Photographers Turn to Fair Trade to Beat Microstock

Image: Courtesy PhotographersDirect

Stock photographers are being squeezed from two directions. From below, microstock images are providing a mass of low-cost competition and changing the perception of the value of an image in the eyes of buyers. From above, a small group of large stock companies have the power to determine market prices and typically to take as much as 70 percent of the fees paid by a buyer for a photo. It might not be quite as bad as coffee growing in Ethiopia but to a stock photographer looking to make a living out of his or her images, the current market conditions can make them feel equally powerless. They can’t set their own fees and they’re forced to pay a large chunk of the value of their work to middlemen. That’s a situation that Photographers Direct, a stock site, is trying to solve by using a sales model adapted from the Fair Trade movement.

The service was launched nine years ago, initially as a picture search that passed on requests from photo buyers to photographers. That service still exists, and the company also accepts commissions for its photographers, but its main product is now a searchable database of over 2 million stock images. Those images have come from over 15,000 photographers of which 5,000 are currently active in more than 100 countries. The site generates  more than 1.8 million page views a month.

Prices for licenses can vary. The average price paid is $200 but four-figure fees aren’t unusual and some buyers on the site have paid as much as $5,000 for a single usage license. To purchase an image, buyers usually contact the photographer and either ask for a quote based on their planned usage or describe their budget.

“Offers won’t generally be rejected by a photographer,” says Chris Barton, a Canadia-based travel photographer and Photographers Direct’s founder. “Instead, if they feel the price is too low, they will try to negotiate a price and terms of use which are agreeable to both parties.”

It’s Not About the Money

In comparison to the off-shelf purchases of other sites, that’s all a bit slow and clumsy, and the site is introducing an automated pricing system based on PhotoDeck. But the photographers are always free to set their own prices instead of having them dictated by the agency, and the agency itself is taking only a 20  percent cut.

That’s a rate well below the usual market rate taken by other agencies.

“Photographers Direct is not about making the most money we can,” explains Chris Barton.  “It is about doing the right thing for our photographers.”

The site, though, isn’t about doing the right thing for all photographers. Images have to be approved before they’re added to the database, and all of Photographers Direct’s contributors are professionals with the industry knowledge necessary to negotiate usage rights and deliver high res images in the formats and sizes needed.

Most importantly, a further condition of joining Photographers Direct is that the photographer does not currently have any images sitting on offer at any microstock site.

“Photographers providing images to microstock sites have damaged the earning potential of all photographers, and allowing those same photographers to join Photographers Direct would only dilute our photographers’ earnings further,” says Chris Barton.

The site, in fact, preserves special criticism for microstock sites, arguing that many new picture buyers now see the low prices and open licenses as the norm, and  fail to recognize that those fees do not cover the cost of equipment and production. They also encourage the production of low quality, “generic” images that are flexible enough to be sold many times — the only way to make any kind of income from microstock, says Chris.

Interestingly though, it’s not the prices themselves that bother Chris Barton, whose own images have been used by The Wall Street Journal, Readers Digest, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Thomas Cook and many others, but the low pricing combined with the open licenses. Microstock, he argues, can fill a need in the market, particularly for blogs and small businesses,  but when the same image can be used endlessly and for the same low fee, even when it’s being used on the cover of Time magazine, the system, he says, has a fatal flaw, and one that’s harming professional photographers.

The Growing Gap Between Microstock and Professional Stock

Certainly, it’s easy to see the benefit to a photographer of a system like Photographers Direct which offers all of the advantages of a stock agency but with an exceptionally low commission and the ability to set your own prices. But it’s harder to see how microstock images compete with these images. When microstock photographers produce images of “the lowest common denominator” they widen the gap between the quality of budget pictures and the excellence of the kind of images offered by the professionals on Photographers Direct. Chris Barton asks why Time magazine would pay more when a cover image is available for only $30 but very few of the images being offered for $30 are worthy of being Time covers. Usually, publications still pay the full price demanded by the market because low-priced suppliers can’t produce images of a high enough quality.

The question though is whether buyers will continue paying those prices through agencies. Photographers Direct doesn’t just provide a new pricing model, it also represents a new marketing model. The site’s new system allows photographers to  upload their high res images to PhotoDeck, set their prices and links them to their Photographers Direct account. Photographers can indicate which licenses are available and allow buyers to download once a purchase has been made. The only role left for the agency will be to put the pictures in front of buyers, says Chris.

“[A]nd that role is being threatened from a number of different directions and by game-changing technologies, which will, I believe, eventually make most traditional agencies obsolete.”

A photography stock market with no middle men at all. That really would be a revolutionary change.

10 comments for this post.

  1. Gary W. Said:

    One of the biggest hurdles this site has in my opinion, is its own design. The last I looked, it was all gray, with text and buttons overly crowded on the page, and the image being featured were gray, and unappealing. You may have a golden goose under wraps, but if its covered in mud, probably no one will ever notice.

  2. P-C Said:

    Good article. Interesting issue. Old question?

    I was registered with Photographers Direct. The approval process and the site were way too clumsy.

    I do agree that microstock is hard on professional photographers.

    But I don't think that Photographers Direct has the correct formula for competing with microstock.


  3. Travis Allison Said:

    @Gary, you are so right. I went directly over to the site to get started (2011 goal is to apply myself to stock) and was stunned my the Geocities era design.

    I don't expect that my clients will pay me $2500 a day if I'm wearing the clothes that I wore to work in the mid-nineties...

  4. james stock Said:

    Yes! and you even fail to mention the most shocking of al facts: iStock who is the largest player in microstock and is owned by Getty is now taking a 81-85% cut from the majority of its contributers (independendts)...its mindblowingly injust!

  5. Carroll Seghers Said:

    I am disappointed to see someone using the concepts of Image Warehouse, because it didn't work then and it won't work now. The big agencies have an iron lock on the big clients through their annual subscription programs; smaller agencies need the profits of buying micro-stock and marking it up to standard stock prices to their clients. But the main reason that micro-stock is so successful, is that today's clients don't know enough or care enough to be discerning. "Good enough" is good enough. The market is driven by speed of access to "good enough" imagery, to get the ad (or whatever) created & delivered on deadline and on budget.

  6. Chris Barton Said:

    Carroll, Re your comment:

    "I am disappointed to see someone using the concepts of Image Warehouse, because it didn't work then and it won't work now."

    I didn't know about Image Warehouse, so I did a search and was surprised to find that Image Warehouse was set up by "Carroll Seghers", and is now defunct.

    - Photographers Direct was established many years before you started Image Warehouse.

    - Photographers Direct has no debt.

    - Photographers Direct is profitable, and growing.

    best regards

  7. James photography Said:

    Surprised no-one has mentioned Alamy.

    They give 60% of the sale to contributors, are non-exclusive and get good prices. Plus anyone can contribute providing you can produce images that have good technical quality.

  8. Zbynek Burival Said:

    The common "low-quality" microstock is gone. I dont say micro is fine but this will not solve it. Many many microstockers shoot fullframe cameras and pro lenses and there is bunch of very skilled photographers. Its sometimes more difficult to pass on micro them on Alamy or other "more pro" agencies. I dont say its not full of snaps on micro but on serious agencies are also tons of problematic pictures.

    Second, only solution is P2P against micro. Sorry but most macro agencies lost serious time (some sleep even today!) after internet changed the market. They still think they dominate the market and that what worked 20 years ago works also now - what a nonsense! If you make new agency, HOW would you do it to overcome all "big 4" microstock sites AND keep significantly higher price? And one more thing - most of the world IS NOT USA. Most of the world earns monthly what ppl from US or western Europe earn in 1-3 days! For many of these ppl $5 per picture is pretty fine.

  9. Daniel Padavona Said:

    My belief is the future will see more photographers breaking away from agencies to set their own pricing and licensing terms. The tools for creating a website and storefront are getting better and cheaper every year.

    Like any business venture, only the savvy photographers with good business sense will successfully break out. But I strongly believe it is an inevitable trend.

  10. James Said:

    Hey guys - you should check this out - its polished and aimed at the top end of town buyers - advertising agencies etc -

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