What do you do if your company needs a picture of a dog on O'Connell Bridge? It is a question that doesn't need an answer for Patrick Hamilton Walsh, whose relatively recent start-up PicHit aims to "fix a broken photo market".
So what do you do? You go online and tap into the modern era of cheap, readily available images on-demand.
The increasing availability of digital stock photos has long-since replaced the obsolete catalogue and print model and is continuing to grow. As it does so, more companies are emerging with an eye on market potential. They are intent on undermining titans such as Getty and supplanting free alternatives from the likes of Google Images.
Multimillion dollar photo-shoots illustrating thematic subjects like “golf”, “health” or “parenthood” are, in many cases, being challenged by the “man with the camera-phone” approach, something Hamilton knows a thing or two about.
In 2007, he began travelling the world, documenting his travels with
phone pictures. Arguably nobody has become so publicly intimate with the potential of digital photography in its simplest form. His experience eventually steered him to the Swedish-based PicHit team who, two years in existence, cherish a more straightforward photographic ideal.
While also embracing the work of professionals and high-end amateurs, PicHit describes itself as a "fair trade photo market", connecting millions of people with photo communities, stock photos and people with cameras. If it seems an egalitarian approach, it is also indicative of how modern technology facilitates changing philosophies. "A few years ago you wouldn't have a smartphone picture selling your shoes," Hamilton Walsh says by way of an example, no doubt alluding to a footwear company which did exactly that. "Maybe [the approach produces] a picture that you think is crap and I think is crap, but maybe it's a photo that a guy in China thinks is perfect."
Nobody is suggesting high-end professional photography is under any existential threat, but in many ways the camera-phone approach is analogous of other emerging technologies that have rattled the hegemony of expensive, often inaccessible precursors; the film and recording industries have already felt the pinch.
The allure of informal photography, Hamilton Walsh believes, is seen in consumption rates: 1.8 billion pictures uploaded to the internet every day.
accounts for about 300 million of these and
is gaining ground.
“We are living in a time now when people are using images to communicate with the world. A picture will tell a thousand words and it tells it in universal language which is why it’s so popular,” he says.
In the commercial sphere, images are crucial to publishing, advertising, marketing and business presentations. Getty and Shutterstock are among the dominant names, producing high-quality pictures that come at a price. Google Images has become a mainstay, although quality varies and most downloads are without copyright. Hamilton Walsh says 85 per cent of image downloads last year were unlicensed. In June 2014 the value of the download market was placed at $14 billion (€12.5 billion) so, by his reckoning, when you factor in the quantity of those used without any financial transaction, the real value is about $100 billion (€90 billion). This goes a long way to explain the interest within the start-up sector.
The number of pictures on the PicHit site is climbing and as a result of an agreement with Shutterstock, more than 50 million can be accessed within Microsoft PowerPoint. PicHit's goal is to make images affordable and create opportunities for countless photographers to make money.
Coming back to the dog on O’Connell Bridge, Hamilton Walsh says a key aspect is “giving access to photographs that don’t’ actually exist yet”. Subscribers can order bespoke pictures, photographers get a fee and PicHit takes a commission. It is a “shop window” approach, rather than hiring photographers or funding expensive commercial shoots.
After all, he says, “the biggest hotel provider in the world doesn’t own any rooms; the biggest taxi company doesn’t own any taxis”. (Airbnb and Uber, for anyone who needs to ask). “We are looking for new photographers of all ages and all ability. If somebody has 20,000 images under their bed, post them.”
Users of PicHit can get unlimited access to low-resolution images for free. They can also request pictures from the virtual community with a 24-hour delay in the process. However, paying a $10 monthly “premium” subscription gets you unlimited access to high-res images and instant access to community photographers.
This model is, in effect, the Spotify or NetFlix approach. “The reason we know it works is because of these two companies,” says Hamilton Walsh. “They are the companies I talk about in presentations.”
PicHit recently reached a deal to support Microsoft’s Sway, a presentation app that allows users to combine text and media to form professional websites for various uses. At Getty though, the idea of “traditional” image-sourcing systems versus new does not sit well.
"I don't think there is a traditional model," says Craig Peters, senior vice-president of business development at Getty Images, who says that while crowd-sourcing is the biggest development, Getty has been doing it since 2003.
“That is something that we were early to embrace and continue to embrace today,” he says. “What they [PicHit] are doing is crowd-sourcing assignment imagery. They can get all the PR they want in the world, but honestly I don’t think it’s all that innovative.”
Getty is well placed to discuss innovation; it has had to move quickly, having been formed in the maelstrom of a rapidly evolving industry. In 1995 the space was defined by a small number of photographers with limited content marketed through catalogues to a small number of clients.
In 1999 it went digital and embraced the emerging royalty-free system in which images, once purchased, could be used repeatedly. It then paired this approach with today’s familiar subscription system.
“We are innovating continuously,” says Peters. “We have always faced competition in our market. There has always been a lot of entry into our market. Typically they offer an inferior product.”
Getty can afford to make judgments. Its iStock service, separate from the high-end Getty Images, competes in the same space albeit at a higher price. It sells content, including photographs and video on a credit-purchase or subscription basis.
In keeping with the company’s core value though, the quality of photography is paramount and screened-before images can be uploaded.
The difference, says Peters, is that iStock “takes the risk out of that imagery; you know what you are going to get. You have the rights and you don’t have to wait.”
Getty Images is the platinum alternative pitched at corporate clients with money to spend. Peters uses a racing car hypothetical to differentiate the two.
In creating such an image, Getty might hire a track, pay extras, fit them with authentic uniforms and re-create a race day scenario; iStock will not go quite that far and might just rent the track. Still, it’s a long way off smartphones.
For Getty, quality of image, speed of delivery and legitimate licensing of copyright are its triumvirate of values.
On the latter point, Peters is critical of Google. “If you are taking images from Google Images you are more often than not breaking the copyright. I would certainly say that Google made it easy for people to steal images.”
In any event, as the tectonic plates of the image-sourcing world continue to pull and realign, Getty is keeping its balance.
“Whatever it is in five years, it won’t look like what we are doing right now,” says Peters, accepting inevitable change in order to face it head on. “I just know that that’s what we wake up every day thinking about.”
It’s not all innovation though. As with all corporate monoliths, if Getty doesn’t develop it, it can simply acquire it.
Jerry Kennelly, whose Kerry-based stock photograph company Stockbyte was sold to it in 2007 for $135 million, says the market, like many, comes down to economies of scale. (Getty also acquired iStock, then iStockphoto, in 2006).
"Getty are the Tesco of images and it's very hard to break that stronghold," Kennelly says.
Stockbyte was created in 1996 at a time when stock images were priced at as much as €10,000 each.
It decided to offer them digitally, and buyers could use them as much as they wanted, which was the genesis of the royalty-free image in Europe.
Beginning with just ten generic subjects such as “business”, “families” and “busy people”, they were shot to a very high standard – often costing more than $1 million per shoot – and protected from aging too quickly, preserving their value to graphic designers and other clients.
“That was effectively the start of a new sector and we were one of three companies that changed the rules dramatically.”
By 2000, there were more than 50 image-creator companies using the royalty-free model and nobody has looked back. In 2004 Getty began to distribute their images and by 2006 they had bought the company.
“The big challenge is access to market,” says Kennelly of his time at the forefront of the industry.
“You could have the most fantastic images in the world but you need access. [Dominant companies] are effectively image supermarkets.”
And where would you source a picture of one of those?