No, I’m not still going on about the financial crisis, this is more about an image problem. Give a group of creatives a project of any sort these days and the conversation will soon get round to stock libraries: photography, video, illustration, music and audio clips are now routinely bought by both agency and client alike, and everybody has a story to tell about their experiences. Generally the library, or even the creator of the content, gets the blame for not doing their job properly, but who’s really to blame for the state of the stock market?
Most people don’t know, or can’t remember, what used to be involved in purchasing imagery before the internet. It seems almost unbelievable that there was a time when you couldn’t just pull up a browser window and search for any subject in the world. Go back to the 90s and that’s largely how it was – image libraries did exist, quite a lot of them, but the hunt for the perfect picture was much more of a challenge than it is today.
Every so often a glossy catalogue would arrive through the door from the likes of Tony Stone – the market leader at the time, to be pounced on and scrutinised for the latest photographic trends from top photographers. The catalogue would be split into categories and, needless to say, there would be few choices in each. Once you had an idea of what you were after you could call and speak to picture researchers who could then collate a set of images that you might want to use on your project. A few days later a set of options would arrive in the post, usually in the form of 35mm transparencies (duplicates of course). You’d the have to get scans made of your chosen slides, send them back, and you’d be billed by the library based on your (very specific) use.
During the 1990s an alternative grew in the form of the PhotoDisc themed collections of ready-to-eat, royalty free images on handy CD-ROMs – some agencies built up quite a collection. It’s not surprising that it was often easier to choose from what you had on hand and some pictures would become very familiar over those years.
It was around 2002 that I first got involved with photo libraries from the photographers side. I’d always been an enthusiastic amateur photographer and traveller, so with the advent of affordable high quality film scanners and the simplifying of the submission process by the likes of Alamy, I thought – why not have a go? To become a contributor you’d scan a group of, say, 10 of your best images and send them a disk for approval. If you got in you’d continue to send images in this way and could add keywords and categories online if they liked the images. In those days a big library may have had 100,000 or so images available and the price on the website was often the price a buyer paid, although there were always arrangements for bulk users. The photographer’s cut of a sale with Alamy could be 50% and even when sold royalty free an image could sell for 100s of pounds. Privacy rights did not have the importance they do today so it was easier to sell images of people, for example, than would now be possible. I sold this shot taken in Acapulco on film (remember that?) a few times with a royalty free license in the early 2000s, but it’s difficult to see that many libraries today would sell such a natural shot of such recognisable people without releases other than for editorial use.
I reluctantly left Alamy some years back, when they’d had to drop their prices again and again because of competition – the cut-throat nature of the business. It had become too offensive that after spending £1,000s on kit and travelling the world to get a shot it might be worth less than £20. I didn’t realise things were going to get worse…
The rise of the microstock market, digital photography, and the internet were the real game changers. The likes of iStock and Shutterstock had realised that there were vast reserves of photographs out there that people would be more than happy to pay small prices for, and that there are many talented amateurs who are happy just to see their picture in print – they don’t have to make a living from them. A lot of professional photographers take part too, but they’re often taking generic images that they know will sell 100s or 1,000s of times. With their cut of a sale often being a fraction of a pound, euro or dollar it’s easy to see why they have to – and they still have to spend countless hours keywording to have a hope that their pictures will be found online at all. On the other hand, the ability to buy full-size non-watermarked images with instant access for a cheap price makes the design process much easier, the visuals look much better and many more images are bought than would ever have been before.
Other factors have combined to make the stock experience what it is today. The well used phrase ‘everybody is a photographer these days’ may be true but doesn’t always lead to high quality images even if the content its good, and it does seem that too many clients (and even agencies) have no clue about how much photographers actually get paid for their talent, hard work and expenses. Clients often now have their own microstock accounts and won’t accept the higher prices agencies may suggest for better quality images, less still commissioning a photographer for their project. Just remember, the next time your subscription-based search results aren’t all you hoped for, or your download looks like it came from an iPhone, that often you do get what you pay for.
The belief that you can just take images from the internet because they appear to be free is starting to fade, but the possibility of litigation is a real fear that actually reduces choice. I sometimes hear people wondering why the location shots they’re looking for seem lifeless because there aren’t any people in them. And why can’t I find that landmark building/brand/car/whatever? Once you realise that many libraries (particularly microstock) probably won’t carry a shot without full model and property releases this becomes obvious. It’s the same reason your search for ‘businessman’ or ‘people on a beach’ will usually only find staged shots that will fit 1,000 ads. This is not always the case for editorial images of course and, personally, I’d be surprised if there aren’t many of these not-for-profit images being used commercially. I similarly doubt whether many agencies ever pay for the extended licenses advertised by most libraries for multi-seat use, unlimited print runs etc. Who would be likely to check? Some of the issues are inconsistent across different stock libraries. This picture, for example, was disallowed by Adobe Stock because it shows buildings with protected rights (the Jin Mao Tower under construction, perhaps) although other shots of it exist on there, whereas it has been on Picfair (and purchased) with no issues raised. Shop around if you can’t find what you’re looking for and, but remember that you may take on the liability if there are copyright infringements.
Keywording is always a hot topic – and is much more difficult to get right than you’d think. Most searches will bring up plenty of random images amongst the 100s or 1000s of pages of search results – I did a search on a major library for ‘Exeter’ which included three shots in the first four lines of the first page that clearly aren’t there at all. But how much time would you want to spend keywording each image for the chance to make a very small amount? Whilst Lightroom and other programs can greatly improve your keywording workflow before upload, there can still be a lot of time involved in the library interface before your pictures are saleable. This is an example of the sort of information you may need to add:
So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for photographers and buyers in the race for sales? Well yes, a little – some of the microstock sites do seem to be raising prices a little and there’s much better knowledge of copyright issues generally so image theft should reduce. Reverse image searching via Google, Tineye etc. also means that it’s easier to find out where your images go so you can check whether they’ve been paid for. There’s also been a small rise in ‘fair trade’ sites such as Picfair. Their model is to allow the photographer to set their own price for an image which they then add a small percentage to. They now have well over 200,000 images online and some high profile clients such as Rough Guides and the Guardian. Most of their contributors don’t ask for large sums and at least you know that the price is their choice. And I recently looked back at Alamy who now have an unbelievable 115 million images – their licensing structure seems to have improved for buyers and sellers alike, certainly where clarity is concerned. They, like others, are improving their algorithms to make searches more relevant and they somehow seem to be managing to filter the tsunami of images that now hits them every day – and that may be 100,000 images!
There can be no complacency in the world of stock and many agencies have closed or been bought out in recent years. I recently wondered what had happened to Tony Stone – the biggest player of the early libraries. They went online in 1998 with around 40,000 images and were bought, as the market leader, by Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein who had left Hambro Bank in London after seeing the potential of the stock industry. The library was renamed Getty Images – the market leader today, who also own iStock.