A Quick History Lesson – The Evolution Of Stock Photography


Within the commercial world of photography, there is a myriad of different niches in which any photographer can develop their career, and stock photography is perhaps the easiest market to access. But it’s also a very crowded place. Being aware of trends and being able to deliver unique and fresh work will always be the best card to play if you want to become a successful stock photographer.

Basically, stock photography is a vast catalog of photographs with specific usage licenses for an array of purposes, from magazines and billboards to social media posts.

Stock photography has been around since the 1920s and has been slowly evolving since its early beginnings when H. Armstrong Roberts made a bunch of people sign model releases allowing him to profit from future reproductions of his images.

Today, almost a hundred years later, stock photography is taking a whole different approach to how photographers benefit from their images, even when they are offered for free.

The Early Beginnings

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227787

The 1920s and especially the 1930s were a dark economic time for the United States, and cost-saving solutions were more than appreciated back then. After the innovative move by H.A. Roberts, a lot of publishers and advertisers decided to rely on stock photography for their publications.

As time went by, the number of photography archives slowly grew. This spread the imagery on offer for agencies all over the globe, and the imagery distribution efforts of photographers as well. Photographers were empowered to do what they pleased, as long as they complied with the rules set by the archive.

From Printed Catalogs To Online Resources

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

Even though there were a lot of these archives, stock photography was just about to start its democratic dynamic. In the 1980s and 1990s, if an agency wanted to access the vast number of images offered by the archives, it had to subscribe to the archive directly or at least via a third-party broker. After becoming a subscriber, catalogs started arriving at the agencies. These catalogs were beautiful photo books crammed with photos about pretty much everything; some were created around a theme.

The first big transition from printed to digital stock photographs happened in 1991 when a company named Photodisc began selling CD ROMs with packs of images. They also offered imagery on a “royalty free” basis. Before this, an agency had to pay for a license for each particular use of a photograph. With a royalty-free license, agencies had the opportunity to use those images without paying royalties or license fees for each use, copy or volume sold, and even without counting times of use or sales.

Due to the wonders of the internet, there are now countless stock photography resources (which in many cases combine vectors, illustrations, and video as well in their portfolios). The biggest names out there are perhaps Gettyimages and Shutterstock.

How Much Money Will A Single Image Make For Me?

Photo by lucas Favre on Unsplash

Back in the old days, being a stock photographer was a pretty interesting career; it wasn't as crowded as it is today. My personal opinion is that newcomers need to be aware of trends and do their homework right in terms of benchmarks.

There is nothing flattering about shooting an image that has been shot more a thousand times by everybody else. This scenario shouldn't let you down. There are a lot of start-ups sprouting up every day, and they need images to showcase themselves. Nobody wants to use the same overused stock photos like the “jump to success” or “the call-center” one.

There are several categories for measuring single-image return for photographers these days, and they all depend on the license. These licenses could be as easy to digest as “Royalty Free”, to extremely complex agreements involving both parties.

  • Microstock: For a single “Royalty Free” image sold on Shutterstock (in the most basic plan, a single image costs $10 for a buyer) they give back to you $0.25, that is 2.5% of their earnings.
  • Midstock: For accessing a midstock payout in Shutterstock, you need to comply with a set of criteria, and you could earn about $120.00 per image sold (depending on the license linked).
  • Macrostock: This is where the serious money is – hence the tremendous complexity around it. Here a single image profit can theoretically have no limits at all.

Let me tell you a short story about Macrostock: once upon a time, I was involved in a project where we needed to know how much we had to invest in a super-exclusive license. Basically, our client wanted to have the photographs we were about to use for their billboards only for themselves, forever. These prices aren't just floating around the “contributors” pages of these stock photography websites. We requested more info and got a phone call: each image's license reached $20,000.00. We told our client about the response from Shutterstock, and they stopped whining about being the absolute owner of the images and decided to hire a photographer for the project instead.

But the evolution continues…stock photography has evolved so much that nowadays photographers are willing to publish their high-end images for free.

Why Are Photographers Giving Away Their Images For Free?

Photo by Federico Alegría on Unsplash

While some photographers are worried about their images being stolen (and covering them with hideous watermarks) some of us are actually publishing high-quality versions of our images for free.

Are we nuts? I don't think so. After contributing to Unsplash, I learned two valuable lessons:

  • Since I'm a street photographer, model releases aren't my thing. Therefore, my images rarely pass through “traditional” stock imagery vaults like Adobe Stock, for example (which is the most generous out there and less crowded). At Unsplash (or any other free stock photo website), my images make it through smoothly.
  • Working for free isn't the same as working in exchange for something actually useful. With Unsplash, I have actually gotten interesting exposure, and since I'm just posting my portfolio, people have contacted me to pay $5.00 or $10.00 for a single image from my website. That is way above Shutterstock payments for microstock, for pictures I feel passionate about.
Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

Again, if you want to build a career in stock photography, you need to deliver on-trend and fresh images, which is a good challenge if you want to become a better and more creative photographer.

Please share your experiences with stock photography with us in the comments below.

Further Reading

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

Hi Federico

Very interesting! I’ve been doing stock photography for 10 years and agree that it is getting harder to make money year by year. You really need to work at it as though it was a job, not a hobby, in my view. I also think that expanding away from photos to stock video is the best way to maximize your income – not easy, but it pays off. This last month I made $560 off my videos out of a total of $3300 or so. However, I have just 370 videos online compared to 10,000 photos. I blog about my successes (and failures) regularly at BackyardSilver.com


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