Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Photographer Perspective: Cheap Photo Sites Pit Amateurs vs. Pros

This article on Business Week is great for photographers to read, especially ones that are pissed:

Cheap Photo Sites Pit Amateurs vs. Pros

by John Tozzi

As barriers to the design and photography industries fall, the professionals are getting nervous. Independent graphic designers and commercial photographers, as well as small companies within the industry, feel threatened by a flood of low-cost images, often produced by amateurs, available online. So-called microstock Web sites offer to sell photos submitted by users for as little as $1 an image. Other sites let buyers post open calls for designs and pay for only the submission they like best, a practice that riles graphic designers who say it amounts to working for free.

Affordable digital cameras and desktop design software unlocked the tools of these trades, but the dilemma isn't unique to visual professionals. In any industry where technology has enabled passionate amateurs to try their hands, businesses face new competitors who may not be motivated by profit (BusinessWeek.com, 6/6/07). The line separating professionals from dabblers blurred a little more on July 8, when leading stock photo agency Getty Images partnered with photo-sharing site Flickr (YHOO) to bring select Flickr users into the Getty collection. The move comes two years after Getty acquired iStockphoto, a microstock site that sells royalty-free photos uploaded by users. (Disclosure: BusinessWeek uses Getty and other stock agencies for its Web site and magazine.)

Small Companies Still Dominate
The rap against microstock sites is that they reduce photos to low-cost commodities. "People gravitate toward the lowest common denominator, and a lot of the time that has to do with price," says Martin Trailer, president of the Advertising Photographers of America, a trade group. Designers, meanwhile, direct their ire at crowdsourcing (BusinessWeek, 9/25/06) sites like 99designs, crowdSPRING, and Pixish. Buyers on these sites bid out work for graphics they need, often at prices that appeal only to hobbyists. Richard Grefé, director of design association AIGA, says such services miss the point that professional design encompasses more than crafting visuals. "What you're getting is a superficial mark," he says.

Small companies still dominate graphic design and photography. Of more than 16,700 graphic design firms in the U.S. in 2006, nearly 80% had four or fewer employees, and just 24 firms had more than 100, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Likewise, 85% of commercial photography companies employed four or fewer people. Those figures don't count the thousands of self-employed designers and photographers, who the government doesn't track to such granular levels.

So how much do the new Web offerings really hurt these pros? Defenders argue they've created a new market at a lower price range for customers who never would have paid the fees professional designers or traditional photo agencies charge. "The great thing that we see in the emergence of microstock is that it's significantly expanding the pool of people paying for imagery," says Getty Chief Operating Officer Nick Evans-Lombe.

Read more here.

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