Is a photo just a photo or is a photo a piece of art – how do you know?

To look into the Business Model Vision behind photography we must analyze the entire value chain that defines the photography business model.

Photography Business Model

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It seems that sometimes it can be worth more than a thousand words – how much more?

Photography-Art Fusion - how much is a photo worth?
  • is it in the eye of the beholder like art?
  • is it related to the cultural relevance we place on where certain photos are taken?
  • is it some balance in the middle between the two?

For example, some of the highest bids for photography come from:

  • weddings
  • sports events
  • nature
  • landmark historical events
  • portraits

Photography Business Model

But most of these events are captured by photographers who are paid by the hour or by contract to capture them. In few instances do these photographs actually ‘trade.’

Until you get to the market for stock photography where you want to license a photo for any number of possible instances. Here the price can be high or low depending on the marketplace. iStockPhoto was revolutionary in the photo market because it allowed photographers to sell their photos – conveniently – for the first time over the internet.

Effectively, two parties capture the value from photography:

  • photographers
  • photo marketplaces

Two parties pay for the photography:

  • individuals/families
  • brands

Like any creative market, there will some layer of middlemen/agencies somewhere in between, but on the balance that is how the value chain looks.

Photography Value Chain

Photography Business Model - Value Chain

In the middle, lies multiple possibilities relative to the business model.

Photography Business Model Matrix

iStockPhoto was founded in 2000 and sold to Getty Images for $50M 6 years later – what happened in between was that they founded a crowdsourced marketplace for stock photography. It was the dawn of the ‘stock photography’ market online, giving amateurs and professionals alike the ability to sell their pictures for a price to the open market.

Up to that point in time, there were two main models for photography:

  • Shoot & Burn – a business model where photographers offer clients a relatively ‘affordable’ price point in exchange for a photo shoot with digital images as the deliverable
  • Boutique – a business model built around a photographer’s brand where they offer clients a photo shoot with multiple possible bespoke options, including multi-day shoots, specific ‘artistic’ physical prints, and other options

As the web has developed over the last decade, there are more and more options that allow photographers to sell their prints (digitally or physically) independently, and monetize their own channels.

All together, there is now a matrix that looks something like below to compare various models, hinging around a profitability per photo, or profitability per photo shoot.

Photography Business Model – Visual

Photography business model matrix

Naturally, the context of each quadrant must be compared to the required investment. Someone who is running the Shoot & Burn model and generating relatively little income for their work can’t just decide instantly to make more money by becoming Boutique. There is required investment in both time & money in the brand to build that out.

Same thing when comparing Sell to/on a Photo Market versus Sell Independently. Anyone can, in theory, just start selling their works independently. The advantage to a photo marketplace is that the customers are already there and they are actively searching for photos with the intent to buy.

As a result, photographers who perform well on marketplaces do so because they have some kind of brand built around them – they are well known and they know how to play the marketplace game (what photos are likeliest to sell, how to keyword them, etc.)

Photography Business Model  Matrix

Photography is a model built around the long-game. Like most business models in creative industries that are built around ‘creators,’ there is a threshold to reach any sort of sustainability that is quite high.

To earn a $500/month passive income, you’ll need to have uploaded at least 6,000 images.


There are always exceptions to every rule; however, similar to the Digital Music business model, photographers – on average – will earn only pennies per month per photo that is licensed.

Earnings from royalty-free photography on different marketplaces

There are, naturally, differences between different models within stock photography:

  • Rights Managed model where photos are licensed for a period of time
  • Royalty-Free model allows the purchaser to use the photo for multiple use cases over the long-term
  • Extended/Enhanced Licenses were built to allow photos to be licensed for use cases like t-shirt design, or areas where hundreds and thousands of copies could be sold
Minimum, Maximum, Extended License Earnings on Various Marketplaces

The more simplified version of this is Macrostock vs. Microstock. Macrostock is more premium and exclusive, whereas Microstock is cheaper and volume-based.

Macrostock images are royalty-based for the photographer, whereas Microstock transfers ownership to the purchaser. The evolution of the market has blurred the lines between the two, but this is a general synopsis.

In essence, going back to the beginning of this post, the challenge is to identify the context for value. The higher the context of the photoshoot is valued, the more it will be worth.

The closer on the spectrum to becoming a boutique brand of photography, the higher the earnings potential, whether shooting for individual clients or certain types of licensing platforms.

Photography Business Model - Value Chain

Like in many other creative markets, the platformization of the business model has pushed the volume of available photography up, and the prices down. It is much more difficult to earn a living as an average photographer in this type of environment than it was 20 years ago.

Nevertheless, opportunities abound in one corner or the other. Boutique operators with exceptional quality and limited selection can make millions in the photography business.

You don’t need a massive catalog of 5,000 products just because your lab offers that many. Instead, you’re going to be like your local artisanal restaurant with only 10 items on the menu. Offer fewer products and be really exceptional at creating them.

Joy Of Marketing

Boutique Business Model, Bespoke Brand

There are additional headwinds on the horizon in the stock photography business that will further challenge those creators who shoot thousands of images and sell across multiple platforms.

Generative AI being one example, where computer generated images start to create their own versions of images, based on keywords, which can be used for the stock use case.

The restaurant comparison example above is apt because we know that from Paradox of Choice; consumers want less choice, not more choice (within reason).

Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.

Good Reads

The closer that photography becomes to art, the higher the degree of specialization around certain types of images, the more profit can come per photo and the easier it is to scale the operation/brand.

If we think about demand for landscape photos, for example, there will always be a high demand, but the supply continues to increase. If we think about demand for photos of intimate family moments or epic portraits, demand will always be high, yet supply will not increase exponentially.

This is because there is a limited supply of photographers who have the brand and skill to execute these types of special moments from end to end.

The decision-making matrix for buyers is much less difficult where supply of photographers is limited. If you want to find certain ‘everyday’ types of photos, there are multiple stock photography platforms with multiples of stock photographs around each keyword.

Try searching for ‘childhood moment photographers‘ for example – the list is much more limited and the pricing power is exponentially higher.

This is relatively common sense. Unfortunately, a lot of the current structure of the market creates these types of unbalanced economic models, photography being but one example among many other creative markets. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where we will go in the future though.

A Future Where Photography and Art Collide

‘Digital Art’ is a somewhat abstract concept by which photography fits comfortably within.

Let’s say you are talking about two separate images for the purpose of contrast:

  • one epic image of your children at a young age, a priceless family moment captured beautifully
  • one epic image of a sports event, a historical moment etched forever in the memory of a collective fan base

One image will be valuable to only one group, which is the family to which the children belong. It is certainly not ‘priceless’ in the open market. The other image has a price which may actually fluctuate dramatically in the future depending on how history evolves from that moment on.

The concept of ‘valuation’ and ‘trade-ability’ can thus be introduced in the future in photography to address the gap between the platform model and the individual boutique/shoot & burn model.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – it seems that sometimes it can be worth more than a thousand words – how much more?

How much is an image worth today – next year – in a decade? The answer to that question really only matters if the image itself can be traded.

Photography-Art Fusion - how much is a photo worth?

The logic up to this point in the post is the basis for what has become the ‘Digital Art’ market built on the web3 ideology with NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens) and Digital Currencies creating entirely new ‘art markets.’ To dive deep into this topic requires a separate (& future) post around:

  • digital rights management and how to validate ownership
  • pros & cons of ‘trading marketplaces’
  • evolution of web3 versus web2 + payments
  • micropayments analysis

It is not an easy topic. But going back to the top of the post; there are multiple possibilities as to how the business model can evolve.

In the middle, lies multiple possibilities relative to the business model.

Photography business model value chain

What we know is that the stock photography model has its pros and its cons, yet it is becoming increasingly difficult for photographers to earn a living on those platforms. While the concept of building a boutique photo business may be possible for some, it won’t be possible for everyone. In the middle lies a new layer of experimental models to address this gap.

Overall, the concept of photography and art can be fused to explore future business models. Business Model Vision is required.

For now, the options are fairly simple and standardized for photographers, and learning how to play each one to maximize potential requires extended time, effort, and mastery of the skill in order to profit.

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