Microstock Acceptance Hurdle

Posted on 2/15/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Many of the worlds most experienced and successful stock photographers - ones with high six-figure annual revenues are considering putting some of their best quality images on microstock sites as a test. But they often find it difficult to get the microstock companies to accept them.

These are photographers who have been selling images through Getty, Corbis and many or the other major agencies and portals for more than a decade. Over the years, they have earned millions from licensing their stock images.

One photographer with thousands of images on gettyimages.com related his experience. He submitted the required three image sample to iStock. He had recently done a major business shoot for Blend and Getty and submitted some of the same sets and props. His goal was to demonstrate three different sides of corporate life - a high demand subject matter. These were not snapshots, but employed complicated lighting with high production values.

All were rejected as "too many similars." Undeterred, the photographer sought to understand how he could change what he was doing to meet iStock's expectations.

It's impossible for photographers to actually talk to an iStock editor for clarification. iStock's public relations explained to Selling Stock that they don't have photo editors, just inspectors. "Inspectors are hand-picked exceptional artists from the iStock community. They aren't editing the overall collection as a classic editor might."

It took several emails, but the photographer finally got a response: "We want our photographers to show a real talent for shooting. In order to do that, we need to see they are capable of shooting different situations. Please re-submit three completely different photographs. These have been turned down so you can no longer submit these."

Being persistent, the veteran photographer submitted a landscape, a new office shot and a a photo of active senior joggers.

The office shot, a strobe lit portrait using a Canon Mark II, was of a business executive with hands resting on a desk (standard Fortune executive type portrait). It was turned down because of focus problems. A review of the raw file at 100% showed the subject's nose, head and tie were all cleanly in focus - no pixelization. The model's knuckles on the table were slightly out of focus. Based on the photographer's experience, this image would have been accepted by Getty, but iStock killed it.

The email explanation that came back was "Our photographs are always in focus. If you can't shoot photographs that are in focus we suggest a couple of magazine articles." They sent links to articles that talked about using tripods and cable releases. A quick review of the iStock site shows that selective focus is often used by their photographers.

This photographer has worked with a number of agencies during his career and never found it so difficult to get his images accepted for marketing.  Colleagues are also baffled by the amount of work it takes to get images into the system.

As a founding member of Blend, he is appreciative of changing photo needs. "I don't know where the future is headed, but I believe microstock will be a big part of it somewhere down the road."

Copyright © 2008 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Tom Grill Posted Feb 22, 2008
    I couldn’t agree more with the findings posted here concerning the microstock acceptance process. For two years now, I have been probing the microstock market with test probes of images by submitting similar batches to the top six micro agencies. My findings concur with what is being said here. The acceptance process of microstock is easily one of its weakest links.
    Most of the micro agencies do what iStock does in terms of employing their better talented submitters to judge the work of others. This is akin to having the inmates running the show and the results have been what you might expect – erratic, inconsistent, often arrogant and condescending, inexperienced, and usually not in the best interests of growing a stock company with a strategic collection.
    This amateurish (albeit cheap) process has served these micro agencies well up until now because they have needed to grow their collections exponentially, and because they have had to weed out the tons of substantially substandard material being submitted to them under their egalitarian business model. Problem is, this only works for a little while. Eventually, the collections get heavily weighted with dead wood, and the weeding out process begins. Just ask the larger traditional stock agencies.
    How this image husbanding process is handled can ultimately make or break an agency. The traditional agencies, after substantial growing pains, are now seasoned vets to this process, but the micro companies are still in their infancy in terms of experience. Consequently, they are floundering with issues like this.
    The iStock submission and acceptance routine is one of the worst and most archaic in the micro arena. As top dog in its field, iStock can afford to be arrogant and complacent about making changes to this process – for now. Ultimately, the iStock acceptance process (which is exactly as you report it in this article) winds up creating its own competition. Virtually, all of the good selling images iStock rejects are being submitted, and mostly accepted, by their competitor agencies where they sell quite well. So iStock is losing these sales to its competitors.
    This problem with the submission process is not limited to iStock. Other micro agencies have a similar acceptance routine, and in their cases, too, I can tell you that the images they reject out of my test probes are picked up by all of their competitors and end up with brisk sales. IStock’s acceptance process is also the slowest and most cumbersome in the micro industry. So their competitors are gaining a time advantage on the same material by getting it to market faster.
    The conundrum is this: In order for the micro agencies to grow substantially from where they are to where they want to go, they are going to have to attract better talent – primarily by robbing it from the traditional agencies where it now exists. This talent is comprised of seasoned vets, like the one you mention in your article, who need little in terms of direction, who even spend more on their stock shoots than the top micro shooters make in sales in one year. The iStock acceptance process squashes the absorption of this material by putting stumbling blocks every step of the way.
    Not every micro agency is like iStock. Shutterstock and Fotolia are agencies exhibiting the best acceptance process. By “best” I mean a process that allows the most relevant images to flow quickly and seamlessly into their database. My two years of testing the micro market have shown that these other agencies have been making substantial gains in terms of returns to the photographer -- and themselves, of course.
    One of the things exacerbating the mixed acceptance standards is the European bias for sharply focused images. Many of the micro agencies have European origins. In the days of film, Americans were quick to adopt the softer, more spontaneous look of the 35mm format for commercial shooting, while Europeans preferred medium format for its higher quality and sharpness. I think we are witnessing a carry-over of these biases. The American market for stock still remains the largest in the world. Cutting it out with a stylistic image bias is a foolishness bred by naivety. As an example of this, in one of my test batches of micro images, StockExpert rejected the entire batch as being too soft-focused. (All were shot at 100ISO on a Canon MkII camera, and all live up to the standards of traditional agencies.) Virtually, all of these images were accepted by all the other micro agencies where they continue to make very brisk sales. One agency’s loss is mostly another’s gain.
    The micro agencies like to justify their tough selection process as an indication of their higher image standards. This is nothing but an excuse. Truth is, it is silly for a company like iStock to assume a higher image standard than its parent company, Getty. This is exactly what is happening in the example your article addresses. Interestingly, Getty Images is suffering at the marketing hands of the very micro agency it owns. Sure the micro market is growing very fast, but how long will it take to get these companies into the stratosphere of the over half a billion dollars in annual revenue, which is where Getty is right now. In nurturing iStock Getty may be fanning the fires of its own demise. Or is it?
    A good strategy for large traditional agencies might be to bring along their micro affiliates, but only let them grow up to a point. If the micro agencies cannot access the higher cost production material, they will find their meteor growth pattern stunted. My own studies have shown that after the top five micro agencies the revenue stream drops precipitously. The newer, smaller micro agencies that jumped on the bandwagon only recently are not even performing in close proximity to the top five. They are going to have to live on table scraps if they have any hope of surviving at all. Most of them will wind up still-born.
    Up until this point, micro stock growth has been in a free-for-all that reminds me a lot of the early days of RF. Already I am hearing rumblings from the better micro shooters that competition from other photographers is beginning to take its toll on returns. This is something that will begin the weeding out process of shooters. Micro pricing (an inane and ridiculous creation from the beginning – but that is a topic for another day) only makes sense with extremely high volume sales. If photographers cannot receive substantial returns, they will never be able to commit the funding necessary to the production of quality stock images. So far, micro photographers have been able to produce and market only the low hanging fruit. If they want to grow, they are going to have to invest, and if the micro market can’t supply the necessary returns, then the traditional market will, and many of the top micro shooters will jump ship – something that is already happening. This will leave the micro arena in a Sisyphean game of playing catch up with the relevancy of its image databases.
    At its highest marketing level, stock photography is not a price driven industry. Studies have shown that consideration of price is low on the list of determining priorities by a huge number of traditional buyers. They need the right image for their project -- period. Whether that image cost $1000 or $1 is irrelevant to them. Micro has created a new market base of cheap image users. So long as they curtail the influx of expensively produced material, their market will remain finite.
    I have been involved in this industry for almost 40 years, on both sides of the fence as owner of one of the top photo agencies and as one of the most successful producers. I have witnessed plenty of sea-changes in our industry, and even caused one of them. I have seen agencies rise to the top only to topple as the next good idea comes along. Unfortunately, when you are on top there is only one place you have to go, and that is towards the bottom. It takes considerable talent to ride the stock marketplace on an even keel over time. Very few have been capable of doing and sustaining just that. I suspect that the current crop of micro agencies will find this out for themselves in due course. They are going to have to smooth the way for the ingestion of large quantities of professionally executed material, or they will limit their marketing base to the lower tier buyer while they wait for the next good marketing idea to come along and take it all away from them.
    Already there are rumblings in the industry of a coming sea-change, a new era of stock marketing – and it’s not micro. Micro is already old hat. Survival of the current marketing models of both traditional AND micro are already on the extinction list. I reiterate from my experience: It is only a matter of time.

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