The Future Of Stock Photography
For the consumer, or business buyer, the ability to pit the work of the entire online population against one another to find the best product or service has been an innovation to celebrate; so goes the marketing spiel of crowdsourcing, and in many respects, it’s perfectly truthful.
Equally, while a crowdsourcing platform is in the process of growing, it also benefits those product creators and service providers who might otherwise have lost out to more established competitors.
In photographic terms, the most prominent example of crowdsourcing has been the rise of the stock library. Professionals, and even hobbyists, could, for the first time ever, sell their wares to the world, regardless of whether their name carried any prominence in the industry.
Forgive my pessimism, but this idealistic notion seems a bit 2005 now. The overwhelming number of images available for purchase (Alamy, alone, has over 38 million images for sale, at the time of writing) is making sales difficult for all apart from mass uploaders. In the face of this over-saturated marketplace, photo buyers are resorting to name-searching their go-to photographers anyway, essentially putting us back to the pre-stock ages.
What’s more, stock libraries are taking a fatter and fatter commission on the pictures they sell for us. Getty‘s near-monopolization of the industry has only exacerbated this problem.
In total, we’re in serious danger of losing the democratization that stock libraries originally brought to the photographic industry.
A New Generation
The money-grabbing exhibited by many established stock libraries is actually opening up new opportunities. Even sites using essentially the traditional system can gain attention by taking only an “ethical” commission on images sold. Look at the much publicized and vaunted Stocksy. It is the brainchild of iStockPhoto founder Bruce Livingstone, so some publicity was always likely, but the combination of the site’s handpicking of contributors, and the 70 per cent royalties it pays to its photographers, is accelerating Stocksy to the head of the queue.
This model appears to be one which will work well for all involved. Stocksy will make sales, albeit only within its stylistic niche. The chosen few photographers won’t be overwhelmed with competitors, and sales will be well rewarded. Even image purchasers, presented with a carefully curated selection of imagery, will be happy.
But there remains a problem. How does this help the rest of us, who aren’t invited to the Stocksy party?
Instead of looking at tweaks to the now antiquated model of the stock library middleman, perhaps we should be looking to more radical re-imaginations of the image selling marketplace.
Imagebrief was a prime example, yet it displayed the apparent hallmarks of a stock library; a large community of photographers competed against one another to sell their images to a few buyers. Except that in this instance, it was the buyers making the offers, in essence putting their stock requirement out to tender, and waiting for the Imagebrief photographic community to come up with the goods. It’s also worth pointing out that the budgets being offered for stock purchasing here were extremely attractive. Imagebrief shut down in 2018.
A similar, commission-based platform is being set up by the folks at Snapwire, except that the focus here is on phoneography, with contributors able to receive commissions, and then take, edit and upload images, all via their handheld device.
These platforms are obviously innovative, and they’re certainly welcome. I can’t help feeling there’s a greater issue that needs to be addressed, though.
The photographic stock markets are, currently, almost entirely reliant on commercial buyers. Large firms are willing to pay large prices for high quality imagery, when brand perception is at stake.
The problem is that the vast majority of third party images used are not used for commercial purposes — they are actually used in Joe Blogger’s posts. When faced with eye-wateringly expensive commercially-aimed stock photography, many amateur wordsmiths simply resort to “stealing” the watermarked previews provided by stock libraries, or even worse, appropriating images from the photo streams of Flickr users.
As a result, it would be all too easy to write bloggers off as a menace. However, given the hopelessly imbalanced ratio of photographers to buyers, maybe we should be looking to bloggers and other online folk to provide a new revenue stream.
Just imagine if bloggers adopted a platform such as Imgembed as their go-to source of imagery. It is a service which provides free-to-use photos for nearly any online-based purpose. Not a terribly promising premise, I know, but there is, of course, a catch. Images – all of which are provided by participating photographers – can only be embedded freely with an Imgembed frame around them, which acts as a watermark, and photographers may enforce an impressions limit on their pictures. This means, in essence, that once a certain number of visitors have viewed the embedded image, the owner of the website must pay the photographer a licence fee, or the image will be automatically removed, or heavily watermarked, by Imgembed.
This system is, by no means, going to provide photographers with the same kind of significant payouts possible with Alamy or Getty, but it may prove to be a valuable new avenue for microstock in the shorter term.
But what of the longer term? The image file marketplace undoubtedly has a long way still to grow, but my personal perspective is that, for the individual photographer, it will never be as lucrative as those early golden years.
As a result, photographers need to work out for themselves what they want to get from stock. If earning pocket money is the desired outcome, then uploading to libraries — en masse, I hasten to add — will continue, for a while yet, to be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
Equally, for those who have contacts in the commercial sectors most likely to be interested in their work, stock actually looks likely to get better. In fact, some photographers are starting to circumvent libraries, and sell their stock in the same way prints have always been sold, via their personal website.
For the vast majority of professionals and semi-professionals, however, stock needs to be re-evaluated. Anyone equipped with a smartphone can upload thousands of images to the existing libraries, so it is only any “added value” each photographer can provide which is going to elevate them above occasional sale territory.