There’s been a lot of industry hoopla lately about Getty, Flickr, and the flood of user-generated content (UGC). As many professional photographers are recovering from the shock of micro-stock, they are now faced with the onslaught of UGC. I’d like to shed some opinions on this subject in attempts to educate as well as diminish fears. Only when we understand the origins of events can we learn from them.
UGC may seem like a temporary trend but it's not... it's simply a “well” from which to draw realness. 10 years ago, when I worked for Corbis, photo editors couldn't get enough real-looking, reportage-style pictures. We tried relentlessly to get photographers to shoot this way ...and those few who did were very successful in stock (and assignments). This, shoot-from-the-hip, approach was (and still is) the largest hole to fill in stock photography.
Let's face it... most photographers (myself included) are control freaks. We control the light, direct the talent, approve styling, and essentially make viewers see through perspectives that we create ...not to mention the image manipulation in post (essential in my opinion - but further removes truth from the image). Taking all of this into consideration, you can see what a challenge it would be to ask a professional photographer to relinquish some control in efforts to make their photos appear more genuine. Ten years later, as the hunger for 'truth in advertising' still grows, UGC has arrived to feed the beast. No one is to blame. UGC in advertising was created out of the industry’s need for real feeling photography. We can't fight it... we can only learn from it.
By nature of social evolution, every generation is more intelligent than those that proceeded. I’m specifically talking about target consumer groups who’s age range remains consistent (while us photographers get older). For many products and services, this is the younger generations who came out in record numbers to elect our current president. In efforts to lure these increasingly-savvy consumers, companies have been very fond of showing more apparent truth. I'll take this a step further and add my own opinion of the future; this trend will increase to the point of many clients/consumers actually being repelled by over-manipulated or obviously set-up imagery. I've heard this already from clients as well as colleagues.
OK… So how do we continue to add value to our photography in this ever-changing industry? Apart from tangible tasks like casting really great talent, shooting in interesting locations, thoughtful styling, retouching, enhancements, etc...we must not forget about the two most valuable assets to any stock photograph: Concept and Feeling. We all know how valuable concepts have been to our earnings. Well, "Feeling" is right up there now more than ever. User-generated content, in it's pure form, is essentially -All Feeling-. Viewers like to be moved by feelings of nostalgia, humor, inspiration, freedom, etc.... It’s what makes us look at an image just a little longer as it triggers an inner emotion and permits us to insert ourselves into the photo for a few seconds. For many products, consumers are preoccupied with selling “The Feeling” one gets from buying their product. This is nothing new except that it is now increasingly important to achieve these feelings through a genuine approach rather than an obvious set-up or an over-enhancement in post. After a viewer takes the time to feel something real from a photograph, if their next emotion is that of being tricked or fooled, they can walk away with feelings of distrust …the last thing any corporation wants in times when investment/banking scandals continue to occupy headlines.
I'm not saying that digitally manipulated fantasies, concept shots, and over-the-top humor scenarios are dead. The trend and need for these visuals have been around a long time and it’s just as big now as it was in years past. It's just a bit over-subscribed in the stock libraries and agencies have shifted their attention away (exceptions being made for best-of-class, uniquely-clever executions only). Photoshop is so easy now that enhancements that use to take hours (if not days) can be batch automated in a matter of minutes. If you haven't noticed, the latest digital manipulation tricks have set new web standards for sharpness, contrast, and apparent depth. So… this “hyper reality” is still well in fashion for many types of products.
I bring this up because for every trend, there is a counter trend. It's the yin & yang of advertising and it's always been that way. Today, as imagery becomes more manipulated, it gives power to be countered by lower-tech, higher-feeling visual trends. Remember in the nineties when over-saturation was big? How about Velvia? Well, soon after the peak of high color, it gave way to the trend of unsaturated and muted color palettes. Everyone was pulling down saturation and cranking up contrast. Pick up any fashion magazine today and you will see a similar juxtaposition between imagery with deep, rich color followed by classic B&W photography on the next page. Dueling trends provide a way for ads to stick out.
Visual trends are very important waves of creative evolution. When you think about it, co-existence of two counter trends is an imminent event since one could not survive without the other ...in fact, they bring life to each other. I don't like the word "trend" because it gives a feeling of a temporary fad. On the contrary, the visual trends of the last ten years have stuck around and dictated a need for fresh content. Just think how it would be without visual trends! As stock photographers, we'd all be in big trouble.
So back to adding value... I have a simple theory that I believe will open up many opportunities for growth. To start, we need to harness the attraction of Concept and Feeling into your own photography directions. If concept shooters can add more Feeling and realness -and- lifestyle shooters can add more Conceptual context (while maintaining realness), great things can only come from it. That's it...it's simple but also very, very, very important for our survival. Bottom line, stock agencies want what is rare and hard to get. Editors are in the business of filling holes in the collection. It’s ironic that “reality” would be driving one of their largest holes…but if you can achieve high quality, real-looking imagery with feeling, they will love you and you should do quite well in return. Ride the wave!
Scott Redinger-Libolt is a photography specialist who has worked both inside most of the big stock agencies and outside shooting for them under the alias of "PBNJ Productions" for the last 14 years. Scott and his wife Cristina are based in Miami Beach where they shoot a healthy mix of stock and assignment. Their work can be viewed at: http://redinger-libolt.com
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