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Understanding Portals


May 2009

By Ethan G. Salwen

 

In just the past couple of years, stock photography portals have come into existence, multiplied and diversified. And they continue to grow and evolve rapidly. These portals now offer photographers an impressive range of resources. Indeed, the most promising feature of portals is the flexibility they offer all kinds of photographers.

 

In the print edition of Going Portal (in the ASMP Bulletin, Year End 2004 issue) I attempt to shed some clarity on stock photography portals by providing a breakdown of the three major types: pure, enhanced and full-service. By classifying portal websites in this way and examining how they differ from one another, I intend to give photographers a means of critically assessing them.

 

The portals I’m examining are defined by two distinct factors:

 

  1. Photographer control. Portals give photographers control. Photographers must initiate portal activities, and then they must continue to manage those activities. Unlike other online stock sites, where a photographer’s representation is controlled by her or his agency, portal sites work directly with photographers.

     

  2. Non-traditional, web-based marketing. Portals exist only on the web and they offer photographers innovative marketing opportunities. Examples of these include promotion of a photographer’s individual website for little or no money, e-commerce functionality, lightbox features, and the ability to track which images buyers are reviewing.

     

With those two factors in mind, photographers can start researching various portal offerings, staring with some examples of the pure, enhanced, and full-service models. For your convenience, a feature-comparison matrix that summarizes the following points is available as a PDF double-page spread.

 

Pure Portals

ImagePond serves as a marketing vehicle that puts buyers directly in contact with photographers doing both assignment and stock work. ImagePond promotes its photographers through a combination of both print- and digital-based marketing, all of which is used to draw viewers to the site.

 

The PhotoSourceBANK looks for editorial photographers who have a passion for a certain subject area. Photographers pay $230 to $330 per year to subscribe, and then buyers deal directly with photographers on all matters. The portal also provides pages where photographers can list up to 3,000 keywords for researchers.

 

Enhanced Portals

Independent Photography Network, allows photographers to have their own e-commerce websites. They can upload images for clients and send lightboxes from their individual sites.

 

AGPix provides buyers with direct access to more than 600 photographers along with the opportunity to view more than 50,000 sample images. Like IPN, AGPix aims to connect buyers directly to photographers.

 

Full Service Portals

Alamy lets photographers pretty much call all the shots. The site has a great, supportive staff to help out, but if a photographer wants to put up inferior images—in terms of salability, that is— that’s the photographer’s prerogative.

 

Workbookstock has an extremely rigorous submission process. The process ensures that Workbookstock is providing the highest quality, rights-managed, advertising-oriented images that command some of the highest licensing fees in the online image market. And that works for many photographers, as witnessed by the contributors who are happy to be making top dollar.

 

Four Factors for Portal Success

After talking with a number of portal users and proprietors, I found that four factors consistently popped up in the “advice for photographers” column.

 

  1. It’s All About the Marketing. At first glance, stock photography portals seem to hold the promise of easy distribution and carefree sales. However, the portal-using professionals I spoke with stressed that portals are by no means a panacea. They are, more than anything, a marketing tool that needs to fit well into an overall marketing strategy. So you need to evaluate portals in relation to your other marketing efforts. Maybe you have a great website that gets good traffic from interested buyers, but you don’t have a lightbox or e-commerce functionality. You could use a portal like Alamy to offer those services to your customers.

     

    For example, let’s say a researcher likes what she sees on your site but asks you to search your library for something more specific to her needs. You find ten suitable images, create high-res scans and upload them to Alamy. You create a lightbox for your client and e-mail her a link to the lightbox. If she likes what she sees, she uses the site’s e-commerce feature (that includes rights-management functionality) and the sale is made. If you’re using the Alamy Blue pricing structure (they have more than one), 35 percent of the sale will go to the portal. That’s pretty reasonable. It’s a bigger split in your favor than you would get from a traditional agency, and it’s practically nothing compared to the costs and headaches you would incur tying to add such functionality to your site—if you could. As an added bonus, all of the images you upload will remain on Alamy’s site and are ready for additional buyers to access through Alamy’s front door.

     

  2. Digitalize or Die. You already know that you must go digital, so there’s no point beating that dead horse. But digitalization has particular resonance when it comes to using portals, as portals are digital entities. “This doesn’t mean that photographers need to capture digitally,” says Kevin LaTona, CEO of the portal ImagePond. “But photographers need to establish a digital workflow. Doing this—creating digital files, employing digital management solutions, being able to search and deliver images electronically—is what will allow them to work easily and efficiently with any portal they choose.” He adds that one of the greatest advantages of developing a finely tuned digital workflow is that it allows photographers to switch portals (or agencies, for that matter) at the drop of a pixel.

     

  3. Keep on Learning. People running portals expressed real amazement at the large number of photographers who lack knowledge in some very basic, very key areas of the photography business. They were sympathetic to the digital learning curve, but the were stumped by seasoned professionals who don’t understand the ins and outs of pre-digital factors like how to handle rights management. One reason for this, I suppose, might be that a number of pros turning to portals have been accustomed to their agencies handling much of this kind of work for them. Regardless of the reason, the lesson is clear. If you turn to stock photography portals, you’re doing so because you think you can benefit from greater control. But when you have greater control, you also have greater responsibilities.

     

    The area of concern I heard mentioned most often related to photographers’ shortcomings when it comes to editing their own images. “I just don’t get it,” one researcher told me. “How can such good photographers be so bad at selecting the most saleable images?” I’m not going to try to answer that thorny question, but I will suggest that if you are not utterly confident in your ability to edit your images for marketability¾get help! You can decide to go with a portal like Workbookstock, which carefully edits every image submitted. Or you can use one of the free-for-all sites like Alamy, but before uploading turn to one of your picture-editing colleagues for assistance. Speaking of assistance: While talking to people for this article it became blindingly clear to me that researchers have an amazing wealth of guidance to offer photographers when it comes to marketing. While we’re fumbling around trying to figure out how to make our images stand out on the web, they’re fumbling around trying to find our images in a world of stock photography fumbles. Of course photographers have tons of good advice. But it’s the researchers and picture buyers who have the customer perspective that’s most important to us. So call up some researchers. I guarantee that you will find them more than willing to offer valuable input. After all, it will make their lives easier.

     

  4. Think Partnership. Do not underestimate the importance of thinking of your portal as a partner. Because that’s exactly what it is—a partnership. You’re gaining innovative and cost-effective marketing and distribution, and the portal is gaining innovative and cost-effective imagery. This partnership concept might seem obvious. But start clicking through the submission guidelines of most portal sites—even ones with friendly, thorough, and well-organized information—and it’s easy to feel like you’re standing in front of an impersonal, cold wall. Procedures and technical requirements can seem daunting. You may feel uneasy about submitting your valuable photos to a faceless entity. Hello? Anyone home? Well, as a matter of fact, in most cases, there are people who are available and willing to respond. You might not feel as inclined to call a portal, as you would be to call a rep at a good-old-fashioned mortar and brick agency. However, except for a few portal sites that really aim to limit human-to-human interaction, portal administrators are people who understand the value of good customer service. Of course, the long-term goal is to help you progress to where you can take full advantage of their automation. They want to help you learn to handle as much as possible by yourself. But the key word is “help.” Photographers and portals both need each other. Remember that. Reach out to prospective portals for guidance and input. If they don’t satisfy you completely, move on to another portal more suited to your personal preferences and needs.

     

Time To Question

At the end of this article you will find a list of the some of the better know photo-selling portals, along with some basic statistics on each. While this list will give you a good overview of what is out there, it’s critical that you are aware that portals evolve constantly, and the specific information presented below is in constant flux. Most respondents to the survey made a point of explaining that their number of images, photographers, and types of functionality are expanding rapidly.

 

When you have identified two or three portal sites that look promising for your needs, it’s time to get serious. Whether you are a gritty pro or a cherubic newbie, here are key questions you’ll need to answer before making a decision about joining a portal.

 

What is the portal’s pricing structure?

One portal might take only a 25 percent commission on your sales, while another takes 40 percent. But how good is the 25 percent site if your images don’t sell on it? Balance percentages against the site’s overall value to you.

 

What is the portal’s image needs?

Find out what types of images are selling best on their sites. They know. The key here is to realize that if you put the same 200 images on five different sites, you’re going to see very different sales results.

 

What types of photographers is the portal seeking?

Some portals allow any photographers to join with any images they want. Others are brutally selective.

 

Does the portal handle rights-managed images, royalty-free images or both?

There are a number of models for commission sales so make sure you know the difference. Some portals don’t offer sales support at all and simply act as conduits that connect image buyers with image-makers. Others give contributors a choice: either they can handle sales, or the portal staff will negotiate for them.

 

What is the submission process?

Most portals have pages on their sites that explain their submission process in great detail. But don’t leave it at that. Speak with a representative and make sure you really know what you’re getting into, especially about technical requirements, image selection and keywording.

 

What does the contract require?

Ask these questions: How long is the term? How is exclusivity defined? Can you license your images through other channels? What will it take, in terms of time and money, to extract yourself from a portal relationship?

 

Can buyers hyperlink to your personal website, and visa versa?

The reason to link to a highly automated portal—and the resultant risk that buyers may become interested in other photographers’ work—is to add e-commerce or lightbox functionality to a simple, portfolio type website. Linking from portal to photographer is another matter, and with some, like Alamy and Workbook, there is no way to link to an individual photographer’s site.

 

Does the portal provide ecommerce functionality?

The ability to indirectly add e-commerce functionality to their photo-selling efforts is one of the key reasons many photographers seek out portals in the first place.

 

Does the portal provide lightbox functionality?

Not all lightboxes are created equal. So whether you plan on using a portal as an extension of your own site or plan to use the portal exclusively, you want to ensure that you like the functionality of the lightbox.

 

How is keywording handled?

This is one of the most serious and accurate criticisms of portals from the researcher’s point of view. Only a few portals provide keyword services, even for a fee. But almost all portals will provide guidance on the keywording practices best suited to their sites.

 

How much support does the portal offer contributors?

Get down to brass tacks and determine exactly what that portal will do for you during your start up phase and over the long haul.

 

How good is the portal’s customer support for buyers?

When assessing a portal’s support services, don’t take the portal’s self-assessment as gospel. Contact the portal on a few different occasions posing as a researcher and see what kind of support you get. Even after you become established on a site, keep your eye on the quality of service. If your images sell regularly, the portal managers will take your feedback on these matters seriously.

 

What kind and amount of traffic does a portal get?

Ask for statistics about what kind of traffic it receives. What types of images are viewed? What images are licensed and by whom?

 

How and to whom do portals market?

Find out what segments they are targeting and reaching (i.e.: editorial/corporate/advertising). Just because a portal says it will market your images to “thousands of qualified buyers” doesn’t mean those are buyers interested in your work.

 

What type of tracking and reporting services are available?

Not all sites offer this type of web interface function that can report on every click. But you should know what is available to you before you sink too much time in one site.

 

To be on one portal or to be on more than one portal?

The great thing about portals is that once you set up with one, dipping your toes in the water of another becomes as easy as determining exposure with the Sunny 16 rule. Upfront costs are usually nominal, and you can passively watch what happens on your secondary trial portals as you concentrate on your primary portal.

 

What can I learn from those who have portaled before me?

At any point in your portal investigations, you can’t beat the value of contacting photographers who are currently contributing to sites of interest. Just ask, “What’s the skinny on this portal?”

 

Here are links to some of the better known, and a couple lesser-known, stock photography portals. Happy hunting!

 

 

Ethan G. Salwen, is a photojournalist based in San Francisco. He is the National Membership Chair for the American Society of Picture Professionals and a contributing writer to its quarterly publication, the Picture Professional. His two-part article on portals first appeared in American Society of Picture Professional’s The Picture Professional.