We have typically used the blog to inspire and congratulate. Today is atypical.
When we started to envision The PhotoShelter Collection in early 2007, we went out and conducted research to understand the needs of photo buyers. We consistently heard from a myriad of sources that they were disappointed with stock photography because it lacked diversity and realness. We talked to a number of photographers that wanted to get into the stock photography game, but didn’t know where to start. They were good photographers, but not full-time stock photographers, and therefore they were largely ineligible to play with the traditional agencies.
We believed that we could create a more democratic system – a marketplace for stock photography where virtually any one could participate. And a few months later, The PhotoShelter Collection was born. Upload your images, keyword & price, attach the appropriate releases, and voila! You were now a stock photographer.
Despite the naysayers, the photography was actually quite good. A number of stock executives and consultants corroborated this fact, and we felt good about being able to provide imagery that had largely been unseen and unlicensed before. The pricing was fair, and photographers received the majority of the sale.
We knew that sales would be challenging, but we honestly underestimated the complexity of sales. Licensing photography isn’t like selling a widget on eBay. It’s intellectual property fraught with clearance issues. Here are a few key learnings:
1. Stock photography is a slow growing market dominated by a single player
There was a single moment for a company to capitalize in stock photography, and Getty took it. The use of stock imagery isn’t growing fast enough to create a displacement opportunity, and Getty is far too aggressive (and smart) to allow secondary players to displace them in any fashion.
2. Research Requests move too quickly for individuals to react in a timely fashion
We believed that using the crowd to fulfill research requests would give us an enormous advantage over the competition, but the nature of the industry is such that many research requests are due within a day, making it nearly impossible for non-fulltime stock photographers to react. Research requests are therefore relegated to what they’ve always been – namely the locating of existing images within an extant library that are ready for immediate licensing.
3. Buyers desire more diversity, but convenience (aka subscription deals) triumphs this desire
The largest consumers of stock photography are often locked into subscription deals, which makes it very difficult for them to consider alternate sources. Subscription deals are very bad for photographers, but great for business.
4. A crowd-source model for stock will likely never work
Licensing a photo is not a simple proposition. It is not like selling a widget. There are huge intellectual property issues, technical issues, and meta data issues that are difficult for even full-time pros to grasp. Companies that represent collections of stock photography have to build entire divisions of staff to deal with rights clearances and lawsuit that arise from improper clearance.
Despite these odds, we did make incredible in-roads to agencies and publications alike. But when we viewed our growth over the past few months, we became all too aware that our trajectory wasn’t putting us on the right path. And despite repeated attempts to alter our trajectory, we were unable to substantially change it. Even though we are in the midst of our best month ever of sales, we believe that the growth trend isn’t step enough to sustain the stock photography business in the long term.
So we are exiting the stock photography marketplace, and getting back to our roots with the Personal Archive, which still gives individual photographers the tools to market and license their images themselves. That business is doing quite nicely, and we look forward to continuing to support photographers and photography.
The pundits will surely say “I told you so.” And maybe we will end up being just a tiny footnote in the history of photography, but on the other hand, we were also the largest aggregation of photographers participating in stock photography ever (And no, I do not count those places where a photo sell for $1. I remain defiantly stubborn on the microstock front as ever). We never assumed that this would be easy. Quite to the contrary. And yet, it was a goal worth fighting for. Tonight, I’m going to bed knowing that we tried something that had never been tried – a way to provide photographers with something they hadn’t had in a long time: a fair deal and respect.