Will Microstock Eventually Die?

Posted on 9/26/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

Back in the early 1990s, many photographers said the royalty-free model would die. But the only thing that seems to have slowed down traditional royaltee-free sales was the advent of a cheaper royalty-free model: microstock. Now, some wishful thinkers believe photographers will eventually stop supplying new images to microstock, when it becomes clear that the vast majority can never earn enough to justify continued effort. But for most microstockers, it’s not about money; it’s about community, improving skills and having fun. It’s a hobby.

Some microstockers will certainly stop producing, but there seems to be a steady stream of new entrants to take their place. Shutterstock says it has over 4.6 million images from more than 120,000 photographers. Most of these photographers have some of the same images on other microstock sites, so it is hard to tell how many photographers actually participate in the market, but their number keeps growing every week.

Certain types of niche imagery will never be available as microstock, but it seems unlikely that stock shooters will be able to sell this limited subject matter for high enough fees or in volumes sufficient to cover costs and sustain a business. To build a profitable stock business, where all the shooting is on speculation, a significant portion of a photographer’s production must be images that are in high demand. These images generate the revenue base necessary to enable a photographer to cover subjects in lower demand, which will be used less frequently. However, a great breadth of images in all the high-demand subjects is now available at microstock prices; thus, the base of a stock-photographer’s revenue has been taken away.

In addition, producing niche imagery without a guarantee of sales has become increasingly risky. If earning a living from your photography is a necessity, it may be wiser to only produce niche imagery when a customer is willing to make an assignment and pay a fee sufficient to cover time, expenses, overhead and profit.

Photographers who want to swim against the tide will find it almost impossible to shoot the traditional people-and-lifestyle subjects and still compete effectively. The volume and quality already available through microstock is too great. The delivery of search returns based on total downloads also gives those who entered microstock early a tremendous advantage over newcomers, who will need to find niches not adequately covered by others.

This will be extremely difficult. Photographers who choose this route would be well advised to search several microstock sites for the subjects they intend to shoot and be absolutely sure they can produce images that are significantly better than those already available. Finding uncovered subjects, such as air-conditioner repair, discussed in a 2006 article, will be increasingly difficult.

At that time, a search for an air-conditioner repairman yielded one image at Getty Images’ Web site: a picture of someone working on a major industrial system. Corbis had three pictures, two of industrial systems and one of a home unit. Jupiterimages had nothing, but iStockphoto had 20 images of two guys working on a home system, all taken on the same shoot.

In 2006, one of these 20 images had been downloaded 171 times. Over 16 months, total downloads for all 20 images equaled 829. By early 2008, iStock had 34 such images (another photographer added some), and total downloads were 3,675. There were no new images at Getty, Corbis or Jupiter. The large number of customers who wanted to use this subject matter could only find it through microstock.
There are probably still some niche in-demand subjects with thin or non-existent microstock coverage, but these will be very hard to find.


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 301-251-0720, 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.  

Comments

  • Don Farrall Posted Sep 26, 2008
    "Certain types of niche imagery will never be available as microstock, but it seems unlikely that stock shooters will be able to sell this limited subject matter for high enough fees or in volumes sufficient to cover costs and sustain a business. To build a profitable stock business, where all the shooting is on speculation, a significant portion of a photographer’s production must be images that are in high demand. These images generate the revenue base necessary to enable a photographer to cover subjects in lower demand, which will be used less frequently. However, a great breadth of images in all the high-demand subjects is now available at microstock prices; thus, the base of a stock-photographer’s revenue has been taken away."

    This paragraph sums up my experience as microstock has come in to play. Simple images in my Getty collection that used to help fund more experimental or expensive imagery, have quit selling. I don't mind the image competition at all, but the price competition is way too extreme. The net result will be less production of mid to high end stock and a general dumbing down of the work as the masses seek to produce the next Killer photo of Christmas Ornaments hanging in a line.

  • Greg Ceo Posted Sep 26, 2008
    I have decided against shooting for microstock. The idea of it turns my stomach. I didn't get into photography to make widgets and going to work everyday to shoot microstock after spending about 100k on my education, seems to fly in the face of the idea that professional photography is worth paying for.

    I agree with Jim that lifestyle imagery is now the hardest category in which to make money. I now believe that photographers need to shoot what they love and have other sources of income. OR the price it costs you to make an image has to be around $20 per image!!!!!! (I used to think $250 for RM just a few years ago!!!!) So if you can find a way to make images that look like they cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to make, and do it for $20 an image and be happy doing that, then go for it. But remember that the contracts that photographers have with stock photography companies allow the companies to change what they license your images for on a moments notice. Tomorrow, all of your images could be licensed at microstock prices. I can only tell photographers that $20 an image production cost is what I currently believe is a viable target. The life of most images is about 2 1/2 to 3 years. The very best images, and I mean a few select images, will still sell a few times a year, 5 to 7 years later.
    Good luck to everyone!!!

  • Greg Ceo Posted Sep 26, 2008
    Good comments Don! I look at it this way: I shoot niche imagery, for the most part. Those $250 license fees are starting to look really good. So if I shoot a niche image that sells twice in one year for $250 each sale, then I'm a happier person because that is what I like to shoot AND, I'm not licensing it on microstock for 20 or 40 cents for 10 times a year. If you are a lifestyle shooter, unless you can produce 2000 images a year at a cost of $20,000., then I don't see how you can stay in business. I also believe, and know from talking to Art Buyers at Major advertising agencies, they they still need really creative images that they cannot find. As microstock hobby photographers and high production professionals produce oodles of the same lifestyle imagery for microstock, those prices will continue to go down and those pros will leave the business.

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