The end of high-end photography?

In a world where images are commoditized rapidly and even compared to nails in a recent legal dispute between a photographer and Corbis I asked Siri  Vorbeck at Cassimages: Is this the ‘nail in the coffin’ for high-end photography?

High-end photography

 We cannot avoid the fact that Stock Photography will become a commodity.  Our world is becoming more and more visual and consumers have a very generic visual sense. High-end is a word that is completely discredited by the stock industry. Real, highly conceptual high-end has no future in the conventional Stock industry. 

 The set-up cost for a shoot, due to casting, styling and location are too high. There will be new ways to promote this model. Right now it is difficult to differentiate, with manydifferent collection names it is all wishy-washy. The difference for high-end  will be in an exclusive offer, customized and tailored to the specific needs for clients who want to spend more and value the bespoke content. I am also still strongly convinced that a good editor can select the most relevant images for the market.

User generated content (USC) and professional content will not come together totally. Some USC is really great – but come on, let’s all get a little bit more realistic, to be a photographer is still a profession, where you need knowledge and talent, even though this is not valued anymore in the library world. In the past there may have been photographers, with less than the desired talent, but if you see more than 100 images from one contributor, I would say you can see the difference.

I believe there is still a viable future for Stock Photography but it will be different from what it used to be; suppliers will change and the offer will change. The two major players will dominate the mass market and some specialist and bespoke content providers will co-exist.

Shooting at what cost?

The budget for shoots has changed over the past years. When we started, a day cost between 5.000 and 15.000 Euro.  The editing for the Zefa collection was always very strict. The idea was not to clutter the search and not to bore the viewer.  We did not select too many similar and edited in between 20 and 50 Rights managed images per production day from a total of 2000 images (ed: 1-2,5%). For Royalty Free we edited in between 40 to 70 per day (ed: 2-4%).

This is different now. We edit in up to 70/80 images to insure the money comes back – the old stock tradition “more is more” This is now demanded by the industry. We spend 150 Euro max per image. In the end it has to be a win-win situation and at the present time I can see photographers contributing, but the return is super slow and the will to invest more than the pure minimum per images is not there anymore. I personally think it is the death rope for great images in stock photography, don’t get me wrong, there will be some great images here and there, but great photography has to find new ways and cannot be distributed through the old channels.

When we first started photographers contributed work for free or we selected free work form portfolios because it was mainly aimed at promoting their work. Some had great personal work and some decided that they wanted to invest in Stock. You can still spend on shoots now but as little as possible. Spend money on a good concept and try not to shoot the same image a hundred times or use the same style again and again. Try not to be boring.

 What’s next?

 My advice is to always make a good mixture of outstanding images and very commercial orientated ones. When we worked with a photographer on a four day shoot, one day was very conceptual and we spend more time and money on location, light and setting it up. We then worked three days on images, which we knew would work.

 As an Art Director you can work on a good concept and if the photographers gives 1000% you end up with a good image, but if you do not spend, it will be reflected in the result, you can only cut so many corners! In the end it is, like with so many other products; you get what you pay for.

Even though it is not a positive outlook so far and the future seams gloomy for great pictures and photographers you cannot wind back the fast development of devaluation of the stock industry. But you can be sure that quality will find its space. Not to be fearful and move forward, embracing the future in a creative way will be the recipe.
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Siri has been in the industry since 1997.She started in fashion where she worked as a buyer. She subsequently joined ZEFA in 1997 as an Art Director where she built a successful photography collection based on the principles of fashion and style. She became the Creative Director in 1998 and transformed the company from a small agency to the 3rd largest international picture library (Turnover 80M Euros). ZEFA was acquired by Corbis in 2005. For Corbis she moved to London as EMEA Creative Director in 2006 where she raised the profile of the commercial collection, developing a European network of contributing advertising photographers