Not so long ago, the folks at Getty Images seemed to hold the business of stock photography in the palm of their hands. Together with Corbis and Jupiter, they dominated the market. But as the Big Three have learned over the past couple of years, control is an illusory concept in the world of Web 2.0. And so we have Getty, battered by Wall Street, being scooped up by a private equity firm  so it can lick its wounds and try to figure out what to do next.
Smell of Desperation
By going private, Getty will be able to avoid the slings and arrows of Wall Street analysts, because its financial information will no longer be public. More importantly, Getty can avoid the decline in market valuation that likely would come as its revenue and earnings become more volatile — a probable scenario as the company attempts to navigate a new, unpredictable industry landscape.
Getty’s major competitors are quick to dissociate themselves from the company’s move and the smell of desperation that accompanies it. Writes Jupiter CEO Alan Meckler  on his blog today:
Getty’s numbers cast a bad light on the stock image business and us. Now we move forward without Getty Images’ numbers hanging around our neck.
Sound a bit like whistling in the dark? The reality is, social networks, microstock and crowdsourcing are forcing a decentralization of control — a collapse of the power structure — that is turning the stock photo industry upside down. That doesn’t bode well for the Big Three.
But how does it bode for photographers?
Fear of the Crowd
On first glance, it would appear that photographers should be just as afraid of crowdsourcing as the Big Three are.
As far back as June 2006, Wired Magazine identified professional photographers as crowdsourcing roadkill. The issue quoted Mark Harmel, a member of the Stock Artists Alliance, who expressed his fear of the crowd this way: “I negotiate my rate all the time. But how can I compete with a dollar?”
Wired editor Jeff Howe, who coined the term “crowdsourcing,”  singled out stock photographers among those who will be hurt the most by the trend. “I believe that crowdsourcing’s long-term promise is immeasurable,” he wrote on his blog. “But I have considerable misgivings about its short-term applications and its implications for the people — like stock photographers — who will be adversely affected by the crowd.”
Photographers have been made to believe that their only choices are to cling desperately to the sinking ship of the Big Three — or be displaced permanently by the semi-pros who all but give their work away on microstock sites.
The Microstock Alternative
The microstock sites, of course, will argue that they are the future, and that they have the photographers’ interests at heart. They say that quantity will prevail, and the photographer will end up making as much from many small sales as he or she would from a few large sales on a traditional stock photography site. Is this true? The evidence suggests otherwise.
To a photographer trying to make a living, freedom is good. Free is not.
To find the ideals and positive potential of Web 2.0 in practice, it might be best to look not to the microstocks or to the Big Three, but to photo-sharing sites — Web destinations borne of the love of photography. Flickr and sites like it reflect the creativity and joy that a community of impassioned people of similar interests can inspire.
And there’s another benefit: Being part of a community also enables a photographer to establish his or her own professional identity online.
Setting Your Own Course
The successful stock photographers of tomorrow will include a wide range of professionals — of all skill and experience levels — who share one increasingly essential attribute: a spirit of entrepreneurship. A business sense.
Black Star Rising contributor Ron Rovtar  has outlined the coming business landscape well:
Many observers believe big stock distributors will continue to strengthen their hold on the stock industry … However, the rapid spread of technology could create new, more efficient paths to the market and may soon let independent stock photographers bypass traditional distributors altogether…
The tinder for the spark is a hub where large numbers of small distributors show their wares under one digital ‘roof.’ Few stock photography buyers will hunt through 50 or 100 web sites for an image. However, it is relatively easy to web 50, 100, 200 or even 1,000 web sites together. They don’t call the internet ‘the web’ for nothing. Bringing things together is what it does best.
Such a hub or group of hubs could easily extend to tens or hundreds of thousands of photographers around the world. This is an example of the kind of world that is coming — one not to fear, but to embrace.
For photographers, it will present new challenges. But for those willing to learn and adapt, it may also provide even greater opportunities for success.
[tags]Getty Images, stock photography,Hellman & Sachs [/tags]