The Future of Stock Photography

StockPhotoTalk | Special Interest Blog: “Google Can Make The 20th Century Stock Portals Like Getty And Corbis Irrelevant”: Stock Photo Talk has an interesting article out on the future of stock photography where they quote Boston-based photographer Stanley Rowin saying that Google will increasingly dominate the business.

“One of the positive (and simultaneously negative) aspects of the new technological and market driven changes is the great leveler known as Google. Give them a few years and Google can make the 20th Century stock portals like Getty and Corbis irrelevant, while allowing smart entrepreneurial stock shooters to license their images directly, with no commission, through Google.”

While I think a major change is going through the stock photography industry right now, I’m not sure it’s going to happen just that way.

Certainly the Getty/Corbis’ of the world are under pressure from alternative distribution that will also increasingly become direct distribution. The stock photography market is a multi billion dollar one and that is one big enough to interest Google. But Google is not in a position to dominate it anytime soon.

Google’s main problem is that they have no effective way to filter their images. While they have their recent Labeler tagging game, this is a weak effort. Google would either need to hire actual editors (which even iStockphoto does on the microstock end) or they would need to own a social network powerful enough to sort out the wheat from the chaff (like Flickr).

Google is unlikely to spend the money to hire editors. Perhaps they might try to position Picasa as a social network at some point but they’ve got a long way to go there.

Without some way to serve up the most likely images to be sold from a marketing end, it would be difficult for them to match up buyers and sellers. The best photographers would risk getting burried in a sea of other mediocre images and it would be a frustrating experience.

Google is currently milling about the stock photography business in interesting ways though. Earlier this year I wrote an article entitled “Is Google Set to Dominate the Stock Photography Business” about Pro Photographer David Sanger putting his photos up for sale of Google Base.

The first stock photo I ever sold found me through a Google Image Search.

Certainly there is a potential market here but without the right filtering tools to serve it up it may be a long time before Google is a match for the professional editors that have been doing this for years.

Getty is smart in all of this. They have seen the transformation that is coming over the stock business and purchased iStockphoto in February early this year. While iStockphoto was a controversial purchase (as is the whole microstock business if you talk to the stock Pros), I think that there is ample room in the stock business for many companies targeting many different price points.

If you are American Express and are going to launch a major national advertising campaign, you will think nothing of paying Getty or Corbis even $5,000 for the right image. The high end of the market will still belong to Getty and Corbis and to a growing degree Jupiter Media. They have the best editors and the best photographers in the world working for them today. They have longstanding relationships with marketers that also count for something.

But as iStockphoto has already shown, there is an entire other market of people who will not pay $500 for an image but who will pay $5 for an image.

I think that there is still another market between the two. And that’s one of the things that we are working on right now at Zooomr.

Google very well may become a player at some point. But I don’t see this happening until they have a compentent team of editors, a major social network, or maybe a combination of the two. Photography that is every bit as good even as Getty and Corbis in fact is out there. The value of Getty and Corbis though is in sorting this and presenting this in an easy way for marketers to get at.

The content is more than abundent, but Google has always relied on machines instead of humans to do their work. They believe in the superiority of the AI of machine based algorithms. The stock photography business, like most creative arts, however, is more complex and subjective than that.

And it is going to be very, very difficult for Google to know that one of the best photobloggers in the world just uploaded the best shot of a sunset that’s ever been taken when they titled the image “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Getting at what is inside of an image and the subjective aspects of an image in the end takes humans. It can be done more efficiently with social networks, but these are still in the end powered by humans.

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  1. dalton says:

    Any thoughts on Yahoo? I mean, they already own one of the biggest social network/photo sites in the world with Flickr, as well as with They must be thinking about monetizing Flickr at some point – and I don’t think pro subscriptions are going to cut it. It seems that they would be in better position to do this than Google.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Much better Dalton, and it certainly could happen. But that topics been out there for a few years now with no visible progress or commitment to the idea. Very well a possibility though. Yahoo’s COO talked about monetizing Flickr in the last Yahoo earnings confernce call.

  3. Shazz says:

    Interview just up with iStock’s biggest selling photographer of all time, Lise Gagne, over on Jeff Howe’s site – It was very cool to speak with her and, I must say, she has a rather heartwarming story. Lise is close to selling 400,000 downloads in 3 years.

  4. Sorry to be so late in replying. Way back in November, Thomas Hawk said:
    but Google has always relied on machines instead of humans to do their work. They believe in the superiority of the AI of machine based algorithms. The stock photography business, like most creative arts, however, is more complex and subjective than that.

    I just posted an excerpt from a photo credit page that made me realize that Google is the future. If photographers can properly keyword their images, they can apparently make significant income solely through Google. The amateurs who can’t keyword their sunsets correctly will be left out.

    The page on my soon to be announced blog is:

    Thanks and best of luck to us all . . .
    Stan Rowin