Sliver of Redemption? The Virtual Stock Photo Agency

I haven’t shot an image for stock photography in nearly 5 years. And I don’t plan on doing it any time soon. That sentiment governs how I’ve felt about that part of the industry for some time now.

That’s not to say there’s not some money to be made – after all, I still collect checks from old work and outtakes that would be rotting on my server – however I decided long ago not to further participate in the commodification-of-the-image race down to $1, or even Free (type that word in the search bar next to ya for more on that topic…). It’s a personal choice, a creative decision and a business decision–I’m not criticizing it as a still-viable-opportunity in the marketplace.

BUT, having said all that, here’s a little chuck of redemption: Renowned nature photographer, Art Wolfe, sent me a note yesterday…[click the ‘continue reading’ link below…]

…about a model they’ve pulled together over at Photoshelter where photographers are able to create their own virtual agency by pooling their collections. Imagine: Art Wolfe + Tom Mangelsen + David Doubilet. From Art’s piece in the most recent Outdoor Photographer Magazine:

“…PhotoShelter allows photographers to band together in a virtual agency, where the collections from two or more photographers become searchable under a virtual agency name. The images are still controlled by each individual photographer, and each sets his or her own licensing terms. The agency isn’t managed. It’s essentially a search pool, a way to make it easy for buyers to find what they need. If a client desires an image, the sale goes to that photographer…”

I like this idea. It further democratizes the space for photographers and gives them another opportunity to connect against the bigger players. Kudos to Photoshelter once again.

For the first time in years, I can actually see a handful of hot action photographers getting together, a handful of top celeb shooters getting together, or a handful of badass architectural shooters getting together–whomever–and creating their own little corner of the universe that actually takes a little bite out of the bigger marketplace. While this concept is not revolutionary, or even new, it’s remarkable that the technological infrastructure is no longer a barrier. It’s been reduced so low you could trip over it.

While it’s still not for me, this seems like some sort of redemption in the bigger scheme of plummeting options for those photographers seeking to license and develop their business around getting stock images direct to buyers.

Check out more of the discussion at Outdoor Photographer magazine.

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24 Responses to Sliver of Redemption? The Virtual Stock Photo Agency

  1. Anonymous July 15, 2009 at 10:12 am #

    For sure, the stock photography is killing the profession. Even in Europe, they try to sell pictures from one country to another because the rules and laws are different, and also the salary. Even the big company ,owner of several magazines, try to build they own image bank! they give you almost nothing for your images. Some chief editor and photographers doesn't understand that it's really not going to work on a long term!

  2. Anonymous July 15, 2009 at 10:47 am #

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

    After the debacle last year with Photoshelter's first foray into the world of stock photography, where hundreds of photographers (including me) uploaded, tagged, and key-worded thousands of photos, all on the promise that Photoshelter would rewrite stock photography history, only to have them pull the plug after just a few short months, I don't think I'll ever have anything to do with any company named Photoshelter ever again. Too much time, energy, and sweat wasted on them once is enough. I'll sit this one out.

  3. Chase Jarvis July 15, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    @ anon #2: as much as i love the photoshelter guys, you make a good point. part of that is why i steer clear of the industry. volatile. bumpy. you can make some money, but isn't there a better way?

    i'm guessing the the people who might invest in this new model are already heavily invested in scan/keyword/etc nightmare…er I mean, endeavor…

    but again, your point is well taken, and in part understands my personal position.

  4. Zak.Shelhamer July 15, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    and that right there is why you are one of the best commercial photogs in the world.

  5. Stewart July 15, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    I have to admit, that after having taken the plunge with Photoshelter after your previous rave about them and gone through the rigmarole of key-wording, organising etc. I got an email the very day after I had finished sorting everything out letting me know that they were shutting the service.

    How impressed with that was I?!

    To see that they now want over $500 dollars for me to start again with some new revolutionary idea….

    No – I think I'll wait and see how it pans out. Not that it is really my thing, like yourself, but I'm always interested in new opportunities as you never really know what the future holds – But once bitten…

    Sure I may be missing out on the beginning of something really cool. But their track record does not leave me inspired to part with yet more money and more importantly, my time.

  6. Josie Cavazos July 15, 2009 at 11:38 am #

    I agree with you Chase. I had this very discussion with my husband a while back, but in regards to web applications and software development(both his hobbies and means of income.) He pointed out that the stock world takes away from the amount of talent out there just to save a buck. Very troubling, indeed.

  7. Stephen July 15, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    Photoshelter is definitely interesting and in a way, similar (on a smaller scale) to what we at silverorange have been doing with

    This is not intended to be a promotion but so many of us have personal private photo galleries with no intention of being directly in the stock market. Even still, we still receive emails from potential buyers looking to buy that photo they found on Flickr.

    I'm sure Photoshelter can be used in a similar way because it's not a terrible option to allow for the sale of these photos without jumping through the hoops or requirements a traditional stock agency would require.

    Chase: Using your iphone photos as an example. It's not part of the business but I can only assume you would license a photo if someone was interested.

  8. Jan Scherders July 15, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    "however I decided long ago not to further participate in the commodification-of-the-image race down to $1….". Here in Holland I see a lot of commercial photographers working on assignments I would call real commodity work and I see editorial photographers shooting pictorials for a few hundred dollars. I chose for stock to have my freedom, to be able to do my own thing and to be able to shoot the images I love to shoot. And yes, there are also all sort of business models and I think especially Rights-Managed is not a commoditized business model. If you have not a Chase Jarvis brand I doubt the creative freedom of the assignment photographer. Sorry Chase, it reads a bit like the stock shooters are commodity shooters, destroying the photography business and working only for the money without any passion.
    I guess I feel a bit personally offended

  9. Jim Martin July 15, 2009 at 7:05 pm #

    Full Disclosure: I oversee Art's business. I agree with the skeptics that the future of stock is uncertain and we can't know if Photoshelter will go the way of Digital Railroad. We contend that if you keep a copy of your keyworded archive, you could be up and running in a day or two elsewhere if Photoshelter went south, with nothing more than some code and an email blast to put you right. No risk there. You are responsible for driving your own traffic, though, which requires commitment far beyond simply submitting to an agency. We think that banding together with peers and marketing in concert gives us a shot at squeezing some income from stock. If you are a "me too" shooter, you have no chance. This is my opinion and not necessarily Art's.
    Jim Martin

  10. COLE July 15, 2009 at 8:39 pm #

    "It's not the kind of work I want to create." "It's a personal choice, a creative decision."

    Those words right there made me really realize something.


  11. Fotografi July 15, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    Photoshelter has nice prices and allow photographers to stay togheter in virtal agency, something is changing now, the big player have to rethink their strategies while the little ones are emerging.

  12. Adam July 15, 2009 at 11:56 pm #

    Good food for thought Chase thanks. Just wanted to say Art Wolfe rocks in a super cool way…almost as much as you. Or maybe more, not sure. bress.

  13. Matt Lange July 16, 2009 at 6:36 am #

    The idea of shooting stock has been on my mind a lot lately. Needless to say, this both helped/didn't help things…


  14. Grover Sanschagrin July 16, 2009 at 9:40 am #

    As a Founder of PhotoShelter, I can certainly understand feelings of frustration regarding the closure of the PhotoShelter Collection. I don't think anyone felt as frustrated as I did when we made the announcement.

    However, it was also the smartest business decision I've ever been part of, and I am glad our business team had the guts to do it. It saved the company.

    The PhotoShelter Collection came after (not before) the Personal Archive. Photographers kept telling us they wanted a new stock photography marketplace solution – one that favored photographers, and we responded by creating the Collection.

    It was free to join and use, photographers got 70% of the sale, and we hired a massive staff to edit, market, and sell the images submitted. Our heart was (and still is) in the right place – trying to help photographers.

    In terms of business, it was a costly venture – and closing the Collection may have been unpopular at the time, but the thousands of people who depend on us to run their online businesses and keep their archives safe were first in our mind.

    It would have been totally irresponsible if we allowed the Collection to cause the entire company to go bankrupt, taking millions of privately archived images along with it.

    The Internet is just not a place where middleman economics can succeed, and the PhotoShelter Collection, just like the large stock photo houses, assumed the role of middleman.

    The Personal Archive is not in the middleman game because it's a tool for individual photographers. As Internet search technology (Google, Yahoo, Bing, and social media network recommendations) gets better and better, the need for middlemen decreases while the need for Internet-savvy tools increases.

    In the year since we closed the Collection, we've embraced this idea and focused exclusively on continuing to develop PhotoShelter as a rich Internet-savvy tool.

    I am intensely proud of the product we have today, where we are headed, and how we are growing — all because we were able to make some tough decisions in the past.

    As upset and disappointed as people may be regarding the fate of the PhotoShelter Collection, would it have been better if we just kept on spending money to maintain it, and asking photographers to spend their time and energy to submit images, until we suddenly ran out of cash and just shut down the servers and went home?

    Of course not. This was not an option for us. We're in this for the long term and not for the quick buck.

  15. Andy Ptak July 16, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Regarding the closing of the Photoshelter Collection thread that's going on here.

    Stop whining! These guys gave it a good shot, were photographer friendly and didn't screw people like Digital Railroad did when they closed.

    If all you lost was the time you invested in editing and keywording, you should have done that for your work anyway, submitting to Photoshelter or not.

    If you're afraid of dealing with someone in case something goes wrong, then there's no reason to get up in the morning – because something will always go wrong, somewhere, sometime.

  16. Car Blog July 17, 2009 at 5:43 am #

    I quite agree with what you have said, All this does happen but we have to take it in our stride.

  17. Eric July 18, 2009 at 8:11 pm #

    Some good discussion here and thanks for the post Chase. Gonna go read over it again and let it all soak in.


  18. Anonymous July 20, 2009 at 5:55 am #

    I had experience with Photoshelter, their stock collection. Be alert while making business with them… I will never try to use again any of their services.

    All the talks about the revolution they made, all the videocasts and speaches how great that stock is, starting 'school of stock', etc. Few days later, suddenly, BANG:'sorry we're closing'! Over thousand of my prepared, uploaded, captioned stock photographs went to trash.

    What if the Photoshelter Archive is not doing so well now? The CEO will not let You know, until 5 minutes before pressing the 'POWER OFF' button. Be careful with them!

  19. Callum Winton July 20, 2009 at 6:49 pm #

    The only place I hold "stock" images is on Photographers Direct.

    They site themselves as Fair Trade Stock Photography and the way they work is more like an agency.

    You host some pics or the client asks for a specific image (which gets emailed out to the shooters).
    If you have what they want then you deal DIRECTLY with the client to arrange price, payment and release.
    Once complete you pay PD 20% for their part in getting the 2 parties together


  20. Regele IONESCU July 22, 2009 at 12:13 am #

    I see many posts complaining on keywording, re keywording, keyword archive etc. Have not you heard of EXIF, metadata, Ctrl+Shift+Alt+i(or Command+Shift+Alt+i if you are on a Mac) Photoshop shortcut for adding EXIF metadata??? Write once and use it as many times as you need.

  21. n1x0n July 25, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    Microstocks practically killed the "old school" stock agencies.

    Soon enough, /i think in 2-3 years/ these microstocks will kill the "stock game" for any serious photographer, except the few "chosen ones" who already topped the sales and ocuppied first page search results.

    For me – there's no future in stock for a seriuos photographer.
    Big agencies accumulate bilions of images and will continue to do so. They will gradually "upgrade" all their content to the higher possible quality and diversity.

    Pretty soon even most capable photographers will be lost in an immense ocean of premium imagery, sold "dime-a-piece".

    The flood of capable amateurs willing to "earn a buck and buy a new lens" from microstock sales – will totally overwhelm those professionals, who'll decide to keep microstocks in their business model.

    My advice?
    Be good. Shoot amazing stuff. Work with real clients. Sell your skills, not premade "templates" – cause that's what stock photos are.

  22. Anonymous July 27, 2009 at 4:10 am #

    check this out from John Harringtons blog,even more evidence where microstock is taking stock phootography..Time magazine buys a cover frommicro stock,photographer receives 30.00.

  23. phunkypharmer August 10, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    "I haven't shot an image for stock photography in nearly 5 years."

    i call b.s.

    i do quite a bit of freelance photo researching for a series of publications, and i am quite familiar with the work at lots of the mainstream stock agencies. photoshelter themselves contacted me sometime in late 2007 to tell me about their stock collection. i found their model to be quite interesting, and became intrigued with their efforts in trying to build a community for photographers. so i followed closely.

    i recall seeing a video of you at some photoshelter function, where you presented a slideshow of some recent "personal" projects (carjacking, ninjas, etc). many of those images looked familiar to me, and it took no time to realize why: dozens of your slideshow images were already represented by getty images.

    you're a very talented photographer, and judging by your blog and videos, you obviously like spending time on both sides of the camera. however, there is no denying that you, sir, are a closet stock shooter.

  24. phunkypharmer August 10, 2009 at 10:26 pm #

    Anonymous [#2] said…
    "I don't think I'll ever have anything to do with any company named Photoshelter ever again."

    Chase Jarvis said…
    "@ anon #2: as much as i love the photoshelter guys, you make a good point."


    this is quite amusing, because if memory serves correctly, you were quite the cheerleader for the photoshelter stock community. and photoshelter's reason for failing, according to photoshelter themselves, is because getty images is too influential to compete with. meanwhile, your images were all over the getty site, including the ones from the motivational slideshow presentation you gave at the photoshelter talk in nyc.

    ironic? to many of us, yes.

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