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Wednesday, 27 January 2010


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I wonder if the iStockphoto agreement allows use of the image for a framed print of Time covers.

Having been in Harlan Ellison's shoes, I agree with him 100%.

"And, really, why should TIME pay any more than it has to? Does Warren Buffet pay any more for toilet paper than anybody else does, just because he can?"

Well said, bravo.

It's no wonder Harlan Ellison has health problems. As a matter of fact, I'm astounded he's lasted as long as he has, given that he is always it a total frenzy of a fury about *everything*. It must be a hard life.

Much obliged Mr. Ellison for risking *your* carotid artery. I'll link to this video next time I feel my collar tightening up.
So where do I send the cheque? And can we work out terms on multi-usage?

Utterly pathetic, complacent nonsense. If these are your true thoughts about Microstock and the value it places on all kinds of photography, then this is end for TOP and me, and I hope many others will feel the same way.
Quite simply, when the accountants who undoubtedly run Time/Life discover they have only paid $31.50 for that cover, it's only a matter of time until they fix the payment for any cover at around $30.00. Multiply this by tens of thousands of publications and picture-buyers around the world and it's very easy to see why the profession of photography is under severe threat. When it's possible to "buy" the use of an image for as little as 40c, the perceived value of any photographic image can only go in one direction.
And we can't all take refuge in earning a living by selling other peoples' work off a blog.

Dear Mr. Johnston,

The going rate for acting as a frustrated writer's alter ego is five-hundred a pop.

Everyone else may be an a**hole, but I'm not.

Harlan Ellison

Back in film days when I was working at a day job (pre-retirement) I was approached by the Smithsonian for some B&W photos to use in a brochure they were going to use in promoting a program. I sent them some photos I thought they might use but they wanted some specific subject matter and asked if I would shoot the photos and get them to them in 7-10 days in return for which they would give me a credit on the back of the brochure. They wanted me to take a week off my regular job, drive several hundred miles to shoot the photos, develop & print the photos, send them off by priority mail for a photo credit! Guess what my answer was. I wasn't much more polite than the video.

The thing that initially annoyed me was the ratio: 31.50 for the photographer, 93.50 for the agency. Seems unbalanced.

As far as stock photo agencies go, I'm always afraid, ala Ellison, that selling photos so cheaply cheapens the perceived value of photography, and that there is, in this at least, a real trickle-down effect. Living at the bottom of the food chain (a small "fine art" photographer), I struggle to make sales (could be a full stop here) at a price that even covers my costs, let alone makes a profit (this looks to me, in part, like the same economics that killed main street in favor of the big box stores in malls). There seems to be an attitude, even among the committed art buying public, that photography is somehow less intrinsically valuable than other forms of art, and should sell for less. A struggle photography has had from its inception, I think: legitimizing itself. I don't know if the stock photo business encourages this attitude, but it can't help.

As far as micropayments are concerned, I don't think I understand their subtleties, but as Jason indicates in a post in the "iTunes" thread below, Apples' iTunes and Apps Store does seem to show it can work (at least for now, don't know what will happen long term). But it must rely on huge economies of scale. As such, I'm not sure it can stand much competition. Apple gets away with it right now because there doesn't seem to be anybody out there to really compete yet. When you are trying to survive on millions of sales, you can't slice the pie too thinly.

Harlan Ellison is about the same age as my Mum, but she doesn't use language like that! Age has not mellowed him. He is quite right in what he says, whether you like his choice of words or not.

So why the same video clip twice? Are you hoping to be in the forefront of the still 3D photo revival?

Watch out Mike, Harlan may burn your house down if he finds out you are linking his material without paying him.

"when the accountants who undoubtedly run Time/Life discover they have only paid $31.50 for that cover, it's only a matter of time until they fix the payment for any cover at around $30.00. Multiply this by tens of thousands of publications and picture-buyers around the world and it's very easy to see why the profession of photography is under severe threat"

First, it *is* pretty shocking that TIME magazine, no less, would run a cheap microstock picture as a cover. No question about that.

Second, I'm as sorry as anyone for the decline of stable markets in print. (Heck, I still miss LIFE, and from time to time wonder if there's not some way that we, as a society, can't bring it back--maybe on the same footing as public broadcasting.) However, if you'd read as much photo history as I have, you'd realize that photographers have been saying almost exactly what you just said for *almost* the entire history of the medium. There have always been professionals bemoaning the incursion of amateurs and complaining bitterly about cut-price competition. I'm not saying you're wrong to do so, but seriously, I'll bet I could find statements from the late 1800s that would make what you just said sound like an echo.

Third, have a thought for the painters of miniature portraits (for lockets and so forth)--a prosperous and highly skilled business before the 1840s. Those guys were put out of business by competition from...daguerreotypists.

Oh, and there's nothing *I* can do about it, so insulting me doesn't help. I'm on the same side as photographers.


I worked at a small stock photo agency about 20 years ago, and what I learned from that job was that having the image the client wanted was more important than having a spectacular image.

In this case, the agency specialized in wildlife photos, primarily for editorial use. I saw many, many mundane images of foxes and monkeys and insects and the like sell for $500 or $1000 while spectacular images of the same creatures languished unsold. The difference was that the client wanted "an adolescent gray fox digging a hole" or "a squirrel monkey in the wild eating a mango," and not "the most spectacular fox/monkey picture you have."

Last year I sold an image of some wet mint leaves twice, without even trying, for advertising. It was shot hand-held, in my back yard, with a Lumix LX2 compact. But in both cases it was just what the client wanted (vivid, evenly-lit, fresh looking green leaves with no distractions).

Even then, I wondered why the clients didn't just take a camera to a garden center and shoot it themselves. Thank goodness for ad agency bureaucracy!

I think you're right--I have very limited experience with it, but one big vivid experience. I worked briefly as an assistant for a studio advertising pro. He had arrangements with five stock houses around the world, and he would do shoots during "down" times for stock. But he would first canvas all his stock houses and ask them what they were most in need of. During the time I was with him, which was around 1989,* what the stock companies said they needed were "office scenes showing unidentifiable people around computer screens that show the computers clearly." So the boss got eight or ten empty computer boxes, made lithos that looked like live screens (black screens with green characters), and mounted a flash head inside each box. Then we built a generic office set and hired a bunch of models. For three days we ran film as fast as the lights would recharge. He ended up divvying up 1800 transparencies between the 5 stock agencies. That was the only stock shoot I was there for, but he did the same thing on a regular basis--three-day shoots maybe three times a year, shooting whatever the agencies needed. Put his kids through college on stock earnings, even though it was still a relatively minor aspect of his business. But what I remember is how specific the stock houses' request was.


*The only reason I could date that with any certainty--I have a lousy memory for contemporary dates--is that next door there was a sound stage for a TV show called "A Man Called Hawk." (It was a spinoff of "Spenser for Hire" and it lasted only one season.) One evening after the crews left we snuck over there with the boss and he critiqued the sets as being stuff he could never get away with with stills--lots of it seemed like it was built with styrofoam and fomecore. The sets were surprisingly crude. HD is going to create a nice bit of extra work for set builders, that's for sure.

"...it's only a matter of time until they fix the payment for any cover at around $30.00."

The issue you're dealing with is simply basic supply and demand. If the images Time wants are in high supply and low demand, the price is going to be commensurately low. The magazine should ALWAYS as a business get what it needs for the lowest price it can find. In this case, since it decided that a microstock photo would suffice, it got it for a low price. They are under no obligation to pay more for something that's easily had.

So it's not Time choosing to fix it's cover price. If it were that simple, it would fix it at even less than $30 and be done with it. Instead it's what they are willing to pay given what they need and the market pressures involved. The value of a good is based purely on what people (or companies) are willing to pay - there is no inherent monetary value to a photo that Time is somehow getting around.

I've seen the same argument in reverse when photographers chastise each other for "selling too low". There's a slight bit of validity in this if the low price is simply due to inexperience or ignorance. But I've seen experienced photographers with a business plan in mind still be chastised. They are simply playing the same game as Time is, trying to find their place on the supply/demand curve.

The price is always going to be supply and demand based, and just imagining that magazine should pay more, or photographers should charge more, ignores the reality of the increasing supply and decreasing demand for the product.

David B.,
All true, but isn't there some sense that a prestigious magazine should use prestigious original photography for its cover? I have to say I had noticed the decline in quality of Time covers long before these posts. The "New Frugality" cover is not up to standard in my view, just as a cover, never mind how they got it or what they paid.


I'm surprised we're still having this discussion regarding microstock images. I thought this was all done and dusted 2 or 3 years ago. This isn't the first microstock image that Time has used as a cover. Off the top of my head, I can think of a very famous album cover and a multinational vehicle manufacturer who have used microstock as there images.

As you say Mike, it's a very simple image to make and with the advent of digital photography, it's an unfortunate truth that 90% of people with a camera could shoot that cover.

It would seem that stock photography business has morphed into something similar to the music business. If you are lucky enough to get a "hit" that sells and continues to sell then that is your good fortune. I for one have an image that I shot as part of a photo school assignment that is currently bringing in approximately US$100 per month. Without the advent of microstock, would I have had the chance of selling that image? Very unlikely.

David Paterson, above, complains that "perceived value of any photographic image can only go in one direction". This, I think is overstating it. Let's not confuse microstock photography with fine art photography.

"...a prestigious magazine should use prestigious original photography for its cover?"
Well yeah, but that's a separate issue to some extent. If Time doesn't think their sales -short or long term - are going to be hurt by going cheap on covers, then that's what they'll do.

Mike, I think you should buy the image and do a "Coins in a Jar" poster sale for 25% less then what Time is selling them for.

"WARNING: some spicy workplace- and school-unfriendly language in this"

Did you consider how some of the ads on the left side deserve the same warning?

I love your blog but my day job even more.

Firstly, some posters seem to equate all images equally. You may as well equate all writing equally, whether it's a novel or a blog post. Some images are worth $30. Some images are worth $30,000. I bet I could tell the difference and I bet the editor of Time could as well. If he or she wants a decent portrait of Vladimir Putin, they won't find one on a microstock site for $30.

Supply and demand affects every industry and photography is one of the most sensitive to technology, geopolitics, the economy and fashion. It's adapted and will do so again but sometimes there's a change of personalities as the ostriches get overtaken.

Take a close look at Apple's iPad, think what effect such devices may have on the long term future of newspapers and paper magazines and think what effect that may have on stills photography in photojournalism and advertising.

You may not like the conclusion but IMO a lot of people are going to have to offer video as well as stills to generate the same turnover and a lot of new college graduates have both.

Dear folks,

Several thoughts occur to me, some trivial, some not. Trivial ones:

If iStockphoto's top rate is really $125, then they are run by idiots. If that is their top rate, and if Robert really only got $31 in change (and there were no other intermediaries involved), then they are venal greedy scum.

Note that there are a large number of unsubstantiated "ifs" in that paragraph. One hopes they are not all substantiated, because it is very difficult for any industry to survive if its policy is being dictated by venal, greedy, scummy idiots.

That's the trivial; here is the nontrivial: perhaps I missed it in the lengthy discussion, but little attention seems to be paid to a very important aspect of the traditional stock industry. The worth of the stock photograph lies in how it is used. It's not about how skilled the photographer is, it's not about how long it took them to make the photograph (the notion that a photographer should be treated as little more than an hourly wage owner is repugnant beyond comment), it's not how much they need to live on. It's about how useful the photograph is for the client.

That's why traditional stock pricing guides had tables of rates that scaled with increasing distribution and prominence. Cover usage commanded higher prices than interiors, national commanded higher prices than regional, and a magazine with a circulation of 1 million readers would pay substantially more than, say, Mike's "37th Frame" for a cover photo. The price was supposed to be related to the value the client received. It made sense from both sides. Small clients got access to photographs they could never afford if everyone were charged the same rates, and photographers/agencies saw more of their photographs used more often for payment levels they could afford to live with.

Comparisons with toilet paper are erroneous and inappropriate; I presume (I don't really want to know) that Warren Buffett gets more or less the same utility and value from his toilet paper that I get from mine. Photographs (in fact any kind of creative content) doesn't work that way.

Micro stock and pennystock's a profound change in the assumption that the creator's compensation should in some vague way be commensurate with what the user gets out of it.

The fallout from that change is deep, far-reaching, and incredibly hard to predict. Except in one respect: it benefits the fat cats more than anybody else, and on that grounds alone I find it disturbing and disquieting, because they are the people who least need more benefits and perks handed to them on a silver platter.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear JR,

You're kidding, right?

"Some ads..."

I see only one you could be talking about, and all it shows is a smiling woman's face. Oh yeah, it has the word "nudes."

Ooh, scary.

If that one word, which is in no way offensive, makes the page workplace hostile, the problem I see is with your workplace.

I don't hold nudie sites in high regard, but the idea that Mike should be forced to cater to the very lowest and most Puritan denominator is absurd and obnoxious. I'll take a zillion nudie sites over a super-sanitized world, any day.

pax / Ctein

ctein said: "Micro stock and pennystock's a profound change in the assumption that the creator's compensation should in some vague way be commensurate with what the user gets out of it."

It's not really microstock that did that. In most other industries, that is the norm. If you sell a hammer, the price is the same regardless of whether it is used by an hobbyist or to build a 1M$ mansion with 50% profit. Ditto software, most bespoke software is bought "by the hour", not by eventual value. So this is just a common business practice entering photography, not some freak thing happening only to photogs.

I have been a contributor to istockphoto for four years and I have no problem with Time Magazine using an istock photo on their cover. When a photographer decides to shoot microstock he also accepts the economics of the microstock game. Sure I have sold photos through istock that I feel are probably worth more than then the $.50 royalty i have received, but on the flip side I have a snapsot of a roller coaster that has earned me over $1400. The goal of the microstock photographer is to produce the most sale-able images for the least amount expense and effort. The business model works great for the stock company and works fairly well for the photographer. I started out at istock a complete amateur with no formal training, and now four years later I am making enough each month on istock to pay a rather large car payment or half the mortgage. That's seems like a fair deal to me considering I spend only 10-15 hours per week working building my istock portfolio.

Dear HMI,

I didn't say it wasn't a common practice with goods. I said it's not the way independently created content's usually been sold, even today. I don't care about hammers , mansions or toilet paper; they are not germane.

It's definitely new to photo stock. And it's a big change.

pax / Ctein

May I nominate a new culprit here? School system! ;-) Only school system could be responsible for generating adults oblivious to Econ 101 in its basic form: (over)supply and demand.

Photos are "a dime a dozen" today (literally). So easily and quickly created, at the rate of 10 per second, so easily distributed: five thousand pictures per minute, every minute, uploaded to Flickr only. Marginal cost of an image is rapidly approaching zero. Never before in history so many people are able to create so many (great) photographs and distribute them to so many users with so little (marginal) cost so quickly. Never before in history so many amateurs are able to do so... amateurs, which by definition have the first two steps in the Maslow's hierarchy of needs already fulfilled (in another profession), and are now moving toward the pyramid's top (i.e., esteem and self-actualization...or what some people call "vanity and dreams").

The rest is just grumpy old men bitching that the world is not the same as when they were young.

A grumpy old man

I think Ctein's got it exactly right and the point "HMi" makes, rather than being a justification of the practice, is an explanation of the problem: Creative works like photographs are now being treated like commodity products such as hammers.

I absolutely loved that clip with Harlan Ellison!!!

Isn't that a hoot? Too good to miss. Although I agree I'm now susceptible to having my house burned down, because I didn't pay anything for that clip. (Wild wild web and all that.)


Listen, it's simple: if you don't want to be ripped off as a photographer, don't contribute to microstock. If nobody sends in the pictures, there's no microstock. Stop fueling the system you hate, if you hate it, or don't complain.

Photographers -through microstock- are responsible for their own decline in rates.

Full disclaimer: this comes from a long time photographer and photo-editor. I have seen both sides. If you can't create value added for your photos, you probably deserve lower rates. Or in other words: if your photos are generic enough to be appreciated as microstock, you make generic photos. Period.

The digital age has transformed the distribution of information. You can complain about it all you want. So can the music companies and musicians, and filmmakers and movie studios, for that matter. But it will not change the reality of the situation.

Your choice here is to beat them -- up your game and create better material that clients would be willing to pay more for -- or join them.

Mike, I know I'm late to the party, but I think as a sort of counterpoint to this controversy, you should consider paying the $125 and using this image as the link to the Tip Jar on your site.

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