Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Future of Stock Photography - Again!

Someday there will be an ‘e-bay” of photography where consumers and businesses, designers and art directors, agencies and photo buyers will all go to find and license image for their disparate needs. A student will look for images to complete a homework assignment…and an Art Director for a major ad agency will find an image for a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal. The student might pay twenty-five cents while the Art Director might pay $10,000.00. The popularity of an image, in conjunction with the use, will determine the price that will be paid. The best photographers will make more money than they ever have before…and photographers who are sound business people will find a way to make good money too. Those of us who are less creative, less diligent and less motivated will fall further and further behind. I guess that is one thing that won’t really change in the business of stock photography! Those who “get it” will thrive…as they always have while those who remain stuck in the past will slowly (or quickly) fade away.
As professional photographers who sell their images to the advertising, design and editorial communities, many of us have lost sight, or perhaps have never seen the tremendous buying power of the “consumer”. My eyes were opened to that when I began to sell my Animal Antics images…pictures of funny animals in anthropomorphic poses and situations, as greeting cards. Sure, I only make a few cents per card…but when the public is buying over a hundred thousand cards a month those pennies can really add up!
Even with sales like that most people who I talk to about my greeting cards have never seen the cards for sale! So I conclude that sales of a hundred thousand cards-a-month represents only a small fraction of the total possible number of sales. The potential income from selling images to the public, to the consumer, is staggering. Especially if you consider that images, for the most part, are a universal language.
So how do we, the photographers, tap into that market? Well, obviously greeting cards portraying funny animal pictures is one way to do that. But that really isn’t a very efficient way to do it. The internet is the way to do it…but perhaps not yet. That above mentioned “e-bay” for photographs…or some similar mechanism to marry the elements of consumer, photographs and transactions, needs to come in to place. The need is there…I bet the technology is too…the rest is simply a matter of time…and preparation.
For me that means having a website that is reasonably functional in getting my images in front of the public…and having content that the public wants. That content can be anything from pictures that consumers can download and print (and that they WANT to download and print), to images they can license for their small business or images they can use to spice up their social networking site. I am attempting to offer such content to the consumer by linking up with CafĂ© Press for products such as coffee mugs, calendars, handbags, T-shirts and the like…to ImageKind for fine art prints, to the various stock photo agencies that license my photographs for more traditional advertising and promotional uses. Currently I use Blend Images for ethnic lifestyle and conceptual imagery, Getty Images for most of my conceptual and business images, Corbis also for concept images, and Kimball Stock for the licensing of my anthropomorphic animal pictures. I also continue to sell greeting cards through the Portal brand that is published and distributed by the Marian Heath greeting card company.
Any investment counselor will tell you that the first thing to do in investing is to diversify. That is of particular importance in time of uncertainty…and I think these times qualify for that label. As photographers we need to follow that same advice. How do we diversify? For me that means a multi-pronged approach. I diversify in my content, in my target market, and in my distribution.
I create images for the traditional advertising, design, corporate and editorial markets. Within those markets I create lifestyle images, business images, and conceptual images. Here I am diversifying the content within the category of traditional stock photography. Next, I create images for the consumer…that is images that in them selves are or can be product. That means everything from photo imprinted coffee mugs to photos for checks, photos for screensavers…you get the picture. I also, once a year, take a trip specifically to shoot travel images. Again…further diversification of my content.
To diversify my distribution I utilize both those traditional “powerhouse” stock photo agencies like Getty and Corbis, and niche agencies like Blend Images (for ethnically diverse lifestyle and business imagery) and Kimball Stock (for funny animal pictures). Further diversification of my distribution is achieved by selling greeting cards through Marian Heath greeting cards and hiring a licensing agent to sell and distribute other “consumer” images for such wide-ranging applications as vet reminder cards, gift books and even figurines and picture frames!
And finally, I have my website which I am fine-tuning as a vehicle to make my photographs available to anyone who might be interested in them, and in guiding them to the appropriate distributor for their needs. I believe that those of us who establish such websites now and learn from that process, will have a huge head-start when that new paradigm lands on us…as it surely will! When that wave hits I want to be experiencing the thrill of riding it rather than the pain of being crushed beneath it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Strategy For Success In Stock

Before we get down to the state of stock photography, check out my latest image...It's Ganesh the Hindu God , the Remover of All Obstacles.

A friend of mine, and former assistant, called me yesterday to pick my brain bout the state of stock photography and what kind of strategies I would suggest for stock success in the coming years. That is a popular topic among all of us photographers who derive most of our income from stock.

In the coming paragraphs I will attempt to work out my own reasoning and strategy for dealing with the challenges we are seeing in this arena.

To begin with…just what is the state of the industry? If I put aside as much speculation as I can and just stick to what I really know is true I come up with these following points:

1. My stock photo income is far more volatile than it ever used to be.
2. I have many more images in stock and yet my income from those images is relatively flat.
3. The stock agencies seem to be taking almost everything I submit to them.
4. I still have large sales…but now have many more minuscule sales.
5. There are wonderful, high quality images everywhere…in Rights Managed, Rights Ready, Royalty Free, and in Micro Stock.
6. There are new agencies still popping up all the time.
7. Crowd sourcing agencies are still being created.
8. Consolidation is still happening.
9. I have images selling great in both Royalty Free and in Rights Managed…the image seems to play a bigger role than the business model.
10. Virtually all the stock photographers I know are cutting back on production.

Those are the facts as best as I can determine them. So what do I make of this?

I think in the short-term things are going to be very difficult for those of us who depend on
stock photography for our income. All of us stock shooters are experiencing declining
revenue, or at least declining RPI (return per image). At first it seemed that everyone’s
reaction was to increase production… which of course has put more downward pressure on
stock image prices.

Now I am seeing photographers left and right pull back on their productions, cut back on
staff and overhead, experiment with Micro, and focus more on Rights Managed. I believe
that with the economy the way it is, and with the already massive glut of images in the
market place, in the short term this stock photo career is going to be a little painful!

My short-term strategy is…surprise…to produce more images. I have stopped doing large
shoots of lifestyle imagery and am focusing on highly conceptual high-end images that
generally require a lot of post to produce. In short, I am trying to make more images that
are competing with fewer images and that are clearly needed in the market place. I still
suspect that in the very short term my income will go down. Oh well….

I am, however, very excited about the middle to long term future of stock…but it will be a
different kind of stock world. I see my market as including the current clients I have for
stock…but also including the massively larger market of non-professional image buyers.
What do I mean by non-professional image buyers? I mean the woman who needs an
image for her business card as a part time massage therapist…or the executive who needs
photos to spice up his Power Point presentation…or even the occasional person looking for
a print for their living room. All the people who need photos…who now can find and
purchase, or pirate them, on the Internet. The people who have never heard of stock
photography agencies. . but need and/or want photos. These people comprise an awesomely huge market that the vast majority of us professional photographers are not tapping into.

I believe there is also another possible market developing…one that has been around for a while, but is going to increasingly develop. That market is the traditional stock client who has decided to look beyond stock agencies for images. As more and more photographers put their images up online…as more and more amateurs put THEIR images on line…the possibility of finding “cool” images increases…and thus more and more designers and art directors will turn to Google to fill their needs or find that special image. Someday there will be an efficient vehicle to match photos with prospective buyers but in the meantime they aren’t waiting. This morning I had an Italian magazine contact me via my website to use an image of mine for their cover. They found me by Googling…and the image they asked for is with Corbis…which I directed them to.

Which brings me to my strategy. My strategy is a very simple one. Get my images in front of prospective buyers…all of them. I am in the process of optimizing my site and putting all of my images up on line. I don’t want to deal with clients and billing and all that…but I am putting images up with clear guidelines about where to license them for stock, where to buy products with my images imprinted on them…and where to buy prints. I have also begun to create more images that are aimed at those non-traditional markets. For example, I just completed Ganesha…the Hindu deity of Prosperity. While I know the image well do well as stock…I suspect it might do far better outside of a stock agency. Either I will submit “Ganesha” to an agency and reserve “Paper product rights”…the rights to market it as a product…or I will simply not give it to an agency. I believe that the income from the image as a product could far exceed the revenue from licensing it for advertising and corporate uses.

Tune in six months to a year from now and I will let you know how this process is going!