0 INCREASED STILL IMAGE USE???
January 10, 2006
Given the way the stock photo industry is currently structured will there be increased image use? Jonathan Klein (and lots of others) say Yes. I don't think so. Here's why.
First, we need to recognize when we talk about "increased image use" that we're really only interested in a subset of all possible images. We're concerned with professionally produced images that can be licensed as stock photography and will help professional photographers make a living. We're not interested in all the images produced by advanced amateurs or others who are willing for various reasons to give away their images even though a lot of these images will be used by professional buyers for commercial purposes.
We're also not talking about images produced on assignment when the specific images the customer needs are not available as stock. Assignment work is a separate segment of the photo industry. Many would say, "Why worry about such distinctions? With all the digital images out there everything a customer could possibly want must be available as stock."
I don't think that's the case. Many of the images customers need are not currently available in the major stock image databases. If we're talking about very generic, high demand subjects, there may be more than enough currently available in the files. But, when you begin focusing on specifics within broad general categories there are huge gaps in what is available.
I've chosen a few subjects related to flowers, food, Caribbean travel and automobiles to illustrate my point, but I believe you can pick almost any field of endeavor, search for specifics within each general category and get similar results. Let's examine the surprising results from just a few simple searches.
Square rig ship
Caribbean Folk Art
Palm oil industry
Sugar cane field
1995 Ford Mustang
For obvious reasons I've chosen to look at the three biggest image suppliers - Getty, Corbis and JIunlimited. I also checked Photos.com (a Jupiter product whose images are for the most part included in JIunlimited) to get an idea of the number of non Photos.com images that might be in JIunlimited. Alamy offers some interesting comparisons. I think their much broader offering in specialist areas results from the fact that individual photographers and specialists agencies tend to supply a depth of coverage in their subject specialty. For the most part we do not find such an in-depth offering at the three major agencies because their focus is on generic images that are most likely to generate a high volume of sales. And then we have Google Images. (You do a search on Google, click on Images instead of Web and you get just thumbnail image files similar to what you would get on any of the photo search sites.)
One of the first things we notice on Alamy and Google is that there are a lot of similars (often five to ten slight variations in a sequence). Taking this into account the discrepancies in the numbers may not be quite as large as they first appear. But, a brief examination of the images on Alamy in these specialist categories shows that in most cases there is a lot more variety in the offering than is the case with the three majors. Google has even more variety, but it is harder to dig through the clutter to find the good images unless the search can be further refined with additional keywords. In addition when we get to specifics about an image Alamy's keywording may be more accurate than those of some of the other agencies because the people doing the keywording usually have an intimate knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. This also tends to be true with Google because the people supplying the metadata tend to be closely involved with their subject matter.
A frequent complaint professional users have with Google is that despite the greater choice it is often very difficult to figure out whether it is legal to use the image (and get a suitable file size), or whether it is necessary to negotiate some type of compensation in exchange for its use.
When considering Corbis it is important to note that whenever they have more than 1,000 images in a category they give the notation of 1000+. We have no ideas how many total images are in these categories, but my guess would be that in most cases it is a slightly larger number than Getty, but nowhere near the number that Alamy has.
Also worth noting is that of the 18 returns to the search for folk art on Getty only 3 could be truly classified as "folk art". The others are of more traditional art or architecture. The two images you get on Getty when you do a search for "square rig ship" are actually oil rigs, not ships. Despite Getty's reputation for having an excellent keywording system, when the search is for narrow specifics the system tends to pull up a lot of inappropriate images. With all the agencies when you search for "sailing ship" you do get some "square rig ships" which have not had that additional keyword attached to the image. When you look at "palm nuts" only 2 of the 7 images available on Getty are actually palm nuts. The rest are mis-keyworded.
When we get to the Caribbean islands Getty and Corbis have a fair number of images, but the vast majority are very generic and could be anywhere. There is also a great concentration on generic beach scenes and very little of the character of the towns, local people, local attractions, shopping or transportation - the kinds of images that companies doing travel brochures want and need. There is a reason for this, of course. Most of the images that give a local flavor of a travel location are not released and the big image distributors are paranoid about releases - as maybe they should be.
But from the customer's point of view where are they going to get the images they need? Are they going to settle for generic beach scenes to illustrate the brochures or the web sites of every specific Caribbean location they are marketing? Or will they go somewhere else to find images that provide more of a flavor of the location they are trying to promote?
When we look at flowers we find that Getty has over 45,000 of them and anyone would think that must be enough. But, if you're in the industry doing promotions, or if you're a book publisher producing a book on flowers, you're probably not going to want just any pretty picture of a flower. You will want specifics and when you begin to look for specifics you've got a problem except maybe on Alamy. And if you really want choice and knowledgeable specialist resources the best resource may be Google.
And then we get to automobiles. Getty has over 24,000 images of cars, and no images of a Ford Mustang. That doesn't seem possible until you understand how Getty keywords. Getty refuses to use brand names as keywords for fear of a trademark violation. If you know the distinguishing characteristics of a Mustang you can probably find some by searching through those 24,000 images, but who wants to do that, and it won't be easy. At Corbis you have brand names, but if you want brands and specific model years the place to go is either Alamy or Google.
What Difference Does It Make?
Don't most customers want the kind of generic images that the three majors are offering?
Doesn't the 80/20 rule apply?
Sure it does, but we're talking about growth. The market for the kind of images the majors have to offers is saturated and they've already captured all those potential customers. Where the growth will occur, if it occurs at all, will be in the market for specialist images that the big guys are not offering.
OK, so maybe Alamy and Google offer a lot more variety of choice than Getty, Corbis and Jupiter, but isn't it the quality of the images that counts? Don't the majors have the best photographers?
If you really examine the images you'll find that there is a range of quality on all the sites. You'll find some great images on Alamy and some not-so great ones on Getty.
And after all, many of the photographers producing images for Getty are also putting images on Alamy and Jupiter. If we are talking about overall quality of the offering I might concede that Getty's is somewhat better than the competition, but customers are looking for specific images to solve specific needs. They could care less about the overall quality of the site. What really interests them is the quality and the availability of the specific image they want to buy.
Isn't it enough that the major suppliers have a few great pictures on most of these subjects?
Not if the specific subject they want is not among those few great images.
Don't customers get discouraged from using sites with too many images?
The important fact here is that with both Alamy and Google it is possible for the customer to drill down in the search with other qualifying words. That enables her to get much more specific in what she needs and get a much more manageable group of pictures to review. For many customers this will be preferable to search results that are very generic with a high percentage of images not even close to the ones they need.
Who wants pictures of cassava (a tuber eaten like a potato in many parts of the world) anyway?
There certainly won't be anywhere near as much demand for the specific specialist images as there are for generic lifestyle images of beautiful people. But if we consider the millions of specific subjects that various buyers may need a photo of from time to time the overall demand for variety is probably significant.
Is this growth potential significant?
It may not be significant for a company the size of Getty, but then growth in usage for them is not likely to come from any other source either. It could be significant for Alamy. And its possible that a significant number of Google images are being used, but there is no way to measure that number.
More important, I believe that if there is any growth of image use it will be in the area of specialist images that illustrate very narrow specific points rather than in the use of generic images.
What Are Some Reasons For This Lack Of Generic Image Growth?
Major advertisers are discovering that brand building ads are not working as well as they used to. The cost of print ads is going up and the return per impression is going down. Consequently, many major advertisers are looking for new ways to do more targeted marketing and are spending a greater portion of their ad budgets in such endeavors. More targeted marketing is likely to require imagery that is of a more specific appeal to the customer group being marketed.
Now that we have huge databases of images it has become much easier for potential customers to locate images of specific subjects by using the Internet. Some of these are produced by professional photographers, but a surprising number are available from amateurs, trade associations, or various free sources. In the past it was virtually impossible for buyers to find anything other than those produced by professional photographers.
With the improvements in digital cameras more buyers will choose the option of producing the images they need themselves, rather than hiring a professional photographers to shoot them.
Getty's statistics indicate that there has been little or no growth in recent years in images licensed. In Q3 2005 they licensed rights to 265,451 RF images and 135,251 RM images. Three years earlier in Q3 2002 it was 247,449 and 130,043 RM and in Q1 2002 it was 266,180 RF and 132,050 RM. Granted usage went down some in the intervening period and has recently climbed back up, but this is flat growth over 3 ½ years for RF and about .02% growth for RM. All during this time the economy has been improving.
During this period Getty has added hundreds of thousands of images from over 70 Image Partners to theoretically broaden their offering. It hasn't done anything to increase volume. They have definitely grown sales is Germany, Japan and Spain, and they have acquired Digital Vision, Photonica and Iconica all of which brought in some customers and some sales that Getty had not been receiving previously. It is also worth considering that with these moves that have grown the market in certain areas what must have been happening to the number of units licensed in their core markets of the U.S. and UK compared to 3 ½ years ago.
There appears to be a rapid growth in Internet marketing. In the past year Getty Images says that the portion of RM sales made for internet use has grown from about 5% to 10% of all sales. Relative to image use this raises some disturbing issues.
1 - Based on figures developed by PicScout close to 90% of the uses of professional images on the Internet are unauthorized. If actual paid uses are growing significantly how much more are uses that are not being paid for.
Sales to the book publishing industry are being restructured to give publishers expanded rights for only a slightly larger fee. As a result images that might have been licensed 2 to 4 times over a five-year period in the past will now only appear as one license. This change has been developing for several years, but may partially explain the lack of growth in images licensed.
2 - Since the appearance on the computer screen is small designers don't need large file sizes and may be more inclined to use images from amateurs that they can get for less money or just not pay for.
3 - The Internet is often a more effective way to target small, niche groups that using print and the overall fees for such usage are likely to be lower.
4 - Through Internet linking it is possible to get very broad distribution of a small very focused promotional piece, but it is usually very hard to determine how broadly an image is likely to be eventually used, and price that usage accordingly.
The book publishing industry uses significant numbers of images, but the fees are usually low. Alamy recently reported that for the first half of 2005 their average fee for editorial use was $135.59. Also, an increasing number of English language books that use photos are being produced in the UK to take advantage of the more favorable licensing terms and conditions that are offered there.
In addition to all of the above there is likely to be greater use of RF CD's and Subscription. In neither of these cases will we be able to measure the actual number of uses made. If these low cost uses are included it is possible that there will be more images used, but there will be no way to measure such an increase. On the other hand, I think it is more likely that these uses will replace some other higher paying uses rather than adding onto the volume.
For more information on why increased image use is unlikely check out Story 603 that I wrote two years ago. Photographers need to react to this information with care. Just because there may be increased demand for specialist imagery doesn't necessarily mean you can make money producing it. I'll go into this in more detail in future stories.