It was changing trends in the world of photography that made it possible for enthusiasts to earn income from their images. Digital SLRs became cheap enough for anyone to produce professional quality photographs. The growth of the Web created a whole new market for low-cost imagery, and the rise of microstock produced one channel that enabled enthusiasts to meet that demand. Other changes have followed, from the growth of Flickr and its relationship with Getty, to social media as way of staying in touch with clients, turning them from one-off customers into long-term buyers.
But changes haven’t stopped because enthusiasts have started making use of them. Here are three trends happening now in the photography world that can have a dramatic effect on your earnings:
Microstock is Demanding More from Buyers, Giving Less to Sellers
When iStockPhoto launched in 2000, the images weren’t cheap. They were free. Prices rose gradually from 25 cents for a download to 50 cents and eventually the stereotypical dollar-an-image. For buyers though, that minimal one-dollar price tag always felt more ideal than real. The lowest prices only delivered the smallest images, sizes too small for all but the most basic online usage. Higher quality images were soon siphoned off into special collections such as Vetta or the new Agency Collection, a combination of microstock and traditional stock. While iStockPhoto’s home page still boasts of images that cost as little as 95 cents, the only way for a buyer to purchase licenses for less than a dollar is to pay $19,000 in advance for 20,000 credits, then use them to buy the lowest quality photos in the smallest possible size.
A typical image supplied through the Agency Collection, however, starts at 55 credits and requires 100 credits for a large size. iStockPhoto also places restriction on usage, demanding more credits for print runs over 499,999 and for resale items.
On iStockPhoto at least, the trend is towards payment and usage models that more closely match those of traditional stock, at least for the best images.
Sadly though, those higher prices aren’t being translated into higher payments for all photographers. iStockPhoto’s recent royalty change is likely to mean lower payouts for many contributors, particularly those who upload infrequently. In 2007, the company paid out 29 percent of revenues to photographers. Don’t expect to see that figure trending upwards.
Image Tracking Gets Easier
When Chris Barton, owner of Photographers Direct and an advocate of fair trade photography, wrote a blog post last March showing how the same microstock image had appeared in multiple locations across the Web, his point was about the ubiquity of low-cost images. Microstock, he was arguing, had to sell in large numbers but those frequent uses made them less useful for “reputable companies.”
It wasn’t a point well made. As one commenter noted, not all firms care about how an image has been used previously, particularly small businesses who don’t have the budget to commission a photographer or pay for Rights Managed photos.
But the post did show how easy it has now become for photographers to track usage of their own photos, and identify unauthorized use. Chris Barton used TinEye, a reverse image search engine that allows photographers to upload an image, enter a URL or even, with a Firefox plugin, just right click an image to see where else it has appeared on the Web. It’s not an entirely new service. Companies like PicScout have long allowed photographers to track their images, and even provided ways for them to contact unauthorized users to demand payment.
This is a facility that’s only going to grow both in popularity and ease of use. Photographers will be able to rely less on friends who are familiar with their photos spotting their images on the Web, and make occasional searches of their best photos themselves.
Piracy isn’t going to go away but better searching should help to make it a lot harder for thieves to get away with their copyright infringement.
Facebook Offers a New Advertising Channel
Facebook’s profile redesign has raised both plaudits and hackles from social users. Some experts though have suggested that the new look was intended to persuade members to share more information about themselves, enabling better ad targeting, while PCWorld has noted that the new layout gives more space to advertising units. Photos are certainly more prominent in the new design, and now appear at the top of the page.
But Facebook isn’t a photography marketing site so those differences may not look significant from the point of view of either photographers or enthusiasts looking to earn a little extra cash.
In fact, they are.
The first case study in Facebook’s advertising section describes the success enjoyed by wedding photographer Chris Meyer. His $600 spend, the site claims, generated $40,000 in revenues in the space of a year. That figure has since risen to more than $100,000 from a spend of less than $1,000, Chris has told us, powered by an ability to target ads precisely to engaged women in his market area.
And it’s not just the advertising that brings in work. Facebook’s ability to “push” pictures to friends creates an opportunity for natural word-of-mouth marketing. For any business with a website, the last decade or so has been about optimizing for search engines and winning attention from Google. That’s still going to be important but the rise of Facebook, whose ad revenues are expected to reach $4 billion in 2011, means that the social media site is going to become an increasingly important marketing channel for businesses including photographers.
Microstock then remains unstable. iStockPhoto with the support of its parent company Getty, continues to try to set the terms for the industry but it’s notable that other microstock companies haven’t followed suit by adjusting their own royalties. The trends there seem to change constantly, and that’s before you consider which kinds of pictures are selling. But technology is still making at least some things easier for photographers, and the rise of a valuable new marketing channel could be good news for enthusiasts, part-timers and professionals looking to grow their businesses.