Specialized Microstock Collections: Point/Counterpoint

Posted on 5/1/2010 by Ellen Boughn | Printable Version | Comments (0)

This article by Ellen Boughn raises the question of whether there is a need for specialized niche microstock collections, argues the case for them and points to Vivozoom and Microstock Israel as indications that we may see more of them. Jim Pickerell presents counter arguments as to why the success of such sites is unlikely.


By: Ellen Boughn

Two recent news releases have caused me to wonder about the possibilities of future changes in the microstock business. First there was Tony Stone entering the market with his statement that he would help Vivozoom ‘focus on the most relevant images” and then an announcement from Microstock Israel that it would concentrate on images of life in Israel and the Middle East.

Stock photographers have been developing niches and specialties since the camera was invented. Many independent photo agencies, in the past, were known for a niche or specialty. If a picture researcher wanted a photo of a historical event, she/he went to the Bettmann Archive; for current events to Black Star or Magnum; for access to National Geographic photographers to Woodfin Camp; for science to PhotoResearchers; for lifestyle to Image Bank or the Stock Market. Several of these collections still thrive but some are closed or the brand and its culture lost to the uber-brands of Getty or Corbis.

Instead of contacting independent, specialized companies, today’s image buyers rely on keyword search and hope to find relevant content. But since few editors/keyworders or executives in the large RF/RM portals have expertise in niche fields, important images within a specialized field can go astray. They are lost in the vast middle of an online collection because the keywords don’t identify the key aspects of a technical subject or do so inaccurately. Since niche collections have a niche group of buyers, the images are not downloaded as much as more popular themes like business or families.  Thus they don’t license as often and are often dropped because of it. A lot of specialized visual knowledge has been lost to the industry with consolidation. (Nevertheless keyword accuracy and relevant search are much more likely in one of the traditional companies than at any of the microstock sites.)

According to PhotoLicensingOptions (fee to read story required) textbook publishers are still afraid of microstock images because they can’t trust the captions/keywords. Jim Pickerell writes, “The percentage of micro uses continues to grow, despite the complaints of editors that often the caption information on microstock images is not detailed enough and its accuracy cannot always be trusted.”

In microstock, photos of a technical nature or of specific plants, animals or locations are lost into the middle no man’s land in search because the keywords are even less apt to be correct than in the traditional companies.  The volume of images hitting the micro sites daily make it very difficult to check for accuracy or to add keywords to technical subjects. A perfect example of data that is key to many users is the scientific name associated with plants and animals. Or as I found, even the common name can be wrong.

I searched for ‘platypus’ on Shutterstock, iStockphoto and Dreamstime. One site returned a bald eagle against a flag, another several spiny anteaters and another several different species of fish. At least I could see why a spiny anteater was included since both the platypus and spiny anteaters are the only mammals that lay eggs but that wouldn’t matter a bit if I included an anteater in an educational program and called it a platypus. “So what?”  I can hear you think. Who cares when photos of people jumping on trampolines outsell platypus images thousands to one? Answer: Teacher’s care, students need to know, publishers will walk away if there is even a hint of inaccuracy in an image. Photos are tools of communication. Public communication has an obligation to be correct no matter how obscure the subject.

Does it matter that if you were looking for a platypus in a microstock collection, you could think it referred to an eagle, a duck, a fish or a lizard? If you are putting out a science book, you’d better be certain that what you see is what you want!

Dreamstime has made efforts to establish special collections that have been ‘curated’ by Dreamstime members. These often subject oriented groups of images can be helpful but there is still the lingering worry that the person that assembled the collection may not have any particular knowledge about the images besides the thought that the photos are ‘nice’.

Shouldn’t the case be made for specialty microstock companies that are staffed with reviewers that are versed in the subject? Either within a brand or as stand-alone companies? Would the costs be too high?  How about a medical collection reviewed by starving medical students? Or collections that are assembled by others with specialized knowledge? Or Like Israelis who know their land, its places, its religions and its businesses? iStock has taken a step toward the Tony Stone philosophy that only the relevant should survive in the creation of the Vetta Collection.

As a former biology teacher who  wrote educational materials and worked on science based exhibitions and books that required absolute confidence in the information associated with the photography that I selected, I believe that curated and specialty microstock collections could be an important next step in the business. What do you think?


By: Jim Pickerell

I’m skeptical that niche microstock photo agencies will work. You’ve acknowledged that the volume will be much lower than for a typical generic microstock image. At current microstock prices, even at extended license levels, I don’t think the volume will be great enough to keep the agencies operating.

For the specialized images where captions are critical customers will need to stick to traditional macro agencies and pay traditional prices. However, I’m not sure that even the macro agencies will be able to sustain themselves for long as both the volume and prices of such sales continue to decline.

The marco agencies used to have strong businesses because they also sold these same excellently captioned and identified images to lots of other users who really didn’t care about the details. Those customers just wanted a pretty image. Now, all those sales have disappeared and gone to microstock at a fraction of the price customers used to pay. Thus, today, niche macro agencies are having trouble licensing rights to enough units to cover their costs, despite their higher prices. Most of the agencies that are still operating are making it because they have developed deep collections over the years when sales were more robust. They continue to sell that imagery that’s been in the files for a while and only add a small percentage of new imagery to the collections. This enables them to keep their overhead lower than it would be for a new agency just starting out.

A microstock seller trying to start from scratch to duplicate the collections these macro agencies have will have huge upfront costs in hiring curators with the expertise needed to edit work submitted, distinguish a platypus from an anteater and attach the correct scientific name to each image. Then, if they are going to sell the images at microstock prices, they will have to sell a lot more than the macro agencies sell now in order to earn the same amount of money.

This can only work if there is an increased demand for imagery that is clearly and carefully identified. I don’t think that will be the case. Such imagery is in demand by the textbook and education industry. At best, this industry’s demand will remain flat. There are good indications that demand for printed books, and the still images used in them, will decline as there is a growth in the use of electronic resources in education. While some still images will continue to be needed in this new electronic educational format it seems likely that there will be a much greater demand for video and less for stills than is currently the case.

There is one exception to my theory. If curators are willing to do all this work for the “love of it” rather than reasonable monetary compensation for their time invested then maybe it can work. After all, there are thousands of photographers out there who are not only spending time taking great pictures, but hours on the computer keywording and learning the intricacies of the microstock business in hopes of selling their pictures of a platypus, an endangered insect, or a medical process. Only a very small percentage of these photographers ever see a significant economic return for their efforts. The microstock photographer who are doing well are the ones producing generic images, not images of niche subject matter.

I like your reference to “starving medical students”. If the microstock agencies can find enough starving curators who are willing to work hard while they continue to starve then niche microstock could work. The microstock pricing strategy works for generic, high demand subject matter. I don’t think it will work for specialist material.

Copyright © 2010 Ellen Boughn. 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

Ellen Boughn is a long time stock photography executive, employed at Corbis/Executive Editor, UpperCut Images/SVP, SuperStock/SVP and was the founder of the early, innovative stock agency After-Image. She is the author of Microstock Money Shots-Turning Downloads into Dollars. She posts to a blog that is concerned with the future of stock photography, has interviews with top photographers from all genres as well as information about best practices for shooting stock photos for all levels from the pro/am to the successful professional. Ellen tweets @ellenboughn and FB ellenboughn


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