Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stock photography for storm photographers - Part 2

So the landscape for photographers with regard to stock photography agencies has evolved into an exploitative relationship with corporate behemoths.  While that might be good for the corporations, it's been bad for the photographers.  What's gone on with regard to the niche market associated with storm photography, in particular?

When I began storm chasing, it was a very small "fraternity" (mostly males) that produced an even smaller number of serious photographers with (expensive) high-quality photographic equipment.  As late as the late 1990s, there were just a few of us shooting medium-format images of storms.  This was the apex of the niche market for storm photography and we all pretty much knew each other - it was a friendly competition, because there were so few involved.

But after the turn of the century, things began to change.  Twister  flooded the "community of chasers" with hordes of brand-new new chasers who gave little thought to the market for storm images.  They were focused on themselves and their notoriety, not the photography market and not even the storms.  At about that time, digital cameras were becoming commonplace, including some with relatively high resolution at affordable prices.  Within a few years (say, by 2002), there were numerous chasers out there producing relatively high-quality images - often hungry enough for recognition that they would license their images for small licensing fees (even to the point of literally giving away their photographs for nothing!), in exchange for "fame" and personal recognition (worth little or nothing, in reality).

The corporate stock photography giants exploited the mass market of royalty-free and "microstock" images for their corporate "bottom line", where the price of individual images was reduced to very small values, in the interest of generating large corporate sales volumes (but giving back to the photographers only a very small percentage of the sales).  Some well-known storm chase photographers participated in this "sell-out" by contributing their "seconds" to these "el cheapo" markets of royalty-free images and microstock.  This, combined with the now-numerous chasers, flooded the niche market for storm photographs with inexpensive images of relatively high quality, contributing to a decline of market prices for everyone's photography.  A few selfish pricks (I could name names!) among the serious storm photographers contributed their images to this inexpensive market niche, essentially accelerating the overall decline of value associated with  storm images, to the point where the originally small niche market now is saturated with relatively inexpensive images.  It's become impossible to ask for a reasonable price to license storm images - clients can find inexpensive or even free images with a little searching.  You may think it's beneficial for promoting yourself to give images away for little or no value, but you're actually killing off the market value of your photographs, to say nothing of those from other photographers!

Relative newcomers to the storm photography market invariably are willing, more or less, to give away their images for the "credit" offered by image consumers.  This "credit" is, of course, worthless!  It gives virtually nothing back to photographers for the real costs associated with obtaining their storm images, but that illusion of recognition still seems to be an irresistible offer to the newcomer storm photographer.  The result:  the bottom has dropped out of the storm stock photography business.  Naturally, a small number of self-promoters (again, I could name names!) might still be able to command relatively high prices for their storm images, but the rest of us are shit out of luck!  It's become a dog-eat-dog world for storm stock photography.  If you're able to make a living at it, you likely have squeezed out those of us who find self-promotion problematic. 

Storm photography always was a small market, and it's been saturated by newcomers who evidently haven't thought through the business-related issues in their eagerness to promote themselves and their photographs.   The "fame" associated with licensing an image for a low price not only kills off the market for other photographers - it destroys your market, as well as that of others!

UPDATE:  I hasten to add that although I sell images at what I believe to be their fair market value, I'm not a pro photographer.  Image sales have never accounted for more than a tiny fraction of my income, so I don't depend on image sales to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.  Any profits I might have made have gone into supporting my photography habit.  Nevertheless, I respect those who are pro photographers enough to refuse to give my images away for peanuts.  Since I don't have to sell image licenses at all, I can charge whatever price seems right to me.  If buyers don't want to pay that much, they're free to look elsewhere. 


Lak said...

Chuck, I feel your pain, but what you are describing is not unique to storm photography. Professional photographers, even news photographers, have found their livelihoods threatened by the relatively high quality photographs taken by amateurs.

A more positive way to put it would be that these amateurs are not in it for the money -- they only care about whether their photographs are published.

For a view from the other side, see:

Chuck Doswell said...

Thanks for the link, Lak. It's useful to see the other side the issue, but this was a predictable sort of reaction to the problem I described. He's entitled to his opinion. I wonder if it might change, should he become a pro himself. I don't believe he understands the business side of being a photographer very well, which is typical of amateurs. I know it was true for me back when.

If the amateur has designs on becoming a professional, rather than remaining an amateur forever, then s/he is simply devaluing her/his own market power for the future. Why bother to get your images published if you don't hope to be paid for them, someday? Is it just an ego trip?

Or is it an act of generosity to share your images freely? That might be the case for a few, but I doubt if it applies to very many.

As for the notion that an amateur can obtain images that can compete with a pro's in the stock image market - if price is the main issue (as it seems to have become) then even a second- or third-rate image can be competitive if it's being sold for a low enough price! Many stock image users aren't actually all that concerned about the quality of the image, so long as it's in decent focus and is more or less properly exposed. Digital cameras have made that a lot easier.

There are many fine points that separate pros from amateurs, but those may not matter much in a marketplace where many image users are driven by cost. Storm images are essentially all one-of-a-kind. No one can go back and capture that same cloud or sky or lightning flash ever again. Of course, storm photography specialists can use their experience and knowledge to achieve certain image objectives, whereas an amateur might just happen to stumble to the right place at the right time, to capture a very special moment.

Even the pros at storm photography depend on luck to a considerable extent, but the good ones always seem consistently to capture special images. No single special image will land you a job with National Geographic as a photographer, but put enough chasers out there with decent digital cameras, they collectively can obtain a fairly substantial pile of decent images. This floods the market and drives down the price, beyond any doubt.

And, by the way, I'm not "blaming" the amateurs for what they do - but there can be no doubt their actions are responsible for helping to kill the storm stock photography market. I'm most upset about pros who have contributed to royalty free and microstock companies - they should know better than to undercut their colleagues.

Steve Ricketts said...

Hi Chuck...

A few comments from another perspective. I think this is but one example where advances in technology (including communication) have changed the playing field and in doing so have hurt some people. Digital cameras that are better and more affordable have made it easier for more people to take good photos. Maybe not "professional-quality" photos, but good enough for most purposes.

The internet has made it easy to share such pictures, to find them and to market them. It's a buyer's market.

Has this hurt the professional photographer? I'm sure it has (although I'm not in a position to know the specifics). Should we care? I guess; we need professional photographers. Should we do something about it? I don't think so; i.e. we cannot shield them from what has happened, nor do we owe it to them to try. They need to factor this into their business plans and model. Maybe develop a new one?

People have the right to pursue a hobby or small business. And maybe for them seeing one of their photos published is success in and of itself; i.e. they're not looking for compensation. That's their right; they should not worry re the impact that is has on others. So be it.

The invention of the cotton ginny threw a lot of people out of work. Ditto the printing press. And now ditto the internet, computers and digital cameras.

It's affected other people and industries. Not just photographers… think about people being about to print high-quality photographs on affordable printers (hurts people who run printing businesses).

I'm thinking it must be hard to carve out a living as an arts reviewer or commentator these days, given that one can set up something like Rotten Tomatoes and link to hundreds of reviews and reviewers… most of whom do it for free (for attention, exposure, whatever). Realtors likewise are affected (apart from being protected by the monopolistic MLS). Access to streaming television shows and movies is putting most video stores out of business.

Progress hurts some people.

Chuck Doswell said...


I'm not actually advocating that we embark on a crusade to save professional photographers. As noted in my update, that doesn't include me, anyway. My conscience says I should charge a reasonable price to license my images, at least to attempt to cover my costs, if not out of respect for the photographer's market. It's insulting to be offered "credit" for the use of an image, when I have real bills to pay. The trend has been to devalue photographic images to near the vanishing point, which I find quite discouraging but can do nothing to change.

I think what I'm really saying is that anyone expecting ever to earn a living wage from storm photography had better re-think that goal. At the very least, they'll have to have a business plan that doesn't depend on stock image sales. If a chaser has ambitions beyond remaining a hobbyist and doing it entirely for its own sake, then it's a dead dream.

Dan Robinson said...

What is unique to the photography industry is the exploitation of amateurs by for-profit corporations. It's not a normal business shift that you might see to competitors who have found a 'better way to build a mousetrap' while maintaining a profit. This is the wholesale replacement of a professional workforce by unpaid amateurs who operate without a need or want to have revenues exceed expenses. I struggle to find a parallel to this in any other profession. It would be the same as if groups of people who enjoyed working at McDonald's or Wal-Mart began doing it for free. The interesting thing about this happening with any other profession is that labor law/minimum wage violations would come into play.

There's no question that there is some intangible value for an amateur to see his or her work published, in terms of a thrill akin to riding a roller coaster or watching a good movie. But the difference here is that the corporations who exploit amateur photographers are in essence deriving vast benefit from what amounts to free labor. I would venture to say that if the average amateur who gives his work away to a high-profile project somehow realized the potential hundreds to thousands he is giving up by doing so, their attitude would change. Most amateurs I would imagine could use that money, at least to pay off their credit card from buying those new lenses instead of helping a corporate CEO get a four figure bonus.

Dan Bush said...

Interesting essay and discussion, Dr. Dosweell, and a great follow up to your August radio program interview on Shocknet Radio featuring Warren Faidley which I enjoyed immensely. In reading this I have found myself caught in the middle somewhere I guess. I am a hobbyist and take landscape photos and publish them on the web for my own enjoyment of taking and sharing with no original intention of charging any fees (I am an educator by day which is my livelyhood) but in doing so I have periodically attracted the attention of a few entities (mainly large enough corporations that can afford it) wanting to pay to use some of my images. Sometimes I have granted free use to those that ask for it when I judged the user to be "not for profit" or an educational entity or something that I just feel good about granting free use. I also have received money for the use of my images at what to me seemed like fair prices. I feel the choice is mine and don't feel responsible for hurting somebody else that chose such kind of photography for their livelyhood. Maybe it is up to the professional photogapher to create a product that is much better or more inovative or daring than what I have to offer with my meager equipment and talent. Then they can profit from their product. The business of stock photography is not or never will be as it used to be because of the economics of the times and the advancement of digital imaging.

Another case in point came up when I was recently asked to photograph my nieces wedding. This obviously takes the job away from a professional wedding photographer but in these economic times it seems like a good idea for my niece who only wants to get good photos of her special day at a much lower cost than having to pay thousands for a professional wedding photographer. I told her that I would do it without giving one thought as to whether or not it cut somebody out of job.

Sorry for the rambling. Thanks for a great blog.

Chuck Doswell said...

Dan B.,

My policy is, and always has been, to allow free use of my images for scientific, and educational purposes. But I don't always do so for "nonprofit" organizations and causes. For example, if some "nonprofit" cause is selling T-shirts for a fundraiser and they want free use to feature an image of mine, I ask them, "Did you get the T-shirts for free, as well?" In almost all instances, the answer is "Well ... no." In that case, I want to know why they expect my image to be free, as well! It cost me to obtain it, just as it cost the T-shirt manufacturer to make the T-shirts. The use of my image would have at least as much to do with their sales as the T-shirts themselves!

Your argument about pros needing to be more creative and innovative is pretty naive when it comes to the stock image business, where typical buyers are mostly worried about cost, not creativity or innovation! It may have more bearing on art sales or something of that sort, outside of stock image sales, but then it's off-point with regard to my blog.

Your wedding photography example is also off-point.

Chuck Doswell said...

Dan R.,

Interesting analogy with folks working at Mickey-D's/Wally-World, although I doubt that many employees truly enjoy their work enough to do it for free!

Strictly speaking, stock photographers aren't formally "employees" of these giant stock image corporations. They're contracters and don't receive a form W-2 at the end of the year for what they receive from the corporations - rather, it's a form 1099. The "agencies" don't pay them a regular wage and don't have to offer them health insurance or any other benefits. The photographers have to report their income, naturally, and pay taxes on it, but the corporations don't have to deal with any of that. No paperwork, no quarterly withholding tax payments to the state and the IRS, no worries at all! It's ideal for the corporations and pretty much sucks for the photographers.

===== Roger Edwards ===== said...

For better or worse, this is the direction that stock photography is headed. We need to adapt.

Chuck, I've noticed the very same trends as you, also as a semi-pro photographer. Sure, the "pro" (or serious amateur) with a reputable DSLR and excellent glass, and more importantly, the experience and understanding of subject matter to frame and compose well, will get the more consistently top-notch photos. Alas, that may not be what is in demand anymore.

Even when the economy was humming, this trend already had begun. Now, in tougher fiscal times, the reality is that quality matters less than price, and the quality at low price (or free) is considered "good enough". Easily available point-n-shoots, of which more and more have publishable resolutions and very well-tuned auto-settings these days, produce what's "good enough" for many dollar sites, advertisers and other commercial users. I've even seen cell-phone photos published both online and in print!

If enough people with pocket cameras and higher-res phones are out there saturating the landscapes and skyscapes by their collective presence, whatever their *individual* lack of "pro" grade talent, someone's going to capture some amazing scenes almost by accident. Then they practically will give away the shots to any number of "U-Report" news outlets, websites, or even print publishers. Therein lies a big part of the marketing trouble that pro (and semi-pro) outdoor photographers face. We can't be everywhere at once.

As a result, true stock-photo licenses are getting more and more uncommon, which makes me glad I don't depend on it for the money either! In fact, I've earned far more in the last two years off busting copyright violators than off the photo licenses themselves.

Garrett Fornea said...

So am I finished before I have even started? I am hoping to start my own small, private company to sell copies of my own photography. As a student in college that will soon seek financial independence from my family, my idea is to make a little money off of my storm chasing (and MANY other adventures not related to storms), and maybe help fund the hobby - thus helping alleviate a costly burden on my finances at some rate. I would additionally like to take and sell weather photography specifically geared toward spotter training and educational purposes - thus making a contribution to our community. Of course, this will be in addition to whatever job I am working at a given time. After all this market segment has been through, do you believe I can still make a fair amount of money with which I can fund my own chasing and exploring? And do you have any specific advice for getting started?

Chuck Doswell said...


What I think about your opportunities to earn income is that you're going to have to keep your day job. You should be able to sell images from time to time, depending on how aggressively you choose to market them. But the main point is you likely won't be able to make a living wage solely from storm stock photography. The storm stock category became saturated relatively quickly and remains so.