Saturday, August 27, 2011

That's more like it?

Many years ago, I first heard a story, although I no longer recall how I heard it.  The story concerns Allen D. (Al) Pearson, who at the time was the Director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, MO (which eventually became the Storm Prediction Center and moved to Norman, OK).  The story goes that some old woman was known to call the NSSFC and complain about every tornado warning for her location that turned out to be a false alarm.  After a tornado outbreak in that area, Al got a call from the woman, whose home (the story goes) was utterly destroyed by a tornado.  Her words to Al?  "Now that's more like it!"  This story may be apocryphal.  I don't know for certain, but it illustrates something that has always left me puzzled about how "the public" responds to weather warnings.

This has been a year characterized by some of the worst tornado events in our nation's history.  After several decades of relatively low tornado fatality counts, the nation has surpassed 500 fatalities with several months yet to go in the year.  We've had a single tornado in Joplin, Missouri, kill more than 150 people for the first time since 1947 (the tornado that hit Woodward, Oklahoma).   It's evident that tornadoes remain a deadly threat, which is what many of us have been saying for decades.   There's already considerable whining and complaining that Hurricane Irene hasn't lived up to the "hype" generated by the warnings.

It seems that there are many folks who, like the old woman in my story involving Allen Pearson, seemingly would prefer to become storm casualties and have their lives and property devastated!  I completely fail to understand the "logic" of this attitude.  Of course, no one wants to alarm people needlessly, but the fact is that our ability to predict storms falls well short of perfection.  False alarms are an inevitable consequence of meteorological uncertainty, as are occasions where a warning fails to go out and yet the event happens.  The only way to never miss an event is to predict the event everywhere, all the time.  The only way to never issue a false alarm is to never issue any warnings at all.  Reality is such that the science leaves us somewhere between these two unacceptable extremes.  An objective evaluation of the tornado warnings show that a considerable majority of them turn out to be false alarms.   By the way, for most of its history, the USA's public weather forecasters never issued tornado warnings because they were forbidden to do so!  It was feared by many otherwise intelligent folks that such a warning would cause a panic!

Some people have complained that the National Weather Service issues too many needless tornado warnings.  There may be some validity to such complaints, especially when considering individual NWS offices, whose office policies regarding warnings can vary from one office to another.  The basic idea behind this concern is the so-called "cry wolf" problem, where the working hypothesis is that "the public" is desensitized by too many warnings.  Various proposals by various people have been made to remedy the problem, mostly impractical or unjustifiable from the point of view of the science of storms.

I've argued that the overwarning problem (if it is indeed a problem) is the direct consequence of one inescapable fact:  no one is ever killed (at the time) by a false alarm!  Forecasters are much more likely to be condemned for not issuing a warning, thereby missing a storm event that winds up killing someone, than by issuing a warning that turns out to be a false alarm.  This is beyond any doubt the primary cause for the overwarning bias.  I've argued that one way to reduce or eliminate this bias is to convert to probabilistic warnings.  I hear constantly about how and why that won't work, but that's drifting off-point in this blog.

Consider the "desensitization argument":  One comment that I hear quoted in the media from time to time is "Oh, we hear tornado warnings all the time, and nothing ever happens!"  All the time?  Really?  I don't think the objective evidence comes anywhere even close to that clearly hyperbolic declaration.  In any given location, even in "Tornado Alley", tornado warnings are relatively infrequent.  Are people seriously expecting to hit by a tornado every time a tornado warning is issued?  Why would people think that?  What shortfall is responsible for such a patently absurd expectation?  Surely all the weather broadcasters who are complaining about NWS warnings could have done a better job of explaining the reality of the warning challenge to their audiences!  Nor am I attempting to make excuses for the NWS - in fact, I believe the accuracy of their warnings certainly could use some improvement.  But someone needs to understand just why "the public" has this attitude and start a public information campaign to eliminate it!

This has been a terrible year for weather tragedies:  not just tornadoes,  but also high winds, floods, hurricanes, etc.  Surely people should be thankful when a warning for potentially dangerous weather turns out to be a false alarm!  There are hundreds of dead people from storm hazards so far this year, and likely thousands of their friends and families who, if given the option, would prefer that those events had not happened at all.  That they had simply been another false alarm.  Any of them happily would change places with some whiner grousing about false alarms.

If you choose to take the attitude that so many warnings are false alarms that you can ignore them indefinitely, there's a chance you may be wrong at some point in the future - dead wrong!  Not a high probability, though.  So you're most likely going to be able to live a long and productive life, complaining about false alarms to the end of your days.  Shouldn't you be grateful?

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. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stock photography for storm photographers - Part 1

Back in the latter parts of the last century (mid-1990s), after years of occasionally licensing the use of my storm photography on my own, I was invited to join the stock company managed by Tony Stone.  This was quite an honor, actually, since Tony Stone Images (TSI) was one of the most prestigious image stock photography agencies in the world.  This promised to transform my storm photography into an operation that could help pay off the very real costs incurred by storm chasing, and perhaps even generate a modest profit, with which I could maintain and upgrade my equipment.  It was around this time that I formed my own Oklahoma corporation, Chuck Doswell's Outdoor Images, Inc., which has become C. Doswell Enterprises, Inc.

Unfortunately, shortly after I began to submit images to TSI, they were bought out by what was then the start-up corporate giant, Getty Images.  Tony Stone himself likely was paid handsomely from the sale, but we photographers who were bought out had no say in the matter.  My original contract with TSI rant a scant two pages, as I recall.  After TSI's takeover by Getty, all the former Tony Stone photographers were offered a new contract to sign, with a very clear black-and-white decision to make.  It was about 27 pages long, mostly in unintelligible legalese (lawyer jargon).  That sent a very clear message to me!  The particulars of the contract offer by Getty were non-negotiable, which was another unmistakable signal!  Anyway, I didn't sign.  For five years after that, by the terms of the buy-out (about which I had no say, remember) Getty had exclusive rights to market those images of mine that they paid for when they bought out TSI, so I couldn't sell those particular images on my own.  That time has long passed, of course.

It was clear to me from the start that Getty Images wasn't a business partner with its "content providers" (photographers), as TSI had been all along.  A business partner negotiates agreements (contracts), rather than dictating terms.  Instead, Getty was exploiting the contributed images to gain further market share, with aggressive license fee reductions to drive out competitors (or force them to merge with Getty).  When I started with TSI, the photographers received 50% of any sales with TSI - a so-called "50% split".  With time, Getty cut the photographer's split down to 30% (last I heard), or even less for some sales.  Reducing the pay-out to photographers increased their ability to leverage their market share.  Typical sleazy corporate business tactics.  Getty sold some of my images for $1, so my take from the "sale" (more like a giveaway) would be 30 cents!!  Plus, they bought out other stock companies, such as Visuals Unlimited (VU)  Sadly, when VU was bought out by Getty, I had a contract with VU for a 50% split.  When they became "partners" with Getty (i.e., they sold out!), then my split from VU became 50% of the 30% from Getty - that is, 15%!  Getty had reached out and bit my ass again, even though I had never signed a contract with them!!

I still receive occasional checks from Getty and Visuals Unlimited for image sales from past submissions, but they amount to a mere shadow of what I used to receive.  I certainly have no plans to submit more images to VU (or Getty).  The stock companies siphon off the profits and give the photographers (now referred to as "content providers") whatever percentage the companies want to, and no photographer can do anything about it.  Some ex-Getty photographers tried to resist at first, and formed the Stock Artists Alliance (of which I was a charter member) to try to stand up to the Getty steamroller.  They basically failed in that effort, and I finally stopped renewing my SAA membership in 2009.  There was no point.  SAA got some trivial concessions but all the important matters (the split, for example) were simply non-negotiable and the SAA was powerless to do anything to change that.

The major stock companies, Getty and Corbis, have swallowed up most of the small-time stock photography operations.  In the process, the former relationship between photographers and their agents has been transformed into one of exploited "contract workers" for a giant corporation.  It might still be possible for photographers in general to make a reasonable living by stock photography - I have no direct knowledge of that - but I seriously doubt if anyone truly making a reasonable income by licensing photographs can only be working for these corporate giants.  During recent times, my income from stock image sales has declined to become just a tiny part of the income for my corporation, so I had to branch out into other things, such as scientific consulting.  Hence, the name change for my company. 

Next time, I'll discuss how the specific market for storm stock photographers has evolved.