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Is There a Photo App in Your Future?

By Lee Foster


The ASMP Bulletin’s Winter 2010 issue featured the article ECONOMIES OF SCALE: Photographers Shoot Smart To Fit New Platforms, an overview of shooting considerations and stylistic trends related to emerging markets for small screen image display.


As a companion to this article in print, Lee Foster offers sage advice about his recent development of a photography app, while also describing how this can expand the reach of a traditional publishing project as well as to offer photographers an added income stream.


© Lee Foster


(Author’s Note: In December 2009 I became one of the first ASMP members to have my own photo app for sale in the Apple iTunes App Store. This app is San Fran Photography Guide, $1.99. The link is


Is there a photo app in your future? Perhaps there is, if you want to earn photojournalism income and connect with a new audience in an entirely new product area, the photo app.


As old markets collapse, new markets emerge for the photo journalist. For me, December 2009 was an especially poignant illustration of this phenomenon. I lost National Geographic Adventure magazine, to which I had five sales in 2008 and 2009. But I gained by releasing my first photo app in the Apple iTunes App Store.


Possibly you’ve been thinking about apps. Here are some questions that may come to mind.



What is a photo app, anyway?

Apps are an entirely new type of image/information/insight product. They are downloaded to a so-called “smart phone.” The big market now is the Apple iPhone. But Google’s Android phones are developing quickly as another market. The two platforms are different. A consumer anywhere in the world can download my San Fran Photography Guide to their Apple iPhone.


Is an app just a conversion of photo book material to this new format?

No, there is more to it than that. I have a parallel book on this subject, The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco (Countryman Press). But the writing for an app requires short, self-contained entries. The photos for an app could be quite numerous, while my printed book has only 75 images. The first release of my San Francisco app has 100 images, the second will have 500. An app organizes material alphabetically and also in a dynamic subject manner, by categories, unlike a linear book. Most importantly, an app can have map capacity that makes it a transformative product, unlike a book. An app can show you a cluster of entries on a map. You can navigate to them, looking at writing and photography, and relate them to where you now are.



Can I do an app myself, or do I need a “publisher”?

At this point, you need a “publisher,” but the appropriate word is “developer.” The software is now too complicated to do yourself, especially in the Apple world. This may change if Google comes out with do-it-yourself app software for its system. There are three aspects to the app marketplace-the Author, the Developer (who creates the software), and the Retail Seller (such as the Apple App Store). Typically, the sale money goes 30 percent to each, and 10 percent to admin. You need to partner, at this point, with a Developer, and there are many startups now appearing.


Can I make money selling photo apps?

I believe you can and will. The market is already large and could grow exponentially. AT&T scrambles to create more bandwidth in its infrastructure to meet the needs of the iPhone. Games are the biggest app category of sales, but info products, such as photo apps, have a respectable minor slice. The green purity and elegance of the publishing scheme has some appeal. The buyer can be anywhere in the world. The buyer needs only to have a phone. The buyer can download in an instant. No trees are sacrificed. No objects need to be printed and shipped at huge expense and environmental impact.



Why do you price your app so low, at $1.99? Aren’t you “selling out” and “cheapening” your photos?

When you do an app, you can set your price. The relationship with the “publisher,” meaning the Developer, is entirely different than in past publisher arrangements. In the traditional photo book model, the publisher brought to the table capital (for the printing) and distribution (getting into Barnes & Noble). Though realities in the app world are evolving quickly, the scene now is that the Developer has the software and the Apple iTunes App Store is the egalitarian distribution channel. The Author gets a high percentage of the sale, typically 30 percent, so even a few sales can generate income.



Please break down that app-vs-book sale income further. Is there a dollar to be made?

I earn more when I sell two apps at $1.99 than when Countryman sells one of my books at $14.95. Here is the math. Two apps sell for $1.99 x 2 and I earn 30 percent or $1.19. Countryman sells my $14.95 book through Amazon/Ingram at a typical 55 percent off, so they get $6.73 back, and I get 15 percent of net (which is a “good” rate today) or $1.01. Looking ahead, do you think it will be easier to get two sales worldwide at $1.99 to a smart phone device or one sale of a physical object at $14.95 where that physical object happens to be or must be shipped to, at an added cost?



I’m skeptical. You may be blowing smoke. Why should I get excited about photo apps?

It’s good to be skeptical. But consider the possibilities. Could we be entering a possible Golden Age from the point of view of the Content Creator, which is us, the photographers of ASMP? Could we connect almost transparently with an audience? Could we earn micro payments from a vast new audience? If Google comes through with sophisticated do-it-yourself software, could we manage it all ourselves, without even a Developer, and keep all the money? Could we, as photographers, become leaders in a green future, sharing our photo images with a worldwide public without ever cutting a tree or shipping a printed physical product around the earth?


Of course, there is an alternative. We can continue to sell our photo content solely in the traditional markets. We can hope our outlets will remain slightly ahead of the insolvency and bankruptcy projected for the old model, such as National Geographic Adventure, where ad revenue reportedly fell 44 percent last year, making the shutdown a prudent decision.


I’ll continue to meditate over these matters, especially as related to travel photos, on my Web site.