Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

The photography world -- the business, the culture, the art, the politics, the technology.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Radio Interview: the future of photography

On Thursday, Aug 30, I was interviewed on the morning radio talk show, "Forum" on KQED FM (san francisco).

The one-hour broadcast can be heard here: http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R708301000

For those interested, this is a summary of the status of the photo industry today:

Over the past 15 years, the internet crawled its way into our collective culture, and with it, the technology behind digital photography has made it possible for everyday people to produce images that were once done only by professionals. The combination of photography and the internet has created not just a new wave of interest in the art form, but the social networking aspects has also given rise to new business opportunities as well. Just about anyone with a camera and an internet connection to engage in the business of photography and make money--and they are doing so in rising volumes. This can come in the form of consumers making and selling their own prints, self-publishing books or other merchandise, or through the most common of all, licensing photos to third party publishers who use them for everything from magazine and newspaper articles to using images on product packaging and other marketing purposes.

Selling "photographs" as a business can be broken down into two basic forms: the service industry (wedding, portrait, event, staff and/or work-for-hire shooters), and the more general freelance photographer, who usually shoots first and sells the pictures later.

The overall stock photo industry has grown by orders of magnitude since the internet has reached more and more people. The largest growth of the photo sector has been in freelance and stock photography for these primary reasons:

1) technological advances in digital cameras have enabled more people to create professional images, and 2) the internet acts as a distribution channel for those who never had had access before (i.e., traditional stock agencies.)

The effect has been a massive influx of both supply and demand, new new buyers/sellers, new ways to compete, different sales and marketing models, and a fundamental change in the "culture."

What was once considered a difficult profession to break into, much less succeed in, photography is now being pursued casually by everyday people, who also happen to be making very good money at it.

SIZE OF MARKET Many industry analysts currently believe the size of the photo market to be around $2B based on traditional survey methods that pre-date the internet era. Thus, the data doesn't factor in non-traditional photo sources, such as consumers, semi-pros and pros who had traditionally not sold "stock" footage (but now do so because of the convenience of the internet). Detailed discussion on the total size of the stock photo market is here:


The size of the stock-photography market is more likely around $20B based on inference data like sales of pro-level cameras by the major manufacturers and statistics from sub-industry segments within the photo field that are not part of traditional surveys.

LACK OF INFRASTRUCTURE Because the market is much bigger than anyone has yet prepared for, there is currently a lack of infrastructure to accommodate both the informal buyers and sellers, who are currently doing business through direct (one-to-one) contact, rather than through traditional sales channels, such as agencies.

This is much like the dormant market that was awaiting the emergence of Ebay: the assets were there, and the buyers/sellers were there, but these elements never came together till Ebay facilitated it. And even that required some time for people to "get it." Ebay's continued growth today still shows signs of the masses of people still getting into the business of selling their otherwise unwanted junk.

Similarly, the massive number of photos being taken have "value," and there are many people who use these photos in informal ways (often "lifted" from the net without thought). What's missing is the infrastructure to find these assets and to facilitate transactions.

TWO EMERGING (TRANSITIONAL) SOLUTIONS The most recent attempt to address that is the emergence of "microstock" agencies, who pitch themselves as being the agencies that anyone can (and does) join to sell their photos. However, they suffer from many problems, as discussed here:


In short, microstock agencies evolved from an insider's exchange program, without the intent of forming a broader business outside of the industry. Because they don't appeal to the consumer, buyers or sellers of photos are largely unaware of these sites outside of the industry.

Ironically, "photo-sharing" and social-networking sites that millions of consumers use every day are in the best position to provide that infrastructure, but don't. The simple, but unfortunate reason is the lack of awareness that the latent demand for photography exists. This topic is discussed in full here:


This has placed the industry in an unsual state of transition, bifurcated between two models: the larger, traditional stock agencies (Getty, Corbis, et al.) who manage traditionally more senior pro photographers and cater to larger media and advertising companies; and the eratic and organic grassroots industries, such as photo-sharing sites and the websites of individual photographers. The "hole" in between these two extremes is currently large enough to drive a truck through.

The biggest losers of this are emerging pro photographers, not the consumers or the existing pros. Consumers are happy to sit back and let things happen casually through the informal networks, and seasoned pros are already engaged with existing larger agencies (though their future in in flux). The emerging pro has the hardest work ahead of him because no existing infrastructure works well for him in today's economic climate. There's no room in the top agencies, which are already in peril by their downsizing, and microstocks simply don't make money sufficient for a pro. Photo-sharing social network sites are fine to plant seeds, but they don't result in short-term income that a pro would need. their only option, which has always been a good one anyway, is to build and evolve one's own photo site. Yet, this is not a simple task with today's tools (though easier than ever before), and it also takes considerable time to rise high enough in search engine results to yield sufficient returns.

The consumer is currently in the best position because of their lack of immediate income from photography. People are finding and licensing photos through photo-sharing/social-networking sites in small doses, but enough to bring not insignificant income. Microsoft made news within the confines of the stock industry when they announced that several of the photos used in Windows Vista were obtained from everyday consumers through www.flickr.com, the largest of such photo-sharing social networks. Yet, because the ratio of purchases are small to the total lot, the perception is that these are anomalies. Still, the growth has been as persistent as the growth of Ebay was in its early days. Still, without the formal infrastructure for licensing these photos, the growth has been stymied, hence the perception of weak demand.

PARADIGM SHIFT The misunderstanding of the photo market is largely due to the mundane nature of photography in the first place: everyone does it, and everyone assumes that only the "pros" really make any money at it. And, of course, the "pros" prefer it that way. Thus, most pro organizations promote the same model of the industry as a way of preserving their livelihoods. But this short-sightedness has not served their constituents well, causing an even greater decline of "pros" in the traditional defintion, and escalating the growth of the non-pro photographer's economic activity. The number of members of pro photo organizations, such as ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers, the largest of the group) has been fairly static over the past 10-20 years. In 1999, ASMP had about 5000 members, whereas today, there are about 5500. Yet, the number of pro-level cameras from all manufacturers has grown from about 2M units per year it 1999, to well over 100M units in 2006. If even a small percentage of buyers of pro-level cameras are actually pros, then it certainly suggests that organizations that propose to represent their interests are failing in this task.

A primer on the basics of the traditional photographer's viewpoint--and the counterpoint--is here:

Chapter 2: The Five Truisms of the Photography Business

In a nutshell, if there's money to be made, entrepreneurs will find a way to make it. As people discover some way of getting income from photography, it'll be as obvious to everyone else about the opportunities in the photo industry, as it was that Ebay is to selling second-hand junk.

FUTURE DIRECTIONS The catalyst that will bring about change will come in the form of a familiar player: search. That is, what makes photos sell will be the same thing that accounts for why many other things sell on the net: the user finds them. Coming up first in search results is the holy grail for most businesses on the internet, and has proven to be a multi-billion dollar business for sites like Google. So it is (and will be more so) for photos.

Opportunity lies in the fact that traditional search engines only play a minor role in photo search (for the time-being, at least) because searching image data is not the same as parsing language. Today's photo-search industry is in much the same condition that more generic internet search was long before Google came onto the scene. Sure, it was there, but its usefulness was a crap shoot at best, and placement within search results was untrustworthy. A detailed discussion on this subject is here:


This brings us to where innovators and entrepreneurs will eventually make a big shift in the industry towards the consumer (who is already there, whether they know it or not). As search technology for images improves, and as photo-intensive sites realize that revenue is available from licensing, there will be a fusion (through consolidation) of traditional stock agencies with photo-sharing/networking sites, resulting in a type of Ebay-for-photographers model, but even easier. Rather than people selling individual photos piece-meal, they'll just have a continuously updated supply (an activfity they already do on photo-sharing sites).

LEGAL SUPPORT The supply is there, the demand is there, and the infrastructure is coming. what's left to support the premise: a legal infrastructure. Again, that's already there: copyrighted material (such as photos) is easy to protect, and is supported by substantial fines and accommodating courts. For discussion, see:


As "image search" becomes more routine in everyday search engines, the ability to find your images on other people's sites will be as easy as finding your own "text" on other sites. If it's this easy to monitor, and the fines are hefty, there's little incentive to steal images. This, in turn, spurs sales.

We have supply, demand, infrastructure, search, and legal recourse--all the elements necessary to sustain a viable economic model. The only thing needed is a triggering event, which will likely come as a byproduct of other internet-related plates shifting in the ground. The timeframe? About 2-4 years for the emergence of a truly viable business, and 4-6 years for it to properly gain the attention of the wider consumer public.

WHAT TO DO IN THE MEANTIME So, what can people do in the interim? The answer is similar to the same question posed in 1995, well after the "hype" of the internet had been spread, but well before there were any mature web-development tools or infrastructure for internet commerce: land grab. It was clear that the future of the net would provide economic opportunities, but only those most advanced were going to really capitalize on it well. People eventually made millions on doing nothing more than registering popular domain names, like "jeans.com" or "laundry.com". For photography, it's less the domain name as it is its traffic.

And that's the name of the game to making money in the photo industry of tomorrow: take pictures, get them online, and publicize yourself through any means possible: go to photo-sharing sites, discussions groups, writing a blog, and, of course, have your own website. The main "kicker" that draws traffic is to be known for something. It doesn't have to be photography--it can be anything. If people cite you as a source for information, and your site also contains photos, then your photo assets' value piggy-backs on the success of your reputation.

As the infrastructure eventually emerges for more recognizable name-brand companies that are used to market and sell consumer-based imagery, your content (and even your "web property") become vastly more valuable. Knowing that "search" will be critical, you should keyword all photo content well, and so on.

Camera "equipment" is irrelevant--all SLR cameras today can take perfectly good photos, and even point-n-shoot models are mostly good enough for generic consumer-related uses.

Are your pictures "good enough?" Who knows, but another misunderstanding is that only really good photographers make money. Not so--even the most mediocre pictures sell quite well. The most influential factor in a sale is the image being found in the first place.

Should you set up a formal business? Do you need to think about taxes and other things? It all depends on how seriously you intend to get into this business. Again, think about Ebay: if you sell a few things here and there, don't sweat it. If you're making real money, you may need to formalize your business.

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