Looking at the quality and diversity of styles within stock photography at the moment, it’s hard to believe that barely twenty-five years ago, stock photography was in its infancy, barely providing a worthwhile option for photographers to distribute their photos, let alone a viable way for picture editors to source good images. The technological changes made within the industry turned everything on its head in a very short time but these changes rarely benefitted the photographers.
In the early nineties, stock libraries had a very bad name for themselves, professional photographers would rarely look to stock as being their main source of income and quality was rare, focussing more on massive numbers of images stored on film. When a client would call up a library asking for a specific picture, then an editor would go through thousands of images available, narrowing the requirements until a collection of maybe 20/30 images would be biked to the client across town. Each image stored on film would have been sealed by a thick impenetrable plastic shield, disabling the ability to copy but allowing the client to view on a light-box. When the final image was chosen, the plastic shield would be cut open, triggering the sale of that image and all the remainder would be put back in the envelope and sent back to the library.
The process was long, costly and crying out for the internet, long before Google had even been thought up.
Finding the right image within these parameters was a difficult process, relying on good picture editors and numerous photos to arrive at something close enough to the clients instructions. The quality of images was usually sub-par and badly paid. The process was long, costly and crying out for the internet, long before Google had even been thought up.
Around the mid-nineties, some forward thinking individual came up with the amazing idea that quality was needed in a business answerable only to the metrics of quantity and the Stock Library Catalogue was born. Instead of a thousand images of The Eiffel Tower, a picture editor would find the one defining image of the subject and printed this in a large glossy catalogue, that would be posted to thousands of art directors around the world. The dynamic of searching through images completely changed, picture researchers would look through these catalogues with a slightly more open mind to what they needed until the right image would jump out from the page, demanding to be used. Libraries went from stocking millions of images to concentrating on the better quality images from better and better photographers. These images would produce 80% of the profits for just a fraction of the images used and hence these images started producing good returns for the photographers and slowly the quality of the images went up and up, the word spread quickly and the better photographers came to these libraries searching for the big earnings.
Around 2000, many of the top photographers were shooting worldwide with bigger teams, better models and better locations. Award-winning photographers could now concentrate on this medium earning anything from $20,000 – $50,000 a month, pushing the standard to highs that will probably never be seen again in stock photography.
Catalogues were being produced three to four times a year by each library and many new creative libraries started up fueling the insatiable appetite for new images. Although photographers were still shooting on film, they were embracing Photoshop and scanning their images, employing full-time retouchers and although digital was still a long way off, they were excited about the possibilities of being able to shoot digitally and incorporate this into their workflow saving the thousands of dollars a month they were spending on film, processing and scanning but ironically it was digital that would start the downfall of this industry.
Almost overnight everything changed. You could now buy a digital camera that came close to the quality of film for a few thousand dollars, processing labs went out of business in weeks and although this new technology gave photographers their last breath, for a few years, outstanding images in quantity filled libraries from New York to London. The web was gaining ground quickly and libraries now were investing a lot into their websites, scanning their archive, while uploading all the new digital images. Clients embraced the new simpler way to search, buy and download images. The market grew quickly with just about every business needing a website and filling it with new interesting images along with a healthy online advertising industry that sprung up around Google.
Getty Images started buying up all the smaller libraries creating a dominance in the market and it wasn’t long before they became answerable to their shareholders, who questioned the large percentages paid to the photographers. Questions were asked as to why use a few hundred professional photographers, giving them 50% of the sale, when other photographers around the world would be happy with much less than this.
The birth of micro-stock brought about the death of professional stock photographers
And so fueled by the greed of shareholders, libraries cut up their collections giving preference to micro-stock, and with a nod to the early nineties, concentrated on quantity instead of quality, taking the industry full circle but this time the search and delivery method were strides ahead of before and simplicity took success to a new level.
The birth of micro-stock brought about the death of professional stock photographers seeing their income cut by 90%. No longer was it worthwhile using agency models or studio shoots and the style took on a new natural look, taking on ‘real’ models as the new normal but as quickly as the best photographers changed to keep up with the industry, the industry takes a new turn that will ultimately wipe out things all together for professionals.
More surprising than anything else though, is the fact that the quality of these free image sites is quite outstanding.
Fueled by the insanity of the new social normality, amateurs have given new libraries thousands of their photos just on the promise of a ‘like’ and all of a sudden, the industry has taken a very unexpected turn with ‘free’ image libraries becoming the new way to sell and with the promise of big profits through advertising and zero overheads, these companies have plenty of ways to expand. Although this business model only a few years earlier would have been viewed as almost impossible, it seems that when everyone has access to a good quality camera in their pocket then the inevitability of this business model will very quickly take over the bulk of the industry downloads. More surprising than anything else though, is the fact that the quality of these free image sites is quite outstanding, driving the nail into the coffin of an industry that has nowhere else to go.
So ultimately an industry like photography given to the masses with creative apps turning simple images into usable images for websites, then maybe it’s a great step forward for most people and professionals must accept that the good times are quite clearly over
Professional stock photographers are at a point whereby it’s hardly worth submitting for these libraries any more and although there will always be a few outliers that are still making a reasonable income, for most, I think it’s probably worth looking at other avenues to fill this gap. The trend will be towards these free sites and I’m guessing that this will ultimately cement not only the death of stock photography, it’s also probably going to be the end of stock libraries in the long run.