It's the End of Stock Photography as we know it, and I feel fine.

flickr photostream I believe we are fast approaching the death of the stock photography market (ar at least as we know it). For a very long time companies like Getty, Jupitermedia, and Corbis have held a tight grip on the entire stock photo market. Marketing companies, designers, and media shops would search their massive databases of photos and then pay large licensing fees to use the photos they wanted for print, web, and advertising. Most of these licenses were rather restrictive.

Well, that was before everyone had a digital camera and before the internet made it so easy to share photography.

Several years ago, a small startup by the name of iStockPhoto was launched with a revolutionary idea: let anyone register, contribute photos, and allow them to upload and download royalty-free images and illustrations on a profit-sharing basis.

The iStockPhoto idea took off and designers like myself were very happy to contribute some of our work and use some of the proceeds to get other people’s photos for our own designs. Since then the company has grown tremendously – they’ve added many more features, licensing options, etc. The photo prices also increased.

Getty Images bought out iStockPhoto in February of this year for $50M. Getty is now faced with trying to balance their old-school (and very profitable) stock photo model with the wildy successful (and less profitable) iStockPhoto model. One has obviously been cannibalizing the other.

As hardware costs and barriers to entry are diminishing online, there’s nothing stopping more companies like iStockPhoto from launching. As a matter of fact it’s inevitable. With the current monetization models out there, it seems like you could very well run a free stock photo site and make it successful. The challenge (as it always is) is reaching critical mass, but if you have a good strategy, it can be done.

In 2004, Flickr added Creative Commons (CC) licensing options to photos contributed by their users. In 2005 Flickr added a Creative Commons search to their database as well. As Flickr’s user base grew, so did the number of searchable photos licensed under different CC options.

As John Batelle recently pointed out, there are now 22M photos licensed under Creative Commons on Flickr. I’m actually planning on licensing my own photos under a non-commercial attribution license. Last week a Brazilian publisher emailed my girlfriend asking permission to use one of her Flickr photos in a textbook her company was producing. Since it was for a good cause (education), she obliged.

Getting permission to use Flickr photos (unless it’s already given via CC) is much smarter than paying massive royalties to Getty or any other large old-school photo aggregator who then ends up splitting the proceeds with the artist.

Flickr and other services that make it easy to search large databases of photos and contact the photographers directly are far more cheaper and efficient than the old system. The stock photography oligopoly is being replaced with socially distributed systems and I’m happy about it. More people will see my work, I’ll be able to get the work of others more easily – everyone wins! (Well, almost everyone).

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

stockphoto shooter October 26, 2006 at 9:08 pm

“For a very long time companies like Getty, Jupitermedia, and Corbis have held a tight grip on the entire stock photo market.”

Unless you are referring to the last 5 to 8 years as a “very long time,” you are mistaken. It was only in recent years that distributors like G, J, and C became as powerful as they are, mainly by purchasing dozens of smaller agencies, many of them specialised. In other words, they tried very hard to become one-stop shops, and they’ve succeeded to a great degree.

“Last week a Brazilian publisher emailed my girlfriend asking permission to use one of her Flickr photos in a textbook her company was producing. Since it was for a good cause (education), she obliged.”

I think it’s great your girlfriend wants to help with a good cause. Education is a good cause, but remember that textbook publishers are for-profit corporations that are interested in making more money, which free photo licenses help them do.

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Markus October 27, 2006 at 9:43 am

I’d say it’s more like 10 years, but fair enough – that’s not really a “very long time” (I keep thinking of everything in Internet years).

Aggregating data and controlling its distribution is being replaced with far more efficient, more open systems in many industries. Just like with music or real estate or anything else where control and distribution of information was once the key competitive advantage – that advantage is slowly fading. It will take a little while for it all to open up, but I see it as a good thing. And yes, there will be fallout in many industries – but they just have to adapt. Getty et al just have to be smart – which I’m sure they will be.

And the example I gave of the Brazilian publisher illustrates a very key point. My girlfriend took that photo for her own enjoyment and ended up making it public (she also happens to be very talented). The cost for her to let it be used elsewhere is nothing and she gets satisfaction out of knowing it will help some kid somewhere learn English, even if the publisher ends up making a profit – that part is not as relevant as … say a stock photographer might want it to be.

Thanks for the input though, you do make some good points, photo shooter.

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John Andrews October 28, 2006 at 1:04 am

I think this is a good thought piece but I also think the evolutionary process has a longer path from Getty to free. Getty organized professional photographers for distribution, which included managing the business processes (copyright, controlled distribution,etc). They didn’t do a good job, didn’t respect the top photographers enough, and didn’t do enough development. They’re under the competitive crunch, for sure. But is free the next syndication model for photographs? I doubt it.

If you can’t tell a professional photo from an amateur snapshot then maybe the photo wasn’t competitive (e.g. sales worthy). That doesn’t generalize so easily. I think today’s standards for images on the web is very, very low compared to print. I can’t say what kind of “pro” will provide the imagery once the web demands higher quality, but it will be content and I am pretty sure the quality stuff will cost money.

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Markus October 30, 2006 at 10:59 am

It’s only the end of it “as we know it” – meaning the landscape is changing. The market for stock photography won’t disappear, but it will shift as more and more people have access to better equipment and the traditional barriers to finding large numbers of photos are removed.

The most talented photographers will always get paid (and well).

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Ted September 12, 2008 at 11:57 pm

I’m afraid I must disagree with Markus. The face of professional photography has already changed, and more change is on the way. I believe the “market” for stock photography, within a relatively short time, will be saturated with technically perfect, artistic, profound, and downright beautiful photographs of everything on the planet. These pictures will be more than suitable for most uses either on the web or in print. This is assured by the continual improvements in digital capture that require little or no technical photography knowledge by the user. Tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of photographs are being made every day, by “every” man and woman. Many of these folks are quite talented, with very good “eyes” and points of view. We never saw them before because they did not want to learn the medium and had no easy outlet for their work. Now they are free from jargon, chemicals and costs. Photo sharing by such unschooled talent will ultimately kill even the royalty free stock agencies, as well as the old rights managed houses. Access to photographs of anything we can imagine will be available on ever-improving search engines. And the majority of those pictures will be offered for little more “profit” than a byline. There can be little control of abuse of copyright in such an environment, erasing the potential for profits by not only agencies, but photographers as well. I envision a time when there may be little or no use for technically trained artists in the stock photography medium, especially one who expects to “get paid (and well)”. Nobody will be willing to pay such a person for his/her work with so much freely available “straight” photography and fine art work online. I believe that after this initial surge, we will witness a permanent contraction in professional (for profit) stock photography. The genre of magazine and other print production is dying a slow death, leaving little chance for pros of such inclination who can manage to remain in business. Online magazine coverage and niche projects may support a very select few and perhaps the “best of the best” amateur stock photographers. Advertising (the most creative and demanding of photographic genres) should survive and continue to do well, but again, for only a select few. There will always be a need for news photographers (who will all migrate to video as their employers’ websites increasingly demand). At the local level, there will always be school portraits (though I believe this business is dying as well with the advent of digital imaging), and weddings, etc. But stock photography will not offer the opportunity for profits for many in the future as the bank of photographs available goes from millions to billions to trillions of images. The purveyors of camera equipment and those photographers who find more profit in writing books than in making images will always conjure up visions of greatness in the medium. But in the end – as time goes by, and for most aspiring photographers – it will be more akin to the poor ghetto kid dreaming of being a basketball star. Only the greatest of talent and those with undying determination will survive.

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Martin K December 10, 2009 at 7:52 am

I was going to run a little stock photo site myself. I registered a domain and then did the research. Big mistake. It seems that photography has pretty much died, as a profit mechanism, and my site may just turn into a blog for photographers/videographers etc. Any ideas for making my site a success would be great. Thanks.

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Lennie March 5, 2010 at 6:09 am

Recently some people got together when an other free stock photo site got bought by Getty and started their own site. It seems to be doing pretty well for a site that only went online 2 months ago:

http://www.rgbstock.com/

Maybe that is the inbetween you are looking for John Andrews ? It is a place where people come and have their photos judged before they go online. They are also instructed about what is wrong with their photos, so they learn and improve their skills.

It seems a lot of people like that concept.

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