Stock photography is a creative endeavor. Therefore it’s not a stretch that the business models springing up around it are innovative and contemporary. Coupled with technology, they prove to be a bellwether for future technological development, merging world markets, and global communication. This short list of companies demonstrates these initiatives by how they place themselves in the market and their plans for the future.

Glenn Parker is the CEO of Photolibrary, an Australian company that is aggressively expanding its reach by opening offices or merging with companies around the world. Its latest foray into the U.S. market, known to be the largest market, was the purchase of Index Stock in New York City.

Photolibrary has been known for its specialty collections, “which have a longer useful life, and a more defensible position in terms of the market.” They include: The Anthony Blake Food Collection (now called Freshfoodimages), the Garden Picture Library, Oxford Scientific, and Monsoon Images. In addition to the recent move into the United States, the company’s presence is strong in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates as well as the more traditional markets such as the United Kingdom and Australia/New Zealand. “The Dubai office is a strong emerging economy with more advertising and telecommunications than some mature markets,” according to Parker.

Looking long term into the future, the company has identified two markets on which to continue expanding it’s strong foundation – the subscription/microstock market and footage. With a broad base of footage offerings from Oxford Scientific, Image Bank, and Archive Films, Photolibrary is expanding into the high end film market, and plans to create a larger presence in the subscription market, which Indexstock had started with and Photolibrary, founded in 1967, is one of the oldest pioneers that is moving forward at a steady pace.

PhotoShelter, is one of the new guys on the block, and is coming at this market from a totally different direction. Allen Murabayashi is CEO, and he has brought together a community of over 20,000 photographers offering two products to the photography industry. The flagship is Personal Archive, a subscription-based service, providing photographers with the tools needed to archive, distribute, price, sell, and market their images independently.

The PhotoShelter Collection is said to be the “world’s first open-but-edited stock marketplace where 14,000 amateur and pro photographers from 140 countries contribute images for RM and RF licensing.” Unprecedented in today’s market, they offer 70% royalties to the artist. Four thousand new images are uploaded everyday, and photographers set their own prices, a change from traditional agent models. “To combat the downward pricing pressure of the microstock trend,” there is a minimum price of $50 on all imagery. A Pricing Module, powered by fotoQuote, offers guidance on industry-standard pricing.

The technology team was the original tech team behind, so they are coming up with such venues as, “ironclad image security to prevent unauthorized viewing and downloading.” They have created a controlled vocabulary called Tagonomy™, that allows photographers to clarify the meaning of keywords. They also support RAW files, and offer a Learning Center for artists covering issues from copyright to licensing.

They feel that, “the old model for stock photography sales is no longer working for photographers, for buyers, or for shareholders. The Internet needs to be capitalized on not only as another distribution channel, but for its efficiencies. In turn, those profits should be given directly to the content producers – the artists who create the original work.”

The industry is well aware of the dramatic impact that microstock has had on the stock photography business over the last couple of years. Microstock was the brainchild of Bruce Livingstone, founder of iStockphoto.

The company recently released earnings of $71.9 million for 2007 and reportedly paid more than $20 million in royalties to its contributing artists, making it the largest stock image and video marketplace in the world. iStock currently has more than three million stock photographs, vector illustrations, Flash files, and video clips, which are purchased through an online credit system for as little as a dollar. The company is introducing subscription plans giving customers a daily credit limit for a fixed period of time.

Now a subsidiary of Getty Images, iStockphoto offers images and videos used in advertisements, marketing materials, presentations, school projects, Web sites and a host of other applications.

The company credits its success to its 50,000 image contributors and 1,500 videographers, providing digital video footage. Of its patented assets, it is known for CopySpace™, a feature that allows a user to search for an image based on the way copy will be used with the images.

According to the company, it’s just the beginning: “We will continue deepening our global presence in several key markets, and we think that the use of microstock imagery will become ubiquitous in hundreds of countries worldwide in the very near future.”

A newer iteration to this microstock market is a company named 123RF. It offers customers the flexibility of two licensing plans, by the purchase of credits or a subscription. There are seven credit buying plans, from $15 to $1750, and six subscription models from $89 to $1799. The subscription allows for volume downloads, and the credits offer affordable rates for low volume users. The company claims to be a choice for, “discerning image buyers who are more price conscious.” “While other companies begin at $2.50 and max out at $.90 per download credit, we start pricing our download credits at $1 per credit to a low of $.70 per credit.” They market aggressively with reward points for customers to redeem gifts, and free images on a limited basis to entice new customers.

They contribute Image Identifier to the new technology pool. If a client can’t find an image they desire with keywords, it can now be located by other criteria, including image color. They boast speedy technology for contributors when uploading and waiting for image review, and offer self promotion tools. 123RF is owned by Inmagine, a well known royalty free company which has launched a new expanded offering to allow rights managed images for licensing.

Their predictions for the future: “Our statistics have shown the market will continue to grow more and more as businesses turn to microstock. It is far from being saturated, but it is up to us to keep on pushing the limits and discover what new directions and strategies work best, in a climate of turbulent and constant change.”

Another player in this market is Dreamstime. Based in Romania, CEO, Serban Enache has built on yet another market place and offers imagery extending into the editorial market, reflecting events from social, cultural and political scenes. Offering both credits and subscriptions, image prices can double if their popularity increases. “This favors older images in the sense that their earnings may increase as they age if they are popular.” The company gives the contributing photographers an assignment topic to shoot and winners of the best image receive prizes such as a video iPod.

They also offer a number of models that have advantages, from unlimited “seat” licensing to web usage, images for product resale and complete buy-outs. Images sell from $25 to $50 each, or for full rights from $350 to $10,000 per image. Growth in this industry is exemplified by Dreamstime’s numbers: “We have about 50-70,000 new users register monthly, over 150,000 unique visitors daily, and over two million new images accepted yearly. These numbers are 2 to 4 times compared to twelve months ago.”

It becomes clear that competition breeds the challenge of innovation. These companies and others like them will bring a whirlwind of change over the next five years. For business watchers, it’s a wild ride.

Images copyright Mark Hunt