How Microstock Ideas Could Benefit Traditional Stock

Posted on 2/7/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Photographers who license rights to their images based on how the images will be used tend to be adamantly opposed to microstock. The principle reason for such opposition is that microstock images are licensed for use at very low prices. With microstock there are a few price variations depending on how the images will be used, but they are minimal compared to those used by rights-managed sellers. All other aspects of the microstock business tend to get ignored.

I want to examine some of these other aspects of microstock licensing and point out how traditional agency photographers might benefit if their agencies would adopt some of them.

1 – Microstock offers faster editing and upload than most traditional sites. This enables microstock photographers to get their images working far sooner after production than is the case with traditional sellers.

To accomplish this, the requirements for submission to microstock sites are much more rigid than is the case with most right-managed agencies. However, once photographers learn how to comply with these requirements the efficiency of the photographer’s stock  marketing operation is improved.

2 – Editing. Microstock sites tend to employ more editors, commonly referred to as inspectors, than traditional sites. While it is virtually impossible to build a personal relationship with a microstock editor, or get detailed advice about what to shoot or why images were rejected, this structure makes the rapid acceptance or rejection decision possible. In the rights-managed arena photographers used to find the relationships with their editors very valuable in advancing their careers. However, due to the work load that most rights managed editors face today, that former benefit has all but disappeared.

3 - Advantages over traditional Royalty-free. Traditional royalty-free usually allows unlimited use of any image file purchased with the exception of use of the image on a product. Standard, basic microstock licenses put a limit on print runs (usually 500,000). Customers must buy more expensive “Extended Licenses” if they want to exceed that number. Extended licenses are also available if several people in a company need to use a particular images, or if the image is to be used on an item for resale. In this way microstock sellers get significantly more than their normal rates for larger uses. However, these higher prices are still not quite as much as traditional royalty-free suppliers might charge.

Traditional sellers could benefit by applying the same print run usage restrictions as microstock, or by introducing a level of lower pricing for certain small uses. It is important to recognize that there are restrictions on the use of both microstock and traditional royalty-free images.

4 - Pricing and pay structure based on credits.  The microstock system of credits offers many advantages to image creators that are not available when dealing with traditional agencies that invoice customers for usage.

Microstock images are not delivered until the customer has paid. If the customer does not have an account she must first buy a sufficient number of credits to cover the cost of the image. This eliminates all the problems and costs traditional sellers experience in invoicing and collecting and provides a number of other benefits including:
    a – By using a credit system it is possible to give standard discounts to volume users who are willing to purchase larger packages of credits. In such cases the discounts are much more transparent and easier to manage than in the traditional environment where each discount is negotiated separately.
    b – The credit system enables the seller to adjust price in two ways. Both the number of credits required to purchase a particular file size and the prices of various credit packages can both be adjusted to provide greater flexibility in pricing.
    c – Because payment is made prior to delivery it then becomes possible to immediately report transactions to the photographer, and credit the photographer’s royalty share to his or her account.
5 - Photographer payment. Photographers can request payment at any time once their account has a minimum amount owed (usually $100.00).

With traditional agencies a sale is not confirmed until after the money is collected which can be 30 to 90 days after the image is actually delivered and used. If the sale is made by a sub-distributor the time between use and payment of the royalty to the photographer can be even longer. The distributor must first collect and then report to the primary agency. Reporting usually occurs on a monthly basis. Those represented by traditional agencies for the most part only learn what they are owed when they receive a royalty check months after the sale.

6 – Customers are given flexibility in organizing search returns. One of the major downsides for customers when dealing with traditional agencies is that they are limited in how search returns are organized. Microstock sites usually offer their customers options to organize searches by total downloads (most popular), newest, contributor, and file size as well as the agency’s choice of organization which is usually called ‘best match.’ Having options makes it possible for customers to find the right image faster. Search by downloads is one of the more popular ways that microstock customers search.

Traditional sellers try to force customers to buy what they want to sell. Microstock sellers simply try to make it easy for buyers to find whatever they want.

Traditional agencies make rigid decisions as to the order in which images will be shown and that often is not in the best interests of some customers. Minimizing the time spent in searching for the right image is an important consideration for most customers.

Since the introduction of print catalogs, customers have demonstrated that they like to use the same images others have chosen. Most photographers would like for customers to choose something new and unique every time they purchase an image. If customers would act in this way it would give more photographers a chance to sell the new images they produce. It would also reduce the useful life of most images. But most photo buyers seem to be interested in classic clichés. They tend to like to use the same images other customers have used.

If traditional sites were to allow customers to organize their searches to just show images that had been previously licensed it might not be near as valuable to customers as it is with microstock. On traditional sites there tend to be many fewer unique images licensed and the number of times they are actually licensed are fewer than tends to be the case with microstock. However, it would still benefit customers if one of the search options they were offered would be to see only those images that have been licensed at least once in the past. This search could be organized by the number of times the images were licensed without identifying the specific number of times.

It would also be very interesting to know how many of those new, edgy images that tend to appear in the beginning of any search return on traditional agency sites ever sell. Probably, not many. It might also increase sales for some photographers if older images, that sold well when they were first placed on the site, were easier for today’s customers to find.

7 – Research data. Being able to see which images have sold, and how many times, is of tremendous value to any photographer trying to figure out what subjects to shoot. It also helps to understand when there is little demand for a particular subject. Fortunately, traditional shooters can benefit from this information available on microstock sites, particularly iStockphoto. All they have to do is search for the subjects they intend to shoot and look at how many times the best sellers have been downloaded.

Another useful tool on some microstock sites is the ability to identify top selling photographers and look at their entire portfolios. On most traditional sites that is not possible.

Copyright © 2011 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:  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Feb 7, 2011
    I am with you on this kind of change in Macro. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Jonathan Ross

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Feb 7, 2011
    I also would like to see a few of those converted to RM.... especially #7. BUT... in the long run, I am still a lot happier with the big sale numbers in RM to RF and Microstock. ----- Sure not going to sell cheaper in RF & Microstock just to get those benefits. ----- But interesting, Jim.

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