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.