Stock photography today is based on one simple truth: You don’t have to be a great photographer to take great photos.
This simple truth is bad news to stock photographers in much the same way that the French Revolution was bad news for the monarchy. Just as the monarchy collapsed in three years under the weight of the French masses protesting in the streets, the traditional stock photography industry has largely collapsed over the last three years under the weight of the digital masses of great images flooding the marketplace from enthusiastic amateurs willing to accept a dollar or two as payment.
Concurrently with this ever-rising tide of great images on the market eroding stock photographers’ profit margins, the publication industry found itself in a revolution of its own. Circulation numbers began dropping dramatically over the last decade as consumers discovered they could access much of the content they desired online for free. While consumers enjoyed the bounty of all this great free content, publications could not make up enough in online ad revenue to cover the gap from the drop in physical print circulation. They were faced with a tough choice – cut costs or die. Some did both, some survived – but at the expense of sacrificing staff members and cutting rates to freelancers like myself.
Both these factors have converged on my livelihood in a perfect storm of looming financial disaster – and yet, even though I am a photographer, I’m not worried.
I’m not worried because we are on the cusp of yet another revolution. The evidence I have for this revolution is purely personal and anecdotal at the moment, but I have hope for the future of my industry and I will tell you why.
Last week while waiting for a connection in Denver international airport, I began reading the news on the Huffington Post and came across a great article from Rolling Stone magazine. The story was truncated with a link to finish reading it on the Rolling Stone website, yet after clicking the link and landing on the Rolling Stone page, a message greeted me that read: The following is an excerpt of an article from the September 2, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available tomorrow on newsstands, and Friday, August 20th online via All Access, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. I was so enthralled in the article that I walked around the terminal until I found a bookstore to purchase the publication. At the checkout counter, I realized the print industry was about to turn a corner, thanks to pay walls.
In 2011 the strategy of the pay wall will be deployed by multiple publications. The New York Times will roll it out in January, while Wall Street Journal has already deployed its pay wall and simultaneously gained subscribers. It is only a matter of time before most, if not all, publications follow suite.
Call me an optimist, but my logic tells me people are willing to pay for good content – exhibit one being the Rolling Stone magazine I purchased. If pay walls are implemented intelligently, they will begin filling the gaps in revenue that decimated the publication industry. With these gaps filled, publications will be able to add back staff and pay freelancers like myself to create more great content.
This will not solve the stock photography problem that pros, including myself, face today. In my opinion, the golden age of stock photography from the late 80’s to the early part of this century was a historical anomaly. Prior to 1980, stock photography consisted largely of outtakes from commercial and editorial assignments, and for myself, I strongly feel that is what professionals must return to. Millions of enthusiastic amateurs are displacing the role that spec stock photography has played since the 1980’s. For me to finance a stock shoot on spec is to bet against these millions upon millions of amateurs flooding the market with great images. To do this would be to choose a field of battle unwisely. Rather, if I treat stock photography as it began – that is as extra gravy from assignment work – I win by choosing my field of battle wisely. In order for me to have that choice, there have to be assignments available; and, my hope is innovations like pay walls will be the path that opens these doors for professionals once again.
You don’t have to be a great photographer to take great photos, but you do have to be a great photographer to consistently create brilliant images and compile those images into a compelling narrative. You do have to be a great photographer to be able to light anyone, anything, anywhere, anytime. You do have to be a great photographer to be able to do this day after day after day.
You don’t have to be a great photographer to take a pretty picture, but to give a pretty picture gravity takes a great photographer.