Starting from fees to rights management, stock agencies have become the leeches of the photography industry.
The saying "things ain't the way they used to be" certainly applies to stock photo agencies in the present era. I've come to view them as no better than pyramid schemes, where the people at the top (stock agency, clients) reap all the profits and where the poor schmuck who signed up gets fucked hard.
There are two very important considerations when I partner with a third party to sell either my images or my services: determination of my fee and complete control of usage rights. Stock agencies of yesteryear never offered these perks, but there's something even more sinister about modern day agencies and how they've weathered the storm of the digital revolution only to come out as one of the photography industry's worst leeches. Read as predatory, if you like.
I believe that photographers who sign up with these agencies don't even really believe in them. I mean, if you're not a "stock shooter", then you should be steering clear of this stuff anyway. Photographers shouldn't be subjecting their careers to Hail Mary schemes, ever. That is, one shouldn't think of stock agencies as a potential revenue stream and waste their time uploading hundreds or thousands of images to their site in the hopes of making a few quick bucks every month. For one, this seldom happens. Secondly, even if it does, you're not getting a good deal. You're getting fucked hard.
In the 21st Century, photographers' backs are up against the wall. Markets are flooded with images. But through all the smoke and confusion, one good thing has come out of the Digital Age: photographers have the option to exercise complete control over their fees and management of usage rights.
Before I dive in and explore the terms and conditions of these predatory scumbags, let me offer up a couple suggestions to any photographer out there who takes thousands of shots in the hopes of becoming a stock shooter.
Make your website your home base for stock images
Why not? No shady terms and conditions. No bad deals. You interact with potential clients, and more importantly, determine who they are, how they found you, and why they're looking at your work. You set your fees - you negotiate with your clients. You determine the usage rights - so when a huge commercial opportunity comes around like Nike you're not getting a lousy couple hundred bucks when you could have been raking in thousands of dollars if you had been present to negotiate. There are no down sides to this strategy. Yeah, you're going to have to pay for hosting and maybe additionally for unlimited plans, but this is a business expenditure at the end of the day. The cost of doing business, of being independent and not being under contract with shady stock agencies, is the payoff.
Get an agent
The other alternative, which isn't an easy option by any means, is to find representation. Find an agent, hire an entertainment attorney who understands copyright and rights management to represent you. Talk to advertising and marketing agencies. Find a contact whom you can regularly hit up to have a look at your latest collection of images. The benefit of this strategy is that you're being proactive. You're not sitting around on your ass expecting miracles to happen - which is really what stock photo agencies expect of you. Finding an agent, coupled with making your website your image depository, only makes sense in a world where photographers have settled for Hail Mary pyramid schemes - which fuck you hard.
How stock photo agencies fuck you hard
Let's have a look at a few of the major stock agencies and what they payout.
Good luck navigating their site to find quick licensing information. In a nutshell, sell your soul to them to be exclusively offering your images through them and "get up to 60%" commissions.
Let's get back to basics for a moment. Agents traditionally have taken 10% (sometimes up to 20% depending on industry & responsibilities). Why would any photographer in their right mind settle for the paltry fees and commissions the above stock photo agencies are offering?
Their argument goes, we grant you exposure. We already have a client base. Therefore, whatever we give you will ultimately be better than anything you can do for yourself on your own.
This is an argument for 20th Century stock photography. It's not the correct model for 21st Century photographers.
Besides terrible commissions and flat fees for image sales, contributor agreements are skewed dramatically in favor of the stock agencies. From definitions to terms, the photographer is not benefiting from a long-term mutual relationship with any of them. I've already alluded to the fact that joining stock agencies results in a loss of precious negotiations. In other bad cases I've seen, even if you elect to quit the stock agency your images may still remain up for sale for a month or more afterwards. Given the fact that most photographers would have to consult with a lawyer to figure out the legalese - is a sign that what photographers are signing up for is a bad deal. I shouldn't have to shell out a single dollar to understand an agreement with a stock photo agency. There shouldn't be any complicated stipulations. There shouldn't be any fuck-you-hard clauses. But there are. You will find terrible clauses in all of the contributor agreements from Adobe, Shutterstock, Alamy, and 500px. Look them up.
One agency I didn't mention here is iStock/Getty Images, who have elected to fuck over their photographers even more by phasing out rights managed images from 2019-2020. This means that photographers will have zero options, zero say in how their rights are managed. This is big news for the photography community at large because of the number of photographers who contribute to Getty coupled with Getty's foothold in news media.
If you are not a stock photographer, you should not be dealing with stock photo agencies, period. And if you're one of the three stock photographers alive who actually make a living at stock photography, I can bet you that you're not only relying on stock agencies to sell your images. I further bet that you see the writing on the wall too: that your days peddling for these leeches are numbered.
Sell your blood. Sell your kidneys. Sell your body to the night. But don't sell your images through stock photo agencies. They'll only end up fucking you hard.