July 4th, 2017
Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

I don’t want you to think I’ve got a fixation about this, but I believe that photographers are undervalued and underpaid.

And who’s to blame for this? Why, photographers of course.

Once upon a time every branch of every bank had a bank manager. He (always he) would look after your money, let you take some of it out, and very occasionally, after terrifying scrutiny, he may have allowed you a loan.

And once upon a time photographers would sign up with picture libraries, who would license their pictures to publishers and advertisers etcetera and pay them half the net sales receipts.

Then some clever clogs in banking introduced the concept of Products. No longer content with banking your money, they now wanted to sell you Insurance and ISAs and Credit Cards and Loans and Investments and Mortgages and PPI and God knows what else. At the moment my bank offers six different current accounts. And the bank manager is no more.

The same thinking infected the Picture Library business. Instead of simply managing photographer’s image rights, they introduced Royalty Free images and Fixed Prices irrespective of usage and Microstock and Subscription Packages and Credits until the poor photographer no longer knew which way was f22.

The microstock concept was irresistible. Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap. They sold in their millions — who wouldn’t buy a picture for a dollar, even if you had to spend ten dollars and buy nine pictures you didn’t need to get there? Photographers flocked to upload their images, with sales coming every month instead of once or twice a year. No worry that the sales were in cents and pence rather than dollars and pounds — someone out there liked my picture!

Now that happiness has been tempered. It’s great to make a sale, and it’s fantastic that your photograph has been seen by 40,000 people. Or 400,000. Or 4 million.

But when your photograph has been seen by 400 million people and you’re looking at a cheque for a measly £18 you might feel a little short-changed. But that’s what you signed up for. Brexit means Brexit. Royalty-free means Royalty-free. Microstock means micro-earnings — for the photographer.

The pleasure of seeing your work published palls after you realise everyone else involved is staggering to the bank under the weight of sackfuls of cash.

This has come about because a number of excellent photographers have been shocked to find the beautiful images which they uploaded to microstock sites, full well knowing the prices that would be charged, were actually sold to professional picture buyers. I wonder what they expected?

What they expected was a few pence per image and lots of sales. What they got was something like £18 per picture, and exposure to 400 million people who are using Windows 10. But no picture credit.

Yes, the canny purchaser was Microsoft. If there are photographers out there prepared to offer their work for peanuts, then pay them peanuts. No matter that Microsoft turned over $85,320 MILLION last year. Why pay more if it’s being offered so cheaply?

I can’t say that had Microsoft come browsing around fotoLibra we’d have made millions for our contributors. I can safely say we would have charged much, much more and I believe Microsoft would have been happy to pay it. We’ve sold half-a-dozen images to Microsoft’s excellent search engine Bing and they paid us £175 each.

What’s the answer? Don’t undervalue your work. Put it with an agency that respects your value and your worth. You may not see sale notifications quite so frequently, but when they do come in they’re in pounds rather than pence.

Source material came from Journalisten and PetaPixel, with thanx to Petax Howl.

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22 Responses to “BOO-HOO”

  1. Marie-Claire Lander says:

    What can I say? I am guilty of selling myself short. I get 35 cents a shot. The agency used to be over a dollar per picutre on average, but not anymore! I feel insulted. I’ve been trying to aim higher, and I am seeking better paying agencies. I do notice that professionals don’t bother with those cheapskate buyers, even enthusiasts are getting the message.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      35¢ is not a huge amount of money. But the rise of digital imagery (result = billions more images) and the perception that everything online is free means licensing fees for photographs have been driven down to such a level that it will be a long time before they recover, if ever.

  2. ANGELA says:

    I have NEVER subscribed to microstock, royalty free or free otherwise, and I’d be lucky if my rights managed images sold for £18 these days. £1.80 is more like it, and even less tan 18p is not uncommon. I’m resistant to change: when digital arrived and the internet opened up so called opportunities, I seemed to be the only Luddite saying don’t do it. It will be our downfall. But all the agencies subscribed to it. “its the way to go” they all said. And now most of them have closed down or joined the big giants which only serves to push photographers down the already downward spiral as they all compete with each other. You know what they say, for those that want it cheap, you’ll never be cheap enough .. it is no longer a viable or respected profession. It has taken me a long time to accept it. I’ve had to take another job. So yes, photographers are to blame, but what choice did we have?

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      It’s a textbook example of disruption which has marginally benefited the masses (think selfies) at terrible expense to the trained professional few. Buyers have even asked us for images with flare in them — to capture that youth vibe, I suppose.

  3. […] Source: BOO-HOO […]

  4. David Carton says:

    I’ve never used microstock. It always struck me as Turkeys voting for Christmas! As well as those that are happy to be paid peanuts for their images there’s also an army of people who actually want nothing for them, and are just happy to tell everyone their picture was used on the weather forecast. Competitions regularly bury rights grabs such as giving the organisers a royalty free license to use & profit from any image submitted (not just the winners) in perpetuity. Many business websites routinely lift images from sites like facebook, tumblr etc. The sad fact is if anyone wants a picture of Norwegian Fjords to illustrate a travel article they can probably find what they want on tripadvisor or any of the other social media sites/apps without any cost. It’s all very depressing. I actually took issue with someone who had used one of my images for her website (where she described herself as a retired picture buying professional of many years) without permission saying that the least she could have done was to include a link back to the image. She replied to me saying she had now added a link to the “proper source of the image”. Her link was to the website she had lifted it from not to the image or to my portfolio on that site. How very professional.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      All this goes along with the decline in illustrated books and plummeting sales of travel books. You can see all the pretty pictures you need on line. What publishers need are intelligent picture researchers who can enhance the written word with creativity — not just a photograph of what the author has so laboriously described.

  5. Jim Walker says:

    I have been a long time subscriber to fotoLibra for these very reasons. I have not sold as much as I would have liked, but who does. But I refuse to offer my work to micro stock sites and get pennies for it. I really wish more photographers would start placing a higher value on their work. If you do not value yourself, how do you expect other people to value what you do?

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      It’s the age-old problem. The perception is that pictures are cheap, if not free. On the face-out of my laptop it declares “Pictures can be cheap. The right image is PRICELESS”

  6. I supply both RM and RF and RF-M agencies. They all fail to produce revenue and all rely on crowd-sourcing. There is simply no money in stock photography anymore unless you box very clever.

    I’ve made more off Shutterstock in the past 12 months than with Fotolibra. It is not a great deal and my estimate is you need 20,000 images on SS to earn anything like a reasonable monthly income.

    This can work for those with another income and the time to shoot, upload and tag huge numbers of images.

    In time, stock will pick up, though it will see the demise of many publishers first. Gwynn has a point that photographers are unvalued and underpaid. But that is the reality. I only shoot very specific stock images and rarely bother to upload them anywhere, as there is not enough money in the business to make it worthwhile. Just specific shots, mostly for the RF commercial market via Getty. Even then, I only do so when very bored or I think the shot has a pretty high chance of selling.

    My advice is avoid stock. Don’t upload much and let the market and the publishers wallow in their own greed. A part-time job in a coffee shop is less stressful and probably pays a lot more. The time can be more fruitfully used chasing assignment work, doing your garden, volunteering for a good cause, etc.

    There is also a lot of money in microstock if you are a) lucky and b) take the right kind of stuff and stay on trend. Shutterstock for example, paid out $50 million to UK contributors alone in 2015. My blog on the microstock agency scene is – highlights some of the problems with working with them and really shows that largely, stock photography is a mug’s game. Whatever agency you distribute by, you are effectively working for slave-labour wages. This is largely because agencies have failed to innovate on the contributor side and those doing well are outfits like EyeEm and Shutterstock, all rely on slave labour. So best avoided in my opinion, unless you have found a good niche by sheer fluke.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Of course you’ve made more off Shutterstock, you only have 16% of your SS portfolio on fotoLibra. It doesn’t cost you anything to upload more — you can even leave it to run overnight.

  7. I like your article and totally agree that Photographers are underpaid and under appreciated. I have been in the biz as a full-time photographer for over 25 years and its always have been that way and with the advent of phone cameras offering 12mp cameras all for $600, they often get the same results (sales) as my old Nikon D2X which cost me $5000. In the stock image market we are competing more and more and prices have gone down even with traditional agencies. I am an Alamy contributor and have been with them since 2004 and have over 43,000 images with them. In 2010 I was seeing $1-2000 a month in royalties on half that number, now I barely make $500 a month. I have feet in other camps, especially Getty which pays 15% royalties but their income is better than Alamy based on 7500/43000 ratio. Diversifying is the answer and also embracing new technologies such as iphones and drones. Getting paid what i am worth is one thing, getting paid what the market will bear is another.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      A graph showing the number of images taken this century looks like the take-off of a rocket. In 2002 the Nokia 7650 and the Sanyo SPC-5300 were the first phones with built-in cameras. The new iPhone 8 will have a 16mp camera, better than virtually anything available when fotoLibra launched in 2004, 15 years ago. Who’d have thought it?

  8. Jonathan says:

    This is a subject pretty close every photographer’s heart. It’s very easy to blame the photographer as we are soft targets. The camera found us and we go to college or become an assistant to learn the craft and through luck and hard work carve out a career in our chosen genre.
    Some years ago one of the leading picture agencies changed their business model and paid photographers less for their work. Photographers had no choice but to except their terms and this impacted the whole of the industry to the present day. Without photographers doing their craft there is simply no business for these companies, it is like the host and parasite relationship and sadly it does not end well for the host. When Bernie Ecclestone took over Formula 1 he brought the sport out of the dark ages allowing the racing teams to do their craft properly. Photography needs a Bernie Ecclestone to shift the change of attitude towards photography and photographers so they can have healthy and creative future. Photographers will have to change as well, to be a force they will have to work together and not in isolation.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Absolutely, but as far as I can see there’s no Bernie on the picture library horizon. I wish I was as dedicated, forceful and creative, but I’m simply not. I bust a gut to create fotoLibra but I never spotted that cameras and phones would make such a successful pairing, like binoculars with a weather vane.

  9. Well, there’s little to say Gwyn you’re piece of prose says it all.

    I daresay we’ll all go back to exhibiting framed limited edition prints selling the odd one or two for folk to hang in downstairs loos and such like. Commissioned portraits are the way to go… I never think of publication cos it’s a f****** nightmare.

    Best thing for me is that I’m the wrong side of 65 and on the way out but intend to carry on taking photographs. My adult children put up with my foibles, rash prances at studio lighting, and my eccentric, artistic, creative ways with an appreciation equal to mischievous cats before a mouse. They do understand my self-belief, my ever-lasting optimism and continuous creativity – subjective as art is, yet it is never boring, much like dreams.

    Oodles of cash paid for my photographs is never going to happen. I do always bear in mind how long observers spend in viewing images in this image drenched society – just three seconds. Every time my shutter closes I try to make a photograph when viewers spend seven seconds looking at it. I’ll never know of course, but do I really care?

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Thank you Martin! As long as people carry mobile phones around with them, they will be taking photographs. Some of them may well be good. Some of them may become sufficiently enthused to buy a proper camera, although the latest smartphones have 16mp cameras which is pretty serious.
      At St Martins we were urged always to carry a camera with us. But even the smallest camera then was 5 times the size of a mobile. Now the lesson is coming true.

  10. Derek Metson says:

    Undervaluing is general. Long ago when freelancing part time before opening our studio I was actually taken to a posh lunch by our bank manager – just to keep our business.

    When our studio went down in John Major’s 1992 recession we tried all sorts to keep going before settling on second hand books via Amazon. Buy for pence wherever and sell for good pounds online. We fixed price and Amazon fixed postal allowance. Then Amazon came up with ‘we’ll look after your stock and dispatches much cheaper. By then we’d already got to our £5 book with post cost to us of £3 and allowance of £2.80 being up against same book at 1p plus post. Then – with Amazon looking after stock and dispatches – we were up against same book at £1 post free. Don’t what sort of fiddle makes this profitable, but we sold our remaining books at less than we paid for them just to clear out and allow us to move cross country.

    Photography has been undervalued for ages. When I started doing wedding photos, whatever the original album made was, on average, repeated in reprint orders. By the time we closed down, we were lucky if we got reprint orders at all. Never mind the quality, guests could shoot over my shoulder using their own auto-focus camera with colour film. Why pay pro prices? And how much do the BBC pay for pictures on weather forecasts? Nothing! We once had an £18 cheque from the BBC for using my Kodak award winning picture of a little girl with ringlets in a local paper under the heading Kojak award winner. Free publicity and paid for!

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      The bank manager bought you lunch? That’s the most impressive comment I’ve heard this week!
      The old comment that if it’s free on the internet, then you are the product is stunningly true. People upload their weather pictures to the BBC for the simple joy of seeing their peculiar aliases on the screen. It’s nice, but it doesn’t pay the rent. As a friend of mine commented, you can’t get a mortgage based on Facebook likes.

      • Derek Metson says:

        That was in the seventies. Different times. Different world. Different attitude. When the studio was struggling a different bank manager, different bank, took money out he admitted he shouldn’t have but wouldnt put it right. Didn’t help!

  11. Ron scherl says:

    “and I believe Microsoft would have been happy to pay it.”
    I just don’t see why. Seems to me there are several factors arguing against:
    1. The incredible glut of images due partly to technology and partly to photographers willing to give it away.
    2. The decline in acceptable technical quality. Standards for publication just ain’t what they used to be, partly due to technology making “Usable” images ubiquitous (that iPhone camera is pretty good) and partly to the fact that most consumers never see images in print, only the online transmission viewed on phones.
    3. As you say, the commodification of images, which was a betrayal of photographers by their agents, destroyed the business model for many professional photographers. And as you point out, many were complicit in the fall.
    4. Copyright is irrelevant to people, including image buyers, who live online.
    I’m glad Microsoft bought six images from you at a good price but I’m not surprised that most of their content was acquired for next to nothing.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Well Ron, you are broadly correct, of course, but I know from experience that there are some people and organisations that aren’t completely under the thumb of bean-counters; independent thinkers who value the art and craft of photography. Yes, they are few and far between, but they do exist, and they buy images from us. There are divisions of Microsoft and other large corporations which don’t jib at paying the asking price. It’s the day-to-day drones who are forced to work to a budget. There are many more Chevrolets sold than Bentleys. But people still buy Bentleys. And they perform exactly the same function as a Chevrolet does. Or, indeed, a bus. You take your choice. Do you remember that RF image of a smiling older man in a blue denim shirt? It was used to sell both life insurance and Viagra. Markets will get a little more sophisticated in the future — I hope.