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.
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.