Is Crowdsourced Photojournalism The Future?

Posted on 8/9/2013 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Many expect users of mobile phones with decent cameras with constant connectivity to the world to be the next disruptors of the stock photography business. According to Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2013, 56% of all American adults own mobile phones. If we look at only those aged 24 – 35 earning $100,000 or more a year over 87% of them own a mobile phone.

Crowd sources photojournalism is expected to cut into the business of the long-suffering professional news photographers. Here are some thoughts as to why crowd-sourced mobile photography may not be the boom angel investors are hoping for.
Phones are lightweight and always with the person who will take the picture. This type of photography can work for some large public events, although if the event is planned in advance access to the best vantage points are often limited. This is particularly true of sporting and, increasingly, entertainment events. It can work for tragedies like a fire or traffic accident where the incident is unanticipated and lasts a very short period of time. Often professional photographers don’t have time to get to these events. But such events make up a very small percentage of the total editorial images used.

Text Notification

Mobile photography sites make it possible for those who need specific subject matter to easily text a request to a large number of photographers. Any picture taken is easily uploaded to the web. But there is still a problem in putting the customer in touch with the right photographer at the right time.

Mobile phone users can sign up to be notified by text message when someone needs a picture. If the picture must be taken in a specific area, it is possible to narrow the people who receive the text to those who live close to the area where the image must be taken. However, so far it is not possible to send the text only to phones near the target location. For example, if someone is registered as living in New York, but happens to be in San Francisco on the day the text is sent for a project that needs to be shot in New York he will still receive the text – wasting his time. He may not receive texts for shoots in San Francisco.

Just because a photographer receives a text outlining a specific need doesn’t mean that photographer will drop everything to fulfill that need. This is particularly true given the low fees being offered. Even if the photographer shoots and delivers a picture there is no guarantee he will be paid. Many other photographers may have produced competing images, or his image may simply be unacceptable.

It only takes an instant to click a picture with a cell phone, but it can take a lot longer to take a picture someone will want to use. Rarely will the photographer who receives a text be standing in the exact spot where the photograph must be taken at the moment the text arrives. More than a grab shot may be needed. Editorial photographers usually learn of an event in advance, go to the location ahead of time, and stake out the best location for the shot. Very few of the photos that get used are happy accidents.

It seems likely to me that crowd sourced photographers will quickly become discouraged if their pictures are not used and there is no feedback as to why. Only an infinitely small percentage of the images posted will ever be used. Microstock started out as crowd sourced. The vast majority of contributors sent in a few images, made few if any sales, discovered it was too much trouble for the relatively meager return and dropped out. The same will happen with this new generation of crowd sourcing.

One of the things photographers who are considering taking time to respond to requests will need is a way to communicate directly with the assigning editor. What exactly does the editor want? Are there other photographers already on the job? The editor, on the other hand, will need some way to determine if the first photographer responding is reliable and capable of handling the job. Will photographer portfolios be available for viewing? And the editor will not have the time to respond to everyone who wants his attention.


The next problem is caption information. If location and the time the picture was taken are all the identifying information needed the cell phone will provide that data. In most cases customers will need more information about the Who and What before they can make use of the picture. Captioning and keywording is a cumbersome process using a cell phone keyboard. Keywording is easier on a laptop computer. Will there be facilities for adding keywords later after the image has been posted?

Taking pictures is fun. Captioning and keywording isn’t. Captioning and keywording is much more time consuming than taking pictures. It is likely to turn into a big problem quickly. Most of the “crowd” will not want to bother. Particularly, considering the very low odds of earning any revenue at all, let alone significant revenue.

If keywording is inadequate then there are only two ways for customers to easily find the right images. One is to make their requests specific and narrow enough that the number of images submitted will be relatively limited. However, in this case the odds are low that one of the images submitted will really work. The other approach is to make a broad request that will result in a huge number of images being submitted. Then the customer will have to spend a huge amount of time reviewing all the submissions. Neither are satisfactory for the customer.  

Model and Property Releases

One of microstock’s advantages (and traditional RM and RF as well) is that the images can be used for commercial purposes because the issues of model and property releases were dealt with early in the developments of the model. The new crowd source sites are focused on editorial use and ignore this issue.

It is unclear exactly what percentage of images used involve people and property where releases are required for commercial use. I estimate that this is an issue with at least 50% of the images used if not more. Certainly, pictures of scenics, landscapes, wildlife, abstracts, signs and symbols usually don’t require releases, but pictures of people do if they are going to be used for anything other than editorial purposes -and sometimes even for editorial.

Absence of releases will severely limit the market for these crowd-sourced images and open up bloggers and other potential users to legal liability for the use of such images.

All and all it seems unlikely that crowd sourced will have little impact on stock photography as it is practiced today. Most customers will continue to use existing sources for the majority of images they need. But, it existence will make it difficult for most microstock sellers to raise their prices.

Copyright © 2013 Jim Pickerell. 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

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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