Photo Stock Agencies- The Bane of Photography.

Sherpas apply sunscreen before setting out on the climb. The Sherpas are the unglorified climbers in the Himalayas. Every successful expedition that returns home to applause conveniently forgets to mention that these Sherpas led their way including fixing ropes for them to the very top. Without them the climb is impossible. Only few great climbers like Reinhold Messner fixed his own ropes on his climbs. (sanjay austa austa)

This image of the Sherpas on Kanchenjuna Expedition was one of my 6 images bought by Sun Microsystems for a campaign in US few years ago. I got paid but have no idea how the pictures were used.

A Few months ago a prominent American newspaper contacted me. They were looking for images of a tourist hot-spot in Himachal Pradesh. Would I have them?  Of course I did.  I belong to the State.  I have millions of Himachal photographs hogging my hard-drive space.  But I said no. However I told the photo-editor, I could go and photograph what she wanted for the same price she was offering to buy the images. She agreed.

I travelled to Himachal. Shot for three days. Met many people. Made new contacts. Got loads of new photographs and sent them to the photo-editor. The newspaper, which originally needed only two photos, ended up using ten. Their web-edition ran a slide show of my pictures. Needless to say I was paid accordingly.

I narrate this story to talk about photo stock agencies. Today, all newspapers and magazines rely more and more on stock agencies to feed them photos. What is more alarming is the fact that they are increasingly treating photographers as stock agencies themselves.  Photographers get more requests for photos than calls for assignments.

Photo stock agencies are built on an economic model that is hard to brush aside. They know newspapers and magazines need photographs and don’t want to pay the earth to get them. Why spend on photographer’s air / train tickets, his hotel bills, food and transport ( and in some cases their booze) when you can simply get the images off a  website? It’s a win win situation for the stock agency and the newspaper.

 (sanjay austa austa)

On Assignment and in the Field thats where Photographers like to be. ( In the pic: Shalinder Pandey of Tehelka)

Photographer or a  Shopkeeper?

You might say its great even for the photographer. For after all, he gets paid for his photographs doesn’t he. Yes of course he gets paid but a photographer is someone who gets his feet dirty out there in the field. He is not a wheeler-dealer in pin-strips selling images in sanitized boardrooms.  At least that’s not what most of us  signed up for. This is why I think Photo Stock agencies are a bane to photography and photographers. But alas, they are here to stay.

 I also used to give my images to a well-known stock agency in India. It definitely felt nice to get a cheque at the end of the year. But the agency was a bit surprised when I asked information about where the pictures were used and if they can get me a copy of the magazine or at least a scan. They were polite but their puzzled reaction seemed to say, ‘’You are getting   the cheque aren’t you. So why do you even bother’’ ?  I felt more like a shopkeeper than a photographer.  And that’s exactly what stock agencies think of you.  For them you are not a photographer but a shopkeeper with lots of saleable images on your shelves.

The problem is  not with the stock agencies themselves but with how the media and other creative organizations value photographs.  The old- timers recant nostalgically how a magazine would send them on assignments for months on end, half way across the world. Their photographs would have the photographer’s perspective, which the magazines valued.  Today not only do the magazines not have the budgets but they don’t give a damn for the photographer’s perspective. Most editors, as I wrote in a previous post,  are anyway visually illiterate, and they are the last to make a fuss about where the pictures are coming from.

 As a consequence, what we see today in the media are a collage of photographs posing as photo-features. Each photograph shot by different photographers and sourced through different agencies.

Time magazines bought these photos from Micro-stock sites for less than 100USD. The photographers reportedly got less than 30 USD for the pictures.

Micro stock or Micro payment Agencies – Agencies no  Photographer Should Touch.

Stock Agencies as I mentioned above fulfill a market need.  They cannot be wished away. And its true there are stock agencies that are ethical and treat the photographers with respect. (which quite simply means they give you a fair price for your images). But there are some stock agencies that all self-respecting photographers should  abhor.

These are the micro stock or micro payment photography agencies.

Unfortunately most media organizations and design studios are subscribed to the micro stock agencies.  And why not. ?  Micro stock agencies sell images dirt cheap.  They take royalty free images off the photographers and sell them to buyers for as low as 20 cents to a dollar .

Royalty free (as against Royalty Managed images) essentially means you have forfeited the copyright to your images. So the micro stock agency can use your images as many times as it wishes paying you pennies along the way.

You may even find your image on the cover of a prominent magazine but all you may get could be less than 30 cents  rather than a few thousand dollars you actually deserve. Your image would have to be used a thousand times at thousand different places for you to make something like 500 -1000 dollars.

As someone put  it,  micro stock agencies sell your photos for peanuts and give you the shells.

Riding on the Gullibility  of Amateurs and the Vanity of the Hobbyists.

This is enough to leave any photographer cold in shock. But the micro stock agencies couldn’t care less.  They survive on the naivety of amateurs and the vanity of hobby photographers. Amateurs and Hobbyist are a huge growing breed in photography. I think they both churn out more photographs in a year than the professionals ever can hope to.  Micro stock agencies know this. Their stock is fed mostly by  this growing army of amateurs and hobbyists.

The amateurs are hardly aware of how images are priced. They are desperate to get their images used somewhere, anywhere . The micro-stock agencies exploit this. The take the Royalty Free images from them and sell them for as good as free.

The hobbyists meanwhile are just tickled by the fact that some agency has shown interest in their photos. And when their images are used anywhere, what it does to their vanity is all that they care for. They have their jobs. Why would they bother   how much their images got them?.

Micro stock agencies not only damage photography but also brings a new low to institutions and organizations who buy their images. For example in the  advertising world one single picture could be used to sell a luxury car, a pharmaceutical drug, a jeweler set and a   sanitary napkin.

But then in the end it’s our choices that define us. What we do with our images is of course up to us.  But our choices  will also certainly shape  photography and what we do with it in  the long run.

(Because I am against photo stock agencies as a principle,  it   won’t make sense for me to mention the few ethical ones  out there. As a rule one  should avoid all agencies that take Royalty Free images. I am naming some prominent agencies that one should not touch with a barge pole. They  are : 123rf, areaimage, bigstockphoto, canstockphoto, crestock, cutcaster, dreamstime, fotolia, gimmestock, istockphoto, luckyoliver, scandinavianstockphoto, shuttermap, shutterpoint, shutterstock, snapvillage, stockphotomedia, stockxpert, usphotostock.)

Below one  example of how  the Micro-Stock Agencies work. The  same image is used by different companies to sell different things. 


16 Responses to “Photo Stock Agencies- The Bane of Photography.”

  1. Andrew John says:

    “Riding on the Gullibility of Amateurs and Vanity of the Hobbyist.” – i applaud that Sanjay Austa!!

  2. Manjunath Shenoy says:

    An eye opener. I belong to one of the breed that you mention in the article, and now that I have read this article, I can see it from the other side.

  3. Great Article.
    I was asked to shoot Shimla recently, by some magazine and my work would be to shoot colleges, schools, eating joints and almost everything in town. When I asked for the budget, the guy replied with confidence, “It’s 5000 Rs. Sir”
    I didn’t even reply to the email.

    Can you imagine how much they value photographers ? I am sure he must have got the work done in just 5000 rs though some amateur photographer.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Himanshu. However the article is not about how much photographers get paid for assignments. Its about them not getting any assignment because of the stock agencies. The price is relative. Some people have a small budget and its not their fault. But I think if they are prepared to give you the job it should be welcome. You can of course not do it if thats not your price. Regards.

  4. justin Rabindra says:

    Illuminating article Sanjay. Thanks

  5. Rajarshi Bhaumick says:

    Very informative Sanjay, I fall into the hobbyist category and was considering dabbling in stock photography. Your article gives me an alternative perspective. Was looking at stock agencies purely from the angle of a means of an amateur earning some money as the amateur is not in a position to get assignments. Would request you to write on how an amateur could take first steps into going professional. I’m sure it would help many who tune into your blog

  6. Dinesh Khanna says:

    Excellent article, Sanjay . . Stock agencies have led to the ‘McDonaldisation’ of photography . . The need for sameness and standardisation. This effectively kills the urge to visualise for the Art Director and the desire to look for creative solutions for the Photographer. A business model whose profitability is based on the same photo being usable a dozen, if not a hundred, times can only work if it kills creativity and produces the lowest common denominator kind of images.

  7. Rohit Gautam says:

    Very well written piece that describe the collected feelings of the Photographer’s pain.

  8. Vivek Chandrashekaran says:

    Great article – should be required reading.

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