Chapple: Two Years in Microstock

Posted on 1/8/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (7)

Many traditional stock photographers question whether it will ever be possible to earn enough money from microstock production to justify the effort. Ron Chapple’s experience is instructive.

For more than two decades, Chapple has been a leader on the cutting edge of each new trend in stock photography. In 2006, he decided to test the microstock waters; in February 2007, he launched iofoto as a platform for delivering images to microstock portals. Selling Stock reported on his initial experiences in October 2007. Here is an update on two years of experience.

He said: “Overall, I am no longer bullish on the opportunity for individual photographers within the microstock licensing sector. The distributors will make money, but with ever-increasing supply, statistics do not favor the contributor. Yes, there will be a few superstars, and yes, a number of shooters will be able to supplement their stock income.”

It is important to remember that there are only a few superstars making significant revenue marketing their images as rights-managed or traditional royalty-free. The vast majority of those whose images are traditionally marketed do not earn enough to support themselves producing stock alone. Whether the rights-managed superstars outnumber microstock superstars is questionable.

Chapple points out that there are challenges of earning significant revenue through microstock. He says: “Revenue diversity is good, and the data alone that is available to a microstock provider—compared to that supplied by traditional agencies—is well worth the price of admission.”

Iofoto started with a collection of about 5,000 images. Now, there are 15,476 images in the collection, and Chapple has invested over $600,000, or an average of $38.77 per image, to produce the collection. Including himself, he has two other full-time employees who produce images, the copyrights on which belong to the company. This is important, because many distributor sites require that there only be one copyright holder per account.

Given the investment, iofoto is still not profitable. Still, for the last 8 months, the images have been generating about $25,000 per month, so “breaking even is now in sight,” said Chapple.

Before getting into microstock, Chapple created, built and sold, in the summer of 2004, Thinkstock, a traditional royalty-free company. He said: “Those same 15,000 traditional images would be creating at least 10 times that revenue three years ago.” (It must be noted that there have been some drastic declines in the revenue generated in the traditional royalty-free market since 2004.)

Iofoto is distributed through 20 different portals, but since each distributor has a different editing process, the numbers represented by each on a non-exclusive basis vary. While the top distributor tends to vary every month, the top five always remain the same. Despite being lowest in return-per-download, Shutterstock is almost consistently first in revenues. Typically, Dreamstime is second, and iStockphoto, Stockxpert and Fotolia alternate in positions three through five.

Chapple said: “iStock continues to fall among our top distributors, but in the past four months, our iStock revenues have decreased by over 50%, even though we added 20% more images to our collection. My understanding is that last summer, iStock made a significant change to the search-result formula to favor exclusive photographers.” It is hard to explain the logic for favoring exclusive photographers, when iStockphoto keeps 80% of a non-exclusive sale and only 60% of an exclusive one.

“We need to keep in mind that we are only about two years into mainstream marketing of microstock,” Chapple points out. “The next two years will be even more interesting!” He concludes: “Regardless, I am optimistic about the future of photography and the overall future of stock. Opening the gates to all photographers has been long overdue, and we are seeing a continued creative explosion as more and more photographers can fund their work through microstock revenues. We do see ‘copycatting’ of images and keywords, but I see this diminishing as photographers realize that they only hurt themselves. A changing of the guard brings fresh perspectives—both in business and photographic creativity.”

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, 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:  


  • Tim Mcguire Posted Jan 8, 2009
    I'd be curious to know if Ron will continue to produce imagery for microstock licensing and why or why not.

    Does Ron believe these other so called "Microstock superstars" are doing something differently than he is or would he guess they are also seeing low returns when considering the considerable amount of investment, time to breakeven, and risk factors there are in the microstock production business?

    I made some calculations using the figures in this article.

    If you invested $600,000 in a CD account or maybe a money market account at a modest 5% for three years you'd have gained around $90,000 after 3 years. I'm not sure 5% is a good number... just a guess. Try it at 4% and think you'll come to the same conclusions I have.

    Invest $600,000 in Microstock production, seemingly a very risky investment even with the experience and abilities of a long time stock professional and say you shoot for one year seeing only minimal returns. Let's say for a second and third year your sales really kick in and you make $25,000/month and you continue to shoot, investing even more money in production. It would take you 2 more years (total of 3 years) to realize a break-even point so you have your $600,000 back. Think about it, you're back to EVEN... though you could have made $90,000 by just leaving the money in the bank at a 5% interest rate. You also have to shell out more money to keep shooting because the shelf life of micro sites may not be as long as licensing models of the past. That puts you back below EVEN.

    The microstock licensing model does seem to be a dead end for professional photographers who want to make a profit. It might be good for those who want to have cash flow and have fun shooting great pictures for a while before they go out of business. ;-)

    It also sounds like a great business model for the micro distributors who get the lions share of the revenue from the RF model of revenue sharing... its just not good for photographers who want to make profits. But who wants to make a profit anyway ;-)

  • Mike Marlowe Posted Jan 8, 2009
    Besides all the negative cashflow and pitiful returns of shooting stock the other major issue (IMO) with microstock, or stock in general, is the total lack of control you have over your sales channels. Chapple cites that istock revenues have declined 50% in the last 4 months probably due to changes in the search result order. In a similair vein, its becoming an art and science to get good placement on Alamy via their Alamy rank.

    I predict that the next revenue stream for some of the micro agencies will be to charge for premium placement (similair to google ads) in the search order.
    As if crowd sourcing wasn't crazy enough, crowd sourcing 2.0 is where your suppliers pay you to place their goods with you. It is already around with placement fees, keywording charges, storage charges and so on so it just needs to formalised into a neat little package.

    I also respect the optimism of the final paragraph regarding copycatting, "diminishing as photographers realise that they only hurt themselves". One thing that keeps the whole stock industry turning is photographers willingness to hurt themselves at every possible opportunity.

    Ah well, as Tim says, who wants to make a profit anyway :-) I'm in it for the fun.

  • Bill Brooks Posted Jan 8, 2009
    Ron thanks for being honest in an industry full of hype and other things you cannot mention in a family publication.

  • Tim Mcguire Posted Jan 8, 2009
    I'll second that. Thank you Ron Chapple for sharing your experience. If you can't make microstock production work I doubt whether many / any others can make it work with lesser resources. Thanks again.

  • Don Farrall Posted Jan 9, 2009
    This is a good summary of what I have been feeling after investigating microstock over the past few years as well. I have looked at it, placing my initial reaction (distain), aside, to be sure I wasn't just missing the boat because my head was in the sand. Microstock just doesn't add up. As I have said here before, some will make it work OK, but for most it will be a waste of time. The revenue versus production cost factor is just way off balance. Everyone here knows what used to be possible. Traditional stock may not be very attractive to professional stock shooters anymore, but microstock does not deliver a very promising or viable alternative. I have to agree with Tim McGuire when he states if Ron Chapple (or someone of his caliber and experience) can't make it work few others will be able to make it work.

    I understand the entry level - part time photographers attraction. And I understand that selling through traditional outlets was not an option they had. I understand that vector artists have found a good outlet through micorstock, call it "clipart 2.0". But when I hear the details from the top microstock producers, how much they have to cut corners, how much they have to squeeze, how little they are able invest in image production, how much work it is to upload to multiple sites, how much effort they have to spend to market themselves as a Brand, and all so that they can struggle to make anything substantial at the end of the day, I just don't get it. I have yet to be impressed by any numbers I have heard from anyone in microstock, when the whole story is told.

    There are far too many images that need to be available to buyers that just can't be produced for $10 - $30, and microstock just won't support higher production values than that. If a shooter values his (her) time at all, and if there are any other expenses involved this is just too thin.

    When RF came along 12 or so years ago it was shunned by RM shooters, but in a short time it proved it's self as offering an equal revenue potential, both on a per image basis, and on a per portfolio basis. And while RF did effect RM sales, it did not result in an overall industry revenue reduction. Microstock can not make this same claim.

    Don Farrall

  • Jagdish Agarwal Posted Jan 9, 2009
    Why only photographers, it is the agencies who have accelerated the state we are in to-day. Let me give an example.

    Yesterday I was having lunch with an old client in India and this is what he said. We used to buy images, for about US$100 each, a few years ago. Then agency A entered India and started offering images for US$90 each. Then came agency B at US$80 each. Then came agency C at US$70 each. To-day we are buying images at US$2 each.

    I think this says it all.

    jagdish agarwal/

  • Jonathan Ross Posted Jan 9, 2009
    Well said Jagdish.

    Something Micro might fit better for are economies where work is very slow and the cost of living is very low. Vector artists that are living in smaller regions of the worlds econmy can probably make it stick. I feel it will have a home but I do not think it is taking over the traditional state of stock. Just adding a new level that will work for some but might not work for the already established professional. People in stock that have made millions look at stock now and say why bother. New shooters coming in now seeing 90,000 a year say " WOO-HOO, and I can still surf in the afternoon ". No one answer for any one person.


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