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.