Is Stock Photography Evil?

It is no longer difficult to take an adequate photograph. I say that with confidence, as a person who treats her digital camera as essentially a magic box with a button on one side and a USB port on the other. And yet, if I take enough pictures under good light, I can turn out clear photos of attractive subjects. And I am not alone. The natural consequence of photography become cheap and easy is that more people have taken it up. Between rechargeable batteries and online forums, more people are developing their abilities to a useful level. More people are deciding to try and make a little money from their pictures.

Enter the stock photo agencies. Stock agencies (such as Shutterstock and Istockphoto) accept digital photographs in large numbers, and sell them for a low price for non-exclusive use. At a few dollars each, stock photographs are an inexpensive alternative to hiring a professional-photographer-shot pictures. A few stock agencies, such as stock.xchng, even offer pictures for free. Many professional photographers are, predictably, not thrilled by this development. Some argue that people who sell their photographs cheaply or give them away for free undermine photography as a profession, impoverish working photographers and allow themselves to be exploited.

There is one glaring problem with this argument: they are essentially blaming the apple for gravity. Digital camera are cheap to buy, cheap to use, and automate much of what used to be a complicated process. The internet allows the products of these cameras to be shipped to vendors for free. Given these two technological development, the crash in the market for adequate photographs was inevitable. The destruction of the careers of adequate photographers could not be prevented. You may dislike this development, you may complain about it, but it will not be reversed.

Stock photographers are the absolute creators and owners of their photographs. As such they can give their work away, they can charge as much—or as little—as they like. And there will always be some teen settling for “exposure” or someone in a less developed country who can trade fifty American cents for a hearty meal. No professional can demand higher pay when they are competing with the unwashed masses for skills that are common using equipment that is cheap.

And as a member of those masses I am completely unapologetic. I take photographs for fun and I sell them for a small amount of supplemental income. As a creator of photographs that is my option, my right, and to my benefit. Any photographer who wants to charge full professional fees can no longer be merely adequate. They can no longer do what any member of the public with a compact camera and a steady hand can achieve. And no matter how much they complain about this new reality, it is not going to change.

Stock photography my have crushed the businesses of some photographers at at the lower and middle reaches of the professions, but that is not evil any more than gravity is evil. People will always buy what is cheap, do what is easy, and take what they can get. That is just one of life’s realities–and anyone who thinks berating stock photographers is going to make a difference needs to… well, they need to get real.

2 thoughts on “Is Stock Photography Evil?

  1. Emily, you bring up many issues in the area of commercial use of art. There’s often very little difference, or at least a very fine line, between modern pop art pieces and graphic design for advertising; and then there’s the whole issue of “value” in True Art vs. commercial and even commissioned art. Motivation/intention, use, availability, amount charged/paid are all part of the conversation — and each affected by the ease of technology and the low-to-no cost barrier to enter the field.

    In fact, the very publications and places which would necessitate the purchase of photographs have virtually no barriers either… Which brings us to the pros and cons of such accessibility. Normally these conversations center on newspapers V. blogs, but certainly the ease of digital creations must be included in the dialog. Heck, ecommerce alone has impacted the sale & presentation of art.

    A lot to think about here 🙂

    I, however, remain frustrated in my inability to consistently take adequate photos — but then I settle for using the camera in my cell phone 😉

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