Stock or assignment - what's right for me?
Some photographers exclusively produce either stock or assignment photography; some engage in both types of production; and many photographers shoot assignments that also generate stock photographs. Deciding which path to follow is a matter of understanding the effective differences between stock and assignment photography
Covering the cost of your operation
In assignment photography you don’t make photographs until someone orders them. Consequently, someone else pays for the work that you do within a short time after completion. The commissioning party pays all direct and indirect costs of production of the photographs. Stock production photography is self-assigned work. You must cover the production costs and the related overhead. This requires having enough capital on hand to meet those costs. The only way that you can recover your costs is by the future sale of your stock images. The images must sell at high enough fees to not only cover your costs but also to make a profit so you can stay in business. It is important to understand that it can years to accumulate enough marketable stock photographs to earn an income that can pay the start up and ongoing costs of the business.
To be a successful stock producer you must have good insights into the future needs of the marketplace. You must produce trendy images before the need to assure that you have adequate time to have them visible in the marketplace when the actual need for such images arises. That is risky business. Very few photographers are successful in the stock production business. Those who are successful are so because they understand the imaging needs that drive the market.
Combining stock and assignment work
Photographers who direct some effort at assignment production and some at stock production usually want additional revenues that stock could produce but do not want the risk that the stock producer has to take. Revenues from their assignment business support their stock effort to shoot and sell stock photos.
The success of generating stock images from assignment work is dependent on the kind of assignments you shoot. Many photographs are not suitable for stock. If your assignments will expose you to subject matter that will have stock value, then you must retain the necessary rights you need to be able to market it. Your clients’ policies about rights will be varied. Most advertising and corporate clients do not want photos of their products, services, or personnel published without their approval, and they don’t want to be bothered by giving approvals. Some will allow the use of generic images taken on assignment for them. Editorial clients usually want non-exclusive usage so images on those assignments are good candidates for stock.
Since the client pays the fees and costs of assignment photography, the assignment photographer’s need for working capital can be less than the need of the stock production photographer. More capital needed to operate a business means more capital at risk. We can generalize that stock production puts more of the photographer’s capital at risk. Let’s look at the financial risks for assignment and stock photography producers.
The assignment photographers risk is that he will not be paid for an assignment. That could $200, $2,000, or much more. But the loss of capital in such a situation is limited to the production costs that had to be paid out of pocket to do the work done. That is less than the price, and not being paid can be guarded against with good business practices.
For the stock photographer the cost of making the images that end up on the market is similar to that of the assignment photographer, but the risk is greater because at the time of production there is no client to buy them. Eventually there might be assuming your photographs will appeal to a buyer.
The statistic I most hear quoted is that only 2 to 5 percent of a stock file actually ever licenses to clients. That means 100 percent of your production costs will have to be covered by 2 to 5 percent of your marketable images. If you license stock through a stock agency, you will pay a commission of 40 to 50 percent to the agency. So your images will have to earn $2.00 for each dollar of production cost to cover that expense. The stock photograph business is highly price competitive and there is an oversupply of stock images. Those conditions generally drive licensing fees down. When you add the low cost of micro stock to the mix, it makes matters worse.
Stock photography is a form of speculation. Can you afford to speculate? If you cannot, I’d suggest you stick to assignment photography and stay away from producing stock. The best solution is probably to mix your output. Shoot assignments, cull stock from those assignments that offer the opportunity, and produce stock when it is feasible and affordable to do so. That said, I think most photographers would be wise to maintain a healthy assignment business, and to continue to do so until they have a substantial understanding of the stock photography business which has undergone dramatic changes in recent years and is likely to continue to do so.