Giving Photo buyers What They Really Want

“It was a lie then, and it’s a lie now.”

That was the opinion of MarcW, a commenter on this blog writing in response to our post on the failure of PhotoShelter’s stock division. He was referring to claims photo buyers had made in the company’s survey that they wanted images that were “edgy” and “outside the box.” Drawing on his own experience with buyers in other industries, MarcW wrote:

“We’d show them a new toy, or a game treatment, or a prototype, or whatever, and the buyers would love it and it would test great and marketing would kill it because they didn’t know how to sell it.

Over and over and over and over and over and over.”

It was a fascinating answer that seemed to provide a good explanation for the failure of a company that had put so much effort into offering products the market said it wanted: the market was lying. Buyers said they wanted controversial but when it came to reaching into their pockets, they bought safe.

The moral was that stock companies – and photographers — should stick with the standard images because those were the only photos that actually sold.

Buyers Beat Getty

And yet, that’s not entirely what’s happening. Buyers are looking beyond Getty and Corbis and their sub-divisions for photos that are different and original. We’ve seen that they’re approaching photographers on Flickr, even when those images aren’t being offered for sale, and they’re looking through personal galleries too.

Dan James, for example, works at a small Web company that employs fourteen people. In the last two years, four of the people at his firm have been approached by buyers who wanted to purchase their images.

“Four different organizations had stumbled upon these photos, looked up who we were as individuals (our contact information was not on our galleries), contacted us, negotiated a price, and ultimately we ended up selling the photos,” he told us.

“The buyers are not settling for what’s in the stock portfolios and are searching the Web and making cold calls on images.”

None of the images that Dan and his colleagues sold were classic stock images. One image by Steven Garrity, for example, was simply a snap of his messy desk. After selling a license for his image of a Peruvian condor to appear on the cover of a travel guide, Dan submitted it to a number of stock sites to see what their response would be. All rejected it.

“One actually labeled it as ‘unsellable or something ironic like that,” he said.

Although the marketing had been simple – none of the photographers had done anything to promote their pictures other than upload and keyword them – the negotiations were difficult and conducted by email. None of the sellers had any idea how much the photos should cost while the buyers were experienced professionals keen to land a usable photo at a rock-bottom price.

Making Flickr Sales Easier

Dan’s response to that experience has been to build a service that allows anyone to upload any image they want and make it available for sale. Clustershot places no limits on the types of images that can be uploaded (other than that the photographer should own the rights to it) and lets the photographer set the price. Currently, these range from 50 cents to “hundreds of dollars.” Clustershot will take 12 percent of the sale price, leaving the photographer with an impressive 88 percent. The service is fairly new and the number of photos is currently between 50,000 and 60,000 rather than the millions that can be found in many stock inventories. Interestingly though, just over half of those images come from Flickr, reflecting the service’s broad base and non-professional contributors. The rest have largely been uploaded through the RSS feeds of other galleries.

Sales so far though have been low and number just a handful.

“This is an Internet startup. We’re not focused on sales,” Dan explained.

That’s a luxury Clustershot can afford because it’s sponsored by SilverOrange which allows Dan and his colleagues to develop the site as a side-project. Eventually though, Dan hopes that Clustershot will become “the Ebay of photos.”

Reaching that goal will presumably depend on photographers continuing to upload images, tag them well and include descriptions that make them easy for buyers to find and understand. Perhaps most importantly, it will depend on the images being priced correctly, perhaps still the hardest thing for non-professional photographers to do. Dan notes that the rarer the subject of the image, the more expensive it should be. Photos of the Statue of Liberty, he suggests, should sell for pennies; photos of almost extinct plants in the middle of the Amazon should be offered for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

In practice, that’s likely to mean that most images on the site will be dirt-cheap, perhaps not the best way to build a big non-stock, stock site. But despite Dan’s Ebay fantasy, that isn’t really the aim of the service. The goal is to actuall make it easier for buyers to source unconventional images and for amateurs to make occasional sales.

“For us this is much more about a platform and free market than being a traditional stock photography website,” Dan says. “We have no delusions of grandeur though. If it allows us to sell our own photos now and then and make a few bucks for lunch then great.”

3 comments for this post.

  1. MarcW Said:

    This is a very complex field and above all simplifications, but I'd like to point out that I think you were closer to the mark than you know with this comment:

    "None of the sellers had any idea how much the photos should cost while the buyers were experienced professionals keen to land a usable photo at a rock-bottom price."

    PhotoShelter was trying to sell edgy pictures for real money. The market was not willing or able to buy enough edgy (or outsider, or whatever) pictures for real money. However, there will always be a market for good pictures taken by people who don't know what they're worth. Anybody will take a flyer on an RF image for ten bucks - if the layout doesn't work or the client doesn't like it, whatever. But if it's right on the edge and the license is going to cost an extra grand, and I'll have to go back and buy extra rights if I want more later, forget it, give me something I know has worked before.

    Incidentally, the buyers may not be lying - the buyers who whom I refer usually seemed sincere - but the problem is that the buyers are answerable to AD and clients and somewhere along the chain somebody says, "Hey, this is going to cost a lot of money and we don't know if it will work and I never even heard of this photographer. If I publish something weird from Jill Greenberg or Terry Richardson at least I can say they're trendy and hip but if I use a shot some nobody took it's all on me."

    Or the whole thing falls through because marketing and placement don't know how to sell whatever edgy thing the buyers and development and focus testing all love. They may want off their shelf at Target, or whatever, but the problem is then where to put them. If you don't have an answer ready, one that makes sense, you don't get off the shelf.


  2. Phil Wessells Said:

    Try do much of the printing for flickr and now we have a direct importer with the original resolution, EXIF data, flickr titles, tags, artist, description coming over so that you can quickly and easily set up a store selling stock rights, prints, framed prints, canvas, cards, and gifts in a matter fo minutes.

  3. Brandon Seidel Said:

    I just started using ClusterShot. I like it. I have sold stock images with traditional stock agencies and microstock; all have their pros and cons. As we can see with the Getty/Flickr deal, there is a market for ClusterShot and its growing by the day.

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