The Hidden Cost of Stock Photography

I just got back from 3 weeks in Shanghai where I had a few beers with my old mate Danny. He’s ECD of global brands for a big multi-national agency.

It’s the opposite end of the industry to my freelance gigs.

In spite of this, our business philosophies and the work we appreciate, share more similarities than differences.

We hadn’t met for 4 years so the conversation was freeform and wide-ranging.

Until it turned to how the rise of stock photography has made things tough for photographers.

Which led to some other interesting thoughts on the subject and here’s the gist of them.

Before the Internet, stock photography was a drawn-out process.

You’d give your specs to someone at a stock-house and they would manually search and cross-index tens of thousands of images.

Days, or sometimes even weeks later if the image was somewhat obscure, an envelope would arrive with a print and a negative.

God help you if you lost the negative.

You were looking at a hefty surcharge of many times the image rights.

Now of course there’s no waiting.

You download your image with a couple of clicks.

It’s fast and inexpensive - but there’s a hidden cost.

You have to find the image first.

Shutterstock is the stock site I use most.

The first time I used it, it had around 6 million images.

Today it has over 19 million.

Simple math suggests it takes three times longer to find what you’re looking for now, than it did then.

So now the process is drawn-out in a different way.

Now the consumer does the work.

So the real cost of the convenience is hidden in a huge transference of labour.

Because anyone who’s spent any time searching for stock photography will tell you it’s extremely time consuming.

Especially if you’re trying to use stock photography originally, which means using it in a way where it doesn’t look like stock.

Because then, you can’t simply look at categories you need to think across them.

And often it’s hard to believe how long it takes to find a shot.

Let alone bill clients the actual hours involved, whether you’re a freelancer or a multi-national.

Of course stock houses are aware of this and continually trying to improve the user’s search experience.

But they need to get a move on.

The point when it becomes more cost effective to shoot an image is hard to call.

A lot depends on what you’re shooting.

But every image that’s added to the database brings the tipping point closer.

And if it does tip, I imagine there will be a lot more happy art directors.

Not to mention photographers.