Amateur Buyers Purchase Poor Stock Images from Semi-Pro Photographers

Photography: Yuri Arcurs/iStockPhoto

Amateurs have invaded the photography world. They have limited skills, little talent and wouldn’t know a great photo if it were pasted on a billboard next to a headline saying “Great photo!” They’re responsible for bringing down the price of photography for everyone and it’s their fault that the same dull images of grinning models and headset-wearing women appear on page after page and ad after ad. And that’s just the buyers.

There are no figures that indicate the percentage of stock photography bought by part-time business builders rather than professional image editors but the corollary of the decline of editorial photography has been the rise of online image use. It’s that demand that underlies the rise of microstock: low-cost images for businesses, particularly websites, with little income, no budget and often one person who does everything from planning the website to answering the phones, including buying the pictures. Professional photographers might complain about the growth of enthusiasts with folders full of cheap images of variable quality but the same complaint applies to the people who buy those images. Stock buyers are now as likely to be part-time enthusiasts rather than full-time professionals as the contributors themselves.

The effects of part-time buyers buying from part-time sellers though are clear too. When a microstock image sells several thousand times, it becomes both ubiquitous and copied. When producing images is always a gamble, being able to see that an image is popular provides useful insight into the thinking of customers and the kinds of images they consider worth purchasing. Stock sites’ own willingness to reveal the number of downloads an image has generated — an important consideration for those buyers who don’t want overused photos — helps contributors to understand market preferences. When sites reveal trends, they’re going out of their way to push contributors towards producing images that are commercial but not original.

Some Customers Do Care

Sometimes though buyers will push back. Corey O’Laughlin, a content marketing specialist at MarketingProfs, a membership site that teaches marketing techniques to small business owners — exactly the type who are most likely to buy microstock images — recently offered her readers a warning list of the top twelve overused stock images. The list included a generic handshake, happy, leaping business people, a United Nations of multicultural office workers, and, of course, an attractive young woman wearing a headset and thrilled to take your call. As one commenter wrote in response:

 “Any editor that would even think of using these has displayed a total lack of imagination.”

But if that commenter is right there do seem to be lots of editors with a total lack of imagination. The image of the customer service rep in O’Laughlin’s list is a Yuri Arcurs photo called “Cute business customer service woman smiling,” a title guaranteed to hit the right buttons in stock site search engine results. If it’s clichéd, it’s because — according to iStockPhoto alone — it’s been downloaded more than 4,300 times in the sixteen months since it was uploaded.

Don’t Blame the Photographers

Photographers then can hardly be blamed for offering the same dull images again and again. If an accusation of producing a clichéd image comes with a four- or five-figure check, there are few photographers who would turn it down — especially not a professional photographer. As long as buyers keep buying clichéd images, photographers who care about the bottom line will keep producing them.

And the buyers will keep buying them in part as long as they lack the budget to buy something better. Writing on BloggerTone, a business blog, Web developer Beatrice Whelan, described what happened when she chose some stock food images for a restaurant with a specialist menu. The client, she said, was appalled at her choice of generic images that failed to reflect the uniqueness of her food.

“This restaurant hand-made their pasta from scratch every day and apparently people who know their pasta can tell the difference from fresh and processed pasta in a photo,” Whelan said. “There were similar problems with other photos I had chosen of pizzas and even the salads….The stock photos were not genuine and since the restaurant was genuine about the food that they served, these stock photos could not be used on the site.”

But the restaurant had a small marketing budget that didn’t stretch to commissioning a photographer, the best solution for a company with a unique product. Whelan’s own recommendation that buyers should use images of themselves and their own employees instead of turning to generic images of models is fine for companies with employees and an income that can pay for a photographer, but it’s not an option for many tiny businesses.

It might not be fair to blame a buyer for not being wealthy enough to commission a photographer, but perhaps it’s still possible to blame them for not being discerning enough when they make their purchases. Although the popularity of some stock images will prompt copycats to produce alternative versions, the sheer number of images available means that there should be plenty of options for buyers looking for something original.

Those kinds of images though aren’t easy to find. Microstock sites tweak their search engine results to show not just images that that contain the right keywords in their titles and tag lists but to show first those images that are new and selling. The more popular — and clichéd — an image becomes, the more likely it is to be offered and to become even more popular. Stock sites allow users to sort results by filters that include Downloads, Best Match, File Age, and Contributor. They don’t offer filters for originality or creativity.

Perhaps blame for clichéd stock images need to be shared equally then. Stock sites play their role by promoting popular images rather than creative ones. Photographers play a part by (understandably) chasing buyers’ tastes rather than original imagery. And buyers lack the time, the taste and the resources to choose images that are different and unique as well as well-made. That’s not just true of amateur buyers though. Corey O’Laughlin’s list included two images of someone writing on a clear board. Her own professional company used one of those images on a Web page.

11 comments for this post.

  1. Todd Klassy Said:

    Amateur photographers SELLING their photographs on stock photography sites are not what ails the photo industry. You might find their photography dull and uninspiring, but obviously there are buyers out there who do not. And you certainly can ridicule the buyers' choice of images, you can't blame the photographer (amateur or otherwise) for producing images the buyers want. The ones you want to blame are the amateur photographers who do occasionally make an exceptional image (even a blind squirrel can find an acorn) and then give it/them away for free or next to nothing. We have a fiduciary responsibility at photographers to educate amateurs about not doing this and how to price their photographs and negotiate with media buyers. Lamenting the fact that amateur photographers are competing against us in the world of stock imagery won't solve anything IMHO.

  2. Jim Said:

    The market has become so saturated with wanna-be photographers that I don't even bother trying to sell work anymore. I gave it up and went to teaching Photoshop at the local school. There are certainly some great young photo journalists out there, but they are hard to find.

  3. Carl May Said:

    For stock photography in general, this story is over ten years old. The industry has gone from photo professionals to pixel pushers. This goes for both makers of images and users of images. Only in the more demanding niche stock markets will you find professionals still doing their

  4. Steve Heap Said:

    I think amateur photographers are caught in a bind. I've been doing microstock for almost 4 years (I even wrote a book about how to get started in stock...), and although the return per image is low, the volumes are starting to make a difference. I decided not to go for the nice shiny young people type of shots, focusing more on nature, landscapes and travel images. The point that Todd made about teaching amateurs the value of the diamond they occasionally produce is the one I wanted to consider - the options to an amateur are not that great - the big traditional stock sites are hard to join, and so if you do have a great shot, and assuming you know that it is a great artistic shot, where else can you place it. I could put my "best" shots on Alamy, but the sales are so few and far between, that it seems better to get a lot of small fees than wait for the one big sale that may never occur.


  5. John Lund Said:

    Great article!

    I am still finding success with traditional agencies by making images that fall outside the parameters of what makes a good selling microstock image. There is still life left in the traditional agencies...just a tad harder tap into!

    John Lund
    The Stock Photo Guy

  6. Pindaro Said:

    Let the image do the talking. Not some title.

    If an "amateur" is taking food out of your plate, you either turn arround, change the food or change the plate. Microstock is for volume, volume is not quality....and even quality is subjective.

    Stock has evolved and photogs need to evolve with it. For me thats the beauty of it. Keep your work fresh, do your keywording and if you images are what consumers want ...they'll buy it.

    I got out f microstock about 2 years ago. I make 50x more $ with 140 RF and RM images at Getty than 250 on istock and one of them has been downloaded more than 400 times.

  7. Callum Maberley Said:

    The tone and sentiment in this article smacks of bitterness.

    Selling stock imagery is about producing photos that will make money - functional imagery. If that means I have to produce something that I wouldn't hang on the wall, so be it. Guys like Yuri are very good at creating images that make money - how can you sit on a perch and say the buyers who buy his images are 'amateurs' ?

    There are more people buying images than ever before. It's time to realise that a buyer is a buyer. For lots of top end, truly forward thinking photographers, they use microstock to sell a certain type of imagery which works as an
    additional form of income for them. It may begeneric but it makes money. They do this alongside selling and producing more 'high end' work elsewhere - it's a smart move.

  8. Mikeq Said:

    You are correct to say that those with small budgets can't afford to "commission" a photographer. By doing so they are paying the total cost of the photographers business for the duration of the contract. They are obtaining copyright by commissioning and they would be charged extra for this.

    They can ask to have images created and license the rights to them in which case the photographer could offset the lower fee by licensing. Once you are commissioned, you do not keep ownership of images. At least as far as Canadian copyright and international copyright treaties are concerned.

  9. Andrew Jorgensen Said:

    while i agree with the general concept of this post, i think you could have used some better examples. talking about "semi-pro" photographers and using Yari as an example just doesn't work. take a look at his studio.. if this is "semi-pro" setup i would love to see what you consider "pro"..

  10. Kerry James Said:

    This seems to be a hot button issue these days, though I'm not to interested in taking one side over the other. I find the most interesting point is, the sheer number of how to YouTube videos, photography blogs, and books written by professional photographers, may play a part, in this unintended consequence. IMHO

  11. Brian Said:

    This viewpoint drips with self important arrogance. Have you considered that "amateur" buyers more closely represent the consumers who will be buying a product based on the photo in the ad rather than a buyer educated on what elements make a "quality" photo?

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