Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fair Play from Photo Researchers to Photographers

My office received an email the other day. My heart sank as I read it. Here it is:

> Date: Fri, 30 May 2008 10:42:00 -0400
> To:
> Dear Mr. Wu;
> XXX Company is revising a chemistry textbook by XXX Authors.
> The authors would like to show students an example of a nudibranch
> which uses a chemical defense to keep predators away. The attached example
> of Tritoniella belli is one possibility, but could you suggest another
> nudibranch which would be a more colorful example of this defense mechanism?
> This will be a chapter opener sized 3/4 page in our student book. I would
> like to see a digital delivery of low resolution files to show the authors.
> Thank you,
> XXX Photo Researcher

Why was I disappointed to read this? There were a few clues that this photo researcher did not understand unwritten rules of the business. One of those unwritten rules is that if you take up a photographer or photo agent’s time, then you should try as much as possible to give business to that photographer or photo agent.

If you have found an image on a stock agent’s website, then you, as the photo researcher, should direct any questions to the agent – not the photographer; and vice versa. In this instance, the image in question clearly came from one of my stock agent’s websites. Yet the photo researcher came to my office, expecting my office to give her the benefit of our time and expertise, to help her.

In almost all such cases, where the photo researcher does such a thing, the time that the photographer spends will be wasted. What often happens is that a photo researcher finds out that the photographer’s office has a great knowledge of our subjects and starts asking lots of questions about our images. We are willing to do a certain amount of work to facilitate a sale and answer questions, but there is a limit beyond which we charge research fees.

Regardless of my bad feeling about this email and request, I had one of my staff respond:

> Hi Sharon:
> I've attached two images that illustrate this point and are more colorful.
> In both cases, the nudibranchs pictured are tropical species that are
> feeding on sponges or ascidians. Their prey contain poisonous compounds
> that the nudibranchs then store within their own bodies.
> I've attached the images. Hope this helps. IND0034 is a particularly good
> example as the nudibranch is actually in the process of feeding, with its
> mouth extended.
> Norbert Wu Productions

Guess what? The photo researcher did pretty much exactly what I expected her to do. She did not respect the fact that we sent two images that were exactly what she was looking for. Nope, she came back with another question. This time I gave up.

Here’s her reply:

> Thank you William for sending two examples.
> What about the attached nudibranch from Borneo by Norbert Wu/Minden?
> Beautiful colors, but would the caption be accurate if we say it's
> poisonous?
> Photo Editor

We are willing to do a certain amount of work to facilitate a sale and answer questions, but there is a limit beyond which we charge research fees. We have to charge research fees, because otherwise, photo researchers like this person will take up so much of my and my staff's time that we will go bankrupt.

The below is from my FAQ page, and explains my thoughts on using my small photo agency at the beginning of your projects rather than a large one:

Many publishers are calling our office with requests for rare,
hard-to-photograph animals. I am discovering that these publishers are using
large stock agencies for the initial stages of their project, and are
calling me with requests for the photographs that these large stock agencies
cannot supply. The problem is that these publishers expect to pay the same
low price for my rare photographs as they have paid the agencies, who have
sold them hundreds of easily obtainable photographs.

As a photographer who specializes in marine life, I take great care with the
documentation and coverage of my stock library. I’ve
found that no agency can match the expertise that I have gained from my many
years in marine biology. For these reasons, I believe that the practice of
going to agencies in the initial stages of a photography project is
detrimental to the health and well-being of both of us. The publisher
doesn’t get the best material that it could get, and specialist
photographers such as myself are left filling those extremely hard-to-get
photographic requests, at prices which are not worthy of the time that it
takes to obtain them. This means that my bread-and-butter shots, those shots
which are easier to obtain, are not subsidizing the cost of my more
difficult photographs. In the long run, this will mean that specialist
photographers will not have the money to pursue more difficult subjects.
Inevitably the quality of photographs that publishers need to stay in
business will deteriorate.

Our office puts together submissions by going
exhaustively through our files and filling your photographic request. This
is in contrast to large stock agencies, which perform quick keyword searches
of their databases. We are able to provide a level of expertise on our
subjects which no stock agency can match. As an example, if you request a
subject like a “zebrafish,” we will ask you if you want one of the
Dendronotus species, sometimes called the zebrafish; or if you are instead
looking for a photograph of a lionfish or turkeyfish (also called zebrafish)
Pterois volitans, which is a common, popular,venomous, and beautiful fish of
the Indo-Pacific. If you ask for a submission of venomous marine animals, we
can provide you with photographs of stonefish (the most venomous fish in the
world), scorpionfish, jellies, cone snails, blue-spotted octopus, and more.
Few other stock agencies are able to provide such exhaustive and expert