(Currently on my way to Antarctica: I scheduled this blog post ahead of time)
The business of stock photography is, and has been, changing so rapidly that survival in the industry requires both hands on the wheel and some seriously strategic driving, especially in nature stock photography. It’s future seems tenuous at best, and the recent past is littered with many photographers who have been ousted from the profession due to a wild array of circumstances. When I started this career some 20 years ago, I evaluated its viability every few weeks in the formative years. Would I be able to make it? But each year seemed to produce enough to get by, mixed with a little annual growth, slowly some business model confidence. Today, I seem to be back at that same place of questioning whether the future years will continue to produce. The big economic bomb that dropped in 2008 threw shrapnel throughout the stock photography marketplace. I saw my total annual stock photo sales get chopped completely in half. I think there were a number of factors that contributed to this decline. Besides the obvious economic crash, it seemed perfectly timed with the technological advance of digital cameras–putting sophisticated, image-making machines in the hands of many, the ubiquitous portals for bringing these images to the web marketplace, and new ways of sharing and using imagery in the social media landscape. All of these, and few other factors have caused a major industry disruption. Now, more than ever, it is not just a talent in art, but also in business, that is needed to survive. It requires a right and left brain blended skill set to make it.
So after the shock of 2008, I was very curious how things would resolve, as were many of my colleagues (not to mention nearly all businesses) . I think 5 years is a good span of time to give some statistical review on the subject, so I plotted out my little stock photo business graphically since 2008. I don’t know how my stats compare with my colleagues, but I thought I’d share them for the curious minded. The chart shows the income earned only from the sale of stock photos from AlaskaPhotoGraphics, my company. The data speaks to a pretty stable period since 2008, all things considered. I was able to absorb some of the 2008 trauma by going from two employees to just one–me (I had an awesome office manager, Andrew Johnson, for nearly 10 years). Although certainly not the perfect model for a business, which would like to see more of a growth curve, I’ve managed to at least stay in the game. It is equally exciting and nerve wracking to be in an industry as dynamically changing as stock photography. I believe a continued success will require some anticipated responses to a quickly changing market. And that little sentence, so easy to write, is not so easy to execute. It reminds me of the quote from Wayne Gretsky (the NHL leading scorer years ago) that goes something like: “I did not become the NHL leading goal scorer by skating to where the puck was, but by skating to where the puck was going to be”.
For me, it is a giant privilege to trek the wild places of this planet, and earn an income by interpreting these encounters visually. As I often say, there is a thin line between work and play for me. However, all of you stock photographers out there who are still in the game know that while many say they are envious of our jobs, you know that in spite of that supposed thin line, there is a lot of “work” to make it work. My hat is off to all of my colleagues still making a go at this great career, in perilous times. Many are predicting its doom. But I’m hoping for you that 2014 will be a year of success and good fortune to accompany all of your hard work.