As top microstock figures complain about growing competition, rising saturation and declining returns per image, microstock companies are starting to push back. Warnings from figures as big as Yuri Arcurs, even as he rolls out a three-year study program, are leading sites to think about how they can best serve both their contributors, whom they need to continue supplying content, and their buyers who always want to pay less for that content and already have plenty of other places and pictures to choose from. Dreamstime, one of the biggest microstock firms, is both typical of the problem and an example of the measures that sites are taking to overcome it.
Dreamstime now has over 13 million images in its inventory and accepts around 300,000 new submissions each month from about 130,000 contributors. The company’s policy over the last few years has been to cover not just a wide range of categories but the entire range of prices. The site claims to have the largest collection of free royalty-free images (a growing inventory of 350,000 photos) but also offers a unique “SR-EL” license that grants full rights and exclusivity for $5,000. According to Serban Enache, the site’s CEO, though, the average price for an image still stands at “a few dollars.” That’s hardly the sort of rate that’s going to make it easy for photographers to justify the expenses involved in creating it, especially when the number of other photos available mean that each image will now sell fewer copies than it might have done in the past.
No More Photos from You
Dreamstime’s strategy is to improve the quality of the images it offers at the expense of the quantity. Since 2010, the site has been imposing strict submission limits which rise as a contributor’s approval rating improves. Photographers start with the ability to submit 20 images per week and have the potential to upload as many 210 photos per week.
“New contributors are more talented and/or more pros are joining the website. These facts along with technological improvements and the size of our database force us to constantly raise the quality bar,” Serban Enache told us. “We still accept the landscapes, nature shots, skylines, models on white, etc., but they need to be exquisite in order to be accepted and to sell.”
Rare images, such as pictures of remote places, can sell well and without competition, Enache continued, and shots of events taken at the right moment can be valuable additions to the editorial category.
“As competition grows, contributors need to constantly increase quality, provide diversity and fill as many niches as possible,” he advised. “Part of their duties is to research, not only to shoot. Learn to create, not to photograph.”
But Dreamstime isn’t just being more selective about the images it accepts now that it has enough images to cover all its categories; it’s also being more careful about the photographs it offers. That giant collection of free images is more than an attempt to attract designers looking for a bargain before hitting them up with better images for a fee. It’s also a place to store excess images that are puffing up the inventory. Images that haven’t sold in three years are either deleted or moved to the free section. Those free images are also curated, with some permanently deleted. Dated photographs, with wardrobes or props shot five years ago and which are no longer selling, are among those being pared away.
Microstock’s New Demands
- Landscape shots of hard-to-reach locations.
- Niche images (if you can find an unsaturated niche).
- Editorial events and shots of conflict.
- Technical perfection.
Dreamstime then is trying to its part to keep microstock viable by being more careful about what it offers to buyers. But Serban Enache also stresses that photographers have a role to play. Asked whether it’s still possible for photographers to make a living with microstock, he replied by asserting that full-time microstock photography is possible but only “if you are careful about your expenses and you work hard.”
He also noted though that not everyone who contributes to microstock is looking to make a profit. Amateurs just want to earn enough to upgrade their equipment while improving their skills. Hobbyists are just happy to see their image being used.
“This is in many cases more important than the revenue. Knowing your work is endorsed by people throughout the world gives you a great feeling and self-confidence,” he said.
Watch the Expenses
When stock first appeared, Enache argued, it was only meant as an additional revenue stream for photographers. Only later did it become a main source of income, and he warns photographers not to neglect other revenue opportunities.
If that sounds like a big qualification of his assertion that photographers can make a living out of microstock, it’s also sound advice. Enache warns that even when stock revenues do come in, they can do so slowly and over a long period (before the props and clothes make them unfashionable). And he points out that no photographer can expect to have a good ROI if he spends too much money creating the pictures.
None of this is particularly good news for photographers. Amateurs and hobbyists might get to enjoy the occasional fillip when one of the 20 images they’re allowed to upload each week is bought, but they’re still less likely to consider the expenses, forcing photographers who are looking to make money to reduce theirs. That makes it even harder to produce the higher quality images that microstock sites are now looking for.
Dreamstime’s emphasis on quality rather than quantity raises the entry bar and gives preferential treatment to better photographers. But those photographers include those who aren’t concerned about income and while greater selectivity and a more brutal approach to curation might slow the rate of saturation and improve the picture slightly for declining ROIs, there are no signs that sites are going to cut their inventories back to the kind of peak income levels last seen in 2009. For that to happen growth has to come from buyers. Serban Enache indicated that his firm had grown 50 percent year on year. If microstock sites and photographers are struggling then a cavalry of buyers might just save the day.
Correction: Serban Enache’s description of 50 percent growth referred to image price growth and contributor expectations. Since its inception in 2004, Dreamstime’s collection of images has grown more than 400 times.