New Horizons for Travel Photography Pros

September 8, 2009 · 18 comments

9-596-73  stock photo of California, Berkeley, Berkeley Pier

The growing movement towards crowd-sourcing and automated image analysis in travel photography discussed earlier is a challenge for traditional professional travel photographers. The San Francisco Chronicle even picked up the story noting that “Photo hobbyists [are] snapping up more business”

A few years ago travel stock photography was fairly simple. Major magazines, textbook publishers and travel companies sent regular “want lists” to select travel photographers who they knew had good files. If you had matching images, you’d select and sleeve them, fedex them the same day with a delivery memo, then wait weeks perhaps or months to see if images were selected. If so you’d, negotiate a good price, invoice and wait for the return of your originals.

From the point of view of the photo buyer, requesting, reviewing and licensing images was a time-consuming process with several iterations and often a limited selection.

All that has changed. Now a photo buyer can quickly and easily retrieve thousands of images for review and immediate download using multiple stock distributors, individual sites and Google Images. Furthermore the prices paid to license images have dropped significantly.

What has happened?  Simply: Technology, Supply and Demand.

Supply is UP: a market flood of travel imagery

The change to digital has set in motion a number or trends which have compounded to dramatically increase the available inventory of images:

  • Traditional photographers have scanned much of their film libraries bringing years of images all online at the same time
  • Digital capture makes it easier and more likely to produce more images from a shoot
  • Online search and indexing of image distribution sites has vastly multiplied the number of places a buyer can find images
  • Without geographic constraints buyers can now license from distributors all over the world
  • Enterprising entrepreneurs (e.g iStockPhoto etc) have added millions of additional images from amateur or semi-pro suppliers
  • Improved digital camera technology has made even standard snapshots publication-quality (lighting, focus, exposure)

Demand is FLAT: the finite attention of viewers

Although it seems that the general pubic has an insatiable appetite for new images, the amount of attention that is available for viewing media of all kinds is actually fairly static. Human beings only spend so many hours a day looking at publications, online media, TV, films and advertising. The worldwide media attention capacity only changes with the population, or with behavior changes, and that is quite slowly.

Consequently, with the explosion in media, including the volume of images, what is scarce now is consumer attention. Economists and strategists now speak of the Attention Economy, (see Umair Haque, John Hagel, and Julien Le Nestour.)

Although detailed sales figures are not reported, industry observers generally agree that the worldwide market for stock photography has been flat, at about $1.8 billion for the last few years. [UPDATE:  one revised estimate from Jim Pickerell of Selling Stock now forecasts a 20% drop to $1.45B in 2009)The actual number of images licensed is increasing, but they are seen at smaller sizes,  for shorter durations. This correlates with the principle of a fixed amount of attention which can be given to imagery.

Another way to look at it is that the same pie is being split into increasingly smaller pieces.

Prices are DOWN: a market collapse

Traditionally with private goods, price is determined by based on scarcity and demand. When excellent images are hard to come by they command a high price and the market works well. Now, however, generic travel images are not scarce, so prices are in free fall. A few years ago a quarter-page textbook interior, 40,000 circulation, English language, North American rights, would license for $450 with an extra $250 for web use and $150 for the teacher’s edition. Now textbook sales are routinely under $200 for multi-year, half-million worldwide print and web usage.

There was much commotion recently about a Time magazine cover using an image of a jar of pennies licensed from iStockPhoto. In the past a rights-managed cover image could license for $3000, but this shot by semi-pro Robert Lam (used as a photo-illustration) went for $150. Photographers were aghast. One Salon commentator, though, suggested that with all the photos of coins in a jar available, that “Time paid what it paid for that image because that’s about what it was worth.” Not all would agree, of course, if the image had been licensed from a traditional stock distributor the fee would have been much higher, but the point remains that price competition is severe for generic imagery.

It is a great temptation for photographers to blame photo agencies, amateurs, other photographers, microstock venues, venture capitalists, greedy big business, third-world countries for the plunge in pricing. “If only photographers would hold the line” goes the refrain “then all would be OK.”

The changes brought about by technology, however, are profound, long-lasting, and affect the very foundations of contemporary media distribution. Like the newspaper industry, music and film, the business of photography has changed forever. It isn’t just a question of holding on until things return to “normal”.  Professional photographers need new ideas, new ways of doing business.

Solutions: value from the uncommon

All is not lost, however. Value comes from scarcity.

Photo buyers will indeed pay for what is scarce, what they cannot easily get from every provider. Travel photographers who produce uncommon images and adapt their business to provide added value will be able to find markets, but it will take ingenuity and creativity.

In the next post in the series I’ll outline 8 ways that travel photographers can create additional value for their clients.

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