Dark Matter

Posted on 5/15/2006 by John Jerney | Printable Version | Comments (0)



May 15, 2006

By John Jerney

'Dark matter' invades the lighted world of digital photography

Astrophysicists estimate the number of stars in a galaxy by measuring the amount of light emitted. But there is a problem. Judging by a galaxy's rate of spin, there has to be considerably more matter present than is visible.

It turns out that this "dark matter," including dust, gas and planets, forms a significant portion of the known universe and provides the additional gravity that accounts for a number of phenomena, including the spin of galaxies.

In other words, just because you cannot directly see and measure something does not mean that its effects are irrelevant or unimportant. Interestingly, this concept of dark matter seems to also apply to digital photography and the Web.

I recently heard author and travel photographer Dan Heller (www.danheller.com) use this analogy while making a presentation to a group of professional photographers at a meeting of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) in San Francisco. According to Heller, professional photographers face a new and mostly unseen challenge when trying to sell images.

Traditionally, there have been two types of commercial photographers: assignment and stock. Assignment photographers typically work directly with clients to produce the kind of unique images you often see in high-visibility advertising or product marketing.

Stock photographers, on the other hand, more often work on spec, or speculation, producing images that are filed with a commercial online library. Clients can then search the library and license images either for a specific use, in the case of rights managed images, or for practically unrestricted use, in the case of royalty-free images.

All seemed well in the photographic world, for established professionals at any rate. But then observers began to notice a greater number of photos hitting the market. Supply was increasing, and prices were dropping. The galaxy was not spinning as predicted.

Was there some dark matter out there competing with the visible light? It turns that there was.

The advent of inexpensive and high quality digital cameras, combined with the worldwide reach of the Internet and Web, has introduced literally millions of new photographers into the marketplace, a good number capable of producing acceptable images.

At the ASMP meeting in San Francisco, Heller argued that even if a comparatively small percentage of these noveau-numerique shooters managed to sell a few images a year, the landscape for professional photographers would be unavoidably altered.

In Heller's analysis, this new breed of amateur photographers are, in effect, the dark matter of the photographic market. Worse still, the amount of dark matter appears to be growing rapidly.

Centers of gravity for these photographers include companies, such as iStockphoto, Fotolia, ShutterStock, among others, which enable customers to license images for as little as a dollar. Contrast this with industry giants, such as Getty Images and Corbis, which can literally charge thousands of dollars for restricted rights to a photo, and you can see that there is a potentially disruptive force present in the universe.

These sites operate using a system of micropayments. Calgary, Canada-based iStockphoto, for instance, requires customers to purchase a minimum of 10 credits at a dollar each. Photos are then priced according to file size. Low resolution images suitable for the Web are offered for a single credit; higher resolution versions are available for three to five. iStockphoto also makes ultrahigh resolution files available for up to 40 credits.

Amateur and semiprofessional photographers are encouraged to join and upload images, and thousands have. iStockphoto and others claim that this inclusive model is good for both photographers and clients who, in the end, are looking for reasonably priced images.

Not everyone shares the enthusiasm, however. With royalty rates as low as 20 percent, critics, such as the ASMP and Stock Artists Alliance, point out that photographers can make as little as 20 cents per sale, further commoditizing commercial images and devaluing the work of creative professionals.

Adding fuel to the fire, Fotolia has taken it one step further by allowing members to contribute photographs to a free section where anyone can license an image for use without cost. Photographers do receive a share in the site-generated ad-based revenue, but critics see this as a further threat to the livelihood of the creative industry.

So what is one to make of this strange dark matter? At one level, the trend is hardly unexpected. Dark matter has been appearing everywhere on the Web in the form of blogs, picture archives, legal music sharing and distribution sites, and the proliferation of amateur news sites.

Perhaps a more interesting question is whether the iStockphoto model is sustainable and scalable, or whether it will collapse under its own weight. Questions of fraud and copyright infringement spring to mind.

iStockPhoto claims to review each submitted image, but at a rate of more than 14,000 new images a week, it is hard to imagine that the vetting process is very thorough. Likewise, there is a question about the quality of images and the ability to find them.

Images are categorized by keyword, and photographers are tasked with assigning proper labels. In fact, it is in the photographer's best interest to accurately apply suitable keywords. But a quick check through a number of sites shows incredible variety.

Stressed creative directors and photo editors may find themselves frustrated and quick to move on to other sites.

Still, there is no denying that the photo industry is changing. In addition to offering emerging photographers a smooth entry into the market, sites, such as iStockphoto, also create a virtual community, facilitating the sharing of information and the dissemination of trends faster than ever before.
Heller, meanwhile, sees this as nothing less than a watershed, persuasively arguing that now is the time for professionals to begin embracing the new business reality. Dark matter may be hard to quantify and even harder to track, but its effects are unavoidable.

Copyright © 2006 John Jerney. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz


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