Daryl Lang at PDN reported that Getty Images is shutting down its wholly-owned stock division. This division was staffed by researchers, producers and photographers who shot specific themes which were considered to be trendy or evergreen (e.g. a NASCAR-like racetrack shoot without logos or other IP problems). The intent was to own the images outright so that royalties need not be paid to photographers.
It’s been just over a year since we shut down the PhotoShelter Collection – our ill-fated attempt to bring diversity into the stock photography market while giving the photographer the majority of sales. At the time (and probably still), many photographers felt duped, and hurt that we didn’t give it more time to mature. But now that we’re many months away from that traumatic event, I can restate the following: Stock photography sucks. I’m not talking about the people who shoot it. I’m talking about the state of the industry. But let’s digress for a moment.
A brief primer on the California Gold Rush. In 1848, a guy found some gold near Sacramento. Despite attempts to keep the news quiet, word got out pretty quickly, which set in motion a migration of some 300,000 people to California around 1849 to prospect for gold.
The early entrants into the scene made some money, and the merchants that were supporting the Gold Rush (anyone heard of Levi’s?) also did quite well. Innovation thrived as prospectors looked to become more efficient at finding gold. But as the field got crowded, and the gold became increasingly harder to extract, many people actually ended up losing money. And today, to be a player in the gold market, you need a massive infrastructure to mine and extract gold (and apparently a lot of acid). (and sure, gold is selling for $1000/ounce, but that’s arguably a reaction to currency fluctuations in an uncertain economy rather than usable demand).
Oh yeah, about stock photography….
A small group of people used to make a lot of money in stock — as they should have. It was hard. It was often expensive to produce. There was no digital and there was no Internet. But around the turn of the millennium, things changed dramatically. Technology intersected with a business model (namely, microstock) and created a massive disruption. You want paradigm shift? This was a paradigm shift.
The hobbyist had a marketplace, and he had the tools (in-camera and in Photoshop) to rival/exceed the quality of many pros. He had disposable income to buy equipment which the manufacturers loved. Stories about guys making $100,000s/year emerged. Social networks like flickr helped create a community for the photo enthusiast — a term that used to conjure up “guy with camera” taking creepy nudes at a camera club down by the shore. First movers of these new marketplaces like iStock and Fotolia made millions. Most importantly, the people who traditionally paid a few hundred dollars for an image, were now paying $1 because budgets were getting slashed.
The average stock photo simply isn’t worth what it once was.
I consider myself to be a pretty decent photographer, but when I search for an image on iStockPhoto, I’m blown away. There are some very good photographers with Photoshop skills that make up for any lack of talent or equipment. And the proof of the paradigm shift to me? I’ve purchased iStock images when I’ve determined that I can’t shoot something better myself. Why spend 2 hours setting up a shot to come up with something inferior, when I can buy something for a few bucks. Should I be hung? Next time your spouse asks you to help throw together a marketing brochure for his/her company, what are you going to do to get that nice photo of a clock?
So as I was saying, stock photography sucks. It’s not that you can’t make money. It’s just much harder than it used to be. Generalists won’t survive. We have enough yellow rubber ducks against seamless. You have to specialize and understand who’s buying to really succeed. Guys like Masa Ushioda will be fine. But maintaining a staff with salary and benefits to produce seasonal content while facing downward pricing pressure from another one of your properties….forget it.
Where does that leave us? There are probably enough stock photos out there already to satisfy most needs for a long time — at least at the price that buyers are now willing to pay. So photographers who are reliant on checks from Getty should get used to it getting smaller (I know, you already are). If a buyer can’t find what they want, they’ll probably still commission photography. But if you want to compete at that level, you really need to be a good photographer, not just a guy with a camera. There are fewer individuals making enough money from stock photography to support themselves. The traditional marketplaces like Getty are reaching around the darkness, and while they were still a public company, the only bright spot was iStockPhoto.
(The one bright spot in the Getty announcement, if you can call it that, is that this ends “wholly owned” content and puts the rights back in the hands of the photographer — at least as far as Getty is concerned)
Don’t enter a market at the end of the lifecycle. You’ll always get burned. If you want to play the stock photography game, don’t leave it up to chance to make sales. Understand who is buying the images you’re shooting, and make sure your marketing plan includes them. This might mean building a clientele and licensing directly. It might mean moving to footage. It might mean none of the above. Like so many creative endeavors in life, the best creatives aren’t necessarily the ones who succeed. The average photographer with superior business sense will continue to dominate.
Speaking of stock, come join me for Ellen Boughn’s panel at PhotoPlus Expo on Thursday at 1:15pm at the Javitz Center in New York. It’ll be a great time to learn from the panel or throw tomatoes. Either way, hope to see you there!