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Startups One man’s quest to give stock photography a good name

Woman playing with firework in the forest.

Mosuno/Handout

Stock photography's been given a bad name, and if anyone knows that, it's Bruce Livingstone.

In 2000, he founded iStockPhoto, a pioneering firm that would become one of the biggest names in stock photography. In 2006, he sold it to Getty Images for a tidy $50-million (U.S.). But his frustrations with the way the industry was evolving increased over the years. On one hand, he says, photographers' rates were getting squeezed. On the other, in his opinion, quality was suffering.

There are about 30 million to 50 million stock photos out there, Mr. Livingstone estimates. Far too many, he adds, are pure schlock: People pretending to be doctors, people pretending to be home makers, people pretending to be disaffected teenagers, people contorting themselves into any exaggerated pose that might get slapped onto a piece of editorial.

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So when Mr. Livingstone's non-compete clause ran out, he returned to Canada to start again, this time with a mission to restore stock photography's good name.

"We wanted to introduce an authentic style – a way of producing imagery that looked real and not fake and staged, and all these gross things that you think about when you think about stock photography."

The result was Stocksy, a Victoria-based company with an innovative business model and a dedication to a smaller pool of higher-quality photos.

Stocksy has committed to adding a maximum of 500 photographers a year, and by invitation only. Launched in March, it currently has a roster of about 400 photographers and relatively modest, but growing, pool of 50,000-odd photos.

What makes a more authentic stock photo? It's simple, says Mr. Livingstone: Shoot real subjects. Take, as an example, the archetypal stock image of the guy in a lab coat waving a syringe full of corn syrup. "The more authentic one is actually shooting a guy in a lab doing actual stuff," Mr. Livingstone says. "It's real people doing real things in their natural environment."

Clients might notice a different kind of photography, but photographers will notice something else: Stocksy is a radically different kind of company. Unlike other stock photo companies, which typically only pay photographers either a cut of sales or royalties, Stocksy is a co-operative, incorporated under Alberta law.

Photographers get 50 per cent of initial purchases, and 100 per cent of purchases of "extended rights" for use of their photos in projects such as calendars. Photos cost customers between $10 for a web photo and $100 for a billboard-sized shot. There are no "credits," as there were with companies such as iStockPhoto.

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Stocksy's members are all part of the co-op, and 90 per cent of the firm's profits go back to them, divided up in proportion to those whose photos sold best. (Of the remaining 10 per cent, half goes to the firm's roster of advisers, and the rest goes to its founders.)

You don't have to live in Alberta to incorporate under its laws, you just have to live in Canada. So Mr. Livingstone, originally a Montrealer who later built iStockPhoto in Calgary before moving to Los Angeles, relocated to Victoria. It's close to family, he says, "and I couldn't ever move back to a place that has snow." The team currently consists of 12 people, half in Victoria, half in other parts of the world.

Customers, he says, don't need to be educated about the business model, they just want a great photo. But a discussion of the co-op really gets him going.

"It's not important for us to get big. It's important for people to look at this model and maybe start a co-op of their own. It's about changing the way that photographers see this business, and see that they can take control of it, and not accept tiny royalties.

"They have to organize and stand out."

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