Stock Photography, RIP?


I have a book from 2002 called ‘The Freelance Photographer’s  Market Handbook’. Within its pages are listed many useful things, or they were once useful for we are talking about 12 years ago, a time of innocence when many professional photographers were salivating in the excitement of the new fangled digital image capture and the huge benefits it would bring to their trade.  Naturally it didn’t work at all as anticipated for many reasons, the chief of which was the camera makers pushing the idea that once armed with a digital everybody became as good as a pro so pro’s were no longer needed. The neatest trick they pulled off though was they  still continued selling ever more sophisticated and expensive cameras to the professionals while busy undercutting them at the other end with hardly a word of objection from the dwindling band of those who could still make a living from the craft!

Professional photography now is not what it was, there are neither the margins or the market to support a fraction of  those with the talent to produce elegant images informed by the appraisal of all the factors that go into producing a superior image as well as the imagination to arrange them in the most appealing manner. Yet it cannot be argued that, generally speaking, image quality has risen tremendously over the years as computing power and algorithms have shouldered the responsibility of focus and exposure. Indeed, a lot of ‘ordinary’ pictures captured on a consumer dSLR far outstrip the quality of those that were produced on film cameras even in competent hands, so the bar has certainly been raised.

This flood of passable photographs emanating from the cameras of today’s enthusiasts has of course sought a commercial outlet and the traditional stock agencies found themselves overwhelmed by hopeful contributors, but they also had a new form of competition in the form of on-line depositories of images that bothered little with editing or peer review.  Pity then the poor picture editors and other purchasers of photos who are now confronted  with not just thousands of good quality images to choose from but quite possibly hundreds of millions available online of varying standard through which they need to find a path to that which most matches their requirements. For those on both sides of the equation it has become a nonsense, the buyer because he has not the filter of picture agents to screen out the substandard and inappropriate while the seller finds his gems lost amongst an unimaginably vast forest of similar shots.

However, in a way the situation is even worse than that for a large proportion of photos are destined for the web and will never be printed at all. If this is the case then why should site owners bother with buying photos at all, why not just take the compact or even mobile out and do it all themselves? Because the results can range from very good to really quite dreadful is the short answer to that and not everybody is consciously aware of the difference. Given the above we are left in something of a quandary, there is a demand for low cost images but when looking to obtain them the buyer has an ocean of potential possibilities to trawl through. The pro, who once looked upon stock as an outlet for unwanted images, now finds he is competing against millions of others so it is perhaps not so surprising to find that many of the stock agencies listed in my old handbook are still trading, for they do have a role after all, providing a platform for those who are serious about producing and using quality images.

There is also a third way forward and that is for the producer of images to sell his own material independently of the online portals or specialist agencies. The web is a two edged sword and it would seem to be a question of using it intelligently to gain the sales that are not going to happen through the big stock shops or will be subject to crippling charges via the agencies. Having tried both the standard approaches I personally am going to attempt the DIY route with a very simple charging structure and no limits on usage. I can then direct my efforts at those most likely to buy  rather than sit and hope that they will trip over them. Will it pay? I don’t think so for one minute, mainly because of the time that needs to be spent preparing and tagging the files before publication, but as a way of filling in spare moments rather than looking at it as a sole means of income it might prove beneficial.

I have started assembling the collection here – Ink plus Images Stock Gallery.