12 Mar 2007 Microstock vs Macrostock, Art vs Commerce

This is the post I really wanted to write when I started this blog. I reading other blogs and forums on the topic I found a lot of opinions. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Some I agreed with, some I didn’t. Some made me think, some made me laugh. But the biggest comparison was that some were objective, some were not.

Stock photography is undergoing significant change. Many people are not happy. Here’s who they are:

Macrostock photographers – where they previously made a living from a portfolio of 100 images, now they cannot.

Photography artists – where they previously maintained a struggling artist lifestyle but survived by occassionally selling out to the man, now they cannot.

Let’s review in more detail:

The first group, macrostock photographers, previously earned a descent living by selling stock photos for a few hundred dollars each. They’d use agencies or deal directly with clients, but they’d only need 100 image strong portfolio with a few sales a week to get by. Now the landscape has changed. Microstock means the same images sell for a few dollars. The same portfolio of 100 images now has an earning capacity of a few thousand dollars a year, maybe more, maybe less, depending on quality and topic. Their business model has been made redundant by technology.

The second group, photographic artists, are outwardly anti-commercial. They make their living by selling artistic images. They disregard the costs of creating the images and the likely revenue they will gain from it. Their focus is the art, their expression and what the image speaks. Their landscape is changing too. Advances in camera technology and the advent of microstock is lowering the barriers to entry. Now anyone can take an artistic photograph. The quality may not be the same, the photographers may have zero talent, and it may take hundreds of photos to get a good one, but it can be done. Art is subjective. Whether the art community would approve or shun the image is no longer relevant. In microstock images have access to the entire market and sell regardless.

The situation should be starting to sound familiar. Industries are faced with structural upheaval on a constant and recurring basis. In the movie Other People’s Money, Danny DiVito’s character makes a speach to factory workers. He’s about to close down their factory, which manufactures copper cable, because fibre optics are taking over the market. He cites the example of buggy whip manufacturers outraged when they were put out of business by the advent of the automobile.

We don’t even have to look so far back to see examples of technology completely transforming an industry. Talk to music industry executives about their experience over that past decade. Talk to executives from the large movie making studios for a similar story. Technology changes things.

Stock photography is no different. The music industry had to deal with multimedia computers and audio compression, and stock photography has cheap digital cameras. The music industry had to deal with Internet file sharing, and stock photography has microstock websites.

Need some gas, Brian McClisterMicrostock isn’t for everyone, so macrostock photographers will never be completely replaced. Large organisations with big marketing budgets are happy to spend big dollars for commissioned or exclusive stock. Especially if it means they’re not going to have images they used seen elsewhere. Stock photography as a profession just got more difficult. Only those at the top of the game will survive. It’s natural selection, otherwise known as survival of the fittest. 99% of musicians are passionate about their music and still have a day job. Stock photographers now have the same fate.

Ok, comment time. Let me have it!

  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 06:32h, 12 February

    Nice article:) As I see this problem, macrostock is one extreme and microstock is another. They will probably meet somewhere in the middle with RF photos. There will still survive some macrostock as you always need high resolution, exclusive, artistic or special photos which cant be offered by microstock. The microstock is extremely pushing up they requirements which leads to less money earned (more refusals, bigger money spent on equipment…) and so the good photographers will move to macrostock and direct contracts. Models are now quite stupid when they sign absolutely no-limit MR to microstock. These pics could easily end up in some advertising compaign and then the model will get very upset they did it for TFCD or few bucks and problems with this will really start. This simply cant last forever as models will realize they do career suicide when signing such MRs with no control. So photographers will be pushed from both sides – models requiring proper payment and microstock offering very little money per download which means you need thousands of downloads of each (!) photo to cover your expenses. This will definitely squeeze most of “amateur” photographers from business and those “survivers” wouldnt be very happy about their situation.

    • Art Wager
      Posted at 03:07h, 19 March

      Have you noticed though that dreamstime is offering the sale of rights for the image at around $350.00? This is being done under the agreement that the photographer will remove the image for all other resale within 72 hours. This tends to undermine the idea that macrostock can only cater to those seeking exclusive imagery. I wonder what this will do to them.

      • Lee Torrens
        Posted at 19:41h, 19 March

        $350 is the minimum recommended price for a new image. Images with lots of sales automatically have a higher recommended price, though the contributor is always free to set their own price. I wrote about exclusive buyouts here, and LuckyOliver’s system now also supports buyouts.

        I don’t believe it undermines Macrostock’s hold on exclusive imagery as almost all images sold with an Exclusive Buyout have already sold with Royalty Free licenses (often hundreds of times), which cannot be retracted.

  • Art Wager
    Posted at 03:04h, 19 March

    I enjoyed reading your article. I believe you are right in everything you said, except… You seem to differentiate the artist from the microstock photographer. I see them as one in the same. I have been “dabbling” in photography for 20 years as a hobby… my art.. my escape. I would process images in my darkroom, give them as gifts, give them away to business just to have them on display, and once in a while… I would sell one or two. The mere fact that something I created was actually hung up in someone’s home, someone with whom I’ve never had any contact before, just amazed me, and gave me that “feeling” that is hard to describe.

    When I went “digital”, I was amazed at the improvement in my photography, and the quantity I was then able to produce. My photography improved simply from the sheer practice of shooting. I had never heard of “microstock” until fairly recently and now am supplying some of my images. Granted, now when I shoot, I also shoot thinking if it’s interesting enough for someone to use… maybe that in itself is something like “going commercial” or “giving into the ‘man'”. But, who cares… I will not submit something I don’t like for sale, just for the sake of selling.

    I really see little difference between “artistic” and “commercial” work. The most memorable advertisements and commercial images I’ve seen have been some of the most artistic work I’ve seen. Short of the happy, smiley, businessmen and women, most stock seems to be quite artistic.

    I think that the entire microstock industry is offering those of us who had little hope of earning anything from out art, a better chance at it… and in the process, maybe even make us better artists in the long run!

    • Erik Kolstad
      Posted at 18:29h, 19 March

      Well put. I haven’t been into photography more than a few years, and definitely not into selling until recently. However, I do remember how surprised I was, when picking images for a book, by how expensive it was to buy pictures at Corbis and the likes, even for a 2500-copy book in Norwegian. I was blown away when I discovered Shutterstock; it enabled me to use high-quality files on a very comfortable budget. Now I’ve started contributing as well. And it’s not the revenue that drives me – I’m just happy that people are willing to pay money to use my pictures!

  • william manning
    Posted at 21:29h, 31 March


    Your right on many points. I am a traditional stock photographer represented by the major stock libraries and also very involved in the industry on other issues. I have written about this subject and have similar views but do have a few differing opinions. Probably the most important is to caution photographers into thinking micro stock is their way of breaking into the field as to making a living, not saying all is interested in this route, but simply saying those that don’t take stock photography seriously will eventually be weeded out of the micro stock libraries. I do think the photographers who do take the business seriously, micro stock will open some doors. I believe there is, as you mentioned, a place for both traditional stock as well as micro stock. If interested in reading more of my views, check out the following link: http://williammanning.com/photonews/stockphotographynews.html.

  • Jackson Wallace
    Posted at 06:25h, 16 May

    In the 90s I made maybe 2k off of a poster royalty deal that I imagine today someone would buy a microstock image for at the most $100. I also received several thousand for an art commission for my work. The amount awarded in these commissions has depreciated if anything and most public art money is in sculpture and architectural treatments.
    Still when I sell an art print, I can make at least $200-500 per print, and all is well. Of course, getting famous in a major art market wouldnt hurt. That said, I’m practically at the point of taking up painting or sculpture, or even putting more time into music, another notoriously bad-paying profession for amateurs, because photography has become oh so very COMMON. Lots of people are out there shooting crappy PNS, but many have dSLRs now. At least they run into a really hard brick wall when they try to sell….but the days when shooting slide film gave you an automatic advantage are long gone.

    Even the demands of what people expect from wedding photogs has increased. Yeah, I love my digital gear, but its a double-edged sword. What was once a competitive profession is now hyper-competitive. Yes, you can specialize in stock, but the only thing you’re gonna make any money off of is a people-based shot, which requires some setup or releases. Its not that big a deal, and I’ve seen people who have sold thousands of the same image, but my images on these sites are trickling out and the money paid per image just leaves me downright angry. Why should an image that took 3-4 hours of setup or waiting result in a $2 payment? Why dont I get to know where the image is going? This is with istock. As far as I’m concerned, that agency needs a full-on boycott to send their masters Getty a clear message.
    At the same time, they have the exposure, and the cred, so…..$50 even, OK. Its not an assignment….but $2? For an image that I took, got through a review, and came up with keywords, and did their job for them?
    It really has me steaming.

  • Tony
    Posted at 18:18h, 05 June

    I think the photo values are based on the offer vs demand ratio. Low prices on digital SLR has skyrocket the offer, but the demand remained about the same. Still, a 1000$ picture is still worth the same. Only mid to low quality picture pricing, has gone down…

  • Steve
    Posted at 14:16h, 25 June

    I suspect, am guessing, that this is a shake-out time. If -good- shots with people involve hours of set-up, professional models, etc., then microstock will lose that market in time.

    Presently, it may be that companies looking for that sort of thing are saying to themselves “hey, we can get that from microstock and save a bundle” but in time, the fact that the microstock photographers cannot provide that level of quality for that kind of image, and that the macrostock photographers just won’t bother anymore because they lose money and will not post in microstock sites, will result in that kind of image, at that quality, only being available from macrostock sites. In time, the customers will realize this, that they have to pay more to get what they need.

    That might take a couple or more years, though.

  • Herve
    Posted at 07:44h, 01 August

    It may sound unreasonably optimistic, but I think that we are in the middle of a storm, which will pass by; models, makeup artists and studio equipment cost lots of money? So we have to either sell at higher prices or sell many (many!) copies of our pictures. If you want to sell so many copies, you’ll have to shoot pictures everyone can use, that is, pictures with no style, and no personality (this is an industrialization process; more consumers to satisfy lead to flat, easy and uninteresting taste). Some businesses will allways use the smiling woman on the phone picture for their communication needs. But images ave a lot to do with identity, and after a while, they will realize that they have to use stronger, and more specific, images in order to exist.

    So, let’s wait and see (if waiting is something we can afford!)