fee, or production fee) is based on each individual photographer’s professional profile. It covers photography-related tasks performed, time booked, and professional reputation. The usage fee (synonyms: reproduction fee, licensing fee, or publication fee) accounts for the cash value of the specific publication rights granted to a client — regardless of medium — what the client expects to get out of the deal.

The cherry on top of the bottom line, so to speak, is that copyright is the final arbiter for determining attribution; the issue of who shot what first. Attribution legally goes to the copyright holder. Nevertheless, attribution plays second fiddle to getting paid. Copyright helps photographers get paid. That’s why copyright licensing language is written into each and every Invoice/License of Rights.

  1. Duration — how long a picture will remain in public view
  2. Exclusivity — how few different places a picture will appear in public view
  3. Frequency — how many different times a picture will appear in public view
  4. Prevalence — how many people, over time, will see a picture
  5. Size — how big a picture will appear, relative to medium it’s published in

Note: A sixth criterion, Reputation, is used to determine the assignment fee, in addition to the usage fee. It is excluded when billing stock photos.

An assignment fee is based on the relative prestige of any given photographer. It is determined by looking at a history of receivables, business overhead, competitive market-penetration goals, who their clients are, the degree of difficulty or danger involved in executing any given job, and career longevity vis à vis other photographers shooting similar jobs. Obviously, different photographers will bill different assignment fees, all other aspects of a job being equal. This keeps photographers and their fees competitive when vying for clients, say, in a bidding situation.


When the reproduction rights granted to a publisher can be billed incrementally and itemized in writing, which is excatly the purpose of a copyright license, costs can be kept down for the publisher yet remain optimal for photographer. Otherwise, generally speaking, photographers would have to charge higher prices — sometimes a lot higher — to cover any and all imagined uses by any given publisher, now and in the future, whether those uses are implemented or not. On the other hand, copyright allows publishers to pay as they go and, of course, only for what they actually use. This à la carte menu process of parceling-out reproduction rights can be automated.

A written copyright license establishes the size of a publisher’s appetite in precise detail. For example, if you’re hungry for a T-bone steak, you needn’t pay for the entire steer. But if you have to feed an army, well, you have to pay accordingly. Prices vary from job to job, and from stock photo to stock photo; but they must all be consistent with the commercial value derived by the client from the publication of any given photograph(s). The act of composing a copyright license susses out limited versus comprehensive publishing needs, to help determine a fair price.

A usage fee can range all the way from an inexpensive one-time, non-exclusive publication on a single Web page (or print magazine page) at 1/8 screen size for up to one week, to a total “buyout” of all rights by an ad agency acting on behalf of a major corporate brand. A buyout may include the photographer’s sale of a copyright itself, which would transfer ownership of the photograph(s) in question to the buyer. That should cost a whole lot more than a carefully defined, limited use. On the other hand, if securing exclusivity and the broadest publication rights are of lesser importance to a publisher, charging a lower fee is offset by the photographer’s right to earn additional income by re-licensing, or re-selling, residual rights to the photograph(s) in question. Additional publishers, or even the same publisher, can pay more if further uses arise later on.

For instance, if it’s a picture is to be used in a national ad campaign, influencing millions of people to buy a particular brand of toothpaste, the usage fee should be high. This will, of course, keep the photographer from re-licensing it to the advertiser’s competitors or anyone else. It protects the advertiser’s brand identity and, at the same time, compensates the photographer, who would be unable to derive any further revenue from this photograph. The photographer is paid to take it off the market, so to speak.


Seventy percent (70%) of the subscribers served by Getty Images, AdobeStock, and Shutterstock et al. are either ordinary consumers and freelancers or VSBs with fewer than twenty employees. Such small entities can get by just fine with crowd-sourced content. On the other hand, major brands requiring the broadest conceivable market reach, who spend anywhere from a few million dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars on media buys (space in the public eye), are poorly served by crowd-sourcing because it inherently lacks exclusivity, a necessary condition to protect brand identity. Crowd-sourcing does not serve Enterprise buyers. Pro-sourcing does.

A large Shutterstock shareholder (SSTK) stated publicly, last year, “Worldwide, the number of customers willing to actually pay for the images they use seems to be flat.” The same shareholder acknowledged that Shutterstock had cut its already low prices but grew the size of its inventory by forty-six (46%) percent in 2017. THAT’S THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SOLUTION! Photo buyers continue to gripe that there are more pictures in any given vendor’s inventory than there are atoms in a cow. Incidentally, that shareholder concluded, “AI doesn’t seem to be solving the search problem. Acquisitions don’t seem to be the answer [either].”

To paraphrase an old truism, it’s easier to sell a thousand photos for a dollar than one photo for a thousand dollars. But is that true in an Enterprise market?

Think of buying a bottle of wine. You can find a broad assortment at Costco, ranging from ordinary to fabulous, all at discounted prices. What would you expect to find at the Dollar Store? You know what the price is. Would variety extend beyond white or red? If you need to impress a dinner party, even if you’re on a budget, where will you buy your wine? The difference between Costco and the Dollar Store, in this example, is the difference between the Enterprise and Consumer segments of commercial photography.

If a buyer thinks it’s only worth paying a dollar for a photo, and all photos cost a dollar, its vendor makes out okay because it has millions of other one-dollar photos to sell, from just as many millions of contributors. Not all of those photos have to be “good.” Most of them are not. Nevertheless, the best ones have been published too often. That takes them out of the running when it comes to attracting sophisticated Enterprise customers for whom the cost of not preserving exclusivity is too high.

Photographs are not widgets (or screw-top bottles of wine). They have no monolithic utility (just to get a buzz on). Collectively, their use is infinitely variable, and, yet, each one is subjectively unique. That fact holds true despite the gazillions of pictures created every day with photographic technology.

For instance, using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone to record a child singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” uses the same basic technology as a sound engineer laying down Beyoncé’s latest studio track. Likewise, your selfie uses the same technology as, say, Annie Leibovitz’s studio self-portrait. Using an iPhone to take a snapshot of your breakfast cereal will not achieve the same results as the still life on a box of Cheerios shot with a $40,000 Hasselblad. But they both used with the same basic photographic technology. That said, if you’re going for a specific effect, the right photographer can achieve the perfect, pre-visualized result using an oatmeal box with a pinhole.The commercial value of a photograph can only be determined by who is going to publish it and how well it conveys either a social, political, or commercial message to its audience. It has nothing to with how it was made.

Ultimately, the issue is exclusivity. Buyers cannot expect any measure of exclusivity for a photo that costs a dollar. They recognize that the best, if not simply the most useful stock photos, come from the same photographers Enterprise buyers hire to shoot jobs. If they can take care of both stock and jobs in one Marketplace, well, that speaks for itself.


Consumer-retail stock photo sales represent a $4.5 billion segment of the $14 billion photo-publishing industry. It is the business of licensing and re-licensing pre-shot photographs for publication. For commercial and editorial use that is, not art to hang on the wall or to memorialize private events.

All photographs ©2019 Tom Zimberoff

Stock photographs are used mostly by very small businesses (VSBs)— shopkeepers, startups, freelancers, etc. — to illustrate Web pages, blogs, brochures, and Powerpoint presentations. But major brands will license stock photos too, often for comprehensive page layouts (“comps” for short).

Comps are visual rough drafts presented by graphic designers and art directors to their clients for approval, to show what a finished project will look like when published, either in print, online, or broadcast. Because the publication of a stock photo does not necessarily require exclusivity, and because they may be promulgated to a limited audience; they usually cost less than a made-to-order photograph. It stands to reason because no further production expenses are incurred for a picture has already been shot; it’s already inventoried and on the shelf, so to speak. Hence the stock in stock photo. But if a stock photo is used more broadly, it commands a higher price; commensurate with the extent of publication rights granted. Generally, though, stock photos are available for quick digital downloads on the cheap when a limited budget or a looming deadline makes it impractical to hire a photographer for a made-to-order photo assignment.

Media companies also license stock photos to illustrate news stories (i.e., editorial) with an historical point of view.

Stock photos are sometimes available directly from the photographer who shot them. They are more likely to be licensed from a centralized customer-searchable catalog, an e-commerce exchange owned and operated by a middleman who takes a cut. Stock may include pictures of timeless historical value (all digitized now) including famous people, places, and things. But middlemen, as well as photographers who are dedicated to shooting stock, continuously anticipate abstract themes and specific subject matter that publishers are likely to want illustrated in a rapidly changing commercial and visual environment, breaking-news photos notwithstanding.

Most stock photos have a limited shelf-life, just like food — a “use-by date.” They are considered perishable if their subject matter is likely to lose credibility or relevance over time, and look dated. Ergo, stock photos catalogs must continually be updated to reflect what is new in the worlds of fashion, politics, sports, celebrity, cultural ephemera — generally everything imaginable. (There are stock videos too.)


The Investment Picture

Many attempts have been made to reinvent the photo business. After all, it is a multibillion-dollar industry with equal relevance to technology, commerce, and culture. Yet it is fraught with severe customer-satisfaction issues. And the industry’s potential for growth is not clearly understood beyond consolidating existing stock photo inventories: big fish swallowing smaller fish. The incumbents and startups alike have failed time after time to consolidate the photographers themselves, those who are capable of creating and replenishing new inventories. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs have shown a serial determination to beat Getty Images, the biggest fish, at its own game. But, first, they have to run a gauntlet of investors.

As an “artrepreneur,” I’ve seen a few investor pitches. I’ve made a few investor pitches. It’s a Silicon Valley ritual.

Typically, a successful pitch describes a problem that strikes a chord with everyone in the room. It has immediate relevance, and it offers a solution. Or it addresses a new twist to an established technology that only affects consumers indirectly, but makes immediate economic sense to investors. That said, no one in the room has ever licensed a stock photo for either commercial or editorial publication. Nor has anyone ever hired a photographer to shoot such a photograph — or shot one themselves. Still, both the ubiquity and demotic appeal of photography predispose everyone to think,I know all about this.”

What they know is riding the rails of presumption. After all, everyone has a camera. Many people use Instagram, SmugMug, Apple Photos, and Google Photos as electronic shoeboxes for storing their snapshots. Lots of people have hired a wedding photographer or someone to take a publicity headshot. You, or someone you know, may have attracted news-media attention and become the subject of a photojournalist. And who hasn’t downloaded a photo to illustrate a Web page, a blog post, or a Powerpoint presentation? But for those who are not a practicing art director or a graphic designer (buyers), or shooting pictures for commercial publication (sellers), the business of photography is as well understood as a cocker spaniel understands how dog food gets in a can.

How many more times must the latest razzle-dazzle team of MBAs and Ph.D. engineers, with zero experience in photography, sing the same old song to credulous investors before they all realize it ends on the wrong note — every time?

As both a seasoned photographer and startup founder myself, I am bewildered by the fact that investors, time after time, apply the rules of a conventional consumer-facing marketplace to the steeply vertical enterprise of commercial photography. Failing to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of this marketplace is the very reason an opportunity exists to disrupt it in the first place. And it elicits a rhetorical but unapologetically cynical question: How many more times must the latest razzle-dazzle team of MBAs and Ph.D. engineers, with zero experience in photography, sing the same old song to credulous investors before they all realize it ends on the wrong note — every time?

Investors might be forgiven for their confusion, if only because both the Commercial Photo and Social Photo markets use cameras as tools of their respective trades. Less pardonable, however, is the same investors’ inability to differentiate between two segments of one market.


Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent — one could say squandered — by investors on dozens of startup and upstart companies, every one of which has claimed to know how to “on-board” professional photographers and, hence, obtain better content. They admit it’s their holy grail. But with one gambit after another, what they believe will incentivize professionals to participate in online sales just puts a different color of lipstick on the same old pig: We’ll offer them a bigger percentage of royalties.

But royalties mean little to commercial photographers who make their livings by earning fees for shooting commissioned jobs. Stock photos not so much. Besides, they’ve all heard that empty “royalty” promise before. It doesn’t jibe with the free in “royalty-free,” the prevailing business model.

Photography has changed radically in the 21st century.

The principles underlying the business of photography haven’t changed one bit.

Royalty-free pricing is simple. Too simple. It is arbitrary and gratuitous for all but the least sophisticated and least discriminating buyers. Its smorgasbord approach to stock photo sales (i.e., all you can eat for one low price) doesn’t satisfy buyers with a taste or a budget for haute cuisine prepared by a top chef. Nonetheless, the incumbent photo vendors are glued to the idea that one price fits all. That’s what “royalty-free” means. It’s a mindset that makes them vulnerable to disruption. They are the proverbial battleship lumbering low in the water, too massive to outmaneuver a fast-attack torpedo boat running circles around it. Still, every trope, every meme, and every buzzword that startup founders pitch to investors is still tied to RF pricing for consumers:

  • AI image-recognition to search collections
  • Blockchain, to “register” and “enforce” copyrights
  • Decentralized, distributed-content
  • Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and cryptocurrency payments
  • Networked smartphone cameras to capture breaking news
  • “Briefs” . . . i.e., persuading dozens or hundreds of photographers at a time to spend their own money shooting on speculation, then submitting pictures to a distributor’s proprietary clients on an approval basis; whereby, if chosen, only one photographer gets paid. But that photographer will have lost control over licensing terms and fees.
  • “Our photos are free.” [Are you frickin’ kidding me!?]

There is nothing inherently wrong with either blockchain or decentralization; and certainly nothing artificial about the promise of artificial intelligence. But not one of the ideas listed above will incentivize commercial pro photographers to contribute to the stock photo pipeline. Not one of those ideas solves a problem that creatives and publishers experience working together. Not one of these ideas addresses the Enterprise segment of the Commercial Photo market.

Startups, upstarts, their founders, and their investors have a long history of failing to appreciate what separates professionals from mere camera enthusiasts; or, more important, why Enterprise buyers make that distinction themselves. It is generally agreed, however, that on-boarding pros is the key to a sustainable competitive advantage in online photo licensing. But expecting commercial pro photographers to contribute to a vendor like Shutterstock, for instance, would be like expecting National Geographic staff photographers to shoot and edit their photo assignments on smartphones, instead of using sophisticated cameras, lenses, lights, and grip equipment along with side-by-side arrays of thirty-inch color-corrected monitors, gobs of RAM, specialized graphic-processing cards, and untold terabytes of hard drive storage space.


Why do investors and entrepreneurs keep making the same mistake, conflating two different kinds of photographers representing two different segments using two different business models, resulting in too few professionals contributing to the stock photo pipeline?

First and foremost, pro photographers do not crowd-source, full stop. Secondly, it is erroneous to believe that best practices, having once supported a robust analog photography market, are mutually exclusive with online photo sales & licensing. Technology can be used to institutionalize best practices instead of side-stepping them.

Just because it suddenly became free to distribute photographs via the Internet, it doesn’t follow that their commercial value should be trivialized by unimaginative middlemen.

Early on, some well-capitalized interlopers, good at reading spreadsheets but, frankly, illiterate photographically, expected professional imagemakers to abandon a tried-and-true business model, and embrace a new one. They were cocksure that creating an e-commerce channel for digital photos meant sacking all previous pricing models. It was a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They operated under a widespread belief throughout the 90s that “the Internet changes everything” and that that mantra would usher the “old economy” kicking and screaming into the future. A lot did change. Technology made taking pictures effortless. But no one used technology to make the business of taking pictures effortless.

Significantly, the Internet has not changed any principles that determine business outcomes. The technology for creating photographs has changed radically in the 21st century; but the business of photography hasn’t changed one bit. Just because it suddenly became free to distribute photographs via the Internet, it doesn’t follow that their commercial value should be trivialized by unimaginative middlemen. But that’s exactly what happened. The “Internet-changes-everything” proponents didn’t see any difference between an established business-to-business sales channel and a new consumer sales channel that emerged at the same time as — and was made possible by — the World Wide Web.


In conclusion, there is a greater demand today to publish photographs, irrespective of media, than in the heyday of film. If the number of print venues has declined, it is offset by an exponential increase in online publication opportunities. Demand continues to grow.

There are also just as many pro photographers working today as there used to be, still winning contracts to shoot photo assignments worldwide. To say otherwise, we would have to believe that the number of practicing doctors would decline in direct proportion to the public’s ability to self-medicate for minor maladies with over-the-counter drugs; or because anyone can self-diagnose any serious illness by Googling their symptoms. On the contrary, there is always a need for authoritative professional practitioners of medicine. The same goes for photography.

To paraphrase Facebook’s CEO, if you move fast and break things, you have an obligation to fix them! Getty Images, for instance, is bullish about crowd-sourcing. But they are the biggest bull in the china shop, clumsily shattering everything valuable in sight. Many feckless startups — at first, cocky as matadors — have dared to face the bull, entering the china shop to pick up the pieces, only to be gored on the horns of a dilemma.

Fixing a dysfunctional marketplace requires an acknowledgement that photographers own what they create, and that their ownership of intellectual property and its commercial value are the basis for industry-wide revenue. Crowd-sourcing is useless in the Enterprise segment of the Commercial Photo marketplace. Only pro-sourcing will do.

Such a shift in thinking makes it obvious that connecting photographers directly online with their existing clientele disrupts the role of middlemen like Getty Images, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock. A new kind of intermediary, a broker armed with actionable market intelligence will use technology to go back to the future; to both literally and figuratively restore agency to the marketplace. This is an opportunity for bona fide domain expertise in photography combined with Silicon Valley startup experience to engage professional practitioners and their clients with the kind of product-market fit that builds a tall fence around the most premium content in the world.

Photographers want a tool they can use, instead of a tool that uses them. Publishers want more dynamic and more exclusive content. Economic and creative outcomes for photographers and publishers alike are radically transformed by building the Marketplace where all industry participants want to be. Exploiting the incumbents’ own vulnerabilities turns the Commercial Photo industry — indispensable as it is — into a sustainable, self-perpetuating and dynamic cartel (without price fixing). See ya later aggregator!


A new online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling, STORIUS is a publication for everyone interested in how stories in all formats are created, discovered, distributed, and consumed.

Storius Elsewhere: LinkedInFacebook InstagramFlipboard

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Tom Zimberoff

Written by

ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Success may follow the path of least resistance; but failure follows the path of least persistence.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade