There was an article in The Times about a man who found an exotic and hightly venomous spider in a bunch of imported bananas. In order to help experts identify it he had bravely taken a photograph of the creature with his mobile phone. Next to the article was a large detailed and perfectly lit photograph of the head of this dangerous arachnid. A requirement of a good portrait is that the eyes be in focus, and the photographer had managed sufficient depth of field to ensure that the eyes were pin-sharp - all seven of them.
"Wow!", said one of my sons in admiration, "I didnņt realize phone cameras were that good."
Oh dear; where to start? I had to explain that, for many reasons, there was no possibility of taking such a photograph with anything other than an expensive camera with a specialised macro lens costing about a thousand pounds. It would probably be mounted with a ring-flash and attached to bellows, and operated by a specialist photographer of insects and other small creatures who had spent hours or even days painstakingly setting up the shot. "So how did he have time to do all that then?". Well, because the photograph was taken long before the bananas left the plantation. It is an example of stock photography.
It used to be a bit of a cottage industry, with small stock agencies cutting deals with individual photographers. They would typically keep large format transparencies (regardless of the format of the original) in manual indexes. They would search for a suitable image on behalf of a client, or possibly offer a printed catalogue. Royalty fees would be negotiated and a fee paid to the photographer. The deal might involve a picture credit which would appear vertically along the side of the image or in the margin.
Two things have radically changed the industry - the booming demand for images for illustration and advertising in print publications which are nowadays almost invariably produced using a full colour process; and the Internet, which has changed the way stock photography is catalogued and purchased and made it more accessible for the purchaser with instant delivery. Digital photography is also playing a part, but these developments are equally applicable to scanned traditional film. The consequence of these two major changes is that stock photography is now big business and by its nature an attractive play for the super-rich. The biggest stock agencies are Corbis and Getty Images, owned by Bill Gates and Mark Getty respectively, two men with deep pockets and an eye for a good image.
Another development is the availablility of "Royalty Free" images. These are usually supplied on CD or DVD and the disks contain a selection of images on a particular subject. They were originally aimed at the casual or low-end user but the CD producers have gradually moved up-market and gained a foothold in traditional stock photography and now account for a significant proportion of the market. The purchaser can use these images without paying additional royalty fees, giving the advantage of quick access, lower costs and no time-consuming negotiation, although often restrictions apply to the permitted uses. The arrival of desktop publishing has further fuelled demand for "RF" images. Often in niche or trade magazines and newspapers the editor will insert pictures which are only tenuously connected to the adjacent copy simply to improve the layout and overall visual appeal of the publication. One consequence of this is that some of these images crop up quite a lot in printed media and advertising, and after a while you begin to recognise them. This has started to generate a demand for more original work, and some users are now trying to find other sources in order to avoid the "stock look" that the agency catalogues may attract.
As the industry expands and the image libraries grow in size one of the biggest problems is indexing the images by keyword so that users can locate suitable images. This is a time consuming process that is difficult to automate, and the process is made even more difficult because each agency tends to have its own conventions for cataloguing and keywords. Standards are new beginning to emerge that may make cataloguing more consistent across the industry in the future.
The photographers who shoot for stock would probably not claim to be the worldņs greatest in terms of photographic creativity or even technique. What they are all exeedingly good at is in providing images that serve an editorial or advertising purpose. They know what sells because their livelihood depends on it. They will normally operate as freelance photographers either setting out specifically to shoot stock speculatively or grabbing extra images opportunistically while on assignment. In the past a photographer could expect to get about 50% of any royalty fee from an agency, but as the industry has changed this figure appears to be falling considerably. The returns to the photographer for royalty-free images might only be a very small percentage of sales or, more likely, a fixed fee.
Quite a number of stock photographers have tried to "go it alone" or start their own agencies which would result in a better deal for the photographers. Unfortunately the industry, by its nature, requires a large critical mass to be successful. If an agency doesnņt have a huge catalogue of images it is difficult to attract customers. This has acted as a difficult barrier to entry for new agencies and has also affected the viability of smaller traditional agencies. As a result there has been a considerable amount of merger activity amongst stock photographic agencies over the past few years, and many of them have been absorbed into Corbis and Getty Images.
Stock photography is a big industry that is quietly booming behind the scenes, and we enjoy the products every day as we read newspapers, magazines and newsletters, and as we browse the Internet. Next time you see a picture that looks as though it wasnņt shot especially for a particular news item, you can be pretty sure it is a stock photograph. And out there will be freelance photographers shooting pictures of insects speculatively in the hope that, one day, somebody will find one in a bunch of bananas and it will make the front page, and some money.