12 Apr 2010 Why Microstockers Sell Microstock
It’s not uncommon to hear professional photographers say that they don’t understand why anyone would sell photos in the microstock market when more higher-priced sales are available. Here’s some of the reasons.
Despite the low prices and low commissions, microstock ‘can’ actually be lucrative for people who do it well. The industry considers an average return per image per month to be $1, so a portfolio of 5,000 quality photo is enough for anyone in a developed country like the US or Western Europe to earn a comfortable living. For those in developing countries, a comfortable living might only be 2,000 or 1,000 quality photos. Or 5,000 crappy ones.
Microstock does not compare well with the earnings per photo in the traditional stock photo market, but there’s other factors. More on that below.
There’s a solid community among creators in the microstock market. It’s mostly positive and there’s lots of encouragement from peers. There’s also no limits in microstock: nobody telling you what to shoot, how to shoot it, or how much to shoot. There’s also complete freedom to shoot the high-demand subjects or just shoot what you enjoy shooting. Producing microstock is the profession of choice for many photographers because of these and other freedoms.
For many photographers, microstock is an extremely educational experience. There’s lots of feedback and discussion about photography and what microstock agencies are after in a stock shot. But there’s no angry bosses or upset clients when we get it wrong. Just a rejection notice, sometimes even a friendly or helpful one. Very few microstockers could ever claim to not have learned about photography and the business of stock from microstock forums.
That’s not to say there aren’t educational components to working with traditional agencies too. Just last week Blend Images gathered their contributors in Palm Springs for a formal creative briefing with some great speakers. Gatherings like that are not uncommon. The bigger agencies provide professional photo editors to work with photographers providing feedback and direction about what’s selling. Some also produce creative briefs for contributing photographers based on extensive research into trends in society.
For a beginning photographer, microstock is NOT easy, but compared to selling photos in the traditional market, it is. Traditional agencies are still mostly closed to all but the elite. Photographers have to be established and proven before they can even start a conversation with traditional agencies. In comparison, microstock is an open and welcoming opportunity that’s easy for people to get started.
The notable exception is the great Alamy, which is not microstock but still open to all. While many photographers have great earnings with Alamy, the openly discussed average earnings per photo is $1 per ‘year’. Even if that average is way off, it’s still less than a 10th of the average in microstock. Some kinds of photos earn better at Alamy, but it’s generally less lucrative for most photographers.
Additionally, it’s very easy to research in the microstock market. The open data on photo quantities and sales quantities makes it possible for anyone to assess both supply and demand for any topic or style.
To an established microstocker, hearing traditional stock photographers use the word “if” in reference to sales of a photo is horrifying. For them, the only question is ‘how many’. A quality microstock knows that every photo he or she submits will sell. In this way, microstock carries a smaller risk than the traditional market.
For some photographers the traditional stock photo market is reliable too. However,
Once a photographer has prepared a photo it can be selling in the microstock market in just days. Successful microstockers can have the money in their pocket just a few days later. And a microstocker knows in real-time how many times each photo has sold. Having to wait a month for earnings reports and even longer to receive payment can be taxing on small operations.
This speed of response is very helpful for stock photographers. The sales performance is feedback that can be integrated into the design of the next photo shoot, not the photo shoot two months out.
The longest image lock-in period among top microstock agencies is six months. All agencies take images on a non-exclusive basis. In contrast to this, standard terms at traditional agencies include image exclusivity and lock-in periods of three to five years. If a traditional agency doesn’t sell a shot or collection of shots well enough, there’s no way out.
Why Microstockers Sell Microstock
This list is certainly not intended as a criticism of the traditional stock photo market. Most microstock photographers know that they could possibly earn more money selling photos in the traditional market. The above list of benefits offsets the lower financial gain. But there’s one more factor:
Adapting. Just like traditional stock photographers usually struggle to adapt to the microstock market, microstock photographers often struggle to adapt to the traditional market. The photos that sell well and generate high profits in microstock are not the same as what works in the traditional market. Microstock photographers must adapt many aspects of their business, which represents a cost and losses in time and revenue, not to mention the risk of it not working out profitably.
What About Those Who do Both?
Here’s some thoughts on the matter from three photographers who actively participate in both traditional and microstock markets.
I try to keep my business as fluid as possible. When I see a future opportunity I test the environment. I believe by 2007 it was obvious Micro was here to stay so I felt it important to create a presence in this emerging level of our industry. At the same time I believe in diversification so it was never about leaving the other models of Stock that my main company was involved in, rather finding an opportunity to market my own work to a new set of buyers. It is still not creating as high a return as the company Macro work but I do see the gap closing and believe there will at some point be a merging of Macro RF and Micro RF.
I have tried going to macro but every time I shoot a collection for it I change my mind knowing that in micro I will see immediate and stable returns.
I would agree to the points you mention. However. My reasons are mostly based on demand. When you produce a lot, you need several outlets for the shoots not to overlap too much. I produce for Macro and Micro, but putting my best stuff in macro (hence the price) and leaving the rest to micro. Micro and macro are two different marketplaces, but for a mass-producer like myself it is extremely convenient to have two outlets. I produce 50/50 for macro micro these days. A year ago it was 20/80 in favor of micro.