The Next Step For Flickr, Stock Photography

Recently I sold my first photograph. It was a photo of the Grand Lake movie theater in Oakland. I sold a one year license of the photograph to Choice Hotels. They used it in a national television commercial for this television commercial that they are running now to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Since I don’t watch commercials (PVR and all) I’ve still yet to see it but the fact that they found my photograph through a Google image search rather than a stock photography house has recently made me wonder.

Why couldn’t Flickr displace the world’s largest photo licensing company Getty Images or Bill Gates’ stock photography competitor Corbis? Have you seen some of the photography up at Flickr lately? It is stunning. Although primarily taken and posted by amateurs, the top shots on the site are every bit as brilliant as anything I’ve seen from the pros.

So why not bring the business of stock photography to the amateur photographer? While Corbis and Getty focus more on the professional photographer I believe that there is a growing army of weekend warriors with digital cameras that stand to offer up an alternative distribution source for the licensing of images. It would seem to me that this would also have the effect of driving more and more top quality photographers to Flickr as they might see it as a place to drive revenue.

Flickr could analyze the way that Corbis and Getty charge for licenses and then offer a comparable (or even cheaper) fee schedule for marketers, advertisers, etc. Flickr could put together a fee sharing arrangement that would take the place of a traditional agent and then let their search do the rest. Flickr could allow those interested in purchasing image licenses (or anyone really) the ability to search by tags and through an advanced search restrict the search to only photos that users have voluntarily submitted for consideration. With the recent enhancements to Flickr’s image search with their “interestingness” thing, you can now search photos and then have them ranked and returned to you by relevancy. Try searching for some terms at Flickr and then sorting by interestingness — the results are impressive for supposed amateurs. Here’s bridge (ok, so I’m biased because a few of mine show up). Or check out sunset. Or try blue. Or even try something crazy like crazy. You get the idea.

The world of Corbis and Getty Images is largely unknown and unavailable to the average amateur photographer. Through Yahoo! Flickr will continue to mass popularize photo sharing. As their/our image library becomes larger and larger and their photo rank technology gets better and better they could very easily become the single best place for marketers and advertisers to find compelling images. What AdSense has been for Google, Flickrsense could ultimately be for Yahoo! images.

Model and location releases would be issues that would need to somehow be addressed and I’m sure there is much more about the stock photography business that I am unaware of but it sure does seem like an interesting way to begin offering competition to the likes of Getty Images and Corbis.

Although a small little thing like Flickr perhaps never could displace the mighty giants of Corbis and Getty Images, even if they acquired the smallest fraction of business in this multi billion dollar market it could be huge.

Of course, if Microsoft was smart they would create/buy a Flickr of their own and coordinate this through Gates’ already established Corbis. But then again, if Microsoft was smart, they would have bought Flickr before Yahoo! scooped them up.

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  1. Jonathan says:

    Seems like a good idea. However, I think the rights/releases issue may be substantial. If you buy images through a conventional stock agency, aren’t you paying in part for the certainty that the seller owns the rights? But perhaps, as you suggest, this issue is not difficult to resolve.

    Also, your comments raise a broader question of whether stock-photo searching on the Web via Google and other search engines might become more widespread if photographers began tagging their personal-website photos more systematically, perhaps with a “stockphoto” tag (in addition to the appropriate attributes: “bridge”, “sunset”, etc.). OTOH, Flickr’s community rating system might add enough value to make it a go-to place for stock photography. Flickr should try it and see how it flies.

  2. This seems to be getting more and more common, it just popped up on Ask MetaFilter again too.

  3. NoLimits says:

    Why not?? I recently started publishing a photoblog on Flickr and have been humbled by the depth of talent and creativity among us non-pro camera junkies. How can the graphic arts industry overlook this motherlode of images?? There is every style and technique imaginable to access. The internet is doing what it does best: bringing the world into the grasp of a large community of grassroots talent that in a different time (not so very long ago) would never feel the warm exhilaration of recognition outside of their friends and family.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Actually, Thomas, this is, in a way, old news. For at least a year, small photo agencies, dubbed “microstocks” by the trade, have offered their royalty-free wares. Typically purchased for about $3 (yes, that’s three dollars), buyers can use the images as many times as they want for whatever they want. Of course libel, copyright, and private property laws still apply.

  5. Flickr Stock Photos? I would be the first to join in. I’ve got some experiences with a lot of picture agency but many of them just don’t reach out to a great market. flickr is fresh and flickr is hype. So why shouldn’t that work…

    C U @
    Net Rider’s Blog

  6. Anonymous says:

    The only issue would be the inconsistency of the images on Flickr. While certainly many are excellent, many are complete crap. Stock companies are very consistent. If you want a picture of a dog with a boy, there are 1000 good ones (by good ones, I mean flawless execution, perfect). Flickr on the other hand, may have 2 or 3 really good ones (publishable), a few dozen okay ones, with the rest being crap. It seems that most of the amateurs who post on Flickr believe that their photos are “pro-like,” but in reality, they are not. It reminds me of the whole indie rock phenomenom, where these mediocre artists suddenly had the technology to record and release their own albums at minimal cost. As a result, the market has been flooded with album after album of crap. Could this be happening with photography?

  7. Anonymous says:

    There is nothing stopping any photographer from posting images on Flikr or Digital Railroad or any other photo database system, then marketing their work to publications who can search and buy. The main problem is getting publications to search your set of photos as opposed to other databases (like Corbis or Getty). The reason they go to Corbis or Getty is because they can trust in the consistency of the quality of the photography and because these agencies offer a wide range of photographic subjects. One-stop shopping.

    It seems silly to write of Corbis or Getty like they are big evil giants preventing photographers from selling their work. If you want to sell your work then join Corbis or Getty. It’s not that difficult to join if your photography is good enough. Or join some other smaller (but still effective) agency like Redux or Polaris. Or start your own agency and convince publications that you can provide a breadth of imagery with consistent high quality — of course this is largely an issue of “branding,” and you’re shooting yourself in the foot (from a marketing point of view) if you associate your high-quality photography with the rabble that clutters Flikr.

    Your post has the tone of advocating for photographers in the shadow of these big corporate agencies. Yet you argue for:
    1. lowering the price of image licensing
    2. promoting royalty free stock

    As a photographer myself, I depend on licensing to make a living and do not wish to see standard pricing lowered. And royalty free is the most evil of all evils in licensing because it limits future sales potential.

    Best of luck.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I too am a professional photograper and make most of my income from producing stock photography. The problem with the model you are envisioning is quality control. Most of my agents require a 50 mb 8-bit file since they never know what the client may use the image for. Now I understand that not everyone would need such large fies and that iamges on the web are very small but there have to be some standards involved and the average guy at flickr has no clue.

  9. Augustine says:

    agreed … Flickr is already the largest repository and using Flickr images for stock means you are getting original images unlikely to have ever been used by anyone else as stock images.

    So we built – a multi-parameter search interface for image buyers to search through very large numbers of Flickr images, save searches, drag and drop into shareable lightboxes.

    a demo video is available at
    FlickrCash demo video

  10. Marianne says:

    Flickr is a great resource but there can be issues with releases and quality that you aren’t as likely to come across if you use an established stock photography agency. We rate, review & compare all the top stock photography & stock footage agencies in addition to listing all the current promotions and offering a client review section for people to comment on individual stock agencies.