How to Evolve Your Stock Photography to Be Relevant?

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In this article, we will take a look at the numbers for the stock photography industry. At the end, we hope you will have a much clearer view of what is going today. And maybe, you can draw your own conclusion on whether pursuing stock photography is worth it for you.

Stock Photography Industry Numbers

Let’s delve into industry numbers. Getty Images and Shutterstock are two publicly traded companies that disclose sales data.

Shutterstock’s Sales Numbers

Let’s start with Shutterstock. Here is a graph showing the number of paid downloads per year. You can think of paid downloads as an indicator for demand.

Shutterstock paid downloads numbers for the past 10 years reflecting stock photography industry trends
Note: TTM stands for trailing 12-month period

The early days of stock photography were golden. There was a noticeable growth in demand up until 2018. After that, we see that Shutterstock numbers started going downhill. The growth was negative after that.

The number of paid downloads declined from their peak of 188 million in 2019 to 167 million recently. This is bad news for contributors. There could be several explanations for this. We speculate that the competition is eating at Shutterstock’s market share. For instance, we noticed an uptick in sales at Adobe Stock for the past 3-4 years. At the same time, our Shutterstock sales were sluggish. Thus, content buyers may have moved from Shutterstock to other stock photography platforms.

Next, let’s look at the revenue per each paid download. This is how much money Shutterstock gets on average when an image or a video gets downloaded.

Shutterstock revenue per paid download numbers for the past 10 years reflecting stock photography industry trends
Note: TTM stands for trailing 12-month period

On the surface, we can see a positive dynamic, as the revenue per download grew from $2.23 in 2012 to $4.5 recently. But, there was a significant slowdown in the past 2 years. While Shutterstock can unilaterally raise prices any time they want, this will push customers to shop elsewhere.

But the worst part is this. There are too many images and videos chasing a declining number of customers.

Shutterstock number of images and videos stock fotage in collection numbers for the past 10 years reflecting stock photography industry trends
Note: TTM stands for trailing 12-month period

Another way to visualize this trend is to calculate the ratio of the total number of content items (stock images and videos) in relation to the number of paid downloads. This will reflect the extent to which supply exceeds the annual demand.

Shutterstock number of images and videos stock footage to number of paid downloads ratio for the past 10 years reflecting stock photography industry trends

This ratio increased from mere 0.3 in 2012 to 4.7 lately. This is a bad sign for stock contributors. When buying customer start their search for an image, they are inundated with an avalanche of images in a crowded marketplace.

Getty Images’ Sales Numbers

We also glimpsed at Getty Images’ numbers and they tell a somewhat similar story. Unfortunately, data is available only for the last two and a half years.

Paid Downloads859395
(Images + Videos)/Paid Downloads5.45.35.6

Looking at the table above, we also see that there is a high number of assets per paid downloads. In fact, the number is even higher at Getty Images compared to Shutterstock. There is also a slowdown in overall paid downloads in the past two years. It is hard to say if this trend is temporary or not.

Is Stock Photography Worth It?

So, what kind of conclusions can we draw after looking at these numbers? Before answering this question, there are several factors that we must consider.

1. Too Much Content Chasing Buyers

The stock photography market reached its saturation point a while ago. There is a massive supply of content, especially photos. As for demand, it is stagnating or shows sluggish growth. It is hard to say why. Maybe we have reached the point at which the number of buyers is not growing fast enough.

2. Free Stock Images

There is a substitution effect at play here. There are many stock photo websites that let you download photos 100% free. Many buyers switched from paid plans at Shutterstock and other stock photo platforms to downloading images free-of-charge. Although it is hard to quantify this effect, it must be material enough to dent paid downloads.

3. AI Imagery

Another moving part that began affecting stock photos is AI imagery. It has been a hot topic among photographers lately. While it is an ongoing experiment, we have no doubt that AI will replace a chunk of photo sales at some point. How large, we do not know. But, AI imagery will be a competitor in many niches.

If you look around, you will see that AI produces realistic closeup photos of objects and even people. It may struggle in certain instances, but AI is getting better and better with each day.

4. The Middleman Problem

Another issue stock contributors must grapple with is the middlemen. We mean Shutterstock, Getty Images, Adobe Stock and others. These companies’ goal is to maximize profits for their shareholders.

For this reason, we expect more rounds of reduction in contributor payouts in the next 5 years. We have no doubt about that. Why? Because Getty Images and Shutterstock already set the standard. Getty Images is paying 15% to non-exclusive contributors. This is the industry-wide lowest, to our knowledge.

Also, as you may know, Shutterstock acquired Pond5 in 2022. This does not bode well for stock videos either. Pond5 is paying a relatively generous 40% rate to non-exclusive contributors. This will get reduced. There is no way around it.

The Verdict on Stock Photography

So, what’s the verdict? Is stock photography dead? Should you avoid it? Or, if you are a current stock contributor, should you stop uploading and pursue more productive things in your life?

Casual Stock Photographer Must Vanish

If you are a casual shooter, do something else with your time. You must treat stock photography as a business to be successful. Otherwise you will get disappointed and waste a lot of time. This means staying efficient in your workflow, researching and shooting what sells. Also, you must edit your photos so they stand out in a crowded marketplace. You are very unlikely to see major sales, if you shoot only generic vacation photos.

We made many tutorials on how to achieve efficient stock photography workflow.

Closed Accounts Present Opportunity

As you may know Shutterstock and other platforms reduced contributor payouts by a wide margin around 2020. These events shook individual contributors to the core. As a result, many stock photographers got very angry. Rightfully so. Many of them deleted their accounts and left for good.

This presents an opportunity for contributors who are very selective about their uploads. If you can figure out the lucrative void in supply that appeared as a result of this and fill it, this could be an opportunity.

Massive Content Numbers Are Not That Bad

Also, we would not stress a whole lot about the large number of content out there. Stock photography websites prioritize fresh content. This is true especially at the beginning when an uploaded content shows up for first time. If your work gets clicks and sales, your images and videos will show up at the top of search pages going forward.

Of course, this is conditional upon having proper keywords and titles. While keywording is a tedious task, it is a necessary evil. Keywording can be even more important that the image itself. We made a tutorial on how to keyword images properly.

Stock Videos Present Opportunity (For Now)

Finally, there is still an opportunity with stock videos. As you saw from the stats above, the stock video market is expanding and still pays well. Moreover, it is unlikely to grow at a faster rate compared to photos.

This is so because shooting, processing and uploading stock videos is a long process. It takes more skill and patience than the average stock photographer has. Every part-timer and amateur stock photographer takes photos. But, if you look at their stock footage portfolio, you will likely see a small number of stock clips that are average at best.

Also, AI is unlikely to have a negative effect on stock videos, at least in the nearest future. It is very hard to create realistic AI images. Well, it is even harder for stock videos because footage clips consist of not one but hundreds of still images that change.

For this reason, do not submit stock photos only. Upload stock videos too. This is a must for an aspiring stock photographer. We made for you a tutorial on how to get started with stock videos.

Concluding Remarks

Stock Photography is changing rapidly. Free stock photo websites and AI imagery present new challenges. If you’d like to generate passive income from your stock content, you must pay attention to these new trends and flip the script. Otherwise, you, as a stock photographer is facing a slow, but sure decline.

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