Microstock Propaganda: "No Impact on Top Pros"

Posted on 8/27/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

It seems that every amateur who’s made a few bucks selling microstock writes a blog extolling the virtues of microstock and encouraging other amateurs to try selling their images.

I’ve got no problem with them telling their stories. But in their enthusiasm to encourage others, they often put out inaccurate information about the effects microstock is having on those trying to make a living shooting stock images. Dan Feildman’s Lee Torrens' recent post, “How To Make Money From Your Photography (Microstock),” is a good example. (Updated August 24.)

Feildman makes his living as a Web developer, and his wife is a graphic designer. For them, photography is a hobby. Over two years ago, they started shooting microstock and made $16 in the first month. Now, their monthly income is over $600. They’re having fun, paying for their equipment and learning something. Good for them.

Feildman’s post describes microstock as controversial, adding: “Many professional photographers have strong feelings about the impact microstock is having on the industry.” Then he goes on to say:

“Many of the world’s most successful stock photographers [are] not noticing any impacts on their business from microstock. … Their photos compete on quality and not price [and] there will always be buyers interested in the top level of the market, regardless of price.

“It also makes sense to assume that the hundreds of photographers who now earn a living with microstock have displaced some ‘traditional’ stock photographers. This is a natural phenomenon and happens with any technological change as big as the Internet and digital photography; it’s completely understandable that those on the receiving end are not happy about it.”

Here’s my response.

Please don’t try to argue that microstock won’t have a severe impact on professional photographers. For every professional photographer who says microstock has not hurt his business, several top pros will say it is severely affecting theirs. It may not be that bad—yet—for those shooting rights-managed images, but the effect on royalty-free shooters has been quite significant.

One example is a photographer who placed a collection of about 800 images with a major RF seller about 18 months ago. For a while, it earned $7,500 a month in commissions, but now sales are down 42% to $4,300 and are dropping by 10% monthly.

On an industry-wide scale, the most telling negative statistics are those of Getty Images, the largest stock business in the world. Getty’s 2007 sales of RM and RF images totaled $560 million, not including $72 million of microstock sales by iStockphoto, which Getty owns. In 2008, Getty expects traditional sales to be $100 million less. iStock sales are expected to rise to $122 million this year, leaving a $50-million loss for the industry.

In addition, this is only the beginning. By 2012, Getty expects combined RM and RF revenues to be down to $348 million.

The problem is not with the huge number of small-business customers and bloggers who could never afford to pay traditional rates for images. It is great that now they can get the images they need at prices they can afford. The problem for professionals is that so many of their traditional customers—magazines, book publishers, large corporations and major advertising agencies—are able to purchase many of the images they need for $5 or $10, instead of paying traditional prices for their use.

You argue that professional quality will always command higher prices, but many of the images being sold for microstock prices are, in my opinion as a professional stock photographer with decades of experience, equal in quality to those being produced by professionals. Once a customer finds an image that works for his project, he won’t insist on paying more than the seller asks—or paying more because the image is of high quality.

In this situation, not only do professionals lose, but microstock photographers producing quality images also lose. However, there is a win-win solution for everyone. We’ll discuss it tomorrow.

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 301-461-7627, 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.  


  • Ron Chapple Posted Aug 28, 2008
    Hi Jim,

    All good points, and as a photographer with collections in all pricing sectors, I can confirm flat or downward trends in traditional RF sales.

    One point missed... a well-known "secret" in microstock is that many shooters make good revenue from referring others to microstock sites through affiliate and referral links. These blogs serve as the conduit for these links. There's probably not a microstock link out there in the microstock blog world that doesn't have the contributor's referral code built in.

    On the traditional side, I'm not sure I know of any agencies that have the mechanism to reward photographers for referring other photographers or clients to their web sites. If so, I think we would see many more microstock photographers extolling traditional RF and RM virtues- there's simply a money trail in the referral business.

    Hope you're doing well!


  • Lee Torrens Posted Aug 28, 2008
    Hi Jim,

    That article you cite is plagiarized. The original, actually written by myself, is here: http://digital-photography-school.com/blog/microstock-for-digital-photography-students-make-money-from-your-photography/

    In my defense, the statement about microstock not affecting top professionals was based on first hand comments received from Jack Hollingsworth and John Lund, whose websites I linked to in the article - links which were stripped out in the stolen version you found. Since that time I've learned more about that situation (including more detail from Jack), so I can understand your criticism has some justification.

    Also, Ron makes a great point in his comment. Microstock agencies are leveraging the crowd to source contributors. My blog is written to help microstockers, not because I'm a nice guy, but because by helping people sell more photos I earn more money, and I make no secret of this fact - it's explained on my About page. Many photographers prefer the PhotoShelter and Alamy business models, but without referral programs, it's more in their interests to keep them a secret than to promote them.

    I'm not saying I'm a slave to microstock referral programs as some blogs and articles are. My focus is on helping readers as it will be obvious if I'm just 'selling' and nobody will come back. I've written many posts about Alamy, PhotoShelter and other traditional opportunities because they're of interest to my readers, but there's less incentive for me to promote them. I've also written many criticisms about microstock agencies from whom I earn referral income. By focusing on helping people sell more photos, the referral income naturally follows, albeit rather slowly!


  • Don Farrall Posted Aug 28, 2008
    Microstock has unquestionably had an adverse effect on the sale of traditional stock photography, and for that matter, on assignment photography as well. I have Ad Agency clients who’s customers now believe that all photography is overpriced, because of the availability of “cheap” photos that are good enough for many of their projects. I don’t expect any sympathy from amateurs on this front; they are playing, having fun and making enough money to pay for some equipment. I don’t have any issue with this level of competition. But I am disappointed at the professional level photographers who are willing to give away so much. Some of the “top level microstock shooters” express that they would like to move up into the higher paying traditional stock arena, and established professional stock shooters wish they would. There was a time when moving these photographers, and the best of their portfolios, up to a traditional price point agency, would have made more money for them. Now the problem is, they have to compete with so many similar images being sold for so little that it is questionable weather the move up would result in enough sales and revenue, they have killed the goose that lays the golden eggs.

    The top ten microstock producers, world wide, are reportedly making reasonable money for their efforts. There isn’t any way to know what the negative impact of their sales on traditional stock sales has been, but it is certainly substantial.

    It is my understanding that as recently as a few years ago, traditional stock sales provided hundreds of photographers with annual sales in excess of $100,000. ( I am one of those, and remain so ) Microstock reportedly provides a hand full of photographers with annual sales in this range. The number of traditional stock shooters making a sustainable living from their stock sales is in rapid decline, much more rapid than the increase on the microstock side. In the near future we are headed toward fewer photographers being able to justify shooting stock as a fulltime endeavor. The market is over-saturated with under-priced photos.

    I believe the solution lies in getting a higher value for all images used in a commercial context from all image providers, but making this happen in a greed-driven, short-sided market is going to be very difficult.

    Don Farrall

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