Taylor Davidson · Unbundling the Photography Industry, Redux

Break down the stack of services in the photography industry and imagine a photography sales platform that operates as a search engine through the internet’s warehouse of images; the current issues in the photography industry are signs of long-term pressures and hints of the industry’s future.
by Taylor Davidson · 23 Jun 2009

Revisiting The stock photography industry needs to be unbundled from October 2008:

We need to unbundle the functions of the traditional stock photography agency. There is no fundamental need for the image delivery and management platform to be delivered by the same company that makes the market and connects buyers and sellers.

What we need is a quality, powerful open-sourced platform to allow photographers to control their own images in their own ways. We need a platform and a community of developers similar to WordPress or Movable Type. Blogs exploded because people were given the tools to create and publish on their own using the range of hosted and non-hosted options; why can’t the same thing happen with stock photography?

Agencies would still have a powerful role: agencies would still set the rules of exchange, organize buyers and sellers and promote images: but instead of the images residing on their platforms, the images could reside on photographers’ servers.

Obviously this disaggretated model would shift around some the economic value in the stock photography business: but perhaps the industry is failing because we have not developed or scaled platforms that allow the economic value to shift in ways the industry desperately needs.

… In essence:

  • Decouple the the platform delivery and market-making components of the traditional stock photography agencies.
  • Develop open platforms that allow photographers to control their own data, on their own servers, using open-sourced software, “promoted” by stock agencies.
  • Let agencies focus on making markets, reducing transaction costs, making prices and image comparisons more transparent.

Allen’s comment:

I know nothing about the inner workings of the blog companies, however, they do not have the inherent problem that pro photography has — that is, a small addressable market. Millions of people use blogger and word press, by contrast, the # of “pro” photographers is in the low hundreds of thousands by most estimates. So I’m not sure an open platform system would work.

Secondly, storing digital assets and providing an e-commerce layer isn’t as simple as hosting a few bytes of blog data. Not to say that it can’t be done, but we have a ton of scripts that are necessary to control everything from conversion of JPG/RAWs into thumbnails to e-commerce systems that process transactions, email the client, and generate a downloadable file.

I would personally like to see more adoption of standards so that distribution of your images from a hub like PhotoShelter to any number of destination sites (whether it’s Getty or a boutique agency) could be as simple as something like sending an e-mail. Ultimately, however, I don’t think the industry has the economic incentive to develop such a system — and often, what’s good for the photographer isn’t necessarily needed by the buyer, and vice versa.

Continuing to explain my thoughts:

… in my mind the open-sourced platform would be given away for free. Give away the software, create a platform for developers to create plug-ins to manage images, fans, customizations for photographers. Provide (free and paid) services to help photographers host and customize their own stock solutions. Learn from the lessons of companies that have created platforms (and movements,) not just products.

… Not all photographers will want this, of course: many won’t want to manage their own systems, learn about web development or managing their software and hosting solutions. But that’s what Movable Type and WordPress have learned, and it’s a key part of why they offer both the hosted and non-hosted paths.

Re: Storing digital assets and e-commerce layer: you obviously know what goes into this far more than I do. It’s not a trivial problem, but there are many software and web companies that have dealt with similar problems with managing massive flows of unstructured and structured data. Think of it as creating an API between the cloud of hosted software platforms and Photoshelter’s e-commerce market-making website.

What are the biggest barriers for photo buyers? It’s not just about prices … The lack of price transparency between RF / RM and in comparing images is a strategic mistake: the transaction costs (time, effort, energy) are a significant barrier to closing a sale.

Continuing with a related thought from an interview from April 22 with Ellen Boughn on the future of stock photography:

John: I am hearing predictions that Google is the ultimate stock search mechanism, and that someday all the searches will be done on Google image search…even including Agency collections. Can you comment on that?

Ellen: I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that Google has taught us all how to search. We no longer look for anything with just one or two words. The vast amount of information on the web compels us to become more and more specific in our use of search terms and to use more words in a search. This knowledge spills over into how we search for images. I believe that photographers with collections on specific subjects and who have implemented best practices as far as SEO goes may find that they can make more money selling stock direct than with a stock company in the near future.

Today I am excited about the prospect that we may be at a convergence of technology and user behavior that will shortly enable photographers to license their existing images.

As Ellen continues to explain, we are beginning to see web tools break down the industry stack to help photographers distribute images, handle sales, licensing and infringement.

We’re starting to see bits of the chain emerge:

  • Distribution platforms: In addition to the more traditional stock photography distributors, collections and portals, a number of platforms, including mageSpan, Photoshelter, Fotolia and others, provide a variety of web platforms for photographers to sell and manage licensing from their site;
  • Distribution platforms with alternate licensing and/or pricing models: Cutcaster, GumGum and Photrade provide distribution platforms with alternate licensing and/or pricing models;
  • Syndication (distribution management): iSyndica helps photographers upload images to multiple stock photography platforms;
  • Analytics: LookStat helps photographers track sales across multiple sites, creating the data behind image sales and performance necessary for stock photographers to make informed decisions about their business;
  • Direct sales and E-commerce: Fotomoto helps photographers promote and sell prints directly from their site with a simple, small code change to their existing website, and almost all of the distribution and promotion sites also handle print and license sales;
  • Tracking: Digimarc, Idée and PicScout all help track usage and infringement (with different methods, goals and business structures).
  • Promotion: A number of companies, including A Photo Folio, liveBooks, PhotoBiz, NextProof and Pictage, provide solutions for photographers to create websites and manage clients and sales.

But there are still a dearth of powerful tools and platforms for photographers to manage their own marketing efforts. Photoshelter might have the best range of tools, widgets and other solutions for photographers to promote their work; but it is still a relatively undeveloped space. How can photographers manage, track and understand their own web marketing efforts? How can photographers track their social media engagement / marketing efforts across the variety of tools and communities? How can photographers reach out and manage their fans and customers? Who will create the Topspin, su.pr or awe.sm for photographers? How will we bring humanity to the market for images and photographers?

I’m sure there are many other solutions available, and I might have missed a core part of the industry stack, but at the end of the day the photography industry still struggles with a mess of largely closed, non-interoperable solutions for matching buyers with sellers.

The photography industry may be suffering right now, but general interest in photography is at an all-time high; even though individual photographers will continue to struggle through the transition, big problems create great opportunities. Find your vision, target your niche, create great work, expand your business model, learn to market, and find a way to swim through the industry’s tides; if you figure all of that out, businesses will emerge to help you thrive.