Out of Stock: Will Free and Synthetic Content Herald the End of Photo Libraries?


Shockwaves could soon be reaching the once impregnable walls of the stock photo industry’s bunkers due to shifts in the image library landscape and associated emerging technologies.

Firstly, deep-fakes and synthetic content are now beginning to mature, making both its creators and subjects equally redundant, at least where human subjects are concerned.  Early last year ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com showcased an impressive use of Artificial Intelligence based on NVidia’s research of GAN (generative adversarial network) technology to create an endless supply of randomly generated fake faces.  By refreshing the page on the no-frills website created by Uber engineer Philip Wang, it’s immediately apparent just how realistic the technology has become – it’s incredibly hard not to regard the images as photographs of actual, living individuals.

And the software is by no means limited to faces.  Theoretically, it could be adapted to mimic pretty much any type of source material, from machinery and architecture to plants and creatures.  With the obvious potential for large swathes of the photographic industry effectively being out of a job, you could perhaps forgive the harbouring of luddite sentiment.  When disruptors like Uber and Deliveroo hit the taxi and food industries respectively, it felt more like competition, but when an artistic discipline such as photography is targeted, its professionals might react differently.

Secondly, as Paul Melcher recently discusses in his article ‘The Value of Free Photos‘, Adobe Stock have announced that it is offering 70,000 items for free, leaving other paid-for stock providers no choice but to follow suit in order to keep up with the Joneses and appear competitive.  Paul explains how the ‘frustration’ model has so far proved to be a successful one, relying on offering sub-par free content right next to paid offerings.

In the stock photo industry, the same process is in play, albeit with a twist. By purposely offering a limited amount of free images, they bet on a user’s rapid frustration of not finding the right images and pulling out their credit card to purchase the right one (which so conveniently appears to be on the same page).”  [Read More]

Although often used as a gateway for through-traffic to premium stock sites, the independent growth of zero-cost, high quality, royalty-free stock photo providers such as Unsplash and Pixabay has been prolific, with sites dishing up primarily user-generated content gaining a lot of traction in the last couple of years.  Having access to images that require absolutely no licensing or attribution is regarded as a treasure trove by many web developers and content publishers, and we gratefully tip our collective hats to the photographers for their generous contributions.

Paul continues to assess the current climate in the microstock world, and questions whether low prices will ultimately translate into lifetime paying customers.

Can repeated frustration in not finding the right images in the free pool convince users to become paying subscribers? Or will those email addresses harvested before download help increase marketing blasts conversion rates? Doubtful.”  [Read More]

When you compare today’s dollar store prices with 15-20 years ago, when a single, rights-managed royalty-free stock image could cost you anywhere upwards of $30, it becomes apparent that sitting on a huge repository of licensable photographic content like some gold-hoarding dragon no longer represents guaranteed wealth, or as another regular stock media industry commentator Mark Milstein neatly sums up the situation, it’s now “a race to the bottom”.

Another curveball aimed squarely at the stock photo industry’s wickets is the growing trend of product or brand placement in free image libraries.  For example, if a clothing, jewellery or homeware manufacturer has an archive containing thousands of well-shot product images, what’s to stop them flooding the free stock library scene with them and increasing their brand’s exposure by repurposing what would otherwise be spent and dormant assets?  As far as I can see, nothing at all.  In fact, aside from Unsplash, which announced its branded photo intentions last December (and which still appear to be invitation only), I’m surprised it’s not already the norm.

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