An interesting thread started to emerge on my last post, and I figured it had enough appeal that it was worth upgrading it to its own stand-alone entry. Russel Kord, a stock photographer who has been active in discussions involving crowdsourcing, stopped by to note that contrary to certain gloomy predictions, crowdsourcing has yet to adversely affect his business. Before we dive into this subject, which certainly deserves scrutiny, I should provide a bit of background for readers who haven't been following the crowdsourced photography debate. Writ brief, in the last several years companies like iStockPhoto and Shutterstock have been able to undercut the price charged for traditional stock images by more than 90 percent. How do they do it? By selling images submitted by (mostly) amateur photographers who are happy to see their work published at all. The conventional wisdom—as promulgated by many in the stock photo industry and journalists like myself—is that this would cause considerable disruption for stock photographers. Was this judgment precipitous? If you're a stock photographer, I'm anxious to hear your opinion in the comment thread. In the meantime, here's Russell, followed by my response:
"Its quite a while since I shared any thoughts about crowdsourcing with you. The rants of a year back have been tempered by the reality of dealing with the effects of crowdsourcing on a daily basis in my small stockphoto production business.
A year or more down the road the implosion of stock photo prices has
not yet happened. The millions of potential stock shooters working for
nothing haven't appeared. Photography created by crowdsourcers has been
predictable and adequate at best. There is a low price market for it,
and some money to be made by those doing the agglomeration. But it
hasn't put me out of business. Chiefly because the quality just isn't
I wonder if it ever will be? What will the place of the enthusiastic amateur be in the stock photo business?
In the end will new talent migrate out of crowdsourcing for peanuts as soon as it is recognized, leaving the whole sector as a bargain basement of adequate images?
Maybe not enough time has passed to see the full extent of crowdsourcing and how deep are the long term effects of this process. For now the iStockers are still out there shooting images for a buck, but on the eve of the deepest recession the USA has seen in half a century or more, the sky has not fallen in on professional stock photographers.
A deep long lasting recession should see companies cut advertising and/or R&D budgets, thereby revealing further insights into crowdsourcing's likely place in our little planet's economy. Maybe then we'll see crowdsourcing take over the world."
Great to hear from you Russel! It's good to hear that the microstocks haven't hurt your bottom line. I spent a week at iStock earlier this year and have looked closely at the industry this year. I think what we're seeing emerge is a more complex market for images than previously existed. In the days before microstock the demand for low-end images was underserved, or maybe even unserved. Consumers couldn't afford stock photography, so they made do by shooting their own photographs or taking them off the Web or some other ad hoc strategy. These image users can now pick up a selection of low-res images for under $20. Meanwhile, the high-end market probably hasn't changed all that much. As an art director at a big New York ad agency told me, "L'Oreal is never going to use microstock. They've got a million dollar budget and they're going to get the best possible image." Naturally, if someone is at the very top of their game, they aren't likely to sell their images on iStock.
That said, a few trends point to a very definite overlap between these two markets, to the detriment of traditional stock. First is the radical growth of iStock, by far the market leader in microstock firms. I'm not at liberty to divulge the exact dimension of that growth, but rest assured it's such that any new company would kill for. While it's possible this is simply an indication of the considerable demand for cheap images, I find that unlikely. And on an anecdotal level, I talked to several designers who stopped using trad stock and moved to microstock. More persuasive still is the fact that both Getty and Corbis have seen their core businesses (rights-managed stock photography) suffer declines, especially in the last few quarters. It's no accident that both are moving into microstock and otherwise diversifying their revenue sources. So that opens the question, if Russell isn't seeing diminishing demand for his work, or downward pressure on prices in the industry as a whole, how are these trends affecting the industry? Getty and Corbis have both made cuts to staff. Are their photographers getting out of the business? (If they are, you can bet their ranks are being filled by erstwhile amateurs who are more than anxious to be represented by the likes of Getty.) I know I have some photographers reading Crowdsourcing.com. Now's the time to make your voice heard!