Over the past few weeks, it dawned on me that 2024 would be a milestone professional year: it would mark my ten years of continuous work in the stock media industry.
After getting over the initial shock –how has it been ten years already?!– and the subsequent wave of self-consciousness from acknowledging I am a decade older, the thoughts finally started to flow.
I was, and still am, in a mix of pride and awe over everything I learned and experienced and how much it has shaped my professional path and perspectives. Looking back from the top of my involvement until now, I am equally amused at how cycling this market seems to be across its evolution. Ever the author, I decided to organize and put my impressions on this evolving and dynamic industry in writing.
While this personal view is nothing but that, and I cannot presume to be able to predict the industry’s future… as one of my favorite English expressions says, here goes nothing.
Before I detail what I learned, I must publicly acknowledge those who taught me the most across my ten years of experience in the industry.
The first would be Lee Torrens, the person who introduced me to the complexities and particularities of this industry. When I started working for his Microstock Diaries as a junior copywriter in 2014, I had a faint idea of stock photography, limited mostly to the basics of image copyright and guidelines to use photos to accompany my articles. My brief stint working alongside Lee was extremely fruitful in terms of insider knowledge, particularly in the not-so-well-known artist side of the equation.
It was through Lee and his recommendation that I came in contact with my current team leader and mentor, Amos Struck, as he and Lee co-founded the Microstock Expo –the only microstock-focused industry event– together. Amos is the go-to man for all things stock photo market, and these almost eight years working for Stock Photo Press and learning from him have taught me more than I am often aware of and expanded my horizons from technical research and text structures to multimedia licensing, software developments, and even –crazy!– Artificial Intelligence: Over the past year I have helped build and launch AIsecrets.com, where I am one of the resident expert authors on all things AI.
In particular, my experience within the Stock Photo Secrets Shop and Stockphotos.com is invaluable. Witnessing the building of a stock photo agency from the ground up, the day-to-day of a stock photo licensing service, and the development of top-level AI tools within it has been a real eye-opener.
I have had the fortune of learning first-hand from two household names in the industry, and after ten years, I sure feel like I have seized the opportunity.
Now, without further ado, my thoughts on the stock media industry.
When I started analyzing and comparing stock photo sites’ offers and crossing them against contributor programs, and artist reviews ten years ago, the industry was transitioning, leaving the inaugural disruptive phase with its get-rich-fast scheme and seeking a more established dynamic. The first signs of oversaturation were already showing in the agencies’ catalogs.
In that scenario, more than one top-to-mid-tier stock photographer was panicking at the prospect of their photos being lost in a sea of competitors, their royalties stalling or dying down for good. The end of microstock photography as a sustainable business was predicted every now and then, and for the optimistic experts, all bets were on stock video to save the day.
What happened? Well, video content did become a huge revenue stream, and its demand blew up… but the market for good and reliable still imagery also grew. The trending aesthetic went from studio-like and canned to authentic and realistic (we have Instagram to thank for that), and content as a whole shifted from hegemonic to inclusive and diverse. However, stock photos were still very much in demand, and artists adapted to supply the type of visuals that sold better.
In the past few years, agencies have started to abandon compartmented subscriptions and prepaid download packages in favor of multimedia plans to better accommodate the current creative needs for a mix of video, audio, and still imagery. Short-format video content is one of the surges of the last decade that is standing the test of time – a test not passed by temporary sensations of the late 2010s like immersive 360° visuals, VR, or hybrid photography (remember cinemagraphs?!)
It’s no secret that the best-selling stock photo sites cut significant commissions per sale, and the competition for sales within them is from fierce to near-impossible now that these agencies host hundreds of millions of pictures in their catalogs.
But even back when it was possible to make good passive income or even to become rich selling images on these websites –Yuri Arcurs, anyone?–, most stock photographers (referent top sellers and bottom players alike) already had a hypervigilant disposition when it comes to the agencies and the market’s comings and goings.
As a collective, they seem to have always perceived themselves as getting the proverbial short end of the stick, permanently aware of how much these companies make from licensing their work and concerned when not fully convinced that all the decisions agencies make are fundamentally against artists’ interests.
This explains the fear of losing income from stock licensing –or losing it as a revenue stream altogether– and shows one of the most complex dynamics in the industry, as it’s quite difficult for agencies to please a crowd that distrusts them “just in case” and for contributors to reconcile the facts that agencies are indeed “getting rich” from selling their work, yet their platforms are valuable to earn passive income from shots that would probably never monetize or earn a lot less otherwise.
Since the end of 2022, the scenario of the early 2010s has been repeating itself. The landing of AI image generation kicked the board, and everyone from big firms to hobbyist contributors –including authors analyzing these developments and reporting on them, like yours truly– were taken aback by its vertiginous spreading and improvement. This time, not only stock media licensing but professional photography, videography, and illustration are presumed to be in danger of disappearing as a means to earn an income.
While some artists' and licensing companies' concerns are very real –issues surrounding copyright enforcement and protection, for example–I think it’s too early to call generative AI the death of the stock photo –or the custom photo– business.
It’s a transversal, transformational development for the industry, no doubt. The visual world as we know it is forever changed.
But the year that is concluding has shown that despite the initial frenzy of the novelty of creating images by typing a description of them, at the end of the day, people still need photos and videos that look great, and that requires an artist’s dexterity; it’s just that not everyone has the time or desire to spend minutes to hours trying to get an AI image generator to produce a suitable picture. Similarly, everyone from large brands to SMBs needs a qualified agent to guarantee the images they’re using –AI-generated or not– are legally in the clear. No one is more qualified than media licensing firms.
Stock photo agencies are already leveraging their unique position to stay in the game. They’re using their huge image depositories as training datasets for generative AI models and compensating their contributors for that usage.
Interestingly, they’re also developing tools and features that hybridize stock photography: AI image editing applications that let users personalize an already-created picture automatically, with quality results and minimal effort. Adobe Firefly, Canva Magic Studio, Shutterstock Creative AI, Stockphotos.com Magic AI Edits, the list will surely go on.
Image hybridization with generative AI has a massive potential market available in social media. Meta and YouTube already integrate features to edit and customize content on their platforms, and other companies are quickly joining the dance, including Shutterstock, which is combining a recent acquisition with a strategic partnership to land a foothold in the mobile AI sphere.
I believe these are the smartest moves as they tap directly into the average customer’s need for instantly available, professional visual content –and the artist’s need to keep selling licenses to their work– while giving them access to never-before-seen customization tools that let’s be honest, also make the creative process a bit more fun.
On the other side of the spectrum, all major microstock agencies have raised their voice to protect their artists’ copyrights from unauthorized uses in AI model training that later uses that input to replicate their work or synthesize images that steal the market away from their original artwork. From lawsuits against illegally trained AI image generators to different initiatives for a new legal frame and protocol to govern AI model training, AI image generation, and AI image use, these companies are trying hard to protect not only their business but also the intellectual property that is at the core of it, and thus, its owners.
For me, as disruptive as tools like Dall-E, Midjourney, or Stable Diffusion are, they missed the goal big time by going with unlicensed and unauthorized use of copyrighted content to train their models. And while they may remain technically more advanced than legally safer counterparts –though that could quickly change if Adobe Firefly, trained on Adobe Stock and other legally authorized content only, is any indicator– they’re not quite there when it comes to taking over as imagery suppliers for marketing, branding, and other commercial needs.
Stock media companies have an opportunity to stir this scenario in their favor, or at least to stay relevant and preserve their business. If they keep focusing on developing native generative AI tools, especially hybridizing ones that still rely on their human-made, licensable content, and sticking up for the contributors who now, for once, have another man to be hypervigilant of in generative AI startups and online AI image generators, then maybe this whole AI debacle will result in an improved service for creatives and a less toxic relationship with artists.
Too optimistic, perhaps. But a possibility nonetheless. I guess time will tell if ten years in stock photography taught me enough to understand its sways, I mean its ways.
These are my thoughts going into 2024 in the stock media licensing business. I'd love to hear yours!