National Geographic Image Collection Shuttered

Posted Jan. 8th, 2021 by Daniel J. Cox

NatGeo Realizes Stock Photography is Dead

One of the enjoyable things about being in the field is the chance to meet and talk to other photographers. Today I met a young man named Ronan Donovan. Ronan has produced some beautiful articles for National Geographic Magazine. In our short conversation, we talked about the publication and how things have changed. He mentioned that National Geographic had recently closed their photo agency called National Geographic Image Collection, most likely due to the fact stock photography is dead. The Image Collection was the agency that marketed all photos shot for the magazine over the years. This was hard to hear but not completely unexpected.

Stock photography is dead

The world of natural history stock photography has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Earning a living by selling natural history pictures was the way I produced income for 35 years. But stock photography is dead. I’ve known that for some time. But hearing that the National Geographic has found it impossible to go forward says it all.

American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), Yellowstone National Park, Montana

Cinematography is the key

I’m often asked, “How do you get started in the world of natural history stock photography?” And I explain that unfortunately there’s just no way to make a living producing still photos of nature. There is still money in cinematography but not in the still photography industry. If you want a good example of how difficult this industry currently is, take a look at this article by Jim Pickerell: Don’t Reveal Your Shutterstock Earnings To Anyone. Shutterstock is one of the most successful stock agencies in the world today. But it’s successful for its owner, not its photographers. Based on the article, Shutterstock has a clause in their contract that binds the photographer from discussing their Shutterstock earnings. The speculation is that they don’t want photographers really knowing how little money they might make.

Coyote shot with the new Olympus 150-400mm zoom lens.

Good thing I do my serious wildlife work as a hobby nowadays. I plan to be back in the field tomorrow enjoying my time self-isolating with the animals. I shot the photo above of one of my comrades in the wild.

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There are 11 comments on this post…
  1. Tom OcasekOn Feb. 23rd, 2021

    Dan, you are a gifted artist with many successful dimensions. Thanks for sharing your knowledge – a trait that scares many photographers… You have been a great mentor and friend…I especially admire your integrity & honesty…Your folks deserve some credit too for instilling your work ethic…

    We know change is a certainty… One thing I know for certain is your “value system” will serve you well what ever route you choose going forward. Hopefully, we can share many more “experiences” and cross paths often…my best to your wonderful bride…Stay healthy & Aloha, Tom

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Feb. 24th, 2021

      Thanks Tom. I appreciate the encouragement and kind comments. I guess my father’s insistence that the wood pile be stacked neat and orderly was just one life lesson that’s helped me continue as a photographer. Life isn’t easy as you well know and what I do today is not exactly what I predicted. But I’m still shooting pictures and loving every morning I am able to get up and work in this wonderful business. You’re a gentleman and a scholar and a good friend. I’m hopeful our paths will cross sooner rather than later so we can share some more laughs and fun taking pictures.

  2. Denis RTOn Feb. 10th, 2021

    What if the community of photographers had their own stock photography website? I think Le Monde newspaper woks in a similar way.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Feb. 10th, 2021

      Unfortunately that has been tried many different way here in the states and it’s never worked. Thanks for the idea however. I appreciate you stopping by to add your voice.

  3. Portrait of Charlie Tooley

    Charlie TooleyOn Jan. 12th, 2021

    Dan, you had a great ride with your long-lived enviable vocation. I’m reminded occasionally by a friend of mine who spent 50 years of his life as a radio DJ in various large city markets in different music venues and caught the ride while it lasted. Radio DJ? What’s that?
    You created on our Antarctic trip a new zeal for nature photography and you are a teacher, mentor and spokesman for the industry. We hope to join you soon on a safari trip, but I seem to recall your saying in 2016 that “Stock Photography was a dying art” way back then. Did our iPhones and technology do it?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 12th, 2021

      Thanks for the kind words Charlie. Yes I’m very fortune to have been a part of the golden age of stock. I feel very fortunate. And no it wasn’t the iPhone it was actually the internet. At one time it was a lot of work to market your photography. Today all one has to do is give it away to any entity that convinces photographers that’s a good idea. And there are actually web sites that give photos away for no cost. How do you compete with free? But thankfully what I do now is so much more enjoyable than the fun but difficult years as a stock photographer. Today I make my living teaching as you described. Gone is the pressure of having to make pictures that make me a living. Now we do our best and the animals don’t cooperate we all go back to camp and have a great time discussing the fun we had waiting them out. Thanks for stopping by to add your voice.

  4. Jeff ColburnOn Jan. 12th, 2021


    I would say that microstock killed the stock industry. There are still some good stock agencies out there, like Arcangel, but they are highly specialized (Arcangel does book covers) and hard to get into.

    You can still make a decent living with stock images, but you have to flip things 180 degrees from the past. Instead of taking photos of what you want, and submitting them to stock sites, you have to shoot specifically for the needs of the stock site. You have to produce a lot of great images while keeping your costs as low as possible. If you using models and have someone doing hair and makeup, that’s hard to do.

    I do mainly nature and composite photography, but it’s tough out there. Most of the photographs I know need to teach classes or take groups on tours to make ends meet. I remember how easy it was to make a living in photography 30-40 years ago, but those days are long gone. The key to success today is having multiple streams of income.

    Have Fun,

  5. Portrait of Sally Radke

    Sally ROn Jan. 12th, 2021

    And we love your trips and the expertise and guidance you continually offer!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 12th, 2021

      Thanks Ms. Mustang! Glad to see you visiting the Blog.

  6. Rene ThebergeOn Jan. 8th, 2021

    Hi Dan,

    A numbers years ago I was thinking about abandoning my successful professional career in medical administration to do what I loved which was nature photography. My wife was very encouraging and supportive and I was still young enough (although just barely) that I could meet the physical demands. But then I took a long hard look into the future, as best one can, and what’s happening now (and for the last several years as you’ve documented) is kind of what I foresaw. I’m happy/sad I didn’t make the moved but still wonder “What if?”.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Jan. 8th, 2021

      Thanks for joining the conversation Rene. When I began my career as a wildlife photographer there were plenty who thought I was crazy. But I was so focused and determined. I was very fortunate to have been able to live my dream for about 20 years before the bottom began to drop out. When that began to happen I had no idea how I was going to continue to make a living. But then my wife and I came to understand that there were many who wanted to live my dream. They wanted to travel and take beautiful pictures. So that’s what we do now. And I couldn’t be happier.

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