04 Nov 2008 Is Microstock Becoming More Accepted in the Stock Photo Industry?

A few conversations I had last week at PhotoPlus Expo indicated a shift in how the microstock business model is viewed by those on the traditional sector of the market. It’s not that the traditional market is happy about microstock, but acceptance is rising and there’s more interest in understanding how to succeed in microstock.

This video shows some short interviews I filmed last week with Andres Rodriguez, Steve Kapsinow of StockXpert, Serban Enache, Yuri Arcurs, and Steve Pigeon of Masterfile. You can see that in some interviews I prompted this specific topic but in others it arose naturally.

Notice Serban’s comment directly after meeting with traditional agencies at the PACA Conference about his expectations for traditional collections being involved in the microstock space and the implications for Dreamstime.

What’s your view?   Is the increasing interest in microstock from the traditional sector of the market an admission of defeat or a realization of opportunity?   Can we expect to see a wave of traditional stock photographers dominating the microstock market?   Will we see microstock photographers complaining about these highly skilled and well equipped traditional shooters destroying the microstock market?

  • microstockgroup - leaf
    Posted at 11:01h, 04 November Reply

    Thanks for the interviews.. nice to hear some opinions of some of the influential people in the industry.

    It looks like an interesting future, I am looking forward to it 🙂 It sure makes me curious what microstock will be about in the next 5 years. I also wonder how many more big players are going to get into the business (or buy up one of the existing businesses)


  • Kickstand
    Posted at 14:21h, 04 November Reply

    Traditional stock agencies railing against the microstock industry is like when the music labels railed against music downloads. This phenomenon was created by the internet, and it’s here to stay. The only strategy is to learn to live with it, and learn to profit from it.

    The task for the pros is to recognize which content they can charge a premium for, and which content they cannot.

    • cudazi
      Posted at 16:25h, 04 November Reply

      I agree – this is just one of the many industries changing due to the internet and it’s in now the stage where you’re going to hear a lot of complaining.

      In time, I hope the standards of Microstock tighten across more agencies, we don’t need 500 microstock sites selling flower pictures but a nice “top 5” of high end agencies selling the best of the best.

      In my experience over the past year or so, iStock has greatly tightened down as to what they’ll accept so I hope that is a sign of things to come…even if most of my files get rejected. It’s good for the industry, buyers don’t want to weed through 3.5 million files having to hand-check for sharp focus, proper lighting and so on.

    • Mikhail Lavrenov
      Posted at 10:40h, 05 November Reply

      I agree: The only strategy is to learn to live with it, and learn to profit from it.

      “Traditional” stock agencies appeared on the market as a cheap alternative to assignment photography. Now we know that it isn’t “cheap” anymore, a new alternative is in place

      I have no doubts that microstock will evolve. I would expect more stress on exclusivity in the future; I would expect theme/style-specific collections to appear; and I think pricing/licensing will keep evolving too.

  • jason B
    Posted at 23:02h, 05 November Reply

    why not ask steve from stockxxchange what his jobe will be like in a year from now since they were bought by Getty/Istock ? he looks so stressed out

  • Don
    Posted at 18:48h, 06 November Reply

    If microstock is here to stay, can someone explain why Yuri has dumped his entire microstock portfolio on Alamy at traditional RF prices, AND the SAME entire portfolio on Alamy AGAIN, with a different username, as traditional RM?

    Is it just selfish greed, or is this the direction (Trad RM) the top selling micro boy sees the future? Is sh**ing on clients the way to maximise ROI? Do microstockers have ethics? Do they see nothing wrong with selling the same item at $5, $500 and $250?

    With a world drowning in imagery, I think the future is to find profitable niches, and find ways to make your work more available to clients. The money is there to pay for it: uploading all your work to micro and crossing your fingers is a sure way to devalue great imagery. You don’t have to “learn to live” with it. If you believe in your work, you can value it accordingly. Yes there’s a place for micro, but it’s not the future.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 19:29h, 06 November Reply

      Hi Don,

      Thanks for your comments. Yuri does indeed have photos on Alamy, but to my knowledge they are different photos to what he has in microstock. If you can show me links to identical photos in both markets, then we can discuss ethics and the legalities of selling the same images both RF and RM. Until then, I’m going to interpret your accusations as false and a mere expression of your frustration.

      I speak with many top microstock photographers and many top traditional photographers and both groups tell me that the finger crossing is done in the traditional portion of the market. A well shot and marketable image will always sell in the microstock market. The only question is how frequently. The same cannot be said for the traditional market where many high quality images never sell or only sell rarely. While the top images in each market seem to earn similar total amounts over their useful lifetime, the microstock market also earns for the rest of the portfolio. It’s not only Yuri and other microstockers getting into traditional stock. Most of the top traditional stock photographers (all the ones I’ve spoken to) are either already in microstock or about to be.

      As for the old ‘devaluing imagery’ debate, microstock is merely an application of the Royalty Free license model, digital photography, and Internet distribution. It was these technologies changed the value of imagery, not the market that makes it available. It’s indeed unfortunate for those of you who enjoyed the protection of the barriers to entry into the market, but it’s a great development for those of us who now have equal opportunity to compete.

      Finally, to your comment about “sh**ing on clients”, don’t you think charging your clients $500 for an image that the guy next door can shoot and deliver profitably for $5 is a better example of such behavior? Again, it’s unfortunate if that’s how you’ve worked all your career, but with technology changes there’s always displacements. Some displaced people adjust to the changes, but others just get bitter and judgmental. Which way are you going to go?


  • Don
    Posted at 20:51h, 06 November Reply

    Lee, I like the blog and follow it to keep informed, but I do feel strongly about microstock. I’m not anti it per se, but I do dislike the 70-80% commission slice, and a lot of disinformation from it’s proponents (I accept that’s a two way street of disinformation). It does pain me when I see terrific images misplaced there, with just a few or zero downloads. Whilst you may wish to dismiss my post as one done out of frustration, you’d be quite wrong. I am quite happy with my photographic direction (which, as you might gather, is trad L RM) and I never make false accusations – here’s some examples of the images on Alamy:


    They’re identical, and on offer at istock as micro RF, on Alamy as trad RF, and on Alamy as trad L RM. Hunt around and you’ll find 1000s more.

    Now, as to sh***ing on clients, if a client looks at a traditionally licensed RM picture, and decides it’s worth $500 out of his 100k advertising budget, knows it won’t be on sale elsewhere for $1, I don’t see how that’s wrong. If I camp out overnight, get up at 4am, take a stunning dawn landscape with my kids in it MR, and then see it get 3-4 $5 downloads over a few years, the only person being sh*t on is myself. If I have faith in the image I know it will sell, or at least another like it that I have made, eventually, for a price that feels I am valuing my work.

    I’m not arguing about the easily made stuff, or the vectors, those that see 100+ downloads on micro. Cleary that’s well made imagery that fits that market. But there are stacks of micro images wrongly placed, making little or no sales. I suppose, here’s the rub: I would rather have 1000 images, and sell only one for $1000, than sell all of them once for $1. Same return, but one model values the work highly, and the other dosen’t.

    I’m not at all bitter about micro, I just get a bit fed up with those who bang on continually that it’s the future. Part of the future yes, but images with passion will likely find a better place to be marketed. I think comments here support the key point I was trying to make – that many images will never realise their commercial value on microstock.

    Yuri has already blogged that his micro returns are decreasing, and that he has considered other avenues. Clearly, he’s opted for the easy route, and dumped his micro RF shots on the only readily available RM outlet that would allow such duplicitous actions – Alamy. I don’t think it’s illegal, but for me it’s unethical. Clearly, for Yuri, it’s all about making a buck, not at all about the image, and certainly not about the clent.

    You’ve been quick to dismiss me and my post, presumably because you thought I was wrong and simply having a demented frothing rant. “Which way are you going to go?” Well, to compete with the rising tide of pixels, I will not be heading down the micro path, but will continue on my trad RM way. However, I will need to raise the bar, produce better images, with more thought and intelligence, to offer work that people are prepared to pay good money for. In that sense, I too can benefit from competition with micro.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 01:00h, 07 November Reply

      Thanks Don, I was indeed quick to dismiss your first comment on the basis of it’s content, but this second one is definately sans-frothing.

      I’ve checked your file references and you’re correct – that same photo is in microstock, Alamy RF and Alamy RM. I’ll await a response from Yuri before getting into a debate as I know he’s no fool – but my curiosity is piqued and I’m looking forward to an explanation.

      I also dislike the disinformation in both camps, and if you have examples where I’ve presented any incorrect information as fact I’d appreciate you letting me know. I’m obviously blogging-to-learn here and I’m more interested in publishing factually accurate information than being ‘right’.

      Your point about traditionally prices RF stock being more exclusive than microstock is obviously valid, though I see more value for the client in spending the $500 level fees on RM stock where exclusivity is guaranteed. We’ve all see examples of traditional RF being used in simultaneous campaigns by competitors, just as we’ve seen happen in microstock. My point here is, do the buyers know they’re paying $500 for traditional RF photo which has ‘less’ chance of being used by their competitor than the $5 image, but that for $500 or higher they could guarantee exclusivity with an RM image?

      I agree with your points about some imagery being misplaced. There are definately images in microstock that would earn more in the traditional market, just as the reverse is true. And Microstock will obviously only be ‘part’ of the future, but by the way traditional agencies are talking (apparently) and the growth in microstock vs decline in traditional stock it will be a bigger part of the future than it is today. Obviously it will never take over – many clients require the exclusivity that only RM can provide. Plus there will likely always be a market for very high-end RF imagery.

      So as you say, those selling traditional RF need to differentiate themselves and/or their RF portfolios from microstock. Quality is the obvious method, but it’s not getting easier as you can see from the rising quality in microstock. Saying you see that as a benefit for yourself is positive and indicates you’re adapting rather than being bitter about the change. I didn’t get that impression from your first comment, but I’m very pleased to see it now.


  • Don Farrall
    Posted at 00:28h, 07 November Reply

    This comment is from another Don, Don Farrall, not the one who has commented above. I sympathize with the remarks of the other Don. I too have my doubts about microstock and have been watching it unfold. I am a traditional stock photographer with a long and successful history with Getty.

    I have heard you (Lee) speak in NYC on several occasions. I have some material on Alamy as well. I don’t know what Yuri is thinking, uploading the same images as RF and RM on Alamy. I checked, and this report is true. This is totally against Alamy policy. For someone who is reported to be “the man” in microstock, I don’t get it. This doesn’t address the general question here, but it is a telling comment.

    Lee, you were there in the stock meeting where Yuri asked the representative from istock if and when they were going to raise their prices. Yuri wants to make more money. Imagine that, after putting so much effort into producing quality imagery, and then giving it away. I think it’s kind of funny that the top selling microstock producer in the world (his words, not mine), has realized that the system doesn’t pay enough.

    Microstock is a great opportunity for hobbyists, and vector artists. But I seriously question it’s potential for anyone who invests very much in stock production. The potential to earn thousands per image is slim, and getting slimmer every day. Hundreds of dollars, yes, thousands, no. I know it’s a volume (number of images) business, but so is Traditional RF and RM to a lesser degree. It is pretty well accepted that traditional RF that sells in the hundreds of dollars per sale can and does earn as much for photographers as RM. Microstock does not match the potential. The hobbyists are OK with this. The return is not there. Yuri reports big sales, but also big expenditure, he is not netting anywhere near what the effort should yield. As more pros give microstock a “try” the earning potential will move down, not up. I do think there is a place for microstock, but at present too much of the wrong content is being given away there.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 01:24h, 07 November Reply

      Hi Don Farrell, thanks for your comment. I’m a regular reader of your comments on Jim Pickerell’s site so it’s an honor to have you comment here.

      As I said above, I won’t comment on Yuri having the same images available with two licenses until he’s had a chance to respond.

      However, there’s a lot more behind Yuri’s question at the PhotoPlus roundtable than just wanting to earn more from his existing images, as you’ll discover in my blog post tomorrow. It won’t fill in the complete picture, but it’ll change the context of how it looked from the outside when he asked that question.

      I don’t agree with everything in your last paragraph, but I think it would be interesting to compare some numbers. I don’t have any data on average RPIs or ROI for traditional RF, but as you heard in the Microstock Superstars seminar the ROI in microstock can be around six months averaged across the shoot with $60 CPI (Yuri’s figures – the others had same ROI but much lower cost). These figures are likely representative of those with heavy investments in stock production in the microstock market – emphasis on the ‘likely’. You sound confident that traditional RF is higher, and I hope that’s the case. We would all benefit from being able to send our images to the market that’s most lucrative for the individual image or shoot.


      • Don Farrall
        Posted at 23:53h, 07 November Reply


        Microstock RPI must be an attractive number for microstock shooters. It is not attractive to me. Prior to the introduction of microstock, RF-RPI was pretty good, and a disciplined photographer could earn a good living in stock. Most top-tier lifestyle producers were earning in the $250 RPI range. In 2006 there were several hundred photographers earning multi-six figure incomes in stock. That number has dropped dramatically. There are other market forces in play, but I believe that microstock is responsible for the majority of the fall-off in traditional RF earning potential. If you include microstock in the big picture of stock photography being sold commercially, we as an industry are giving away a lot. The net result of microstock does not result in an increase in overall stock photography sales; it does represent a spreading out of the revenue across more earners. However, if the new trend is for professional level “producers” to move to micro, the concentration of earnings will once again be a minority. And that minority will be earning much less than the top earners in traditional stock were making, prior to the introduction of microstock. Some microstock earners once dreamed of moving up to traditional RF for the higher return, but the market they aspire to, is not what it was.

        I have weathered the proliferation of microstock better than some. I am not a high volume producer. I prefer to concentrate on imagery that can command a higher price. My collection of images on Getty includes many simple images, but it also includes some very complex and time-consuming images as well. Almost with out exception, the simple images no longer sell; duplicates on microstock sites have taken those images out as earners. I can accept this, and it has just made me redirect to more complex imagery. The revenue form these simple images used to help to offset the production of more risky, more expensive productions. I can live with this as well.

        I can coexist with microstock. I will remain a fulltime stock photographer, ( I actually do some assignment work, but the vast majority of my income is from stock ). I do think that the promise of microstock is being over promoted. It is growing too fast, and I truly believe that there are going to be a lot of pro-level photographers who will be pushed into moving to microstock because they believe they have no choice. The earnings of the early adopters are going to be difficult to match as more and more pro-level content is uploaded. I honestly don’t think the model in its present form is sustainable. The hobbyists are going to get pushed out, and the only ones that will make any real money ( besides the agencies ) will be people who are absolute production machines. Business people who value their overhead and know the potential value of producing photography will not in the long run find this a profitable course. Hobbyists don’t need to make this work on the level that committed pros do.

        I don’t have a crystal ball, ( well come to think of it I do have one in my prop closet ), so it is hard to say where this is going. My best guess is, expect change, a lot of change. I am glad that Getty owns Istock. Say what you like about Getty, but they do know this industry like no one else. They have a vested interest in seeing some balance between these models, and they are more the wiser for having their hands on Istock. That’s also the reason that I am taking the time to be here. I have been studying microstock for sometime, and yes I have uploaded enough “test” material to microstock sites to have an informed opinion. I have searched and viewed and looked at sales reports and talked with other stock photographers, I for one am not convinced… I’m not buying it. I hope people here don’t put the bitter old-timer label on me, but if so I can take it.

        Lee, your blog, while obviously pro microstock, has been helpful, and as I have heard you speak you do seem to come from the perspective of the original core microstock contributor base. I’ll be around, it’s in my best interest to be in the know.

        Don Farrall

        ( not the other Don )

  • Yuri Arcurs
    Posted at 09:04h, 07 November Reply

    One of my third party distributors has put all my images in Alamy under RM. We are currently investigating this and I will require the images removed immediately. We are in the black as to why this agency has done so, especially when considering that just one single search on my name on Alamy would reveal that all the images are already online. I will be contacting Alamy about this also.

    • Don
      Posted at 14:32h, 07 November Reply

      I suppose I should apologise for opening with a full on broadside, but it’s a pretty serious breech and I’m sure people can understand why it raises the blood pressure. Photographers that succeed today do so through understanding the market and hard work – and Yuri certainly has done that. He has successfully played the micro model for all it’s worth.

      So does my post mean I will be:

      A) Labelled a sad old dinosaur git with an axe to grind
      B) Given a high-5 for pointing out number one microstocker’s failings
      C) Profusely thanked for saving said microstocker from serious consequences of his cock-up
      D) Condemned for doing so in public

      • Lee Torrens
        Posted at 14:51h, 07 November Reply

        A. I think that’s already happened 😉
        B. There’s certainly some people who will do this
        C. If it was me I’d definately be thanking you
        D. Nah, he’s very public about is business and knows the risks – he can take it

        Don, I really enjoyed this comment – thankyou.


  • Ian Murray
    Posted at 19:18h, 26 January Reply

    Yuri images through McPHoto and a smallish number of his own are still on sale as L on Alamy.

    Ian Murray

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