12 Apr 2010 Why Microstockers Sell Microstock

Happy photographer stock photoIt’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.

It’s Lucrative

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.

It’s Fun

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.

It’s Educational

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.

It’s Easy

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.

It’s Reliable

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,

It’s Fast

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.

It’s Flexible

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.

Jonathan Ross:

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.

Andres Rodriguez:

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.

Yuri Arcurs:

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.

  • Paul Melcher
    Posted at 10:25h, 12 April Reply

    Thank you for this Lee: A very much needed and appreciated entry.

  • Sean Locke
    Posted at 10:33h, 12 April Reply

    A post such as this can only serve as an impetus for non-micro content creators to try and join the over-populated micro contributor base. What’s the point in trying to garner even more competition for our sales?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 01:51h, 13 April Reply

      Hey Sean, you know I’m a fan of your straight talk and I agree with your overall sentiment about bringing in competition. However, while it’s a side-effect, it was not the impetus for writing this post.

      My focus was on education and helping move the conversation on from “why would anyone ever do that” to something more constructive. It’s actually been a long time since I’ve written anything with the specific goal of ‘recruitment’, though I’m aware it’s one of the more significant results of almost everything I do.

      Keep up the good fight! 🙂

  • Daniel Korzeniewski
    Posted at 11:13h, 12 April Reply

    Very well written Lee.

    @Sean Locke… If you are worried about more competition, then you’re in the wrong marketplace, because Micro is all about that those days, only quality content will help you to make a difference. Lee has been helping and supporting this community for a long time now, so I don’t think this post is intended harm current contributors.

    • Sean Locke
      Posted at 20:41h, 12 April Reply

      Yes, that’s the same “competition” comment that comes up whenever I make the point about not trying to lure new competition to your business area. The post is not directed to current contributors – we’re already in the business, and shouldn’t be concerned about trying to make others share a point of view. Established micro contributors know that every blog or website about “make money with your snaps” or “why you should do micro” can add up to a detrimental effect.

      If you have a pond to fish at, it’s no harm if people find their way there on their own, but if you go out and recruit people with new rods and lures, perhaps you won’t catch as many next time.

      Nothing against Lee, of course – he’s a great writer, but his focus is more on contributor services than contributing.

      • studio54
        Posted at 12:26h, 13 April Reply

        Very well said. I subscribe to this. The article itself is fine, i just mind the idea that it convinces an 18 year old kid to buy a 300$ camera and submitting 200 photos than he’s bored, multiply that by thousands of persons around the world and you find that half the sale credits go to guys that don’t even make a payout.
        My honest opinion is that 20-25% of all dl credits from micro go to “contributors” that submitted 50-100 files and gave up, and there are tens of thousands of them, that translates in millions of dollars a year.

  • Rahul Pathak
    Posted at 17:35h, 12 April Reply

    Great, thorough post, Lee.

  • Pawel Simon
    Posted at 17:58h, 12 April Reply

    I think is up to each individual to see what works better,for his own personality and way of working. And taking in account this choosing your niche,or way of living from photography. Stock photography is a long term commitment if you want to see some return… and also a business where the photographer needs to produce in big quantity and quality. So depending on that each person needs to evaluate if wants or not go in that way…Microstock can be a good way of getting experience. Thank for your article Lee.

  • hfng
    Posted at 18:36h, 12 April Reply

    Great article. It’s easy to start making something but hard to sustain a livelihood and support a family.

  • Daniel Kafer
    Posted at 09:55h, 14 April Reply

    Interesting acticle. However I wonder if microstock images that has been added the last 6 month also make 1$ pr month. In my experience a lot of really good images that has been added recently don’t sell very well.

    If you go through various images on for example fotolia, I think it is seldom you see new images sell really well, even when looking at Yuri’s portfolio, you need to go back quite a few pages before anything has sold more than 3-4 times.

    With my own portfolio I have the same experience, some of the old stuff keep selling while the new and better stuff doesn’t.

    So I wonder if any newcomers will ever be able to make a living from 5000 or so images.

  • D Bukach
    Posted at 01:23h, 19 April Reply

    Although I expect that my images are not what microstock companies generally sell in high volumes, my experience suggests that earning $1 per image per month is very optimistic. My exclusive istock images get around $3 per year (instead of $12), and I’d expect that many others are in my position. Plus there is the issue that because istock restricts uploads (in my case to 50 per week), it takes significant time to reach 5000 images (two years if all your images were accepted, and more like 3 years given my acceptance rate).

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there is money to be made, but it is very much a long term game and is a hard one to build into a full time enterprise – and nobody really knows where any of this is going to lead to!

  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 04:11h, 19 April Reply

    RPI $1 per month is true only for few top contributors, for average microstockers with portfolio under 1000 pictures is $1-3 per YAER closer to the reality. I have no precise numbers for those of about 5000 pics online but I bet for those average ones it is bellow $1 month also.
    It also highly depends when did you start – who did start in the early days of microstock usually has much better statistics then those who did in 2008 or later.

  • Don Farrall
    Posted at 17:07h, 22 April Reply

    As a traditional stock producer I find the suggestion that $60,000 per year income is something to be considered a viable business model. That might be OK if the entire $60,000 was profit, but beyond RPI is ROI. Producing 5000 images has it’s own costs. I have put a little time into testing the waters of microstock, both with stills and video and I remain ever convinced that the microstock model is little more than a hoax that lures people in and then does not deliver. Yes a few people are making a little money, but mostly a lot of people are having some fun, and learning something, but the money is not good, and it surely doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Have fun, but don’t mistake this for a long-term occupation.

  • William Manning
    Posted at 17:13h, 05 May Reply

    Interesting post. I do agree with some of what is said in your post, but all to often in the discussion between the differences of the two business models is the cost of doing business. I always hear about how much money the photographer makes from selling their pictures but I never hear what it cost them to produce the image. For those of us out there posting information about micro or macro stock I believe we need to be honest with our readers. Stock photography is the only industry that I know of where the manufacturer (photographer) disregards their overhead to produce their product (photograph). Overhead includes not only equipment, model, travel, office, costs etc… but also time. The truth of the matter is the prices for photography from both business models is very low. Photographers are as guilty as any other party when it comes to low prices. I have been involved with stock photography for about 18 years and know very well what kind of return is needed to truly consider a check as a salary. If interested I have posted on my blog an article concerning the stock photography business at http://williammanning.com/blog/2010/04/business-matters/is-the-new-stock-photography-business-model-right-for-you/.

    I wish all stock photographers well and hope we can spread the truth about this business model as the post by Don Farrall does well.

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