Saturday, September 18, 2010

iStockphoto, The Agency Collection and a Fantasy

A life ring (preserver) made of money flies out between urban skyscrapers symbolizing financial assistance.
A new iStockphoto development offers at least some promise for stock photographers."

iStockphoto, Potential Users, and Frustration
In the most recent Graphic Design USA annual survey 70% of those readers surveyed (predominantly designers I presume) that use more than one stock photo agency, preferred iStockphoto. Further, I have heard that half of all stock images licensed through agencies last year were licensed through iStock.  Put those numbers together and you begin to realize something very important.  If you do not have images on the iStock site there are no doubt a huge number of potential users of your work who will never see it. That has been frustrating for me as I just have been unable to come to terms with offering my own work at micro prices. It is kind of ironic though...iStock became a gateway for new entries into the world of stock photography, and yet in a way has become its own kind of barrier to those not willing to participate in micro. Hmmmm.

The Agency Collection and RF Stock Photo Pricing
Whether or not your images can successfully compete with those on iStock’s site, if they aren’t seen they won’t be licensed.  That is why I am encouraged to see that iStock will now have images included on their site that are provided by outside agencies (The Agency Collection). These images will apparently be priced at the lower end of the RF price scale…but will definitely be priced above micro levels. They won’t be competing on price but on whether they do the intended visual job or not. It will be very interesting to see what happens. I am keeping my fingers crossed that a fair portion of the iStock clientele will opt for images that are in this new collection. If that does happen, then there will actually be some case for saying the microstock has, at least somewhat, opened up a wider audience for traditional stock photos…though as a long-time RM photographer it is still hard for me to think of RF as “traditional”! 

My Fantasy World
In my fantasy world this new “Agency Collection” will be a big hit, microstock shooters will see the value of higher pricing, microstock buyers will get used to, at least in some cases, spending more for some photos (mine I hope), microstock clients might check out more RM offerings, and my income will go up. Hey, I said it was a fantasy!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Too Much Time on the iStockphoto Forums and Finding Religion

Internet Success! Money pours out of a computer display filling an office as a businessman leans back in his chair looking delighted.
An end to easy money? Changes at iStockphoto heat up the forums!

Too Much Time on the iStockphoto Forums
I have been spending too much time reading the iStockphoto forums, but it is fascinating to see all the reactions to the changes announced a few days ago. I am learning a few things as well. For example, I found out I am a "trad". That is what microstockers call us traditional stock shooters.  There does seem to be an undercurrent of "us versus them", and of pride in the fact that microstock is the "new" paradigm taking over from traditional stock. I can totally understand where they are coming from…it is human nature after all. I am also finding out that iStockphoto feels it's current system of royalty payouts is "unsustainable".

Venomous Comments, Corporate Greed and Bitterness
On the forums there are pretty venomous comments about the management, and or Getty, destroying a good thing, of corporate greed killing the goose that laid the golden egg. There is a lot of bitterness about lack of loyalty from iStockphoto management and what is certainly perceived by most of those posting as disingenuous (what does that word mean anyway?) communications from the powers that be. OK…some are even referring to the communications from management as outright lies. I suspect that it is probably more a poor job of explaining things…and maybe a lack of transparency.  But it is harsh waking up to the realization that you are working in a business the primary purpose of which is profit, rather than a co-op in which the rewards are shared equally.

From a Legacy Advantage to a Level Playing Field
In contrast, the small handful of iStockphoto shooters that I have communicated with, on an individual basis, actually believe that the changes are going to be good, that it will level the playing field. That switching from a legacy advantage for long-term contributors, to a yearly calculation for everyone, will allow the cream to rise to the top. One thing seems to be for certain, that to succeed, or continuing to succeed at iStock, is going to be more of a challenge for most of the contributors moving forward. Hey, just like everywhere else!

A New Collection and a Whole New Frenzy
Then, from what I can tell, iStock started uploading their new collection complete with rejected images included…a rather glaring snafu! That sent the forums into a whole new frenzy that, frankly, was hard to argue with. A lot of the images had logos showing and various other aspects that would have meant rejection for the typical submission from an iStocker (or any agency for that matter). The question that immediately came to my mind was how could serious stock shooters, "trad" or "micro", be including some of those rejects that went up (I say this with full awareness that all of us occasionally miss some problem in our uploads...)?

Higher Prices

Another thing that really surprised me was the fear expressed by the iStockers that the new higher prices (one of the changes is higher prices on the Vetta collection) would drive customers away. It is a long established tradition for us "trads" to clamor for higher prices, and the idea of so much opposition to price increases is hard for me to wrap my head around. I guess it makes sense in a way. We "trads" have a history of success with high prices, and micro shooters have a history of success with low prices. And yet, in my mind, along with the problems of visibility, the problem of getting adequate compensation for images that truly add value for those licensing them, is perhaps the biggest challenge facing all stock photographers!

A Glut of Images and Pricing For Value
Good or bad, the changes at iStockphoto are just the inevitable march of the stock photo industry into the modern world where there is a glut of imagery and a desperate need to find a way to get appropriate value for images. The market does not seem to differentiate the good or great images from the mediocre ones. The downward price pressure from a billion ordinary images (or maybe 4 billion ordinary images) drags down the prices for the few great images as well. Photographers and agencies alike are frantically seeking answers to that problem.

An Overriding Question
The overriding question in my mind is, "How can we get pricing in line with the value of our images?" Reading the iStock forums just reinforces that question. As the excess images, good, bad and great, pile ever higher, and the majority of photographers respond by producing more images, and even questioning the wisdom of any price increases, well, even I can get a little nervous. Unfortunately, every time I come up with an answer I also come up with three reasons why it won't work!

What Can I Do?
So what can I do? The number one thing in my mind is to create absolutely the best images I can. The number two is to stay informed. Which agencies seem to be on the right track? Which ones have more of a photographer friendly approach? Are Internet searches bringing in clients to my own site and so forth? And finally, continue to work on my own web site, increase my visibility, and diversify in my work, in my distribution and in my markets. Oh yeah, I am thinking about taking up religion too....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SuperStock CEO Lanny Ziering Interview

Better times ahead, or time to get away from it all: Concept stock photo.
Lanny Ziering, SuperStock CEO looks ahead to the future and addresses the present (recent image of mine submitted to SuperStock).
Lanny Ziering is well into his second year at the helm of SuperStock (as CEO). In this follow-up interview he has agreed to bring us up to speed on the changes at the agency as well as to share his thoughts and insights on the stock photography industry.

It has been a year since your last interview here. Can you give us a rundown on what has changed at SuperStock, and what is about to change?

I don’t usually spend much time thinking about what we accomplished; most of my attention is on what we have to do next.    But seeing as how you asked… The past year has been about renewing our relationships with photographers and clients and beginning the process of rebuilding our brand and our technology.  Our main focus has been on improving how we serve those two vital communities—photographers and clients.  For example, we have put a lot of time and attention into improving our time-to-market.  I’m referring to the time it takes from when a photographer submits a shoot to their editor through the edit, keywording, ingestion on our website and the sending of those images to our global distribution channel, and finally ending with a royalty check to the photographer.   We’ve made major progress on that front but there’s still a lot more to be done.  Today, if we get an image at the beginning of the month we can get it edited, keyworded and up on our website the same month as well as shipped to our distribution channel.   When our new technology comes on line in the fall this will be even faster and easier.  Our contributors will find it much easier and faster to upload content and view their royalty reports. The time it takes us to send the images out to our channel distribution partners will also be faster. 

Sounds like you’ve been busy. Any other changes?

Yes, we will roll out a new brand/logo when we launch our completely redesigned website.  We hired a great design shop in Washington DC, Design Army, to help us. They have created a clean, simple, contemporary look that will still provide simple navigation and fast search results. We’re really excited about it and can’t wait until we reveal it this fall.  And, we’ve created a presence in social media including Facebook and Twitter, as well as establishing a channel on YouTube. 

A lot of people wonder if you and your partners have an exit strategy.

Yes, we will have all troops home before the next election.  Oh, sorry, that wasn’t what you meant.  We bought SuperStock because as owners of content we wanted to control a distribution company.   That brings us two benefits:  First, we have an outlet to sell our images directly to customers.  Second, we have access to those customers to better understand their needs.  We think those are strategically valuable benefits.  In short, we do not have a plan to sell SuperStock.  That being said, if you see Alan Meckler running around with $100 million you can give him my phone number.

In your recent newsletter, Creative Flash, you announced that SuperStock will change how it charges for sales through its UK office. A stock agency, in effect, INCREASING the photographer’s percentage…now that is something to take notice of.  Can you share the details of that development?

My partners and I are stock photographers, so we are sensitive to what it is like to live on royalties.  When we looked at how the prior owners had structured things we found that for some photographers (but not all) a sale from SuperStock’s office in the UK was charged a 50% royalty by the UK office before the US office split royalties with the photographer.  This is not an unusual practice in our industry and it was perfectly legal under the contracts the photographers had signed with SuperStock.  But just because you can do something, does not mean you should.  So we decided to discontinue this practice and give back any royalties charged by our UK office last year.  

As micro stock has matured we are starting to see the convergence between micro and traditional stock. Soon it will be the norm to see micro, RF and RM all on the same site. Does SuperStock have any plans in that direction?

There you go again asking tough questions.  It’s pretty clear that convergence is taking place—no surprise really.    From the image buyer’s perspective there are still important differences in both the rights as well as the purchase process.  For instance, having to buy credits on a micro site versus the way major clients normally purchase “on account” from a traditional agency.  Service is another point of differentiation. I don’t think many micro agencies offer free research.  Convergence is likely to continue but there is bound to be differentiation in how micro and full-service agencies conduct their relationship with clients. As for our plans, SuperStock already sells RF images at midstock prices.  While full-priced RM and RF will continue to be the heart of our collection, we plan to expand our midstock offering this year.  

Do you have any plans for a motion offering yet?

Right from the start our plans have included motion.  Several of my partners have been very successful in stock footage for years.  That expertise will serve us well as we enter the motion stock business.  We expect to launch our motion offering later this year.

Vetta, the new higher priced collection on iStockphoto is apparently doing fantastically well. It was an accepted truth, before micro stock came along, that price was not the determining factor in the licensing of stock, but rather the right image was. Then micro stock opened a whole new world in which price was an important factor, yet the higher priced Vetta images are at least showing that there is room in the micro “store” for higher priced images.  I also believe much RF offering has actually climbed in price even in the last year as well.  Where do you see prices heading?

Tough question.  First, let me say a little about your initial premise.  Price matters more to some buyers than others and it matters more on some projects than others.  Some buyers don’t have the budget for an industry exclusive $15,000 RM shot and will opt for a cheaper solution even if the RM shot is the best one.  Some buyers would love to find an image for $9 but they need other things from their stock agency—what we call “service” and includes research, terms billing, rights clearances, etc.  Different strokes for different folks.  And something that a lot of photographers don’t really understand is that for publishers Rights Managed is often cheaper than Royalty Free.  As for overall pricing trends, we’ve been experiencing a sort of convergence.  Traditional stock prices have been going down and micro prices have been coming up.  And even in traditional stock there seems to be some firming of prices.  So when you ask, where are prices headed?  The answer is: up and down and about the same.  Overall, I think it’s fair to say we already see some price stabilization. 

A lot of photographers will be relieved to hear prices may not fall any further.

Pricing is alchemy—a black art.  But at the end of the day only two things matter: supply and demand.  The balance of supply and demand got way out of whack over the last three or four years.  But that may be changing.  Most stock agencies and production companies we’ve spoken with are finding it harder to source well-produced imagery today than it was just a few years ago.  So as demand increases we may see some increases in prices at the high end.  It’s hard to really know without a crystal ball. 

I think that Rights Managed licensing is too complicated. If the process were simpler I think the market for RM could greatly expand. Have you looked at any ideas for making the licensing of RM images easier?

Easier?  Didn’t Getty try that with Rights Ready?  There wasn’t much acceptance among still image buyers but it seems to have been embraced by motion buyers.  More than half of our sales are of RM images, but SuperStock is probably not big enough to create a new pricing model for the industry.  We’ll just have to wait and see what the big dogs offer.   My guess is that RF will continue growing while RM will be the choice of buyers who have more complex needs to manage rights and mitigate risks.  

Can you share a bit about the role and importance of a sales staff in an agency such as SuperStock?

You called us an “agency” and that is how we see ourselves.  That one word reveals so much about the complexity of our business.   Being an agency means we have two “customers”: the artists who provide us images and the ad agencies, graphic designers, and publishers who use those images.   At SuperStock we are very aware that our success is dependent on healthy, mutually beneficial relationships with both these “customers”.  While there’s some potential for conflict, it’s actually very beneficial to have both these relationships inside one company.  Our sales teams in the US and UK provide us with a direct channel to art buyers so we are able to funnel that information on client needs directly to our photographers and illustrators.   This benefits both our contributors and our image-buying clients.  Photographers can concentrate on shooting what is more likely to sell, and image buyers are more likely to find the images they need when they come to SuperStock. 

SuperStock has been meeting with ad agencies and publishers and drilling down into what they want and need. What do they want and need? Any surprises?

The most surprising thing is that with millions of images flooding the market, and with dozens of stock agencies out there, that clients are having such a hard time finding what they need.  It’s kind of like satellite TV with 500 channels but there’s so little of it that’s worth watching.  What they want is good photography, authentic photography that will communicate their message in a believable way.   They don’t want posed “stocky” images; they want authentic, well produced images.   Why is that so hard to find?  I guess it’s easier to shoot your friends against a white seamless and tell them to smile at the camera than it is to invest in models and actors who can convey real emotions. 

As we’ve hopefully rounded the corner on this recession are you seeing, or do you foresee, any significant increase in demand for stock photography?

Rounded the corner?  It looks to me like recovery from this recession will be gradual and uneven.  Demand for digital media will grow faster than the general economy
--just look at the way Apple has been making money right through the recession.  The basis of that growth has been selling devices for delivery and consumption of digital media, as well as selling the media itself in the iTunes store.  The demand for stock images and especially motion clips will grow. 

There is a big question as to whether stock photography is going to remain a viable career for photographers…or whether stock photography will become more of a hobby and supplemental income. What do you think?

Both.  The growth we’ve seen in the supply of imagery over the last 5 years has in large part been driven by hobbyist photographers—many of whom are thrilled to be getting a $50 check each month.  I don’t think that is going away, but those images are unlikely to meet the needs of very many major publishers or ad agencies.  So, talented, highly productive stock shooters will be able to make a good living, but we are not likely to see incomes like they were 5 or 10 years ago when if you had 1,000 images at Getty you could pull in a million dollars a year.

Some of the super producers in micro have indicated that the micro stock model might not be sustainable and are moving into traditional stock, while some traditional photographers are moving into micro. I personally know traditional shooters who are experiencing success in micro and are bullish on it, and I know some pretty accomplished shooters who have declared micro a bust. My own rights managed revenue has become a roller coaster and my RF income is declining as my number of images climbs. It is a tad hard to understand what the heck is going on in this industry! Do you have any advice for photographers who want to succeed with stock as a career?

It’s a very chaotic market out there—no doubt about that.   For photographers there are virtually no barriers to entry, so imagery will continue to be in abundance.  But great images have always been and will continue to be rare.  My advice to photographers is to find the intersection of what you do well and where there is demand for imagery without oversupply.   I’d also advise photographers to find an agency that understands the uniqueness of their work and will help them to develop their work to meet market needs.  Finally, if you want to succeed in stock you need to be sure your images are available to photo buyers everywhere in the world.  While it’s nice to sell direct from your own website, very few image buyers have the time or inclination to find your pictures.  You need to be with an agency that can distribute your work to every corner of the planet.   

I know SuperStock was trying to put together a collection to support relief efforts in Haiti.  What ever became of that?

That all started with a conversation I had with Gabriela Medina, a very talented photographer based in Caracas, Venezuela.  She was really passionate about trying to do something to help with reconstruction in Haiti.  I spoke with Robert Kent about what he had done with Compassionate Eye and then I spoke with Heifer International, a non-profit that specializes in sustainable development work in less developed countries.  We created a collection where photographers donate their images to Heifer and SuperStock agrees to distribute those images and 100% of the royalties we generate go to Heifer.  We’re just now beginning to gather the images.

What have I forgotten to ask?

You didn’t ask me if I’m having fun.  Yes, I really enjoy the stock photo industry.  It’s crazy and chaotic, but it is at the center of some of the biggest changes impacting our culture and society.  It’s filled with incredibly creative people who are in this business because they love photography and art.  There’s not another business I’d rather be in. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fast Cars, Stock Photos, Creativity and Success

Jaguar XKR Supercharge convertible looking fast, powerful and futuristic.
A photograph of a fast, futuristic car intended for concept stock photography rather than the "traditional" car shot helps diversify my library of images and hone my creativity.

A Fun Car, A Stock Photo, And The Thinking Behind It
I photographed my “fun” car this week end to create a stock photo…and was reminded of how difficult car photography is…at least for those of us who don’t practice it much!
I did, however get some good photos, one of which I wanted to share here along with my thinking behind the creation of this image.

Jaguar XKR Convertible
The car is a Jaguar XKR (circa 2004) convertible. Really a fun car to drive…and with a supercharged V-8 it can really get up and move! Jaguar did a great job with the visuals of the car and making the legendary XK-E type heritage apparent in its’ lines. As perhaps you can tell, I am really in to this car…that is except for the darn flat tires I get which end up costing an arm and a leg! Oh well….

Speed, Power, Freedom and Fun
But I digress. I wanted to create a stock photo that represented speed, power, the future, fun and freedom…and what the heck, maybe a few other things as well.  My strategy for shoots these days is to come up with a central or “hero” shot and then to fill in around that. In this case I wanted to center the shoot around a convertible sports car with a couple enjoying a sunset drive.

A Sexy Shot of a Generic Sports Car
The day before the shoot my partner, Stephanie and I (she doesn’t particularly care for the car claiming that anyone who drives one is compensating for other shortcomings…) drove out to the road I had picked for the shoot. It was Stephanie who commented that the best shot seemed to be looking into the sun. I had to agree…and it seemed to me that with a little Photoshop work I could create a very sexy shot of a generic sports car that could represent all of my concepts…and could even represent sporty hybrids or EVs as well…as long as I managed to disguise the “Jaguar” lineage.

Shots We Have Seen Before…and a “Hero” Shot
I hired two models (one of whom actually showed up) and spent a few hours shooting.  Not shown here are the more typical shots of a pretty woman driving, a couple driving holding hands…and all that stuff. We have all seen that before and while it makes sense to shoot it (and it will earn me money) it is my “hero” shot that I think is worth taking a longer look at. To be honest…I really have no idea if it will sell or not. One never knows.

Cars of the Future and Fast Internet
My thinking goes like this. Suppose you are an editor of a magazine that is doing a feature story on cars of the future…you need a cool looking image of a car that is not identifiable…but looks really hot. That could well be this one…and I composed it so that it could work well as a magazine cover with lots of room for type, mastheads, headlines and so forth. What if you are pushing a web site that covers fast cars…this image could again be used. Motor Oil? You bet! Car polish? How about fast Internet connections? You get the picture. This image has a wide range of possible applications not restricted by being a specific brand. It looks fast and fun and even futuristic which can apply to a whole lot more concepts than just cars. 

Creativity and Success
It is great to shoot all the photographs that we know sell…but it is also important to step beyond the ordinary, or at least attempt to, and create concept shots that can stand out from the crowd. Not all of them will result in good revenue, but just as importantly they keep you practicing creativity both in execution and in coming up with the ideas. And I am convinced that it is creativity that is the most important factor in success as we move into the future.