Microstock Becomes Hard Work, Even with Data Tracking

One of the attractions of the opportunity provided by microstock is that photography enthusiasts can shoot the images they love and make money out of them. It turns a hobby into a passive income generator without putting the photographer through the less pleasant process of having actually to work. In practice, of course, it rarely turns out that way. The most successful microstock photographers treat their contributions with the same seriousness with which a factory owner looks at his outputs. They plan their shoots, think about the costs of creating them and, most importantly, make sure that the images they photograph match the demand among buyers, even if they don’t match entirely the kinds of images they’d want to shoot for fun. To make those kinds of assessments though, photographers need to understand what the market wants.

That’s not always easy to do. While microstock sites are happy to show their most successful photographs, and a few list the most popular searches, matching gaps between demand and supply to spot valuable opportunities is a problem. It’s a problem that picNiche has gone some way towards solving.

Created by Bob Davies, a UK-based software engineer, the site offers a number of free microstock toolbars. The Microstock Image Search toolbar helps buyers to find images across multiple agencies, lets them send image requests directly to contributors, and notifies them when interesting new images are uploaded, among other functions. The Contributors toolbar provides photographers with notifications about sales and approvals, a keywording tool, an FTP-upload drop-box for six agencies, and other solutions too.

Photographers Work Harder than Buyers

The search toolbar is currently used  by about 500 buyers; the contributors toolbar has about 2,500 users. (Usage figures for both toolbars drop at the weekends though when buyer drop-off outpaces that of contributors by 20 percent. Buyers’ Sundays, it seems, are more restful than those of photographers.) The most popular toolbar provided by picNiche however is the newer Ultimate Free Stock Photo Search Tool which looks for free images across more than 200 websites, including many microstock sites’ own promotional collections. That toolbar has about 3,000 users, runs as many as 2,000 searches a day, and has been shown to convert free users to paying buyers.

The idea for the toolbars came three years ago, when Bob left his corporate job to find something that offered more freedom and a reliable passive income, but which also had enough data to make informed decisions about future development. Microstock, with its creativity and open doorway, looked like a suitable choice even though Bob sees himself as a software guy rather than a photographer. Once he’d started shooting, he found that he was frequently refreshing his stats to check sales and monitor the progress of his portfolio. The Contributor’s toolbar was a natural extension of that experience.

“On a dull day I’d waste a lot of time with F5-itis, constantly checking my earnings rather than creating images,” says Bob. “By incorporating my earnings checks it into the browser, any activity on my computer would also be accompanied by the nice little ‘dings’ whenever I made a sale.”

Once he’d added keywording and a dropbox, he started sharing the toolbar as a free plugin for Firefox. The toolbar has proven useful enough, but what Bob really wanted was a way of measuring the gap between image supply and image demand for particular keywords. If he could identify popular niches for which there were relatively few images, then he’d know that shooting those topics would bring an increased chance of sales.

None of the microstock agencies he contacted were willing to share their search data so Bob turned to his toolbars to extrapolate search terms himself. Using a sample set of images, he calculates the average views-per-file and the average downloads-per-file for each searched keyword phrase. The result is a score that shows the probability of an average-quality image selling at least once throughout its lifetime.  A “picNiche rating” of 100, for example, suggests that an image that matches that search term will sell at least once. A rating of 1,000 predicts at least ten definite sales, although once the figures start to reach 3,000 to 5,000 they become less reliable. Enter any term into picNiche and you should be able to see your chances of selling pictures that cover that topic.

The calculations though are only suggestions based on the number of views and downloads received for a keyword entered into picNiche’s toolbars. But as Bob notes, success at microstock depends on more than choosing the right topics.

“That rating… needs to be balanced against common sense and some rational thought. A higher rating does not ‘always’ mean better sales,” he warns, “and you need to be able to judge objectively both the quality of your own work and the time/cost it takes to create/produce.”

The idea though is that better your photography, the lower the picNiche rating you can shoot and still expect to make sales. Bob, who says that he is “not a particularly good photographer,” tends to shoot topics that rate around 75-400.

“If I produced work twice as saleable as the average image, I would produce for topics as low as a 25 rating.”

Buyers are Looking for French Castles

But the figures do appear to work. Bob has about 2,000 photos spread over ten microstock sites, which he describes as “general amateur shots.” The best selling images in his portfolio though are photographs of mobile phones, keys and other items that he shot in response to his picNiche results.

Each month, Bob posts a new cloud of niches that show the most potential. Users can feed these terms into picNiche’s search engine to see the views-per-file, downloads-per-file and ultimately, the ranking. At the moment, some of the biggest opportunities appear to lie in “carryon luggage,” “restaurant dinners” and “corn dog” among others. They’re probably easier to shoot than “French castle” and “tandem bicycle” which also appear in the list. In general, says Bob, the biggest opportunities tend to lie in alternative lifestyles such as gay and lesbian couples, seniors, and of course, ethnic niches. Buyers, he says, are also looking for more naturalistic images of professionals at work — a nurse administering an injection, for example, rather than a woman in a nurse’s outfit — images that might not be easy for a typical microstock enthusiast to capture.

There are a lot of areas you’re just not going to be able to compete without thousands of pounds of equipment and a perfect eye,” Bob warns. “In all honesty, if  you want to really earn from microstock now, you’re going to have to work hard at it.”

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