Image courtesy: SmugMug
When Flickr announced its deal with Getty, allowing members to license their images through the stock giant, reactions were mixed. On the one hand, there was a feeling that it was about time. Photographers had been negotiating individual deals with image buyers keen to use their creativity for years but making those agreements was often a slow process that resulted in enthusiasts handing over valuable rights to experienced buyers who knew a bargain when they saw one. Those buyers, too, would often find that sellers disappeared when contacted, lacked model releases or didn’t have the images in the size they needed. Letting Getty sort through the process should make life a lot easier for both sides.
But Flickr photographers can’t yet choose to offer individual images, only their entire collection, and Getty takes 70 percent of the sales price of any image sold. That might be the stock industry standard, and it includes the cost of ensuring all the legal requirements have been fulfilled, but it can look steep if the buyer has come in through the photographer’s own Flickr stream rather than as a result of Getty’s marketing. That’s why some photographers have suggested cutting out the middleman, making clear that their images are for sale under their pictures and treating buyers professionally themselves.
Flickr though, might not be the best place to do that. SmugMug might be.
A Growing Family Business
The site was founded in 2002, some two years before the launch of Flickr, when Chris MacAskill discovered that members of his motorcycle forum were looking for ways to embed images into their posts, something that photo-sharing sites at the time didn’t offer. His son, Don, however, had a gaming network that included a photo-sharing component.
“Everyone we demoed it to asked if they could use it for regular photos,” Chris recalled in an email interview.
With no one willing to provide funds, the father and son team bootstrapped the service by charging photographers $30 per year to host an unlimited number of photos. Early growth was slow but eight years later, the site has grown to employ 55 staff, including nine family members. It also hosts over a billion photos and receives 15 million unique visitors a month.
The annual fee however has remained, providing one important difference to Flickr, most of whose members use the site for free. SmugMug is free to browse and provides a two-week trial period for contributors, but fees then range from $5 per month to as much as $20 per month (or $150 per year) for Pro membership. What contributors get that for that money (that they can’t receive from Flickr) includes the ability to choose themes for pages, customize their websites and place their SmugMug galleries on their own domains.
More importantly, Pro members can also sell their images not just as prints but as digital downloads. The licensing options are pre-set and consist of just two royalty-free usages: one commercial, and one personal. It was a choice that provides the most simplicity, explains Chris MacAskill.
“RM licenses make customer heads explode and are hard to execute.”
The Fine Line Between Commercial and Personal
That still leaves the photographers with the challenge of pricing their pictures. Members are free to choose whatever price they feel their images are worth and can demand different rates for different image sizes. Buyers too are forced to decide whether the usage they have in mind is commercial or personal. A blogger looking for an image to place on an ad-supported website is likely to feel that a creative commons license that prohibits commercial use will qualify. Not on SmugMug, which expects even ad-supported bloggers to pay commercial license fees to photographers.
According to Chris, about 30 percent of SmugMug’s accounts are “Professional,” the type that can make sales. About a third of those are run by companies and organizations, leaving about 20 percent of SmugMug accounts that are actually owned by professional photographers. The remaining members tend to consist largely of travelers who want to show off pictures of their once-in-a-lifetime trip. Families make up the second largest group, and enthusiasts make up the third group of users.
Chris wouldn’t reveal the value of the sales Pro accounts have generated but says that he’s always surprised in general at the number of photos and prints sold on the Internet.
“Many companies are thriving online who sell prints and gifts, and it’s a higher percentage of our sales every month because one subscriber can sell so many prints.”
The ability to customize galleries and make sales both digitally and in print make SmugMug very different to Flickr — different enough for many of SmugMug’s members to have accounts on both sites. Chris himself often uses Flickr to search for interesting photos but, he notes, the Yahoo-owned site is about discussion rather than display. It’s about getting your pictures “noticed and talked about” while SmugMug provides better customization, privacy and, for professionals, more efficient interaction with customers. Some image protection is also built-in to SmugMug, with right click disabled even on mid-range accounts and custom watermarks and printmarks (that place logos or signatures on prints) available to Pro members.
If the biggest benefit for photographers hoping to make sales is not handing over 70 percent of their revenues to a stock company, there is a challenge to using SmugMug too. Flickr is known for hosting creative, unusual images placed there by enthusiasts. It’s a brand image that attracts buyers looking for photos that are less formal than traditional stock. SmugMug’s brand as a place for photographers to show off their pictures — rather than discuss them with other photographers — means that its members will have to work to attract buyers and sell their pictures, especially if they’re placing them on their own domain. SmugMug might give photographers the tools they need to cut out the middleman but it does mean they have to do the work that middleman is used to doing on its photographers’ behalf.