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Last Updated: Friday, 23 November 2007, 15:35 GMT
New threat to stock photo sales
Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
Reporter, BBC Click

Stock photography - the pictures used by companies on packaging, leaflets, and websites - used to sell for thousands of dollars. Changing technology has meant you can now pick up these images very cheaply. But not everyone is happy with the development.

Shannon Fagan is one of New York's top stock photographers.

His goal is to produce photographs that evoke the message potential clients want their packaging or product to convey.

When he goes on a shoot he finances it himself. Location fees, equipment rental, and staffing costs can run into thousands of dollars per day.
Shannon Fagan, Stock Photographer
Shannon Fagan finances the photography sessions upfront

"We have up to five models, a make-up artist, a stylist, sometimes there is an art director, sometimes the producer is on set, sometimes the producer is off on a different location. There is a photo assistant and then there is sometimes a production assistant who is in charge of the paperwork," says Fagan.

Shannon sells most of his photos as exclusives or "rights managed" images.

Clients pay a premium to use his photos exclusively and prevent them from appearing anywhere else.

Snap job

But his livelihood is under attack thanks to a proliferation of websites dedicated to amateur and semi-pro stock photography called "microstock".

All you need to turn your precious collection of memories into saleable images is a super fast scanner, a reliable internet connection, and written permission from your subjects.

The steady march of technology means that the more recent images have been snapped with a four megapixel or better digital camera.

Smart tools on the latest compact cameras also mean that amateur snappers do not have to be very skilled.

Screengrab of Shutterstock.com website
Shutterstock claims to have over 2.5m royalty free photos

"The auto function on cameras has really allowed a wide range of photographers to get instant access to taking great photos," Jon Feinstein from Shutterstock, a stock photography website.

"They don't have to learn light metering or the large technical issues beforehand. They can still produce images that are close to the quality that seasoned professionals would be shooting," he says.

Every time a file is bought and downloaded from a microstock website the photographer gets paid a nominal amount. The market place for cheap images is growing fast and quality is no longer a priority.

Because almost anyone can produce sophisticated leaflets, newsletters, blogs and websites a so the customer base for microstock has ballooned.

"Stock photographers are really a new generation," says Auriga Bork from online training library Lynda.com. "They are having interesting ideas and more meaningful content. It is not necessarily a technically perfect photo any more. It is a lot more than that now."

MS Bork's advice for those that want to get into microstock photography is to be original - especially if they want to make money from it.

Support the artists

The microstock websites claim they are not affecting the highly paid pro-stock snappers.

"We're targeting a different market," says Stephen Kapsinow from Stockxpert, another stock photography website. "We're targeting a more consumer orientated market - non-profit, religious groups, school teachers - people who would not be paying hundreds of dollars for images."

Unfortunately, we need to be paid to survive. I have seen very little evidence, if any, that anyone can thrive on a microstock income
Betsy Reid, Stock Artists Alliance

And there are those who claim that the growth of microstock has opened up a previously closed world.

Shutterstock.com was set up after founder Jon Oringer became frustrated with his lack of opportunities as a semi-pro photographer.

"I had a collection of 30,000 photographs," he says. "I went looking for a place to sell them. The top agencies didn't return my phone calls.

"When I put them online to sell them at the price point I wanted to sell them, hundreds of other photographers started e-mailing me saying they wanted to sell them too," he says.

But for the stock photographers, the growth of microstock has not been so welcome.

"If photographers, like any artist, are going to continue to invest and create and be involved and if the business want to see the types of images from professional photographers that are really extraordinary then they are going to have to support the artists," says Betsy Reid from the Stock Artists Alliance which represents professional stock photographers.

Jon Oringer, CEO, Shutterstock.com
Shutterstock claims to have 80,529 photographers
"Unfortunately, we need to be paid to survive. I have seen very little evidence, if any, that anyone can thrive on a microstock income," says Betsy Reid from the Stock Artists Alliance.

Microstock has also put pressure on professional photographers like Shannon Fagan. He now has to produce 60 saleable shots in one session rather than the 10 he used to aim for and the budget cuts affect his entire operation.

"My fees are dropping. I presented that to the agencies that sell the photos, said this is a problem. There is nothing they can do about it. It is not their problem. It gets transferred to me, the crew, the models, the locations," he says.

But microstock websites seem unstoppable and are already moving into other areas such as cheap video clips, ready-made backgrounds, and graphic images that can be used for consumer and corporate projects.

Together with better software solutions and faster hardware they are creating a whole new generation of designers, powered by technology that is within everyone's reach.

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