28 Aug 2008 Microstock Isn’t for Everybody

Square Peg in a Round Hole, Mark EvansMany people criticize the microstock business and specific microstock agencies when the real reason for their discontent is that microstock just isn’t suitable for them. It’s obviously working for some people, so let’s look at some of the situations where microstock isn’t suitable and some of the alternatives that may be more appropriate.

You’re an “Artist”

Almost all successful stock photographers, microstock or traditional, are also business people. They look at what the market wants and create accordingly. This means conducting their own research or buying it, and following market trends or trying to predict them.

If your passion is shooting landscapes, abstracts, fine art or other less commercially popular subjects, you can expect to work harder than others in the microstock market. All successful stock photographers have an element of art to what they do, but they’re not all “Artists” with the inverted commas.

Still, there are many “Artists” who are also successful stock photographers, but they’re the exception. If you’re an “Artist” and want to make stock photography work for you, you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.

You Can’t Handle Rejection

Rejection in the microstock market is unavoidable. Even the top contributors get images rejected. The list of technical requirements is long and every submission must meet them all and at the same time be commercially appealing. Add to that the fact that reviewers often have less experience and knowledge in the stock photo industry than the contributing photographer and frequent inconsistencies in rejections across various agencies, and it can get frustrating.

If you can’t disconnect from your photos enough to accept the rejections, learn what you can and just move on, then you can expect contributing in the microstock market to be frustrating.

You Can’t Get Past the Commission Rates

Microstock commission rates are very low! They can get as low as 18 cents. Looking at it this way it’s hard to see why anyone would sell photos in the microstock market. A photo which you carefully crafted using all your skill, talent, experience and expensive equipment sells for only 18 cents commission!

Successful microstockers look past this perspective. They see the income in terms of time rather than individual sales. Photos obviously sell many times and continue to sell each day, hopefully for years. If you can’t get past the individual commission rates and see the bigger picture then you won’t enjoy selling photos in the microstock market.

You’re Already a Professional Photographer

Many professional photographers working in areas other than stock see microstock as an open opportunity to leverage their skills and equipment to generate a side income. If hobbyists can earn a few hundred dollars a month, surely a professional can do even better.

The fact is that microstock, and stock photography in general, has different requirements than other areas of photography and many professional photographers experience difficulties getting started in microstock. However, some professional photographers thrive in the microstock market. The difference seems to be in the investment of time and energy to understand stock photography and the microstock business. If you look at microstock as any easy-entry and lucrative sideline, microstock may not be for you.

So What are the Alternatives?

If microstock isn’t for you, there’s no shortage of alternative outlets to sell your photos. Here’s some suggestions:

Alamy – an established agency which accepts submissions from the public. Prices are at traditional levels (except the Novel Use scheme) and they offer both Royalty Free and Rights Managed licenses.

PhotoShelter – a new agency who are doing many things right. Sales are still slow and uploading is a lot of work, but they allow you to set your price (minimum $50) and you choose your license.

Inmagine – accepts submissions from the public through its IRIS system. You can choose both a price tier and a license type.

Cutcaster – a new agency supporting prices that run the full range. You choose the price and can receive pricing feedback based on how well your image performs.

Shutterpoint – a pay-to-play agency that allows you to set your own prices from $20 up.

FeaturePics – a microstock agency that lets you set your prices above microstock levels. They also enable Rights Managed sales.

  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 17:29h, 28 August Reply

    There is another perspective then “cant get past the commision” – I dont mind selling micro for blogs, small prints, newspapers etc. I have BIG problem selling micro to big webdevelopers using it on templates, advertising agencies, book covers etc. – all these pros charge 1.000-10.000x more per hour of their work then they pay you for your skill, gear costs, experience etc. This is the real problem, not the commision itself.

    The another problem is that many agencies take 70% or more, some are even over 90% (eg SS). I always say there is 80/20 rule – you do 80% or the work and get 20% of money. Photographer could never win this business – just one single page of advertising in magazine is easily over $1.000 which is considered very cheap. Why they cant pay properly then? Is 10% of that for photographer much? Is 0,0001% fair? Its not good to think about this business only from microstock point of view – agency/buyer saves a HUGE amount of money on buying micro, microstock agency takes over 70% and photographer gets his/her few pennies. Who is winner of this equation?
    There is always argument that you sell it many times and so you earn. But EACH time client saves extremely more then you earn. I would say that not every photo is for microstock. You can do 100 or even 200 pics in studio per day. Did you try to shoot 200 landscapes per day, or even 100? Or 100 wildlifes per day?

    I dont wanna say microstock is bad, I wouldnt upload a single photo there in such case but I want to say: “Think twice before you start and think about every photo before you upload”.

    Be good:)

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 19:01h, 28 August Reply

      Hi Zbynek,

      The debate over designers using cheap images in big and expensive projects is coming up more frequently. I plan to explore this topic in a future blog post as I see a few different perspectives on that one. Thanks for highlighting it.

      As for agencies taking a large portion of the revenue, I’m very happy to give 80% to iStock because they sell my photos so frequently. At the end of the month, they’re usually the one who sends me the biggest payment. I’m in the business of maximizing the value of my photos while they’re still relevant and iStock do that better than anyone (most months). To me, “fair” isn’t relevant because nobody is forcing me to do business with them. If they’ve worked to build up the biggest customer base, then good for them. They can do what they like with the 80% as long as they’re producing results.

      Plus, if I thought for a second that a buyer would switch agencies in order to get my photo, naturally I’d put all my photos with the agency that had the best commission rates. But that’s no realistic. With millions of photos to choose from, a buyer will choose the most appropriate photo from their preferred agency nine times out of ten.

      About the client saving more than I earn, I agree, but I’m not upset about it. If I wanted to ensure the customers who buy my photos paid as much as they could afford, I’d be selling them Rights Managed. As far as I understand it, when you offer a photo for sale with a Royalty Free license you give up the ability to charge one customer more than another. I guess that’s what you’re talking about when you say to “think about every photo before you upload”.

      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for being smart and rational about this topic.


  • Tzar
    Posted at 18:11h, 28 August Reply

    Great article, very very true. I believe you can also add these sites to your “alternative” list:


    Be sure to read my stock photo blog at http://www.startstock.com.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 19:16h, 28 August Reply

      Thanks Tzar, I’ve added Shutterpoint and FeaturePics to the list.


    • Mudzii
      Posted at 09:42h, 17 September Reply

      Shutterpoint sucks. Sorry to say, but they have a very bad service and I withdraw last week. I came to this site looking for an alternative service provider.

    • dbltapp
      Posted at 13:02h, 21 January Reply

      Been to keenimages lately – say, since Nov 2008?

  • Khoj Badami
    Posted at 10:41h, 29 August Reply

    And you can also add RedBubble for those who want to sell their art…!

  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 10:53h, 29 August Reply

    Well, honestly said if agency sells well I dont mind if they take more %. Im not refusing microstock, just some use of it and the direction where is SS heading now is very dangerous. Microstock started as let say database where designers shared pictures used for small projects, new designs, web etc. and where the huge prices of RM were not economic. Now we are in another extreme – selling pics which costs $100 or even more to create and we hope to sell them several hundreds times in average to cover the costs. Or the worse – pro photographer shoots session, then picks best photos for client and the rest is going to micro because they were already payed, but why shouldnt they earn even more? This is both extreme dumping business which is considered illegal in most civilised countries and very dishonest to the session financing client.

    Im pretty curious how will microstock evolve, my angle of view is different because I did start with direct contracts and macrostock and since december 2007 Im also in micro. Its just interesting experiment for me now as I get just few percents of my total income from micro but its steadily rising. I still have pretty small portfolios at microsites but I must admit Ive learned a lot in microstock business. Its easy just criticise but I prefer to try first so i have some numbers and personal experience:) Im not a full time pro photographer and Im also more or less specialised on nature/travel and ancient architecture so my clients are pretty limited.

  • Matthew Botos
    Posted at 11:19h, 29 August Reply

    Well put, Lee. It seems a lot of amateurs and professionals view microstock as easy extra money without realizing that to be successful at it really requires focusing both their photographic style and business strategy on the microstock market.

  • Ann Parry
    Posted at 12:49h, 29 August Reply

    I DUGG IT! You speak from experience and serious reflection, and I plan to share it with photographer friends who consider microstock.

    I’d say that well over 50% of photographers who go into microstock would be wise to spend time and effort marketing their photography in other ways OR additional ways. This is partly based on how much I make and what my ranking is (which is not impressive) at any agency that provides that info, so that means that only X number of contributors are making more than I am.

    Your illustration is dead on, and your article can help save a person time and effort trying to be a “square” photographer in a “round” market. Plus, your alternatives are a positive addition. Another resource: Photographer’s Market. I have the 2009 edition pre-ordered. Oh, there’s always Getty and Corbis, too 😀

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:18h, 29 August Reply

      Thanks Ann, I’d agree with the “well over 50%” statement.

      I didn’t mention Getty and Corbis as they don’t take public submissions like the ones I did mention, but they’re obviously an “alternative” to microstock (how ironic!) if you’re good enough to get accepted.


  • Allen
    Posted at 00:46h, 30 August Reply

    Another resource I’ve just come across and started to use is Imagekind.com. From what I’ve read it’s really up to the artist to market their work, so they’re really just a print on demand, but you never know. I’m just using the free account right now, maybe if some stuff sells off the site I’ll upgrade to a paid account so I can add more images.

  • Mike McDonald
    Posted at 14:07h, 02 September Reply

    Good post, Lee. I’ve been kicking around a similar idea for a while now, but never really put it all together in written form. I was thinking that there are varying expectations for those entering microstock, and many of those expectations are based on past experiences in stock photography. The harsh reality that many people face is that microstock is a very different animal, and it will not suit everyone, even those with previous stock experience. It’s not like just going from RF at Getty to RF at istockphoto. While the license may be similar, the business of microstock can be very different and often tough to swallow.

    I have frequently felt like I need to let go of some of my attachment to my work, and look at it more like a product than a piece of art. There is a lot more misuse, theft, license violation, etc., in microstock, and if someone can’t handle being the victim of a little of that, microstock can leave them feeling very bitter about their decision to enter the microstock market.

  • Nick Campbell
    Posted at 12:28h, 03 September Reply

    Great post! You nailed the “time rather than individual sales” idea. Momentum is key. Keep shooting and uploading and you will see results.

    I wrote more about the “Price Barrier” on my blog.


  • Lior Iluz
    Posted at 04:58h, 15 September Reply

    great article!
    also there are Redbubble if you don’t want to microstock 🙂

  • Ian Murray
    Posted at 06:40h, 25 February Reply

    I have no objection to micro pricing. It is the licence that I object to.

    If there were usage restrictions to limit micro images to micro ‘community’ uses then there wouldn’t be a problem. The reality is that designers benefit from cheap prices – ‘the designers’ dirty little secret’ – and continue to charge the end user whatever they can get away with.

    Instead of ‘macro bashing’ – ‘those old trad photographers are going to be blown away woo-hoo’ it is surely time that micros started to move towards a more unified stock industry.

    A more restricted micro licence and more realistic pricing for non micro uses is essential and would benefit all photographers ( if not all designers).

    It’s time that micros started to value photography and photographers rather than just design and designers.

    Ian Murray

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 19:52h, 25 February Reply

      Ian, nobody is ‘macro bashing’ here, but as I designer I take your comment as ‘designer bashing’. I pass on the full benefit of microstock pricing to my clients and know many other designers who do so too. As stock buyers, designers are your clients, so I don’t see the value in making sweeping moral judgments against them like that.

      Microstock does value photography and photographers, but based on the current market where supply is plentiful. Your product is no longer scarce, so you need to update your perception of it’s value. You must reach the upper tiers of quality if you want to continue charging a premium on that market value (traditional stock photo market prices). Otherwise you’ll struggle to be competitive in the new market.

      There’s too much competition among microstock agencies for anyone to implement the sweeping license changes you describe. The market has changed and it’s not going to change back. Some people won, some people lost. Designers won. You lost. Deal with it and move on. If you can’t, at least do something in the real world. Create an union or association or something. Your ranting in forums and blogs hasn’t achieved anything beyond creating a name for yourself. Perhaps that’s something you can leverage to initiate a movement. If you succeed in changing the market, good for you. If not, perhaps you’ll start to see some of the reasons why, which countless online discussions haven’t managed to achieve.

      Thanks for your comment.


      • Deutsch
        Posted at 16:00h, 19 June Reply

        I totally get Ian’s comments on the issue and he is right, photographers and photography should be valued no matter how much of it is made. I totally get what you say about upping your game if you want to charge traditional stock prices too. The last paragraph of your comment is a little uncalled for in my opinion. I know I need to just forget micro if I take it too personally (no need to re-state that in a reply to me) but really, we are all human beings. We all strive to make good work. However, you, a designer need to pick your words better because your post just comes up so negative (something that isn’t necessary in an already heated issue for a lot of people). I disagree that Ian’s post is ‘ranting’. He is expressing his opinion. Some might say you are ‘ranting’ too. I know you think highly of yourself and your work so please value others the same. If we all did this this whole issue would soon go away (then people would blog about better things in concerning their craft, things that matter and actually help each other instead of dragging someone down).

        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 18:55h, 19 June Reply

          Thanks for your comments Deutsch. The “ranting” I was referring to was not just this one comment.

          • Ian Murray
            Posted at 02:44h, 20 June

            In some ways three years later things have moved in the direction I urged – though not enough.

            This sort of daft comment really stands out:

            “Some people won, some people lost. Designers won. You lost. Deal with it and move on.”

            Photographers don’t want to be treated like that and have stood up for themselves even at micros.

          • Lee Torrens
            Posted at 09:41h, 20 June

            Welcome back Ian.

            What about pricing at your primary distributor Alamy? That’s moving in the opposite direction.

            Photographers have stood up, but is hasn’t gotten us anything. We have much less than we had three years ago, and that’s a natural reflection of the current reality.

  • Lisa Price
    Posted at 05:45h, 28 July Reply

    With intrest I read all your comments and articles. I must say I was shocked reading the statistcs how much Jack makes with his couple of thousend uploaded pictures. Under thousend dollars a month. I am thinking just upload time, management time, and all the other stuff beside the shootings. This is slavery.

    This is just charity, poor photographers supporting website companies to get rich. I do stillife, I make one photo and get sometimes threethousend dollars for it. Ok, most of the time its in the 1500 dollar range, but still you guys shoot for years, upload for years spend you life and than don’t even make 1k a month.

    Its like this, first get a whole lot of amateurs to submit their fotos, pay them a little, and make the site popular. Hey lets partner with flickr, and as the competition goes up, the price goes down and now everybody works for charity. What a sceme.

    Shure, you just have to work harder and produce more, submit more and you will see you will sell more, and one day you make over 1 k a month. Fact is, as more you submit, as less worth is your work.

    If you ask me, I would say professionals bann all those stocksites. Submitting to them is suicide.
    Microstock should be a amateur portal. It has amateur level returns. Its the professionals, that destroy their own income by competing on amateur levels and pricing with each other. Its a trap guys and girls, just think aboout it. Is your photo really just worth pennies per publication?

    They say, just sell it 1000 times and you make up to 150 dollars! Is anybody actually thinking what this means? Guys, you are giving away your work for free, so other can profit from it unproportionally.

    Photographers, its you who decide how much your work is worth. You are selling out you work for some bakschich, the result is, that all others have to sell out as well, to stay afloat.
    If you sell you beautyfull photos only weekends on the fleemarket, i believe you will make more money than though this Microstock sceme.

    But who am I to judge, I have only two children to feed and my morgage to pay.

    Another thing is this Licensing sceme.

    Keeping a picture on the market reduces the need for new pictures proportionally. And lowers the value of the picture.
    It is much more profitable to sell a photo and get it off the market. Supply goes down demand goes up. So someone has to pay more to get a new picture available.

    All prices of all products are regulated by supply and demand.

    Sometimes we can read of countries eliminating big amounts of a yearly harvest of f.e. oranges, just to keep the prices high so everybody is making money and can make their living. If the weather was just to good for growing oranges, they harvest to many. They destroy some to regulate the prices, through supply and demand.

    The opec does exactly the same, the reduce their output when the oilprice is down. Just beginning of this year they did this, maybe someone can remeber.

    The microstock sites are artificially creating “overstock” of photos, supply is fantastically high, demand is relatively low, prices or better value of photos are nill, in such a situation.

    Thanks for reading,

    cheers, lisa

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:05h, 28 July Reply

      Hi Lisa,

      Microstock is the result, not the cause. The cause is digital photography and Internet distribution lowering the barriers of entry for photographers to sell stock photos. Obviously this increases the supply, lowering the price.

      Judging other photographers for selling their photos just because you have “two kids and a mortgage” is both naive and selfish. Why would they stop just so you can continue payments on your big house? Many of us support our families from our microstock income too. Many in poorer countries dream of having the opportunities that you have and work much harder than you for less income. Microstock is a totally open market where anyone can compete. If you need to complain about it then you clearly can’t complete.

      I’d suggest you stop wasting your time blaming other people and start looking at yourself. Technology has changed your business and you need to adapt or get out.

      Also, I generally have empathy for photographers whose market has been undermined by the technology changes. It must be difficult to do a job all your life and then have that job change so fundamentally that you can no longer do it the same way and make a profit. I usually respond to comments from these people with my perspective and a gentle reality check. However, in your case I’m not inclined to be gentle at all. Your comment strikes me as extremely arrogant, ignorant and judgmental.


  • Lisa Price
    Posted at 13:57h, 28 July Reply

    Dear Lee,

    I am sorry to say, but you missed completely the point. It is not about my emotions or my arrogance its about facts.
    Your first sentense actually confirms my facts.
    I just don’t understand what you are fighting for. It seems to me you want to wotk for free at the end, or really give away your work for charity. This is really foolish. Carrying this argument that poor people in poor contries can now also make a penny with their photo and their digital equipment does not convince me at all.

    You say it yourself, you can only support your families with microstock, but you cannot really live off it.
    You know, the Model you shoot has the same price and distanse to get to your location, the shoes you wear cost the same, the time you took has been the same, the background you build took the same or even more effort etc. The fuel one just put into ones car did not get cheaper. Its not about pressing the button, its a much a more complex view than what you try to promote. There are all kind of factors involved in making a photo.

    I have the strong feeling you are promoting something not really for the advantage of the photographer.

    And don’t take the things personal, its not about you.

    Thanks, Cheers,


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:00h, 28 July Reply

      Hi Lisa,

      I’m not refuting your facts about supply and demand. There’s no doubt that supply is up and price is down. We agree on that, so I didn’t miss your point at all. Your point is that photographers need to give up their opportunity to sell their photos so that you can continue earning a living by selling yours. That’s what I’m saying is arrogant.

      You also say that photographers are “selling out”. That’s not correct. If photos are in oversupply – which you agree they are – then the value and price of photos is low. Selling photos at those prices is not selling out. Additionally, until recently, microstock was the only opportunity that many people had to sell their photos. You sell your still life photos directly to your clients because it’s a relatively closed market. Your geographical location makes you a suitable supplier to your clients, so not everyone can compete. However, stock doesn’t rely on geography, so the market is open and everyone can compete. The result is that quality determines success, not geography.

      What I’m fighting for is understanding. I love microstock because it’s an open market where success goes to those who can create the most appealing photos with minimal cost of production. Obviously this is not positive news for people used to making their living by creating photos with very high production costs, which I imagine is your situation. However, it’s great news for the vast majority of photographers and the customers. I wonder what your customers would say if you asked them to continue paying your expensive prices despite the fact that others could produce the same result for much less? Maybe tell them about your two kids and see if that changes their mind. The simple truth is that you can only compete if you have access to a closed market (geographically) or your quality demands a premium. If neither of those are true, then you’ll be forced to step aside for more efficient producers of your product simply due to supply and demand.

      What you’re fighting for is higher prices for photography, despite the fact that costs of production have gone way down and that more efficient producers now have access to your market. I totally respect your skills and what you’ve achieved, and I wouldn’t want to see your kids go hungry or see you default on your mortgage. Your product is no longer scarce.

      You say that I’m not convincing you, but I don’t pretend to be able to do so, nor is it my intention with this debate. We see different sides of the same picture and that’s totally fine. My intention is to respond to your comments so that other people reading this can get an even view.

      There are many people living from their microstock income. I can introduce you to them. One earns more than a million dollars US per year, and I know others who aren’t far behind. I know another who constantly travels the world shooting photos and living off the income the photos generate through microstock. There are also production houses who produce photos for the microstock market on a large scale. Saying that you cannot making a living from microstock is completely factually inaccurate.

      You also made a point about models, locations, backgrounds, etc having the same cost. That’s another fallacy. Microstock is distributed over the Internet so people in much cheaper parts of the world (think South America, Eastern Europe, South East Asia) have costs many times lower than what you pay in Florida. That’s one of the reasons why traditional stock photography is shrinking. They are now competing on a global scale rather than just with each other.

      If you think I’m promoting something that’s not to the advantage of the photographer, I’d be delighted if you’d say what you thought it was. I provide information to photographers via this blog for free. This content enables many photographers to make a living doing something they love. I cannot tell you how many emails I get from photographers thanking me for helping them get started with a career in photography. Browse through the comments on my blog posts and you’ll see what I’m talking about. However, I see how providing this information is disastrous for you – it empowers your competitors. And these competitors produce your product much more efficiently than you.

      I’m not sure what I said which makes you think I took things personally. I realize it’s not about me as an individual, or you as an individual. I appreciate the constructive debate.


  • Deutsch
    Posted at 16:14h, 19 June Reply

    Lee- All things considered how long do you think the most efficient photographer needs to complete a project for microstock? Timing is everything and even though the number of photography (products) have skyrocketed photographers would love the same respect and value to their time put into their work as designers and other creatives enjoy. Okay, so you’re going to tell me microstock isn’t for me. Fine. I’m just saying whatever market, fine art, commercial, microstock a photographer should be treated fairly like everyone else, designers, creatives that use their photography (products) to complete a project. We are half the equation; we want at least half the compensation (from our work being used in your projects) without worrying whether or not we are going to sell thousands of images.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 19:03h, 19 June Reply

      I don’t agree photography is half the equation and so therefore deserves half the compensation. In some designs the photography may be 90%, but that’s irrelevant. When the font is 90%, do designers pay more for it? Do they pay more for the software they design it with if it’s an international campaign than if it’s just for their local neighborhood? Inputs to the creative process are priced based on the competition for that input. Adobe’s software is expensive because there’s relatively little high quality competition. Fonts are cheap because there’s lots of them and they’re relatively easy to make. Photos are cheap because there’s lots of them and they relatively easy to make too.

      If you want ‘fair’, you’re in the wrong business.

  • Deutsch
    Posted at 11:35h, 20 June Reply

    I just want an equal playing field and for my craft not to be looked on as ‘easy’. Photography projects are sort of like design projects. Similar process through the whole pre-production, production, and post-production…to archiving and storing the images. Everyone has their own way of working so each one is different. There is time and money in that as well and making sure the back ups are backed up properly and so forth.

    Thank you for your response. It felt more like a conversation than some of your other replies that felt more negative than positive talk. I appreciate it.

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