Brief history of stock photography

Someone recently asked me on Quora how much can they earn from microstock photography. Since this is a common question and the answer is kind of "it's complicated", I'm posting here the complete article about my view on the current state of the industry.

Stock photography was born as a method to generate passive income from work-for-hire photography that didn’t make it through the client’s editing team. These shots were previously destroyed or archived (100% film back then), but in early 30s a clever person (credit is given to photographer H.Armstrong Roberts) decided they still worth a second look. After all photography was expensive and these photos were already available. In some cases models in photos had signed model releases, so the whole process was complete, including legal clearance (which is a must in stock photography).

Among the “leftovers” there were great images that simply didn’t fit the vision of the initial client. Some images could’ve been reused. Other clients were happy with them and even though in the beginning they asked for exclusive images, over time the pool increased and requirements were relaxed. Since the print was available beforehand, the client was able to see the final product and prices were reduced, everyone was happy.

More clients decided to buy stock and photographers flocked to the new model. In late 80s and early 90s the slides were scanned, digitized and later on taken online. The industry soared and consolidated. Photographers and the stock agencies still controlled it, it wasn’t easy nor cheap to produce these images, hence the entry barrier was high and so were the prices. Some photographers made fortunes, earning 7 digits figures over a single year. Don’t think they were lazy: they provided great quality, invested a lot in the latest technology and traveled extensively.

When digital cameras appeared, a new set of photographers joined the club. Why a new set? Perhaps because not even Kodak, the inventor of the digital camera trusted it. These guys weren’t as successful as the first ones, since the quality produced by digital cameras was mediocre. However, they were talented and persevered. Some of the past photographers laughed, I personally remember one guy swearing he will never ever shoot digital since the result is “crap”. But the digital industry continued to evolve. Quality improved and a new player appeared. It was called microstock because the prices were very low. A more adequate description would’ve been community-based stock photography aka crowdsourcing. Critics changed their tone. The volumes generated were huge and continue to increase after the switch to 2.0 models. The whole industry probably had 1,000 contributors in its 80s. Nowadays over 5,000 new photographers join Dreamstime each month, adding to a total of 400,000 contributors. While the offer increased, the demand didn’t have the same exploding growth. It is growing, but not keeping the pace.

One major negative impact came from online use. Just as in Kodak’s case, the fact that the photographers and traditional agencies initially denied the new model, allowed disruptors to thrive: Google, Facebook, Pinterest, they are all models that grew on photographers without rewarding them. You can read more about how this impacts creators and websites in general, in this 2013 article. Five years later, we’re still there.

Due to the high offer and engines’ artificial cap of the market, stock photography is slowly reverting to its initial state, were passive income is generated. The volume is declining though and unless the large tech companies realize they need to change, photography as a standalone profession will cease to exist. There will be revenue in stock photography, but shared between too many creators. The potential exists however. Surveys show that 85% of the images downloaded on the Internet come from Google Images. Billions of images are posted on Facebook, sometimes by companies. Creating competition in the tech industry will generate huge volumes for stock photography, which will generate more creativity and ultimately, better images. And of course income for creators in return for their product.

Most recent ruling in favor of a photographer is promising. Judge Katherine Forrest just ruled that using an image in a Tweet without the appropriate license represents copyright infringement:

Although no longer the norm, there are plenty of photographers who still make a full time living out of it. For them it is not passive income, but they invest significantly and the ROI is good if they keep expenses under control. Nowadays most stock agencies are actually tech companies and they provide a significant list of KPIs for their overall database and for your own portfolio. Looking into these KPIs can help you decide where to invest most (attention and money). You can (still) easily earn thousands of dollars monthly if you keep an eye on expenses and shoot wisely.

Your article must be written in English

March 18, 2018


Interesting. Nice to know your opinions.

March 07, 2018


Nice article! Thank you for the informative lesson

March 06, 2018


KPIs stands for key performance indicators, ROI for return on investment. KPI can include the number of downloads, views, revenue, revenue per image, database exposure etc. Even the number of lightboxes an image is included in can be a very good KPI. The more lightboxes an image is included in, the more chances for downloads. Or collections. One remark here though: this is not about you making lightboxes or collections with your own images. It's about designers including your images in their lightboxes. Or about you (or other users) creating very popular collections. By the way, one nasty habit we've seen is for photographers to create collections that include all their images for that theme and then throw in a few shots from other photographers, to simulate diversity. This is a bad habit, since the designer will not only give up downloading any images, but might even leave the site altogether. We urge photographers who use this technique to edit their collections. A good collection can attract many designers and even if you have a single great image in there, you can earn a lot.

March 02, 2018


I am agreeing with Adellepenguin in that I too do not understand the abbreviations Serban used. Other then that, it is a good article, am going to reread it right now.Thanks, Serban.

February 26, 2018


Thanks, Serban. Good article. I appreciate you taking the time to write it. I am not too familiar with KPI's, as related to the stock industry. I agree with Guiliofornasar, it would be helpful if you could provide some examples or greater clarity.

February 26, 2018


So much competition, so little compensation. A photographer needs to have thousands of images on the various stock sites.While the compensation is so small, it is a THRILL when one of my images is downloaded.

February 24, 2018


Nice article Serban, thank you for the info.

February 23, 2018


Good article Serban, very interesting :)

February 22, 2018


very good article, wish there were better ways to keep our images from being used without pay

February 21, 2018


The article is very interesting. Thank you.

February 21, 2018


Very interesting, S.E. ! Could you deliver some examples of these KPIs for some (micro)stock agencies and help us decide where to invest the most? :-) I'm really interested in this! :-)

February 21, 2018


An interesting (and somewhat sad) take on the industry. But a lot of truth in what you have mentioned.

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Photo credits: Jozef Micic.