In the Age of Instagram, how does stock photography compete with cheap and free?

Nearly 30,000 photos are uploaded to Instagram every minute. On Facebook, more than 200,000. According to Yahoo!, 880 billion photos will be taken this year. This deluge of images has changed the way art directors, graphic artists and web editors engage with commercial photography.

“We are seeing more images than before,” said Florence-based stock photographer Francesco Salvaggio. “We are bombarded with images.”

In response, successful commercial photographers must actively engage with the creative directors, photo editors, artists and designers who buy their work. These clients need the right image, right away; they’re looking for cheaper, broader licenses; and they prefer versatile compositions that work in both digital and traditional campaigns.

To learn how photographers are meeting these needs, we spoke with four professionals known for their modern styles and savvy business sense.

Francesco Salvaggio, based in Tuscany, is a globetrotting commercial photographer known for his fresh take of urban settings. Yuri Arcurs is one of the world’s most successful stock photographers; he estimates that one of his photos is licensed every eight seconds. Steve Cole, based in Atlanta, is an industry veteran who caught the photography bug at 12. Finally, Quebec City-based Lise Gagne was the first iStock by Getty Images photographer to reach 500,000 downloads — in 2007, just four years after joining.

Lise-Gagnes, for iStock by Getty Image
Images: 37649852, 40295490, 28256768, 40493512

Trends as creative briefs

Naturally, designers need images that look current. With visual trends changing so rapidly, stock pros cannot afford to fall behind the curve.

“Five years ago,” said Salvaggio, “if you thought of the concept ‘business,’ the first image that came to mind was a series of people wearing suits, in row on a white background, and their arms crossed.”

Today, staged imagery is out. In its place: low-fi, retro and imperfect photos.

“There is a demand for a lot more processing and Instagram-looking imagery,” said Yuri Arcurs. Yet, while clients want “polished” images, they also want authenticity. “It’s not easy,” he added.

Lise Gagne agreed. “Perfection was the trend five years ago, now what matters is the emotion and the story behind the image,” she said. “The perfect photo today has real emotion, natural light and real people in real locations. Authenticity is what the buyers are looking for.”

To stay in sync with designers’ needs, Salvaggio stays informed. “I tend to follow all the webinars my agency does,” he told us, “both for customers and for contributors… I have a lot of subscriptions to international and Italian magazines to keep an eye on the advertising market and to stimulate my creativity.”

Francesco Salvaggio, for iStock by Getty Images
Images: 21134718, 48404156, 20831598, 18537103

Filling in the talent gaps

“There are a lot of creative people in the market,” said Cole. “Designers, art directors, writers — they all have creative skills. With the advent of digital photography, the cameras and tools have gotten better and cheaper, allowing most creative people to purchase a decent camera and start shooting stock.”

Even mobile phones produce serviceable images, but this doesn’t mean designers are looking for low-fi, mobile-device aesthetics. Quite the contrary, in fact.

“Buyers are experts at Photoshop, too,” said Cole. “When a photographer over-processes the image with tools and filters, it actually makes the image look better — but it can be less marketable as a good stock image. We try and go for simple processing and let the end-user manipulate the image how they like.”

Cole delivers value in other ways. “How well can [the client] find great talent, locations, props and so forth? This is where the better photographers live.”

It’s not the camera that makes great stock photos. It’s the photographer’s ability to be a critical resource for designers, whose talents are best utilized elsewhere.

Steve Cole, for iStock by Getty Images
Images: 34075936, 46891192, 28369474, 35350316

Balancing art and ROI

Stock photography has always been a tough business, and it’s not getting any easier.

“The average price for one of my photo shoots is around $4,000,” Arcurs said. “But on a $4,000 shoot, we’re currently looking at about three years to see a return of investment.”

Knowing what designers want today is critical to delivering what they’ll need tomorrow. Thanks to sophisticated tracking tools, photographers can react to their sales data in real time.

“I keep an eye on my downloads each morning,” Gagne said. “It helps a lot to see what customers are looking for… It’s like a real-time focus group on market trends.”

Past sales, too, can be informative.

“Sometimes when an older image stops selling,” said Cole, “we go back to the RAW archive and re-edit, to see if we have another similar image that would tell the same story without being too similar.”

Yuri Arcurs, for iStock by Getty Images
Images: 43978746, 46737690, 26779626

Educating the market

Like the entertainment industry, stock has been impacted by copy-paste and piracy. Commercial photographers are working with creative directors, photo editors, artists and designers to create the most compelling inventory possible.

Arcurs, for example, tries to “shoot stuff that’s so hard to reproduce that it can’t really be copied.” The problem isn’t generally on the client side. As Cole said, We need to do a better job to educate the general public about image uses and licenses.”

Taking snapshots may be a hobby for millions of Instagram users, but commercial photography remains a critical link in the creative supply chain. Commerce cannot trump creativity to the point of no return: The photographer’s artistic impulse must remain part of the commercial process.

“Photography is a passion,” said Gagne, “so whether the image is commercial or not, for me it remains a kind of art. There is still a creativity behind each image created and a magic moment.”

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