Microstock Lessons

Posted on 10/16/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Thanks to all those who commented on the recent “Microstock Sales: Top iStock Earners.” Some took me to task for microstock “cheerleading.” While such comments are worth reading, their authors seem to miss the point: I am not cheerleading. I am simply reporting facts.

There are some who have been in the stock photo business for a long time who would like me to say that nobody can make any money selling microstock, or something along the lines of, “If you’ll just license your images as rights-managed like I’ve always done, you’ll get rich like I am.” Such assertions are patently false and irresponsible to the next generation of photographers.

The Internet and digital technology have revolutionized the business of stock photography, not necessarily for the better for those who would like to earn a living producing stock images. The microstock strategy for selling images has lots of flaws, most of which I have pointed out in previous articles. But microstock is here to stay. The old ways of doing business are no longer working as well as they used to and seem to be on a downward slide.

In order to determine the best strategy for moving ahead, photographers need to look at every option with an open and inquiring mind. Rather than just being negative, it may be a good idea to try to understand the impact microstock is having on the business and why. There are a few—very few—photographers making decent money in microstock. Of course, what we do not know is what it is costing them to produce imagery, and it is certainly reasonable to believe from looking at this imagery that in most cases, after all the costs are accounted for, there is not much profit. Yet more shooters continue to throw more new images into the pot.

It is important to remember that the 117 people I referred to in the last iStock sales story are out of 80,000, less than a quarter of 1% of all iStock contributors. Everyone else is earning less, and the 117th person is not doing all that great from the point of view of making a living. That is what is possible. So what chance does anyone have of reaching the level of the 117? Slim to none.

However, there is at least one very experienced pro— Ron Chapple—who offers an opposite example. As a rights-managed shooter, Chapple was the top income producer for FPG. He then went on to build a very successful royalty-free business, which he sold for bundles of money to Jupiterimages. Over two years ago, Chapple entered the microstock arena and is now in that group of the top 117—and iStock is only one of the microstock agencies that represent his work. He earns much more from the combined total of all the others than he earns from iStock.

We should also not forget that a huge percentage of those who market their images as rights-managed do not make much money either. Only a very small percentage of the images in rights-managed collections ever sell and almost never as frequently as those in microstock. We do not have statistics on the current revenue for the top rights-managed shooters, but unfortunately again, on the whole they may not be earning much more than these microstock shooters.

One Getty Images photographer, for example, has been told that he is among the company’s top 50 revenue earners worldwide. Two years ago, he earned about $250,000 from Getty. This year, he is on track to make between $125,000 and $150,000, with revenues dropping every month. This revenue decline is not because he has stopped shooting; he has been aggressively producing and submitting new images. That has not helped—just raised his costs.

Most rights-managed sellers have been seeing sales drop for a year or more, and not just because of the generally bad economic situation. For some, the declines have been very significant. I am sure most who commented to the previous article are exceptions, because industry statistics indicate that rights-managed sales are headed down. In 2007, Goldman Sacks predicted a 40% decline in Getty’s sales of rights-managed and traditional royalty-free images by 2012—and that analysis was completed before the recession. Microstock sales may no longer be growing at a rapid pace, but a plateau is a lot better than a 40% decline.

I wish this were not so. I do not like these numbers—but dare we risk ignoring them? No matter how much we might like for everyone to use a rights-managed pricing strategy, it is not going to happen. We are living in a new day. No one, myself included, has the answer as to what will work in the future. We are still in the midst of a dramatic transition. The only indisputable fact is that the future will be quite different from what worked well in the past. Prudence dictates that we consider all options and move cautiously.

One thing that should give comfort to the traditionalists hoping for a decline in microstock’s market penetration is that, for the first time, a significant portion of leading microstock sellers have begun to see a decline in the monthly number of units licensed. This is a new phenomenon. From microstock’s beginning up through last year, most microstock sellers could depend on selling more units each month than they sold the previous month, as long as they continued producing. There may be a lot of reasons for this downturn, as previously outlined.

So why do so many people continue to jump into microstock production when such a huge majority make so little from selling it? What is their motivation? Most are not trying to support themselves with their photography, just make a little extra pocket money and get the satisfaction of knowing that a few people liked their images well enough to use them. That is not much. Some have hopes of making stock photography a full-time career, and this is an easy way for them to get some of their images seen while they try to learn the trade. Eventually, most of them will give up the dream, but their images will stay on the sites and continue to compete with those of other new entrants.  

One of the commenters, Jack Seto, argued that the fact that some of the top iStock shooters are also inspectors (editors) may account for how they get so many images in the collection—and by implication why they make so many sales. Interestingly, 7 of iStock’s  top sellers have fewer than 500 images in the collection. Another 12 have between 500 and 1,000, and the collections of 22 more are between 1,000 and 2,000 images. Most rights-managed sellers with significant earnings have a lot more images than this with their agencies. Having a lot of images in microstock is not necessarily the way to make a lot of money.

Another factor that strikes me as I look at the work of the top microstock sellers is the high percentage of it that is illustration. Does the market currently want more illustration and less photography? And then there are graphic designers whose image collections on iStock include both photography and illustration. These people are not trying to make their living from iStock sales. The income iStock generates is a supplement to their primary careers as graphic designers.

When we focus on graphic designers in the microstock business, there are lots of implications. Do they have a better understanding of what the market wants because they are often buyers? Is a big factor in why they support microstock sites the fact that those sites have made it easy for them to sell their own work and earn supplemental income from it? (Traditional sites are not nearly as receptive to illustration as are the microstock sites.) Could it be that what the market needs is not the “great images” rights-managed photographers want to produce, but something quite different—and that graphic designers and microstock inspectors have a better handle on this changing need than most professional photographers? Could it be that the business is changing and, instead of photography, what is needed is much more in the way illustration and photographic elements that can be manipulated within a larger creation by graphic designers?

For most photographers, microstock probably is not a way to make serious money. But as we look to the future, rights-managed stock probably is not a viable answer either. Those that have been in the stock photo business for a long time, built collections and established reputations may be able to sustain their businesses. But I am concerned about those just starting out being encouraged to take the rights-managed route—or for that matter, to look to stock photography as a primary business rather than as a supplement to assignment work or some other type of business altogether. I may be overly pessimistic, but I am deeply concerned that many young people who hope to make photography a career are being led down a path to disaster by optimists who say, “Think positively, there are great opportunities ahead.”

Finally, even if you never want to sell an image at microstock prices, you would be crazy not to take advantage of the creative intelligence available on the microstock sites. You can easily see the kind of images the top producers are shooting, the specific images that are selling and how frequently. You can see each individual’s portfolio. You can usually determine whether the shooter calls himself a designer, illustrator or photographer, and that gives you some sense for the individual’s motivation for participating in the stock business. This type of data is invaluable intelligence that none of the rights-managed agencies provide. 

Copyright © 2009 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.  


  • Tim Mcguire Posted Oct 16, 2009
    From your story on Ron Chappel a while back it sounded like he was not making a profit in microstock after a few years and a couple hundred thousand dollars invested. Is that still true?

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Oct 16, 2009
    The reason that Micro sellers are making less is that even more people are encouraged to sell with Micro, thereby causing more competition in the cheap image sector. You keep telling people to throw some images that way and see what happens, even if they will never be pros or do photography full time.

    Your story that very few people will make much money as beginners in ANY stock model is very true... this is not an easy business, but instead you need talent, vision and business skills. , But then you say to any new people to just "throw some into Micro if you don't think you will make this a career." Do you see, Jim, that you are telling people who will never be pros to think cheap and ruin it for those that are pros or really want to be pros??? Take some time to let that settle, Jim.

    And you say they can "cut their teeth" on RF or Microstock. PLEASE remind them that if they do that and like this business, THEY CAN NEVER USE THOSE IMAGES FOR BIG FEES!!!! ONCE AN IMAGE IS RF OR MICROSTOCK, YOU CAN NEVER WITHDRAW IT AND PUT IT WHERE IT CAN SELL RIGHTS MANAGED FOR A LOT MORE MONEY!

    Please do not do a disservice, Jim, and not give them all the information. You and I have talked many times and you always think people should make a buck anywhere... throw some in RF, some in RM, some in Micro. I say get very good and sell them ALL in RM for a fair price. By telling people to do Micro to start is just diluting the water.

    If you ever want to use me as an example or my books as sources, you are free to do so. My newest book gives examples of them all and how to really make money by doing it right. I wish that you would not teach for the ones that WON'T make it, but instead direct them to good places to really be successful.

    In other words, be a CHEERLEADER for the way that they can make more money per image and not the water-down way just to play around. I really feel that good shooters with good systems WILL be successful, and I teach that in seminars and books.

    I hope you will stop saying to just dilute, dilute, the market more...

    Bill Bachmann

  • D. jake Wyman Posted Oct 22, 2009
    I too would like Jim to answer Tim's question about Ron Chappel.


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