Quantity vs. quality is a never-ending debate topic in the stock photo industry. Based on discussions I had at the recent PACA International Conference in Las Vegas, I think we are about to see another of the periodic shifts in emphasis, with quality coming to the forefront.
Most portal operators are editing tighter and want to add fewer images to their collections. Images accepted must be of higher "quality," more contemporary and with greater production values. Some portal operators are reducing the size of their collections by throwing out images they consider to be of "bad quality". All this is aimed at making it easier for the customer to find the right image.
This is a change from the last two or three years where the focus has been on growing collections. Many creators and customers cheer this new direction, but it is important to consider the trade-offs.
When it comes to photography there is a problem in defining quality. In the abstract, art directors may say, "I'm having to wade through too much bad imagery," as several on the picture buyer panel at the conference indicated. But what is considered bad by one art director often is exactly what the next one needs.
In some cases the right image depends on expression. In others it's the color palette. In still others it's how the image fits the layout or whether it is an extreme close-up or a wider shot. Sometimes an image is considered of good quality because it is contemporary, edgy, or innovative. Such images inspire art directors and cause them to look deeper into collections, but the images they usually purchase are the "bread and butter" images (one photographer calls such images "photography 101") that clearly illustrate the point the client is trying to make. Too often, because they've seen so many of these "bread and butter" images and already have so many in their collections, portal editors reject them.
On the other hand, a group of art directors looking for the same general category of subject matter, but working in different parts of the world and with different project needs, will almost always choose different images.
Many photographers have had images rejected by one agency and accepted by another --and those accepted by agency two go on to generate significant revenue. Sometimes it is argued that the images were rejected by the first agency because it already had something similar in its files. However, too often those similar images don't end up meeting customer needs and don't sell.
This is not to say there aren't some images of such poor quality that they shouldn't be included in a collection, but editors looking to maximize sales need to be very cautious about what they reject, if it costs very little to store and make the image available for review.
Here are few things to consider when adopting a tighter editing strategy. Getty has an editing strategy, although not a tight one. Its combined RM and RF revenue for the first half of 2007 is down a little over 1% compared to the same period in 2006. Alamy does not edit, and has almost five times as many images as Getty in its collection, thus forcing buyers to go through many more images to find the right one. Yet Alamy's revenue is expected to be up 16% in 2007 compared to 2006.
iStockphoto limits the number of images any photographer can upload in a month. Meanwhile, a lot of the images from its most productive photographers go to its competitors.
Then there's the issue of specific searches. On Getty I searched for "air conditioner repairman" and found one image of a man working on a commercial unit -- nothing residential. On Corbis I found three images -- two commercial units and one home unit. Jupiterimages had the three Corbis images and nothing else. iStockphoto had 18 images from two photographers. Getty, Corbis and Jupiter probably never saw these images, but if they had several of them would probably not have met the "quality standards" of the big three. Nevertheless, these 18 images combined have been downloaded 1,865 times. Every one has sold many times. Somebody obviously wants to buy pictures of air conditioner repairmen.
On the whole, the general quality of images on Flickr is much lower than the images available in the traditional market. And yet, some customers, including big ones like Microsoft, are going to Flickr to find the images they need.
Usually when most people in the industry are focused on quality, a few will focus on quantity -- and quantity wins. When most focus on quantity, a few will focus on quality, and quality wins. And we can be sure that whichever way the trends take us, the pendulum will shift.