Making money from stock photos

Be prepared for constant change

MORE THAN thirty photographers came to hear advice on How to make money from photo stock libraries from veteran photographer and NUJ activist Andrew Wiard at the November London Freelance Branch meeting.
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Andrew Wiard (left, standing) addresses a big turnout of photographers

Photo stock libraries are a "vast subject with thousands of niches and corners," says Andrew. Especially after the "collapse of the industry brought about by Bill Gates (who owns stock agency Corbis) and Mark Getty (of stock agency Getty images) - I can only make generalisations, for which I apologise. The only constant left in this world is change itself". And in such a constantly shifting world, photographers should "never, ever, sign an exclusive or long-term contract".

Since Getty and Gates came on the scene, "the personal relationships with small agencies and the 50:50 splits have gone. Some photographers have survived by providing what Getty required or by turning elsewhere - often to www.alamy.com - also a big agency, like Getty but without the Getty. Many people found a refuge there."

But, Andrew warned, "If anyone thinks that they've settled in with one agency, they're naïve."

There were already many new photographers springing up working for Getty. Then he introduced "wholly owned content" - more and more Getty content is done on commission and not owned by the photographers.

Getty's latest development is the ironically-named "Photographers' choice" - the agency offers to promote images on a section of its site and charges photographers $20 or $75 for the privilege. "Once you signed up to Getty you're powerless," Andrew concludes: "you are photographers who have no choice."

As an example of how photographers should avoid complacency, Andrew explained how even Alamy, the agency that has photographers' interests at heart, can unintentionally "ruin our world". How? "A gigantic meteorite hit our world", in the shape of 'Alamy rank' - a "very devilish" search engine system.

Alamy manages to sell "appalling pictures of tuna" (for example) for big money, and has a lot of "junk" on its unfiltered system. It does not employ researchers to filter its lists of photos to make them more web-search-friendly. But "if you're not on the first page of Alamy, you're nothing."

Alamy's latest attempt to answer this problem of picture researchers being swamped with unfiltered material for is to use the searches others have already carried out to rank pictures - the "Alamy rank".

The way this has been implemented has effectively destroyed the sales of a large number of specialist photographers. A picture goes up the Alamy ranking ladder if someone buys it, but it goes "down the snake"if it is viewed but not bought. Alamy intends that photographers who assign poorly-chosen keywords to their pictures will see their pictures slip down the ranking, while those supplied with more carefully chosen keywords should go up.

That's the theory, but Andrew concludes that it doesn't work. In reality, he says, people who put in ten years building a specialist collection of thousands of photos that share a keyword - whether that be "butterflies" or "riots - will find a lot of their pictures will come up on screen in searches but not be bought, bringing down their whole collection in the Alamy ranking.

Would Andrew recommend Alamy, a member asked? "Yes and no. Alamy is now suited to [photographers who have] one or two pics on each subject, but not for the specialists with lots of pics on the same subject". On the plus side, Alamy do "let you sell elsewhere".

Nowadays your ability to survive in a shifting market depends on your ability to "jump from one platform to another without slipping - or you're finished. You survive by selling to as many people as possible.

"I've never signed an exclusive contract and I never will," says Andrew. He gave examples of photographers getting burned after signing a long-term or exclusive contract. Photographer-friendly agency Katz, for example, allowed many to sign up with them for four or five years, shortly before the agency was bought up by the conglomerate Hachette. So photographers were kept in ignorance of the fact that they were effectively signing to a quite different organisation.

If you sign a six-month contract with an agency, then decide to get out, you won't be able to sell on any of your pictures that they hold for another six months, and "it will bankrupt you. Don't stick with an agency like in the old days; be ready to move as quick as you can."

Andrew is now considering reducing the "stock side" of his photography business and "increasing the assignment work side". And he advised that photographers will have to "keep changing" the proportion of their business they do as stock and as assignments. Selling photos directly to clients over the phone still accounts for a lot of his income, more than direct sales though his website, www.reportphotos.com

With most photojournalism agencies now bought out or gone under, photographers have a stark choice - Corbis, Getty, their subsidiaries, or Alamy, or direct sales to a client through your own website, or a few remaining independents. The BAPLA website www.bapla.org has a directory of stock libraries. Digital Railroad (www.digitalrailroad.net) and Photoshelter (www.photoshelter.com) will both put your pics on their website with 500 other photographers' work, and are moving towards global searching on all of their sites, with your own website within that. These agencies could well be "on editors' radar screens" in the near future.

Andrew says photographers should also "sign up as a matter of course" to the new Adobe directory, accessible to designers and editors through the Adobe Photoshop and InDesign programs. (See the article "All go with Adobe" for details.)

A member asked whether collective bargaining has worked for freelance photographers. Andrew reminded us that NUJ activist Pete Jenkins has had talks with Alamy, and Freelance Organiser John Toner is in correspondence with them now. Five years ago, the NUJ was part of the initiative which started the Stock Artists Alliance (www.stockartistsalliance.org), which has negotiated with agencies - including getting Getty to change contract terms.

  • The Freelance's own assistant editor attended a day course in picture research at the Publishers Association, at which most of the attendees were deputy editors or chief subs who had been forced by restructuring into a subsidiary picture research rôle. As an indication of the dominance of the big agencies in the picture editors' mindset, much of the course content was on how to search the Getty, Corbis and Mary Evans sites.
  • Photographers who want to increase their profile at no cost can do so by contributing their pics to the Freelance. See our appeal.
  • See the update on plans for the first NUJ Photographers' Conference and exhibition

We hope to deal with the subject of model release forms, raised at the meeting, in a later issue of the Freelance.

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