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May 04, 2007


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I'm not sure that there's anything particularly new there, is there? Replace "flickr" with "istockphoto" or whatever and it could have been written three years ago.

I have a feeling that the biggest threat to professional photography is shrinking budgets rather than "Web 2.0", whatever the hell that is ;-) If picture editors weren't under pressure to get stuff for next to nothing, there'd be no demand for stuff that costs next to nothing.

Couple of right old clangers in that piece, too:

"You now have to pay quite a lot to find a digital camera that will even allow the photographer to make any of the decisions once demanded for every photograph."

Um, no. The entry-level Canon Powershot has Program AE, shutter priority, aperture priority and full manual modes. It's £99.

"And the digital camera, left to itself, will get these tricky decisions right"

I find myself mildly sceptical on this point :-)

Anyway, I get the impression that the Guardian piece is mostly about newspaper photography, which I'm pretty sure has always been a lethally cut-throat world.

Seb Rogers

No, it's not new news as such. But whereas istock was always intended as a stock library, Flickr never was. It's just becoming one by default, partly because some budget-pressured picture buyers are beginning to realise that there are useful quantities of genuinely useable pics in amongst the piles of average snaps, and partly because of the fact that most people are too flattered when their picture is published to ask for a. decent terms and b. a reasonable sum of money.

Someone's written some code that enables Flickr uses to license and sell their pictures straight from the site (can't find the link at the moment - sorry). It's flawed - the licensing model is confusing, for example. But users set their own prices, and that's where the problem lies. If you're not earning a living from your photos, how on earth would you know that £10 isn't a fair rate for use on the cover of a company report (for example)?

News snappers have a particularly raw deal at the moment, it's true. The day rate for the big nationals is around £150, with minimal expenses on top. That may not sound too bad on the face of it, but you have to view it in context: it hasn't changed for over 20 years.

Anyhow, flawed as the Guardian piece is (you're absolutely right on those two points), there's no denying that there's far more 'user-generated content' out there than was the case even five years ago. Given that most of that content is hosted / printed / published by commercial organisations in one form or another, the fact that the vast majority is 'free' only increases downward pressure on budgets... which means less money in the pot to hire pros.

I believe it's called market forces :)


There's also the other side of Flickr - a couple of media organisations have been nabbed using it as a free library, just lifting pics from it and using them without permission or payment. Just because it's publicly accessible doesn't mean that it's in the public domain. Of course, the people doing the lifting know that, they're just trying it on.

I guess the message to Flickrers is to watch out for your pics showing up in places and send invoices if they do.

It's not hard to see why Flickr is popular among pic eds who are up against it in time and money, of course - all the tagging malarkey works really well to find stuff. I want a kind of Flickr Local running on my PC to keep tabs on everything...

Seb Rogers

Flickr's a victim of its own success. I'd put the message to Flickrers more bluntly: don't put your pics on the site unless you're happy with the idea of them being lifted (I wouldn't be).

I've forced a few pic-lifters to pay over the years, and it's not easy. You need to know a bit about copyright law, be assertive and professional in your approach and above all be doggedly persistent. And that's assuming you catch them in the act in the first place.

The trouble is that photography occupies a unique place in people's perceptions of reward and value. Many people simply get a kick seeing their pictures published (pros aren't immune to this, either) and regard that as sufficient reward. Unscupulous pic eds are simply exploiting both this attitude and the fact that they'll probably get away with it anyway.

Chris Ratcliff

I think we're living in exceptional times. It is now possible to take (technically at least...) good pictures and put them all in a central repository where they're captioned and tagged. It's kinda like WikiStock (hmmm, where's my venture capital money?)

In years gone by, to get an amateur photo into a weekly mag - say Cycling Weekly - would require the urge and work to be done by the amateur to get the neg or tranny to the mag offices before the deadline. That's a whole lot of worry, effort and premium cost processing to get your five minutes of fame. Who wants that hassle? Now anyone with a good camera phone can email a pic off from the roadside with no desire to get paid. It's done on the off chance. As Seb said it's easy to get far less cash from someone who doesn't know the stock value of their shot.

Within a multinational company I know, they run a staff photo competition. 13 shots are picked for the company calender (One for each month and the cover) and each 'winner' gets paid $1000US in return for a whole lotta rights. That's not a bad deal in my book! Should this be farmed out to stock shots from libraries? As an internal project, no. No-one is being exploited, but hearing the company name, any pro would demand a big price.

The danger comes when people start chasing the cash, and it ends up like You've Been Framed. I can see a big news network soon saying "If you can pictures or video of the latest natural disaster, please send them to us, and if we use them, we'll pay you £250!" What happens then? Fake credentials? Police registers of proper photogs? Crowds of people trying to get their shot for the money?

Back on the stock issue, it's an easy feature for a camera mag: "Make money with your gear!" I think I've even seen that feature... It comes down to good tagging and good keywords in any kind of public stock (or pseudostock) library. If you happen to have a popular image high in the rankings, then more views, more sales, higher in the ranking. It's the search engine luck of the draw.

I'm still trying to find a good way to put my images on line. My last attempt ( ) was an abject demonstration in how to destroy an image in the hope of it not being stolen. Not watermarked, but who'd want those? When stegography is finally a workable option, then perhaps we could have a none-tamperable watermark. Otherwise there's no way to put something into the public domain without someone trying to find a way to claim it as their own.

Seb Rogers

Hi Chris,

Some interesting thoughts, as usual.

It wasn't just the hassle of sending a pic in by snail mail in the days of film that put people off. It was also the learning curve involved in getting to that pic in the first place. Many people forget that the fundamentals of photography haven't changed with digital. The essence of a great photograph is just the same as it ever was, but those funny little screens (back of camera / computer monitor... either or both) give a great illusion of a picture having 'come out', even when technically it may be no better than the fuzzy enprint of five years ago.

What's also changed is the perception of what constitutes 'good enough' for publication. In simple terms, the bar for some uses is lower than it used to be (ironically, I find that the standard amongst most of my competitors has never been higher, but that's another story). In some cases, it's much lower. That's how those camera phone snaps end up in print in the first place.

None of this would matter too much from the working pro's perspective if good photography was still valued highly. But, increasingly, it isn't. Whether it's because of the 'good enough' standard, or because most art editors are wannabe photographers, or the over-supply of photographers generally, or cash-strapped art budgets, or any combination of these and a dozen other reasons, many pros find the perceived value of their work dragged down towards the 'user generated' camera phone end of the market.

The fake credentials thing is already happening (surely you've come across the dowloadable Flickr 'Press Pass'?), but - again from a pro's perspective - people chasing the odd £250 isn't the problem. It's the fact that that £250 probably represents a worldwide irrevocable sub-licensable royalty free (insert your own legalese here) buyout, with which most people will be perfectly happy. But most people don't actually earn their living taking pictures.

$1000 for that calendar pic may sound great if you don't rely on pics to keep a roof over your head, but there's a reason why pros demand the rates they do; it's called staying in business.

Too many people, too many pictures, too few outlets (despite a massive growth in online publishing). A buyer's market; depressed prices... market forces. It's a great time to be an enthusiastic amateur photographer. It's not a brilliant time to be embarking on a career as a full-time pro.

I believe we've come full circle :)


It's the hypocrisy of it all that annoys me. stole pictures from flickr users, but have you seen the hoops you have to go through to even quote from their site?

Seb Rogers

The hypocrisy is calculated and deliberate.

Copyright law was designed to protect the creators of, um, creative works from unauthorised exploitation of their endeavours. Big corporations have essentially manouevred their way around this inconvenient law by either ignoring it or offering (often minimal) payment in exchange for sweeping rights. And amateur snappers, ignorant of copyright law and flattered to have their pictures chosen, are often only too happy to sign up.

It is of course, as you rightly point out, a one-way street. Some people argue that copyright as it stands is unworkable in a webbed world, and they may have a point. But a world in which individuals don't own the rights to their creative works would, it seems to me, be a very impoverished one.


Have you read the terms and conditions under which people are giving photos to the BBC. They're mad.

Interesting that the BBC was promoting this type of free (to them) journalism without mentioning the harm it does to the overall quality of photojournalism just the day before they were told to be more impartial.

Seb Rogers

Yes, the BBC is one of the worst (though increasingly not the only) offenders.

I don't think people are mad, they just have no understanding of how copyright law and licensing conventions work (why would they?), still less idea of the way in which their behaviour might help to undermine the incomes of full-time pros (again, why would they?) and enjoy the rosy glow of self-satisfaction that comes with having their work acknowledged (why wouldn't they?).

It's not individual contributors of photos who are to blame, it's the decision-makers at media companies. They use the excuse of increasing competition, falling ad revenues and new media outlets to justify all-encompassing rights grabs (whether of amateur or pro submissions). But it's just that: an excuse. We've been here before: TV didn't kill of radio, and the internet won't kill off print journalism. In the meantime, the new standard of 'give us all rights in perpetuity in exchange for bugger all' is working precisely because there's over-supply in the market. Too many photographers, not enough outlets for all those billions of images.

And it's only likely to get worse...


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