INTERNET HITS AFRICAN WILDLIFE PIX SALES

26 January 2001

Top Story

Still pictures of African wildlife appear everywhere. There is a voracious interest in wildlife in the developed world and animals are used in adverts to exemplify product characteristics. This trade in images is now conducted largely digitally over the internet. The "new economy" was supposed to enable businesses to cut out "the middle man". For African wildlife photographers things turned out to be a little more complex. Russell Southwood uncovers a tale that has all the best ingredients of an internet content story: financial pressures in a falling market, monopoly providers and an oversupply of the key commodity.

There are probably no more than 15-20 African wildlife photographers who make a living from their work. The photographers bear the cost of shooting the pictures. Their work is speculative: they sell what they can after they’ve taken it. They rarely shoot to commission.

45-50% of the market for these pictures is in the USA, with largest part of the remainder being sold in Europe and Japan. African wildlife images are used in everything from holiday brochures to magazines and adverts. A picture of a cheetah will be used to show that a product has speed. A charging rhino might be used for its associations with power.

In the old pre-digital days, the photographers would supply their images to a photo agency who would sell them to the eventual user, splitting the fee 50/50 with the photographer. The agency would take a wide range of pictures from the photographer. Often the agency would be asked to "send over some pictures" which meant they made an initial selection for their clients. The introduction of digital images and the internet decisively changed the "terms of trade" for the photographers.

Over the last five years several things have come together that have radically changed how things are done. There has been a wave of portals selling digital pictures. Some specialise in wildlife (http://www.agpix.com) and have searchable databases which refer prospective buyers to photographers; whilst others are more general. Sites such as (http://www.workbookstock.com) offer a wide range of pre-edited premium images, aimed at the high-end advertising market. For the buyer they cut out the hassle of going through lots of images. Selling became easier when actual physical images didn’t have to be shifted around, stored and searched physically. Because of the savings made, some agencies (http://www.alamy.com) offer up to 90% of the fee to the photographers, although alamy.com itself does not have a tight editing policy.

Those portals with tight editing policies sell less overall but are more effective at selling their limited selection of pictures. They give 70% of the fee to the photographer but take far fewer images. For those taking the pictures the dilemma is clear. As photographer Steve Bloom sees it:"In a market that’s now over-supplied, the internet has made it possible to see the world’s top ten pictures of a particular subject. It’s hard to sell if you’re not in that top ten. However, if one of those top ten images is buried deep within a database and cannot be found quickly, it has no value. Portals must learn to edit tightly and select only the best, and it is my belief that those which offer fewer premium images are more likely to survive than those which offer millions of weak images. The cost of keywording and scanning images is very high, so only the best quality should make it on-line"

But if these agencies represent the selling equivalent of sniper fire, it was in the industry’s version of artillery fire where the biggest changes were wrought. The battle for the rights to reproduce images looked like the lucrative high ground to the big money players. Getty scion Mark now controls the rights to a staggering 35% of the world’s images. And gosh...another approximately 20% are controlled by Microsoft’s Bill Gates through Corbis. The background to this clash of the "big beasts" will be given in greater detail in our On The Money column next week.

When these two individuals started buying what seemed like everything that moved, a hype-fuelled dot.com market was in vertical take-off mode. In a world of virtual products, something like reproduction rights seemed to have a positively solid feeling to it. If it worked in physical form, think how much more profitably it would work in virtual form. All you needed was a large enough market share.

However both companies are still losing money. In order to bring this unfortunate set of circumstances under control, Getty Images has sought to change the "terms of trade" in its favour. It is currently only giving photographers 40% of fees made from online digital sales. Currently 450 photographers are individually employing the same lawyer to fight the company on this and other aspects of its contract.

The last blow to the wildlife photographers has been over-supply. Too many people are taking wildlife pictures. In addition the sale of royalty-free CD-roms of digital images is undercutting the market for new, original images. You only pay a relatively modest sum for an enormous number of images. Worse still for the photographers, the images can be used over and over again without repeat reproduction fees being paid. Justifying a one-off fee for an original picture becomes much harder for budget-strapped publications.

So what happens if an African wildlife photographer sets up his own website? Steve Bloom did just that in 1996. He now gets over 1000 hits a day but the majority are general interest users who are not commercial buyers. The site (http://www.stevebloom.com) allows users to search images by keywords, subject or theme. Professional users can set up a "lightbox" to gather together a range of images for comparison and selection. The site also sells photographic prints, an annual calender and a book called In Praise of Primates aimed at the non-professional buyer. Both professional and non-professional purchases can be made using a shopping cart and a secure server.

Although the site is very successful, he still has to buy space in the catalogues put out by the image agencies that go out by post to the hundreds and thousands of buyers and agencies worldwide. Whilst catalogues are not primary selling tolls anymore, they are still necessary to direct buyers towards the agencies’ web sites.

Steve Bloom’s web site was produced by Jonathan Caine of Eros. For further details contact him on jon@nux.co.uk.

CORRECTIONS: Eagle-eyed Rob Lith of UUNet spotted an error in last issue’s On the Money section. Metropolis Transactive Holdings’ claim to fame is that it is owned by Primedia. It is not the owner of M-Web. A pure case brain slippage on our part. Nina Chachu, Director of the Kumasi British Council office wrote in to point out that the British Council web site for Ghana can be viewed at: http://www.britishcouncil.org/ghana

If our correspondent is "off the mark" or you have factual amendments, mail them to us and we will include them in subsequent News Updates. If you'd like to contribute, write and let us know.

If you need information about a particular place or issue, just send your questions in. We are always happy to follow up on readers concerns.