13 Aug 2007 Microstock – Viva la Revolucion!

Che Guevara, Alberto KordaHasta la victoria, siempre!
Che Guevara

It seems to be taking a long time for some in the stock photography industry to accept microstock. And that’s ok. It’s a big change and photography is a big industry. It’ll take time.

Why Some Photographers Feel Threatened by Microstock

First, it’s important to acknowledge and validate the point of view of the photographers resisting microstock. As with all debate, there is variety in the points put forward. Many are well thought out and accurate, while others are fear-motivated attacks. So what are some of the reasons some stock photographers are still hitting out?

  • Structural Unemployment – Just like the word processor decimated the number of secretaries, the rise of cheap digital SLR cameras and the Internet have hit professional macrostock photographers.
  • Status Changes – Where there were previously a few hundred stock photographers in the world, now there are tens of thousands. Virtually anyone in a rich country can successfully dabble in the profession, eroding the status of the Stock Photographer profession.
  • No More Gravy Train – Stock photographers could previous earn a descent living from a portfolio of 200 photos. Not anymore. With part of the buyer market defecting to microstock, such photographers can’t get as many high priced sales.

What Some Photographers are Saying about Microstock

The common themes of what is being said can be summarized as:

  • Microstock is destroying the stock photography industry
  • Microstock devalues a valuable commodity
  • Microstock photographers don’t care who they hurt

Why Photographers Don’t Need to Feel Threatened

  • Structural Unemployment – with microstock taking a chunk of the macrostock market, less stock photographers will remain stock photographers. Natural selection will see the best survive. The rest need to improve or find something else.
  • Status Changes – Yuri Arcurs and Andres Rodriguez do an exceptional job of microstock, something that anybody can do. They’re earning good income and producing great images and both have highly visible profiles. Neither of them, nor their peers, have issues with the status of what they do.
  • No More Gravy Train – microstock has added a new pricing level to the stock photography market. Any macrostock slowdown caused by microstock shows the market was paying macrostock prices under protest. If microstock is eroding your income, the market doesn’t value your contribution at the price you’re asking.

Other Industries Went Before

As an industry, and profession, upturned by the Internet and advances in technology, Stock Photography is in good company:

  • Music industry – initially upturned by file sharing networks undermining distribution and bypassing payment. Home recording technology and distribution methods such as podcasting and iTunes mean anyone can become a popular musician.
  • Video/Film industry – also sent into panic mode by Internet file sharing and cheap DVD duplication technology. Digital video cameras have advanced at the same rate as still cameras, bringing high quality video filming within reach of everyone. Video sharing websites such as YouTube make distribution and publication instant. Microstock is also stepping in with video sales, providing the exact same commercial opportunities to amateurs.

It’s Not Really a Revolution

Nor is it even a battle. Microstock is a new, technology enabled, portion of an established market. It’s simply offering a product at a price point preferred by some of the market’s buyers. Stock photography is now part macrostock, part microstock. The controversy is only a part of some macrostock photographers still coming to terms with their loss of market share.

The large music recording companies have for many years made easy profits for little added value, much to the frustration of their customers. Subsequently, many of these customers are embracing new alternative distribution methods. Similarly, a handful of stock photographers have made their living charging up-market prices to the entire market. Now a portion of the buyers are embracing the down-market pricing of microstock. It’s simple, and there nothing particularly new about it.

  • Chad
    Posted at 18:39h, 16 August Reply

    I’m not a photographer, but have been using a fair number of microstock and “amateur” photos in print-on-demand books (publishing being another industry that is rapidly changing). I’m working on one project, a spider book, where many photos available from microstock are often far superior to the macrostock available. (For this title, only two serious macrostock photos will be included, as they aren’t cost-effective for a book title that will probably only sell a few hundred copies short-term, a few thousand long-term.)

    One feature for microstock that makes it much more usable is the ability to see, without having to sign up or email, the actual photos. For many macrostock photographers, particularly with wildlife photographers, most images aren’t scanned for online viewing; they have to be requested, which is too much of a hassle, when you’re on a mission to find the right pic and there are multiple venues to choose from.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing quality “midstock” photography moving forward — I’ve paid a number of photographers directly, $15-30 per pic — though most sites might not pay much of a percentage. Someone should set up a sort of “Ebay” style site for royalty free pics, take a small percent, let the photographer keep the bulk.

  • Lee Torrens
    Posted at 14:58h, 17 August Reply

    Hi Chad,

    Great to hear the buyer point of view.

    Would this eBay style website auction photos? If so, how would you deal with buyers wanting the images at different times? Would they be royalty free or rights managed?

    – Lee

  • Chad
    Posted at 20:29h, 20 August Reply

    Yeah, thinking it through a bit more, auction-sold photography probably wouldn’t work (I tend to “buy it now” anyway, when on Ebay — although, some Ebay sellers are selling electronic documents, etc., and just keep re-posting once it sells… so not an impossible concept…); but I do like the auction fee structure. If a system is selling enough photos, you don’t need to be keeping 25-50% of the profit. 10% would be plenty. More profits to photographers, keep photos with a minimum $5-10 base (keep the quality as high, if not higher than current microstock standards), etc.

    You could structure pricing to reflect different usage – even beyond the current “normal” and “extended” licenses most offer now.

    But, another feature I’d like to see are buyer “wish lists” for photographers to search and submit for — again, I’m thinking in terms of my own interests, I’ll be looking for photos of animals that might be difficult to find, but perhaps only because no one has bothered to photograph them and upload to stock sites. If there is a ready community of thousands of active amateur & pro photographers worldwide willing to browse wish lists, perhaps focusing on niche subjects, it could be very useful for photography buyers.

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