Ellen Boughn and the Future of Stock Photography

John: Ellen, you have been in the forefront of the stock world as far back as I remember. I first met you in the late 80’s. You owned After-Image, the first stock agency to carry my work. You sold After-Image to Tony Stone. Since that time you have broadened your range of experience in a number of ways. Can you catch us up to date on that range of experience?

Ellen: One of my earliest memories of you, John, is bringing Sarah Stone to your office in SF in the late 1980s. You had a baby Mac and were just starting to play around with Photoshop. I remember you asked me if I knew where you could get some photos of clocks to put into your photos. Free or cheap photos…so you were on the cutting edge of needing microstock and didn’t even know it. Neither did I.

Since those days I have worked at Corbis as Executive Editor, was the first employee at Artville’s photo collection after it was purchased by Image Bank, part of the initial team that started Workbookstock, was the first employee at UpperCut Images and had a brief and very unsatisfactory stint at SuperStock. Since 2006 I have worked as a sole proprietor offering appraisal services (valuation of future revenue streams from stock photography collections), as an expert witness and consultant on general stock photography issues at Dreamstime (microstock) and to individual emerging and seasoned stock photographers. Currently I’m writing a book based on the 100+ blogs I wrote at Dreamstime.

I’ve gone from rights managed to royalty free to microstock. I guess you could say that I’ve seen it all.

John: Years ago I heard Tony Stone give a speech in which he said that “Someday a huge meteor will hit the earth and stock photography as we know it will cease to exist”. Is that meteor getting close? Could it be Micro?

Ellen: Rather than a large meteor hitting and exploding the world, destroying stock photography, as Tony knew it back before he left the industry, the change is more like a benign growth. As it grows bigger and bigger it becomes invasive and can be as deadly as a malignant tumor.

The industry has made the mistake of creating too many of the same images over and over again. This is because instead of nurturing the photographers who have vision to combine both art and commerce to produce unique images within the standard salable subjects, they let creative decisions be driven by previous sales results and creative research based all on the same sources. This has resulted in a glut of images that all look alike. I like to call them the image de jour…everyone runs out and shoots the same style and subject with the same look on the same day, it appears.

I believe that one reason that microstock had explosive growth aside from the price point was that users could find one-of-a-kind images. Now that the major production companies are putting the same old, same old but ‘new’ images into micro in great volumes, the same problem could arise there.

John: I am hearing predictions that Google is the ultimate stock search mechanism, and that someday all the searches will be done on Google image search…even including Agency collections. Can you comment on that?

Ellen: I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that Google has taught us all how to search. We no longer look for anything with just one or two words. The vast amount of information on the web compels us to become more and more specific in our use of search terms and to use more words in a search. This knowledge spills over into how we search for images. I believe that photographers with collections on specific subjects and who have implemented best practices as far as SEO goes may find that they can make more money selling stock direct than with a stock company in the near future.

Today I am excited about the prospect that we may be at a convergence of technology and user behavior that will shortly enable photographers to license their existing images.

John: I have heard estimates that the non-traditional market for stock photography, made up of those who buy and/or license photos outside of the traditional infra-structure of stock, is as big as $20 billion a year. Even if that market, composed of mom and pop businesses needing an image for a newspaper advertisement, students in need of a photograph for a homework assignment, or a church group in need of a picture for a flyer, is only a fraction of that size, it is still a huge market. Perhaps those buyers will end up at a Micro site, or perhaps, with a Google search, they may end up at a photographer’s site. Do you think this is a market segment worth going after by individual photographers? How big do you think that market is?

Ellen: I disagree with the $20 billion figure. Is that Dan Heller’s? I think it is and when I read his logic (I may not remember it correctly so Dan don’t get on your high horse!) I felt it was faulty. For now I recommend that photographers who have general collections of average quality…ok admit it…there is always average in every field…put that work in microstock. I don’t feel comfortable recommending trying to reach the world of users from the high school blogger to the church website via direct sales unless the workflow is completely seamless. Even so, I don’t think most professional photographers will want to deal with the traffic that opening the doors completely will cause. The price expectations are so low that they might find themselves always answering emails and phone calls in regard to lowering license fees. The goal should be to get a certain kind of work into microstock, other types in a high end rights managed collection or license that directly.

I actually recommend that some images go on flickr under the Creative Commons copyright. I have some compelling research that shows that for some, this is a way to build reputation and actually make money. I hope to be able to present this and some other information about unusual places to license images at a seminar in the fall at PhotoExpo.

John: To be able to effectively monetize those and other markets as individuals, outside of traditional agencies, photographers will need tools, specifically web tools, to deal with distributing their images, handling licensing and sales, and tracking abuse. One possible answer to that need is ImageSpan. Do you know if ImageSpan could be a viable solution, and do you know of any others on the horizon?

Ellen: ImageSpan just announced the 2.0 version. I had an early preview by the ImageSpan staff and was very impressed. They have seemingly thought of everything. Of course, photographers still have to do their own marketing to drive traffic to the site but the services provided by Imagespan are sensitive to SEO.

John: Traditional shooters fear the demise of the industry because of Micro. Micro shooters are starting to feel the demise of their world by the entry of traditional shooters into Micro. Do you think that traditional shooters need to be in Micro? Do you think that the entry of traditional shooters into Micro Stock is going to “ruin it” for the Micro shooters?

Ellen: I think it is a mistake for traditional RM/RF shooters to have put high production value images into microstock. It is very difficult to make back investment on an expensive shoot even if the resulting images are on multiple microstock sites. Plus if higher paying clients can get the same material on micro, why would they pay more? Now the toothpaste is out of the tube and there is no going back. Clean simple images in all the popular genres do very well on micro and that is where they belong.

John: What do you see the stock industry looking like two years from now? Five years from now?

Ellen: More direct sales. In five years? Maybe the only stock businesses are companies that add value by scouring the web for the best work within a genre….sort of back to photo research services.

John: What advice would you give any shooter who wants to make a living shooting stock in these turbulent times?

Ellen: Think of your business as a multi-layered cake. Get your work into all the layers of the business. DEVELOP a specialty and be the best at it in the world. Even photographers on microstock sites need to build their brands within the site in order to get maximum downloads.

John: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Ellen: Buy my book to be issued by Watson Guptill (Random House) next year.

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Charles writes for the Headline column of the website. He has done major in English, and a having a diploma in Journalism. He has worked for more than 1.5 years in a media house. Now, he joined our team as a contributor for covering the latest US headlines. He is smart both by him looks and nature. He is very good with everyone in the team.