Rant – Free Stock Photos

One of the big pieces of news this week in the stock photography industry is the announcement by Fotolia, a micropayment stock photo site, of free downloadable stock photography. They have branded their free stock site as PhotoXpress where registered users can download as many as 10 free images a day. Fotolia hopes to bait new users into using stock photography by offering free photos. The move will likely also drive traffic from competing microstock sites. More and more web users expect to be able to download free music, videos, and pictures. Many companies are meeting this expectation and are now offering free stuff to drive traffic to their sites where they hope they might hook customers to buy ‘higher end’ products, in this one, two or three dollar images.

Now you might suspect that as a stock photographer myself I would be outraged by this business practice. I am not. I can totally understand the Cocaine Tactics used here (give em free photos, get ’em hooked’ on the idea of using photos and hopefully they will become addicted and start paying for their habit). Is this idea good for photographers? Probably not. But neither is access to free music downloads or file sharing and most photographers I know are happy to take free music and other goodies off the web (legally and illegally) yet complain that agencies are giving away their photos for free! I guess musicians don’t deserve royalties but photographers do?

When this story broke on PDN the comments from photographers were predictable – see here. Almost all the photographers were outraged, but guess where they directed their outrage – to wanna be’s. Most pro stock photographers blame amateur, part-time, newbie photographers for all the ills of the industry. The pros curse these ‘low life scums’ for taking money out of their pockets. The solution according to many pros is to ‘educate’ the wanna be’s so these newbie’s don’t give away their photos for free. What a Utopian and naive notion! That somehow human behaviour can be regulated, that in a free market you can get everybody to agree on a minimum price, or that there won’t be somebody willing to sell their stuff for less than the next person. C’mon, really?

The old school of stock pros long for the days of film, large license fees per image, and a healthy monthly royalty payment (totally understandable, I wanna go back myself!). The fact is the world has changed. The good old boys are looking for someone to blame for their dropping stock sales and the easy target is the weekend warrior. The old business models in stock are forever gone, either you change, adapt and innovate yourself or you watch your income die each month. Lamenting the old model and blaming the wanna-be’s is a waste of time IMO. There is still money to be made in photography, you just gotta be open to new ideas, new revenue streams and creative innovation.

As far as microstock goes, most small business owners I know regularly buy images from places like Fotolia and iStockphoto. Hell, if I did not make my own photos, I would get stuff from these sources as well! Offering up free photos likely will get customers who never bought stock before to test out the market. As a business move, I think value added services like a line of free photos is a move more and more stock agencies will adopt. As a photographer, you can decide if you want to be part of this movement, or go off on your own tangent. The wanna be’s are not responsible for either your success or your failure, you are. So stop moaning and move on, rethink your business!

Image supplied free from PhotoXpress

Image supplied free from PhotoXpress

11 Responses to “Rant – Free Stock Photos”

  1. Yes, I agree that there are amateurs out there who are willing to sell their work for little or nothing just because of the thrill that someone was actually interested in using their work. When buyers become used to getting images for little or nothing, it makes it hard for photographers who are really trying to make a living. They expect photography to be cheap. We spend lots of time, effort, and money to get our images, so we expect something in return for them. The thing is that the amateurs who give their work away are usually not producing quality photography. You have to pay for quality. I’m sure that professionals like you, Darwin, are not accepting a few cents for your work. I’m sure that serious buyers who know they have to pay larger fees for professional work will go to you instead of sources that sell low quality work. You get what you pay for.

  2. If I am not mistaken, this trend was endorsed by professional photographers many years ago.

    You only need look at the major photo agencies with well known professional photographers who have a selection of their in Rights Free collections.

    Through one of my editors, I heard late last fall of a major, major stock photo agency, one of the world’s largest that has a long term plan to put up “ALL” of their images for sale through a subscription model and they were worried about how that was going to effect their business.

    This is a slippery slope we are on. Take the easy money by offering a portion of your work as Rights Free or hold out as Rights Managed?

    Good photographers will always get work. The cream always does rise to the top and my experience professionally has been that customers that take the cheap way, usually come back to you after they realize that many times you really do get what you pay for.

    Happy shooting. 🙂

  3. Darwin, your opinion is very refreshing and enlightening. I got started in the software business by writing programs that people could download for free and use for as long as they wanted. We would add a “nag” screen at the end asking that they give us some money if they liked the software. For a number of years I was able to support my wife and I and a couple of employees. This was over 25 years ago and the idea was radical and on the fringe. Now every software company does this to some extent.

    Good luck, and I hope you continue to innovate and survive and thrive.

    – Dan.

  4. Totally in agreement here Darwin. I think like in life in general, this sort of paradigm shift is only a sort of “selective pressure” (to use Darwinian lingo ;)): in the end only the fittest will survive.
    On the other hand, I have to say that I can’t quite agree with Dennis: I think there is a common (and dangerous) misconception that “amateur” rhymes with “not as good”. Pros would better get their act together and innovate as there are countless “amateurs” who produce outstanding work on a consistent basis, work that is at least on par if not better than many so-called pros out…I think it is naive to think that the pros will always get the business by the mere fact that they are pros.

  5. I fall into the ‘wannabe’ category. While I have no desire to sell my soul to stock agencies, I do give away some of my work. I have taken photographs of events for non-profit organizations, and I give them the best of the takes for their own use. If they use it in a brochure or as material for an article in a newspaper, so much the better. Besides having an opportunity to develop my skills, I obtain free exposure and material for a portfolio or for my blog. We all have to start somewhere.

    I think the professionals should stop complaining – if their business is threatened by ‘mere amateurs’, then perhaps they need to rethink just how professional they really are.

  6. Nice post. The best people I know in my own industry don’t slander others. They instead try to help others in an attempt to better what they’re passionate about. This sort of passion is what makes them successful and viewed as leaders.

  7. I don’t do much stock myself. Always feels like a disproportionate waste of time for the amount of money you make from it. That said, maybe I can give a slightly different insight onto the issues the industry is facing. Basically it is oversaturated (havn’t we heard that before) and this drives down the price. Much of this is the result of sites like Alamy and many of the microstock sites accepting images regardless of whether they are any good or not provided they meet the technical requirements. This is all well and good but it has resulted in a bloat of images which, in all honesty are just snapshots and which I suspect are unlikely ever to sell.

    My suggestion would be why don’t the libraries undertake a periodic “cull” of this deadwood to get rid of images that just sit there without selling? This would make it less frustrating for buyers who have to wade through the reams of rubbish trying to find a good one and better for photographers because, assuming your pictures are good enough, they are more likely to be found.

    Many times I have talked to people in business networking events who are frustrated at having gone through a stock library like i stock and said “yes there are lots of pictures, but there arn’t any that I actually would want to use – nothing of quality, nothing striking”.

    Just a thought.

  8. Atlantaguy Says:

    Many don’t know that the whole reason microstock exists is that “once upon a time” the requirements from the macro stock industry were so lofty (and some might say “snooty”) that a couple of enterprising photographers who were rejected by them started something new to blow them away – microstock. And now, it’s taking over. So much so, that macro stock agencies are trying to merge with the microstocks. This may not have happened if at one time when the digital revolution first hit, they did not require people to use $8000+ DSLRs in order to qualify as contributors. By the time they relaxed their gear envy, it was too late – microstock was here, and hitting them with a sledge hammer.

    It’s actually a tale of two extremes – neither of which are perfect. The old macro stock photographers, who sought quick money with non-commissioned, overpriced photos that were dumped in bulk into a library waiting to be snagged, and then those who will go out of their way to spend hours to set up one pro-level shot, only to sell it for $6 in commission in microstock. It was either Neiman Marcus, or Wal-mart, with nothing in-between. A shame, really. One because too elite and overpriced, and one is too bargain-basement. You can’t blame the agencies, though – if a photographer wants to spend 12 hours on one shot for tiny pennies (or for that matter, too MUCH money), it’s their doing, not the agency they decide to sell through.

    There is however, a market for “snapshots”. We tend to think that ONLY businesses and corporate level entities seek out stock photos. This isn’t true. Sometimes it’s a mom-and-pop store, a kid doing a homework assignment or blog, or a small office that needs something for their web site. They do not WANT “studio quality” stock photos – they just want a nice photo. Microstock or even the free stock sites are perfect for them, and there is a large market of these people out there. Getty and Alamy never had them, never will, and they need a source for their photo needs, too.

    End of geek gab. Macrostock is fading (on some level, sadly). Microstock is growing (on another level, sadly). There’s nothing in-between the two (on ALL levels, sadly). ‘Tis the way the world of business flows. Get used to it, folks.

  9. Yes its one way to do things, Microsoft and other big software companies did it and sometimes it pays off. Istock made it really big and got bought out, that seems to be the way too. Ever since Bill Gates bought up most of the Stock photo outfits the prices have been eroded, with respects to what the photographer gets.
    Myself, I’ve had a bunch of photo’s published for free this year.
    one magazine cover etc etc. I keep laughing about it to my wife.
    anyhow Darwin, interesting reading about this and I also wanted to commend you on keeping your cool with respects to the 7D thread.
    all the best,

    Evan Spellman

  10. […] Here is yet another take on stock photographyfrom Darwin Wiggett entitled “Rant – Free Stock Photos.” […]

  11. leahgoodman Says:

    I hope you don’t mind but I referenced this post on my blog today– see here: http://takingturns.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/get-thee-getty-on/

    Would be curious to hear any more updates you might have on the subject.

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