David Hobby spent twenty years as a newspaper photographer. He studied photojournalism at the University of Florida, shot for the Leesburg Commercial, the Orlando Sentinel, UPI, and freelanced for many others. He was a staff photographer at Patuxent Publishing for eleven years and spent another nine years at The Baltimore Sun. When he left the Sun in 2008, he was one of 100 staffers who had agreed to accept a buyout as part of a staff reduction program. He’s now best known not for the images he shot over that twenty-year period but for the education he’s given to thousands of other photographers through his Strobist blog.
Hobby’s career could be seen as encapsulating the decline of editorial photography. A job that should have been rewarding, enjoyable and challenging is now under so much pressure from declining news readership that the best way to make money out of it is to teach its skills online rather than use them.
Stock Snaps Up Editorial Agencies
Recently though there have been a few signs of new interest in editorial photography. At the beginning of 2011, Getty announced that iStockPhoto would begin accepting and selling images specifically for editorial use.
“Publications and bloggers are often looking for images of products, architecture and landmarks,” the company told us then. “There is also a constant need for photos that tell stories about travel and lifestyles or those that provide social commentary. These are the types of images iStock will now be able to offer.”
Sales of editorial images on iStock began towards the end of the first quarter, and the site now offers a little over 140,000 images that can only be used editorially (in addition to the 8 million-plus commercial images that can also be used editorially).
Getty isn’t alone. Over the last year, rival Corbis has announced a series of moves that included an agreement with Zuma Press, the world’s largest independent press agency, a partnership with Associated Press, the purchase of celebrity news agency Splash News, and in August, an investment in Demotix, a two-year-old crowd-sourced editorial photography site. The two companies had made a global distribution agreement in March. The amount of the investment wasn’t disclosed but according to a press release, the support did indicate Corbis’s confidence in editorial photography.
“Our investment in Demotix illustrates not only the quality of Demotix’s local photographers, but Corbis’ commitment to providing global Media outlets with an even deeper selection of exceptional breaking news imagery from sources that reach places where mainstream suppliers cannot offer coverage,” said Gary Shenk, CEO of Corbis. “Combined with our recent cross-distribution partnership with the Associated Press and acquisition of Splash News, Corbis’ comprehensive Media offering now covers each subject and industry vertical to provide the most compelling end-to-end offering in the market today.”
So the situation for editorial photography isn’t as gloomy as it might appear. Newspapers might have laid off photographers but stock companies are stepping up to fill the gap, giving photographers another outlet for their images.
But it’s not that simple. Even the rise of tablet computers hasn’t solved the problems faced by print firms struggling to compete against free news sites. Owners of iPads and other devices may be more willing to buy subscriptions but only 11 percent of American adults own one. Without a dedicated app, publishers are stuck with giving away their content for free online or placing it behind a paywall where they risk losing advertising revenue. And if they do create an app, 30 percent of their revenues will go to Apple.
iPhone Pictures for Sale
Even the interest in editorial images among stock companies may be less reassuring than it appears. The bulk of the editorial images available on iStockPhoto, for example, seem to consist not of carefully-captured news images that encapsulate a story, reflect a zeitgeist or provide “social commentary” but brand images that can’t be used commercially. The top-selling editorial image on iStock shows an iPhone with a blank screen. Uploaded towards the end of June, it’s sold over 400 licenses. Of the next 50 top-selling editorial images, all but two show technology — usually an Apple product.
Addressing the status of editorial photography on his blog A Photo Editor in February 2011, Rob Haggart, the former Director of Photography for Men’s Journal and Outside Magazine, presented a mixed picture.
“Editorial photography is alive and kicking, growing even, what’s dead is the idea that editorial anything only lives under the aegis of benevolent newspaper and magazine owners.”
Rather than finding a home on the pages of newspapers like the Baltimore Sun, he argued, photographers are creating their own photographic niches. Cycling clothing manufacturer Rapha, for example, has used documentaries and editorial content to promote its products, creating a commercial space for photojournalists supplied by a firm.
But that’s also a space that enthusiasts can fill — even if they can’t fill it easily. Street photographer Yanidel Delafoge is currently on an 80-week trip around the world during which he’ll be publishing his images on his website and writing about technique, equipment and street photography in general. It’s a commitment that has already won him attention from the Leica Camera blog, among other places. Photographer Bryan Formhals has used his love of street photography to create LPV Magazine, a print and Web publication that relies on editorial images. The magazine is issued three times a year and is published through MagCloud, a print-on-demand magazine service operated by HP.
Despite its troubles then, and despite the troubles of the traditional media, editorial photography isn’t dead. And despite the interest of stock companies in offering editorial images to publications now short of staff photographers, it’s unlikely that licensing is going to support the kinds of storytelling images that photojournalists love to shoot. While there will always be a market for those images somewhere, the best strategy for editorial photographers might be to look for ways to publish them themselves. Making it pay won’t be easy… but the alternative is always to set up a blog and teach.