Think TankWe are on the footsteps of a new photography landscape that is or will be affecting everyone who intends to draw substantial revenue operating a camera. While we can see and feel the changes, how to adapt is not clear. Mostly because we are trying to apply or adapt old models to new rules and it just doesn’t fit.

We have talked many times about how, for example, the rights managed model is fast becoming obsolete in the majority of photography usage, because of the new way people consume images. However, because it seemingly reaps higher revenues, and by sheer force of habit, it is still offered, and applied to many photography licenses. While it is beneficial for the image creator ( or so it seems), it is a painful experience for the buyer and brings little value to the viewers.

Let’s take a step back. There are three facets to the photography market:

  • The image rights holder ( mostly photographers or photo owners)

  • The licensor ( publications, advertising agencies, websites)

  • The viewer (the image consumers)

Each facet needs to extract maximum value out of photography. Here is how the cycle works.

The photographer creates an image for the purpose of licensing it. Wether it is stock or commissioned work, it really doesn’t matter, as the end result is to have a client, the licensor, pay a fee to use the image. To do so, the image rights holder needs to photographically convince the buyer that his image will succeed in getting the viewers to buy into the licensor’s message: For an ad campaign, it is about buying into the brand and for publications it is about buying into credibility. Once the photograph’s buying power is perceived exhausted, the cycle starts again and a new image is purchased.

In this cycle, how is value calculated ? By sheer perception. The licensor, who ultimately sets the price by deciding to pay or not, decides, based on a set of predefined social factors, if an image will do its job as a buying motivator. Those are, in no particular order, the overall power of the photographer as a social influencer, past experience with similar images, common visual trends and gut feelings. Other circumferential influences are the originality of a photograph ( nothing similar has existed previously) as well as its faculty to remain unique for a set limited time.

All of these weight in the decision process at different levels, however none are scientific. For a good reason: Metrics to calculate the buying influence of an image do not exist in an analog world. This has made the pricing of images fluctuate tremendously.

Something happened when images and licensors turned digital. A new breed of licensors stepped into the market, who did not care so much about the unique buying influence of one image but rather in many images, of a flow of images. Because of the nature of their medium, on-line, and the poor attention habits of their viewers ( who are their clients), they quickly realized that trying to convince their viewers with one image was a fruitless experience. Rather, they needed to provide a continuous flow. Each individual photograph might have less influence, but with a constant refreshing, the sum of all images would equal if not exceed any and all unique experience. Thus, they started looking for a flow of images, rather than uniques. So was born royalty free, later on exacerbated by microstock. What matters is to convince the viewers during repeated visits.

Another reason for this switch is that viewers, during the same period, have been exposed to a much larger pool of photography, almost entirely fed by themselves. The power ( and thus value) of one image has been drown in an incessant tsunami of photographs.

At this stage more precise metrics began to appear. Image buyers started having tools helping them monitor the traffic on their pages as well as overall response ( text + photograph). Perception analysis and gut decision made way for raw analytics.

Experience photo editors ( those with valuable perception) began to disappear replaced by budget and number driven decision making editors. The value of one image doesn’t matter in a universe driven by numbers calculated month by month and in the millions. The flow matters; It is no longer a unique buying conversion but an experience conversion.

Rights holders do not have access to those metrics so they keep on making pricing decision based on the antiquated perception model. In fact they are completely shut out of market intelligence beside the occasional reports and “best of” lists on some of the microstock website.

And so this is where we are today. A market looking for a flow, a continuous experience with proven metrics while photographers continue producing single images. No wonder the winners are rights holders with subscription based model like Getty, AP, Shutterstock and others. They license a continuous flow where unique images are really not that much valued.

The photo creating process needs to be re-thought to take into consideration this evolution of the market. A photographer today should stop thinking in terms of uniques or even sets of 10/20 images but rather in terms of flow and experience. They should also very aggressively seek out and use image analytic tools so they can not only re -seize control of their value, but also be able to conduct an intelligent conversation with their clients. Instead of the antiquated perceived value they should able to show that their images have been directly responsible for x number of purchase or/and a quantifiable increase of traffic. They should understand their marketplace as well as their clients do ( if not better) by understanding how the viewers ( their clients’ client and thus their ultimate client) engage with their images.

The three sided photography market is heavily weighted towards the buyers because they are the first and only to understand the new landscape they evolve in. They have a much stronger grasp of their audience, thanks to powerful analytics, which they have used to control almost despotically the image licensing market. This has left the rights holder with only one option: Abandon the perceived value approach, adopt image analytics and shift from an unique images production to a continuous flow of content. Only then will we see a readjustment of the controlling elements of the photography industry.

The questions photographers should be able to answer with hard numbers should be:

How do people engage with my photographs.

Do my pictures make viewers want to buy more product or return to this site

Which of my photograph has been seen ( not sold) the most. Why ?

Which of my photograph has altered the behavior of the viewers ? How and why ?

Why are my pictures more valuable than any other photographers ?

In a marketplace, wether editorial or commercial, seeking to optimize return for each dollar spend, photographers should be able to provide number proven arguments. Number of images sold is of no interest to a buyer who is looking for conversion numbers. One could have sold thousands of images with none  actually making someone want to buy a product or return to a site.  

The successful pro photographers of the next decade will be the one that embraces the new analytics tools at his disposal and apply the analytical discovery to his images. It will be the ones that uses raw data to match, and even surpass, his clients market intelligence in order to deliver the top performing images. It will be those who will have learned to clearly understand why and how their images affect the people seeing them. No more perception, no more gut feeling, just raw facts.

Author: pmelcher


  1. Can you explain what you consider a continuous flow of content ? Maybe some examples ? Thanks for your post !!

    1. Author


      there are many ways to approach it.

      you see examples of it in the production of some microstock shooters. They produce thousands of images with the target of generating high returns not on single images but on the continuous flow of images. Also, a while back, I had written about evolving from single image merchants to service provider. Have your clients pay you a subscription fee for a flow of images rather than one time for one image.
      Keep in mind that these days, brands, as well as publishers, need a lot of images. Not only for their campaigns or publications, but also for their social media channels ( Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc). It is important to rethink how you perceive them.

      I could write about many many other ways.

      However, all this will not be successful without strong image analytics as you will be offering your images blindfolded. Ignoring or delaying technology will not make it go away but rather make you obsolete.

      Hope this is helpful

      ~ Paul

  2. There is a lot to digest in this post. As a photographer I am trying to get my head around what you are saying, and how it will adjust my thinking.



    1. I had a chance to digest this information ( it is amazing how much thinking you can do on a bus ride)

      Let me see if I have your idea right. The true value of an image is its ablity to do its “job” ( job being: call to action, attract attention, create an emotional response) .

      You mention we, as creators, need to learn how to judge and value an image or flow of images based on this.

      How can we do this? What are the criteria, besides personal experience, that will allow use to say $X for this one $Y for this one?

      1. Author

        Correct, as you say, “The true value of an image is its ablity to do its “job” ( job being: call to action, attract attention, create an emotional response)” .

        One of the great feature that has come with digital publishing is the ability to track. Any website today can tell you where viewers come from, at what time, what page they red the most, how long do they stay, how many times they return and much more more. With print, this is impossible. While publishers have gain this tremendous intelligence on their viewers, photographers, on the other hand, have been left out. They have resorted, like in the print world, to reading their sales report and deduct what image is the most popular by calculated the total dollar amount they receive. However, this information is potentially full of errors. It is not because an image has be licensed many times, or for a lot of money, that it has been successful in converting viewers. There is no correlation. The image buyer will know, because he has the metrics. Not the photographers.
        Today, there are tools that offer those metrics to photographers . Stipple ( Full disclosure : my company) offers image analytics among which conversion rates. You can actually see which image has been the most successful at engaging viewers into purchasing items, for example. There are other companies that have similar attributes. The point of this entry is to inform image sellers that instead of using experience, sales reports, gut feeling they should be using the tools offered to them so they can discuss pricing (value) at the same level as their clients.
        The level of information that image buyers have on the viewership today is incredibly well defined while image sellers really have no clue who sees, like, or even how people interact with their pictures. Isn’t it time it changes? Isn’t it time photographers use the same tools? What baffles me is that those tools are available but not yet widely adopted.
        Hope that helps
        Paul M

        1. I saw and followed the links to stipple, and frankly I could not work out how it would fit into my workflow as I create a “flow of images”(Disclaimer I am on a extermely slow internet connection so I did not explore too much or too deep)

          I can see how it would help on specialty sites, ie sites that are selling a product,

          I am just coming to the microstock world and need to work smarter to get a leg up.

          1. Author

            Stipple is not really a tool to manage a flow but rather to control it.It is perfect for attribution, analytics and revenue. If all our images were to be Stippled, you could not only find out where they are published, how many views they are getting and generate revenue on those who have a commercial tag on them. You would also never fear the lost of your credit on your images.

  3. I am not a professional photographer, in that i do not make a living from my work. I am a street and documentary photographer and do it out of love of freezing time.

    This is more in line with what I deal with in my area of modern day photography issues.

    The future of museums and their photography print collection may be quite a bit different from the current state of being if they wish to keep collecting. A common complaint I hear from many curators is space limitations and conservation costs.

    I have to wonder how the over loaded museums will house the generations of work that photographers have yet to produce. There is no room at the inn for any of them it seems. Something will have to give…

    I now propose in all my gift proposals to curators that a museum can take hi res TIFF files in place of prints if the physical prints would cause a hardship on their resources.

    Some photographers may not be as eager to give out high resolution files. But the museums can put it out there and it may become a new trend and S.O.P. with museums that would like to expand their collections, but have no room for new works.

    Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

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