Do a search online for “Stock Image Libraries” and you will get the topside of 3 million results. Ask the same question in most photography forums and you will get 3 or 4 answers!
Each library will claim x million images in their archives, all claiming to be top quality. There are even libraries online that simply search other libraries for you.
Included in that search, there are the newer Microstock libraries that will sell dozens, if not hundreds of images for a few pounds, earning the photographer just pennies per sale!
Just a decade ago there wasn’t this type of competition, and why not? The major reason is the move over to digital and, where, back in the old days, the libraries insisted on holding the original transparency when many, if not most hobbyist photographers shot on negative film, now digital copies can be the same quality as originals and the format can be changed almost at will! This has opened the marketplace to a large number of amateur and semi-pro image makers that may previously have been unable, through one reason or another, to market their images through the traditional libraries
So, as digital technology advanced over the first half of the last decade, a trend that continues still, so the number of images available has increased dramatically, closely followed by outlets to sell them. Hence the 3 million + results from the above search.
There has also been the huge increase in the use of the Internet since the turn of the Century to consider too. To the Freelance Photographer this has had two major influences, making the sharing of images easier, as well as the ability for customers/clients to find images.
But this in itself has brought disadvantages because, although the appetite for images has increased through the advent of the Internet, it has not kept up with the increase in the number of images available! And, again because of the Internet, the marketplace for traditional printed images has, at best, remained stagnant if not declined.
At the time of writing, consolidation seems to be the buzzword, with a number of medium sized concerns being swallowed up by a few of the bigger players while smaller ones, normally highly specialised libraries, do seem to be holding their own by keeping down their operating costs.
So, where does all this leave the Freelance Photographer?
Firstly you need to understand what you are trying to sell. By this, I mean the way you want your images to be dealt with by whichever library you choose to use. It is generally accepted that there are two methods of selling images, Rights Managed and Royalty Free, often truncated to RM and RF.
Rights Managed images are the easier of the two to understand in the simple form. You sell the rights to someone to use your image in a particular market for a specified time. During that time you cannot sell the same image into a similar market for that time period. You can, however, sell the same image into a different market for the same period or an adjacent/overlapping period. The details of what you can or cannot do will be in the small print, and you should take the time to read it if at all possible. In this way, the rights to your image are managed.
Royalty Free images, on the other hand, are bought by clients who do not require exclusivity to the image and therefore typically attract lower prices. A Royalty Free image can be used by competing markets concurrently and can also be used more than once. Terms vary, and if you are selling images by this route through a library you should definitely read their small print! This model also covers what has become known as Microstock where agencies sell both individual as well as packages of images, normally for what is considered very low prices, relying on volume to make up their turnover.
Other models are emerging with names like 'Rights Ready' but these are mainly marketing tools being tried by some of the more inovative libraries.
Only the individual photographer can decide which model is best for them, and many choose to use both methods side by side. However, it is not a good idea to licence similar images (for example, consecutive frames) under both models as this devalues any Rights Management and will not earn you a decent reputation.
The next question the Freelancer has to answer is who do you employ to sell your images? Should it be one of the bigger names in the marketplace, one of the smaller companies, or should you try marketing the images yourself? Again, this is down to personal abilities and circumstances as much as the type and style of images that you shoot. If you specialise in a particular subject a smaller library with a clear interest in your subject may be a better bet than a large general library with no definate bias. There is also the question of how much you are willing to pay. All libraries take a commision on everything they sell for you, normally half of what they receive. If you think that is a bit heavy, consider the DIY route, but don't forget what you would have been paying for someone else to do, including advertising that your images are available, concluding the sales and chasing the money as well as everything in between.
Therein lies an answer. When you ask the question in a forum, the answers you recieve are just the ones that that community have found work for them. And you never see the reply "Oh, I'm with Getty, why don't you sign up?", when undoubtedly Getty are the No 1 in the business. And they are keeping themselves there by swallowing up the competition, notably their recent acquisition of Jupiterimages, who were their second largest competitior.
That leaves just Getty and Corbis at the top of the tree, with a decreasing number of mid-sized players. Both the 'big boys' own their own microstock libraries, an area where they estimate 25% of the market will be within 12 months. And that 25% is in turnover, not number of images!
So, the stock image market is still in the process of maturing following the advent of digital media capture and it may be some time, if ever, before there is a settled field to play on.