BitDepth 651 - October 28

Stock photography evolves in the digital age and the big winners are local shooters who live in paradise.
Stock photography goes global...and local

Yuri Arcurs, Lee Torrens and Andres Rodriguez (Kelly Cline is partly hidden at right) discuss the microstock business at a seminar at PhotoPlus Expo 2008. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

The show floor at this year's PhotoPlus Expo might have been abuzz with photographers and snappers taking in the newest gear, but a remarkable seminar session was one of the 11 that opened the seminars that run alongside the photography exposition.
At a session entitled "Microstock Superstars", PhotoDistrict News' Daryl Lang moderated a talk by four successful young turks in one of the most troubling areas of modern digital photography.
Microstock is the term given to an offshoot of the traditional stock photography tree, a weed, most old pros will probably say, that emphasises low prices and royalty free licenses for photographs.

The stock photography business was once an exclusive club, with privileged members earning hundreds of thousands of dollars licensing the use of their images to advertising agencies and magazines.
Two digital age forces combined to change the landscape of stock photography forever, the ready availability of cameras that offered instant feedback and high quality files and the growing feasibility of Internet based distribution.
Today, no stock photo agency publishes huge books of images for an art director's perusal and you can buy a decent photo with all the licensing most people need for a dollar. A US dollar, but that's still quite a drop from the heady heights of the 1980's.

Shooting your backyard
Today's stock successes are remarkably cosmopolitan, as befits distribution systems that know no real boundaries. Yuri Arcurs is from Denmark, Lee Torrens is Australian, Andres Rodriguez is Colombian, working out of London and his homeland and Kelly Cline, the lone American, is based in Seattle.
The Internet enabled workflow is even more cosmopolitan. Arcurs outsources his digital clean-up work to India and Torrens uses Indian IT outsourcing agency eMetaworks to handle his image keywords, the embedded text tags that make online searches of large image libraries possible.

This globally interconnected network of suppliers, shooters and distributors has put an end to the "stock safari" of the great white shooter. Microstock photographers are everywhere and they're shooting their backyards with authority.
Perhaps the most compelling thing about Thursday's meeting between photo veterans and the four young champions of dollar pix was how civil and curious the audience was. With only two snarky exceptions, the questions were focused on how the photographers in attendance could prepare themselves and their work for a new world of cheap photos licensed freely on the web.

Making it big on small returns
Equally intriguing was the attitude of the young microstock photographers, who were working hard to improve their returns in a business built on coins.
In a world of free YouTube videos and Flickr, even dollar photos start to sound pretty expensive.
Yuri Arcurs is microstock's first million dollar man, selling an image every 50 seconds and uploading more than a thousand new photos per month to the nine microstock agencies that sell his work.

From a cold start in 2005, he has invested much of his income in production, paying himself just $100,000 per year and spending the rest on a support staff of ten and in building studios to create more work.
Much of the work on show was airy, clean and European in style, blurry whites and stylishly desaturated colours abounded. But behind the scenes was a tremendous amount of work, metered by the almighty RPI (return per image) which sets limits on the amount of work and money that can be invested in shoots that sell to buyers on a budget.

Arcurs, who is sponsored by Hasselblad and shoots with the company's 39 megapixel digital camera estimates that he spends US$40 - $60 per image per month on his submissions and needs six months of sales to cover his expenses.
Models tend to be non-professionals and Torrens jokes that the two most popular models in microstock are Arcurs ladyfriend and Rodriguez' sister.

More notes on this session are part of my blog reporting from PhotoPlus Expo 2008.

Yuri Arcurs' website
Lee Torrens' blog
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