Royalties Fall as Microstock Opens for Photojournalism Enthusiasts

Photography: NeilsPhotography

For photography enthusiasts, microstock can look like an easy way to make a little cash from the images they shoot for fun. Usually, it isn’t. Top microstock photographers plan their shoots, track market trends, look for underserved subjects and even pay models. The prices might be low, but microstock is a business and the images licensed through the sites are products that have to meet a market demand. They also have to meet the legal criteria required for commercial stock, avoiding copyrighted elements and providing model releases. Submitting hobby shots just tends to deliver rejection. But some of the images that don’t qualify for commercial use may be suitable for editorial use where they can provide visual descriptions of items and issues discussed in news and magazine articles. They could be shots of street scenes, pictures of demonstrations, even photos of tourist sites that would have little commercial use or which wouldn’t qualify for a commercial license. It’s an opportunity that iStock is now trying to exploit by creating a new category of photos only for editorial use.

“Publications and bloggers are often looking for images of products, architecture and landmarks,” says Kara Udziela, an iStock spokesperson.“There is also a constant need for photos that tell stories about travel and lifestyles or those that provide social commentary. These are the types of images iStock will now be able to offer.”

No Model Releases Needed

The images will differ from commercial stock in a number of important ways: editing must be restricted to a “moderate level and color correction”; cropping should not change the meaning of the event; shots of people should be real, not posed;  logos and copyrighted elements usually removed from commercial use images must be left unaltered; and model releases are unnecessary except for identifiable children shot singly (children as part of a group are fine.)

The images must also supply the date they were shot, the countries in which they were shot and a description that explains clearly what’s happening in the picture and, if possible, why it’s happening. EXIF data should also be accurate and complete.

Submissions will begin at the end of January and sales will start before the end of March. Buyers will apply a filter while searching to find editorial-only images, and photographers will upload their pictures in the usual way. Contributors however must choose the category in which they want to place their images; iStock will not accept two versions of the same image for both commercial and editorial-only images even though commercial images can also be used editorially. A photographer could not, for example, take a picture of a car as an editorial-only image, then remove the logo and registration details and submit the second version to the commercial category.

“Generally speaking, if an image can be used for commercial use (creative royalty free stock) it is better for contributors and customers,” recommends Kara Udziela.

Images that are rejected for commercial use but which would qualify for editorial use won’t be automatically placed in the editorial category. Because those images must include more caption information than is usually supplied for commercial images, contributors will have to resubmit them.

Nor is iStock accepting all kinds of editorial images. At the moment, the site is only accepting editorial images in the categories of architecture and landmarks; travel and lifestyle; social commentary; and urban living. It’s specifically not looking for news images such as press conferences, sports shots or the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Photographers with those kinds of photos are told to contact iStock’s parent company, Getty Images.

That may be because of the short shelf-life of news images which have to be pushed out right away. But it might also be an attempt to protect the higher prices charged to news outlets for conventional stock. The fees demanded for images in the new editorial category will be the same as the company’s other microstock images, a fraction of the fees that Getty itself demands. Stock photographers already concerned about the competition from part-time microstockers are unlikely to thank Getty for accepting images that compete with their own photos directly and at a much lower fee. And despite the invitation on iStock’s website to people interested in traditional photojournalism to “contact Getty Images Editorial and apply to be a photographer there,” enthusiasts who try are unlikely to find an open door.

Royalties Cut to 20 Percent

More worryingly, those fees will be the new rates announced by iStock COO Kelly Thompson in early September. Under those rates, iStock will set photographers’ royalties on a yearly basis instead of allowing them to grow as the inventories of veteran  contributors continue to sell, and the maximum payout for non-exclusive contributors — long considered to be the best way to improve earnings overall — will be no more than 20 percent. It’s a change that’s had microstock forums buzzing with indignation and even persuaded some buyers, who see no benefit to themselves in the lower rates and who sympathize with the photographers, to look elsewhere for their images.

According to iStock, the editorial-only collection will open a new creative avenue for photographers, allowing them to sell many of the images they already have in their portfolios but which are not appropriate for commercial stock. It also gives enthusiasts who are keen on photojournalism rather than commercial photography a way to make money out of their talent without forcing them to spend time in the studio posing models. But unless those photographers become exclusive and manage to sell large numbers of high-res images, they’re not going to make much out of those pictures. If other microstock sites follow iStock’s lead and also start selling editorial-only images, contributors will have to ask themselves why they’re accepting iStock’s maximum 20 percent when Fotolia starts at 25 percent and Dreamstime at 30 percent.

Unless, of course, those other sites do copy iStock by not just expanding their inventory of images and the range of their contributors but also by taking more of the sales fee for themselves. That really would be an introduction to the business of photography to enthusiasts — and it wouldn’t be fun at all.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Tyler Olson - MicrostockGroup Said:

    Editorial images on iStock is an interesting concept and I feel it could go over well. There is certainly a risk of confusing buyers, however, especially ones that area already confused about what an image can and cannot be used for.

    It is a shame iStock are reducing commissions so heavily for the majority of submitters.

  2. Nancy Walker Said:

    Dreamstime and Shutterstock have always taken editorial content. Istock is just now trying to break into that market. Given that the other two sites pay more from the start the editorial photo option will only appeal to exclusive IS photographers who don't have the option of licensing images elsewhere.

  3. David Fowler Said:

    As Nancy said Istock are far from taking a lead in Editorial images. Add to the list Bigstock, 123RF,Yaymicro, Cutcaster etc.All the other sites go further than that in also taking Celebrity images which Istock are not going to accept.Regards, David.

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