Archive for the ‘Photo Business’ Category

Flickr’s founders to leave Yahoo!

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington reports that the founders of popular photo sharing service Flickr, Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, are set to leave the company.

The husband/wife combo leaves at a time that sees Flickr’s mothership Yahoo! in a heavy sea of massive problems. First, Yahoo!’s CEO Jerry Yang did really everything to prevent a takeover by Microsoft (dumb!), basically destroying billions of shareholder value, then he did a desparate advertising deal with archrival Google (dumb!), handing them over the keys to the kingdom (search business). And now employees of all ranks are leaving Yahoo! in a mass exodus, which comes as no surprise. Those who leave probably do not see any future for (and at) the Internet dinosaur. And they realize that if they wanted to work for Google, they could and should directly apply for a job in Mountainview.

Stewart Butterfield, photographed by Heather Powazek Champ
Stewart Butterfield (April 2007)
Photo by Heather Powazek Champ/flickr

Anyway, I have no problem with Fake and Butterfield leaving, given the poor performance of the duo during last years German Flickr crisis where the Flickr community had a chance to see their real, undisguised opinions for a short period. While Butterfield certainly did not agree with the actions demanded by the Yahoo! HQ, he still submitted to these requests. At that time, it became pretty obvious that the Flickr founders were mostly concerned about securing their share of the $35M paid by Yahoo! in March 2005 (and frankly, who wouldn’t?). All they probably needed to do was to survive the lockup period of their contracts. After that, they were free to leave. Well, thanks for all your efforts, good luck, and farewell! Enjoy your millions.

At least, we won’t have to read any new silly statements defending Yahoo!’s weird actions. Which is good.

Ten things I hate about hotel rooms

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Typical Photographers Hotel Room
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

You know the drill – the photo shooting is not in your hometown, and it is scheduled to be too long to drive home that night. So you take a hotel room. Don’t you just love it?

As markets are getting tighter, this frequently happens to me these days, and often the agency does not book one of the big hotel chains (where quality is usually OK), but one of those “small charming hotels” close to the location of the photo shooting. These “small charming hotels” can quickly turn into a living nightmare.

Last week it happened to me again, and while I was lying in the hotel room in the evening, I started to wonder what it really is that I do not like about hotel rooms.

So, here are my top ten reasons to not like hotel rooms:

10. Mini bar

A chocolate bar for 4 Euros? A can of Coke for 3 Euros? Guys, this is too much. Just because you can charge what you want, you do not have to! Why do you need a profit margin of 400% on all the items in the mini bar? Shouldn’t you be glad that I stay with you in your lovely hotel? So why are you trying to rip me off, then?

Then again, sometimes I work late, editing the photos in the hotel room (it makes sense to use that time), and all of a sudden I feel hungry. I would be willing to pay even the aforementioned 400% profit margin for just a simple chocolate bar, but heck – there simply is no fridge. Nothing. All the shops have closed long ago, and so I stay hungry.

9. Breakfast coffee

Breakfast time. The hotel thinks they are showing real customer service by trying to serve you. They take your orders for drinks, politely asking you whether you would like tea or coffee? And then they return after (felt) hours and happily serve you a single cup of luke-warm coffee. Hey, did I mention that I need to wake up? This works best with a can of hot, delicious coffee! :-)

8. Bathroom

Yikes. Sometimes I wonder whether the guys running the hotel have slept even one single night in one of their rooms, and whether they actually know how their rooms look like? Otherwise I can not explain why some of the bathrooms are in such a bad condition that you (even as a male) start to think, like, “well, I’ll skip the shower today. That dirty hole that they call a ‘shower’ is just not inviting enough, and it’ll be a hard day anyway, so on to the breakfast”. Don’t get me wrong, it does not have to be a wellness shower. But it should be technically OK and clean. Nothing more and nothing less.

7. TV Program

There is almost always a problem with TV. Either the hotel offers too few channels, or just local channels, or in a bad technical quality on a really small screen. Sometimes all of these problems come together. Add to that a missing or defunct remote control, and any positive mood that is left over after a long shooting is down the drain. But what holds hotel owners back? How much is a TV set these days? 100 Dollars? 70 Dollars? Can’t be that much.

6. (Lack of) Parking lot

“Oh, you can not park over there. That’s not our parking lot.” – “So, where is your parking lot, then?” – “Ah, I’m sorry, Sir, but I am afraid we don’t have one. But you can park for free until 6 a.m. on that public place three blocks down the road.”

Er, sure. So how, exactly, do you think people come to your hotel? By foot? By tram? By bike? Unless you are in a big city, or in a very touristic location, I think that most hotel guests come by car, anywhere on the world. That’s why I positively do not like hotels without a parking lot. (It’s really annoying to walk three blocks with most your expensive equipment on your back after a long shooting, and even more annoying to get up early to get a parking voucher for that very same parking lot.)

5. No credit cards, please

I understand that credit card companies are milking the businesses for each and every transaction they process. Which makes them less attractive for most small businesses. And that includes small hotels. But sorry, this is not my fault. I can not carry tons of cash with me just to pay for a few nights in a hotel.

It’s even more annoying to learn that the “credit card machine has broken down” and be faced with the hotel owner’s request to pay cash. This means to me: get into the car, find an ATM, get the money, drive back to the hotel and hand over the cash. Which is sort of uncool, especially when the car is parked three blocks down the road on a public parking lot (see # 6).

4. Staff

The smaller the hotel, the bigger the risk of meeting an unfriendly and uncaring person at the reception (well, if there is a reception). Why do these persons, who are unwilling to help, who do not know their immediate surroundings (e.g. where is a parking lot?), who do not speak the local language properly, why on Earth do these people seek a career in the hotel business? They make me think I am disturbing them and generally provide me a feeling of being unwanted. Can’t hotel owners simply check who they hire? (Hotel owners: please put on your sunglasses, a wig, and a false beard, and check in at your own hotel to see what I mean.)

3. Invoice Printing

Honestly, I don’t know what’s so difficult about presenting a proper invoice upon check-out? I left all my personal details upon check-in, so it can’t be that hard to enter that stuff correctly (name, company name and -address) into the PC and print an invoice. But it is, almost always. But I agree: if they are unfriendly and uncaring (see # 4), I should not expect them to be able to enter an address correctly.

2. The bed

OK, I admit it. I stay in hotel rooms because I need a place to sleep. I am not paying thousands of Dollars every year just because I like hotels so much. Or because their wellness area is so nice. Or because their staff is so friendly (that is, if they are friendly). No. I need a place for me to sleep.

But many places make it amazingly difficult to fulfil even this basic requirement. I’ve seen beds that were too short (I’m a tall guy), often also with a wooden foot board (looks great, but is horribly uncomfortable), and sometimes with bedsheets designed for midgets, covering my body from knees to neck. Or from feet to belly. Maybe I missed something when studying the brochure (e.g. big red sticker “Warning – only for midgets!”), but it definitely does not help me getting my well-earned sleep after a long photo shooting.

Which brings me to the most annoying reason to not like hotels:

1. Nice brochures

Being a photographer, I know that you can not trust photos in brochures (or virtually any photo anywhere). But I am really annoyed when I see hotel brochures or web sites with photos of beautifully decorated rooms that look spacious, with nice furniture and fresh flowers on the table, flatscreens, big windows flooded by bright sunlight. And when you enter your assigned room, it does not even faintly resemble that image. It’s cramped, dark, old furniture, plastic flowers on the table (if at all). And the young smiling ladies at the reception turn into an old, mumbling guy who does not even speak the local language correctly (let alone English) and who knows nothing about the hotel and its surroundings?

I can live with all the shortcomings of a hotel room, but when the advertised product is disconnected from reality, I get really annoyed.

Further thoughts on the rights grab by Adobe

Monday, March 31st, 2008

There is quite an uproar in the blogosphere about the recent “accident” with Adobe’s Photoshop Express beta Terms of Use (ToU).

One of my favorite photographers and bloggers, Jim Goldstein, asked four questions on this:

1. What the hell is Adobe thinking?
2. Are corporate lawyers really this out to lunch?
3. Why wasn’t greater thought put into supporting the rights of their users and managing the trust behind the Adobe brand?
4. Why would Adobe bury the meat of the Terms of Use as they’ve done?

Very valid questions indeed. Especially the questions of the “Why?” and “How?” are worth further analysis.

Having worked for large corporations in the past, I know that legal departments do not come up with terms and conditions just “out of the blue”. They are usually reactive, drafting legal clauses from the input provided by (and often in close cooperation with) the product teams. I.e., Adobe’s legal team did probably NOT say, “hey, why don’t we just grab for the rights of the images that people upload to the site? This way we could earn an extra buck or two at a later point in time.” – No. A legal team typically listens to the input by the product team and then comes back with an appropriate legal wording. It might well be that the product team in this case wanted or needed to grab for the rights for business reasons and asked the legal team to hide the fact as good as possible. The legal team replied by burying the terms somewhere in the general T&C. So I strongly believe that the product team thought they could get away with this.

It’s worth noting that at least the Adobe PR folks got their act together. They did an excellent job in telling the world that the legal team did a mistake (it’s always easy to blame the lawyers, as everyone seems to be happy with that). Just read this comment by Adobe’s John Nack responding to this blog post, and the inspiring discussion:

No, it was *not* anyone’s intention to “rip off” customers. The people who wrote the legalese overshot the mark, that’s all. It’s not some nefarious scheme.

In my opinion, this is at best only one half of the story. The other half is with the product manager, who most likely initiated this fiasco and should have stopped it. The fact that the ToU were published like this leaves several serious questions open. Most of them concerning the product team who let this mess happen.

Anyway, in the future, we will need to review the terms and conditions much closer, not just for Adobe’s services.

Why has the photo market changed?

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Pino Granata has an interesting (even if depressing) article on the problems of the stock photo market. He notes that ten years ago, when printed catalogues were still the standard way to sell images, things were better and wonders why…

How come that everybody at that time was doing very good while today we need to fight to stay alive? [...] I’m not saying we should go back in printing catalogues again, but the fact remains that until 10 years ago things were OK and now it’s NOT OK anymore.

I am well aware of Pino’s decades of experience in the photo business, so I think it is just a rhetorical question from him. Still, here’s my opinion: it’s just a matter of supply and demand.

Grand Canyon at Sunset ©2003 by Mark Zanzig/zettpress
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

Supply has increased massively by the introduction of high-quality digital photography to the mass market.

Ten years ago, you needed a skilled photographer with expensive equipment and experience to shoot a technically OK photo. Only few consumers could afford to become professionals – the learning process simply took too long, and it was way too expensive. Just think about a superb sunset at the Grand Canyon. It was virtually impossible for the average Joe to create decent shots in commercial quality. Usually their shots were flawed, hampered by bad lenses, insufficient exposures, grainy consumer grade film material, or mediocre prints.

Heck, only a small fraction of photographers used slide films, the defacto standard for professional photos at that time. Even fewer used high-end slide films, and only a very small portion had access to slide scanners that could reproduce their slides in high quality (which was done by the photo agencies anyway). At that time, the market was clearly separated into amateurs/consumers and semi-professionals/professionals, and the role of the photographer was to take a good photo, not to worry about its distribution. If an amateur wanted to cross the border and join the professionals, it meant a substantial investment into equipment and film material, before even coming close to professional results.

Fast forward to 2008: today, the typical digital point-and-shoot camera has 7 million pixels or more, i.e. almost the data you would get from a 100 ASA slide film. That P&S camera also comes with an image stabilizer and a bright display allowing immediate review. The camera costs about US$140. Throw in a 2 GB memory card for hundreds of images, and you end up with a total cost of $150. This camera will be able to do shots that are technically good enough for most newspapers and entry-level magazines. (Mind you, I’m not talking about the ablity of the camera to help the photographer in bringing home the shots of, say, a stressful press conference. I am just talking about the technical basics here.)

If you want substantially better quality, you may go for Canon’s brand new Digital Rebel XSi, a 12MP SLR camera, which can produce images that are technically suitable for magazines. This will set you back just US$900 with a kit lens.

Grand Canyon at Sunset ©2003 by Mark Zanzig/zettpress
Mark Zanzig/zettpress

In former times, consumers would just use their cameras to take nice photos for their photo albums. Today they share their photos on the Internet in global communities, for example on Flickr. Because sharing is such a joy for them, they often assign free or cheap licences to the photos, basically giving away their photos for free. And they enjoy it very much when a newspaper or a magazine asks to publish their photos.

At the time of writing, a search on Flickr for sunset grand canyon yields roughly 9,500 photos, of which 180 carry a CC BY licence that allows the user to freely use the photo for any kind of publication as long as attribution is given. Some of these photos are surprisingly good, some of them even exceptional. The border between amateurs and professionals is blurring, if not disappearing.

In short: the supply of good images has skyrocketed over the past few years, and this has significantly reduced the overall price.

Demand for high-quality photos has silently decreased at the same time. As Internet analyst Henry Blodget points out, newspapers and magazines are bound for extinction. Unfortunately, these media were the typical buyers of expensive high-end photos.

Not so any more! Traditional media react to their changing business with a (desperate) struggle to decrease their cost, for example by using free or cheap images from the Internet, or by using photos submitted by their readers.

It’s just logical – why would publishers spend money to licence high-end pictures from traditional stock photo agencies, when they can get the same (or similar) quality from cheaper sources? Publishers need to generate profit in the first place. They run businesses.

The dry language of a 10-K form puts it like this:

In 2007, we saw continued change in the competitive dynamics in the stock photography market. Our customers have increasing access to, and awareness of, a variety of imagery sources on the Internet.

Yep, that’s Getty Images’ 10-K form, and probably they wanted to say “a variety of cheaper imagery sources on the Internet”. After all, Getty Images still has some of the finest photos around (and people would surely use their images if only they were cheaper). Getty Images could not control such massive market dynamics, and so they were finally sold for $2.1B (which is still a good price for the seller).

An increased supply faces a reduced demand. This translates to “dropping prices” in any market, and the photo market is not different. The photographic ecosystem has been thrown out of whack by digitalization, globalization, and the Internet. In addition, the pressure on traditional publishers to keep their profit margin has reduced the demand for expensive images. The former balance of supply and demand (on a high price level) is quickly seeking a new balance (on a much lower price level).

And that’s just the beginning. Be prepared for more changes. The next battlefield will be the fight between video and photo. Or why do you think that Canon is so keen on getting the Live View function into their professional line, e.g. into the EOS 1D mark III?