As many people know, I am involved in stockphotography. Have been since I’ve started out as a photographer in 2004/05 and I’ve seen a lot of industry developments since then. For good and for not so good. Most of these developments were “interesting”, causing me to learn a lot about photography in general and the industry in particular. And I always trusted that the future would be a more or less a good one. At least good enough, to stay in business and do my thing.
Lately my confidence in a good future is somewhat in decline. It’s not only diminishing revenues, photographers like me have to deal with. It’s also negative industry developments and outright bad news that stack up, the past few months. To name just of few factors, photographers and agencies alike, are dealing with;
Framing of Images
Read my previous blog article on this issue, I wrote with Tatjana van der Krabben here. Bottom line: image users, professional or not, can legally embed images into their websites, without paying for them, thus leaving image agencies and photographers behind without royalties or proper license fees. When image users seize to pay for the use of images, industry’s revenues will decline and future investments in production of high quality images will slow down considerably. This issue is being dealt with by industry’s organisations, like CEPIC. However, legislation on European level has to be changed. Needless to say, this may take years to accomplish. Meanwhile embedding will remain an issue.
Transition to MicroStock
Partly this is a competition issue. When high quality images are being offered for microstock prices (usually less than €1,- per image) image users and customers can’t be blamed for choosing these companies to do business with. It’s their budget. However, in the end this has serious consequences for the industry. To give you a few examples;
Blend Images is to shut down within one year. A high quality stock agency, founded in 2004 by 20 “founding partners” (photographers) who were producing high quality stock images and relying on 150 or so distribution companies world wide to keep costs low. Most of these founders are earning 10% or so, compared what they use to earn annually before 2008. This means a decrease of revenues of 90% in just a couple of years. This decline is caused by many image users and customers not willing to pay more than microstock prises for image use. Due to this decline in revenues, it’s no longer possible to invest in new productions or projects and realise a profit. Meanwhile Blend’s profits declined dramatically as well, forcing it to seize business, and layoff staff.
Masterfile has trouble paying out royalties to photographers for sold images. Especially markets USA and Canada are in decline for both RM (Rights Managed) and RF (Royalty Free) photography due to fierce pricing pressure. Again, premium images are sold by competitors for microstock prices, causing a sharp decline in revenues for Masterfile, forcing the agency to restructure it’s business. Due to this, Masterfile lost it’s ability to invest in advertising campaigns, usually costing $100 Million or so. Needless to say, this has consequences for photographers, employees (layoffs) and supplying companies who are loosing Masterfile’s business.
Theft via Google Images
Alphabet’s search engine, with a near monopoly of 75% of the market or more (at least in most countries), offers their users a button, when searching for images. They have been doing this for years. This button enables users to very, very easily download images, sometimes even highres files from agencies, and use them any way they see fit. For free. Thus leaving agencies and photographers behind with no revenues and royalties at all. Recently Getty Images and Google made a deal, in which Google agreed to make it more difficult to download images from through their website, so there are developments. However, not in every country similar measures were taken, and some kind of downloading is still possible.
Scary thing is, this situation teaches people all over the internet, that images are free to use, where it’s actually not. This is a major reason, why a number of new companies emerge, who search the internet for all kind’s of infringements. ImageRights, Permission Machine, CopyTrack and many others, including a whole bunch of legal firms and start up enterprises, are now earning millions and millions on dealing with infringements on behalf of agencies and photographers. Many of these companies show actual double digit growth figures and can’t keep up, with the fast increase of work there are being offerend. Meanwhile Alphabet / Google is being sued and sued over and over again by European authorities, forcing them to pay over 2,42 BILLION Euro’s in damages for breaking European legislation.
Use of Watermarkt Images
Oke, I am aware, not every intern student, freshly entering the labour market and on his or her’s first job, fully know’s how things work in this industry. But professionally downloading images from agencies websites, without payments and and publishing them inside their projects WITH watermarks still visible? Really?! Obviously not all people know the drill, and know that they have to pay a most of the times modest fee for using an image. But, it keeps happening over and over again … “Funny” thing is these people will actually pay for other purchases, acquired using the Internet. Books, music, subscriptions, newspapers and so on. Why not for images? Because they believe they’re free of charge. Meanwhile they are found by companies, like CopyTrack, who will ask them to pay a license fee. Or sue for damages. Often triple the around they would have originally payed,
UGC (User Generated Content)
Professional photographers earned millions and millions, producing all kinds of travel- end event photography for a number of companies, magazines, travel corporations, websites, catalogs and so on. Not any more. Digital photography devices, like cheap camera’s and smartphones scattered this niche inside the industry, leaving photographers and their agents behind. Participating customers, amateur photographers and actually everyone with a mobile device is now able to upload their favourite pictures to websites, where they are being used for commercial purposes, disregarding the need for payment of licenses, disregarding privacy laws, besides various other issues that may present some kind of risk to image users. UGC caused a huge and exponentially increasing influx of cheap, low quality images, which are being offered to images users for free of micro stock prises. Meanwhile leaving many premium professional image users baffled, because they cannot find their single, high quality images any longer, among the hundred and hundred millions of low quality pictures offered annually. Besides this factor, assignments have fiercely decreased, causing many professional photographers to go out of business. And agencies for that matter.
Infringements through various sources
Last February CopyTrack found a case for me, of not payed images used on a website by a small business. Turned out the owner of this business went freelance, after his company went bankrupt and closed down it’s operations. After which this business owner was presented the opportunity to take along with him, some images I made some years before. Naturally he didn’t pay any royalties and this entire situation turned out to be violation of copyright law. Finally he did pay for damages, but this shows that people use any opportunity they’re presented with, to obtain and use images for free. Besides the fact, that professional use of images costs money, this “lack of experience” on how things work, damages the industry as a whole. Photographers earn less money, start spending time on searching for infringements, often with aid of specialised enterprises. Instead of using their time, money and effort to produce new, compelling photography. However, especially photographers feel they need to pursue because other channels of earning revenues are diminishing rapidly.
Smartphone (or: people doing it themselves)
Personally I believe, that “do it yourself photography” is good. It has this informal style I like to see, and it absolutely is interesting, getting a view into someones life. In a few decades this might very well be photography that’s shown as art inside galleries and musea. Just to showcase an era. Contradictory it’s the main reason I seized doing acquisition for new assignments. For a number of reasons. Far most of the times I call a company to work for them, they’ve already “hired” an employee with a smartphone to do the job I specialise in. Or I have to compete with thirty other photographers, professional or not, all aiming their camera’s on exactly the same subject at exactly the same moment. After which their work is uploaded and sold for dimes and pennies.
The industry as a whole is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up. Traditional channels of selling and obtaining professional, premium photographic work are being closed down, leaving agencies and especially photographers out of business. As a result, highly specialised and professional employees lose their jobs. The market for freelance models and modelling agencies must have a hard time, since the are usually hired by these professionals. Former professional photographers, who took a side job to pay their bills are getting more depressed than ever and have a hard time making a hobby from their former profession. Most of the industry seems to be in decline, these years.
However, I think there are (tiny) signs of possible recovery, somewhere in the future. First of all, the huge increase of pursuing illegal image use is there to stay, teaching image users that there is always some kind of fee involved. In combination with emerging Blockchain Technology, multiple efforts to deal with Google (on several levels) I believe this alone will set new standards.
I am not sure, if the microstock industry is sustainable in the end. Somehow it seems impossible to me, that customers stay happy with millions of images as a search result, due to the exponentially increasing number of images uploaded to agencies, when they are seeking just one, specific picture. Needle in a whole bunch of haystacks?? Besides this, dimes and pennies can’t pay for the more complex or time consuming premium photography, so these will eventually seize if revenues don’t change for the better. So, there must be an end to this madness somehow, hopefully in the not so distant future.
I believe (actually: I hope) in the end customers, as well as agencies will value premium photography for wat it is: a product that costs money and effort to produce. This needs proper royalties and income for image producers one way or the other. Although interest between customers, agencies and image creators differ a lot, image buyers and agencies alike need to understand that, without revenues, the profession will vanish and new premium images, series and photo reports will not longer be produced. This will be another issue for agencies. Because without the influx of new photography, image buyers will have no reason to return, and will seek their business elsewhere. Added to that, agencies to, suffer from declining revenues. Like newspapers and magazines, agencies need to transform somehow, and invent new concepts, to stay in business. What remains in a few years, can’t be all low quality photography sold at microstock prises, but pursuing present practises will absolutely not guarantee long term survival.
Important issue is also, that the production of premium imagery and photojournalism are crafts, that take some years to fully develop. So, photographers themselves must adapt as well. One way or another. They have to stay on the case. Ilvy Njiokiktjien said in Digifoto Pro: “I cannot imagine that images as a medium will lose their impact. However, it’s also possible to tell (visual) stories in new ways; with smartphones; interactive online environments and virtual reality.” Photographers (and photojournalists) have to develop a much, much broader perspective to their work. Start collaborating with nearby media and audiovisual professionals. Start collaborating with writers. With other visual artists. Don’t just rely on old, now pre historic structures of an industry in decline, but find a ways to reinvent yourself!! And then tell us about it!!!
Guido Koppes – April 19, 2018.
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