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.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 hawaiistaffingpower December 7, 2009 at 7:09 am

It is very nice to analyse the travel photographers. Thanks for sharing it.


2 itjobs1 December 2, 2009 at 7:40 am

very interesting post nice thank you


3 David Sanger September 16, 2009 at 5:08 pm

thanks john – next post is up here and just like you said I think the key is expanding one's offerings. Figuring out what “whatever it takes” is will be the tough part.


4 Jacques Jangoux September 14, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Having charted 4 times a Cessna for 3 or 4 days or a twin-engine or helicopter for a couple of hours I am distressed at the low prices I am getting. How can you add value to such pictures? or to any pictures expensive or dangerous to produce?


5 johnlund September 14, 2009 at 3:10 pm

David, great post. I am wildly optimistic and wildly pessimistic at the same time. I believe there are ways to thrive (witness Dan Heller, Yuri Arcurs and Chase Jarvis), but not without some sharp strategic thinking, plenty of elbow grease and, as you pointed out to me, determination! To thrive, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes even if it means becoming what I call a photogrpaher+. Photographer plus videographer, or photographer plus SEO expert, or whatever. I look forward to your next post!



6 David Sanger September 11, 2009 at 9:49 pm

Helicopter shots can be valuable because not everyone goes to the trouble to get aerials, especially if weather is an issue. Remote locations can be rare images but perhaps, as you say, not very much in demand.


7 Jacques Jangoux September 10, 2009 at 10:04 am

Hi David, Yes, sales and prices are down, but in reply to Carl I must say that one helicopter picture of Mount Waialeale at Kauai (one of 3 rainiest places on Earth, but for the 3 days I was there it was sunny) with a light, semi-transparent cloud in front of the mountain sells regularly. And my pictures of Angel Falls, being the highest watrerfall in the world certainly almost as famous as the Eiffel tower or the Statue of Liberty, also sell regularly (2 or 3 aerials, one ground shot at sunrise – I went for what you do first when you get up, and while I was performing the physiological function I looked up and Isaw the shot). But these are exceptions as I usually don´t go for tourist spots. Many years ago in Guatemala I aksed a Guatemalan, showing him an empty space on the map, “What´s there?”. He replied: “Nothing”. So next day I was ona bus to nowhere, and I got some great shot of Guatemalan Indian villages and people. I almost always concentrated on niches, but he problem is that picture researchers don´t know about travel niches, so many of my niches have never sold. I hope that social networks will help me expose these niche spots, at the same time hoping that tourists will never find them…


8 Paul Dymond September 8, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Great post David,

one of my blog readers asked me a few days ago to do a post on how I got started in travel photography which I did, and as I was writing it I realised that the way I did it over a decade ago just wouldn’t work for somebody trying to get into it now. I look forward to your ideas on how to take things forward. Like the photographer who travelled to Hawaii, I live in a tourist destination – Cairns, Australia – and the challenge is to capture images different from those being given out for free by the tourism bureaus!


9 jimgoldstein September 8, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Great post David. I too look forward to seeing your follow up to this. As we discussed the last time we met the market is anything but the same or certain. While it's fascinating to see things change it unfortunately can also be stressful.


10 pauldymond September 8, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Hi there David,

a great post. Last week one of my blog readers asked me to do a post on how I got started in travel photography. I did the post a few days ago and I was writing it I was thinking, well this is a nice trip down memory lane but the way I got started over a decade ago just wouldn't work for somebody starting out today.

I feel for Carl in Hawaii. I live in a popular tourist destination – Cairns, Australia – and the challenge is to come up with images different from those being given out for free by the tourism bureaus. I look forward to hearing how you think things will go in the future.


11 David Sanger September 8, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Right, Carl. I think Hawaii is a particularly good example because it is so often covered, particularly for scenics. If you are shooting lifestyle then that's a bit of a different story, but even so lower prices make it tough to cover production costs and get a good RPI.


12 carlp778 September 8, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Hi David, As a travel photographer just returned from Hawaii on as assignment I agree with your comments. The initial fee for the job was small but in the past I was relying in stock sales to supplement the low income from the trip but am now wondering if it is worth it with the low figures I'm getting from buyers – that's if they can find the images in the glut of images on hawaii. Tough one.


13 sambr September 8, 2009 at 11:25 am

I'm glad to see that you aren't taking a position of “woe is me” and are looking for opportunity in the current conditions. Yes, it used to be better, but unfortunately the world has changed. I look forward to hearing how we can create additional value for our clients.


14 Mark Harmel September 8, 2009 at 9:51 am

I'm ready for the good news.


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