The last 10 years have been chaotic for independent photographers, as the old ways of doing business have withered before our eyes. By the turn of the millennium, I knew I had to adjust my business in the face of the collapse of stock photography, a once-thriving enterprise eroded by consolidation, royalty-free images, microstock, shrinking ad budgets and, recently, general economic collapse. I decided I needed to elevate my profile and take control of marketing my own work.
I built a gallery, print center, classroom and office in Seattle, a base of operations. Next, I secured funding from Microsoft, Canon and Conservation International for Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge, a public television series. I knew I’d reach more people with a single episode of the show than I had so far with 60 books. The show outstripped our expectations; it was viewed by 33 million viewers in the first season and broadcast 90,000 times across the United States. Stations in Europe, China, Japan, Canada and the Middle East picked it up, as well.
With the help of the photo website builder liveBooks and Girvin, a leading branding and graphic design firm, we recast our image and created a website to support all our initiatives. With our website in place, we turned our attention to reclaiming stock from the ruins left by the large stock agencies. With new platforms and models appearing every day, we saw a way to declare our independence and multiply our revenue.
The large stock houses are increasingly failing both photographers and photo buyers. Their strategies are a disaster for stock shooters. Getty and Corbis accept fewer images from their signed photographers each year. Even so, the return per image per year is in decline. The percentage they pay for each sale shrinks, and the rush toward micro-stock is pushing prices down, although some of that’s inevitable. They create agency-owned images that they put highest in the search results. Since nature, wildlife and cultures—my areas of concentration—are a small part of their portfolio, they give those areas little attention. It’s the best and most prolific photographers who suffer the most from these strategies.
Instead of accepting images from their photographers, they purchase entire collections, thus diluting the work of their current photographers. Getty licensed so few of my images that I stopped submitting new work five years ago. The best work of my career has been sitting on hard drives, unseen.
As they engulf and devour collections, the brands built by the small companies vaporize, destroying the position the original owners so carefully built. You could visualize the kind of imagery you could expect from Tony Stone or Photonica. Describe what characterizes a Getty image. I rest my case.
Add to that the strategic thrashing about from Getty—its purchase by Hellman & Friedman, abandoning Scoopt, reviving Life magazine. It reminds me of a restaurant that frequently changes its menu, opening with French haute cuisine, shifting to a steak house menu and ending up as a sushi bar. Customers smell death and disappear.
As Corbis and Getty tried to buy their way to prosperity, they watched their margins on stock photography slip. Profits for stock imagery shrank. Granted, the economic climate has been challenging in the extreme, but critics have predicted that the larger agencies would soon run out of road.
Buyers also lose working with the big agencies. They have access to only a fraction of the best photographers’ best work and must wade through an ocean of mediocrity. The buyers are also burdened by the large agencies’ overhead.
The solution for both photographers and buyers consists of direct marketing by photographers. Photographers can offer more images, decide which images are offered and set lower prices while still receiving a higher return per image.
Consider the math. If an agency licenses an image for $100, the photographer gets 30% to 40%, $40 at most. If the photographer uses a system such as PhotoShelter or LicenseStream, he or she gets 90%. Even at a 25% discount on the gross sale a large agency commands, the photographer still nets $67.50. If the photographer triples his or her exposure, the net should grow proportionally, even with lower prices per image.
PhotoShelter, LicenseStream and other websites allow photographers to establish an archive. Within that archive, we may elect to license stock images, either rights-managed or royalty-free. We can set prices for auto-fulfillment or direct them to a phone number or e-mail—our choice. I house my digital stock collection on PhotoShelter, and it will soon contain all my best work. I’m now responsible for file management, color and contrast, keywording, etc., but the rewards outstrip the costs. While I’ll continue to produce fine-art, limited-edition prints at my gallery, people will be able to purchase lower-cost prints directly from the stock site. The buyer benefits from a larger selection of the best work at more favorable terms.
The disadvantage for the photographer is the cost of driving traffic—advertising, mailers, press releases—and the disadvantage for the buyer is finding and then searching the individual collections. There’s a solution that works for both parties.
As the stock agency landscape underwent major fundamental changes and consolidation in recent years, longtime OP contributor and consummate professional photographer Art Wolfe saw an opportunity. Working with Tom Mangelsen and David Doubilet, he started a new stock agency, WILD (www.wildphotography.com), aimed at bringing control back to the photographers. They partnered with PhotoShelter to make the agency a reality. This model of a virtual agency has promise for aspiring pros and even amateur photographers who would like to try selling images, but can’t get into one of the mega-stock companies.
PhotoShelter allows photographers to band together in a virtual agency, where the collections from two or more photographers become searchable under a virtual agency name. The images are still controlled by each individual photographer, and each sets his or her own licensing terms. The agency isn’t managed. It’s essentially a search pool, a way to make it easy for buyers to find what they need. If a client desires an image, the sale goes to that photographer.
I’ve invited the people I respect most to join me in a virtual agency, which we call WILD (www.wildphotography.com). Our first partners are Tom Mangelsen and David Doubilet.
“We had been exploring new ways to market our imagery to compensate for the decline in stock when the PhotoShelter model came to our attention,” Doubilet says. “While the terms were certainly attractive to us, it was the power of the association with Tom and Art that sealed the deal. Now art buyers will be able to review the full array of our best work in one place.”
Tom Mangelsen already marketed with PhotoShelter when we approached him to join WILD. “Art didn’t have to sell me on the concept,” says Mangelsen. “Our association doesn’t cost us a dime, and our clients have a convenient way to find what they need.”
We’ll soon be able to truly claim we have the richest and highest-quality image collection celebrating the wild world, searchable on one site. Our motto: Go to the Source. This is a form of niche marketing, a way to create a brand people can picture easily and describe on the back of a business card. We intend to be one of the “must-search” collections in our specialties.
Certainly, this won’t be the only model for stock photographers. For the time being, the big agencies are the default search targets, and they employ some very smart and talented people. Some photographers will do very well in microstock by dint of hard work and a keen eye for what sells. Individuals will succeed with their own stock sites if they can differentiate their images from the pack. Quality and vision will rise to the top. People who can capitalize on Google and its inevitable successors will prosper. However, those who sit still will sink. As Henry Thoreau said, “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”
We define ourselves by how we react to change and challenge. New technologies continue to emerge, and we must seize those that work and quickly discard the others. I see opportunity everywhere in this difficult moment. When the old models burn down, we can build better structures on the ruins, armed with a little confidence and a readiness to work hard.