Stock Photography

I’ve been reading a lot of doom and gloom about how photographers’ livelihoods are in great peril because of microstock agencies like iStockphoto and the recent announcement of a completely free stock photo website. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. “Photography is being cheapened” “No one cares about quality photography” etc. etc.

Being a child of the internet, I can’t really get on the bus, despite being a photographer myself. Let me just get this out of the way right up front: A lot of photographers are assholes. There I said it. Many charge an insane amount of money for their images with little to no regard for their customers and justify it with claims of great technical skill and the aesthetic sense of an artist. They claim value in a product that in many cases the customer just doesn’t see, then whine and complain about how uneducated and simple their customers are.

Well welcome to the marketplace. Just like selling any other product or service, you are ultimately selling a value proposition. The true worth of that value proposition in a competitive market is ultimately set by the customer. If customers are happy placing cheap stock photography in their products, then you’d better start trying to change their minds about why restricted use stock is actually worthwhile. Instead, most photographers have been trying to change the marketplace itself by attacking photographers who give away their images.

Well when it comes right down to it, if you can’t compete with free, what you’re really saying is you can’t compete.

Digital photography has pushed down fixed costs for photographers a great deal. And digital distribution has pushed marginal costs to zero. Competitive markets tend to migrate towards marginal cost.

As much as most photographers would like to deny it, with $5k and a couple of months of education, an amateur can take exactly the same kind of shots that the pros can. Will the pros turn out a better product more consistently? Probably. But in stock photography, that doesn’t matter. An amateur can crank out 10,000 frames for 0 additional investment and have the same number of sellable images that a pro turns out after 1000. And if your customer can’t tell the difference between the two, as is often the case, the pro is working too hard, or expecting too much, or simply is targeting the wrong customers.

Bring together the shots of all of those amateurs, who don’t care about making money off their shots, or use it for promotion, and stock photographers have to take a long hard look at their choice of business model.

Digital tools are pushing down both fixed costs and marginal costs for all content creation markets, and the entrenched powers in those markets have tried desperately to take advantage of those tools while still charging the same for what they’re delivering. They’ve also dismissed a whole new wave of newly empowered individuals who can start creating content on the cheap and flooding the marketplace with free products. Newspapers attacking blogs, radio attacking podcasts, etc. It’s no different here.

What the pros need to do is get very clear about who their customer is, and sell that customer on the value of their product and what makes it different from the amateurs. If they can’t, then they deserve to go out of business either because they aren’t offering something differentiating, or they lack the business acumen to reach the right customers.

All of the professional photography business is threatened by the simplified tools and easier workflow of the digital age, and we all have to continue to innovate and offer our customers value that sets us apart from our competitors. But trying to guilt trip other photographers in an attempt to make the marketplace less competitive just makes you look like a dinosaur who’s complaining because he can’t keep up.

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