JULY 29, 2009 9:50AM

Photog thrilled to get peanuts from Time

Rate: 20 Flag
By King Kaufman: In April, Time magazine used a stock photo of coins in a jar on its cover to illustrate a story about "the new frugality."

Last week, the photographer who took the picture, Robert Lam, proudly pointed out his achievement in the Photography Talk forum on the Web site Model Mayhem.

The first reply to Lam's post asked if Time paid for the image, and Lam replied, "yes only 30.00 from Istock," meaning iStockphoto, an online agency. Stock photographs are existing images that can be licensed for various uses for a one-time fee. They're used a lot in marketing, packaging, advertising and journalism.

Salon is a frequent customer of iStockphoto. Some examples are here, here, here and here.

What followed was a conversation among photographers about stock photography that sounds a lot like the conversations journalists are having about online content.

After various notes of congratulations were posted by other photographers, one of them wrote, "You got screwed," pointing out that commissioned, as opposed to stock, photographs on Time's cover are worth thousands. "Photographers are to blame for that $30 option," the poster wrote.

In response to one poster's congratulations to Lam for his "accomplishment," forum moderator Dan Hood wrote, "No the real accomplishment here is that a huge for profit corporation got a cover that should of cost several thousand dollars for peanuts and the photographer is happy about it."

"How wonderful for you!" wrote another poster. "You get to work and work and work to produce great imagery and a multi-national, multi-billion dollar company with an advertising budget in the tens of millions gets to use your image ON THE COVER for $30."

Another photographer wrote that it bothered him "when someone doesn't know that their work is valuable, and that they could have easily gotten more than $30 no matter what their experience is. The point is that you deserve the compensation NOW, regardless of your experience. TIME wanted to use that image ... they should pay the fair rate (I don't think it's $30)."

And yet another wrote, "Companies gain ... not the photographer. A fine example of why not to use stock. If there was no stock sites companies would have to pay someone their rates which would keep them in their job for another week."

Sound familiar? Is that last post not the same argument newspaper executives make when they say they made a huge mistake by putting their content on the Web for free? If only we didn't give this stuff away, people would have bought it!

Only stock photography isn't some disruptive, newfangled thing. As with many types of commerce, the Web has made it easier to be both a buyer and a seller of stock photography, but the practice predates radio, never mind the Internet.

Saying that if photographers all refused to do stock photography they'd all get paid more is like saying that if restaurants all refused to give customers napkins without charging they'd all make a bundle on napkin sales. It's like saying that if local bands refused to play for drinks at dive bars, they'd all make good money playing music.

It's also like saying that if news organizations stopped giving away content on the Web, people would pay for news content online. It's absurd.

The posters in that forum who are making that argument are failing, or refusing, to understand basic economics, if not human nature. All photographers are not going to refuse to do stock photography. The ones who do refuse will simply be opening up the market for those willing to sell their pictures cheaply, either because they're not in it for the money or because they can make a profit on volume.

And those arguing that Time should have paid more for this stock photo because it sometimes pays more for other photos, or because it has a lot of money, are forgetting a little thing called supply and demand.

We should note, though, that because Time prints so many copies, it is likely it had to pay iStockphoto for an unlimited-run license, and that its cost was more like $125 than $30. Still nowhere near thousands, and we should also note that Lam, the photographer, was thrilled with his Time cover at a price of $30, and plenty of his colleagues were thrilled for him.

The same pricing dynamic is in play in journalism. The price is not set by how much time, effort, talent or experience went into making the product, and it's not set by how much money the customer has. It's set by supply and demand. The supply of stock photography is very large. The supply of general news content is huge.

If Time hadn't found Lam's stock photo of coins in a jar for $30, or $125, it would have found a similar photo for a similar price. If news consumers can't get their news online for free from their favorite news organization, they'll find it for free somewhere else.

What happened with Lam's photo is not a failure of the system, not a case of photographers eating their own and not a matter of big, rich Time magazine taking advantage of the little guy. I doubt those photographers would expect Time, because it has such a big budget, to pay $3 for a postage stamp or $20 a pound for the office coffee.

What happened with Lam's photo is simply the way the industry works. Time paid what it paid for that image because that's about what it was worth.

When the barrier to entry is low, the supply of goods is large and the alternatives available to the buyer many, the price is going to be low. Wishing it were otherwise, as the photographers are doing in that online forum and as opponents of free content do in Future of Journalism nerdland, will not make it otherwise.

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That's interesting as we are considering setting up an iStockPhoto type site here and we are looking around at others and how they do their pricing.

I haven't looked at iSP's contracts but I do know some sites (Dreamscape comes to mind) have standard rates but also allow photographs to set up conditions on the use. This provides for the photographer to filter for various commercial use of their products and at least open the door for negotiation to a fair price for the use. But if the contract with iSP says its $30 to the photographer and $95 to us because of the volume of reproduction so be it, that's what you signed on for.

If the photographer who had the image appear on the Time cover was smart he would now parlay that exposure into better freelance gigs (if he even makes a living as a photographer, he very well might be a hobbyist as are many of the folks who post to the stock sites) .
I spun by that site, that's the greatest collection of forum user images ever. : D
By some standards of measuring, I'm considered a professional photographer. Good thing I don't have to put food on the table with the meager earnings I get from that. So in that sense, I'm lucky to be a dilettante in this, and I do many other things.

I agree with your conclusion that it's the way it works now, that the expectation for services rendered being delivered at little or no cost trumps what artisans need to bring in to live.

I recently recounted my refusing the use of one of my photos in exchange for the privilege of that other person using my stuff in an OS post found here.
Yeah. I agree. This isn't big, bad Time exploiting photographers. Syndication has been around forever. If the photographer is willing to sell his work for multiple users and syndication fees that's fair. He doesn't get the kind of bucks he'd get for a commissioned work. But now he's got Time magazine on resumé, and that might get him commissions in the future. Or it might not. But you can't turn back time.
Paying $30 for a photo to illustrate a cover story on frugality is very...frugal.
For me, this discussion is fascinating and extremely pertinent. Sometimes, professionals forget that living off your art is extremely difficult. For a professional photographer, artist or writer, the hardest thing is not producing a quality product (that's why they chose their profession), but recruiting clients and getting paid by those clients. Even if you do bring your portfolio and convince a client to commission you for an order, there's still the matter of contracts and payment. Just because someone says they'll pay you doesn't mean that they will, and I've heard stories of authors and freelancers pursuing a $300 client for months.
Sites like iStockPhoto or Creative Commons for photography or Associated Content and Textbroker.com (full disclosure: Textbroker is my employer) for writing take the chore and work out of searching out clients and securing payment. These sites even help artists build a solid portfolio of work that makes marketing themselves easier, allowing potential buyers worldwide to start a conversation about direct commissions.
Syndication and "talent" websites (for lack of a better phrase) could and should be thought of as artist incubators. They are a great way for amateurs and part-timers to get a toe in the water. Some systems are scalable, so that as an artist progresses with their talent and their clients, rates can change correspondingly.
Current professionals will have to be fast thinkers and good marketers to keep pace with the use of these sites. There are a lot of talented people in the world, and professionals need to find their niche and "selling point" to differentiate themselves and justify their prices. Their prices are justified, they just have to explain why.
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This story certainly reflects the new reality for original content producers in any field--writing, illustration, photography, etc. I remember when a classmate of mine in art school had his illustration on the cover of Time in the late '70s when he was a senior and about to graduate. What a huge deal that was and he was paid very well for that artwork. Looks like if that happened today he'd get paid just enough to take a friend to the movies and buy some popcorn.
The story and comments overlook something very important. Instead of complaining, Mr. Lam might be better off to send out a resume and portfolio to every publication (whether print or online) he would want to work for and use the ability to brag that his photo was CHOSEN by Time Magazine. If it were me I would hit the library and check back issues to know how many (or should I say few) outside photographers have accomplished this within the past year. Lam should also alert his social networks that he continues to look for opportunities, whether on a freelance or full-time basis. He should make it his big break and a springboard to bigger and better things.

Leave the complaints to the others while he seizes the day to gain from this experience. Gain a whole lot more than $30.

For that matter, even if he doesn't, he gets his 15 minutes of fame. There is a big personal reward in simply knowing that he took a photo chosen for Time Magazine. Personally I can relate. I put more than 30 years of obsessive "girl watching" techniques into a book and an audio book. Granted, it is not exactly a best seller and a lot of women would like to lynch me, but the number of guys who enjoy these techniques and the little bit of money I have seen for it bring that sense of reward I would like to see for Mr. Lam.
I think there is another point here which reflects a basic difference between "old" and "new" publishing models. The photographer was thrilled to get $30 because he was *on the cover of Time*. His photo is now being exposed to millions, it's causing traffic churn and his name to be mentioned, and attention drawn to that picture and, almost certainly, the rest of his work. The Time cover is like a Google link, drawing eyeballs to an artist that probably wouldn't otherwise get such high-profile exposure.

So to a "new journalism" POV person, it's a win. He gets huge exposure, plus $30 (when he probably would have been happy just for the exposure). For an "old journalism" person, he's being ripped off by Big Bad Time-Warner, not being paid a fair price.

Point of view; it's a big difference. I would be the photographer is under the age of 40; probably under the age of 30. "It's on Time magazine *and* they paid me! Cool!"
People still read Time? Seriously? Why?
As my mother says quite often, how you make your bed is how you lie in it.

Photography has been devalued in so many ways--by a glut of aspiring amateurs, by the swapping of vast print real estate for postage-size internet usage, and by the countless scandals involving manipulated and untruthful images--that it's not surprising that stock agencies are offering $30 usage fees for the likes of Time magazine or that Time magazine is happy to take them up on the deal.

Thanks for the story. It's valuable, even if only as a Tom Wolfe-ish coda on the freefall of photography in the digital age.
Well argued points. Why are people so surprised and shocked when the market actually works properly? :)

The long Open Salon URL is hard to tweet. Maybe there should be a tweetably short URL published on the page somewhere.
I used to put my hard work online and found that others took my images, copied them, did a little number on them, stole the ideas, ripped off the very look of them and paid me Nada for the weeks I spent on many of them. I do not post any of them any longer. Artists are not and have never been appreciated. Unlike copyright, design patents can be easily worked around. A tummy tuck here or there so to speak and it now becomes someone else' image or idea. It is sad that a photographer is content with being shafted this way. Consider the future of your images when posting on public sites as the fine print might take away ownership of your images.
I think Nick's point about paying $30 for a stock photo on a cover story about frugality is the winner. Perhaps there was even some humor or irony involved on TIME's part in doing that??

I'm mixed on this issue. I'm a writer who has made very little money on my writing over the years. and now the chance to make any money is disappearing. If artists aren't paid, they will continue to produce art, but how much of it and how well?

OTOH, the new media forms such as blogging here have been "berry berry good to me" as they saying goes, in that I can self-publish and find an audience if my writing is interesting enough. It all depends on what you want out of creating something -- money, recognition, an audience, or some combination thereof. Very few artists get even 1 of those 3, though.
Hi. I work for iStockphoto. I think this article is pretty balanced and I am impressed that King pointed out Time would have bought an extended license--which I am assured they did. I'm speaking for myself here, but I would like to point out one big difference in the parallel between inexpensive stock and inexpensive journalism. The image producer of stock, particularly at iStock, where an image is downloaded every single second, can sell a single, good RF image hundreds to thousands of times, making money every single time. I know artists who have seen some images sell as much as 8,000 times. So, it isn't a one-shot sale in most cases. I would imagine it is harder to resell the same article you just got published.
I think it is interesting that no one here has commented on the quality of the photo. While it is competently executed, the image is not very original or interesting; in fact it is extremely mundane. I edit an online photo site, and after viewing literally tens of thousands of images, I can tell you that there is incredible redundancy in subject matter. This doesn't mean that the photographers aren't competent or are copying each other's work so much as there are so many people out there shooting photos, that it takes a lot of effort and skill (and luck!) to produce a truly original image. And you can hardly argue the fact that you should only get paid a premium for truly unique content.

In the past, a lot of why photographers got paid so much for their was because producing it was a complicated technical process. Well, technological advancements have serious lowered the bar for entry into these field. And the price reflects this. Better get used to it!
I've done many covers for Time for over 20 years. Time is trying to survive and when it needs illustration, pays top dollar. Photography sold itself down the river years ago dumping their product on stock sites opting for volume sales over holding out for bigger paydays. The result is this. For portrait work I'm sure they still pay handsomely.

As mentioned earlier, Time most certainly bought as many rights as they could. I would even think that the image is no longer on iStock but I didn't check.
Illustrators who produce images for Time can charge more because they create these images for articles. Most work in hours and as a result can pay mortgages too.
I think the most relevant comment so far was "people still read TIME?" When a magazine is reduced to using USD 30 stock photos on their cover instead of hard-hitting news photos that took a real budget to obtain, you gotta wonder about the quality of the reporting inside.
Idiots. Maybe the photographers should take a look at the agencies that they are so protective of. I made an online request to Getty about two months - willing to pay the $800 for the use of a stock photo. No response of course. I bet that photographer is happy with the servcie he gets!
Of course there are economic elements at play here (supply and demand) as some have suggested, but if you are going to make a case for the devaluation of intellectual property based on an economic platform then you must look at all the variables and not only allude to those that might support your argument. There are many variables at play here, many that have been imposed on the marketplace by new technologies and which we are still trying to comprehend. But no-one has mentioned the very painfully obvious element in this case...that is what is the nature of business for the micro-stock agencies? They are merely "distributors" nothing more.
Technology allows them to distribute digital copies of intellectual property for $1 and still make a profit. Since their cost of doing business has nothing to do with anything but the cost of "distribution" they have no interest in the potential value of IP.
They make their money on distribution. Artists are now indentured servants. Artists bear all the cost of manufacture and allow the "distributors" to set the price in the marketplace. The immense problem is the combination of the total lack of sophistication on the part of "creators" as to the true nature of IP (IP is not a banana, or a widget) and the fact that technology gives immense ease of distribution which some have figured out how to profit from.
As soon as manufacturers ( creators) give up control of pricing to distributors the consequences are grave. This is true for any market segment, not just photography. All creators must revolutionize the way they do business in the digital age and surrendering your IP to "distributors" whose only concern is to make a profit on the cost of transmission is a destructive business model.
Im not sure where I'd be without istockphoto.com really, evene though theyve put their prices up it's still the best resource!

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Do not send photos to iStockphoto.

It is no longer the most powerful in terms of sales, indeed Fotolia and Dreamstime can do better.

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It's too much to pay to IStockPhoto just to store our collection. We need find out more sites offering great deals on it.

iStockPhoto can get really expensive I recommend getting Royalty free pics at Inmagine.com. They are almost as good as iStock but a whole lot cheaper!


In 2008 I began starting a daycare but soon realized it was hard. I got alot of my pictures for my preschool site on Inmagine and eventually began starting a preschool too. Used the same pics for marketing.
Hi! I'm Mamoko aka Fat Burning Furnace and I just wanna say that istockphoto.com is still ubber mega powerful in terms of sales. Dreamstime can also do good but I really prefer istockphoto. Even though the prices went up, it's still the best.
It's interesting that a multi billion dollar company would use a stock image but I guess it saves their bottom line. The photographer should use the cover in all of his future marketing so that he could reap the benefit.

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I use Istock myself and think it's one of the better ones out there. I've enjoyed listening to the comments here and will be checking out Inmagine.com also. Thanks for the tip.
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I haven't thought that those photographers have a great value as you said. It seems to be an excellent info for all readers to know that?
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Very good info I don't like IStockphoto. I suggest going to Dreamstime. They have better stock photos selection and top-notch customer support. Their preview section is simply to paleo cookies to die for!
Wow, what's with all of the advertisements embedded in the responses. It's like my blog spam filter, except on an actual site.

As for the article, I'm kind of torn. While $30 sounds weak in terms of pay from a really big market, the notoriety he'll receive from appearing on Time might actually make it worth it.
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You can find a lot of image sites out there, why settle with iStockphoto when there are hundreds of free to get from, just like ps3 repair its all made from free images.
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Nothing wrong with some peanuts here and there.
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We can only hope that this doesn't stand true in the future. It's disgusting what the corporations do to people...

On another note, you may notice that they are starting to give back with black monday and then cyber week sales. Hopefully they are better than 2009.
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I once wished of being a photographers but reading this is like somewhat inspiring and somewhat discouraging. But anyways, I will pursue this passion. I know someday people will notice my photos.

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Wow, it's very fascinating story as i always use iStock photo as well. I am grafetul as i got a lot of discount getting photos there.
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Seems to have great business for him he not good fo Lam. But it;s fun wasn't it. Actually i saw iStockPhoto who is making money more from those kind of business tight.
iStockPhoto isn't the only stock photography site on the web and if they continue to rip people off I think heating and cooling boise we'll see a backlash where people start to go to other places that give a much better value. In fact there are free sites that give out free photos. Although the quality isn't very good, for some people it might just be what is needed.
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but I still think that iStockphoto has some merit. Compared to many of the others it has alot better photos and the prices aren't too bad either.
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