When times are confusing and neither the image market, nor the providers of the images, have any clear idea besides “Hey! Look how cheap I can sell my images!” it becomes tempting to add a few words here and then to the existing chaos. So let’s establish a position.

Many people say that the present situation of image prices in stock photography is the result of crazy big corporations (we will call them Kings and Queen´s from now on) trying to monopolize the business. Their supposed strategy is to offer binding agreements for important clients who get to use their images at subscription model prices, which are very low indeed (for those not yet initiated in the game). Other people believe that microstock outlets are vandalizing the market by offering fairly good quality images at even lower prices than those of the Kings and Queens.

Photographers, who produce the images everybody sells (at whatever price) are separated in groups.  There are some who say that selling low is criminal for the present stability of stock photography as we all have known it since Matthew B. Brady started taking images in the 19th century American Civil War.  Maybe old friend Brady here is new for many people who just picked up a camera yesterday, but more can be read about him at www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathew_Brady.  There you´ll read of the dramatic end of our friend Brady, alone, poor, and living in a charity ward which might resemble, god forbid, the end of stock photography.

Some photographers, even good photographers, have taken a much more eclectic approach. “If we have to sell cheap, let’s sell cheap,” they say, and considering that clients don’t mind buying good images at peanut prices, success is guaranteed.  It goes without saying that in recession times everybody is trying to save coins, so if clients find cheap images, you can imagine the results. Other less pragmatic photographers despise the situation, so they abandon stock photography, bye-bye friend, and dedicate their time to assignment photography, while whispering bitter things on secret or not-so-secret public forums.

The fundamentals of marketing say that “differentiation” and “positioning” are important when selling your products, ie. images.  Therefore, accumulating “exclusive images” may differentiate you from the shooter beside you and may position your collection in front of discerning clients who are looking for the best they can buy. Is this the approach that Kings and Queen´s are desperately trying to play as their last card? To produce photographically good ideas, you need creative people and good photographers, but how long are those good “photo-ideas” going to be exclusive? Those that have been around a while in this industry -not many actually- might remember that in a remote past, good “photo-ideas” were copied as fast as they were created. Therefore, the term “exclusivity” isn´t enough to maintain big organizations with huge overheads once the rich people who sustain them get tired of always losing money.

Everyone seems to forget that digital technology allows all this to happen. You need a website to do business in stock photography and once digital, you can administer millions of images and strive for success. Selling single images, Rights Managed, Royalty Free, Low Budget, Microstock and even Microscopic stock (renamed as Subscription model), what´s the common denominator? Just this.  Every model needs a technical or digital infrastructure or ideally, an IT supported, software-driven structure to sell images. Without it you won’t sell a penny. Are photographers managing these IT infrastructures? They’ve tried, but if you listen carefully, the sites that are making noise in the market aren’t those managed by photographers. I´m more inclined to say that IT people, not photographers, are running this show.

However, is everything as chaotic as it sounds? Are King´s and Queen´s monopolizing anything? In my opinion, King´s and Queens are both part of the problem and suffering the problem, but certainly not the cause of it. Prices and revenue in stock photography are going down for everybody because the combination of a monstrous recession and the possibilities of digital technology reward those who can offer images at lower prices. This is bad indeed for many, but it’s good for stock photography because it´ll have to profoundly regenerate itself. This implies reducing the structures, innovating the offer, and putting some order to the way licensing is conducted. One result is that Royalty Free price rigidity has largely disappeared and prices are basically negotiated like they always have been with Rights Managed imagery, cheaper or more expensive, according to the project. Allow me to call it “licensing plasticine”. 

Naturally “negotiating” does not seem like the best way to go when dozens of places offer good images, especially in their first pages, at 14 cents a piece, and you only need to advance some cash and get them. It’s an interesting approach, but yet there are still many traditional stock photography agencies “negotiating.”  Although they might need to update their internal structures and cope with the present recession, the real fact is that they are selling images into a market which is not completely rigid yet. Allow me to introduce another term that describes why there is still space for many: “market elasticity”.

So if we can admit that there is no evil confabulation of bad King´s and Queen´s and other suspicious looking guys behind what is happening in stock photography today, we have found some light in this digital cavern. Let’s talk about that light in the days to come…