Photo libraries are devaluing photographers..

Disclaimer: my girlfriend is a photographer / photo editor who has worked at photo libraries and also for magazines.. so I have some bias in this department.

Background: what am I ranting about now?

I used to work at a web firm that was responsible for the web site of Sun Microsystems in Australia/NZ, and part of the process we provided was to source high quality stock photos from Getty images to feature on the Sun home page. These images were quite cheap – back in the day. Since then many stock websites that are far cheaper have cropped up, providing (again in my opinion) lower and lower quality control and cheapening the photographer’s work.

Photography is an artform that I have dabbled in at as hobby for years. I love good photography. BUT I know that I am not a professional, at best I am a hobbyist. Further to that, I love great photography in advertising and media. More than just giving me something to analyse and think about while i’m moving around the city, good use of photography is (in my opinion) an imperative part of most advertising and publication creative work.

How the creative community is cheapening photography

Why is it that we, the creative community, are actively cheapening photography? (i know also that this goes on in all facets of creative work, but today we’re just focussing on photography).

Websites like istockphoto cheapen photography to a degree that the only way a photographer could possibly earn what they are worth for the creation of an image is if that image were used in SO many campaigns that it would lose all it’s creative worth and value – it’s a contradictory model.

Shutterstock’s submit page says: “Current Payout $0.25 (US) per download. That means that at just 2000 downloads/month, you can earn $500 (US) per month! Many of our photographers earn this and more every month.”

istock say: “iStock pays contributors a base royalty rate of 20% for each file downloaded. If you are an Exclusive contributor you can earn up to 40%.”

20-40% of the royalty? So the other 60-80% is for istock to host a web site? Besides.. 20% of $1 is 20c – that’s crazy.

Just 2000 downloads. I’m wonder how many photographers are really hitting that mark on a regular basis.. my guess is not many – and the ones that do.. probably could have sold those images exclusively through a respectable agency for the same money (without the risk of earning nothing for their submission).

It’s a question of money!

The question is, who in their right mind would commission a photographer to shoot an image when they could just buy a stock photo that more or less fit the bill and use that?

The answer is not many people (and only those who have a high budget). I’ve been the perpetrator of this crime myself. I’ve bought istock photos for low budget websites, however I have also been trying to avoid this recently.. When I find myself thinking, maybe I should drop a stock photo into this site design, I stop myself and question if maybe I could dig out my D-SLR and shoot a picture to solve my design problem without supporting the change in the photography industry that I have come to dislike.

Designers? are we hypocrits, or do we just not get it?

So why do many designers support the destruction of professional photography while crying foul about similar tactics that affect their own industry? hypocrisy? selfishness?

I like to think that the REAL problem here is that designers (like the very photographers that submit their photos) have no true understanding of how much damage these practices really do to the photographic industry. The sad thing is, that with the advent of digital photography and the lack of true appreciation of photography as an artform, there is unlikely to be a solution to this problem. The photography industry would seem destined to shrink, to the point were professional photographers only really work in the fashion industry and the glossy magazine industries (where the budgets are big enough and the pockets deep enough to warrant the necessary expenditure).

Photographers aren’t the only ones suffering

But their situation IS unique..

There are many parallels in other industries and areas.. code freelancing sites come to mind, however the difference is: code freelancing sites only introduce competition across borders; a programmer in Russia might charge less than a programmer in the UK – but this doesn’t encourage a cheapening of the work per se. The Russian guy does the job just as well as me, the code freelancing site just networks clients with him, so that he can compete in a different market – it’s just free trade (a model that is proven – a t-shirt made in a factory in China is no different (in quality only – morality aside) to a t-shirt made in a factory in the USA).

How a success with stock libraries means a loss of value for photos

The online photo library that pays a photographer per photograph downloaded is changing the very structure of the photography industry and also reducing the inherent value of the image. Every download makes the photographer a few cents, however every download makes that image a little more common, a little less special and a little less valuable.

One might go so far as to argue that well before you hit that elusive 2000 downloads with shutterstock or iphoto, your photo is so common that no one wants to use it, because everyone already recognises it – its value is as good as gone.

What do we do?

Now, stock libraries ARE a going to remain a fixture in our lives as designers, so what can we do to minimise the impact on our fellow artists?

  • Where a budget allows it, always commission a photographer what they are worth to produce the images that you require.
  • Always cast your vote towards getting a shoot done right – never support cheap stock.. or cutting corners in the photography.
  • Buy stock from a respected agency that pays decent dividends to its photographers – this one will probably require some research (i’d love to see a list built up.. so hit me back in the comments if you know of libraries that are actually photographer friendly).
  • If you have no choice but to use a photo library, use somethign like stock.xchng that is openly promoting sharing of images, rather than claiming to be offering a photographer a good deal.

So, with that said, I hope some people’s eyes have been opened to the value of photography, and the need for the creative community to at the very least recognise that producing photographs is not a process of point, shoot, upload and wait for 20c payments per download.