26 Jan 2009 Selling the Same Stock Photos at Different Prices

Now that it’s possible to sell stock photos at a wide variety of prices, photographers are taking advantage of the opportunities in a wide variety of ways. Some photographers are sending different photos to different markets based on the price range they believe will return more, or where they feel it needs to be to cover the costs of production. Others are placing some photos in all markets with a price agnostic philosophy.

Confused by the lack of consistency I observed on this issue, I asked around. The responses helped me understand the issue, but there was still very different points of view. So I asked around again, but this time on the record. Below are the responses I received to the question:

‘What do you think about photographers selling the same stock photos at different prices?

Yuri Arcurs, World’s top selling microstocker:

Buying images at a higher price and you are often giving a whole other service level then what microstock offers. For some customers, this kind of service is highly appreciated. I have no problem letting more expensive agencies sell my images at a much higher price and providing this service. I do not see a conflict here and all the agencies that I know of that does this have not expressed any complaints or concerns from their customers.

Ellen Boughn, Content Director, Dreamstime:

Martha Stewart sells her branded products at Macy’s (midstock or RF) and also at Target (more like microstock). Each of the chains sells basically the same kind of product but of diverse levels of quality. There is something disrespectful and insulting to the buyer in offering the exact same product (or image, in this case) for different prices for the same uses. Such a practice could contribute to the final downfall of RF. I think the wish to squeeze every penny out of an image ultimately devalues all images.

Serban Enache, Founder and CEO, Dreamstime:

In this case it’s the photographer who decides, unless some rules are set forth by the agency.
Considering our model and price structure, this is not harmful to us, but we don’t really agree to the practice as it is negative for the industry.

It is misleading and unethical, just as the agencies’ selling the same image to two different buyers at different prices. Because each affords another price. “Pocket-pricing” how I call it, is unethical.

Although our business model doesn’t really suffer (it may even be promoted this way, as the buyer will find the low priced alternative), it’s still something we’re not keen to see. The agent- contributor partnership involves a lot of trust.

Shannon Fagan, New York, NY, photographer & SAA President:

For non image exclusive RF agency contracts, selling the same image at different price points for the same usage is a bit of an oxymoron, but certainly a validated market condition.   As comparison, the same flight from New York to Paris exists at various prices at different times, and via multiple purchase methods, for the same essential seat for one passenger.   Unless the contract for sale is image exclusive to one agency, it is the buyer’s responsibility to find, secure, and transact the best opportunity for purchase.   If agencies are caught in the middle of a debacle between buyer and seller, then contracts should be modified to reflect image-exclusive agreements in order to qualm buyer concerns.

Don Farrall, donfarrall.com:

I am actually not a fan of multiple outlets for the same images.   I prefer a contract that is image exclusive, and not photographer exclusive.   The current system in place makes for a lot of redundancy of effort adding a lot of extra time to a minimally profitable effort.   Selling the same images at different prices further muddies up the marketplace, wasting additional time on the buyers side. Istock is trying pretty hard to make exclusivity the defining quality that will drive buyers to search there first, but their photographer exclusivity, not image exclusivity policy, that extends even to rejected images, is asking too much, and they are losing the battle in winning over many of the top producers as exclusives.

Chris Ferrone, Owner and Editor, abouttheimage.com:

During this time of transition wherein declining and ascending business models co-exist, photographers should enjoy the higher revenue from the old models as long as they don’t mind the risk of embarrassment or worse should a higher-paying client find out they could have paid much less for a given image.   Ultimately, however, and like it or not, the ascending lower-priced business models will prevail and photographers simply won’t have the higher-priced options.

John Griffin, CEO, Cutcaster

This is one of the problems that we are trying to solve at Cutcaster.   Finding true market value and eliminating the confusion between “stock classes” via one user-generated model that combines pros and joes….

Dan Heller, Freelance Photographer, Author and Industry Blogger:

Gasoline, milk, coffee, toys and hundreds of other commodities —   identical products can be purchased at different prices from different stores within a 10 mile radius of your house, because sellers conduct intelligent market analysis of buyer demographic, geographic location, store design, and many other factors. Identical stock photos can and should be priced using similar methodologies. (further reading)

Paul H. Henning, Founder and CEO, Stock Answers LLC:

So long as you’re licensing royalty free imagery, not rights managed, there is absolutely nothing to prevent you from selling the same images at different prices with different RF licensing models (subscription, micro, ‘traditional RF, etc.).   The only caveat I would offer: are you potentially going to turn off a customer who finds after-the-fact that he could have purchased the SAME image at a cheaper price on a different site, or under a different model? My guess is that in the real world this doesn’t happen very often, due to the sheer volume of images and stock sales sites that exist, but it’s worth pondering before you jump in and follow the multi-pricing strategy.   If this became common, the risk is that a large percentage of buyers could get ‘burned and turn off to either certain sites, specific photographers or even stock in general because they would come to believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that they were never really getting the best possible ‘deal.   Your credibility, as well as that of your stock sales outlets, may be at risk.

Jack Hollingsworth, jackhollingsworth.com:

A year ago, i was opposed to the notion.  but now, i say…why not?  there are literally thousands of retail examples, in both product and service sectors, where this very thing is happening daily.

Daryl Lang, News Editor at Photo District News:

It’s reasonable for a photographer to offer the same picture (or collection of pictures) through different agencies at different prices. This will only work as long as the stock image market remains in total disarray. Until the marketplace settles on how much image licenses ought to cost, a photographer should try every strategy he or she is comfortable pursuing to make the best of the situation.

Paul Melcher, CKO, Zymmetrical and Stock Photo Industry Bohemian:

Ultimately, it is not the price that makes a buyer purchase an image, but the image relevancy to a very specific need at a very specific time. Shopping around is just not something photo buyers do, as for a few dollar difference, it is just not worth it. Especially, if those dollars spend are company money and not personal. Photographers selling at different price points are playing the market and are absolutely right.

Jon Oringer, Founder and CEO, Shutterstock:

When a single image has different prices online, it is generally because other stock companies are marketing it to various audiences who they believe are using the image for different purposes. That is why Shutterstock’s user-friendly subscription plans with pricing that is inherently transparent and consistent, is the best choice for all consumers who are looking for high quality, royalty-free images at an affordable price.

Jim Pickerell, Selling Stock:

I have always been a strong advocate of selling the same images at multiple price points.

Rights managed has always sold the same image at multiple price points. Given the high volume of images on all microstock sites and the variations in search-return-order (SRO) there is no guarantee an image high in the SRO on one site will be seen on the next due to a variety of factors:

  • Editing
  • Search engine operation and feature
  • Customer service before and after the sale
  • Bulk discounts

Not all customers search all possible collections, some use traditional, some microstock, some both. The best way to maximize sales of an image is to make it available on as many sites as possible (including traditional) where theoretically more customers can see it.

The idea that if a customer finds an image on one site that works for his project, and is within his budget, he will then spend time checking other sites to see if he can find it cheaper, is ridiculous. Most customers don’t have time to do this. Of course there are exceptions, but in the long run the more people who have a chance to see a photographer’s image the more money he will make.

Most portal operators don’t like this because it benefits image suppliers, not portal operators. Portal operators tend to look after their own self interest, not the interests of creators.

Some customers search traditional RF collections. If they can find the right image at a price they can afford they will pay it rather than spend more time trying to find something that is cheaper, but not so good.

Customers look for the right image, not the cheapest image.

All image sellers would make more money if every image was available for use in all segments of market and priced base on use and value received. For more on this point see: Modified Rights Ready Pricing

Steve Pigeon, President, Masterfile:

I think it’s OK for parties to license identical images at reasonably variable price points based on the different services being offered by distributors.   e.g. If a distributor offers better service, quality and warranties than its competitors, then it can justify charging a higher price for the same product.   There are myriad examples of this in the consumer retail business – but they don’t involve paying a 5,000% premium!

If a microstock company is permitted to license an image for $1-$20 and a traditional RF company is charging $50-$500 for the identical image from the same photographer with similar license terms and the same file quality, then someone is getting screwed – and it isn’t the photographer.

Masterfile has been offered such “price agnostic” collections previously and has declined every time.   Where pricing and principles are concerned, we have religion.

Andres Rodriguez, Super Microstocker:

Selling photos at different prices I feel is fine. Each agency has a customer base and customers don’t have time to shop around. They use the site that fits their needs without worrying about the price in many cases.

Kelly Thompson, COO, iStockphoto

A small variance in price isn’t a huge deal, but large differences really anger customers. It’s why we don’t let our exclusives sell the same images on Getty Images (and soon in our high-end collection). That goes for similar (sister) images as well. With the volume of great images being produced, there is just no reason for the duplication.

Oleg Tscheltzoff, Co-founder and CEO, Fotolia:

I don’t like the idea of photographers selling the same images at different price levels.   Of course often photographers can’t choose the end price as they are not in control of it, but I think they need at least to choose a channel: either micro, or mid or macro.

James West, Co-founder and CEO, Alamy:

It’s a free market – Alamy contributors are able to sell their royalty free images anywhere else at any price point. Imposing restrictive practices on image suppliers works against the long term interests of customers and photographers.

Which Way do You Go?

  • Leaf
    Posted at 12:41h, 26 January Reply

    Wow, you really did your homework here! 🙂
    Nice to see so many different points of view.

  • Chris Nuzzaco
    Posted at 13:59h, 26 January Reply

    If its within the same general market (ie. only micro agencies), I don’t see an issue. Different price points for the same product is a fact of life! Just go compare any major retail store. You’ll see both undercutting in some areas, but neither can afford to undercut all across the board, because quality can only go so low on the manufacturing end of things. Lower prices will create lower quality goods from all the major suppliers people actually buy from. In the case of stock photo, “lower quality” is more akin to production value (background, wardrobe, makeup, lighting, post processing, etc…) I’m seeing more and more white background stuff coming from big suppliers these days who have publicly stated that their original “bread and butter” work is earning less. The irony with that though, is that white background may be cheaper, but not every subject sells as well when shot against white… devilish little detail isn’t it?

  • Rahul Pathak
    Posted at 14:30h, 26 January Reply

    Phenomenal post. It’s fascinating to see such a range of diverse and extremely relevant perspectives.

  • Jon Hornstein
    Posted at 17:27h, 26 January Reply

    An image has no intrinsic value. What matters is what it’s worth to the buyer. Things that are controlled by the channel through which it is delivered that affect the value of an image can include timeliness, ease of finding it, level of service, methods of payment, reputation of seller (or licensor), return policy, availability of usage history, etc.

    In fact, the foundation of the much-maligned (by buyers) Rights Managed pricing models is that an image’s value is based on what it’s worth to the buyer. In some cases, an agency will license the same image for the same use at different pricing depending on what industry the client is in. The assumption is that an image might be more valuable to a luxury real estate developer than to a dry cleaner.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 23:28h, 03 February Reply

      Thanks for this comment Jon, that’s a super-clear explanation.


  • Steve Gibson
    Posted at 22:47h, 26 January Reply

    I think Dan Heller summed half of this up with his comment, I think its quite fair to charge a different price for the same image license if the whole package offers some benefit to the buyer (time saving feature, subscription, bulk discount etc).

    Also, and almost rewording Jon Hornsteins comment, I also think its quite fair to charge a different price for a different license model. It might still be a royalty free license of the same image, but the image used on a web page can quite fairly cost a lot less than that image licensed for use as an art print, most microstock agencies already do charge a different price for the same image in this respect.

  • Todd
    Posted at 21:09h, 27 January Reply

    It’s a proven fact that when products or services are priced higher, some buyers think they are getting something “better” or of “higher quality”. Many times this isn’t even the case. A generic product could even be identical, only in different packaging. Is Tylenol going out of business, just because CVS sells the same thing in a generic form? It doesn’t seem like they are. The product could probably even be manufactured in the same plant. Many times, manufacturers only want you to think you’re getting less when you purchase the same product for a lesser price. In actuality, many are identical – even if the product is packaged or marketed in a different way. Paul Mitchell hair care products come to mind. The CEO gets on TV and in commercials he testifies that it isn’t genuine Paul Mitchell, if you find the product being sold in a grocery store. In fact, it is – and I know many professional hairdressers that will attest to that. Want to know the difference? About $10-20 per bottle, depending on what salon is selling it.

    If a buyer wants to be choosy and shop around, they will. If they are willing to spend extra money on photos from agencies that offer better guarantees, or a different user experience, then let them. I don’t see anything unethical about that. Product pricing is the same in all markets, it’s just all about the brand label many times that determines the pricing. Even if it’s the same exact product. Designer clothes are sold at outrageous prices, and sometimes the quality is even lower than that of the cheaper department stores’ clothing lines.

  • Bob Davies
    Posted at 14:54h, 28 January Reply

    Hey Lee, Great Post 🙂

    I sell my stock anywhere I think it has a market which does not tread directly on the others (i’m mostly selling in micro). Sure, occasionally a buyer may see an image of mine they like and buy it from one of the cheaper sites, but I think this is rare, especially given the increasing popularity of subscription models which effectively bind most buyers to a single site for 90% of their image needs.

  • pdtnc
    Posted at 11:38h, 31 January Reply

    I don’t see any problem with it, apart from the obvious diluting of stock agency-worth and their selling power / individuality.

    It provides the image buyer with more price / license options, making images more accessible to a wider audience around the image buying world.

  • MarkFGD
    Posted at 10:55h, 01 February Reply

    Paul Melcher’s comment is spot on.

    I’ve been a designer for over twenty years and have licensed a number of stock images in that time (obviously, the internet didn’t exist when I started – but that’s another story).

    I would never waste time looking for the same image at a cheaper price while the client is prepared to pay the asking price on the site where the image was found.

    At the start of a project it’s all about trying to find the right images. I’ll begin by creating lightboxes on two or three sites and then downloading those images to folders with the site name, retaining their image numbers. If I do any comping in Photoshop, I’ll label my layers with the image number. The important thing for me is to be able to find that image again quickly if the client comes back in six months time and says print it. The only time I shop around is when I’ve used rights-managed on visuals and the client doesn’t want to pay £2,000+ for an image (or perhaps £6,000+ if it’s a montage). Then I’m trying to find cheaper royalty-free alternatives which are similar rather than the same image at a lower price.

    At the moment most clients put a ceiling of about £300 on each image (not every client and not for every project). However, as Clients start to become aware of microstock, I think there’s a danger of this ceiling being lowered to something ridiculous — like £10 an image!

    Perhaps there’s a case for microstock to tighten up its extended license agreements! Or maybe that would make microstock too confusing for buyers?

  • Don
    Posted at 22:04h, 01 February Reply

    Judging by the responses, there seems to be a disturbing lack of honour and moral integrity, instead persuing the quick buck. Rather distasteful. So there’s nothing wrong with selling to punter no.1 for $1, and muggins no.2 for $200? It doesn’t feel right to me, but clearly for others it’s caveat emptor, kerching$$$, thank you very much.

    To my mind this makes image-exclusive libaries much more appealing, and by implication RM. Will we see a resurgence?

  • Don Farrall
    Posted at 11:27h, 02 February Reply

    Just to be clear, poster “Don” is not Don Farrall. would it be asking too much for poster “Don” to add a last name initial, or some other point of different identity. I have been receiving “credit” for statements that are not mine. Thanks, Don Farrall

  • Don S
    Posted at 22:40h, 02 February Reply

    Apologies Don (Farrall), you’re quite right. I rarely post here and hadn’t considered the confusion my minimalist identity might cause. Was the “credit” favorable or otherwise?

    One other thing bugging me. As someone who is not particularly fond of the micro-model, in my defense of trad RM I have often been shot down in flames by microstockers claiming that their images aren’t sold off at 20 cents a pop, but are in fact selling for a higher fee through a micro than a trad once you price in the uses so that the terms of the licence agreement are in accord. That is to say, the trad RF terms are quite liberal, and to get the same useage from a micro you’d have to pay a higher price. Were they talking a load of old tosh?

  • Don Farrall
    Posted at 00:03h, 03 February Reply

    Don S,

    The “credit” was generally a point of confusion, and mostly from microstockers who are sensitive about anything negative about microstock. As a group microstockers are very ready to defend their model of choice.

    Non-microstockers are quick to quote very low per images sales of microstock: i.e. $.20 In reality, most (non subscription) sales are yielding the photographer a few dollars. Still nothing, when compared to traditional sales, but to microstockers suggesting that they are only earning $.20 per sale represents “fightiin words”.

    In my opinion, in the end, what a photo will earn in it’s lifetime, is what matters; philosophical matters aside. Generally (good) microstockers are able to get more images from a shoot accepted into some microstock outlets than they would be able to get in the traditional stock market. For this reason they can accept a somewhat lower RPI. They are also often selling through multiple outlets and that helps the tiny returns add up as well. In the end, microstock images on average, won’t earn anywhere near what we traditional stock shooters are used to earning from an accepted image, RM or RF. But, it does work to a satisfaction level that keeps people happy to participate.

    Most microstock photographers only think about their earnings as a portfolio return. I tend to think about the potential earnings form each new image that I produce, in that way I can judge how much I can invest in it’s production. In the world of traditional stock, I will invest hundreds to earn thousands, this is not the world of microstock. In microstock, photograhers will invest $10 to earn $30. It works if a photographer can keep the production costs very low, but that does limit what can be done. Sure there are exceptions. Many microstock photographers are pretty in the dark about how traditional RF and RM work, but to be fair, they have not had the opportunity to participate, and I think they are quick to criticize it because they have been excluded.

    Thanks for adding the “S”

    Don Farrall

  • Dave
    Posted at 16:37h, 06 February Reply

    I laughed out loud reading the bit where the microstock director complains that the practice devalues photographs.

  • Jim
    Posted at 07:00h, 08 February Reply

    Jim Pickerell: “The idea that if a customer finds an image on one site that works for his project, and is within his budget, he will then spend time checking other sites to see if he can find it cheaper, is ridiculous. ”

    Well I disagree. My company routinely uses alamy and other non-exclusive “macro” agencies. When we find suitable images, it is just a click or two extra effort to search iStockphoto or Dreamstime. Frequently, the photographer is using exactly the same title, so one search is all that is needed. In many cases, the same image is found on the microstock sites, so we will take those. If not, we’ll stick with the alamy images.

    We are not under budget pressure, however, for the sake of a couple of clicks we can make good savings.

    I think it is not good practice for photographers when I think about the amount of money we would have paid but did not because the photographer chose to give us a cheap option. So long there are no switching barriers between “macro” and “micro” (ie no usage restrictions depending on which price), we will always take the micro image.

    The next images on our shortlist (it is clear which one we will take):



  • Todd
    Posted at 19:04h, 08 February Reply

    Jim – you’re a very smart buyer. Some buyer’s like Jim might be searching Dreamstime of iStock for our images, if they didn’t see them on Alamy in the first place. That’s why as a seller, that doesn’t bother me at all where the buyer decides to purchase the image. If anything, having them on Alamy is just another outlet of exposure.

  • Alex Hinds
    Posted at 06:46h, 12 March Reply

    Personally I just think it is poor form and poor business to market an identical image at very different price points. It’s not something I’d be happy to explain to a client end user face to face, so although I rarely communicate with, let alone meet, most of the users of my images, it is how I base my decision. I may shoot similar images for different markets to try and cover all bases, but individual images/shoots are either one or the other. Just my take on it.

  • The Right Value for your Money « Sean Locke Digital Imagery
    Posted at 16:52h, 03 June Reply

    […] is sort of in response to a recent article by Lee Torrens called “Selling the Same Stock Photos at Different Prices“, as well as some discussion around the internet forums.  The base question is, “It is […]

  • Quiroswald
    Posted at 04:46h, 11 February Reply

    Good article. I am new in microstock and not very experienced in these issues. I uploaded a few pictures to many different agencies, so the prices are different. I think that’s normal, and does not depend on me but on the microstock agency. However, I find the debate about selling the same picture as RF in one agency and as RM in other more relevant, because then the differences in prices are much higher. I have done that for my first “test” images but plan to be more selective in the future

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