The stock industry has changed. For established professionals who were already inside and enjoying the benefit of lifetime royalties from a reliable sales channel, it’s all been bad news. Competition has increased, and the prices — even of photos from companies as selective as Corbis and Getty — have fallen sharply. For enthusiasts, the kind of people who shoot for fun and hope to make a little extra money on the side, it’s been largely good news. Instead of hoping that one of the major stock companies would happen to look in their direction, they can now upload their pictures to a wide range of microstock firms with low acceptance requirements. If the image looks like it might sell, they can find an outlet willing to take it. But the news hasn’t all been positive. While microstock might be open source, it’s also underpriced. And the competition is fierce too. Fortunately, there are options that allow photographers to sell licenses for real money while still enjoying minimal acceptance requirements and open opportunities. Here are five of them.
Based in the UK, fotoLibra calls itself an “open source picture library” rather than a stock company. The difference is important. Unlike most stock companies, fotoLibra will accept almost any image that a member wants to submit.
“There’s only one rule: no porn,” says founder Gwyn Headley. “We accept all images because our taste cannot be the same as the buyers.”
Gwyn, who had previously spent twelve years running a specialist photo library representing the work of about a dozen architectural photographers, illustrated how even experienced stock selectors can sometimes get things wrong. After pointing out an image that was so poor he thought it must have been uploaded by mistake, a colleague informed him that it had just been sold to a theater company for £450.
“Let the photographers choose what they feel will sell,” Gwyn concluded.
That’s easier to do when the company isn’t covering the cost of storage though. While microstock sites are free to join, fotoLibra charges photographers membership fees that range from £18-£45 per quarter depending on the amount of storage the photographer needs. The company also takes between 50 and 40 percent of the sales fee, depending on the type of membership. In return though, photographers receive full market value for their images. While microstock companies, which have more restrictive entrance requirements than fotoLibra, only offer low rates that vary with picture size, fotoLibra also has rights managed licenses with almost 1,500 different price points. Photographers are free to join but fotoLibra’s services aren’t free and neither are their images.
FotoLibra accepts pictures on every topic (bar one). Other stock companies though specialize, a choice that means they’re always more interested in the image than in the photographer.
PhotoResearchers started in 1957 with an emphasis on travel photography. In the 1970s, it moved towards nature photography, becoming more scientific in the following years. Today, the company has a core group of 500 photographers, most of whom shoot images of animals and the environment.
“The best performing sector is science,” co-owner Bug Sutton has told us. “Nature is second, then natural sciences and behavioral sciences. We’re always looking for a scientific bent.”
The company is selective. The 4,000 images it adds to its inventory each month represent about a quarter of the submissions it receives. Redundancy is the main reason for rejection; PhotoResearchers is less willing to accept close similars than it used to. Prices vary too and depend on usage. PhotoResearchers’ biggest customers are textbook publishers, but they also sell to pharmaceutical companies, colleges and clients in continuing medical education. An image used in a convention might sell for about $7,000 but the average sales price is $450 — significantly higher than the sort of fees earned by microstock firms.
Today, most of the contributors are professional photographers but about 20 percent are amateurs, particularly doctors and scientists with access to universities and teaching hospitals. For scientific types with a love of photography, PhotoResearchers provides one valuable outlet.
FarmBoy Fine Arts
PhotoResearchers might be open to any photographer who has the right image but not everyone has the kind of connections necessary to create them. Farmboy Fine Arts, a Canadian design firm, accepts the sort of images that any talented photographer can produce.
“We are… looking for more content that is ‘art driven,’ conceptual and even a bit edgy,” says Todd Towers, company President.
Those images are added to the company’s collection and offered to clients looking for unique designs for their hospitality venues. Instead of seeing your images of happy executives and smiling receptionists printed in magazines and brochures, you’ll know that your artworks are decorating the walls of hotels and spas. Again, anyone can submit their photos and photographers can increase the chances of winning sales by contributing multiple images.
Although the ability to license artworks is a rare opportunity, prices at Farmboy Fine Arts have been reported to be low, and the company is relatively small. It might be a useful outlet for arty images that are hard to sell elsewhere but it’s not the kind of place that’s going to generate a lifetime of income.
One of the problems of selling photos through a stock site is that not only do you usually have to give up the right to offer the image elsewhere, you also lose the ability to set your own price. Fotolibra might have 1,500 different price points but the company has chosen them, not the photographer, and the prices are set. In practice though, buyers might well be willing to pay different amounts based on the quality of the image as well as the subject matter. The person best left to decide the value of an image is the person who created it.
That, at least, is the idea behind Cutcaster, which calls itself an “image marketplace.” Created by two former Wall Street traders, the company aims to combine open sourcing with flexible pricing.
“The idea was to create an electronic marketplace similar to the one we worked in, which gave control over pricing back to the sellers and buyers in the market and provided tools to educate the participants in order to make better decisions over buying, selling and creating,” said co-founder John Griffin. “We wanted to create a dynamic marketplace much like the NASDAQ stock exchange and also give people tools to educate themselves on what the marketplace was looking for, analyze the data surrounding their content and find available market research.”
Sellers can set their own prices for their images or choose to make use of the site’s own pricing algorithm. Images are sold on a royalty-free basis however, and the prices tend to be closer, although a little higher, than those on microstock. For photographers looking to keep some control over their pricing, CutCaster lets them offer their photos for sale without selling them for bottom dollar.
Your Own Stock Site
There are other sites that allow photographers to submit their images and offer them for sale, without touching microstock. GoGoImages is looking for pictures of ethnic groups; PhotoShelter lets photographers license images themselves. But these days, it’s also possible to create your own stock site. FolioLink’s Pro account comes with an archive site that allows photographers to set their own price points for each image they offer. It costs $695 a year and you’ll have to do all the marketing yourself. But you’ll also get to keep all of the sales revenue — and enjoy the freedom of being your very own stock company.