As we all start thinking about the new year, and the opportunities and challenges 2011 will bring, I’ve asked age fotostock founder and CEO, Alfonso Gutierrez, to share some of his reflections on the current situation and future direction of the stock photography industry and where he sees age fotostock in the mix.
Q: What is your background in the stock photography industry?
A:I started as a chemist specialized in photographic chemistry, but ironically, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry. Then I became a technical sales person selling Linhof and Hasselblad cameras, among others, and then a professional photographer until I started age fotostock 38 years ago.
Q: Do you think your long experience in the industry is a strength or a weakness?
A:It is certainly a strength because in all these years I learned that if you want to stay in business, in any business, you have to carefully watch your organic growth and be able to restructure and adapt fast when the market situation requires a change. We have done that for all those years and we are still in business and progressing. Most of the great stock agencies of the past have vanished because they wanted to grow beyond their organic possibilities. Of course, the stock photography industry, being what it is, remembers those disappearances or failures, as victories. The cruel reality is that those agencies were finally sold and bought by companies that wanted to prove to the world how to do things better, and they started in the same cycle. Now, the biggest stock agencies are suffering for the exact same reasons of the past. Once you violate the equilibrium of organic growth, you are forced into a situation of financial difficulty that obliges you to reduce commissions for photographers or providers of images and/or pay them with noticeable delays.
Q: What is your opinion on the evolution of the business model in recent years?
A:I’m positive about the drastic evolution that the stock photography business model is suffering, although I fear that the changes are going to be analysed incorrectly. Many are thinking that the culprit of what is happening now is low pricing. In fact, the truth is to be found elsewhere in the transition of a static Internet web (Web 1.0) from the past to a much more modern model, opened to the users, the Web 2.0. Nowadays, microstock sites are more aligned with Web 2.0 than traditional stock agencies and it remains to be seen whether what some traditional stock agencies are trying will be a success or a failure.
Q: How has this evolution affected traditional stock agencies?
A:Traditional stock photography has been caught in the middle of a combination of an economic recession where clients needing photos wanted something good and cheap that microstock/subscription could supply, and the need to change the old hierarchical style of pricing and selling typical of most RF companies to a much more agile, consumer-oriented service. Most stock companies still don’t see the need to implement any changes in how to approach the market, creating a lot of confusion in the traditional stock photography industry that will take time to resolve. As we look around, it is interesting to realize how some stock photography players resolve the evolution by establishing small offices in different countries of the world, while others create multiple web sites for image distribution in different countries, for a reduced commission to the local person that answers the phone. It will take some time to see the results of these different emerging traditional stock photography solutions.
Q: Many people (photographers, agents, etc.) who have been in the stock photography industry for a long time would like to wave a wand and make microstock/cheap subscriptions disappear. Would you?
A:Personally, I don’t see the point in wishing that microstock/subscription or any such model would disappear; it is as silly as wishing that Google would disappear. They are here to stay and they are as imperfect as everything and everyone in life, so understanding and using their imperfections can make your model cope better with market circumstances. There is still plenty of space to improve in dealings with photographers and clients. With photographers, because of simple algorithms that show the images in greater demand, the more productive photographers rise above the creative talent that is less in demand, since they don’t have an industrialized production chain. And while selling manufactured commodities is one thing, selling images has intrinsic subtleties. Images are not produced in a mechanized production chain in spite of the availability of easy digital cameras, they are produced by photographers of diverse qualifications and in some cases the final product lacks the required final lustre. For example, solid captioning and great keywording is hard to find in many places because photographers must not only create the images, but also manage captions, keywords, MR/PR contracts and, on top of that, be some what responsible for any mistakes. In my opinion, all that work is excessive if you are going to be paid a share of 10 cents (multiplied however many times) because when the same cake will be distributed among many photographers, each one will realize that less times multiplied by 10 cents does not cover the costs. But I have learned that photographers will accept what popular wisdom signals, even if it is in the wrong direction.
Q: In your opinion are current prices for stock photography/microstock compatible with a viable business model?
A:For a traditional stock agency, very low microstock/subscription prices alone will not make the business viable. However, a low priced product is a nice addition; just an example, now nearly 40% of our entire Royalty Free sales are coming from easyFotostock, our Low Budget Royalty Free (LBRF) offer which sells images at the very affordable price of 10/20/40/60/80 Euros (small differences when quoted in US$) depending of file size. easyFotostock offers this without the hassle of an “extended license” that clearly foments license infringements. So, easyFotostock/LBRF is a model that brings us clients from microstock/subscription licensing who don’t want to pay cash in advance to get the images they need. However, microstock prices seem to be a viable model for some of the microstock/subscription players, especially for those with low overheads and only a virtual presence. On the other hand, rumours about at least one of the best known players reducing photographers’ margins invites speculation on how viable the very low prices really are.
Q: At age fotostock, we have found that top microstock shooters are increasingly interested in distribution through our more traditional channels. Do you think this is a trend reflecting a discontent with the microstock channels or simple expansion into new opportunities?
A:In physical chemistry, saturation is the point at which a solution of a substance can not dissolve any more of that substance and additional amounts of it will appear as a precipitate. A similar thing happens with images databases, there is a saturation point where more images do not imply more business for every photographer. Simple algorithms based on visibility, sales, quantity of images and a few more predictive parameters benefit some shooters that appear regularly and create problems for others that are hardly seen. The system saturates with images and contributors have to find other solutions and distribution points that don’t use the exact same algorithms, or sell at a different price scale with less volume sales, but more money per image sold. So, the answer is yes, we see a growing interest in our Low Budget Royalty Free offer from a number of photographers looking for extra income in view of certain revenue stagnation in other models.
Q: What do photographers from traditional stock agencies have to learn from the microstock photographers? And vice versa?
A:Generally speaking, I wouldn’t advise photographers to sweat their shirt to sell images at very low prices, no matter how much money you can make today by selling a huge volume, but my thinking as a photographer alone won’t discourage others from selling and sweating cheap. There is no secret about microstock as a licensing model. It is hard not to be successful selling original Rolex watches at a few cents a piece, if you understand my analogy. Microstock presence is welcomed because they are slowly moving stock photography agencies and traditional RF producers to change their mentality and modernize their thinking, if they want to survive in a world where the client is the king.
Q: Where do you see age fotostock and other traditional agencies in the near future?
A:Many things can happen that may affect the future of photography and hence those around it. There is a lot of noise and offers in the market and new and pre-existing products like video and 3D promise to be a revolution. However, the reality is that in 2010 we received more traditional images than ever before, in fact 1.152,639 images just from photographers. This shows a 24.06% growth compared to 2009 and represents a historical record in photographers’ submissions in the 38 years of age fotostock history. But what is more shocking is that on top of that, we received another 2.075.457 images for distribution from other stock agencies like us. When your content grows by more then 3 million images in a year, one questions whether stock photography as we know it (traditional or micro) is reaching that saturation point and whether the precipitate forming is an indication that prices can’t go deeper; well, images can still be given to clients for free… Consequently, traditional agencies will need to radically modify their structures and their presence in Internet if they want to see substantial growth by the end of the year. In the long run, however, I see the same cyclical wave that I have seen for so many years, “…everything changes to stay the same in the end…”
Q: What message would you share with age fotostock photographers for 2011?
A:I would share with them optimism. Photographers in general need to realize that good quality images always have a market, whether sold at minuscule prices or at better ones. The critical issue though is how to generate imaginative ideas that can produce great photographs which won’t be copied instantaneously. And the secret is “production quality.” Many of the images we see around could be dramatically improved if the photographer knew about the proper photographic language and would use better equipment, materials and ideas. There is too much mediocrity around that shows little photographic competence and little imagination in resolving a subject. Many of the photographers that shoot descriptive travel imagery need to experiment more, one example from may others, experiment with longer lenses, in order to see an explosive change in the visual value of their images. Photographers shooting model released material and aspiring to become microstock winners, need to get out of the chromatic studio cliché that abounds so much nowadays because it is now beginning to show the limits. In other words, photographers need to re-invent visual relevance without looking around to see what the others are shooting, no matter how successful the other photographers are. Photographers must explore the depths of their own imagination to be successful.