The other stock market

Jul 12, 2010
Wonderful Machine News

Wonderful Machine was recently featured in a PDN article called “Good News in Stock Photography.” What’s the good news? Well, as the accompanying resource guide indicates, a number of small and selective agencies are proliferating in the stock photo market, with a focus on providing high-quality images from creative professional photographers.

The photo used above the text was by our photographer Tom Barwick. Tom has extensive experience in stock photography, so I caught up with him to learn more about the changing industry. When I asked him about the future of stock, Tom pointed out how fast the industry moves and gave a classical Socratic response: “I know enough that I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Nevertheless, Tom is sure that “business of stock is not going to go away,” but he sees it splitting into two categories: “fast-food” photography that is low-cost and high-volume, and “boutique” photography that emphasizes quality. The challenge for boutique agencies is to keep up with the quantity of images provided by the big companies. “You need to have a certain volume,” Tom told me, “to keep buyers coming”; he has written on his blog about the rapid growth of Getty, to a “daunting” 24.7 million licensed images, which followed consolidation as the major “game-changer” in the industry. For photographers, that challenge is providing a sufficient quantity of images while still maintaining a standard of quality.

Photos by Thomas Barwick

Wonderful Machine is not a stock agency; we connect clients to photographers through a carefully selected roster, which facilitates both stock requests and assignments. So to learn about how some of the boutique stock agencies deal with industry challenges, I got in touch with New York photographer Hans Neleman, founder of WIN-Initiative. PDN teamed up with WIN’s publication WINk Magazine (which you can read online) to provide a representative cross-section of the emerging stock world for their resource guide.

“I think photographers now have options,” Hans told me, with organizations like his that “keep infusing more creative work into stock photography.” WIN provides a “tightly edited” collection of photography “centered on contemporary youth culture.” Their unique business model grew from the mission of providing the up-and-coming international talent with equipment, and they continue to employ what Hans describes as “alternative cross-platform promotional tools” that are based in collaboration between different sectors of the photography world. Their latest competition, 10 Best 10, brought together magazines like Time Out with Sony; each regional winner received a Sony A550L camera and an assignment for one of the partner magazines (along with a grand prize of a Broncolor Mobil lighting kit).

At the most fundamental level, WIN-Initiative has navigated some of the contradictions of the stock world by partnering with other agencies, who understand the value of their unique content and “can distribute it with an incredible reach.” Hans explained the approach with a shopping similie: “I like to compare it to having the hippest boutique in the mall as well as offering your entire vision through your flagship store.”

The issue of reach also came up in my conversation with Tom Barwick; he sees it as the major challenge for newer agencies. “How do you get the interesting images, the relevant images, the unique images,” asked Tom, “in front of the right pair of eyeballs?” One possible strategy he hopes to see developed by creative marketers and distribution managers is a “more seamless integration” between the work of individual photographers and the large collections of stock agencies. Tom imagines new ways for clients to search for images, allowing photographers to take advantage of the “power of truly mass marketing,” by publicizing their own work and linking their unique publicity to larger distribution agencies.

How has the changing landscape of stock photography affected you, and what possible strategies do you hope to see implemented in the future? Let us know in the comments.

-Asad Haider