Interview with Dan Heller
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Dan Heller Interview:
John: It appears to me that you are someone who has achieved a great deal of success in the photography business through a very non-traditional route.
You have truly made the Internet work for you, eschewing the traditional stock agency route and riding your own website to success. Can you briefly bring us up to speed on how and why you did that?
Dan: Your observation that my route to success was “non-traditional”, but that is only applicable to the photo industry. In any non-photo business model, my “success” was very traditional – in fact, textbook.
The photo industry is unusual in economic terms, a notion that escapes most photographers. This is due to the fact that, prior to the internet, most photographers didn’t really manage their careers like every other businessperson would.
Rather, they were largely represented by others who sold their work, so they never learned to develop business skills and models that lead to individual achievement.
I came from the tech sector, where my business experience was already tuned to that kind of competitive business practices that most photographers still don’t really “get.”
My history is that I happened to be one of the early photo hobbyists who put photos online for fun—to share with friends …or anyone. When someone once wanted to license a photo from me, I had no idea what to charge, so I asked a mailing list of pro photographers for advice.
From the outset, I was vilified for doing anti-photographer practices, such as willing to charge less than other photographers, putting my photos online (because it would harm sales to pro photographers’ sites), and a number of other things that were antithetical to known, proven economic theory.
I then started writing articles about how to properly apply basic and fundamental business principles to individual photo careers. This is what lead to my site getting even more traffic, raising my site ranking, and therefore the number of buyers who use the internet to find images.
John: You have a different view of the size of the stock photography market than the traditional “players” in the industry do. How big do think it really is and why?
Dan: I’ve written about this extensively in my blog (danheller.com/blogs), but the short answer is that I calculate the size of the stock industry to be $20-25B, compared to the $1-3B that most photographers think it is.
I derive that number by adding in all the peer-to-peer licensing from non-traditional sources that both buy and sell imagery that most analysts don’t (and won’t) look at. Again, details are in my blog.
John: My own history is of working through large traditional agencies, and while I agree that consumers are a potentially gigantic market, I’m not sure what kind of images they are looking for. Has your experience with that market given you any insight into the kind of images consumers want?
Dan: Consumers look for anything and everything. It doesn’t matter. Once decision-making leaves “skilled designers and marketing directors” and is left in the hands of the consumer, all rules about “what sells” go out the window. Consumers (that is, people who “consume” images without having anything to do with traditional media commerce) often have extremely poor taste, poor design skills, and inconsistent purchasing patterns.
The epiphany for me came when I sold an image that I shot with a disposable point-n-shoot camera back in the 80s to small a church that hired a stay-at-home mother with simple Photoshop skills to design their website. They bought it for $399. (Getty’s quotes for images at that time was for $800.)
That was in 2000, just over three years before I got my first digital camera. It was a pivotal paradigm shift for me in my understanding of the new consumer-buying market, and because it was so clear that anyone with a camera that was joining the internet was going to be selling exactly the same [poor] quality photos in a very short timeframe.
Once you realize where the real market is, you realize that the “traditional” buyer (and seller), focus on a very small niche market in the total global stock industry. That’s not to say that $1-3B in sales is “small” in absolute terms, it’s just small as a percentage of the whole.
John: You have a wealth of experience in licensing images through your site. Do you find that art directors, designers and editors, at this point, are searching for and licensing images directly from photographers over the Internet?
Dan: Of course they do – there are already many studies that show that such people search for images on the net using Google and other traditional search engines. Searchers land on pages that happen to be ranked well, and those are rarely stock photo agency sites.
While these “traditional” directors and designers will still go to traditional agencies as well, this is more of a cultural byproduct of their industries; it’s not a viable representation of global behaviors.
John: Right now Google Image search doesn’t appear to be a very effective way to look for stock photography. That could change. Perhaps if more high quality photography gets indexed by Google, then more traditional users of stock will be motivated to search using Google.
Do you think that the Google Image search could or will become an effective tool for finding and licensing stock, or is it a more effective search tool as it stands now, than I realize?
Dan: Photographers erroneously believe that because there’s a lot of “crap” in search results, that it’s not how people search. But that’s not true. Google images search is a very effective way to look for stock images. Granted, there’s a lot of bad stuff to churn through, but that process isn’t a deterrent for buyers—at least, it hasn’t been.
One can eyeball a huge array of images in mass qualities (especially with browsing tools like Cool Iris) and quickly pin-point the kind of imagery that you want to use. Again, putting yourself in the position of the buyer, spending 15 minutes looking for a good shot of two men shaking hands (for example) can easily be done on Google by consumers.
John: Ranking High in the search engines seems to be a key, if not the key, to your strategy. Do you focus on generating traffic or do you focus on generating a certain kind of traffic; i.e. people looking for photography or perhaps a certain type of photography?
Dan: Personally, I do nothing more than what’s already recommended by standard SEO techniques: I generate a LOT of content, keyword my images well, name my images using descriptive filenames (a technique that few photographers employ), and I engage in social networking. I don’t do any “targeting” at all – if I did, that would dilute my rankings.
John: Optimizing one’s site for the search engines is critical to generating traffic, and I know that SEO is a combination of quality links, relevant text, good site organization and proper use of meta data, page titles, headings and so forth.
It is also said that Content is King, and you have a lot of content. How important is having 34,000 images in your database for generating traffic to your site? Can a photographer succeed with a few thousand or even a few hundred images?
Dan: (I actually have close to 40,000 images on my site, with another 20K about to come online soon.) Yes, quantity of content is critical – this is another thing most photographers haven’t done well…certainly not historically. Photographers traditionally used the internet as a way to put their contact info up, and a portfolio of sorts.
They erroneously believe that they should only have “quality” content up, that “bad” photos can hurt them. These are all wrong—you should have as much content as you can possibly generate. You also need to “seed” the internet with references to yourself by engaging in forum discussions, not about photography, but about subjects of your personal expertise.
If you know about cars, blog about cars, talk in discussion forums about cars, be an expert on cars that prompt people to want to link to you. All you need is links. If you get linked to a lot, traffic comes. If you happen to have photos as well, then your photos get traffic. Photographers think that having a successful site is about photography – it isn’t. It’s about being smart at something and having people consider you an expert in that field.
John: You have an interactive element to your site, people can vote on your images. Do you feel that is an important addition to your site?
Dan: Not directly, and not in a big way. But it is another (of many) elements that improve site ranking. The more people engage, the longer they stay on my site. When people stay longer, and view more pages, stats on my site goes higher, and therefore my page rank goes higher.
It’s all about page rank – as that goes up, the higher your chance that your site comes up in search results when real buyers are looking for images on a particular theme.
John: The conventional wisdom seems to be that it is a mistake to put ads on a photographer’s site, but you have ads…lots of them! Is your revenue from the ads significant?
Dan: If a real buyer goes Google and types “photos of San Francisco”, my page will come up as either #1 or #2 (depending on the day). They’ll enter the page and eye instantly gravitate to the pictures they want.
They will be totally blind to the ads (because my ads aren’t intrusive). They’ll either see the photos they want, or they’ll leave. Non-buyers may view ads, and hopefully click on them. Ads are a way to get money from people who aren’t interested in buying pictures. J
John: Would you advise photographers to have a presence on social media sites?
Dan: Yes, but it’s not a binary question. You don’t just “have a presence.” You have to do so intelligently. Again, it’s all about site ranking. If your presence generates attention and traffic to your site, that’s good. If not, then it’s a waste of time.
Having traffic to your site means that your “presence” has to be one in which people perceive you as a valuable resource for information. Having a blog where you talk about your experiences in shooting a particular subject isn’t interesting. Why would someone link to that? Remember again: that [probably] has nothing to do with photography.
John: Do you see value for professional photographers to showcase images on Flicker?
Dan: Because Flickr is indexed well by search engines, the answer is “Yes.” But the question then becomes, “how much do you do this?” I have some photos on Flickr, and each one has a link to my own site. This adds nominally to my site rankings because I get more links to my site from another high-ranked site. It’s not a lot, but it’s a little. And when people visit my Flickr pages, they may also follow the links to my site as well. So, it’s another grain in the sand that fills the SEO bucket.
John: Getty editors have sorted through Flicker and created a Flicker Brand. What do you think of how Getty is handling Flicker?
Dan: I blogged long ago that Getty still doesn’t get the big picture: that the future of stock licensing is not about having good editors finding good pictures worth selling, but about aggregating as much content as possible (even bad content) and just letting the marketplace decide what they want.
Let the “editing” be done by the natural process of search rankings and user behaviors, just as my own site has demonstrated. Getty’s relationship with Flickr is just perpetuating their old business model, the success of which has been self-evident over the past 5 years.
The short answer is that Getty should simply buy Flickr from Yahoo, and enable ALL the images to be licensed. Now, that’s easier said than done because there are logistical and legal questions on ownership and whatnot for many images, but there are ways to work through these issues through iterative step-wise processes.
Sure, it would take a bit of time, but the first step in this journey is the paradigm shift: user-generated content is king, and the “editing” is done by the holistic internet.
I don’t think Getty will really ever get it though—there’s too much entrenched agreement among the ranks, not just within Getty, but within the pro photo culture collectively. Rather, I believe that some other, much larger media conglomerate—such as Warner, Sony, etc.—will see the untapped opportunities with image licensing, and enter into the market by buying up Getty and the top-tier photo-sharing social network sites, and folding the business of image licensing into their much broader array of media content they license through their various business partnerships and distribution channels.
John: How do you view Microstock?
Dan: Many people feel that microstock hurt photo prices, but it didn’t. Supply-and-demand did it: the internet provided a distribution model for consumer-generated imagery to get online, and that’s what lowered the perception of value by buyers.
Microstock was just one way to “sell” that content, but microstock didn’t cause it to happen. In fact, microstock itself evolved from the vacuum left by Getty and other agencies’ failure to properly address the expanding low-end photo licensing market.
John: Do you have insights or ideas about the future of Microstock?
Dan: It’s just a transitional step that will come and go as the larger, broader imaging market continues to evolve. It’s just another boat in the tide that will rise and fall as technologies and other internet-driven trends come and go.
There are too many variables here that could affect that tide, such as internet-wide image-ranking models (similar to Google’s page-rank mechanisms), encroachment by non-imaging media companies into the photo sector, potential legislative changes in worldwide copyright laws, and so on. There are a lot of things that could happen.
John: None of us really knows what new technology or business model might pop up at any second and change everything. How would you suggest that photographers help prepare themselves for whatever might come along?
Dan: Unfortunately, most photographers see themselves as victims of the system—their enemies are those who infringe, those who undercut the pros, those who “discount” prices, and so on. Their responses to this has lead to a cultural disposition of “all for one” – that we all have to stick together in order to fight back.
Photographers are going to have to get behind initiatives that encourage openness, distribution, and wider-scale adoption of intellectual property. This is the one and only path that will help bring order to the chaos of images on the internet. And with that comes ranking and prioritization, much like how Google ranks websites.
And when that happens, “quality” images will percolate to the top, and reward those photographers who truly are better than others. If one assumes that most “pros” are better photographers than consumers, the only way pros’ images will be found and licensed by buyers of any sort, will be when there are business incentives for companies to build those technology solutions.