Royalty Free stock photos – the death spiral of micro stock and subscriptions?

Royalty Free stock photos – the death spiral of micro stock and subscriptions?

Has the over-saturation of the royalty free stock photos market caused an unstoppable downward spiral which may eventually kill the whole industry, or is there more to it than that? It’s certainly true that the micro stock explosion has resulted in levels of market saturation previously unknown in the photographic industry, but looking at it from both sides of the fence, the situation is a bit more complex.

We have been buyers and suppliers of royalty free stock images for a long time now and would be the last to complain about the massively increased convenience of single contract, easily downloadable images. Few would want a return to the days when it took a week to negotiate the single use of one image on a front cover down to a few thousand dollars. It may have been good for the elite band of stock photographers of the day and their agents, but it wasn’t much fun for the rest of us. Much lower costs and easier access has undoubtedly made life simpler for most.

The problem now is that even the hobbyists who originally drove the micro stock market are struggling to fund their pastime from the abysmal returns now commonly offered, particularly as sales continue to drop. The ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ business plan requires very high sales to work, for both photographers and libraries – sales which are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

Royalty Free becomes totally free

There are some obvious causes. When many designers, bloggers or publishers need an image for a project now, the first port of call is not a commercial online image library, but their own collection of royalty free images collected over years which can quite legally be used over and over again. The problem is hugely exacerbated by the hard selling of regular subscriptions by all the major micro stock libraries, as the temptation to download everything you can lay your hands on for future use is enormous, regardless of whether there is any current or anticipated need or not. Even from a customer’s point of view, though, this can eventually translate into very poor value when the cost of six or twelve months’ subscriptions is eventually divided by the cost of images actually required over that period.

It’s a bit like signing a direct debit form at your local gym. It may look like good value at first, but the true cost only becomes evident over the course of time when you divide the annual subscription by the number of  times you were actually able to train in a year, when it’s too late.


Royalty free images containing paid models require thousands of sales to recoup costs
Built in cliché: Images like this rely upon being sold many thousands of times to recoup costs. Clients routinely brief us to avoid their use for those reasons.


Nevertheless, subscriptions are still a widely used form of purchasing, so they obviously work for some customers, although the same cannot be said of contributors.

The vast collections of material held by the big libraries are also a dubious benefit, as trying to trawl through a bank of 20 million images for a low priced background shot is not a profitable way to spend time. The true cost of the photo is the purchase price plus the hours taken to locate it.

The willingness of the image libraries to part with creative images for pennies is probably more a sign of desperation in the fight for market share than a long term business plan and it’s hard to see where it’s all going except downwards. When Adobe bought Fotolia there was even talk of offering the entire collection free to Adobe Cloud subscribers. It didn’t happen, but it is an indication of how low the perceived value of stock photography has dropped in some quarters.


One way or another, most of the world’s online stock images are now in the hands of a very small number of colossal image libraries, an unhealthy situation by anyone’s standards but a trend that is likely to continue. The vast costs of competing at this level will continue to force them to take an increasing share of each transaction and it seems the only potential brake on the downward spiral is declining revenues causing the army of amateur contributors to lose interest. We may yet see stock photo subscriptions being given away free with iPhones!


A4StockPhotos for some unusual stock photos




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