Visual Search and Microstock

October 27th, 2013 by

Microstock prices are so low that agencies compete more on the speed of search than on price.  Most serious buyers are happy to pay higher prices at a website with the functionality that helps them find the image they’re seeking quicker.

Visual search is one of the key tools agencies use to reduce the time customers take to find an image.  The difference is evident when you look at which agencies have visual search tools and which don’t.

Microstock Agencies with Visual Search

The most simple visual search technique is searching by color. iStockphoto, Shutterstock and Fotolia all have search-by-color functions.

Negative space – empty space in the image where copy text can be placed – is also available at iStock. They’re not alone in having this feature, though they have sought to be the only ones by registering a patent, though not without challenge.

There’s also some attempts to group similar shots, though usually only by keywords and data mined from customer behaviour. Shutterstock’s “Instant” search does this quite well, and many agencies display similar images on image detail pages based on the same metrics: keywords and past customer behaviour.

What Other Techniques Exist

These are some proven visual search technologies that are not (yet) present at any microstock agency:

  • Search by multiple colors
  • Arrange images in space by topic
  • Upload a sample image to find similars (Crestock‘s parent company Masterfile has this last function)

Enter Pixolution

Prof. Dr. Kai Uwe BarthelGerman company Pixolution is currently offering the technology for all these visual search techniques and more. It’s headed by Dr Kai-Uwe Barthel, a professor for Media & Computing at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) in Berlin. He’s the visual search specialist that understands the stock photography industry, and has already done quite a bit of work within it.  He’s also speaking at Microstock Expo next month.

Pixolution’s latest offering is called Fusion, and as you may have guessed from the name, it fuses visual and keyword searches for better controlled results.  For a chosen image it will use the visual features, plus keywords, to find more accurate matches.  You can change the relative influence of keywords versus visual with a slider, giving you greater control.

Pixolution's Fusion search - keyword weighting Pixolution's Fusion search - even weighting Pixolution's Fusion search - visual weighting

Pixolution’s Fusion service, and other services, integrate with Apache Solr, the open-source search solution that forms the basis of many microstock agencies search functions.

What’s the Opportunity for Microstock Agencies?

While obviously not the only distinction, visual search is consistently present in the big-and-growing microstock agencies and consistently not-present in the less successful ones.  According to Dr Kai Barthel, it’s also becoming less of a distinction between traditional agencies and microstock agencies, who have historically been ahead in technology.

Visual search is clearly a critical element of success for microstock agencies.  The top agencies have already invested, although none appear to be pushing too hard of late.  Shutterstock’s ‘labs’ search experiments, for example, haven’t seen much love for some time.  The functionality available from visual search solution providers such as Pixolution is more advanced that anything at even the best microstock agencies, and so those services represent a clear opportunity for any of the top agencies to gain more competitive advantage.

The not-so-top agencies need to catch up.  Visual search is not simple, and not something that can be built in-house in a short amount of time.  So search solution providers present a clear opportunity for newer and smaller agencies to better compete.

As search is such a critical part of customer choice in microstock, it’s surprising more agencies aren’t pushing ahead more aggressively with visual search.


August 26th, 2013 by

Today is the launch of Canva, the business I’ve been working with for the past year. Canva is a design startup that has a LOT to do with stock photography.

I took a position with them to manage their stock library and related parts of the business.  I believe Canva will be huge for our industry.

My involvement

While on one of my regular visits to Australia I received an inquiry from Melanie Perkins, the CEO of a school yearbook company, Fusion Books in Sydney.

Thinking they wanted to add a stock library to their yearbook design interface, we started talking about partnerships with stock agencies.

It quickly became clear that the conversation wasn’t about yearbooks at all, but something much bigger. That was confirmed when Melanie said she was flying down to Melbourne to talk.

I met Melanie and our conversation confirmed that the aspirations she and her Fusion Books co-founder, Cliff Obrecht, had were much larger than the yearbook market. Huge, in fact.  She described the vision for Canva and we discussed the options for getting a stock image library connected.  Canva was being founded in Sydney and I lived in Buenos Aires, so we agreed that I would consult remotely which I did for the following eight months.

Then in March this year I was back in Melbourne for my brother’s wedding.  Melanie and Cliff invited me up to Sydney to consult from their office.  That was when it all changed.

Canva founders

Canva founders (left to right) Cameron Adams, Cliff Obrecht and Melanie Perkins

I met the team including the technical co-founder, Cameron Adams.  I also saw the vision they had for the company, and witnessed how they all worked together. The startup scene is very different to everything I’ve experienced in my career, and I was amazed by the team and what they were able to produce. Everyone seemed to be gurus of their particular skill.

So after much campaigning, negotiating and wining & dining, I convinced them to let me join the team.  My family and I packed up and moved to Sydney.

What is Canva?

Canva design editor

Canva is design online. It’s simple, extremely capable, and completely free to use.

It has a stock image library built right in. The only time customers pay is if they include a stock image in their design.

The stock image library is crowdsourced directly, like a microstock agency.  It was clear a direct and clear relationship with photographers and illustrators was crucial to the Canva philosophy, so crowdsourcing was an obvious decision.

A few things change when designing goes online.  Pixel-manipulation, for one, gets in the way of keeping design simple. (Canva does not do pixel-manipulation)  Expensive and difficult-to-learn vector editing tools also impede design simplicity.

So at Canva we’re taking care of things like that by cutting out the pure-white backgrounds of isolated images, and making vectors recolorable right in the browser.

We’re also introducing a variation on the Royalty Free license type with a One Time Use license that allows customers to use an image only once, something that Canva can enforce as the usage is done on the Canva platform.

The Opportunity for Stock Photographers & Illustrators

Canva is an opportunity for photographers and illustrators to get their images in front of more image buyers. However, unlike typical microstock agencies, it appeals to both professional designers seeking easier ways to collaborate with their clients, and all those who aren’t professional designers but need to design things from time to time.

There’s also a few particularly exciting parts about Canva for contributors.

One is image control. Because design is online at Cavna, the customer never needs to download the raw image. Images stay watermarked until the customer publishes their finished design.

Another cool benefit is seeing your images in use. Soon after launch Canva will be able to show contributors a list of all the public designs that use a particular image.

We also have some very cool submission tools in the works, like automating release matching and a submission interface that’s twice as simple as anything in the microstock market.

At launch we’re running exclusively with our One Time Use license, and it’s a flat $1 license fee for a single use. With the 35% royalty rate, that means a single use on Canva nets you more than most microstock agencies do for unlimited use (not to be confused with unlimited print runs).  After launch we’ll be adding standard Royalty Free and Extended licenses that let customers license images for a higher price and be able to use them in multiple designs.

Implications of the Canva Business Model

I expect (and hope) that Canva represents the first serious step in a trend where image licensing is done at the application, and not just as a stand-alone store. We already see some limited examples of this with API connections at established microstock agencies but as the Canva model proves, there’s scope for so much more.

One of the things the contributors I recruited to Canva were most excited about was the greater control of images afforded by the business model of online design. We’re excited about it too.

Contrasting that is a concern that, as with the introduction of the microstock business model, Canva will put stock images in the hands of people with less understanding about image copyright and licensing than those who currently use them. This is not an invalid concern, but it’s offset by the additional control that Canva has over image use and greater ability to enforce license compliance. That’s not to say that customers cannot breach the Canva license terms, but there’s a lot more control than when the customer downloads the original image.

Another important implication is that by enabling recoloring and other editing of vectors, Canva makes illustrations available to a much greater audience. The complexity and cost of vector editing tools is eliminated by keeping the editing in the browser.

How to Contribute

Canva launches today with our first 1 million images, contributed by some of the biggest names in microstock.

We have a lot of original ideas to make submitting less painful and we’e working hard to bring them online as quickly as possible.

While our full ingestion system is being built, tested and deployed, we’re welcoming more contributors.  You can request an FTP account via the contribute page, or send in a hard drive using the details on that same page.

Commoditization and what it Can Teach Stock Photographers

May 16th, 2013 by

This is a guest post by Luis Alvarez of Stock Performer.

The supply of stock photography knows no limits! Today’s stock agencies offer huge image libraries and grow ferociously each month. Is stock photography becoming a commoditized product? What can photographers learn from other commoditized industries and be more successful?

At Stock Performer, we talk about this regularly with our users and we wanted to contribute to the conversation. This article aims to explore the commoditization of stock photography and compare it with other commoditized industries. Such comparisons help photographers generate revenue in today’s highly competitive market.

What is commoditization?

Let’s start off by looking at The Business Dictionary’s definition of Commoditization

Almost total lack of meaningful differentiation in the manufactured goods.

Commoditized products have thin margins and are sold on the basis of price and not brand.

This situation is characterized by standardized, ever cheaper, and common technology that invites more suppliers who lower the prices even further.

 The Business Dictionary (link)

Basically, a commoditized product is an oversupplied product which is difficult to distinguish from another in its category, thus pushing prices down. Think of all the isolated portraits on white! Or business people group pictures! Handshakes anybody!?

Cereal, a commodity product

Cereal is a great example of a commodity product. There is very little difference between producers. Copyright Alexey Ivanov

Is stock photography commoditized?

From the definition above, it seems so. But let us look what some business leaders in the industry have to say:

Content is increasingly ubiquitous. So power resides with the consumer, not the provider.

Jonathan Klein, CEO of Getty Images (2007) (link)

We’re seeing a commoditisation of the market

 Gary Shenk, CEO of Corbis, said in an interview with BJP (2009) (link)

Photographers need to understand that the stock photography market is flooded

Phyllis Giarnese, Stock Photography consultant and former creative director at Getty Images (2009) (link)

As of today, the main agencies have millions of files on offer. Supply is very high. Here is an overview:

Shutterstock 24 million files
Fotolia 21 million files
123RF 19 million files
Dreamstime 16 million files
iStockphoto 10 million files

Ask yourself: what differentiates images on sale at one agency compared to those on sale at others? Especially considering that many of those images are identical due to non-exclusivity?

Based on these quotes and information one can safely conclude that the Stock photography market is commoditized.

What other industries are commoditized?

For our article we explored the following three industries: Smartphone manufacturers, Airlines and Specialty Coffee retailers. Here is a very short summary why each of these markets are commoditized

  • Smartphones (hardware not software): Many smartphone manufacturers are finding it increasingly difficult to create differentiating factors on their hardware. If you disregard the operating system, you will notice that there really isn’t much difference between a Nexus, HTC or a Motorola. They lure customers by giving them the most hardware features at the best price. Read more here and here.
  • Airlines: Remember the times when flying was luxurious? Well that’s over. Passengers now want to fly from A to B at the best price and they have plenty of airlines to choose from. Airlines end up competing on price as they cut down all the frills. Budget conscious customers force airlines to live on low-margins. Read more here and here.
  • Specialty Coffee: You can get a good coffee at Starbucks, McCafe, Dunkin Donuts and a number of other places. There were about 500 such outlets in the US in 1989. In 2006 there were 24,000! Customers have a large choice but suppliers cannot always differentiate themselves enough to impose a higher price for a cup of coffee. Read more here.

And despite the challenges and bankruptcies faced by the players in these industries, some are very successful. For example:

  • Smartphones? Apple
  • Airlines? Easyjet, Singapore Airlines
  • Specialty Coffee? Starbucks

Apple store in  Hong Kong

Despite the strong price competition and lack of differentiation amongst smartphone manufacturers, Apple successfuly charges a premium for its products. Copyright Norman Chan / istockphoto

How do they succeed? How can they compete in the tough conditions of commoditized markets? What can we learn from them?

How companies succeed in a commoditized market

When looking at the companies in our case study we realized that it is possible to succeed in a commoditized market. If they did it, photographers can do it too. What are the key elements of their success?

  • They cut costs to live off low-margins
  • They focus on a specific market segment and are the best at it
  • They innovate constantly to either differentiate their products and charge higher prices or to cut their costs and offer lower prices
  • If premium, they provide great full customer experience, from selecting and buying all the way to owning the product

Read more on strategies for commoditized markets herehere or here. plane

While airlines like Lufthansa undergo difficult cost cutting programs, EasyJet’s efficient operations make it successful. Copyright Sung Kuk Kim / istockphoto

How can you become a more successful stock photographer?

The strategies mentioned above are essential for success in today’s commoditized stock photography market. With some adaptation, you can follow them and increase your success and money.

Based on our research, a successful photographer strategy should follow these guidelines:

Cut costs and increase your margings

  • Review your workflow and reduce all cost points.
  • Pass the price pressure on to your suppliers, make up artists, models, etc… Find new ones to work with at a better price.
  • Partner with other photographers to share ressources and equipment.

Focus your talent on a segment and be the best

  • Invest your time and ressources into your specialty area. You can never be the best at all areas, so choose your strength and compete on it.
  • Niche: produce content which is rare but with a healthy demand. Such content can be sold at agencies with higher prices.
  • Premium: Invest in high value productions. Get experienced and qualified models, rent out excellent locations, ensure your pictures offer high value. Competition is lower in this segment. Sell them at agencies with higher prices and increase your margins.
  • Basic: Produce basic images, isolated on white or similar, but in a cost-efficient way and in large quantities. Sell these on agencies with lower prices and generate revenue on quantity.

Scale production to better cope with low margins

  • Outsource parts of your workflow to allow you to produce more than you would on your own.
  • Get an assistant and produce more without compromising quality.
  • Find new markets to sell your work and generate new income streams. Your images can also be sold outside the stock agencies, think about art sites, prints, mugs and more!

Innovate wherever you can

  • Use any skills you have to innovate.
  • You might have the skills to build hardware cheaply or to program software to automate parts of your workflow.
  • Innovate to develop creative lighting or post processing techniques which set your images apart.

Choose a strong agency well suited to your style

  • Your success depends on your agency’s success. Partner with an agency which provides good revenue, innovates and has a good customer experience.
  • Choose an agency well adapted to your type of work. If you are a premium photographer, sell on higher priced agencies, because you will sell. If you shoot more basic items, then compete on price on lower priced agencies.

Hands holding coffee

A cup of coffee is more or less the same everywhere, and yet coffee shops like Starbucks can justify their high prices. Do the same with your photography! Copyright Brian Jackson


Just like Starbucks, Apple and EasyJet have strong competitors, you too have to fight against tough competition.

You can choose to go the Apple way and produce innovative, high value imagery and sell it at higher prices, or go the EasyJet route and establish a very efficient production workflow creating simple but great images at a low price.

The stock photography industry has commoditized, pick your strategy, react and work hard!

We’d love to hear your opinions. Please join the conversation writing a comment here, on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

Microstock Expo is Back!

April 25th, 2013 by

Microstock Expo is back, bigger and better than ever! And by “ever” I mean “last time”.

The big news is that Bruce Livingstone will keynote. We’re super chuffed to have the Godfather of microstock opening the conference!

The other big change is that, following popular demand, we’ve expanded the program to cover not just photography, but also vidoegraphy and illustration. There’s now three sessions which split up into the three different media types (and sometimes a fourth for agency topics).

Quick Facts

Dates: November 16-17, 2013, with a Photowalk and Opening Reception on Friday 15th.
Location: andel’s Hotel, Berlin, Germany (same great venue as last time)
Price: Tickets start at €249 +VAT for April – May, then rise. Use coupon code MD2013 for 20% off.
What: Two+ days of business, technical and inspirational knowledge from the experts of our industry.

Microstock Expo 2013

What’s New

Masterclassses! We’ve re-jigged the workshop to make it more interactive and instructor-led. To mark the difference we’ve renamed it ‘masterclasss’, and replicated it to video and illustration too.

More Portfolio Reviews! We’ve done the same with the portfolio reviews. There’s now one for photos, one for video and one for illustration. The portfolio review was the most popular session last time.

Product demos! This time we’ll also have hardware manufacturers exhibiting their products in the enlarged and enhanced exhibition. So far RED Digital Cinema and Wacom have already confirmed, and others are still in negotiation. Come and demo a RED camera for yourself!

More for agencies and service providers too! The exhibition now features real booths for better communication with attendees. The awesome PitchFest is returning with higher expectations for entertainment value in the pitches! And the Agency Workshop returns, rebranded to the Agency Masterclass, featuring educational sessions from the industry’s leading experts in today’s key industry topics.

More great sponsors! Shutterstock has given us amazing support with this event taking the Platinum sponsorship spot. It’s been great working with them again.  Depositphotos and ProImageExperts lead a who’s who in microstock list of other generous supporters helping make this conference bigger and better for us microstockers.

Register Soon!

Tickets are at the cheapest price for April and May, after which they start rising. If you use the coupon code MD2013 you’ll get an extra 20% off.

Get your tickets now and don’t miss this amazing event!

Register Now!

And don’t forget to Like us on Facebook to keep updated with speaker announcements, program updates and all conference news.  See you in Berlin!

Elnur Amikishiyev – Microstock Celebrity

February 22nd, 2013 by

Elnur AmikishiyevMeet Elnur Amikishiyev, one of the world’s most productive microstockers.

Elnur currently has over 64,000 photos in his Shutterstock portfolio placing him in the top 10 Shutterstock portfolios by size.   At Depositphotos he has over 76,000.   He added over 25,000 photos to his Shutterstock portfolio in the last 12 months alone.

What makes Elnur’s amazing productivity even more impressive is that he does it while maintaining a demanding full-time job as a finance manager for BP.   Not only that, he’s extremely active in three Russian-language microstock forums, regularly speaks at industry conferences and runs a Russian-language Facebook group about microstock.

Microstock Portfolios

Elnur shoots primarily still life, but also has a healthy dose of travel and model shots in his portfolio.   Much of his portfolio is the low-hanging-fruit of stock photography – basic items isolated on white and simple travel landscapes – but Enlur more than makes up for it by doing it well and in very high volume.   He acknowledges that his RPI isn’t as high as most contributors shooting business lifestyle, but argues RPI is almost irrelevant and it’s overall income that matters.

He distributes widely, supporting new and small microstock agencies, and contributing to some non-microstock agencies too.

Top microstock portfolios: Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, iStockphoto, Depositphotos, 123RF, BigStock

Stock photo oil rig at sunset Stock photo shopping bags Stock photo dubai skyline Stock photo snowy mountains
Stock photo fruit and vegetables Stock photo theatre masks Stock photo scrapped idea Stock photo microphone and curtain

How Does He Do It??

Elnur works with a small team of people he contracts directly to help with processing, keywording and distribution. The shooting is done by himself and an assistant photographer.   He’s fast, very systematic, and puts a lot of effort into ensuring his processes are efficient.

His travel takes him away from home a lot so he has set up remote access to his computers so he can keep his microstock business running while away. He makes good use of software utilities to automate much of his workflow, and delegates much of the repetitive work to his employees.

Most of all, he consistently works hard.

Personal Information

Microstock Expo 2011, Berlin. Lifestyle Design session speakers

Microstock Expo 2011, Berlin. (left to right) Giorgio Fochesato, Josh Hodge, Pavel Orekhov, Elnur Amikishiyev, and Tyler Olson

Elnur is based in his native Azerbaijan, specifically in the city of Baku, though his travel for BP takes him to many different places for long periods of time. He speaks Russian in addition to his native Azeri, and thanks to extended periods in the UK also speaks English perfectly.

At Microstock Expo in 2011 Elnur was asked why he continues with his day job when he has a great career as a full-time microstock photographer.   His answer, in typically detailed form, was that what he learns from his job at BP helps his microstock business, and that the pressure of running two careers simultaneously keeps him sharp and focused.

Elnur Online

Elnur previously maintained an English-language microstock blog, About Microstock, but it hasn’t been a priority and so hasn’t been updated for a long time.

He also sells photos directly via his Baku Photos website, which he admits fell victim to his microstock success, though he’s committed to reviving it.

He’s active on Facebook with a personal account (allows subscriptions) and business page, on LinkedIn (only for his BP job), and a little on Twitter (mostly in Russian).


Elnur Amikishiyev at STOCKinRUSSIA 2009

Elnur speaking at the 2009 STOCKinRUSSIA conference. Copyright

Elnur spoke twice at the STOCKinRUSSIA conference, the second of which was where I first met him.   I was already familiar with his blog and his microstock success, but his presentation was very clear and entertaining.   I later invited him to speak at Microstock Expo where he outlined how his microstock business fits in with everything else in his life in the Lifestyle Design session.

Elnur’s presentations are humorous for both his jokes and the sheer scale of his numbers.   And there’s always a lot to learn from his processes and strategies – the business that has him generating many thousands of commercial images each month while maintaining a demanding day job.