In the near future, all professional stock photographers will lose their jobs. And all stock photo platforms will have to change drastically. Not because of new AI-technology, but because the future belongs to the amateurs and the curation of authentic content. This article explains how and why.
The stock photo industry has annual sales of more than $5 billion. Stock photo platforms like Shutterstock, Getty Images, Unsplash, and JumpStory are used by millions of companies worldwide. Either because the companies can’t afford to hire a photographer every time they need visuals, or because they need to produce a lot of content in a short amount of time.
Stock photos themselves are frequently criticized and rightfully so, if you ask me. And I even work in the industry. I love great photos, but I hate stock photos. I hate them because they’ve been produced the same way for decades, and this approach has always been flawed. And not just because of the inauthentic, cheesy-looking result that everyone immediately recognizes as a stock photo.
These changes will happen very soon
The stock photo industry is about to change dramatically. Not because of new technology or AI, but because three things are fundamentally wrong with the industry:
- The licensing terms are so complex that the average small company can’t understand them.
- The pricing models are so complex that most customers don’t know what they’re getting for their money.
- People will stop using professional stock photographers.
The end of professional stock photographers
I’m pretty sure that my last prediction is by far the most controversial one, but it’s in fact going to happen – whether you like it or not. When you read articles on the photographers’ own platforms like selling-stock.com, you’ll realize that there’s something is wrong in the industry you know.
There’s already a lot of frustration that has built up over the last ten years, and you see this in photographers attacking both the stock photo platforms and the customers. The platforms aren’t acting fairly because they don’t pay the photographers enough, the customers don’t appreciate the work, and aren’t willing to pay enough for each photo. These are the arguments that you often hear from the professional stock photographer community.
I understand that it must be frustrating to slowly lose the foundation of your business, but this is how all free markets work. It’s the old dynamic of supply versus demand.
The supply has sky-rocketed, but the demand hasn’t with the industry growing around 5% annually. This development has also been going on for at least the last 12 years, so this isn’t anything new. However, in the same period of time, there hasn’t been any real innovation going on in the industry. No true transformation or disruption has taken place.
Are AI-generated images or free image platforms the solution?
A bit more than ten years ago, free image platforms like Unsplash, Pexels & Pixabay started appearing on the internet with a very different value proposition for the customers: Get everything for free!
Obviously, the professional photographers got upset because these platforms were jeopardizing their daily bread and butter. This discussion is still ongoing and got even more heated when the biggest player in the industry, Getty Images, acquired the biggest free image platform, Unsplash, last year.
However, in the long run, I don’t see these free image platforms as the solution because they can’t give any guarantees in their image licenses, and if the users end up getting sued, the image platforms don’t take any kind of responsibility or offer any kind of insurance whatsoever.
This will kill the free image platforms in the long run, since recent technological developments have made it much, much easier to track the illegal use of images and sue people. Customers are already starting to experience an explosion in the number of copyright infringement letters from photos that they found on the free platforms, and this will only increase in the future.
So, if the free image platforms aren’t the solution, what is? AI-generated photos?
I don’t think so. The problem with these solutions is that even though projects like Dall-E and Imagen are impressive from a technological point of view, they don’t satisfy the most important future need for people: authenticity. And without authenticity, businesses will struggle!
The death of professional stock photography is the solution
The reason why I and millions of other people like me hate normal stock photos is that they look cheesy and too picture-perfect. They look like this because the essence of being a professional stock photographer is to stage authenticity, and that’s simply impossible. You can’t create real diversity by hiring seven actors; having them sign a model release and then asking them to pose to illustrate diversity. But this is in fact how the professionals try to do it.
The approach by amateurs is fundamentally different. They do it for fun. They just happen to be places when something interesting happens, and they capture it with their camera or smartphone. They become the fly on the wall where the professional is more the dinosaur directing people on a stage. The result is fundamentally different and instantly recognizable when you compare images on platforms like Shutterstock with amateur photos on a platform like JumpStory.
The future belongs to the amateurs. The people who just want to shoot photos because they can and they love it. Not because they want to make a living on it or be credited. These people will share their work everywhere on the internet, and the champion of the industry will be the company that curates all this amazing content and present it in a safe and transparent way. This may be Google, JumpStory, Shutterstock or another company that doesn’t yet exist, only the future can tell. But the transformation is happening and it’s real!
About the author
He is one of Denmark’s most well-known entrepreneurs and business authors. He has been nominated as Entrepreneur of the Year and is amongst Denmark’s 100 most promising leaders according to a major Danish business newspaper.
In addition to being a serial entrepreneur, Jonathan Løw is the former Head of Marketing at the KaosPilots – named Top 10 most innovative business schools in the world by FastCompany. He is also former Startup-Advisor and Investor at Accelerace – the leading investment fund for startups in Denmark.