Cheap Photo Sites Pit Amateurs vs. Pros

Graphic design and photography pros are scrambling to stay viable as barriers to entry fall and stock agencies buy from hobbyists
The line separating professionals from dabblers blurred a little more on July 8, when leading stock photo agency Getty Images partnered with photo-sharing site Flickr to bring select Flickr users into the Getty collection. GETTY IMAGES

As barriers to the design and photography industries fall, the professionals are getting nervous. Independent graphic designers and commercial photographers, as well as small companies within the industry, feel threatened by a flood of low-cost images, often produced by amateurs, available online. So-called microstock Web sites offer to sell photos submitted by users for as little as $1 an image. Other sites let buyers post open calls for designs and pay for only the submission they like best, a practice that riles graphic designers who say it amounts to working for free.

Affordable digital cameras and desktop design software unlocked the tools of these trades, but the dilemma isn't unique to visual professionals. In any industry where technology has enabled passionate amateurs to try their hands, businesses face new competitors who may not be motivated by profit (, 6/6/07). The line separating professionals from dabblers blurred a little more on July 8, when leading stock photo agency Getty Images partnered with photo-sharing site Flickr (YHOO) to bring select Flickr users into the Getty collection. The move comes two years after Getty acquired iStockphoto, a microstock site that sells royalty-free photos uploaded by users. (Disclosure: BusinessWeek uses Getty and other stock agencies for its Web site and magazine.)

Small Companies Still Dominate

The rap against microstock sites is that they reduce photos to low-cost commodities. "People gravitate toward the lowest common denominator, and a lot of the time that has to do with price," says Martin Trailer, president of the Advertising Photographers of America, a trade group. Designers, meanwhile, direct their ire at crowdsourcing (BusinessWeek, 9/25/06) sites like 99designs, crowdSPRING, and Pixish. Buyers on these sites bid out work for graphics they need, often at prices that appeal only to hobbyists. Richard Grefé, director of design association AIGA, says such services miss the point that professional design encompasses more than crafting visuals. "What you're getting is a superficial mark," he says.

Small companies still dominate graphic design and photography. Of more than 16,700 graphic design firms in the U.S. in 2006, nearly 80% had four or fewer employees, and just 24 firms had more than 100, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Likewise, 85% of commercial photography companies employed four or fewer people. Those figures don't count the thousands of self-employed designers and photographers, who the government doesn't track to such granular levels.

So how much do the new Web offerings really hurt these pros? Defenders argue they've created a new market at a lower price range for customers who never would have paid the fees professional designers or traditional photo agencies charge. "The great thing that we see in the emergence of microstock is that it's significantly expanding the pool of people paying for imagery," says Getty Chief Operating Officer Nick Evans-Lombe.


That hasn't dampened the backlash any. Ask Derek Powazek, a designer, photographer, and CEO of Pixish, a San Francisco-based company that lets anyone submit photos or illustrations online in response to open calls for work. Powazek says that within days of the site's launch in February, posters on blogs and forums said Pixish would "destroy the design industry." He has little sympathy for his critics: "If a three-day-old site can destroy the graphic design industry, then it deserves to be destroyed," he says. But to placate them, he posted an extended response on the site and banned logo designs from the permitted assignments.

Powazek argues that the people posting jobs on his site, who generally offer rewards of $100 or less, aren't the same customers that use graphic design shops. Sites like Pixish give talented hobbyists ways to build their portfolios and get exposure, he adds. Professionals scapegoat microstock sites and crowdsourced design services instead of examining why their own businesses are struggling, Powazek contends. "This isn't Flickr's fault. It's yours," he adds.

But what should photographers and graphic designers do? They need to target that part of the market that isn't looking for the lowest price, experts say, because budget Web sites have already won those customers. "Designers as a profession should be moving up the value chain," says the design association's Grefé. "What designers need to do is to explain that inherent in most design is the branding and the essence of the company."

Persistence Required

As the burden shifts to professionals to explain the value of their work, that may put some creative types out of their comfort zones (, 2/06/08), Grefé says. "They have to reposition themselves in their promotional material. They have to get out and talk to small and medium size businesses. They've got to be in front of the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis," he says.

Photographers likewise should develop relationships with clients more interested in quality than price, say industry players on both sides of the debate. One company positioning itself as a photographer-friendly alternative to microstock sites is PhotoShelter.

The New York startup, founded in 2005, won't let photographers list their images for sale for less than $50. "We really want to take a stand against the $1 image," says PhotoShelter CEO Allen Murabayashi.

The company is targeting image buyers like ad agencies, design firms, and publications�the part of the market that belongs to traditional stock agencies rather than microstock sites. It offers photographers 70% of sales, compared with the 20% to 30% Getty offers. But it's not yet clear whether PhotoShelter will become a viable avenue for photographers. San Francisco freelancer Lane Hartwell said she never made a sale on PhotoShelter, nor had any colleagues she knew of.

Ultimately, creative professionals need to communicate the value they create for clients so they can differentiate themselves from commodity-priced images. Dan Heller, an independent photographer in Marin County, Calif., and author of Profitable Photography in Digital Age, says beginning photographers should expect to spend four years creating an online presence, networking, and building their own brands before they turn a profit. It takes persistence and business sense as much as talent, he says. "Selling yourself is not selling your photos," Heller says. "You can't say, 'My images are worth a premium,' but you can say, 'I am worth a premium.' "

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