The last classification of the stock photography agencies I work with was made at the end of last year. Now is time to analyze the activity of the agencies between January and May 2020. This period overlaps with the terrible global crisis generated by the Coronavirus. It was an extremely hectic period as we all know and it is very interesting to see how this impacted my collaboration with the agencies.
Those who follow my classifications know that they are based on a dual system. The position of the agencies is given exclusively by their financial performance that they produce. Each agency has attached a secondary feature that I called stability. This is an extremely subjective measure by which, based on my great experience gained in this field, I assess the agency’s evolution trend. Here you can read my classification criteria. I think that during this period, my idea of ranking agencies by “stability” is extremely welcome.
I would like to remind you that the assessments presented here are strictly personal, correlated with my experience, portfolio and work style. They do not represent general ideas established by the global analysis of the situation. During this period, I managed to maintain a constant and consistent image upload flow of about 10 images per day for the agencies that are on the first positions and proved to be receptive, generating significant results. Agencies at the bottom of the rankings received fewer and less consistent images due to their inability to generate stimulus results. I have provided both previously photographed images, which were edited now, as well as brand-new images, mostly original street editorial aspects during the restrictions generated by the epidemic crisis. I also provided some studio images, as I didn’t focus very much on exploring the pandemic moment in generating the images, because that’s how I felt about it.

I need to mention that in January, before the crisis, the activity started extremely well, all the agencies having a positive evolution. However, in early February, even before the onset of major epidemiological problems, there were three events that shocked the world of stock photography and if it hasn’t been for the pandemic, they would have been highly disputed. The outbreak of the epidemic made these events somehow forgotten. But the moment they appeared is extremely strange. The events are:

1. After about 18 years of evolution, James West, the founder of the British agency Alamy, decides to retire from the position of CEO and sells his company to PA Media Group a large news agency that also owns the Daily Mail. It is interesting that this move came just a few days after the resolution of Brexit. The shock was huge because Alamy was an extremely private agency that offered photographers a specific better way to be paid than other agencies. Usually, the ownership changes of the agencies bring unfavorable conditions for photographers. So this event has caused a lot of concern in the world of stock photography.

2. Also in early February, Jon Oringer, who founded the Shutterstock agency,decided to leave the position of CEO but remains on the board of directors. The consequences of this move are difficult to appreciate at the moment, but in other similar situations the results were not positive at all for photographers.

3. The Pond5 agency, leader of footage distribution, which initially had some extremely popular and favorable pricing policies for photographers, decided to introduce an extremely unfavorable distribution way for contributors. They do this by setting up a system of selling at symbolic prices. A similar action (but regarding photos) tried Fotolia a few years ago. Then a wide movement of photographers started, who massively withdrew their portfolios from Fotolia in such a way that they forced them to give up their plan. Then, in a short time Fotolia disappeared being taken over by Adobe Stock. The action of Pond5 represented a huge risk for the income of the contributing videographers. After heated discussions, they decided to interrupt that plan, but there is still the possibility that it will be reactivated. In the meantime, the health crisis came.

This is the context in which the Coronavirus crisis occurred. Next, I will present my perspective of how the main 8 agencies I collaborate with reacted this period.

1.Shutterstock(C-drop from B2): At the beginning of this crisis there were some moments of little panic. They reduced the number of images allowed per month and slightly increased the image review time. However, in a short time, they managed to recover the situation and things seemed to quickly return back to normal. Sales fell visibly but without suggesting a major catastrophe. As expected from one of the largest stock agencies, you had the impression that their system was extremely solid and that they would manage to overcome the difficult period. I was wondering to what category of stability to include it. Unfortunately, in the last days of the period I am analysing, they gave an announcement that completely turned upside down the positive results they seemed to have obtained during the crisis. At this point, the stability of Shutterstock becomes very doubtful. They announced a major change in the way photographers are paid. The announcement was made in a hurry with existing errors in the initial form. The announced changes were to take effect within 5 days of the announcement. Given the great changes that were planned, the announcement had to be made well in advance. Here you can read the initial announcement and watch the discussions and the revolt generated by it. Until now, the photographers’ commission was made gradually, influenced by the number of downloads obtained from the beginning of the collaboration. Following the announcement, the photographers’ commission was to be calculated in steps according to the number of downloads obtained during a year. On January 1st , the commission of all photographers is reset to a very low amount and the counting of downloads is resumed to establish the commission stages for the new year. Practically at the beginning of each year, the contributors register an excessive decrease of the income, which they will eventually recover in a few months, depending on the increase in the number of downloads. These conditions are extremely wrong and unfair, and their main purpose is to reduce as much as possible the commissions that the agency pays to contributors. Practically, through this announcement, Shutterstock proves that they don’t care about the contributors and their work at all, being only interested in the agency’s earnings.
The reason invoked by them is the increase of competitiveness. But looking deeper, this idea is extremely controversial. Such decisions have been made as well by other agencies in the history of stock photography. Each time an agency took such decisions dissolved shortly after. No more comments here as I have to analyze also the activity of other agencies in this article. I will probably make a new post that will refer in detail to Shutterstock decision, as well as to this kind of thinking quite used lately by several agencies: so called “increasing competitiveness”. Now I only mention the conclusion that I see: at this moment something in the functioning of the Shutterstock agency has “deeply failed” and very possibly in the near or distant future fundamental changes will take place. I will probably continue to provide images for a while and see the results. There is also the possibility that the announced measures will generate favorable results in certain cases. Only they know all the details of this problem. If the results will decrease, I will also progressively reduce the collaboration with them. Even if they change in one way or another the initially announced conditions, it is very likely that they will never be what they used to be before.

2.Istock by Getty Images(B2-stable):Their evolution during the health crisis was relatively constant. The decreases recorded so far have not been exaggerated. They also had a period in which the revision of the images became more difficult, but it returned quite quickly to an acceptable and constant pace. They have not made yet any announcement but their previous problems related to the technical part of the system (the gap of one month in reporting commissions, lack of instantly tracking downloads and receipts, problems related to the keyword allocation system, extremely unfavourable commissions and the insufficient number of downloads to generate a fair income) added to the general problems of Getty Images in the context of the economic crisis that will follow the health crisis, make the stability of this agency in the current situation extremely poor. As they didn’t announce anything yet, we can hope that they will eventually make some inspired decisions in the next period, but this is unlikely.

3.Eyeem(B1-up from B2):As we already know, this is a new agency that has a totally different concept than other major agencies’ strategy. However, they rely very much on collaborating with Getty Images. Maybe it would be better if they tried to develop their specific part more to the detriment of collaborating with Getty. During the health crisis they had an extremely constant evolution and their results were even slightly higher than in previous months. The technical part of their site is still very difficult to use and not very well organized. However, they have taken some small steps to correct some drawbacks, but they still have a lot of work to do. Overall, in the current situation, it is not an agency that inspires a lot of confidence, but they have real chances to evolve for the better.

4.Adobe Stock(B1-stable):Adobe Stock is still seen by the majority as the agency that seems to have the greatest potential to evolve positively in the next period. Unlike my last classification, however, they took a few steps. In my opinion, the steps taken have at best a neutral character and not a clearly positive one. I expect from them a completely new organization of the whole phenomenon of stock photography. I don’t know exactly what they should have done, but I know I would have liked to see measures that have not been applied before. I think they can do this given the position of Adobe in the image industry in general and the fact that they are not 100% economically dependent on the stock photography part of their company. Adobe Stock is just another activity for Adobe, not the main one. What I think they have done so far was to take over various ideas used by other agencies (practically their major competitors that have existed or still exist) and to adapt them using the more modern means that exist now. In short, they use old ideas that they are trying to implement with new means, instead of creating and developing completely new ideas for organizing the phenomenon of stock photography. Still, we can think of it as only an intermediate stage. During the crisis they had a constant and cursive evolution, but the income generated by them decreased quite clearly considering also that this was not quite great even before. This decline is what causes the big questions about their strategy. During the crisis, they were extremely active in supporting and creating a community around their agency. They created a lot of debates with presentations and extremely useful ideas for contributors, but the concrete income decreased. This model of “communities” that are extremely active around agencies is an old concept that has often failed over time. Also during this period, they modified the selection criteria for those who will receive a free subscription of their high-performance image editing programs. Until now, the criteria was to exceed a certain number of images and videos provided to the agency. This year depends on the number of downloads. This new criteria is somehow similar to the new commission selection model on Shutterstock and includes the idea of “increasing competitiveness” and economic efficiency. As I mentioned, I will explain in a future article why I think this is not a good direction for agencies to follow. However, I need to mention that offering one-year free subscription from Adobe for serious contributors is a unique and extremely positive measure, regardless of the selection criteria. Thus, Adobe still does not exceed the stage of great hope.

5.Dreamstime(B1-up from C): In this period of crisis, Dreamstime has once again proved that it is a completely different agency from the others, with both positive and less positive aspects. They represent the perfect illustration of stock photography axiom: in order to have positive results you have to adapt perfectly to the requirements of the agency and not to persist in expressing personal-artistic visions. Dreamstime has a particular type of requirements. If you adapt to them, you get a favorable evolution quite quickly. But their big problem is that the number of downloads generated is too small to translate into a decent total commission. For this reason, the effort to adapt to their requirements does not produce enough income, although the commission structure is better than elsewhere. During the crisis they were extremely receptive without any system’s slowdown. Due to this good functioning, the registered income was significantly higher compared to the previous period. In addition, at the end of the reviewed period, immediately after Shutterstock announced the controversial change in the structure of the commissions, they announced a commission increase. Regardless of the reason why they took this measure, it represents an extremely positive direction that must be appreciated as such. If they manage to increase also the number of downloads, this decision can generate extremely important consequences in the competition of stock agencies. If the increase registered in the crisis period is maintained and if the number of downloads will increase as well, for certain that they will become a stable agency in the next period. For now, they are in a very positive phase. This is an extremely important change from how they used to be in my previous rankings.

6.Depositphotos(B1-stable):They are an agency that has grown a lot in recent years. Basically, their evolution is constantly positive over time. They are not an agency that produces a very important income yet, but the way of their evolution gives hope for a beneficial transformation. During the crisis they had a linear evolution without too many interruptions and with a very good communication. The income generated was practically constant compared to previous periods. They lost a position in this ranking due to the brilliant evolution of Dreamstime during this period, but they remain an agency that can soon become stable.

7.Alamy(C-new re-entry): It manages to re-enter this top due to a very good evolution in January, just before the crisis started. After that, during the crisis, sales practically disappeared. Communication with them proved to be quite unstable and formal. At this moment, their stability has a very high degree of risk, considering also the ownership changes of the agency, which we talked about in the introduction.

8.123rf(B2-increase from C):It manages to remain on the last position of the ranking first of all because of the counter-performance registered by Pond5 which leaves the top in this hectic period. 123rf had a constant and very prompt activity in receiving images, with an obvious improvement over what it used to be before. The income produced was practically constant but at a very low level. If they want to further progress, they need to find ways to increase it.

This was during the period of crisis. Starting from 1st of June, because of the Shutterstock drastic commission reduction, there is a real earthquake in the world of stock photography. Now the worldwide contributors try to stop or reverse the Shutterstock changes trying to realize a real #boycottshutterstock. Such actions are required because if the direction of Shutterstock is not really considered by the photographers it can degrade all the system of stock photography transforming it in an unsustainable activity.
Probably the next classifications will look significantly different.