Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

The estimable Photo Archive News tells us that Hong Kong has realised what other goodly states and countries have been ignoring over the past few years — that photographs actually have a value.

The last twenty years has been the most disruptive period in the image business since the invention of photography. The total transition from film to digital has been virtually completed, the consolidation of almost all picture libraries and stock agencies (except for fotoLibra) has taken place under the Getty hegemony, and prices for images have plummeted, benefitting only publishers — certainly not photographers, illustrators or consumers. Sales of illustrated books — an entire industry — have collapsed.

Now the Hong Kong Government has opened up its archives and decided to charge for its pictures. Is this the carrot at the end of the tunnel? Could we be seeing a reassessment of the value of images? Will people now begin to realise that pictures aren’t free by default?

They write: ‘The Hong Kong Photo Library‘s oldest record can be traced back as early as the mid-1800s. Apart from providing an official photographic record of Hong Kong’s progress and development, the Library includes a treasure trove of photos showing the many and varied facets of life in Hong Kong including our natural beauty, culture, sports and architecture.’

Members of the public can browse their website and view photo records. Hi-res digital photos can be bought for personal or educational use. A handling fee of HK$61 (£6) per photo applies. Photos purchased for commercial use are subject to an additional copyright/commercial use fee of HK$1,000 (£100) per photo.

It’s not a lot. But it’s a start.

Good for Hong Kong. As it says on the lid of my computer: “Pictures can be cheap. The right image is PRICELESS.”

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20 Responses to “A Picture Library Charging For Pictures? Whatever Next?”

  1. Stephen Power says:

    Is Alamy under the Getty hegemony? If, as I suspect they are not, then your statement is incorrect that Fotolibra is the only exception.

    • Derek Metson says:

      Way back forty odd years while freelancing part-time for local press and national mags who paid well for photos I was a square peg in a round hole working as a civil servant on telephone accounts.

      A special request ‘keep it secret’ let me find out how many small local ‘family’ businesses in rural Essex and Suffolk were owned – at least in part – by a well known large Irish brewer.

      You never know who owns what and its obviously a lot worse now than then.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Of course not! I was using hyperbole to make the point. Alamy, Topfoto, Mary Evans, NPL, Wellcome, Eye Ubiquitous, Hutchison, Flowerphotos and many others are still proudly independent, but the Getty group are nearing 80% of the world’s picture market. That’s a hegemony in my book.

  2. John Cleare says:

    Indeed, I have only to go back through my old ledgers and invoice files to see HOW much the image business has changed, many would say ‘collapsed’. But it’s no good crying over spilt milk, progress was ever thus, but I’m glad – speaking professionally – that I’m now past 80, and past worrying. .

    On the plus side however, with digital methods, I can produce more and better images than ever before, while proving that so many of my pictures from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70, were even better than I thought they were at the time when the darkroom was part of the process. Yes, it’s an ill wind…..

    Meanwhile did you read about the County Archive charging huge hourly fees to research – we used to charge Search Fees and Service Fees but we were in business, we did the research and we were not owned by the Ratepayer.

    And now it seems that Getty has developed an algorythm that removes watermarks. Isn’t that criminal? But I suppose it doesn’t matter because images are worth only a few pence anyway, so who cares ?

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      Well, at least you still show some positivism John! Adobe software has stripped metadata and watermarks as a matter of course for many years — if however Getty strips watermarks and then profits from the resulting images the copyright holder may be consulting lawyers. The only snag is that Getty’s lawyers are probably more frequently paid than ours.

  3. John Strain says:

    Good news

  4. Vanessa Maria says:

    I believe photographs do have intrinsic value, but I imagine that more unique photos reflecting a world where only a few people even had a camera would have a better chance of being bought at a better price – or appreciated. But then again who knows. I don’t remember where I read it and I don’t know if it’s true, but Alberto Korda who took that picture of Che Guevara which can now be found printed on underwear, apparently never got royalties for that image.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      I read that too. But Korda was operating in a hard line communist state where everything was taken for the Greater Good. We just didn’t know the greater good for whom?

  5. neil holmes says:

    well said, Gwyn, with your usual sense of humour too

  6. Julia Rich says:

    Its not just down to Getty – although a major player in these matters. What has happened to really drive the problem is the digital revolution – everyman has a camera even if ‘just’ a ‘phone. A few years ago it was estimated that with the upsurge in phone-cameras 98% of people in the UK had a camera, but only around 15-20% used a camera to do more than selfies. That’s a heck of a lot of available photographs out there, very quickly. That alone drives prices down, its now a saturated market, and the “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” ethos of the supermarket applies to images too (unfortunately!). There’s still a market for quality images and those that the phone-wielders can’t get and/or don’t get, even though reduced. However, the news that Hong Kong Government has decided to charge (whatever next?) for images is excellent, it redresses the balance somewhat. And it is likely that, as with supermarkets, boredom with masses of mediocre stuff will set in, leaving a distinct niche for the real thing – but puhleez……. not ‘artisan’.

    • Gwyn Headley says:

      From all film to all digital in 20 years, as I said … and I heard (but who can prove it?) that more pictures were taken in 2016 than all the images from the invention of photography to the year 2000. But I believe (and hope) that a great picture still has a special value.

  7. Intekhab Alam says:

    This is a good initiative to help the photography industry as a whole. This must be watched if a particular group of people could not get gain out of this entire practice.

  8. Jonathan Mitchell says:

    There is no money really in stock photography anymore. I have a contract via Flickr with Getty and they are a pretty rubbish agency. I only get 20% and the revenue is not even worth mentioning.

    Recently, I have started removing my images from various libraries, as I don’t see the point in even making them available when clients are not interested in paying reasonable fees (or that few are).

    It is easy to blame Getty’s agressive and devil-may-care business practices, but for me, I see that picture libraries have failed to innovate and while I appreciate this is very difficult, they must also take their fare share of responsibility for being unable to address Getty dominance, the meteoric rise of jokers like Shutterstock and Dreamstime (I am closing my accounts with them after a 12 month experiment).

    Stock is dead. Tough luck for the publishers. For us photographers, my advice if you are professional is concentrate on work that pays and don’t bother with stock libraries. Total waste of time and a highly unprofitable use of valueable time.

    I still shoot stock images here and there, though mostly with a specific client in mind and they are useful for my internal archive. I’m less and less interested in putting images out for the broader market, as the money in the market does not make it sustainable.

    It will cost some publishers dear, but that is their own fault for being so greedy in the first place!

  9. I’m afraid the price of photo rights is the victim of the oldest law known to economics: the law of supply and demand. First the Internet itself and then cell phones added enormously to the “supply” of images, whether taken by amateurs or professionals. Demand may have risen slightly (because web sites want images too) but demand definitely FELL among those previously able to pay (magazine, newspaper, and book publishers.) So it isn’t a problem that was created by any “mistakes” or malfeasance; it was created by changed circumstances. And Hong Kong, no matter what they do, isn’t changing them back. on’And, unfortunately, shouting “quality” won’t save the day. Some image uses require quality, some not so much. Used to be, either way, you had to pay the photographer. Now when quality doesn’t matter, you don’t. And not every user recognizes when quality matters and when it doesn’t, but everybody recognizes when they pay less or nothing rather than more.