The Sites that Changed the Photography Business

We’d like to think that at Photopreneur we have influence in the photography world. We’d like to believe that we’re among the movers and shakers, the people who set the agenda, the picture-taking elite who are changing the face of photography forever.

But we’re far too modest for that.

And besides, the people who are really changing the photography business are you: the enthusiasts, semi-professionals and professionals who are grabbing the opportunities that the digital age has thrown up and seeing where it can take you.

You have had some help though. Over the last few years, a number of websites have launched that have had a huge effect on the photography business. In no particular order, here are the most influential.


The idea was simple, horrible, successful and completely revolutionary. To inject some competition into a stock photography market now dominated by one big company was no bad thing. But to do it by making the images royalty-free and to charge a price that many photographers saw as insultingly low was, in their eyes, outrageous. It wouldn’t last they said. No one would want to contribute.

They were wrong. Bruce Livingstone, the site’s founder, had spotted that the relatively low cost of digital photography meant that good quality cameras were now in the  hands of talented amateurs who would be happy to shoot for small payments, especially if they were getting those payments multiple times.

iStockPhoto Started as a Free Stock Site

In fact, initially, Livingstone assumed that those amateurs would be willing to supply their images for nothing more than the thrill of publication. At its launch in May 2000, iStockPhoto was a free stock site supported by Livingstone’s Web development company Evolvs Media. By 2001, the site was charging for images and generating a profit. It has remained profitable ever since, boosted by a community of more than 3 million registered members and a portfolio of nearly 4 million photos.

The threat to traditional stock photography, long an elite club in which top photographers contributed their best images to large companies which then sold usage rights to other large firms on their behalf, quickly became clear. In February 2006, Getty Images, the industry leader, realized that it couldn’t beat them and would be better off if the company joined them. It bought iStockPhoto for $50 million.

The price may have been a bargain. In 2007, the site generated almost $72 million in revenue, sharing almost $21 million with its contributors.

iStockPhoto is no longer the only microstock site on the Web. Plenty of others have followed in its wake – some successfully, others less so. But iStockPhoto was the first and it changed the way photographers sell their images, the way users buy them — and the amount they expect to pay for them too.


Image: notsogood

Not everyone who owns a digital camera wants to sell with it though. Most people just want to show what they photographed. When Flickr gave camera-owners a place to store their images, show them to friends and family, and even join groups where they could chat about picture-taking, photographers had a home on the Web.

They could improve their skills, make friends, pick up new ideas and, we’ve found, even generate sales and build careers.

Like iStockPhoto, Flickr began with modest intentions. Developed by Canadian firm Ludicorp, Flickr was initially part of the company’s attempt to create a massive multiplayer online game called Game Neverending. Its first incarnation was based around a chat room called FlickrLive which allowed users to exchange photographs. Gradually, the site began to emphasize uploading and filing, and the chat aspect disappeared to be replaced eventually by forums and groups as influential as David Hobby’s Strobist and Darren Rowse’s Digital Photography School. Game Neverending ended as a photo site where photography enthusiasts could endlessly play and learn.

You Can’t Ignore Flickr’s 3 Billion Images

If all Flickr had done was to become the main center on the Web for image-sharing, that alone would already have made a huge difference to the way photographers used the Web and improved their skills. Certainly the 3 billion images it now hosts could hardly be ignored.

But it did much more than that.

Tagging images in the same way that stock companies keyword their photos gave contributors a sense that their images were waiting to be discovered and introduced them to the world of professional display. Enabling the addition of geo-tagging, including the ability to drag-and-drop photos onto a map, gave location scouts a whole new way of preparing for shoots and checking out sites, while the challenges set in groups and the attraction of winning a spot on the Explore page – an award made according to a Google-like algorithm based on views, faves and comments – motivated already-motivated photographers to shoot better pictures and to network like unemployed bankers at a job fair.

And then there was Creative Commons. By allowing photographers to apply a range of different Creative Commons licenses to their images, Flickr has managed to build a giant bank of almost 90 million free photographs. These have granted countless photographers enormous exposure and provided a fantastic no-cost resource for image users. Flickr photographs now turn up on outlets from small websites to The Economist’s blogs and even, controversially, on advertising billboards.

As if that wasn’t enough, The Commons also makes some of the world’s most iconic – and copyright-free – images available on the site too.

Unlike iStockPhoto though, the company has yet to come up with a solid business model. Annual membership plans which allow for limitless uploads, better organization and stats are unlikely to make a large dent in the firm’s running expenses. Nor are the sponsored groups, run by firms looking for free advertising images and we-get-social-media branding. None of that though stopped Yahoo! from buying the site in 2005, replacing its own Yahoo! Photos with the then smaller but faster-growing service.

If microstock offers cents as the reward for getting images seen, Flickr, soon likely to become part of Microsoft’s stable, has built a site in which views alone is the most important currency.


What would a list of influential websites be without Google? Sure, it’s not a photography site, but Google’s versatility and efficiency have made it a valuable tool for both photographers and the people who use their images.

Some of the influence has come from its hosted service. Like Flickr, Google also allows users to browse historic images. Life magazine’s photo archive is now searchable by keyword and includes millions of images that have never been published. As a way of viewing inspiring pictures and understanding the development of photography it certainly beats an hour browsing the art books at Barnes and Noble.

Learning about Copyright

Most of Google’s influence on photography though has come through Google Images. While Yahoo! Photos fizzled and died, giving up its life in favor of Flickr, Google Images has stuck around, returning millions of pictures based on size, file type, color and even content. And unlike stock sites and Flickr, those pictures appear in context, showing how and where they were used. The recent addition of Google Image Labeler may make the searching quicker and images easier to find while removing a time-consuming headache from overworked photographers hoping to turn up in search results.

The biggest impact though has probably fallen on copyright. Too many users feel that if an image turns up in a Google search result then it’s free for anyone to copy. Using Google Alerts to receive notification of a credit – even when the user hasn’t asked permission – hardly helps.

As a result, artists who might never have worried about their works being used without authorization are creating watermarks, concerning themselves with image sizes and keeping track of how their photos are being used and where. Thanks to Google, we’re all copyright experts now.


Back in the old days, there were only a handful of ways that photographers could sell their images. They could talk to gallery owners and develop a taste for rejection. They could contact stock companies and get used to hearing “no, thank you.” And they could cold visit retail stores and usually hear the owner tell them that they didn’t want to sell their postcards, posters or photos on a t-shirt. If they were very lucky though, they might win an agreement based on sale or return which meant dishing out a fortune on prints in the hope that one day they’d see a profit.

Cafepress changed the dynamics of at least the last option. Founded way back in 1999 by Fred Durham and Maheesh Jain, the site allowed artists to offer user-customized products on demand. Photographers then could sell mugs, bags, t-shirts, clocks and calendars decorated with their images and do so without any risk of losing their production costs. They didn’t even need to worry about the hassle of packing, shipping and storing inventory. Cafepress handled all the logistics for them, allowing contributors to focus on production.

Cafepress Sets a New Trend

The quality of items on the site has always varied – a problem faced by any commercial outlet with no entry restrictions —  but the service has nonetheless done well. It now offers over 150 million products created by more than 6.5 million contributors. In July 2008, Cafepress bought the photo printing business Imagekind giving it a chunk of the photography art-on-demand business too.

Perhaps the only area it hasn’t dominated is print-on-demand photography books, a  niche dominated by Lulu and especially Blurb.

Cafepress’s biggest effect though may be that it set a new trend. The service might have been revolutionary when it appeared but these days it has to share a space with competitors such as Zazzle, Etsy and Red Bubble. Each of those sites allows photographers to use their images to decorate household objects and to sell them with little or no risk (Etsy charges a subscription fee which keeps out the truly amateur but benefits from the appearance of more professional items.)

But Cafepress ratcheted up one more result that’s also reflected in the me-too sites that followed after it. None of the services does a great deal to market itself to buyers; contributors  are forced to do that for themselves. They might not have had to worry about filling boxes but if they were to make sales, photographers had to learn about sales points, market sources and joint ventures. Cafepress showed photographers that in the digital age, creating isn’t enough. If they want to make money, photographers have to be creative marketers now too.

eBay and Craigslist

eBay is another site that isn’t geared towards photography but which has had a huge, if largely unseen, effect on the photography industry.  Launched in 1995 by computer programmer Pierre Omidyar as AuctionWeb, the site removed commercial mediators, allowing the market to set the true price for an item based on exactly what buyers were willing to pay. Right from the beginning, that’s thrown up some surprises. The very first item sold on eBay was a laser pointer (although laser pointers are now banned) which went for $14.83 even though it was listed as “broken.”

More importantly from the point of view of photographers is that eBay also allows artists to put their works in front of potential customers without the challenge of dealing with gallery owners – or paying them half the sales price. Currently more than 3,200 printed photographs are on offer on the site with asking prices as high as $7,500.

Galleries might have a cachet and eBay is a long way from Sotheby’s but the ability to reach the art-buying public directly has created a whole new opportunity for photographic artists.

The No-Cost Way to Market Photography Prints and Services

And Craigslist has done something similar for photography services. Founded by software engineer Craig Newmark in the same year as eBay, the site was intended to do little more than function as a kind of noticeboard, helping the local community become aware of social events in San Francisco. Soon the service grew, with companies in particular using it to recruit staff. Today, the offers placed on the site range from erotic encounters to second-hand refrigerators, it covers 550 cities in over 50 countries worldwide and serves 12 billion page views a month. It’s also part-owned by eBay.

Little of that translates into cash though. Craigslist refuses to accept banner advertising, preferring only to demand small payments for some job and real estate listings.

It’s the company’s broad reach and low cost which, although they’ve been devastating to the classified sections of print newspapers, have given photographers a valuable gift.

Small photography businesses with tiny marketing budgets are now putting ads on the site, updating them regularly and winning orders with little effort and no cost. One photographer told us that she picks up a wedding job for every ten to fifteen free ads she runs on the site.

It’s just another way in which entry requirements for photographers have been lowered, allowing novices and part-timers to start earning.

14 comments for this post.

  1. BRoberts Said:

    Sites that changes the photo world are the ones like DPReview and such. Flickr, yes, and just maybe the ones you listed in their own mild way.

  2. Vitezslav Valka Said:

    It's a great analysis guys! Same as the nice article about "How does it all started"...

    Thank you for what you're doing!

    Vitezslav, designer of Pixmac's look...

  3. Mark Rakocy Said:

    Great summary of what has happened in the online photo world in the past few years!

  4. john andrews Said:

    The Boston Globe's "the Big Picture" blog is industry-changing. Also PBase and Smugmug, two forms of photographer archive (rights-managed and non managed), have changed the industry.

  5. Matt Antonino Said:

    Agree with Flickr & Istock. Cafepress changed some things but "the photography business"? Not sure. Craigslist has changed the wedding photo market for very-low-end photographers but most middle to high end photographers can't even get a sniff on there.

    Also - Facebook. I can share photos, tag clients and their friends can see my work DIRECTLY. That books us jobs - the tagging, photo-loving Facebook has definitely changed a bit about how we do business.

  6. ilovephotoblogs Said:

    ...I believe Walmart is now the largest photo finisher in the US...most of it online

  7. Emily Said:

    Etsy is for handmade items only, rather like a crafty ebay but without the bidding, sure people sell there prints there but it's not the same as cafepress,zazzle or redbubble where you just upload an image and the company takes care of the rest.

  8. Tom Baumker Said:

    All the information was very helpfull. Thanks for all the help & advice. I myself don`t believe in selling my photo rights,I have found that over the years selling them for a one time use only has worked out very well for me and everyone that purchased photos was very pleased & it worked well for both of us. I have never solicited one time in fifty one years they have all come to me. I give out my business cards only.

  9. stephen mitchell Said:

    This list is not complete. You've missed the most recent website that's gaining massive membership, audience and popularity: Redbubble.

  10. Phil Wessells Said:

    Nice article. I'd be interested in a similar article on the evolution of the technologies that changed the photo business. None of the above sites take foot without computers becoming cameras and the series of steps that has made the flow of digital content so easy and of such high quality.

  11. Tom Baumker Said:

    I now have a new web site it is called I have had over 9,000 views of my photographs since May 2008. Tom Baumker

  12. Linkin Said:

    In June 2009, CafePress began competing with the artists for whom it acts as printer and shipper.

    CafePress rents web shops to its artists. The artist creates a website page and manually loads the desired blank products. The artist imports his image onto each product, arranges the products on the page, describes the products, titles the products and tags the images.

    Initially, the artist would set a markup and received the markup for each product sold.

    However, recently CafePress began competing with its artists, using the artists' own images. CafePress created a marketplace where a customer can search a keyword. That search brings up artist products. When the customer buys from the marketplace CafePress pays the artist 10% of the price CafePress set. Both the customer and the artist lose money. If the artist's shop sells a t-shirt for $21, the artist makes $3.01. If the marketplace sells the same shirt for $25, the artist gets $2.50. The customer pays $4 more, and the artist gets $0.51 less.

    CafePress tells artists to "promote your own shop," but CafePress buys Google adwords using the very image tags the artist provided.

    CafePress justifies this bait and switch of service terms by telling artists they can opt out if they don't like the new terms; however, many have spent as much as 7 or 8 years creating as many as 88000 images.

    In spite of their sweat-equity, many shopkeepers (content providers) are building shops at other print-on-demand companies and then closing their CafePress shops due to the broken faith and trust, the financial hardship CafePress has delivered into so many lives, and the huge amount of time and dedicated effort all lost in the momentum of their own businesses. Would you keep your AMOCO station franchise if AMOCO built a company store across the street from you?

  13. John Said:

    Here's another one that you missed:

    It's been around since 2007 and is a true sales and marketing tool for all artists.

  14. Daniel Padavona Said:

    I believe Facebook will have a much larger impact than it already has, as new tools are developed and artists discover new ways to market themselves.

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