Because I make my living primarily as a stock photographer I spend a great deal of time and energy trying to understand the “stock market.” (I am not referring to the one in New York City’s financial district.) Today, the market for and suppliers of stock photography cross the globe. So the more I know about the business, the more successful I will be within that growing global market. In the first part of this two-part blog entry I wrote about which of my own images seem to work better and why. Now I am writing about other concerns that any stock photographer (practicing or aspiring) should think about.
When we think about stock photography we usually think of images licensed through agencies or portals. (I am defining an agency as an organization/ company that I have a contract with who works on my behalf such as http://www.auroraphotos.com/. This is compared to Alamy, which licenses my images as a portal, but clearly works only on their own behalf and would never return a phone call or email of mine.) Licensing images through agencies/portals is one way of doing business, but it is not the only way.
At different points along the way in my career as a stock photographer, I have repeatedly considered “going direct.” That means that I would license my images directly to the end users without an agency or portal. The upside is that I would get to keep all the licensing fees. The downside is that it would require exponentially more marketing effort on my part. Typically, I give up 50 percent (or more) of a given license fee to the agents (and subagents) who actually license the image to a given end-user. My own belief has long been that for me, spending that time marketing my imagery is not something I want to do, or would be particularly good at doing.
Today, the Internet has changed much of the world of stock photography in particular and marketing in general, for better and worse. In this case, that means that for some stock photographers (practicing or aspiring) it may be time to reconsider the benefits and costs of “going direct” or what is increasingly called “self-marketing.” With the advent of the Internet, most of the mechanical parts of licensing images can already be done automatically, such as down-loading images, setting license fees and billing/paying those fees. In fact, end-users pretty much expect to be licensing images on line, or at least searching for them that way. Photo-shelter http://www.photoshelter.com/ offers what is probably the most well known option for doing this part of the business, though there are other resources for this part of the business. Independent Photography Network, at http://www.ipnstock.com/ is another. If you search their pages you will see many photographers who have “gone direct.”
Since the technology is widely available, the real question is how can a photographer market themselves successfully to potential end-users? Asking this question leads back to the first part of this two part blog entry, where the goal was “making images are not as common so the end user had fewer options.” A photographer with an archive of images that fill a definable niche, a specialist rather than a generalist, is much more likely to succeed in distinguishing themselves. By contrast, someone with a generalized archive, no matter how strong the work, will find it harder to distinguishing themselves.
One approach to this question can be found be looking through the offerings at Photo-shelter and Independent Photography Network. There you will find photographers who are almost brand names, like Art Wolfe or photographers with strong brand name association such as the many photographers who work regularly for the National Geographic. Being linked, literally or figuratively with major brands is one sure way for a photographer to distinguish in the market for stock photography.
One other thing that end-users want, and people who are “self-marketing” can offer is personalized service and a human being at the other end of the interaction. The Internet has sped up the image licensing business, lowered barriers to entry and raised efficiency, but it also has largely removed the human element from the process. Human interaction, or personal service is another way that stock photographers who are “going direct” can distinguish themselves.
For me, having thought this question through, I am going to stick with licensing my images through agencies and portals. It is true I will continue to give up upwards of 50 percent of the licensing fee. On the other hand, I will not have to become a marketing machine, which is something that years of experience have taught me is something I am not good at. For now I will play to my strengths and do what I do best. I also know I will reconsider this question in another few years. I will not stay in business much longer if I do not keep asking myself this question, regardless of how I answer it.