You and the Failure of PhotoShelter

On October 10, 2008, PhotoShelter will close the PhotoShelter Collection, its stock outlet. In an announcement on the company’s website, Allen Murabayashi, PhotoShelter’s CEO declared:

“We believed that we could create a more democratic system – a marketplace for stock photography where virtually any one could participate. And a few months later, The PhotoShelter Collection was born. Upload your images, keyword & price, attach the appropriate releases, and voila! You were now a stock photographer…

We knew that sales would be challenging, but we honestly underestimated the complexity of sales. Licensing photography isn’t like selling a widget on eBay. It’s intellectual property fraught with clearance issues”

The bottom line is that the collection failed to make enough money in enough time to justify continuing. PhotoShelter will continue with personal archiving — the company describes its financial position as “strong” – but it will no longer be offering stock images to photo buyers.

The Slowness of Crowds

In a blog post, Allen describes some of the “learnings” that his experiment with stock selling taught him. These include the dominance of Getty, the difficulty of persuading buyers to break with subscription plans which lock them into a relationship with a supplier, and the inability of crowd-sourcing to move quickly enough to meet market demands.

It also apparently taught him to steer clear of stock, perhaps a wise choice for a business owner. But that’s not necessarily the smartest move for a photographer who hopes to earn money from his or her images. Although there are now plenty of options for photographers hoping to sell their images, the ability to repeatedly – and largely passively — sell licenses for the use of photographs is always going to be attractive. Allen dismisses microstock because of its low prices even though it too is democratic, provides some dedicated professionals with a real income and gives others some valuable extra revenue (and unlike the Photoshelter Collection, it works) but there are alternatives that fall between the low prices of microstock and the closed doors of traditional stock.

The Nimbleness of Niche Sites

One of the advantages that Allen Murabayashi hoped PhotoShelter would enjoy over its rivals, for example, is its ability to announce a market demand to thousands of photographers, and in a short space of time, have enough offerings to satisfy the client. In practice, he says, that didn’t work because “many research requests are due within a day,” forcing buyers to scour libraries for the photos they need. If that’s true – and the success of fotoLibra’s photo calls suggests that perhaps it’s not always true – it does create an opportunity for niche stock sites to steal a move on their larger rivals.

We’ve already seen how some photographers are doing this. Mark Maziarz has a string of boutique stock sites that offer images related to sports photography, Park City, Utah and the good life. Josh McCulloch offers licenses for his outdoor images through his own website, and Greg Epperson’s websites only provide photos related to rock-climbing.

Interestingly though, Greg, who concedes that major clients tend to go to the big stock houses, leaving him to deal with the smaller designers, has two sites through which he offers licensed photos.

“One shows the dramatized versions that stock buyers and designers are more likely to license and the other is the ‘real’ thing,” he told us. “The real thing sells poorly because the clients don’t get it. The dramatized versions sell because the client can understand it.”

That might suggest that PhotoShelter made another mistake – one not listed in Allen Murabayashi’s mea culpa: that it was wrong to believe buyers when they told PhotoShelter they wanted more realistic images and fewer posed photos. That fact was one of the more interesting things that came out of the company’s Shoot! The Day project, a plan to rejuvenate PhotoShelter’s stock library with unique offerings that art editors actually wanted to buy.

The buyers’ survey comments and requests made sense. Stock images tend to be fairly similar. Photographers can see what sells and tend to reproduce it rather than risking their time and effort on unusual images for which there might be no market. PhotoShelter attempted to provide those naturalistic images… and found that buyers stayed with the traditional shots available at Getty.

It’s hard to say though whether that’s because there’s a difference between what buyers say they want to see and what they’re actually willing to buy, or whether Getty’s subscription plans have the market for major buyers sewn up. For rock-climbing, at least, it seems to be the former but that might be something to do with the complexities of clambering up mountains.

So what does all this mean for photographers? The loss of another mid-stock outlet might mean nothing but it should show the importance of being independent and not relying too much on one sales channel. And adding a subscription model to your own stock site could be a good idea too.

4 comments for this post.

  1. MarcW Said:

    I have worked in multiple industries (toys, video games, amusement, photography) in which the refrain, "We want something different, we want out of our aisle in the store, we want edgy, we want outside of the box" might just as well have been tattooed on the foreheads of the buyers and reps.

    It was a lie then, and it's a lie now.

    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.

    PhotoShelter had lots of whys, and I won't say this is the only or the biggest one, but it's quite real, it's part of human nature, and it will never change. You still have to try, because it's that one time in a million that you get a SuperSoaker or a Trivial Pursuit or a Katamari Damasay or a Terry Richardson. But them's not good odds.


  2. Tom Said:

    ** Shameless plug below **

    Great article.. I think the niche stock photography sites are a great idea. I am currently pursuing this type of venture with:

    Its a stock photography site which focuses on Southern California only. We have so many great beaches here, and lots of site seeing. So I figured this would be a great niche to try and tap into. Photographers can also join and submit photos.. we pay 80% to the photographer.

  3. Keith Tuomi Said:

    ** Also a shameless plug **

    We are taking into account all that goes on in the industry during our beta and adjust and move accordingly. Subscriptions will never be a solution however.

  4. Portfolio Website Said:

    I'm a fan of some parts of photo-shelter but am going to wait a few months and if some parts don't improve then cancel the service and look for something else, i am looking at you.

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