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The long tail of photography

Photography used to be about creating that one image that would sell over and over again. Film, processing, archiving, duping was expensive enough that editors would harshly cut through a shoot to find the quintessential image. As we all know, with the advent of digital, both photographers and agencies have reduced their editing efforts in order to offer more choice and also purely out of laziness. The “you never know” editing approach seems to have taken over, recently supported by the “long tail” theory popularized by author Chris Anderson ( a must read).

For those who haven’t read the book, it explains that sites like Amazon make more money on selling a lot of small amount of products than a lot of bestsellers. Therefore although they keep selling top ranking products, the real gold is having as much choice as possible. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should.

Does this apply to the photography world ? It certainly seems to be the case for microstock who have based their business model on this idea, albeit probably not conscientiously. But it certainly does not apply to editorial photography. Since editorial is a limited market both in space and time, there is little room for a tail. Most events covered are not of historical proportion and there is nothing more that looks like a George Bush head shot than another.

The interesting part is why did traditional royalty free agencies have not followed suit? After all, there is almost no time, nor market restriction for a royalty image. And can this model be applied to RM ? Since the core definition of RM is to restrict use of the same image by other, you would think that photo agencies would plunged into long tail revenues. It doesn’t seem so. Rather, they produce more of what they believe are going to be a best seller than anything. Quite contradictory.

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