Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sharing and Selling Photos

A few months back, Wired Magazine published a rather breathless article on crowdsourcing, "[t]he new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D." I'm unconvinced by the significance or scalability for much of the crowdsourcing described. Amateur videos look, well, amateur for the most part.

And other efforts such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk haven't really gone anywhere. (The idea behind Mechanical Turk is that computers are truly bad at some things--such as recognizing objects in photos--that just about any person can do easily. But, as the article acknowledges, the real "killer app" hasn't appeared; perusing the current listings turns up more ordinary tasks that people are somehow hoping to get done for rates way below minimum wage.) Egoboo-style work is a cousin to crowdsourcing but it assumes there's a desire among (competent) people to contribute their time for free.

But one area where crowdsourcing does seem to have had some material impact is stock phoography. iStockPhoto is perhaps the best known of the so-called "micro-stock" sites. Pricing? From $1 for "web-ready" resolution up to $20 or $40 for the highest resolutions. (In other words, dirt cheap by normal stock standards.) Photos on the site are inspected for quality and other issues (such as trademarked logos and such). Model release forms are also required for any recognizable faces. In other words, buyers can have reasonable confidence that what they see is what they get without any surprises lurking. In my view, this is a big reason why micro-stock from a company like iStockPhoto is more attractive than other forms of crowdsourcing. The photos are known quantities and the transaction to buy them is as simple as pointing and clicking. (Getty, a large traditional photo stock agency, bought iStockPhoto--apparently in the "if you can't beat them, join them, vein.")

I'd just add that I think it a mistake to conflate all amateur and semi-pro photo sites as Scoble does in this post or to confuse the needs and desires of amateur photographers with those of professional art directors using photos. A site like Flickr is far more about sharing photos and interacting with a photographic community than it is about selling photos. Indeed, Flickr does nothing to facilitate such sales; it's up to a potential buyer to contact the photographer directly. There's nothing wrong with that--and, indeed, I can see a graphics professional coming across some perfect photo for a project in Flickr--but it's not really Flickr's purpose.

Although other sites, perhaps most notably smugmug, try harder to strike a balance between photo sharers and photo sellers, there tend to be rather fundamental differences in priorities and preferences between professional stock photography and amateur art and play. It's not a matter of gear or talent, but between producing and packaging photos in a way that they can be easily sold to users of stock--or in a way that meets our own needs and desires.