When Yuri Arcurs, probably the world’s most successful microstock photographer, told macrostock photographer John Lund at the beginning of the year that his return per image had fallen from a peak of $9.10 in 2009 to $7.10 in 2010, and that he expected it to reach $5.60 in 2011, it seemed like a seminal moment for microstock photographers. It was a situation, Arcurs pointed out, that wasn’t sustainable and he hinted that without some movement from the agencies he might one day choose to sell directly from his own site, skipping the middle men and their predetermined prices altogether. If even Yuri Arcurs is worrying about the sustainability of microstock photography, has the industry had its day?
In fact, the situation may be more complex than that: more hopeful for part-time photographers and less rosy for professionals. The problem is the size and growth of the supply. As more photographers have signed up and submitted their images, they’ve forced a larger number of photographs to compete for the same search terms. Sales overall may be growing but they’re being spread among more images, and it’s not just Yuri Arcurs’s pictures that are feeling the pinch.
“There is a pretty consistent drop in RPI for everyone,” says Bob Davies of PicNiche and a close follower of microstock statistics. “The saturated market is causing downward price-pressures (not accounting for premium collections).”
Davies’s own tool, which tracks the gap between the demand for particular terms and the supply of images that suit them, may help photographers to spot opportunities but even those doors are closing. Eventually all current in-demand terms will become saturated, he warns, although some will fill faster than others, depending mostly on the ease with which a photographer can shoot them.
“It’s a natural progression for any ‘crowd-sourced’ market,” says Davies. “The same thing is always found in mature markets, online and offline when scaled.”
Davies recommends a number of solutions both for agencies and for photographers. The microstock sites, he argues, have to be more selective and reject images for which they already have sufficient supply. Photographers, too, need to be more pro-active in their marketing. If the initial focus for microstock photographers was on producing larger numbers of images, then on producing better images, the focus now should be on selling those images to buyers.
Dreamstime Rejects Similar Images
Some sites are already taking action. Search algorithms are tweaked so that images that don’t sell immediately are pushed down the results, ensuring that only a fraction of the available photos are actually seen by buyers. Sites, too, are rejecting photos that are similar to those already on offer.
According to Serban Enache, CEO of Dreamstime, similarity is the most common reason for rejection on his site, especially for new contributors who submit without checking the existing database. Refusing pictures that are too similar in angle variation or format helps to protect sales and royalties, he told us.
But despite offering more than 12 million images, receiving around 350,000 monthly submissions and accepting more than 2,000 new contributors each month, Enache denies that microstock is already full. Even though similar images are rejected, older pictures, he argues, fall away to be replaced by newer and better versions.
“There is no saturation if you look at the fact that some of the content submitted five years ago is already exceeded by images submitted today,” he says. “While the biggest quality of stock is to be generic, content gets refreshed and replaced, with newer images having better aesthetic and technical values.”
If Arcurs and other established photographers are seeing their returns shrink then, it’s not just the number of images that are pushing down prices but the numbers of new photographers submitting better images.
Just 1.6 Percent of Photographers Produce 50 Percent of iStock’s Sales
What may be happening then is a broadening of what Bob Davies has called the long tail of microstock photography. In a recent presentation at the StockinRussia conference, Davies noted that 80 percent of iStock’s images come from just 6,609 photographers, 18 percent of its total contributors. Half of iStock’s total supply came from its most prolific 5 percent. For sales, the figures are even more skewed. Eighty percent of sales came from 2,756 photographers, 7 percent of the site’s total. Just 1.6 percent of iStock’s photographers, 606 contributors, were responsible for half of all the site’s sales. Agencies, says Davies, favor those photographers in their search results, protecting their position in the market, improving the chances that buyers will find a professional quality image quickly — and making life a little harder for newer photographers to gain a foothold.
But not hard enough if Arcurs’s falling RPI is anything to go by. Those initial high returns may have reflected a time when photographers had relatively few competitors but now that the industry has matured — and more photographers have joined an open industry — the true size of the opportunity for people who want to make money from their images may be becoming apparent. And it may not be large enough for professionals. Arcurs has said that he struggles to produce a picture for less than $20, a consideration that not every contributor bears in mind when he takes out his camera or produces an image for sale. If he’s enjoying the photography that he creates in his spare time and sells for pennies, then the cost of creating the image isn’t a business expense.
Just as professional macrostock photographers bemoaned the rise of low-cost microstock photographers so professional microstock photographers may now be looking with similar concern at the growth of part-timers able to eat up their revenues by producing apparently expense-free images.
The question though is what will happen to images that aren’t expense-free and aren’t fun for part-timers to shoot. Shots with lots of models, for example, cost lots of money to produce. As they become rarer, their prices should rise. It’s possible then that we’ll see even more fragmentation in the stock industry as microstock supplies low-cost generic images and top microstock photographers focus on higher-priced, harder and more professional imagery. The rise of “premium” microstock may continue, leaving part-timers and enthusiasts with the small earnings of “traditional” microstock photography but still providing a niche for more dedicated photographers willing to invest in their work.