The demand for images is higher than ever, and yet, the security of many photo jobs is in more peril than ever. One of the hardest-hit genres of the last few decades has been stock photography. Is AI going to kill the genre entirely?
The Decline of Stock Photography
There was a time when stock photography was a viable career from which one could make a living or a significant side income. The ability to quickly and consistently produce large amounts of technically apt images could mean building a large library from which one could enjoy large licensing income. Agencies sought out talented photographers they could trust to consistently produce stylistically contemporary work sure to be picked up by publications. Good photographers understood editorial trends and evolution and could anticipate and fulfill needs. And, unlike many other genres, once a photographer had built a large library, they could enjoy significant residual income for years to come. However, in the past decade, the viability of stock photography as a primary income has nosedived for several reasons.
Way More Images From Amateurs
Simply put, the digital era has made it easier to get into stock work. Anyone can upload a few of their extra images for a little income on the side. Multiply that by thousands upon thousands of photographers, and the contributions of dedicated stock photographers have been diluted.
Very few photographers would have taken the time to submit just a few shots in the film era, and that's assuming they would have even had the opportunity. More images mean less of a chance of your photos being found and less licensing income overall.
Shift of Attitude and Expectations
The arrival of technology that enables even novices to take passable pictures has meant that the pool of "photographers" who can supply images has skyrocketed in size, thereby decreasing the need for dedicated professionals. That has been accompanied by a shift in attitude: publishers know they can leverage amateurs or non-photographers excited by the idea of their image appearing in a publication to get photos at significantly reduced rates or even for free. Just get on Twitter and look up any trending current event image, and you will see plenty of news agencies replying something like: "Hi, I'm from [news station]. May we use this on our broadcast with credit to you?" The majority of the time, excited users enthusiastically give their permission. This has only been exacerbated by the decline of print media.
Decrease in Support
The support agencies provide stock photographers has largely evaporated. Whereas stock photographers who were in agencies used to be able to expect that their work would be actively marketed and advocated for, nowadays, agencies are mostly middlemen who provide large libraries for publications but don't do anything to advocate for the careers of the individual photographers' who images they use.
Decrease in Pay
And, of course, there have been the repeated and major decreases in pay that photographers see. I won't get into the fine details of how much pay has decreased since the 1980s, suffice to say it has been substantial. Pricing used to be based on circulation, purpose of usage, printed size, and more. That model has been greatly simplified, with most licenses only covering a few catch-all cases. Furthermore, agencies generally take a large cut nowadays. Many advertise high percentages, usually around 40%, but you have to upload massive amounts of files to get to that rate, typically around 25,000. Often, you start at around 10-15%, which pushes out many creatives before they ever get to sustainable levels.
Alongside that decrease has been the rise of royalty-free, microstock, and free stock. Royalty-free began in the 1990s as a way to appease demand from customers with small budgets. Images were deliberately made very small so that they could only be used for things like filler. These frequently came several hundred to a disc, and as you might expect, purchasing images in bulk and at lower resolutions meant a discount for the consumer and a decrease in pay to the photographer. Furthermore, the logistics of this system were not efficient or cheap. Customers generally used expensive print catalogs to decide which royalty-free compilation discs to order, which were then burned onto a relatively new and expensive storage medium and shipped out. These production costs meant a reduction in the rate paid to photographers.
This was supplanted later in the decade by the internet, which solved the aforementioned production issues, but unsurprisingly, agencies that had established lower royalty rates for photographers kept those lower rates even with the decreased costs on their end, which meant more profit for them. Rights managed licensed still existed, but royalty-free continued to grow. And then came microstock.
Perhaps the biggest blow yet to stock photographers, microstock began to emerge in the 2000s for customers who wanted images even more cheaply than royalty-free. Microstock is still essentially royalty-free stock, but with a few key differences: agencies accept work from a much wider range of photographers and often at much lower standards of quality and sell it at significantly lower rates, which means far less pay for photographers. Remarkably, a few photographers have still managed to make a living from it, playing the numbers game and letting payments of a dime or 50 cents per image multiply over libraries of tens or even hundreds of thousands of images to create a reasonable income. Still, it is not hard to see where things were headed from there, and with publishers moving from the era of "good" to "good enough," things were looking bleak.
Since then, we've also had the rise of stock subscriptions and even free stock. Stock subscriptions, like the first royalty-free collections, further cut down the share that goes to the photographer, while free stock, well, pays nothing.
And that brings us to what might be the nail in the coffin of the dedicated stock photographer: AI. AI image generation has exploded lately, and the quality of the results can be called jaw-dropping or unnerving, depending on your perspective. With just a few keyword prompts, generators quickly spit out a range of images. Some can even incorporate pre-made images into the final output.
And before you think it just a party trick, note that two key players already see the potential. In late October, Shutterstock announced a partnership with OpenAI, with plans to integrate DALL-E 2 into their platform. Adobe recently announced that they will now allow AI-generated artwork on their stock site that meets certain criteria. There's no doubt that the large agencies see the potential of AI-generated images and are trying to best figure out how to navigate the currently murky intellectual property issues to ensure they still get a cut of the pie. And who loses out when that happens? The individual photographer.
What was once the greatest boon of stock photography for creatives is going to be its greatest downfall. Stock photography is inherently designed to create more generic images. This used to mean that photographers who knew the market and had the skills could create large libraries of images could generate a good income in royalties. Now, it means that it is the genre most susceptible to a paradigm shift due to AI. AI may not be at the point that it can create a portrait with all the stylistic intricacies of an Annie Leibovitz work. But an office worker at a desk with a few specific requirements, such as their expression and the weather outside the window? Absolutely. And I won't be surprised to see companies gravitate toward a system where they can quickly generate the exact image they want based on a text prompt rather than searching for something that's close enough in a stock library.
What Can Save the Stock Photographer?
I don't know. I don't think the stock photographer can save themselves. They are (through no fault of their own) stuck in a system where they are dependent on the agencies, and the agencies are likely to act in a manner best for their profits. It would take a commitment to ban the use of AI imagery, but then, there will always be someone who pops up to capitalize on its lack of monetization. I don't think that monetization can be stopped. And the companies and businesses who buy stock might not even know about what is going on behind the scenes. They will likely just see the increased convenience of AI generation and embrace it.
To be clear, I don't think the stock photographer is going to completely disappear. However, I do think it will continue to become a less and less viable full-time career until it's relegated to a side income at best for anyone who participates in it.