Wednesday, November 18, 2009

50 x $200 = 200 x $50

This rather obvious formula is indicative of the reason behind the plight facing contributors to stock photo industry today as it transitions from a high-priced print usage system to a high-volume digital system of economics. Stated simply, it means that a stock photographer today needs to adapt image output to mass marketing at lower prices – something easier said than done. A stock shooter makes the same amount of return from making 50 sales at $200 apiece as making 200 sales at $50 apiece. This begs the question: Is this equation in marketing transition actually occurring?

Although the transition to digital marketing began over ten years ago in the stock industry, it is only recently that its full impact has produced a turmoil of new pricing models. While we have been focused on obvious culprits, such as the proliferation of image glut bought on by easier entry to the market for first timers due to the simplicity of digital cameras along with the appearance of cheap marketing through microstock agencies, the real culprit is the switch in image usage from print to digital output.

Newspapers and magazines are dying at a rapid rate, and along with them the high image pricing that was commensurate with this medium. While we would expect the image usage in outlet to make its appearance someplace else in the digital media, the full transfer has not taken place and therein rests the conundrum. It means that the income the photographer is losing in print, is not fully being made up through current internet sources. The internet, as a commercial media outlet, has not evolved to a point where its revenue stream is fully developed. It is important for a stock photographer today to realize that this is occurring and to begin taking tactical steps to make a smooth transition.

Bucking the inevitable trend indicated by the formula above by seeking only large individual image sales will only result in frustration through failure for stock shooters. The trend is inevitable. Photographers will have to adapt or die. Already Getty, the largest stock agency in the world, is adapting to the re-pricing structure by tiering its prices and including a full range of lower price ranges. The problem is that the market for the lower priced imagery has not fully matured to where its volume is profitable enough to completely supplant the former print market so we are left hanging onto an archaic business model that is rapidly moving to oblivion.

A positive result of the transfer to internet usage of images is the mammoth global market it opens up. This is much larger than the reach of the former print outlet. The question is when will this new market reach critical mass so that it not only replaces but ultimately supplants image usage in print. Another positive aspect is that spreading marketing over a larger customer base results in a more stable income stream. This is because it is easier to absorb a few sales dropouts from 200 potential sales than from 50.

The stock photographer today needs to adapt to the shift that is taking place. The new marketing form requires a new business model. There are several possible steps to take. One is to diversify the stock subject range covered particularly into more specialized areas where you have an edge over other photographers. I know of one photographer who derives considerable income from photographs of butterflies because it is a subject he knows well and excels at producing superb images. The market for butterfly images might not have been extensive during the print era, but the internet era opens up far more potential outlets for this material.

Another way to adapt is to find ways of widening the exposure for your stock images. The past few years has seen the advent of a new type of agency model called “stock networks”. These are aggregators of images. They serve as a conduit for stock photographers into the widest possible global network for stock sales. Companies like Tetra Images, and Blend Images submit images to a vast stock agency network throughout the world. It would be virtually impossible for the individual shooter to attain this range of exposure. The stock networks add value to the images by having them pre-edited, pre-keyworded, and run through quality control so they are market-ready when they are released into the agency network. This is a huge saving for the agencies and results in higher return rates to the stock networks. These higher rates are passed along to the contributors in the form of higher royalty rates.

Stock photographers also need to explore image uses that did not exist before or were not previously lucrative. Print sales is one such outlet. This is an emerging market as cultural acceptance of photography as a decorator art form expands. When you go to a hotel today you are more likely to see photographs appearing on the walls than in prior times. Photography usage is also proliferating on things we use in daily life – mugs, tee-shirts, calendars, cell-phones, wall paper, etc.

The successful stock photographer of the future will bear little resemblance to a stock shooter of ten years ago. It is time to re-examine the stock business model and, without prejudice of relying on archaic marketing concepts, to understand and align ourselves with the new, emerging market. To be sure, this will be a bumpy road until dedicated highways are paved into it. Waiting it out will not ease the process. Seeking the means to adapt now will serve to make the transition smoother as the shift inevitably occurs.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Help is on the way for micro submissions

A major problem with Micro stock submissions is that they are very labor intensive -- particularly if you are making submissions across 5-10 agencies, all with different needs and criteria. Recently, I tried running a submission of a hundred plus images through the beta version of a new micro facilitator company called, LookStat ( Once I signed up, I was able to upload my jpgs, model releases, and a list of the micro agencies where I have accounts to their ftp site, and they took care of the rest. They performed all the keywording and uploading of images. And if there were any problems with the submission, they took care of those, too.

Sure there is a fee involved, but when I factor in the savings of time and aggravation and apply that time to producing even more pictures, I probably come out ahead of the game. Plus, the guys at LookStat know their stuff, which makes things even smoother for having images accepted.

There is a free analytic dashboard service on their web site that provides you with personal sales data for your micro sales in select agencies. Currently it is set up with iStock and Dreamstime, but other agencies are planned to be added in time.

Service provider companies, like LookStat, are an indicator of the growing micro outlet. Any one submitting to micro stock on a regular, professional basis will need to add either in-house staff to handle the increased load of work, or find a service like LookStat to do it for them.

For me, the service is money well spent.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Don't Blame Micro

Microstock is often blamed as the cause of the lower prices and high levels of competition that have crept into the stock photo industry this decade. I happen to believe that microstock is not the cause of the turbulence, but merely one of the results of a process that began awhile ago. The seeds of change go back over ten years, before there was a microstock. What we are witnessing today – including the emergence of microstock -- is a series of aftershocks from the massive, catastrophic change of events that took place ten years ago.

At that time the stock universe as many of us old timers knew it imploded into a black hole, which then exploded to create a new universe of the stock internet. The dispersed matter from the planets that had been big agencies (Image Bank, Stock Market, Photodisc, etc. ) in their own right now formed together into new planets called Getty, Corbis, and, a few years later, Jupiter.

Today microstock is at the forefront of every traditional shooters mind. But it is not, per se, the cause of the current decline in the traditional stock market. Microstock is merely one of the results of the egalitarian use of images brought on by the pervasiveness of the internet in the global design community, and one of the aftershocks of the internet. Computers became easy to use. Digital cameras, which themselves can be construed as nothing more than image computers, made it easy for anyone to take a correctly exposed photo suitable for at least low level design -- and there is currently a lot of low level design out there, also due to the prevalence of the internet.

The point I’m trying to make is that what stock photographers are experiencing right now is not something that just happened yesterday. It happened over a decade ago ,and a decade ago – not now -- was the time to begin implementing and sticking to a plan dealing with the new universe of stock photography. Why is this important? Because change is disruptive, and constant change is even more disruptive. Devising a master plan and sticking to it is more conducive to success. Ever see someone constantly changing highway lanes in bumper to bumper traffic? They get nowhere faster, but they do increase their anxiety level. It’s the same thing here.

I’m not saying that a stock photographer shouldn’t make course corrections along the way. These will always be necessary as the new universe continues to cool down and coalesce – to refer back to my initial metaphor. But we should never lose sight of the initial plan. Constant, violent changes in reaction to every dip and dive of the stock photo market will make you crazy and probably render you impotent for producing and selling real money making content on a steady basis. When I lecture, I always warn new stock shooters that the biggest pitfall they face is being lost in the fun house. There are just too many options constantly popping up in stock photography leading to complete paralysis on the one hand, and over-reaction on the other. Steady as she goes is the name of the game.

This begs the question: How do we measure the success of our strategies in these turbulent times? RPI is the obvious answer, but here, too, we can be fooled by a number. In today’s universe it is less important to have a high RPI, than it is to have a steady RPI number. When your number is steady, you can perform sound business planning. When it is high but fluctuating wildly, you can’t. This is one of the reasons I like the RF distribution agencies like Tetra, and Blend. They are aimed at producing a steady RPI through a wide, global distribution of images. In the recent financial crisis I noticed that in the beginning the U.S. was suffering the most from the downturn while income shifted more from the European side. As the U.S. results began to improve, Europe went down. This helps smooth out the curve of my returns.

This gets me back to microstock and what we should do about it right now. The RPI from a quality image placed with all of these agencies averages around $5-8 per month. This has held fairly steady over the two and a half year period I have been examining the market. I should add that the micro photographers who have been involved from the get-go are reporting to me that the image life in micro diminishes rapidly – far, far faster than it does in traditional stock, from what I can see.

Since this RPI is higher than a photographer can expect from other stock agencies except for Getty , Tetra, and Blend, and perhaps other distributor agencies, you might wonder why I don’t jump in whole hog producing for micro. The answer to that is more complex and involves what I said about micro being just one step (aftershock) in a continuing evolving universe.

Without strong traditional shooters capable of spending a hefty amount on image production, micro will flounder. It will have to stay right where it is serving a low level client with cheaply produced images– or it will have to raise its prices. The micro world is already showing signs of shakeup with some agencies going out of business, while the smaller ones are no longer able to gain new ground, and new competition as the big agencies -- Corbis and Getty -- jump into a low price model. The gap between the five largest micro agencies is widening so that, here too, change will occur. Right now a micro shooter can achieve a decent RPI because images can be placed over a number of agencies. What will happen when one agency takes such a prominent lead that it can demand exclusivity from its contributors? Think it won’t happen? iStock is the largest micro agency, currently out-pacing all the others in growth, and is owned by Getty. Think again.

So what’s a shooter to do? If you had a solid plan that began 5 to 10 years ago and it is still working, stick with it. Keep a wary eye on what is happening around you, but don’t jump ship in panic. My own strategy began forming almost ten years and was solidified nine years ago when I left Comstock and all my analog photos behind me to begin anew in the digital age without a single image. I realized that the largest planets in the new universe, Getty, and Corbis, as well as the agencies that survived near death with the black hole would all need a new form of digital product for the digital age. I subscribed to the advice I give anyone starting out in stock, namely to find around three or four solid outlets for your images. Firstly, I formed Tetra secretly in a quiet corner of the internet, for I knew that project would take at least three years to get to launch with only me doing partial shooting for it. Secondly, I joined a few major agencies in an effort to find which one would be best and winnowed the list down. Thirdly, I jumped on the Blend bandwagon, for his plan already dove-tailed with my newly formed philosophy of marketing in the internet age. Blend was a brilliant move during this business climate, and remains so today.

And since then? Since then, I have remained steady to the course, making only minor corrections along the way to adjust to changing winds. I have been fortunate to see income increase steadily every year -- yes, even this year despite the downturn -- since the inception of this plan with good prospects ahead. I have aimed most specifically for a steady RPI, not just a high RPI. This has taken me into some esoteric topics and strange areas of agencies, but allows my growth plan to remain steady. I keep a lookout up on the masthead at all times watching for dangerous shoals, such as microstock. I have purposefully kept overhead low, a thing I find important in a rapidly evolving global climate, such as the internet. This involved out-sourcing instead of hiring, and running a virtual office instead of over-spending on rent.

We can look at the stock marketplace as a glass half full or half empty. An important thing to keep in the forefront of your thoughts, however, is that there is always water in the glass – meaning there are always people buying stock photos. They may not pay what they did in the past. They may not buy the way they did in the past. But they are buying images every day, in every corner of the world. I don't think I have to go out on a limb here when I say that I do not see this changing in our life time. So the real question you must ask yourself is how do you stay in the water part of the glass.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

New Nikkor 70-200mm lens announced

Nikon recently announced the a completely redesigned version of its 70-200m lens. This is the third lens in the lineup of professional zooms created to deliver the maximum quality with the digital FX cameras -- the D3x, D3, and D700. A 14-24mm f2.8, and 24-70mm f/2.8 were introduced concurrent with the advent of the D3 camera. The Achilles heal of digital full frame lenses, particularly wide angles, has always been the corners of the frame where they often go soft. These lenses have a breathtaking sharpness edge to edge. The wide zooms do exhibit spherical distortions, but this is easily corrected in post-processing software, whereas edge softness is almost impossible to overcome.

The older Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G-AFS-ED-IF lens, while very quick to focus and dead-on sharp in the center, did exhibit corner softness on FX cameras, particularly at 200mm. The new AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II is purported to deliver edge to edge sharpness, 7 (instead of 5) ED lens elements, better contrast with Nano Crystal coated elements, a quieter motor, and an improved vibration reduction system, VR II, claiming to be steady up to 4-stops. What's there not to like?

Add a 200-400mm f/4 lens to this zoom threesome and you increase the continuous range of your focal lengths from 14mm to 400mm.

Nikon re-took the lead in professional cameras when it introduced the FX bodies. This complement of zoom lenses complete the package, making it the most perfect camera system I have ever seen.

I have my order in for a new 70-200m as soon as they become available in November.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RM attitude

In the current downturn in stock sales, shooting what I call “me-too” images won’t make the cut. To be successful a stock photographer will have to go back to RM roots to produce unique images. It doesn’t matter if the images are intended for placement in RF or micro. It only matters that they are produced with an RM attitude.

I used to tell potential RM stock shooters that they needed to picture the sales process involved in the selling of their images. The selling price of an RM image is negotiated between a salesperson and a client. If the image is unique, for whatever reason, the salesperson could demand a high price and stick to it. On the other hand, if the image was good but something similar could be procured elsewhere, the negotiation process would stagger and the sales person would have to back down. Both the sales person and the client know the uniqueness of the images. That uniqueness is the crux of the negotiating process. Successful RM is a unique image.

Most images today are sold in an RF fashion – meaning no negotiating. Nonetheless, image glut (i.e. The over stuffing of similar images into the image marketplace.) has put severe downward pressure on image sales. The majority of image purchases do not need a “unique” image. In such cases micro has provided an almost free alternative to buying an RF shot. There is a lot of “me-too” imagery out there, particularly in micro.

Stock photographers who will survive the current financial debacle will need to understand and shoot to an RM standard. And the keyword, as mentioned above, is uniqueness. When you are looking through the viewfinder, ask yourself: If a salesperson was on the phone with a client, would he/she be able to ask top dollar for my image because it is unique -- or is it similar to one of a thousand others available elsewhere? If you can’t answer the question, you are in the wrong place. If you can’t answer it in the positive, you may need to rethink your career.

These are tough times. I am not being pessimistic here, just realistic. Quality, now more than ever, will out. Despite the doomsday attitude prevalent in the current financial crises, sales of stock images will not go away and some stock photographers will continue to make substantial sums, but an RM attitude is absolutely necessary to a "go-forward" successful career.