Looking Back on Royalty Free

Ever since Royalty Free stock photography came into the market back in the mid '90s, I've received numerous e-mails from photographers asking me not to mention or promote Royalty Free in my writings.

Since PhotoSource International is an organization whose purpose is to help both photo suppliers and photobuyers in their sales and search of illustrative photography, I'm committed to reporting on every approach to stock photography, from the perspectives of photobuyer as well as photographer.

Today we can discern more precisely what markets Royalty Free can serve, now that the dust has settled and RF photography has made a place for itself. RF reveals itself as putting forth photos that fall into the commonplace, not very unique, run-of-the-mill categories. RF photos easily fill the needs of regional and local advertising, calendar, and post card companies.

The reality of the stock photography business is that not every photobuyer needs a blockbuster image every time. More importantly, many photobuyers, whether in the commercial or editorial field, are not prepared to pay premium fees for stock photography. Their budgets do not allow it.

A decade ago, most stock photographers used a "one-price-fits all" system in leasing their photos. This was easy because they were the only game in town. As a result, many potential stock photography markets, because of limited budgets, had to resort to clip art illustrations rather than use photography. When Royalty Free came along, it allowed these markets to turn to uncomplicated photos for their illustration needs.


The discovery of how useful RF could be was also a revelation to many stock photographers. Whether they liked it or not, the market was defining which of their personal stock collection was Royalty Free material and which was unique or specific enough to be classified as "Rights-Protected," the latter bringing more revenue. As expected, legitimate higher prices were matched to appropriate rights-protected pictures, and the remainder qualified as lower-priced Royalty Free.

Of course, faulty technical quality, poor composition, and bad lighting can't survive in either of these classifications. Rather than complain that the market was shifting and that their livelihood was about to be destroyed by Royalty Free, many photographers joined the revolution and explored this new market. They learned that much of their photography was eligible as RF. Armed with a knowledge of how to take quality nuts-and-bolts images, they shifted their viewfinder to satisfy the needs of this expanding market. Now, instead of relegating their secondary photos to the historical file, photographers are seeking out Royalty Free companies to market these "extras" for them. The photographers are surprised to learn of this hidden profit center.

Their RF photos might not appear at auction in Sothbye's, but the checks they receive more than pay for their bread and butter. Many photographers almost doubled what they were earning in the stock photo market of the 1990's. In fact, some photographers are now making six-figure incomes by supplying the Royalty Free market. The "tiny" checks add up.

On the other side of the table, photobuyers sometimes complain about the pedestrian quality of Royalty Free, the look-alike aspect, and the lack of inspiration in the images. However, they soon learn, "you pays for what you gits." They learn you can't pay RF prices and expect to get rights-protected quality. They also learn that RF-caliber photos can fill the bill for many page layout needs.


In defense of photographers who straddle both sides of the stock photography market, RF plus rights-protected, no artisan produces a masterpiece every time. Some perfectionists may have thrown many RF candidates into the trash. Beauty and usefulness are in the eye of the beholder. Some photographers who thought of giving up in the field of stock photography have now reconsidered, knowing that some of their work can be shuffled off to a Royalty Free company that will be happy to burn them onto a disk, and respond with monthly checks.

Who would ever have thought back in the 1990's that it would be Royalty Free that allowed a stock photographer to survive as a working photographer in the next century?

Rohn Engh is director of PhotoSource International and publisher of PhotoStockNotes. Pine Lake Farm, 1910 35th Road, Osceola, WI 54020 USA E-mail: info@photosource.com Fax: 1 715 248 7394

Web site: www.photosource.com

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