12 Jan 2009 Microstock Talking Points in 2009

After looking back on 2008, let’s take a look at some of the trends which are likely to be frequent conversation topics in 2009 within the microstock market.

Quality will Continue to Rise

While this statement is blatantly obvious to anyone observing the market, quality requirements are rising at an increasing rate. All types of contributors are contributing to the rise:

Firstly, the hobbyists who’ve become professional stock photographers through the openness of the microstock market will continue to improve, increase production of high quality images, and grow in number.

Secondly, more traditional stock photographers will increase their involvement in microstock as they become aware that microstock is:

  1. not going away
  2. continuing to take market share away from the traditional market
  3. often more stable and predictable income if done well
  4. more lucrative for many types of photos
  5. not such stupid business after all

Thirdly, the hobbyists who are still hobbyists will continue to improve the quality of their submissions, by necessity. If they don’t, their photos will drown among the quality of new microstock professionals and traditional pros, lowering their earnings. Those who don’t step up will be moved on.

New Entrants will Struggle

No more microstock hobbyistsNo surprises here either, but the trend is less apparent. No longer are photography hobbyists and enthusiasts able to get started in microstock without serious quantities of research, practice and perseverance.

I’m often contacted by new microstockers who are frustrated with rejections and a lack of sales. When I look at their portfolios I’m reminded of my early microstock submissions. They would be universally rejected if submitted today. I have no doubt that had I started in 2005 my microstock career would have been very short.

While unsophisticated photo buyers and those deliberately seeking ‘snapshot’ styled photos continue to buy earlier microstock submissions for these qualities, albeit in small quantities, microstock agencies are no longer accepting such submissions. In addition to higher acceptance standards, images now compete with four or five times the quantity and much higher quality images than they did just a few years earlier.

As barriers to entry rise to again exclude hobbyists, and professional stock photographers reclaim the lost portion of their realm, the distinction of microstock as a market supplied by hobbyists will largely disappear in 2009.

Understanding will Improve

The traditional stock photography market isn’t straight-forward. The complex structure of multi-level distribution and the collection of very distinct licensing models made understanding the market difficult for new entrants and microstock photographers.

Similarly, the do-it-yourself nature of microstock, higher quality requirements, and mysterious algorithms make microstock appear like a minefield of permanent mistake opportunities to even the most seasoned traditional stock photographer.

However, now the markets are growing together. Microstock pricing is rising and traditional prices are falling. Additionally, traditional photographers are finding the opportunities in microstock, while microstockers are taking advantage of easy-entry opportunities in the traditional market. Both groups are educating themselves in the process. With this market integration and participant education process, the mutual understanding can only improve.

Traditional Stock Prices will Continue to Decline

As microstock quality and quantity continue to rise, microstock continues to erode the advantage of traditional Royalty Free stock. No longer is the quality difference so great. And no longer are the high quality microstock photos so few that they’ve sold thousands of times, appearing overused against traditional equivalents.

Rights Managed photos with usage history remain untouchable by microstock, but with Royalty Free stock sometimes an acceptable alternative, it’s logical to expect the downward price pressure will spill over.

Microstock “Community” will Lose Focus

As hobbyists become professionals and new hobbyists are held back by higher quality standards, the community element that was so crucial to the evolution of microstock will likely fade. Particularly at agencies who feel a mere forum justifies calling themselves a community.

The emphasis will shift toward a typical marketplace focused on sales and analysis rather than social interaction and community support. Agency websites will become more formal, with fewer or less obvious ratings, ranking, stars and blogs.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree these trends will continue and accellerate in 2009?   What do you think will be the topics of 2009 in the stock photo industry?

  • fotoVoyager
    Posted at 12:06h, 12 January Reply

    These are all well thought out valid comments. I agree with most of them, though I’m not sure buyers search microstock sites for snapshot quality images when they can just get them from flickr.

    The biggest problem I see arising in the future is whether the reducing return on good quality images can match the expense of producing them (paying for models etc.) in such a diluted library of squillions of images. I’ve seen (uncorroborated) reports that suggest that contributors to Alamy already face this issue with diminished returns on increased folios. We may reach a saturation point where it’s simply no longer worth investing in creating good images if they don’t return the investment in a reasonable amount of time given the small royalties involved.

    I bet the old school trad guys who damned us at the start are laughing now…

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 13:04h, 12 January Reply

      Hi William,

      Regarding buyers searching for snapshots, it’s a very small number, but they do exist. It’s made up of people who need images which look non-professional and unsophisticated buyers (people who don’t know or care about the difference in quality). Snapshots still sell in microstock, but in very small (and unprofitable – for most people) quantities.

      And of course you’re correct that a big talking point will be profitability. That’s a topic for a dedicated post! 😉

      But I have to disagree with you about the “old school trad guys” laughing. Their market has permanently and fundamentally changed and they need to make equally big changes if they want to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Not much to laugh about in that.


      • Perrush
        Posted at 02:27h, 16 January Reply

        I think the ‘old guys’ aren’t laughing but saying “see, told you so, now we’re all damned” :o)

  • Vitezslav Valka
    Posted at 12:19h, 12 January Reply

    Really depresive thoughts!

    But I like the idea that quality will rise. Because when there are so many microstockers out there and the number is still raising according to falling prices of professional cameras I think that the quality will stand still thank to growing submissions and also thank to rising needs of the buyers.

    In other words, the field will grow, and that means the quality will fall or stand still. More likely there will be more agencies focused on a specific field (business, sports, places…). And also there will be much more cooperation between them (as Pixmac is now re-selling Fotolias pictures but also looking for its own Photographers).

    bye, Vita

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 13:08h, 12 January Reply

      Hi Vita,

      I think the rising acceptance standards at top microstock agencies will keep out the rising quantity of low quality images from new hobbyists. Thus, I expect quality will continue to rise at those agencies. Newer agencies, such as yourselves, may continue accepting lesser quality images (as the bigger agencies did when they were young) in order to build quantity in your portfolios. So in those situations, I agree with your point. But industry-wide, I expect quality will rise rapidly.


  • Rahul Pathak
    Posted at 13:45h, 12 January Reply

    Hi Lee,

    Great post. I’ve heard from a few people that rising quality and more traditional buyers moving to micro will result in microstock prices continuing to rise. I’d be curious about your perspective on that. Also, do you have any thoughts on the macroeconomic climate and it’s impact on microstock growth?



    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:00h, 12 January Reply

      Hey Rahul,

      I do expect microstock prices will continue to rise, and I too have heard that from many others in the industry. However, I don’t think it will happen very quickly. There’s enough competition and price sensitivity in buyers (from what I’ve seen and heard) for buyers to maintain a competitive advantage in the form of lower prices (talking only about the top agencies).

      Macroeconomic situation? People are saying different things, so it’s difficult to get a clear picture. Some say it means fewer stock photos purchased. Others say it means fewer assignments and more stock. Others still say it means less macrostock and more microstock, while others say less microstock and more Creative Commons. One thing is certain – it will ‘thin the herd’ of suppliers and agencies.

      Bring it on!!


      • Rahul Pathak
        Posted at 14:05h, 12 January Reply

        Great points on both topics. Nice summary of the macro situation. I do think ‘who the hell knows?’ is probably right 😉

        I’m excited about 2009. It’s going to be an eventful year in micro and it’s fun to be part of the industry during this phase of its evolution.

  • Deb James
    Posted at 14:07h, 12 January Reply

    I think you’re right on track. I can attest to your last point too. Several months ago I realized I was spending way too much time on forums rather than shooting or planning to shoot. Now I only go back to the forums when I have a very specific question I need answered. I’ve found several blogs that are very informative. So now I skim through blogs for worthy information and that’s it. I rarely look at the comments are make a comment. It’s just too much wasted time.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:09h, 12 January Reply

      ha ha, I rarely make comments either! 😉


  • Don Farrall
    Posted at 21:42h, 12 January Reply


    It’s Don Farrall, again, that traditional RF / RM guy. I would agree with most of your assessments. But I would add the following. When people talk about “quality” in microstock versus traditional RF, I think they are mostly talking about “visual quality” where similar images exist in both markets. They are comparing reasonably subjective qualities like styling, lighting, camera technique, and composition. I would agree that these two markets are moving rapidly closer together when it comes to image quality, and this is in some respects because of the “producer stock shooters” who are feeling forced to move to microctock, in spite of it’s less promising returns.

    There are poor quality images in both collections ( traditional and micro ), mostly the older images. Traditional RF went through a quality rise as well as it matured. What is different is content, and few people seem to understand or appreciate the difference. A traditionally priced RF image can be successful (profitable) even if it only appeals to a small audience. If it sells ten times at hundreds of dollars it earns its keep. Will a similar image sell more than ten times because it is so much less expensive? Maybe, that depends on how many potential buyers there are for the subject matter. Being cheep isn’t enough if only a few people want the image. Some editorial images sell as traditional RF, and yet there are not that many buyers for some of these images, I would suggest that they will sell as micro, but that the return will not be worth the production effort. This is just one example. Microstock works on the volume principal, we all know that, its obvious, but sometimes people seem to forget that, and shooting for volume sales does result in a different collection.

    Traditional stock producers would like very much to see microstock prices rise, and I think you are correct, in suggesting that they will, though I am not sure that subscription services have as much room to push prices up.

    The sad observation from a traditional producers perspective is that the introduction and growth of microstock has lead to an overall contraction in the total dollars being spent on photography, both assignment and traditional stock. In other words, for every dollar that the microstock market produces, even though it is an increase, more than a dollar is lost from traditional stock and or assignment photography. The total net is negative. I suppose this makes sense since microstock was the invention of designers who thought that photographers were charging too much in the first place. But I’m sure they had no idea how severely this endeavor would impact the entire industry. The designers and the buyers are the winners here, and of course the microstock agencies. While the traditional agencies and photographers, as an aggregate group, are the losers.

    The other sad observation is that as you point out, the hobbyists will be getting squeezed out, and replaced by the Yuri’s, joined by the big FR producers from the traditional side. These traditional producers are only migrating to micro because micro took the (sales) profit out of the traditional market. Soon enough these professional producers will earn the bulk of the profit from the micros, and they will be in control again, but they will be working harder for less. I can assure you that even if these people make the best of microstock, most of them will wish, (are wishing) that microstock had never been invented.

    I may seem like the enemy here, but I’m really not. In all honesty I think all photographers should be earning a lot more for their efforts. After being in this industry for almost thirty years I know how much work producing good work is, and I hate to see anyone being poorly compensated.

    Don Farrall


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 22:17h, 12 January Reply

      Hey Don,

      Welcome back. No need to remind me of who you are – I’m very familiar with you now. 🙂

      Thanks for your perspective on the traditional market, as always. I didn’t realize the poorer images in traditional stock were the older ones. And for sure the size of the market for an image is a key indicator of where that image is more likely to be profitable.

      The only point I can debate here is not even one of your actual points, but the use of the word ‘sad’. While I agree that the industry is collectively earning less than it was, I don’t see that as “lost” revenue or a “sad” situation. Sure, a particular group of people who I’ve heard referred to as the-middle-aged-white-guys-from-the-US have “lost” a lot of revenue, which is surely “sad” for them, but as I pointed out in my Microstock Around the World, microstock has redistributed wealth. Additionally, as you say the designers won, but the success of microstock proves stock photographers were over-charging. The new competitive advantage in stock photography is cheap production, for which the-middle-aged-white-guys-from-the-US with big studios don’t have the best advantage. At least not for many types of photos.

      Collectively, the stock photo industry is now more efficient, don’t you think?

      Also, you don’t come across as the enemy at all. In my opinion you’re the most effective representative of the traditional stockers’ opinions thanks to your calm and respectful manner. Emotions seem to get the better of many of your contemporaries, subsequently creating a negative image (no punn intended), at least in some circles. Though I think that’s changing quickly too – there’s (as I said in the post) a growing ‘understanding’.


      • Don Farrall
        Posted at 01:45h, 13 January Reply


        A little follow up… Not that it matters, but I am one of those “middle-aged-white-guys-from-the-US”, but I suppose you had figured that out by now. I suppose it is fair to say that it is only sad for those of us in that group, however now some of those “middle-aged-white-guys-from-the-US” are going to be the big producers who are, or soon will be, taking over a big portion of microstock sales, and for them it is sad to work so hard for so little. I am not a big producer, but I have friends, all of whom I am sure you know, who are now putting a lot of effort behind microstock, and for them microstock only offers a fraction of the potential that traditional RF once held, and that is sad to me.

        I will take exception with one of your statements… “but the success of microstock proves stock photographers were over-charging.” Traditional RF stock was arguably over charging for simple items on white, but there are a lot of photos available on microstock sites that should yield the photographer hundreds of dollars, if not thousands, for the effort involved. These kinds of images were ( and still are ) fairly sold at traditional prices, they were used for commercial clients who were able to get them cheaper than having the photos produced by a photographer on assignment, and their cost, in the overall advertising spend, was a very, very minor percentage.

        I will agree that RM photo pricing for some images was totally out of line. RM only takes usage into consideration for pricing, not production value, so for a given use, a simple photo of an object on white, could cost tens of thousands, and this is ridiculous. It is a stretch to suggest that a photo is only worth $1-$12 to a commercial user, just because they can be purchased for that amount. But I suppose saying that if people are willing to sell it for that amount does suggest that selling them for more is overcharging.

        As you suggest, maybe the two are working toward a middle ground. In any event, I do believe that you are correct in believing that the hobbyists are going to get squeezed out. Not sure how I feel about that, having been on the pro side for so long, but as we all know nothing stays the same.

        I also truly believe that the RPI in microstock is going to go down as the content gets better and the sales get split up between more key players. Increased pricing will help, but there will be a sweet spot where higher prices start to reduce volume. I think we may see this hit in 2009.

        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 14:43h, 13 January Reply


          Regarding the overcharging statement, I agree with your perspective. The economist prices a product based on what customers will pay, while the accountant prices the product based on covering costs and the desired profit. Stock photography was priced by the economist method, which left room for inefficient production (big studios in the US). Now that more efficient producers (hobbyists shooting friends in bartered locations in India or Eastern Europe) they can cover costs and (maybe) profit and compete on price.

          So while I agree with you that the prices weren’t overcharged at the time in that market, they are overcharged in the current context of an open and global market.

          I think the most interesting part of this debate is that the rules of normal markets don’t always apply in a totally open and crowdsourced markets. It’s said the value of a product is what the market is willing to pay, but how does that apply when you have near-infinite supply and the massive geoarbitrage opportunities provided by microstock? Photographers are competing for sales and with so many photographers able to produce images so much more cheaply than in the past, the price has little to no support.

          I also agree that the RPI in microstock is falling and will continue to fall. Again, supply is increasing faster than demand. At some microstock agencies prices of certain images or portfolios rise in line with their sales performance. Microstockers experience very little drop in sales after the prices rise and see total revenue increase. This is the case even when the price rises are significant compared to the rest of the collection. Based on that, I’m not sure we’ll find that ceiling price point in 2009. There’s still a lot of maturing to happen yet, in my view.


      • Julia Dudnik Stern
        Posted at 10:52h, 13 January Reply

        Lee–this may be a small point, but describing previous stock pricing as “overcharging” is technically incorrect. Economically speaking, a product’s “correct” price equals what the market will bear. Prior to advances in technology (mainly cameras and e-commerce), buyers were willing to pay higher prices, because there were no viable alternatives. Now there are–but this is a change in market conditions, not “the end of overpriced stock.” Julia

        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 14:51h, 13 January Reply

          Hi Julia, it’s been a while… 🙂

          Of course you’re totally correct, as always. I applied the statement to the previous market conditions, which as I mentioned in my above reply to Don’s comment, was totally appropriate to the closed and tightly controlled market of the time. Those prices are only overcharging now that the market is open with real competition.


    • Rahul Pathak
      Posted at 22:18h, 12 January Reply

      Hi Don,

      Always enjoy reading your comments. One question for you. When RF arrived, did the industry go through something similar to what is happening now with microstock? I’ve heard from several people that there were similar elements in that transition but I’d be curious to hear your perspective.

      Please forgive me if my question is a stupid one.



      • Don Farrall
        Posted at 02:24h, 13 January Reply

        Not a stupid question at all.

        A little background, the dates are close, but possibly not exact.

        When traditional RF first came along it was actually in a form close to microstock. Photo CD collections. The main players were Photodisc and Digital Vision. ( Both were later bought by Getty ). A single disc usually contained 50-100 images and the discs were initially $100-$300. It was kind of like subscription in that no one was expected to need, or use all of the photos, but for one price the buyer received a collection of images, and they were free to use without further payment. The initial discs contained “clip-art style” photography, backgrounds, and objects on white, but soon included lifestyle and business subjects as well.

        At the time the Internet was a new thing, about 1995 or so, and Photodisc built a website with a searchable database of images. They were the first to introduce the sale of stock images on the Internet, at least in a big way. Photodisc was recognized ( in 1996 I think ) as one of the first companies to figure out how to make money with the Internet. I kid you not. With in a few years, sales from Photodisc of individual images over the Internet outpaced sales of images on discs. In 1998 Getty bought Photodisc for $25,000,000. They bought them to harness their ability to sell images on-line, and had the technology adapted to their RM collections, Tony Stone, Image Bank, FPG, etc. Getty raised the prices for discs to discourage their sale and they slowly increased the prices for on line sales.

        By 2000, RF was producing an equivalent RPI with RM, and in later years it produced higher average RPI for most contributing photographers, than RM. However, the two did (do) coexist. Individual photographer’s RPI do vary a lot based on the type of work, but in the strong years 2003 – 2006 lifestyle RPI was generally considered to be around $250, with a good steady three years and then some fall off for the next several.

        You asked if there were similar reactions to RF when it came along, invading an all RM marketplace. Yes there were some similarities. RM photographers shunned RF photographers, and because of the disc sales aspect, RF photographers were accused of selling images for a few dollars each. Which was sort of true, but not really. When RF sales appeared on the web for $79 – $300, each, the price wasn’t quite such a threat to RM, but there was still the argument that RF was giving images away.

        However, here is the main difference between RF versus RM, and micro versus traditional RF and RM. Follow this carefully. When RF was introduced it offered the promise of bringing in new buyers, buyers who couldn’t buy RM stock, because it was just too expensive. Sound familiar? Microstock uses the same logic. And it is true for both. The real difference is that when RF brought in new buyers it added to the overall pool of dollars spent on stock photography. Yes some RM dollars were lost, but they were more than made up for by explosive growth of RF. Eventually many RM shooters added RF, or switched altogether to RF because they could make more money. This is not the case with microstock. The introduction of microstock has produced an overall contraction in the amount spent on stock photography. If microstock offered an equal or better opportunity for traditional stock shooters more would be moving in that direction. Because it doesn’t, only those who are willing to operate under the “big producer model” are going to be able to make it work. It was ( possibly still is, for some of us ) possible to make a living in traditional stock without making photography a production line event. Microstock is not the answer for all traditional shooters who are feeling the pressure, and I fall in that camp.

        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 15:09h, 13 January Reply

          Wow, thanks for the historical perspective Don. So many of us came into the market through microstock and only learn about past events in the industry through comments like this. It all helps the collective ‘understanding’ of others’ perspective, and it’s much appreciated.


        • Rahul Pathak
          Posted at 15:40h, 13 January Reply


          Thank you for your detailed, thoughtful response. It’s extremely helpful to have such great context.

          If micro were taken out of the equation, I wonder if the market for RF would be shrinking to some extent anyway given the dramatic declines in print advertising as a whole. I’m also interested to see whether rising familiarity with micro leads to efficiency gains which improve the return on effort.

          I completely understand your point about how microstock is not going to work for everyone, but I’m very bullish about the future of the segment. I do realize that since I don’t know what things were like, my view is skewed.

          Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.


          PS: Lee – congrats on yet another thought and discourse-provoking post.

        • Don Farrall
          Posted at 15:54h, 13 January Reply


          You asked “f micro were taken out of the equation, I wonder if the market for RF would be shrinking to some extent anyway given the dramatic declines in print advertising as a whole.”

          It would be on a bit a of a decline, but no where near what most traditional producers are now experiencing. ( in my estimation, because of microstock ) After 911 the market dropped a good 20%, and it took a couple of years for it to build back up to where it was. So I think it if fair to put some of the blame for revenue decline on other factors. I suspect that the current economic woes and the move to print are responsible for a good bit of what we are currently seeing.


  • Pablo
    Posted at 00:23h, 13 January Reply

    I think you nailed it pretty accurately Lee.

    Of the things you mentioned I think the biggest shift in 2009 will be pricing. Yes, some micro pricing will go up (like the newer premium collections) and some traditional pricing will come down (like more limited use models). The convergence of pricing between photographers (how much must I sell this image at to make it worth my time and cost) vs buyers (at what price am I willing to buy this image) will start to settle. I feel the old “high-end-image-for-$1” slogan will start to disappear in 2009 and be replaced with images being moved into bargain/regular/premium pricing. Contributors are finding images from shoots with models/props/etc are low/no profit. Those will need to be priced higher otherwise contributors will stop producing images that have high production costs and/or are unprofitable. Or they will send high cost images to other outlets like traditionals.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:18h, 13 January Reply

      Pablo, the issue with that is the traditional outlets are still closed. Photographers with contracts at traditional agencies and who produce images with high production values have limited options for getting them into higher-priced markets. There’s Alamy and a few other limited open opportunities, but for the vast majority of photographers it’s not just a matter of sending the images off to Getty or Corbis.

      So with limited traditional opportunity, where would you expect photographers put their high production value images? Microstock may be low overall return, but it’s almost a guaranteed return. A good photo in the microstock market will definately sell – the only question is how many times. The same image in Alamy and the others may sell once and pay for itself, or it may never sell and be a dead loss. I know some contributors see microstock as low risk in this context. It makes it easy to understand why so many high production value images end up in microstock portfolios.

      What do you think?


      • Pablo
        Posted at 15:32h, 14 January Reply

        I think the barriers to getting into traditional outlets are very slowly starting to selectively open up to the right people.

        Getty is already doing this by recruiting people through Flickr and Istockphoto. I think certain traditionals are finding that they no longer have total control over image supply and it’s better to recruit good competition away from micros than allow them to increase saturation of high value images at low cost.

        So if you’re a contributor who (I’m assuming) can make more money per image creating images for Getty, where would you spend your time? Probably with both micros and traditionals but just sending the appropriate images to either place.

        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 16:03h, 14 January Reply

          There are indeed some traditional market opportunities, but it’s still agencies choosing photographers, not the other way around, and it’s still a selection of the photographer not the photo. Unless a photographer is lucky enough to get noticed and hand-picked, there’s still no open door to the big agencies.

          Your statement about control is key. A relative few companies controlled the market when it was closed, but not that control is being taken away. They’ve bought some back through acquiring successful microstock agencies, but as Steve Pigeon says, the days of agency funded boat cruises are over.

          So I think while the doors at top traditional agencies remain closed, they’ll continue to see high value images appear in the microstock market. And don’t forget that high value for someone in the US or the UK isn’t necessarily so high ‘cost’ for people in other parts of the world.


        • Saxon Holt
          Posted at 20:53h, 14 January Reply

          Thought I might chime in as an uber traditional “middle-aged-white-guys-from-the-US” type who may be closer to AARP than middle age .

          Like Don, I remember a world before there was any serious stock photo market and every pro sneered at the concept of stock. Making money from leftovers that no client ever wanted or was not commissioned through an assignment, was not even an option. Pros did spec shoots for their portfolio and occasionally sold the images to clients but more likely the portfolio would lead to a fresh assignment. Even the buyers did not like to use anything that they did not originate.

          During the best of times (until early 80s ?) and even at the very top level big budget jobs today, agencies actually preferred high priced photography as they got a mark-up on all creative fees. It was thus in their self interest to justify expensive photography to the corporate buyers. As costs, day rates, and competition exploded the old model had to end. There simply were not enough truly extraordinary photographers who could separate themselves from the competition to justify high prices across the board. Commercial RM stock was born – but still frowned upon for taking away assignment work.

          But stock photographers quietly began making good living. Good photographers began creating distinctive images, gasp (!), the level of quality rose, even better than the art directed ones at ad agencies. Sound familiar ? Today, some microstock is more creative than some traditional stock agencies. Creative photographers will create, despite industry economics. Musicians will make music despite money. Thank god art is not money dependant . . . but is unfortunate for artists making a living.

          I have strong opinions on the whole future of stock photography and voice them regularly as a Board member of Stock Artists Alliance. I have never joined any sort of agency and have watched with concern as entire concepts of Stock Photo Agency marketing schemes were swept up like a series of tidal waves and receeded leaving photographers floundering like fish in a minus tide.

          If I were smart and aggressive I could have (should have ?) participated in any one of those waves from early RM, to Clip Art and RF, and now (already too late) microstock. Fortunately my business is editorial and I have managed to stay busy with books and magazines. (Maybe too busy to have recognized the other opportunities…) Stock is less than 50% of my income, though for years I kept out the hope it would grow to where I could imagine a less busy life. And I still hope it will – through self marketing.

          My business model, as a completely non agency self marketer, is very odd in SAA and contrary to most stock photographers, be they big Getty shooters or beginning microstock wanna-be-pros. I absolutely do not promote the self marketing model, as I am struggling to keep up with changes and competition like every other business model, but simply want to chime in with alternatives.

          I have never visited Microstock Diaries before a fellow SAA member suggested this posting. It seems to me this is not about microstock but all mass market RF agency stock. As has been pointed out, there is actual money to be made in micro and it is drawing in “traditional” stock shooters. There may be a short term spike in higher rates for better work but ultimately the rates will stay quite low and insufficient for most to make any real money.

          For hobbyists, money is not so important and listening to comments that even micro agencies are harder to get into brings on the realization that the glut of good images will make all agencies (past and future) meaningless. There will continue to be flickr type communities that quickly spring up with some new technology and grab new photographers left out by “closed” communities. In the buyer marketplace those agency communities will be insignificant unless they are somehow marketed with smart editors. ?! Smart editors ? Isn’t that what we photographers should be? Shouldn’t we have our own self marketed sites with smartly edited photos different from what can be found at “generic” agencies ?

          As far as photography is concerned I think it is quite exciting that there are so many outlets to show and share images. New artists will figure ways to present new ideas and the new technologies present new art forms in and of themselves. All this will develop independent of selling the images. Some will capitalize on new ideas and make serious money. Many will wonder how they missed out.

          For the many who are not going to make much money in stock I suggest self marketing. Self marketing does make serious money for some (but only some) and is an investment in time that only goes to yourself not an agency. Get your own site with download capabilities for potential buyers and begin the long term work of building a client list.

          This really can only work if you have an editorial niche or truly quirky vision. The images must be truly your own and worth client’s loyalty but you will find clients actually enjoy knowing the photographer and vicariously participating in the creative process.

          I suppose it would be smart for photographers to continue to work toward getting into some sort of agency but, really, most won’t make much real agency money, even once accepted. There is only so much time in the day to do anything well, so better to simply work independently in my opinion. Be your own microstock agency.

        • Pablo
          Posted at 15:09h, 15 January Reply

          Saxon, thanks for sharing your experience and insight. I’ve just started down the road of self-marketing and will be constantly checking results to figure out the best approach to head with it.

  • StockRUs
    Posted at 13:23h, 13 January Reply

    It will be interesting to see how things will look like once the recession is over, in a few years time frame. The times are great for macros to make their move in limiting the micros effect by buying some of them (already happening) and control the market.

    With the pros moving into the area that will certainly mean an end to amateurs.

  • Jim Lopes
    Posted at 12:31h, 14 January Reply

    One thing microstock has done for me is turned me into serious photographer. Like some of the posts earlier the barrier to entry for traditional agencies is so great, microstock was the only way to begin selling my work.

    Without the outlet for selling my images I would not have seriously pursued photography, and just have kept it to taking photos of friends and family during vacation and holidays with my point and shoot. So, as a result I bought a better camera, memory cards, bags, lights, etc. So the photography industry must benefit from having new buyers of their products that they otherwise wouldn’t.

    • fotoVoyager
      Posted at 12:44h, 14 January Reply

      That’s my story too.

      Traditional agencies, their closed shop attitudes and the snobbery of old school photographers combined with popularisation of DSLRs has caused this revolution to happen.

      I was a desk bound graphic designer but now travel the world taking pictures of what I want because of microstock. The discipline and rigourous inspection procedures make you learn pretty fast and keep the quality high – higher than it was before in my opinion. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities it’s afforded me even if it doesn’t last a lifetime.

    • Rahul Pathak
      Posted at 13:47h, 14 January Reply

      I love hearing about stories like this. Congrats to both of you.


  • peepo
    Posted at 15:48h, 14 January Reply

    This is a VERY interesting post – it’s been great to read your original post Lee, and also everyone’s comments here, esp Don’s perspective. A couple of things spring to mind:

    + RPI – so for the traditional producers, Im guessing that the worry is that this will not cover overheads (eg big studio, assistants, stylists, etc etc) which would been easily covered in the part with RPI from RM. I see microstock as being more entrepreneurial, where the people coming up through the ranks may have the advantage of not starting with such overheads, but adding to them as earnings permit. I know Yuri has adopted a different approach, but Im suggesting that RPI for the new generation of photographers created in the heat of microstock will still be able to compete effectively when the RF army arrives 🙂

    + Most people agree that prices will rise and tiered collections look likely in 2009 (istockphoto have already announced this). What could be interested is when the stock agencies AUCTION images – this would be a very interesting development and could reveal the ‘true’ price for an image. I think it’s too early for this yet though.

    + I believe that investing in quality (of the image) will pay dividends and this may be the time to invest for the future…:-)

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:10h, 14 January Reply

      Hi Peepo,

      Your second point sounds similar to Cutcaster‘s model of dynamic pricing based on demand.


  • peepo
    Posted at 15:52h, 14 January Reply

    (apologies for the typos above)

    Forgot to add that I think that RPI also is influenced by photographers who have an easily copied style (eg white background) as they must be struggling as lots of imitators reproduced their most successful images.

    As competition increases, I predict that it’s the photographers that can produce desirable images with a unique style that will be the ultimately most successful.

    I’d be interested to hear your comments (Don) 🙂

    • Don Farrall
      Posted at 22:39h, 14 January Reply


      Not sure what you are looking for in the form of a comment to from me. By the way do you have a real name? This doesn’t seem like the kind of place where a secret identity is necessary.

      Don Farrall

  • Old School
    Posted at 04:32h, 15 January Reply

    Here are the facts!
    Microstock does not pay enough for a real photographer with a studio and or professional equipment to submit images with the intent of earning a living and running a successful business. The photographers that submit to micro now and get good enough will find that they need to move to better sources of income to develop their hobby into a business. As well the pros that try to make a living at micro will find that it doesn’t pay enough to survive. The only people making money with microstock are the agencies. The two best examples of this are Yuri Arcurs and Ron Chapple. Yuri, the king of micro is now shooting RF for one of the top RF distributors in the world. He doesn’t say much about this on his blog, but the facts are there. Just search for his last name on Getty. Why is he shooting RF? Well let’s put it this way. He shoots with the best equipment available he is renovating a new huge daylight studio in Denmark, and he has several full and part-time employees. He has to progress into a business model that will allow him to continue growing his business ideas. Not to mention that he is a seriously talented photographer and businessman. Ron Chapple a long time RF shooter and founder of Thinkstock has been running his own Micro agency(Iofoto) for the past two years and in a recent article said this “Overall, I am no longer bullish on the opportunity for individual photographers within the microstock licensing sector. The distributors will make money, but with the ever increasing supply, statistics do not favor the contributor.” After two years of Micro he is just now predicting that he may be able to break even on his investments.
    I’m sorry if some of you microstock photographers are pissed off at us photographers that have the talent and business sense to make a successful living at photography, but that’s just the way it is. If you want to be a serious photographer you need to step up to the plate and prove yourself. It takes a hell of a lot more than just a few pretty pictures to make you a pro photographer. Now I don’t usually participate in these forums because I honestly don’t have the time to sit around chatting about this crap. But I was searching around for some info on Micro and saw this little discussion and thought I’d drop a line to back-up Don and Saxon. I’m not planning on sticking around to read half witted comebacks from some pissed off amateur that spends half their day blogging and chatting about the evils of RF and RM, I’ve got better things to do. But I will let you know this. The stock as well as photo industry needs a good washing-out. And when it’s over, the good photographers will still be here to produce quality work. And agencies don’t choose photographers. Photographers find the best partners to distribute their work. If you are good enough no door is closed.

    Oh! One more thing. Micro is the redistribution of wealth? Come on!
    Even Obama ain’t that stupid!

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 10:38h, 15 January Reply

      Hi anonymous poster, thanks for your comment.

      I have no problem with most of your points. You seem to be saying things we’ve already acknowledged. But, it’s always helpful to have another insight into how others view the world.


  • Perrush
    Posted at 02:51h, 16 January Reply

    Let me add my 2 cts to this discussion.

    Both Don and the anonymous poster said that only the agencies win and that the (pro) photographers lose. I strongly disagree with this. Yes, agencies are the winner and pros are the losers. But who wins also are the thousands of amateurs who found a place to sell their photographs and buy some new gear. Some of them produce better images then the pro’s.

    Those amateurs don’t need to become a pro, they have a regular dayjob and shoot when they like. They shoot because the love to do it and not because it’s their job. They don’t have overhead costs because it’s their hobby and they shoot friends instead of models.

    just my 2 cts as an amateur

  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 10:48h, 16 January Reply

    Well, Perrush, but with the requirements on artistic value of images, overall technicall quality and gear necessary to produce high quality shots rocketing your costs up I dont see great future for real “amateurs”. DSLR + at least abit advanced knowledge of postprocess are a must and so the days of real amateurs entering micro-stock are over. You are definitely not fully amateur but have some knowledge and workflow of pros. If you mean amateur whos advanced user of his/her own DSLR and already using sophisticated postprocess and workflow and whos using microstock as a generator of some extra income from his/her hobby – then yes, these folks are sometimes even better photographers then full-time pros. If you mean beginners owning entry-level DSLR + cheapest plastic lens or even P&S and with vague knowledge of image editing – those are out.

    Then pros require much more money to cover the costs because they spent hundreds to thousands hours just with mastering their gear, editing tools and workflow, which is not generating any revenue. Then they need to cover the gear costs – even if its average DSLR + 2-3 good lenses and some accesories, we are talking $2000-$5000 while the top-pro gear is several times more. Then add the costs of producing each image – time spent with editing, keywording, uploading and you also pay the models, travel costs, studio etc. And now count how many hundreds to thousand times you need to sell EACH image for $.25 to cover your costs. There are ppl reaching such sales but I bet most of folks in micro are not.

    I more or less agree with Lees props, tho Im sceptical about predicting RM-RF-Micro future. There are many “hidden” facts and also many other factors like global financial crisis affecting whole market and microstock is “too young” to take “several-years-ahead” predictions seriously. Let say its like global warming – we have exact data for most of the world (better say continental world) from couple last decades with some exceptional places (very few) covered up to 150 years ago. Then we have some indirect traces of previous climate with many various theories why it was like that. And now we have some scientists predicting or modelling global climate change hundred or even more years ahead – is that trustfull? I bet not!

    Btw. did you thought about equation of this kind?: Less revenue or even higher production costs then revenue + high quality requirements => more photographers going out of stock photography into other kinds of business => overall decrease in image production => more chances for photographers to “push” the agencies => prices getting up? I dont want you to think about that like about the “prediction” but like about one of the many factors affecting prices.

    • Perrush
      Posted at 10:59h, 16 January Reply


      with ‘amateur’ I mean anyone who doesn’t make their living out of photography. And of course, between those ‘amateurs’ there is a wide range of skills.

      just a little clarification


  • Tim
    Posted at 12:18h, 16 January Reply

    As a new entrant to the gig (started Nov 08) I can’t help feeling I’ve missed the boat when it come to microstock and and seriously wondering whether it is worth persevering. Other than for the fact it does helps improve my photography there is little other benefit the financial reward is hardly worth mentioning.

    I feel rather jealous of seeing how the work of some of the microstock superstars has evolved as the market as evolved and seeing how they were able to generate a good return on their early photos that would probably not be accepted into any stock sites considering the current standards which we are expected to meet.

  • parrypix
    Posted at 15:34h, 16 January Reply

    Well, Lee, for at least the second time since I’ve started reading your Microstock Diaries, I’ve got to say your ENTRY, along with the incredible COMMENTS – should be basic reading for those who are considering selling stock photography, or want to put their stock experiences into context, historically and currently.

    I’ve found that contributing to stock (in my small way), and communicating with other stock photographers, has been a great, and largely enjoyable, learning experience, and, partly as an extension of it, I’ve been motivated to get involved in different types of photographic opportunities.

    Also, the likelihood that more stock agencies will begin to merge, or more relevantly, shut down is one of the reasons I and many others already in stock for a while are less likely to contribute to a new agency now. And it’s so much clearer that there are, at best, just about a half-dozen microstock agencies worth taking the time to contribute to.

    thank you, Lee and those who posted comments – Ann

    • Saxon Holt
      Posted at 18:57h, 16 January Reply

      Hope it is OK here to follow my comment and to put in a plug for Stock Artist Alliance http://www.stockartistsalliance.org/ where I am a Board Member. If Lee’s postings are “basic reading for those who are considering selling stock”, then SAA should be considered basic membership for those that ARE.
      Saxon Holt

      • Rahul Pathak
        Posted at 18:58h, 16 January Reply

        Thanks for the pointer Saxon.


      • Lee Torrens
        Posted at 19:12h, 16 January Reply

        Thanks Saxon, I’ve talked about SAA previously and am hoping to have a fresh dialogue open up shortly. Stay tuned!


  • Claudio
    Posted at 19:16h, 18 January Reply

    I agree on all of your statements except this one: “Microstock Community will Lose Focus”

    From what I see on some forums – e.g. SS – there are many professional photographers among the most active forum posters, and they are usually very kind and helpful

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 20:05h, 18 January Reply

      Claudio, I’m not saying that photographers will stop helping each other. I expect they will. I’m saying that agencies will focus less on branding themselves as a community and focus less on building community-focused functionality.


      • Claudio
        Posted at 18:08h, 19 January Reply

        Hi Lee, ok I agree in that sense. E.g., some agencies are already ignoring (at best) what contributors ask on their forum.

  • Chris Nuzzaco
    Posted at 02:54h, 22 January Reply

    I have one comment about the “market saturation”. I agree it is happening, but what I disagree about is the assumption that its the whole industry getting saturated. I think it makes more sense to dive into the details about what exactly is being saturated. I’ve been studying the micro stock market for almost 7 months now (and slowly getting into it) and one thing I’ve noticed is that at some agencies, a rather large fraction of the entire agency collection represent only one major, popular subject. A good case is Shutterstock. Some 474,000 shots show up for “business” out of the collections current 5.6 million! Thats about 8% of the entire collection. It’s also the subject mater that earned people like Yuri a lot of money for the last few years. This can’t be denied, look at the images in the big micro suppliers ports during the last few years. They heavily leaned towards business, Yuri’s Shutterstock port, around 14,300, now has almost 6,000 business shots in it,

    A few years back, business was ranked at about 4th on Shutterstocks 100 most popular keyword list. Currently its 11th. In other words, the images so many have been creating that used to make them good money seem to have been business and now that category is not only bloated supply wise, its becoming less and less popular.

    No wonder people are seeing diminishing returns!

    I think the bigger issue was they became tunnel visioned on one or two subjects and forgot to keep a look out on the “next big thing”. This can apply to the overall stock photo market.

    I don’t doubt that the whole industry is becoming more saturated overall, but I think the whole “falling RPI” thing is a bit narrow minded. I say this because there is solid proof, in the form of agency profits, that micro as a stock photo industry segment, is on a growth path, so there must be opportunity out there, but its no longer in microstock business images. If you shoot business pictures, yes, its profitability now sucks due to saturation and falling popularity. The thing to keep in mind is that certain subjects fall out of favor and are replaced by others, so now that business is falling, what is replacing it? Thats the big question for a lot of people.

    From my point of view, as a startup in the current situation, I can only see growth, but in a way I have the good fortune of entering a market that forces me to be efficient with my production. It only sucks when you are coming from the opposite direction, and I can understand the pain.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 22:56h, 22 January Reply

      Hi Chris, thanks for the great comment!

      You make some interesting observations about the popularity of keywords over time. It’s certainly a logical explanation for why ‘some’ people are experiencing diminishing returns.

      And I like your tact. Nicely put!


      • Chris Nuzzaco
        Posted at 03:17h, 23 January Reply

        Thanks Lee!

        I’m nerd when I really get into something I like. One more observation I’ve made with business in general is that when things aren’t going right, a lot of people tend to look outwards first (as in blaming the economy for example) and only ever look in the mirror when the business finally fails.


  • john lund
    Posted at 16:21h, 31 January Reply


    Great posts and great comments! After 30 years of shooting stock I wish I could contribute more. The one thing that I have figured out from having images in RM and RF (I am relatively new to RF) is that the image seems more important than the business model…that is I have images that earn equally well in both categories. A big question for me is whether that would also hold true with Micro…it may be, but I just can’t bring myself to contribute to Micro. If I had to picture a likely scenario for the future I would agree with the idea that RF and Micro will move closer together, perhaps even merge. Big producers will dominate those categories, and those of us who don’t want to be “Big Producers” can take our time, make outstanding images, find the holes that still need to be filled, and perhaps help contribute to the success of those images by getting them in front of as many potential buyers as possible. I have decided to try and do that through my website.

    Anyway, great forum and posts…thanks to all!

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