Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alamy's Head of Content, Alan Capel, Interviewed

A composite picture utilizing hundreds of smaller photos to create a snapshot of modern society from chaos and confusion to vacations, work and family.
Alamy has the largest online collection of stock photos with a collection numbering over twenty million images...creating both opportunity and challenges.

Alan Capel, Head of Content for Alamy Stock Photo Agency.
Alan Capel, Head of Content for Alamy.


I know that Alamy offers Rights Managed and Royalty Free imagery and is unique in that it gives photographers the opportunity and, I guess, responsibility, of editing their own work. What else should I know about Alamy?

We still give the majority share (60%) of the sale back to the creator or owner of the work, this has remained a core driver from the very outset. We recognize that customers want variety and depth, but that’s worthless without a fast and cunning search interface so we combine the largest hi-res stock collection on the web with a super fast site all built using our own in-house technical expertise. We’ve grown our collection organically without acquisition and as a result we have no debt. Also, we have a philanthropic approach, with 89% of our profit funding a medical research laboratory that operates at Alamy HQ in England.

How about filling us in on your path to where you are today?

1999, James West our CEO and his Uncle Mike Fischer wanted to build a company that leveraged the rapidly emerging power of the web. Initially Alamy was going to be an ‘Ebay for images’ but we had to swiftly make some concessions to the reality of how stock photography operated. We wanted to banish some long held beliefs (agencies do the editing and keywording, agencies take the majority share of the sale) whilst still offering the customer a familiar proposition. We made our first sale in 2001, broke even in 2004, became profitable in 2005 and have sustained that profitability through the recession.  We set up an Alamy office in India where a large amount of our technical work takes place and we opened our New York sales office in 2009. We now have a Creative Collection and a News offering for photojournalists alongside our core collection.  We have doubled the size of the collection in the last 3 years hitting 20 million images this month.

One aspect of Alamy that I find very interesting is the ranking system. It seems like an increasingly necessary, but tricky proposition, to insure that prospective clients get to see the best work quickly and not be bogged down by the less appropriate, and ever increasing amount of imagery. At the same time it is important to keep the new “gems” from being buried. Can you give us some insight as to how the ranking system works?

Not the technical side, sorry I can’t!  But I can tell you the stuff we share with our photographers which can help them help themselves. You need to think of the ranking system as a series of plus and minus points which added together give you your overall score. You’ll get plus points if your images are clicked on and zoomed and you’ll get plus points if your images sell, if you sell for a lot you’ll get more plus points. You’ll get minus points if your images are on a page of results viewed by a customer but ignored.

What should photographers keep in mind about the ranking system when providing photos to Alamy?

Given how it works simply loading up image after image is not going to work, you need high quality, well edited work. Keywording is also a very important part of the equation. If your keywording is inaccurate and/or irrelevant there is a greater likelihood that your images will be ignored so relevancy is key.  

A note here: One photographer I am aware of has indicated that too many keywords actually hurts his Alamy results…go for accuracy and quality…not quantity.

I often get e-mails from people who come to me after finding my work on an agency site, but wanting a better deal. It is frustrating because I want the agencies to charge an appropriate fee, but I feel panicky at the potential loss of a sale. Check any stock photo forum and you will see lots of complaints about the low fees charged by agencies…and yet with so many images to choose from it is a buyer’s market.  How does Alamy determine prices for it’s various products? 

Doesn’t the fact that they come to you indicate that customers may feel the agency is charging too much? I think a lot of the criticism about low fees is born out of a lack of control. Faced with a similar negotiation with all of the facts laid out in front of them I’d challenge anyone to get a significantly better deal. Surely, as we are an agent only taking 40% of the sale it’s very much in our interests to get a fair price. When you are getting 100% maybe you’ll blink first?

I believe we strike a fair balance. The approach we take has many facets to it, we have a price calculator which we see as being pretty industry standard, however we are involved in many deals which operate outside of the calculator This is either because the size or parameters of the deal don’t easily ‘fit’ or it’s a key client with agreed rates.

Bottom line is we try to understand our customers and the market. By getting close to our clients we’ve been able to confidently gauge our approach to negotiations.

Do you feel that the slide in prices is leveling off?

In some areas yes, in some areas no. Web-wise a level has been set but there seems to have been a degree of shooting oneself in the foot by those who set that benchmark. Similarly with microstock, so we’ve got an uphill task  to establish a fair and sustainable price in what will soon become the dominant market for imagery.

Do you offer discounts to clients? How does that work?

As mentioned above we may have set discounts based upon agreed rates and we’ll also offer discounts to new customers to attract business. Bulk deals where we can prosper due to the breadth of our content may also result in discounts.

Do you plan on entering the subscription market?

Not today, no

Many feel the interests of the photographers are not being met by stock agencies. Jonathan Klein has said, “We are photographer friends, but not photographer cuddly.”  Is Alamy photographer friendly…and how so?

Well we’ve always felt we are photographer friendly but I guess you’d have to ask the photographers. Let’s be frank, we were popular because we exploded onto the scene offering very healthy royalty splits, a non-exclusive, no tie in contract at a time when photographers were being disenfranchised by commission hikes and acquisitions. This  had left good photographers behind and emerging talent with nowhere to go. But we’ve stuck to these principles and built on them. Through our Member Services team we’ve brought an approach where we’ll be on the end of the phone or email to answer your questions and guide you through the process if needs be. That’s either disappeared from stock businesses or was never there in the first place. Where possible we’ll give photographers options to choose whether they participate in various additional revenue streams so hopefully we are not twisting the photographer’s arm up their back.  So yeah, we are photographer friendly.

Do you see Social Media as an important part of your mix?  What is it you are doing in that arena?

We do often get a little ‘miffed’ when we hear claims of company x or y inventing crowd sourcing. If we didn’t quite invent crowd sourcing we were certainly the first in our industry to open our doors with an inclusive offer for all photographers, pro or amateur. These days we are getting heavily into Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. But you’ve got to strike a balance, if you’ve got nothing interesting to say, say nothing, however if you’ve continually got nothing interesting to say, maybe that tells you something about your business.  Our guys will use social media to do a number of things, @alamymarketing we’ll alert customers to content we’ve got, often related to a current news story and on our contributor twitter @alamycontribs there’s all the news and announcements you’ll need plus loads of general photography links and retweets. 

IStockphoto seems to be going through a bit of an upheaval with changing their royalty payments and Getty merging micro and traditional stock collections. Do you foresee any ramifications for either iStockphoto, Getty, or the industry as a whole by selling micro alongside traditional stock?

Other than confusion for customers and difficult conversations for sales staff to handle, no.

Why should a photographer include Alamy in their distribution mix?

We are non exclusive and we’ll give you 60% of the sale. And we sell images, lots of images and we are still growing. We’ve got a strong profitable sustainable business model and if you have a strong benevolent streak 89% of our profit goes to medical research  …err is that enough?

Do you think it is important for stock shooters to develop a “brand”?

Agencies yes, individual shooters probably not. There are very few photographers who can reach the heights where a brand will help to feed their continued success. By then the brand will have developed itself based upon their work and its application.

When it comes time for me to submit my images I am always in a quandary as to whether they would serve me better as RM or RF images. Some are saying that RM is undergoing a resurgence…and yet there are a huge number of buyers who won’t even consider RM.  How do you see RM faring in the future?

The best picture invariably wins, we do see some customers having a preference and budgets play a part but there will always be a place for RM. We’ve sold single RM images for $20K $30K $35K in the last few months and the photographer will be counting their blessings as well as their cash that they didn’t go RF.

Do you see any of the new image tracking software programs such as PicScout, Copyright Registry or Tin Eye helping with enforcement and/or monetization of imagery?

We are waiting until we see a solution that is cost effective, but yes technology will play a part, I’m just not sure it’s ‘clever’ enough yet.

Microstock has taken the industry by storm…and has been declared unsustainable by some, while others are making it work. I have even seen where at least one industry pundit reports there may be more shooters grossing over $100,000.00 a year in micro than in traditional stock. What do you see the future of microstock looking like?

Prices are going up, royalty splits are going south. I think we’ve seen this before. It’s like Royalty Free all over again. Microstock is almost becoming a breeding ground for stock shooters, where the best are then either plucked from the relative obscurity of a sea of fancy usernames and avatars, or they realize that there’s money to be made from their work but most of it is going to someone else. I’m not sure the ‘storm’ is now quite how it once was and maybe it will lead to change.

How important is Internet searching for photography to Alamy…does it generate any significant sales?  Do you see Google and other similar Internet image searches becoming important in the future?

Yes very much so, ‘Google’ is a verb after all.

Is the iPad coming to the rescue?

Not on its own but it will be the first of many very nice pieces of kit that will elevate photography above the written word in the right context.

Is it realistic for photographers to think that they can make a good living on stock alone in the coming years?

Good ones yes.

For those of us attempting to earn our living through stock photography, do you have any suggestions or strategies that might be helpful?

A comedian once said "why are there never any new clichés?".  But often that’s what works, don’t be afraid of the cliché but give it a twist, make it more contemporary, add something that’s not been there before. Try all of this and some will hit the mark but the rest of the time you may well have to follow the tried and tested route. If you can strike the right balance you’ve got a good chance.

Can you share with us an example of what, in your estimation, makes a great stock photo?

You look at it and its shouts a word or phrase out. It may be literal, it may be conceptual but it’s obvious why the shot was taken. How many stock images when used get more than a few seconds to catch the eye, immediacy counts.

Do you have any thoughts about motion…does Alamy plan to enter that fray?

Yes we are working on motion and beginning to take video in, there’s a lot to learn but we are sure we can do an ‘Alamy’ but with video.

Should stock shooters expand into that arena?

They should at least consider it.

Last but not least…what have I forgotten to ask you…and/or are there any words you want to leave us with?

I’ve been in the Industry for 20 years now and I’ve seen a lot of changes, but without these changes imagine how boring it would have been. 


I have to agree that boring this industry is not!


Brian said...

The sad fact is that Alamy is now a growing part of the price cutting agencies and is licensing images for insultingly low prices. Yes, Alamy pays a higher percentage of the sale but a higher percentage of what? Of very little, is the answer. The prices it is charging its favored buyers, of which it seems it has many, are some 75% of what the price should be. Of course, these buyers have a pistol to Alamy's head, they say 'give us a special deal' or we won't work with you. The problem, here, that photographers lose out while Alamy, because of the sheer number of images it licences, does very well. Of course, Alamy is not the only agency that is almost giving some images away.
One very experienced photographer who is with our agency has 16,000
images with Alamy. He says these images earn him on average $400 a month. What was the cost of shooting and processing these images, one wonders.

Brian Seed
Picade LLC

Paul Maguire said...

Only time will tell whether stock photography is sustainable as a full time profession. At the moment the market for stock photography is expanding rapidly thanks to the internet, but this is being met by an explosion in contributors and content. Eventually one growth curve will outpace the other, and whilst the agencies will continue to benefit from a growing market, as the volume of content increases so the individual photographer will be left with an ever smaller slice of the pie.

Right now, thanks largely to Alamy and microstock, a hobbyist can actually turn a very healthy profit from photography. But it won't last forever. In future only the best photographers, and particularly those that produce fresh, new, marketable images, will stand a chance of making a reasonable income from stock. But why should we expect it to be any other way? Photography is an art form, and like all artistic professions, there is a minority who make a killing, a few more that make a decent living, and the rest supplement their income by waiting on tables.

John Lund said...


Sobering statistic, $400.00 a month for 16,000 images! I don't think I have shot 16,000 images in my career!

I would love to hear about your agency's approach to pricing and what works for you!



John Lund said...


I agree that making a living at stock photography is getting to be a lot more challenging. Those of us who plan on succeeding need to create great images that are needed in the market place and get the best possible distribution which for some means an agency and for some might mean taking even more control and self distributing. I guess time will tell....



donfarrall said...

"Sobering statistic, $400.00 a month for 16,000 images! I don't think I have shot 16,000 images in my career!"

This is a poor example. While it might not be my place to be critical of a contributors work, anyone with 16,000 images that is only seeing $400 in income from them is not shooting what buyers want. Note that I did not say they were bad photos. I have 500 images at Alamy, that out-preform this monthly average by quite a bit. In fact up until a few years ago (pre-microstock explosion) those 500 images were earning around $1,500 per month, now it is at about half that. I sell through Getty, and they get my first picks, followed by Getty PCRF, if I think Getty wouldn't select them, then Alamy gets the leftovers, so I can hardly say that my Alamy collection is anything special. I do have a high Alamy rank, and this makes all the difference in the world. I keyword very carefully, this is where many Alamy contributors have fallen short. With 16,000 images the chances of showing up in searches that do not result in a click through or a sale is high, this would result in a low Alamy rank and with a low Alamy rank your photos are seldom seen. A small target collection well keyworded, (not over keyworded) can do reasonably well on Alamy.

Fabian Gonzales said...

Since 2007 my stock income from Alamy has dropped 65%. It has dropped 35% in the last year alone. With the exception of this year, every year I licensed more images on Alamy than the year before.

In other words, until recently I made more and more sales for less and less money. And now even that doesn't hold up any more.

Part of the reason for the decline is Alamy's reduction of royalties from 65% to 60%, but the biggest reason is the flight of commercial buyers from Alamy. These days Alamy seems almost exclusively an editorial shop (a low-end one at that!), and editorial rates have also declined significantly.

John Lund said...


I do know of another photographer with a high Alamy rank who does pretty well with them. I think you bring up a very important point...one that sooner or later will catch up with every stock shooter...you have to get your images seen and more and more there will be filters that reward those with tightly edited and quality collections.



John Lund said...


One more point to keep in consideration when choosing a distributor...are they reaching the market appropriate for you images....



Dr Saurabh Nande said...

Late to read and to reply but interesting interview John. Hope to see some more interviews.. probably J (John Lund) to J (James West)