A case for specialized microstock collections

April 28th, 2010 by

Last week I closed my post with the mention that two items had caused me to wonder about the possibilities of future changes in the microstock business. First there was Tony Stone entering the market with his statement that he would help Vivozoom ‘focus on the most relevant images” and then an announcement from Microstock Israel that it would concentrate on images of life in Israel and the Middle East.

Stock photographers have been developing niches and specialties since the camera was invented. Many independent photo agencies, in the past, were known for a niche or specialty. If a picture researcher wanted a photo of a historical event, she/he went to the Bettmann Archive; for current events to Black Star or Magnum; for access to National Geographic photographers to Woodfin Camp; for science to PhotoResearchers; for lifestyle to Image Bank or the Stock Market. Several of these collections still thrive but some are closed or the brand and its culture lost to the uber-brands of Getty or Corbis.

Instead of contacting independent, specialized companies, today’s image buyers rely on keyword search and hope to find relevant content. But since few editors/keyworders or executives in the large RF/RM portals have expertise in niche fields, important images within a specialized field can go astray. They are lost in the vast middle of an online collection because the keywords don’t identify the key aspects of a technical subject or do so inaccurately. Since niche collections have a niche group of buyers, the images are not downloaded as much as more popular themes like business or families.  Thus they don’t license as often and are often dropped because of it. A lot of specialized visual knowledge has been lost to the industry with consolidation. (Nevertheless keyword accuracy and relevant search are much more likely in one of the traditional companies than at any of the microstock sites.)

According to Selling Stock (subscription required) textbook publishers are still afraid of microstock images because they can’t trust the captions/keywords. Jim Pickerell writes, “The percentage of micro uses continues to grow, despite the complaints of editors that often the caption information on microstock images is not detailed enough and its accuracy cannot always be trusted.”

In microstock, photos of a technical nature or of specific plants, animals or locations are lost into the middle no man’s land in search because the keywords are even less apt to be correct than in the traditional companies.  The volume of images hitting the micro sites daily make it very difficult to check for accuracy or to add keywords to technical subjects. A perfect example of data that is key to many users is the scientific name associated with plants and animals. Or as I found, even the common name can be wrong.

I searched for ‘platypus’ on Shutterstock, iStockphoto and Dreamstime. One site returned a bald eagle against a flag, another several spiny anteaters and another several different species of fish. At least I could see why a spiny anteater was included since both the platypus and spiny anteaters are the only mammals that lay eggs but that wouldn’t matter a bit if I included an anteater in an educational program and called it a platypus. “So what?”  I can hear you think. Who cares when photos of people jumping on trampolines outsell platypus images thousands to one? Answer: Teacher’s care, students need to know, publishers will walk away if there is even a hint of inaccuracy in an image. Photos are tools of communication. Public communication has an obligation to be correct no matter how obscure the subject.

Does it matter that if you were looking for a platypus in a microstock collection, you could think it referred to an eagle, a duck, a fish or a lizard? If you are putting out a science book, you’d better be certain that what you see is what you want!

Dreamstime has made efforts to establish special collections that have been ‘curated’ by Dreamstime members. These often subject oriented groups of images can be helpful but there is still the lingering worry that the person that assembled the collection may not have any particular knowledge about the images besides the thought that the photos are ‘nice’.

Shouldn’t the case be made for specialty microstock companies that are staffed with reviewers that are versed in the subject? Either within a brand or as stand-alone companies? Would the costs be too high?  How about a medical collection reviewed by starving medical students? Or collections that are assembled by others with specialized knowledge? Or Like Israelis who know their land, its places, its religions and its businesses? iStock has taken a step toward the Tony Stone philosophy that only the relevant should survive in the creation of the Vetta Collection.

As a former biology teacher who  wrote educational materials and worked on science based exhibitions and books that required absolute confidence in the information associated with the photography that I selected, I believe that curated and specialty microstock collections could be an important next step in the business. What do you think?