Microstock might have hit the stock world like a kick to the shins, but it carries one big advantage and one giant disadvantage. The advantage is that anyone can now earn from their photography. Photographers no longer need to be professional full-timers to license their photos and they’re free to upload as many or as few images each month as they wish. The disadvantage is that the pay is terrible. With sales starting at a dollar a download, photographers can receive just cents for an image that may appear on a website with millions of readers — and then be used by the same buyer on ads, marketing material and anything else for no extra payment.
Traditional stock companies, on the other hand, might return hundreds of dollars — and often, thousands – in royalties for image use. Even if you’re uploading and selling enough licenses to bring in a useful additional income, as some microstock photographers are doing, that’s still a high price to pay for open access.
Open Access is not the Same as Free Access
fotoLibra, however, attempts to provide all of the advantages of microstock with none of the disadvantages. The company, which describes itself as a “picture library,” allows anyone to upload images, has no submission panel and does not demand a large portfolio. In the three years since it launched, fotoLibra’s collection has grown to a quarter of a million images of which only four have been rejected for being inappropriate (although 750 are turned down each day for failing to meet the company’s technical requirements).
“We accept all images because our taste cannot be the same as the buyers’,” Gwyn Headley, the company’s founder and managing director told us. “Recently I saw one image on the site which I felt must have been uploaded as a mistake because I personally thought it was so bad. I pointed it out to a colleague, who told me it had just been sold to a theatre company for £450. Let the photographers choose what they feel will sell.”
Open access isn’t the same as free access though. fotoLibra charges photographers to store their images with the company and make them available for sale. For £18 (about $33 USD) per quarter, photographers receive 5 GB of storage space; £45 (about $84 USD) per quarter increases that to 100 GB and boosts the royalty rate from 50 percent to 60 percent. A free membership also allows photographers to upload twelve pictures once to try the site out. According to the site’s blurb, at least one free member has uploaded one image and sold it five days later, receiving a royalty of more than £1,000.
If a business model that allows anyone to join, demands payment from photographers but markets images on both a royalty-free and rights-managed basis for traditional rates sounds unusual, it does at least reflect the company’s origins. Gwyn, a book publishing consultant, had run a specialist picture library for about twelve years, offering images of architectural follies shot mostly by himself and about two dozen other part-time photographers. His work in publishing had also brought him into contact with many of the leading players in the picture library world, so he knew the value of images, he says. When a burst water tank wiped out 120 years of family photographs, he developed a plan to allow photographers to store their images on servers and added his photo sales knowledge to allow them to sell their pictures too. Even the monthly subscription price was based on the cost of a roll of Fujia Velvia film in Gwyn’s local camera shop.
Today, the site has more than 19,000 members of whom 71 percent are based in the UK – fotoLibra works out of a national park in Wales – and the remainder from some 151 different countries. About a third of the British photographers are professionals, mostly working in the high street and wedding photography business, but contributors also include Linda Wright, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Although photographers can choose whether to offer their images on a rights-managed or royalty-free basis, about 80 percent of the images are rights-managed.
Wanted: Images of Knights Jousting
The images are marketed hard. While many stock companies rely solely on online advertising to bring in buyers, fotoLibra is a regular at book fairs, where it’s able to pitch directly to publishers face-to-face. Members also receive a newsletter that includes picture calls for specific subjects. Topics have ranged from “knights jousting” and “Nigerian schoolrooms” to “American people interacting with each other” and “San Francisco.” In general though, the demands tend to be very specific.
“The point of the fotoLibra Picture Call is that we ask for clearly defined situations and locations,” explains Gwyn. “[A] generic shot of the Chicago skyline is great, but every picture library has millions of those. fotoLibra needs and gets specific places like ‘Animal Kingdom pet store, 2980 North Milwaukee Avenue.’”
Because of the level of specificity, the results of the picture calls tends to vary according to the topic. A call for “colorful greetings cards,” for example, has brought in 529 images of which most are suitable; “Nigerian schoolrooms” produced about a dozen submissions. The calls have never drawn a complete blank. Occasionally, a client will also ask fotoLibra to find a photographer for a commission. That’s not a service the company pushes but it has happened four times this year.
Unlike Gwyn’s original photo library, fotoLibra does not specialize. Asked what sort of images the company needs most, Gwyn replied with a blanket “everything” but then referred specifically to images of people.
“My personal beef is not seeing enough people face-on or close-up — we always seem to have crowds of people with their backs to the distant camera,” Gwyn says. “I think scare stories about invasion of privacy and people running to lawyers trouble a lot of photographers and hamper their confidence when it comes to getting in close. It doesn’t seem to trouble the paparazzi. And they manage to sell their pictures.”
Images submitted to fotoLibra do not have to be exclusive but if an image is licensed on a rights-managed basis, it has to be removed from other outlets for the period of the license, an important consideration. The rewards though can more than make up for it. Although fotoLibra has more than 1,000 different prices to offer buyers depending on what they plan to do with the image, the average sale price is £51 ($95 USD). License a few images at those prices and you can give microstock its own kick on the shins.