Thursday, May 7, 2009

The decline of stock photography

I’m constantly amazed at how little value people assign to photographic images. Over the years, there’s been a steady stream of folks who contact me, wanting to use my images for one purpose or another but aren’t willing to pay a license fee for that usage. Most of them want to use my images so their product will make money, but deny me the opportunity to derive income from my product!

I’ve made it clear on my Web pages that when the intended use is for science or education, and no one is being paid for anything in the process, I’m quite happy to donate my images. But many people who want to use my images for free – say on T-shirts for a charity fundraiser, or in a pamphlet providing information – see no problem with having to pay for the shirts, or for printing the pamphlet. In their minds, apparently, it’s reasonable to pay shirt manufacturers or printers, but it’s being unreasonable to expect that someone licensing images also has expenses to pay.

Instead, I’m offered the compensation of the user giving me “credit” for the use. The idea behind this is, evidently, is that I should be grateful for the free advertising. Imagine asking the printer of your pamphlets or the manufacturer of your T-shirts to be given the same “compensation” for their costs! It must seem to these people that high-quality, spectacular images are just lucky accidents and that I incur no costs in obtaining them. Well, my creditors won’t take this “credit” in lieu of payment! I find the very idea insulting, actually. I’d rather not license my images at all than to give them away at little or no cost to these people who see them as having no value – except to help them make money.

The situation has not been helped by various trends in the stock photo industry: the rise of “royalty-free” and “microstock” image collections, where the asking price for images has been driven into the basement. A concurrent trend has been the emergence of corporate giants in the stock photo industry – in particular, Getty Images (and to a lesser extent, Corbis). These giants have also done two things that are photographer unfriendly. First, they’ve allowed a rapid decline in the cost of image licenses, believing that volume can overcome the reduced price-per-sale. Second, they’ve steadily eroded the “split” with the photographer – that is, the percentage of the sale income they share with the image creator (the photographer!). When I entered the stock photo business, large image agencies were sharing the income 50-50 with the photographers. Getty now has driven that down to where the photographer only gets 30% of the sale. Getty and Corbis also have absorbed many smaller, specialized image marketing companies, which maintain their business identity but are allowed to market images through Getty and Corbis. Those smaller image companies may provide a 50% split with the photographer, but that’s only after the giant takes its 70%. The photographer share is thereby down as low as 15% when Getty is involved. As a means of making a living, stock photography is becoming unworkable for photographers. If I actually depended on this income to survive, I’d not be surviving!

But the general perception that images should be “free” is pervasive. Even copyright protection is being eroded by the notion of “orphan images” – there is movement to allow the free use of images from any source if the user can’t locate the photographer. Embedding information about the photographer and the means to contact her/him has only recently been common in the industry and there are many who will simply remove that embedded information and then claim they tried to locate the photographer but failed, so it was an “orphan” work. Copyright protection eventually could vanish, meaning the eventual demise of income from creative work. This is further reducing number of reasons to pursue stock photography as a source of income.


Aaron Kennedy said...

You could have as easily titled this as "The decline of photography(photographers)"

While the DSLR revolution has made many positive changes to the field (mainly in creativeness), it has also over saturated the market with a large number of photographers willing to work for little money (wedding photography comes to mind). People normally get what they pay for but it still ends up driving down the costs for the pros that have been working years in the field.

I have to admit I'm even a part of the problem. While I don't partake in any stock photography, I have accepted way too little money (in my opinion) for certain calendar shots. But what can you do? If you decline their request on principle after they refuse changing their image fees, they'll just go to the next joe schmo and use his image. Some of the more recent calendars have even used stills form VIDEO which absolutely flabbergasts me.

So In the end I end up pocketing the money they offer, make sure a URL gets thrown in, and deal with it.

El Gran Rogelio said...

Like you, I'm glad not to be a full-time professional photographer trying to make a living off of it. But like Aaron, I've settled on a few occasions for a little less than what standard stock-photo tables (SAA sanctioned or otherwise) or online guides (e.g., indicate, on the premise that a discounted sale is better than none at all. Where do you draw the line?

Especially in a weak economy, cost seems to be the overwhelming driving consideration over quality or uniqueness. It is cheaper for a web designer to order up some generic "tornado" image off one of those $5 image sites -- unaware that half those so-called tornadoes are doctored or faked anyway -- than to obtain a better quality image that is for real.

Look at the phone book sometime, thumbing through pages of ads for doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. The same 4 or 5 images of happy, smiling, two-parent/two-child Caucasian families keep showing up in different ads for different services. You'll learn to recognize them after awhile, and may even get familiar enough to assign names to the families. "Hey look at this ad for legal services: There's that same photo of Steve, Stacy, Caitlyn and Dakota that I saw in the orthodontics billboard up on Highway 77!" I have seen one particular field of bluebonnets in ads for lots of different businesses. Elke points out to me redundant photos that she finds often in her line of work (web design).

Why are these images so popular despite their redundancy and mediocre quality? Easy: they cost a few bucks to download, and they suffice for generic, budget usage.

How do we as licensers of rights managed, authentic and professional quality photography counteract this? In most cases, we don't. The generic market is lost. Those who want the same cheap, often heavily Photoshopped crap that every other ad agency uses will pay less...get what they pay for, and yes, probably will be satisfied with less than the best, out of ignorant bliss.

Instead, we as rights managed stock agents have to promote our advantages:
1. Quality. This speaks for itself.

2. Authenticity. The tornado or lightning strike is real, as it bogus insertions or combining images.

3. Uniqueness. Our images won't be found on every other Tom, Dick and Harry's ad or website.

The few decent licensing agreements I've gotten the last year or so have been based off premise #3 above: While our license still is nonexclusive, my image will not be appearing ad nauseam on the site of every other maker of the same widget. The "other guys" download the $5 image, and don't stand out from the crowd.

Volume is very slow right now, as you've seen, and there's little we can do outside of promoting quality, authenticity and uniqueness.

As a result, volume will be lower and less frequent in a hard economy, and a market filled with adequate-but-not-great images that are cheap and easy to obtain. Instead, we deal with those few clients who demand high quality and are willing to pay for it. Those may be getting even more few and far between.

Makes me glad I've got a full-time day (and night and weekend) job that I love.