by Gwyn Headley
Quora is an interesting web site. Questions are created, answered, edited and organized by its users. And its users seem more intelligent and less abusive than the average troll one encounters online.
Here’s a good one: What are some of the reasons that stock photos look like stock photos?
This is an excellent question. Alas, so far there are only four answers, none of them particularly illuminating.
Let me have a go. First of all, let’s forget photography and look at economics — the law of supply and demand. The four basic laws of supply and demand are:
- Demand increases, supply remains unchanged: a shortage occurs, leading to a higher equilibrium price.
- Demand decreases, supply remains unchanged: a surplus occurs, leading to a lower equilibrium price.
- Demand remains unchanged, supply increases: a surplus occurs, leading to a lower equilibrium price.
- Demand remains unchanged, supply decreases: a shortage occurs, leading to a higher equilibrium price.
Unfortunately in the picture library / stock agency business we have involuntarily created the fifth law of supply and demand:
- Demand decreases, supply increases dramatically: a massive surplus occurs, leading to a far lower equilibrium price.
That’s where we stand at the moment. Twenty years ago if you wanted a sunny photograph of a couple running happily down a beach hand-in-hand, you either commissioned a photographer at considerable expense, or you trawled through transparencies at a picture library (and paid a hefty fee for doing so). Now they’re so common you can scarcely give them away.
I went into the Spar store in Harlech yesterday, hoping to buy a packet of frozen broad beans. What they had in the freezer was:
- Frozen oven chips
- Frozen roast potatoes
- Frozen potato wedges
- Frozen hash browns
- Frozen French fries
- Frozen jacket potatoes
- Frozen Smiles (??) potatoes
- Frozen garden peas
That was the extent of their frozen vegetable range. Now I’m as anti-eating green things as any ordinary man can be (although peas and broad beans are sort of OK) but even I felt that this was an overwhelming bias in favour of potato-based products.
Potato-based products are heavily marketed, so people buy them. At first we don’t notice the broad bean chicks have been ousted from the freezer nest by these cuckoo brands.
It’s the same with microstock and rights-managed images. Microstock is heavily marketed, like supermarkets, with a loss leader — $1 for an image! And that’s all that buyers remember, until they’re suckered in to an annual deal where they’ll pay as much for their images as if they’d bought them from us without any trade agreement. They don’t notice they end up paying at least the same, and probably more.
The boon and the benefit of Microstock is that everything has been ironed down to the lowest possible common denominator. Welcome to a perfect world, where everyone lives exclusively on potato-based products and sugary drinks, yet keeps a trim figure and teeth like the grille on a Cadillac. Nothing has ever gone wrong in these people’s lives, and that’s what the client wants. So endless numbers of photographers endlessly reproduce the same image with infinitesmal variations, like this:
Oops — the last one is embarrassingly much better then the rest. Oh, it’s not a microstock image at all, it’s a fotoLibra Rights Managed image (thank you, Peter Phipp!).
When I was a kid we rebelled against conformity by growing long hair and wearing blue jeans. We all wanted long hair and blue jeans. We all looked the same. We conformed.
The point is that stock photos look like stock photos because that’s what the market wants. Conformity. And potato-based products.
You get what you pay for.
by Gwyn Headley
Until fotoLibra Version 6.0 was launched in December our site didn’t actually say that we sold images — we just assumed that people would know.
It seems not everyone understands. In November we sold usage rights in a photograph of a wedding cake decorative topper — Personal Use (One-Off) — to a lady in the mid-Western United States.
Last week we had a querulous email from her. “I ordered and paid for a wedding cake decorative topper last November, and I still haven’t received it.”
We looked at each other in horror (although I could barely suppress a grin). She had bought image usage rights when she thought she was buying an actual item. I was flooded with pity, because I could put myself right in her place. I knew just how she was feeling.
But we’d already paid the photographer for the sale. We could hardly ask him to give the money back. So we tactfully explained the situation to her, that we were a picture library (US = Stock Agency) and not a fancy goods retailer, that it was clearly pointed out on the website, and that she now had the right to get this picture printed out as a huge poster and stuck on her wall. She accepted the situation.
We get regular calls from gentlemen with thick, impenetrable accents who are interested in the derelict petrol stations you can see on fotoLibra. They’re not interested in images of them — they want the actual sites, and they rumble threateningly when we try to explain we only sell pictures of the sites.
The nadir was reached when one man rang up to order some bollards. Once again we patiently tried to explain we sold images of bollards, not actual bollards. The enquirer was an Englishman, with a fluent and rapid command of the language, albeit with an extremely limited vocabulary. He informed us at length (in Neville Shute’s terminology) that we were Fugging Muggers and also, weirdly, Bunts. The invective was foul, sustained, vicious and a total waste of time. God knows what he was planning to do with the bollards once he got hold of them. We had a satisfying, if impractical, suggestion for him.
I’m really very sorry for the Mid-Western US lady and her wedding cake decorative topper. But we shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s mistakes, even a small amount. And after Chris Holifield of the Writer’s Services website pointed out that we didn’t say what we did, we rectified it. Now fotoLibra.com introduces itself with HOW TO BUY IMAGES | HOW TO SELL IMAGES.
No more confusion then. Thank you, Chris!
by Gwyn Headley
We received a cheery sales enquiry this morning:
I work for the Social Security Administration (SSA) in the Dallas Region. The Dallas Region is comprised of Social Security offices in 5 states (New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas). The Dallas Region is separated into 6 parts called Area’s [I think he means Areas]. One such Area has Social Security Offices in two states (Oklahoma and Arkansas).
We are creating a banner for the Area front page that would represent 2 states (Oklahoma and Arkansas) and we would like to use one of your pictures as part of the banner to represent the State of Arkansas. This front page would exist on a Secure intranet and would only be visible to Social Security employees. This Intranet is not accessible to the general public or anyone outside of the Social Security Administration and serves as an information portal for SSA employees.
Please consider allowing us to use your image shown. As a government entity we cannot pay for rights.
Yvonne was on it in a flash:
Many thanks for your message and for your interest in one of our images. I’m sorry to read that as a government entity you can’t pay for rights because, as a stock agency, our business is selling usage rights for our many contributors.
I regret that I can see no reason why we should give you free rights to use one of our images and wish you luck in persuading someone else to give away their work for no reward.
What a model of restraint. It’s fortunate she responded before I had a chance to vent my spleen, otherwise Anglo-American relationships could have been irreparably damaged.
This scenario is becoming increasingly common. I wrote about it in a blog last November, Give Us Your Work For Free. Yvonne was more concise and to the point than Whitey. Why should anybody, in any organisation, in any country, anywhere in the world, expect to be paid for what they do and yet expect you and me to hand over the fruits of our investment, creativity and labour for nothing? It’s contemptuous, patronising and demeaning.
Mind you, Yvonne has form where this sort of behaviour is concerned. Some years ago when she was working for BASF and Sir Peter Hall was Director of the National Theatre, Hall’s secretary rang up to order 10 reels of recording tape. Yvonne’s question was to be expected: “To whom shall I send the invoice?” In a flash Hall (as he was then) was on the phone, fulminating “Don’t you know who I am? I’ll have your job for this!” Yvonne answered evenly, “I don’t think so. Now do you want to buy these tapes or not?”
Collapse of stout party, as they say.
Only one good comes of this. It shows that a picture library set up in a remote corner of North-West Wales can be seen and used by a US government department.
The next step is to get them to pay $600 for our lavatory seat. Older readers will recall the reference.
by Gwyn Headley
Happy New Year to all fotoLibra friends, fans, followers and freaks!
2014 may not offer the sunniest outlook the world of photography has ever seen, but we’re still going, we’re still optimistic, we’re still hopeful and we’re still excited by the great photographs our contributors are offering for sale. We’ve just had over 600 photographs of Uzbekistan uploaded. That’s 600 more than we had before.
If there’s a shadow on the horizon, it’s our supportive media. Not content with driving image prices down to little more than zero — that’s why you don’t see your photographs in the national press — they have taken to publishing articles not just predicting the death of photography, but also the death of the camera itself.
Yet one prediction I read (unencumbered by any trace of fact, footnote or reference) estimated that one trillion photographs would be taken in 2014. Clearly it’s a dying business.
To pile insult on injury, one of the big Christmas films is ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, a Ben Stiller vehicle based on the famous James Thurber short story. The original story is less than four pages long. While Walter Mitty is on a shopping trip with his wife he daydreams in turn of being a naval commander, a top surgeon, a crack shot, an ace bomber pilot … and we never learn what he actually is, apart from a hen-pecked husband.
But Ben Stiller, faced with spinning a little over three pages of text into 114 minutes of Hollywood magic, had to find him a job.
What job did he choose for the world’s most hopeless fantasist?
A fotoLibrarian, that’s what. How do you think we feel?
We feel very strongly that this is an unfair — oh, hang on … gotta go, there’s the Nobel Prize committee on the phone again.
I’ve been on both sides of the desk at publicity meetings when the response to the question “What’s new?” is “We’ve got a new website!”
Hearts sink all round. The PR company’s, because no journalist has bought a New Website story since 1993, and also the client’s, because he can see this magnificent, radical, earth-shatteringly great new website isn’t cutting the mustard with the very people he’s paying to tell the world how wonderful he is.
Well — fotoLibra has a new website! This is Version 6.0, launched at noon today. It’s evolutionary rather than revolutionary, so old fotoLibra hands won’t be fazed by unfamiliar procedures — but explore a little further and you’ll find a wealth of new and useful features for both buyers and sellers.
For instance, you no longer have to sign in to check the price of an image.
It’s a ‘responsive’ site, which means it works equally well on smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops.
It’s bigger, brighter and faster, using the latest HTML5 features, which means you’ll need to upgrade your browser to appreciate them fully. You can navigate through the site using left and right arrow keys. There’s a new drag and drop image uploader with thumbnail generation. Search results default to larger thumbnails. There’s a lot more.
Please take it for a test drive:
And we would love to hear what you think about it, whether it’s bad or good.
Being a small company, fotoLibra actually listens and responds to all its contributors, unlike some others we could think of. We’ll respond to your comments and queries, and if you have ideas for further features we could offer in the future, let us know. If we like them and can do them, we’ll incorporate them.
A note to our dinosaur friends — fotoLibra 6.0 won’t work on the no longer supported web browser Internet Explorer 7, and works (but looks slightly odd) on IE8. Please upgrade to IE11, or try using Safari, Firefox, Chrome or Opera.
We hope you enjoy using the new fotoLibra Version 6.0. We’ve put a lot of hard work and love into making it as intuitive and user-friendly as we can. Please comment!
by Gwyn Headley
The famous war photographer Don McCullin was interviewed in today’s Independent to promote a national amateur photography competition, Faith Through A Lens.
And what he has to say is exactly what we’ve been saying since we started fotoLibra 10 years ago.
“I love photographing beautiful things. I don’t want just a reputation for always being in among the blood and the gore. I have an amazing repertoire of landscapes in my collection.”
But he suggests that up and coming photographers cover the poorest communities in Britain, in an effort to stop them becoming further marginalised.
He said: “I don’t see enough people chronicling Britain. You don’t have to get on a plane; there are lots of social wars in our cities. There’s poverty and loneliness. You don’t have to go to the Middle East to find unhappiness and sorrow.”
McCullin is happy to judge shots taken by cameraphones. “There’s a lot of snobbery about pictures taken on phones but a vision is a vision, I don’t care how you acquire it. An artist will find any means to create a work of art.”
When contributors ask fotoLibra what they should photograph, the answer is always the same. And it’s the hardest answer.
People. Not picturesque, colourful ethnic dancers, but people going about their everyday lives. Your neighbours. Your colleagues. Your friends. Your family. The travellers who are camping at the end of the road.
by Gwyn Headley
Every week fotoLibra gets requests from companies, charities, bloggers and individuals who want to use photographs — your photographs.
This of course is a wonderful thing, but unfortunately for you and me they have one thing in common. They all want them for free.
Oh, the reasons they give are wondrous and manifold; way above ‘the dog ate my homework’ level. They plead to our better nature, they claim poverty, they cite numerous examples of unparalleled generosity from picture libraries who modestly (and surprisingly) request anonymity, and, most common of all, “we’re a charity so we shouldn’t have to pay anything”.
I’ve just seen a correspondence between a Large Wealthy Production Company and a struggling musician. It makes fascinating reading.
I have redacted the copy to remove any direct references to the LWPC because their lawyers are undoubtedly larger and wealthier than ours, and anyway they don’t need the free publicity. ‘Xena’ is a made-up name. The only indicator I haven’t changed in the name of the musician, ‘Whitey’ N J White. I can’t find his blog at the moment, but I’m sure he would appreciate any messages of support you may care to offer. This material came from the excellent PetaPixel newsletter.
All I want you to do when reading the following correspondence is substitute the word ‘photography’ for ‘music’. Then see how you feel.
Thanks for emailing me, I have emailed your label but not heard back yet so thanks for getting in touch. Unfortunately we don’t have any budget for music but would be great if we could use the track but it is up to you, but would appreciate anything you could do?
and now Whitey’s reply:
Firstly, there is no label — I outright own my material, so I’m not sure who you’ve been emailing.
Secondly, I am sick to death of your hollow schtick, of the inevitable line “unfortunately there’s no budget for music”, as if some fixed Law Of The Universe handed you down a sad but immutable financial verdict preventing you from budgeting to pay for music. Your company set out the budget.
So you have chosen to allocate no money for music. I get begging letters like this every week — from a booming, affluent global media industry.
Why is this? Let’s look at who we both are.
I am a professional musician, who lives from his music. It took me half a lifetime to learn the skills, years to claw my way up the structure, to the point where a stranger like you will write to me. This music is my hard-earned property. I’ve licensed music to some of the biggest shows, brands, games and TV production companies on earth; from Breaking Bad to the Sopranos, from Coca Cola to Visa, HBO to Rockstar Games.
Ask yourself: would you approach a Creative or a Director with a resumé like that, and in one flippant sentence ask them to work for nothing?
Of course not. Because your industry has a precedent of paying these people, of valuing their work.
Or would you walk into someone’s home, eat from their bowl, and walk out smiling, saying “So sorry, I’ve no budget for food”? Of course you would not.
Because culturally, we classify that as theft.
Yet the culturally ingrained disdain for the musician that riddles your profession leads you to fleece the music angle whenever possible. You will without question pay everyone connected to a shoot — from the caterer to the grip to the extra — even the cleaner who mopped your set and scrubbed the toilets after the shoot will get paid. The musician? Give him nothing.
Now let’s look at you. A quick glance at your web site reveals a variety of well known, internationally syndicated reality programmes. You are a successful, financially solvent and globally recognised company with a string of hit shows.
Working on multiple series in close co-operation with Channel 4, from a West London office, with a string of awards under your belt, you have real money. To pretend otherwise is an insult.
Yet you send me this shabby request — give me your property, for free. Just give us what you own, we want it.
The answer is a resounding and permanent NO.
I will now post this on my sites, forward this to several key online music sources and blogs, encourage people to re-blog this. I want to see a public discussion begin about this kind of industry abuse of musicians [and Photographers — Ed.]
This was one email too far for me. Enough. I’m sick of you.
N J White
And the one thing Xena from LWPC Inc left out was “Of course, we’ll give you a credit. It’ll be great publicity for you, because we’ve sold this project to 597 planets across the universe. You should be SO grateful to us!”
What can we say? Thanks A Lot.
And well said, Whitey! N J White is hereby awarded the 2013 fotoLibra Award For Speaking Out.
by Gwyn Headley
I’m not that old — God is old — but I clearly remember the South Sea Bubble, when credulous investors pumped hundreds of pounds into shadowy companies which made extravagant promises of riches beyond the dreams of aviaries, most notoriously one which was incorporated for “carrying on an undertaking of Great Advantage, but no one to know what it is”.
The tables have turned. Today’s must-invest-in companies make no profits and no promises at all, yet they have to fight investors off with sticks.
Snapchat is in talks for funding that values it at $3.6 billion, even though it doesn’t appear to have figured out how to monetise its service yet. When we launched fotoLibra we wrote up very detailed plans on how it was going to make money, plans that we have carried out with some small degree of success, despite the appalling financial climate and the plummeting value of images. Nevertheless investors stayed away in droves.
It doesn’t seem to matter that a company has no idea how to make money. Today you make money by selling your concept to investors. Snapchat points to 9% of American youth having used its service. But 9% of American youth used to buy Eddie Fisher records. They don’t any more.
These companies are new and exciting, like hula hoops and yo-yos. I wonder how long their shelf life will be. Snapchat’s unique selling point is that it allows people to exchange photographs which then disappear. So it really is selling smoke.
When Facebook made its public offering I commented that if the Duke of Westminster decided to sell the freehold of the whole of Belgravia he’d be able to buy 18% of Facebook. I advised him not to, and I’m glad to say he appears to have heeded my advice. I believe Belgravia will be substantially more valuable in 50 years’ time than whatever the rump of Facebook will be. As for enterprises like Snapchat, Pinterest and Tumblr, I think they will be footnotes in internet bubble history.
fotoLibra, on the other hand, should be on course for world domination.
On this morning’s BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme there was an interesting piece about holiday photographs. The interviewees first commented on the vast number of photographs that are taken nowadays, then went on to advise listeners to take fewer photographs and instead to enjoy the moment for what it was. Well actually they urged us to take less photographs, so we corrected their grammar for them.
The piece was directed at amateur photographers, not the pros and semi-pros that make up the fotoLibra membership, but there were still Lessons To Be Learned for us all. For a start, they urged listeners to do what we’ve been asking you to do for years — try and photograph things that are ephemeral and change, such as streetscapes. Photograph your bread. Photograph the baker’s shop. It may not be there next year.
It was worth listening to, and for the next seven days (ending Monday 5th August) you can hear it by clicking here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b037gxx1 Click where it says ‘Listen now 180 mins’ and scroll through to 2:23:56.
Some years ago in Assisi we saw two gay men photographing a stuffed toy bear in front of the cathedral. Intrigued, we asked what was going on. “This is Hector,” they told us. “He’s been photographed in front of the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Tower Bridge — he’s been all over the world.” And they had a photographic record of his travels. I have a sinking feeling that they went on to publish a very successful book about Hector’s travels.
We never know what’s going to sell. That’s why we don’t impose our tastes on what members upload to fotoLibra. But we will ask this:
- • Don’t photograph sunsets, photograph things seen in sunsets
- • Don’t photograph the Taj Mahal, photograph the hawkers and vendors in the street leading up to it
- • Don’t upload 20 photographs of the same object at fractionally different angles — ‘sisters & similars’, as they’re known in the trade. Upload only the best
- • Please take more photographs of people — not just portraits, but people doing things
by Gwyn Headley
We had a mailshot from the Frankfurt Book Fair yesterday.
It said “Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) and the Frankfurt Book Fair are this year asking again for entries to be submitted for the DAM Architectural Book Award 2013. All art and architectural book publishers worldwide are invited to do so.”
Excellent, I thought. Our profusely illustrated Heritage Ebooks will be just the ticket, and will get us some much needed publicity — and maybe some sales as well.
But apparently not.
My proposal was curtly answered: “I am sorry but online publications are not to be considered.”
Well, they are not online publications. They are ebooks, in Kindle and EPUB formats. The titles are not available in print format, as the Active Location Finder we use to physically locate the buildings described in the books can only work in an ebook.
So I told them. Now they have sent us a holding letter while the Deutsches Architekturmuseum and the Frankfurt Book Fair deliberate as to whether an ebook can be regarded as a book.
Should I be holding my breath?