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How a small stock photo startup plans to revolutionize the agency model

Five years ago, few would have predicted smartphones would turn the camera industry upside down, to the degree that it has today. Everyone knew that smartphones would eventually dominate over traditional cameras, but how quickly it changed probably caught many off-guard – particularly the camera makers. You don’t have to look hard to see that smartphones have catapulted to becoming everyone’s favorite camera; the improvements in smartphone camera technologies, the increase in smartphone adoption, and slowing traditional compact camera sales, all point to it. In fact, four iPhone models – the 4, 4S, 5, and 5S – make up Flickr’s most-popular camera ranking, followed by Canon DSLR.

Chad Newell, who founded the Media Bakery stock photo agency, knew something was up after he first downloaded Instagram when the app first came out a few years ago. As someone who has been in the stock photography business for 16 years – physically selling and shipping photo transparencies to photo archives, at the beginning of his career – he has experience in working with photographers and has an eye for what works. But when he saw what people were uploading to Instagram, he was blown away.

“I was like, wow, this beautiful content that I see, that these talented photographers were making, we could sell that stuff in a traditional agency format,” Newell recalls. “There was a large pool of untapped talent back then, but obviously smaller and just didn’t know good of an art they actually had. And we’re thinking, ‘Well, if we could somehow tap into these individuals and give them a way to sell their images beyond the number of likes they were getting, this would be a hit.’”

But, despite the increasing popularity of smartphone use in photography, the technology was still nascent and, for the purpose of stock photography, could not yet compete on the level of DSLRs. “The devices that were capturing the images weren’t up to par to create a large enough file size,” Newell says. Although Instagram was catching on with users, many were using filters to mask the inferior picture quality. Newell knew the opportunity was there, but he had to bide his time.

“So we sort of waited on the sidelines, until the device itself start to capture at least a 2,500-pixel photo when it was captured at the highest res,” Newell says. “That, of course, came with the iPhone 5S, and that was the moment that we decided to start Snapwire.”

Building a community of collaborators

Snapwire is the stock photo agency for the Instagram and mobile generation. As Newell, Snapwire’s founder and CEO, puts it, Snapwire gives mobile photographers a great way to succeed in doing what they love, “because there are so many talented photographers that sort of dream about building a life around photography.” It takes a stock agency approach to licensing images, but it changes the formula, in that photographers get 70 percent of the cut and retains all rights.

Vectors at iStock

But for Instagrammers, many who are young and for whom the app is their first entry into photography, the idea of capitalizing on their work is difficult. On the flip side, Newell says there are so many creatives and businesses looking for original images for their own projects, and aren’t thrilled with what they have to choose from traditional agencies.

“There are so many mobile photographers out there producing this great content, so what if there was a way they could come together and create something better than what was currently available to the buying community?” Newell says.

Chad Newell, a stock photo agency veteran and founder of Snapwire, reviews submissions with his team.

Chad Newell (middle, standing), a stock photo agency veteran and founder of Snapwire, reviews submissions with his team.

Which, in a nutshell, explains Newell’s vision for Snapwire, which recently went live after a year of development and private beta testing. It’s a resource for photographers – professional and amateur – to expose their art to the world. While it was designed with those using mobile devices and Instagram in mind, it’s open to all photographers, regardless of equipment, as long as the images meet the requirements (Instagrammers are asked to upload the original version of their popular images, prior to processing). So, on Snapwire, you could find experienced seasoned photographers alongside young Instagrammers.

But it’s also a source for buyers looking for original content. Newell breaks buyers into two camps, those who need something right now and those who can afford to browse and find the right image. For the latter, Newell is giving them a powerful and affordable tool, which is the ability to make special requests for what they are looking for, along with directions and other specifics – much like hiring a photographer.

“One thing we’ve always heard in the industry is that, ‘I want a photograph that doesn’t look like a stock photo,’” Newell says.

The requests are broadcasted to approved Snapwire photographers, who are welcome to submit their photos for consideration. This approach gives a buyer an incredible number of options that are tailored to what he/she is looking for. Nominated photographers – meaning their photos have been shortlisted for final consideration – get brownie points that could increase their level status, which could help them increase their exposure and possibly work with buyers one-on-one in the future.

Besides requests, Snapwire also holds challenges, which are open to all Snapwire users. Unlike requests, which is designed to help businesses get the stock art they need, challenges are more like fun exercises that help users exercise their creativity, while also helping them hone in on the skills they need to develop stock art-worthy images.

“It’s a marriage between a two-sided economy, where there’s lots of supply of great content, and demand which maps to,” Newell says. “This craving for authenticity is mapping to exactly the kind of content that’s being produced in Instagram.”

And to build on this Instagram authenticity, Snapwire is strategically seeking out not only Instagram users with the best quality content, but also those with the largest influence on the community.

“We onboard them as ambassadors, and that gives them quite a interest in using Snapwire,” Newell says. “Of course, our whole brand and culture we’re building with the company is nested right there in them. So we’re seeing with our user base that some of these highly influential photographers are launching their own challenges in Snapwire, and we’re working with them to broadcast out to their audiences.”

Snapwire is centered on creative collaboration – a very different approach from spending hours searching through tired stock photos.

But you don’t have to be the best of anything in order to participate. Snapwire revolves around its free iOS app, which is open to all and lets you easily upload images to the service; the company even developed its own image-recognition algorithms that can determine what’s in the image, and create basic tags for you. It was also important for Snapwire to build an app that’s simple and fun to use. (Non iOS users can utilize the Web-based app to upload images.)

But before you can participate in requests, you have to be first approved; users are asked to submit four images for consideration, preferably based on one of the requested themes. Snapwire then reviews the images, and “rejected” users are asked to keep resubmitting until they get a feel for what Snapwire is looking for. Snapwire, after all, is a stock photo agency that wants to license high quality images, so it’s the reason for its vigilance. (We tried out the service, and although we weren’t accepted on a few tries, the service encouraged us to keep trying; it made us think more about what we were submitting and had us compare our work to others, which helped us understand more of what a stock photo agency looks for.)

If accepted, buyers could pay anywhere from $7 to thousands of dollars – photographers set the pricing. Snapwire’s reviewers also look through the many photos submitted, and add to its library of stock art the ones that it thinks have the potential to sell. “We actually look at every photo that comes through, and we hand-select them for a growing collection,” Newell says. “Today, we have more than 70,000 photos…the quality is so high.” Some photos in the collection are even royalty-free.

Snapwire revolves around an easy-to-use iOS app. Users can also submit images via Snapwire's website.

Snapwire revolves around an easy-to-use iOS app. Users can also submit images via Snapwire’s website.

Buyers can also opt for an exclusivity clause, which allows a buyer to hold exclusive rights to an image for a set number of years. “That’s going to pay out quite a bit of money to the photographer,” Newell says.

Because Snapwire also wants to foster a photography community, much like Instagram has done, it won’t outright reject users; instead, it just keep asking them to contribute until everyone is satisfied. It’s this community approach that separates Snapwire from the traditional agency model.

“We’re one of the first companies that’s putting a step forward in the industry, saying we’re a collaborative creation process…that’s a big distinction,” Newell says. “Yes, everybody can build a library by licensing rights to content, but that’s the old way…one of the biggest distinction we have, we connect talented photographers with real-time buyers, in that they can create a photo together, better – that’s where the big distinction is.”

From observation, Newell is seeing photographers at the mid-level pricing really go all out when trying to fulfill a request, shooting in their free time or when getting together with friends. “Snapwire is becoming a powerful tool to socialize with,” Newell says.

It’s all about the creators, not just the tech

With smartphone camera technology continuing to evolve and improve, it allows Snapwire to offer images with even higher resolution. But Newell says it’s really the photographer that’s making the statement, not just the technology.

“There is the cultural aspect of Instagram that’s really driving the creativity…all the nomenclatures we’ve always heard, the camera that is the closest to you is the one in your pocket – that’s obviously part of the factor,” Newell says. “But really, at the end of the day, these individuals are self-assembling on Instagram, going out and challenging themselves to take photography, look at the world in a new way.

“And by using the medium that is so accessible to them, it’s not only easy to actually do, but the volume and churn of the content that’s actually being produced…maps to an aesthetic that is being driven and envisioned by the millennium generation,” Newell adds. “We’ve talked bout where this content is actually being generated from, and it’s the lens of today’s youth that’s driving that.”

Despite Snapwire’s embrace of Instagram and mobile photography, there’s no prohibition for any DSLR user, Newell says, since users can upload their images from a variety of sources, such as Flickr, Dropbox, desktop, etc. In fact, as more mobile photographers become more interested in the craft, Newell thinks they’ll upgrade their tools to move beyond the restrictions of a smartphone, which could mean a traditional DSLR.

Playing in a world of stock photo Goliaths

You can go after market share, but we’re really about changing the world for the people involved.

Snapwire, in comparison to established agencies, is tiny. Newell is part of a team of four, plus contractors, that works out of Snapwire’s office in Santa Barbara, Calif. This small group handles it all, including working with buyers and sellers on transactions. Eventually, the Snapwire community could take over a portion of the image reviews, but right now Newell and his team reviews all images that get submitted.

Newell has no plans to challenge the bigger players, but he believes that what Snapwire is doing, is completely revolutionary, and that’s what makes his company stand out from the larger agencies as well as smaller competitors going after the same market. It’s doing away with the soul-less “type in a keyword in a search box” approach, building the community-based collaborative tool that’s the heart of its service, and elevating the persona of the photographer. For buyers, they’re getting work that is original, or as close as original to their vision.

Lindley Murphy is Snapwire's Community Manager. She's the one who communicates with photo submitters about the creative review process and other information. She's part of a small team that's getting Snapwire off the ground.

Lindley Murphy is Snapwire’s Community Manager. She’s the one who communicates with photo submitters about the creative review process and other information. She’s part of a small team that’s getting Snapwire off the ground.

“We’re not looking at the big guys – Getty (Images) is really the 800-pound gorilla in this space, and they do their job very well, Newell says. Getty and others are also getting more social, working with the likes of Pinterest and making many of their available work free for non-commercial use. “We’re not looking to take over the business in big, disruptive, angry ways. But I do think we are changing industry – this way of creating together, it’s a huge trend, and the stock photography space could really benefit from that.

“The idea of being able to sell your photography with intent and purpose and transparency, and being able to work with the buyer, these are the ultimate desires for any photographers, and the buyer has a chance to create a custom-made photo,” Newell adds. “If you look at other industries and other verticals, this is exactly where the trend is. People really have an appetite [for community], and our culture is really going back to a period of time of bartering and trade, and all those early days of commerce in our society were so effective…there’s such a lack of community today with commerce and transaction.”

Of course, if Snapwire grows to become the size of Getty, he’d gladly welcome it. “You can go after market share and take over, and if all those things work out, that’s wonderful, but we’re really about changing the world for the people involved, not so much the bottom line.”

At the end of the day, it’s the community aspect Newell wants Snapwire to be remembered for. “Ultimately, we want the photographer to be so proud of their profile in their work on Snapwire, that they’re broadcasting out to the world, ‘This is my online commercial portfolio, and if you’re interested in working with me, you can hire me on Snapwire.”

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