Microstock photography has drawn much ill will from many professional photographers. With its low barrier to entry and even lower payouts, it’s been viewed as undercutting the larger market for photography, and propping up less than talented photographers. But recent months have seen the addition of a new twist to the world of microstock photography, something that some traditionalists also often scorn — the smartphone.
For all the ire microstock photography has generated, as least as much heat goes to the ubiquitous smartphone and its often heavily filtered photos. Yet as some naysayers continue to fight against it, smartphone photography has gained some modicum of respectability in the last year or so, with major magazines and papers using iPhone photographs snapped in warzones as well as sports fields — so what happens when the two worlds combine?
Earlier this year, a Swedish service named Foap made the news for putting out an open invite for iPhone photographers to upload images to their service, provided that they weren’t filtered to hell and back. Each image is then sold through a central site for $10, 50 percent of which goes to the photographer, 50 percent to Foap. Much like most other microstock sites, Foap will review your work before allowing it on to the site, but it differs in that the only uploads allowed come directly from their iPhone app.
Foap is not alone, when news of it hit some major tech blogs, a number of other sites made themselves known — most vocally Pockestock and Scoopshot. Scoopshot reached out to a number of technology journalists after the Foap launch with reports of a man who made $19,000 on their site, and in September, Pocketstock launched their own iPhone app directly for this purpose.
Not all of these are traditional types of stock photography sources. Scoopshot in particular handles much of its work in a very different manner — instead focusing on crowdsourced photojournalism, they connect smartphone users to journalists who need images from the scenes as they’re happening. This can be in the form of either publications sending out open calls for people to go cover an event, or else users uploading their images for the media to buy. We spoke with Niko Ruokosuo, Scoopshot’s CEO, who explained that they can get around the low quality of smartphone images by having so many people at a news scene that some images are bound to be in good enough condition to use.
As much as that may seem to be Scoopshot’s main thrust, according to Ruokosuo, the majority of work actually comes through their Directory market. This is where a Directory service pays the user to go and take pictures of buildings and businesses. For now, the Directory is only active on Scoopshot’s home turf of Finland, but the immediate plan is to expand into other nations, Ruokosuo said. Gigwalk and Rawporter offer similar services in the U.S.
You would think the biggest hurdle blocking the success of these services would be that of image quality — smartphones have tiny sensors and often mediocre lenses compared to professional level DSLRs. That means a tiny dynamic range, huge depth of field, large amounts of noise in low light, and all sorts of artifacts and aberrations. Part of these criticisms are countered by the fact that smartphone cameras are getting better and better — the iPhone has become one of the most popular digital cameras ever invented; Nokia has produced the 808 PureView with a 41 megapixel camera sensor; and there are an increasing number of smartphone/camera hybrids running Android. They might not replace professional level cameras in any way, but the components are better than they’ve ever been before. And, as photographer John Stanmeyer put it:
“The iPhone 4S, which is nearly always located in my shirt pocket, produces (albeit for now as jpeg only) images in bright sunlight and shade nearly just as well as my first ever digital camera, purchased nearly 11 years ago in 2001 to cover the war in Afghanistan — a Nikon 1DX. At the time it cost well over $6,000 USD.”
But if you look through these microstock websites, you’ll see many of the photos look far too polished to have come out of a camera phone. They have razor-thin DOF, or look to be shot on a studio backing with advanced lighting. The trick? None of these websites are smartphone only. Scoopshot has a pro service to connect publications with pro photographers. Pocketstock and iStockphoto will take any image you can upload — a fact Pocketstock’s CEO Russell Glenister makes no secret of, citing that only 1 percent of their content comes from smartphones, but that this could easily expand.
“It is our view that mobile content will drive stock photography in the coming years, but the wrong content is no use to anyone,” he said in a recent interview for Connect. “It's important to us that through the Pocketstock academy and other initiatives we drive contributors to understand the advantages and the disadvantages of using mobiles to shoot stock content that ultimately we need to be able sell.”
Even though Foap will only accept images from their mobile application, they state on their FAQ: “We are focusing on smartphone photos but accept all photos that you upload from your iPhone.” In other words, any image you have saved on your iPhone can be submitted. From inside the iPhone app itself, you can access the EXIF data for an image, and some of the best rated are from SLRs, but there seem to be many selling which aren’t.
It’s still not clear exactly how popular images shot from smartphones are on these microstock sites. Out of all of them, iStockphoto is the only one I was able to refine search capabilities to just photos taken via smartphone — and the most popular of those has only been downloaded a mere six times when I looked.
So what images are actually moving? As Foap’s David Los told us, “We have seen that natural photos of people and faces are popular. You can snap totally different situations with the phone, since you have it all the time with you. We have also seen many travel-related photos, and photos of kids being sold.”
Mobile stock photography has had many of the same accusations laid against it as the stock photography market on the whole. It’s very easy to imagine that while a professional photographer would have some concept of when to use a model — someone snapping pics with their Samsung Galaxy might not. While most of these services have clauses that insist you have model releases and permission, one wonders how well they’re followed and enforced. Foap relies on the user community to report these and copyright problems, but is starting to “develop technology that will [help us in] controlling and detecting these issues in a much smoother way.”
While most of these services take a dim view of overly filtered images like those produced by Instagram, there’s a market there for those, too. Websites like InstaCanvas will allow you to sell your Instagram shots as prints, and will give you a 20 percent commission. Though yet again, there are issues of copyright — like this cat and fishbowl image on InstaCanvas which was clearly not originally shot on an iPhone, and has been doing the Internet rounds since at least 2010.
One of the other worries about about microstock photography is that it’ll drive down the going rate for images even further. Once you can start relying on people to take photos with their phones, they’re not using expensive gear — so why bother paying them more? This worry doesn’t seem to have eventuated in any concrete way. Foap’s $10 flat fee is remarkably sane, and Pocketstock’s Glenister is behind a new initiative called 2ten, trying to set up a bare minimum pay rate for stock photography. Scoopshot pays an average price of 17 Euro for a photograph, and only takes a 30 percent cut.
There are some major advantages to having people shoot from their smartphones. Glenister called out that someone with a cellphone can be in the right place at the right time to grab the shot a buyer might need, explaining “shooting using a mobile is not going be right for every scenario, but when it is right, say for the more natural, spontaneous, fly-on-the-wall material that our clients request time and again, it can work better than using any of the more expensive or sophisticated equipment.”
The other advantage to the smartphone? Speed. Various iterations of 4G/LTE technologies are sprouting up worldwide which allow for large image and video files to be uploaded in a sprightly manner. As Glenister told us:
“When I first got into stock, some 25 years ago, it took three months to make your submitted images available for purchase. Now with our app … the contributor can have their images available to purchase within 30 minutes of shooting the material.”
However, with larger and larger images, even the broadest of bandwidths can get clogged. Scoopshot’s CEO Ruokosuo told me that they didn’t have any problems with image uploads, and that no complaints of users struggling to upload images had filtered through. That said, with the very real specter of the Nokia 808 PureView and its 38-megapixel images looming on the horizon, you have to wonder which will get bigger first — the file sizes or the available connection.
There’s no avoiding that smartphone photography is making a major impact on the world of photography as a whole. The iPhone 4S remains the most popular camera overall by Flickr users, and photographers like Chase Jarvis have made some major waves with the phone that’s always in their pockets. With adoption of smartphone photography moving from novelty to reality, will we reach a point when the image, not the device used to capture it, is our primary concern?
Let's hear from you: Are you selling your mobile photography through a microstock service? What have your results been?
Tim Barribeau is a freelance science and technology writer based in San Francisco. He's been taking photographs since he got an Olympus OM-10 in High School. You can follow him on Twitter (@tbarribeau) or through Google+, and occasionally see him lugging a Mamiya RB67 through Golden Gate Park."