10 Oct 2008 Can Intervention Save the Stock Photography Industry from Microstock?
Zave Smith, professional stock photographer and president of the Stock Artists Alliance recently wrote an open letter to the leaders of the stock photography industry. Like many articles on the topic, the letter describes the problems of the current stock photography market. However, rather than solely describing problems, Zave actually proposes a solution: promote the most talented microstock contributors to the major collections.
Towards the end of the letter, Zave invites other industry stakeholders to tell him why his idea will not work and to share ideas that will help “put the industry on a healthier track”. Despite the late hour when I first read Zave’s letter, I posted a comment providing my thoughts on why his idea wouldn’t work. After a short email conversation, Zave agreed to remove my cumbersome late-night comment in lieu of this more structured response.
My view is that the introduction of the crowdsourcing model to the stock photography industry has distributed the power so widely that no single person, organization or alliance has enough influence to change the direction. Generally, I don’t feel Zave’s suggestions can produce results.
Despite that, I feel the discussion that Zave has initiated has value for our collective understanding of how the market is changing and particularly how we can each best position ourselves to maximize our success in the new market. So, here are my specific responses.
Promoting Microstock Photographers
When images appear on the Microstock sites that have more value, being produced by photographers with more talent these images and photographers should be immediately promoted to the major collections where they can be sold at sustainable price points.
This is already happening. Microstock photographers are aware of opportunities in the traditional market and many already spread their portfolios up and down the price spectrum of the market. Top microstockers are often approached my traditional stock agencies and many are accepting the best offers. Some elite microstockers have already moved away from producing for the microstock market altogether.
So while the very solution Zave is proposing is already occurring naturally, I see problems with doing it in a structured manner.
First, how will it remove high quality photos from the microstock market? All the photographers I know who have moved up to shooting for the traditional market have left their existing portfolios in the microstock market. What else can they do with these photos? What stock photo buyer will happily pay traditional prices for a photo that has previously sold (often thousands of times) in the microstock market?
Second, certain types of photos generate more revenue in the microstock market than they would at traditional agencies. There’s also a high level of certainty that a quality stock photo will sell in the microstock market. So while sales are more lucrative in the traditional market, there’s not the same guarantee of revenue or consistency.
Protecting the Value of Images
This idea of protecting the value of premium images also applies to the growing trend to offer major clients access to premium collection images for minimal fees. [snip] While I can understand the market need for preferred pricing and for subscription access, programs I again feel that allowing all images to be sold this way devalues all images.
I can’t speak to the traditional market subscriptions mentioned in this paragraph, but I have a different view on the idea of ‘protecting the value of images’.
- Digital photography made images infinitely plentiful
- Advances in camera technology improved the quality of everyone’s photos
- The Internet separated photos from the bounds of geography
These three things caused an explosion in supply to which the natural economic response is a drop in price.
Zave qualified his statement referring specifically to “premium” images, which obviously have ‘less’ exposure to downward price pressures from oversupply. This high end appears to be responding to the changes differently with some photographers raising their prices.
Beyond that caveat, the fundamental value of an image has been changed by the explosion in supply. Like anything, an image is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay. In an oversupplied market where buyers have a high level of choice, supplier competition inevitably forces prices down. The price equilibrium that is reached at each level of quality is the new value of an image. There is nothing sellers can do to organically protect value.
Zave is “urge[ing] our distributors to stop pitching Microstock to valuable commercial and publishing clients”, effectively an artificial intervention. There are two reasons why I don’t see this helping to maintain the value of images:
- How many big budget buyers (i.e. “valuable clients”) are unaware of microstock? If the quality and/or license is inappropriate, they will understand if they’re not pitched microstock. But otherwise, won’t they wonder why an entire market segment is missing from the pitch?
- From what I read there’s too much price competition among the current distributors for any one distributor to boycott pitching microstock alone. Distributors can’t even agree to do so together without raising suspicion of price collusion.
From what I see, the ‘value’ of an image has already changed, so we’re only left with protecting ‘price’. However, in a market that is now wide open you’d be working against the market forces.
Make Them Pay
I would also urge our distributors to stop pitching Microstock to valuable commercial and publishing clients. For businesses where quality images are an important part of their communication and branding, make them pay what our images are worth to them, which is far more than a buck.
Extracting the maximum amount of money from image buyers is, indeed, one way to do business. Stock photographers arguing about image pricing often portray designers who buy microstock images as evil and selfish. They often presume designers pocket the difference in price and charge their clients the same. If a professional photographer in Elbonia has production costs low enough to profit from a lower selling price, why must designers buy the locally produced photos?
Many of the inputs of my business are worth more to me than what I pay for them. I can’t work without Internet access, but if my Internet service provider started charging me in line with what the service is worth to me, I’d be switching provider very quickly. My trade publication subscriptions have enormous value to my business and are also very cheap. If they raised the price just because they knew I would pay more, I’d also be looking for alternatives. Like Royalty Free photos, many people benefit from each issue of a publication. If I commissioned research for which I was the sole benefactor, just like with a Rights Managed photo, I’d expect to pay a lot more.
Learning from the Past
I have been in the photography business for 19 years now. One of the lessons that I have learned is…
Zave has six times my quantity of experience. Twelve if you consider I’m only part time. So while I respect Zave for his experience and position in the industry and know I can learn a lot from him, I think we all have the same quantity of experience in this new market. Things are very different now. The market is now global and wide open, so many of the lessons of the past simply don’t apply. Organized promotion of microstock contributors may have worked when distribution was a barrier to entry for new agencies, but not in the current market.
The irony of me publicly opposing the views of the president of the SAA is not lost on me. My hope is that sharing our views from different ends of the market will help us each better understand the whole picture.
Come Together for Positive Change
For we are at a point in time where all of us need to come together to share our views and work together for positive change.
This is already happening too, but at the other end of the market. Microstockers are known for our strong sense of community. We collaborate and compete simultaneously, sharing ideas, providing feedback, educating each other, constantly communicating. We spontaneously unite around issues of mutual concern, rapidly rallying a crowd to provide feedback on agency changes or hunt down copyright infringements. These instant crowds disband as quickly as they form. It’s a realtime and constant conversation, taking place in forums and blogs, Twitter and Facebook, IM and SMS.
An open market is not controlled by “leaders”. It’s controlled democratically by movement of the crowd, by price and commission rates, competitive forces, and by supply and demand. Some see this as a market ‘out of control’. Others see it as democratic, organic and egalitarian. The former group want to impose rules, suggestion solutions, form associations, anything to regain control. The latter group just look for the opportunities.
Health of the Market
A minority who invested in microstock […] early have made money but I predict as time goes on these success stories will dwindle as oversupply makes the investment less and less worthwhile.
This is true. Microstock agencies are adding over 40,000 images a week. Many traditional stock photographers are starting to contribute to the microstock market and they’re contributing high quality photos (relative to microstock) in very large quantities. With smart search algorithms the high quality photos naturally float to the top in the microstock market, raising quality levels. This rapid rise of quantity and quality is making it increasingly difficult for hobbyists and photography students to get started in stock photography through microstock.
I would argue that “unhealthy” is subjective, but that’s a big debate which I’ll leave for another post.
Survival of Traditional Stock Photographers
I see only two options for traditional stock photographers to stay profitable in the face of the changes to the industry. The first is to differentiate on quality and create images that microstockers can’t reproduce. The other is to drastically lower production values in order to compete with microstockers who can produce images much cheaper or offset costs in other ways (have a day job, use friends as models, etc).
In this topic which often elicits much ranting, Zave’s letter was calm, thoughtful and proposed logical solutions. Hopefully I’ve succeeding in responding respectfully and contributing my views in a constructive manner. I’m looking forward to more constructive debate. What are your views?