Smartphones Let You Capture the Moment — and Sell It


The camera you use to take your pictures affects the pictures you produce. That’s especially true when the camera is far from the studio, held in your hands and embedded in a mobile phone. Those images — the spontaneous shots snapped by an iPhone — are unique, natural and have a real value for image buyers.

That, at least, is the assumption behind foap, a new stock service launched in Sweden in May this year. The site is the idea of Alexandra Bylund and David Los, two workers in the travel industry who had struggled to find stock images that had a “local feeling” and a look that was more natural than stylized. Microstock sites like iStock might offer huge inventories, explained Ms Bylund, but many of the images are similar and few have the kind of emotional impact she was looking for to promote travel destinations.

“Even if there’s millions of photos [on stock sites] it’s difficult to find photos in which people can recognize themselves,” she said.

Flickr, which some buyers have found to be a good source of naturalistic images, poses different problems. Without an inbuilt buying system, making a purchase is difficult and although the photo-sharing site “has many good photos,” Ms Bylund said, the lack of selectivity and the absence of sorting on the site makes those images hard to find. Users can upload any photos they want so there’s no minimal level of quality and no easy way to filter searches for professional-quality shots.

“My nightmare is that if I’m looking for photos from the beach I don’t want to see grey shoots. On Flickr there are many fine photos but also many you don’t like.”

Cats and Keyboards

Foap’s website looks little different to that of traditional stock sites — or even microstock sites. The home page broadcasts a flat price of $10 per image of which 50 percent is returned to the photographer. Images are sold on a royalty-free basis and are divided into editorial and commercial usage depending on their content. (Images of subjects that require special permission from copyright owners, such as logos and some buildings, are automatically marked as editorial.)

But the website is limited and appears to be geared mainly towards buyers. For sellers, uploads can only be made from the iPhone app, and it’s here that it’s possible to see images that have received the highest ratings from other users and those which have just sold. It’s even possible to take pictures from within the app, allowing users to shoot and sell at the same time.

The images themselves are a mixed bunch. Although the biggest market demand is for pictures that show faces and people (and which come with model releases), the most common uploads tend to be of nature, beaches and buildings. While some of the landscape images are as professional and attractive as any you can find on a traditional stock site, others look like they might have been better uploaded to Facebook. Like Flickr, there’s no shortage of cute kittens and happy-looking cats but mixed in among them are also the sorts of standard office shots more usually found on microstock sites. Altogether foap currently has around 200,000 images with more added daily.

It’s Easier to Capture the Moment

That variability, and in particular the emphasis on nature shots, may well be the result of the site’s dependence on the iPhone. (An Android app is in development and should be released in the fall.) The ubiquity of high quality camera phones, the ease of taking a beautiful scene at the moment you see it, does enable anyone to capture moments — of sunsets, street scenes and fields, for example — that would previously have required planning on the part of a photographer. Now anyone capture them at any time — and everyone does. Foap aims to bring a new kind of image to the stock market.

“People think differently when they take a picture with an iPhone,” says Ms Bylund. “They see other views. It’s easier to catch the moment. That’s the big difference. Even my mom takes pictures every day now.”

Sales are beginning to pick up. Alexandra Bylund herself has sold three of the thirteen images in her portfolio of children’s photos and Swedish scenes. The site also has a deal with a number of companies who place requests, or “missions,” for particular images that they need. Solanum Odlarna, for example, is looking for barbeque photos for a campaign. “Think grill, cozy, summer, vacation, sunset,” it says.

In September, when foap launches a new version, images will need to be exclusive, a move that might help to keep out some of the more obviously stock-style images. The site also plans to bring the community into the review procedures, a development that might help to ensure a higher overall quality on the site — although it could also enable photographers to keep out competitors.

While foap may be able to make money selling images shot spontaneously, the challenge will be for photographers to make money at all. They certainly won’t be able to do it professionally. The site emphasizes that the same image can be sold multiple times but repeat sales usually require the kind of general but flexible images more usually found on stock sites. If the images on iStock are similar or bland it’s because photographers need them to speak to enough art buyers to sell enough times to recoup the cost of production. Foap’s missions, too,  may raise the chances of making a sale but photographers won’t make a profit by setting aside time to shoot an image that gives them just five bucks.

When microstock started, it provided an opportunity for a few top photographers to avoid the large stock sites and make a living as professionals. Saturation and falling royalties have now so reduced profits that even Yuri Arcurs no longer uploads to third party sellers, preferring to sell through his own site instead. Foap won’t fill that gap. But it may provide a way for photography enthusiasts to make a few bucks from their talent each time they spot a scene worthy of a picture — and which they’d miss if they hadn’t brought their iPhone.

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