Changes in Stock Photography

A few days ago Dan Heller posted The future of photo sharing sites and agencies on his Photography Business Blog. This is an interesting look by a professional photographer into the changing world of photography. This is a change that has been going on for years in the consumer arena but has been lagging in the professional arena due to two factors: the simple fear of image security and the “slowness” of the professional photography market as Dan calls it.

(For simplicity sake I am dividing the photography business up into professionals and consumer for the sake of this posting. In reality the market has many shades of grey which I will post my thoughts on later.)

Dan’s posting brought up a number of thoughts that I have had over the past few years of closely monitoring the business of photography. This seemed like a good time to share some of the stock photography ones.

Dan talks about the changes that are stirring in the stock photography marketplace. Consumers jumped on the internet based photo sharing bandwagon years ago: note the success of Flickr and the newer Zooomr in social photo-sharing market; the plethora of printing services like Ofoto, Shutterfly; and sites like SmugMug and ZenFolio in the ad-free photo portfolio market – as well as many other smaller players in all these markets. These consumer based businesses empowered the way consumers did photography. Why have professionals not realized the same power of the Internet for their businesses? So many other small businesses have. Dan is one of the few professional photographers that I have been following online for years that seems to have leveraged the Internet to capitalize on the large base of photographic assets in their portfolio, but even his use tends to look dated in comparison to more recent photographers who utilize the web to build and sustain a monetized following.

Stock Photography is just one of the areas that is ripe for a revolution in the classic professional photography market. I have sensed the changes in the stock photography business for a number of years now.

In April of last year I chatted with Doug Rowan, the original CEO of Corbis, on this very topic. Doug was kind enough to share some of his experiences of building and growing Corbis. One facet of the classic stock photograph market is relationships: you have to know the people who buy the images; it’s a relationship business. This has always been the biggest role of the stock agencies; they knew the people in the marketing worlds that spend big money on imagery. They also understood that these same buyers were lazy and didn’t want to search through thousands of photographs but wanted to choose between a handful of ones that meet their need. So stock agencies used human researchers to do the leg work of for the buyer. But, as Dan pointed out, the shift to the self-publishing and small publishing is changing that. A stock agency that wants to capitalize on this emerging market has to market to the masses, and the personal touch is being replaced by technology (which is also happening in the classic stock market in order to remain competitive and increase profits).

Another facet of the stock market is the cataloging cost of images. One might assume that the storing and managing of photos would be the highest cost to the business. The larger and more important cost comes from the upfront work of accurately categorizing and describing the photo so they can be found again later. This was classically done through human labor to ensure consistency. Corbis originally spent about $6 per image to categorize and keyword their images; over time other companies like Alamy would drop this cost to even lower amounts. Now there are more and more Internet based stock agencies like fotoLibra that have dropped this cost to even smaller amounts.

You might ask, “why can’t the photographer do that themselves?” For some agencies, they do. But there is still the fact that the photographer is too close to their own work. There is also the busy aspect of the photographic business also to blame. I personally have literally thousands of photos that I have yet to post process; which includes as part of my work flow providing both keywords and descriptions as accurately as possible. I am always struggling to work through my photos. Most professional photographers are simply too busy earning a living to focus on the long term assets they have living in their filing cabinets or hard drives. I think the changes that are underway in the stock market will eventually force the professional photographer to start doing a small bit of additional work to describe their photos in order to take advantage of the revenue they have locked up in them.

Search technology has also come a long way since the stock agencies started. There already exists facial recognition technology that can identify a specific human face and some enterprising companies are building features into their products that allow you to identify a person’s face and give them a name. Then, using face recognition techniques, you can search to find all the photos that the same person is in. And I’ll guarantee you that this is only the start with image based search technology. All of this will continue to increase the efficiency of image searching and drive more people to finding images faster by searching themselves. The big image buyers will eventually have to change to remain competitive in the market.

Dan’s comments about the buzz in the community photo sharing market of possibly doing stock business is no longer just a buzz. Thomas Hawk of Zooomr is on the record stating they are doing just that. And I know for a fact that there are others out there that are working on stuff that will be just as interesting and revolutionary.

The stock photography market is in for some interesting changes over the next few years; just as interesting as all the other changes that are coming at the business of photography.

I see a new wave of empowering the individual photographer on the horizon.

2 thoughts

  1. Great post Greg.

    I think it’s key to remember that the stock photography market was built on relationships- however the means of getting images was painful. The internet made it possible to streamline the work flow. In some ways, Getty did too good of a job of moving high priced image bits across the web. In the process, they also took out the human element.

    I think the pendulum is swinging back to a ‘personal approach’. The key is getting it right with buyers- simply putting a price on an image is not enough to help a customer license an image. Education, opportunity and profitability are all issues that the changing industry will need to address.

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  2. Great post. I definitely think this is a direction that will be pursued by several companies. Unfortunately as of late the general practice of small and large firms looking to use imagery for commercial use for free from Flickr and/or equivalent forums leaves me less than optimistic.

    I’ve posted a recent experience regarding this on my blog and linked to this entry.
    The Dark Side of Flickr: Photo Phishing By Corporate America
    Hopefully this is just a few bad apples, but I’m growing less convinced it is.

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