For a while at least, photography enthusiasts who wanted to make a little money from their photos, had it easy. Or at least they had it easier than they used to have it. Not only had the prices of professional-quality digital cameras fallen to an affordable level but at the same time, photo-sharing sites made showing those images easy, websites created a whole new demand and microstock sites popped up to deliver those images to buyers. Suddenly anyone who knew their aperture from their elbow had an opportunity to shoot pictures that made money. But Flickr is now nearly ten years old and iStock, the first microstock site, will soon enter its fifteenth year. Both are now owned by large parent companies and the ease with which either could be used to make money has fallen significantly. While there is still demand for images, the methods used to sell them and promote them has changed—and they continue to change.
For most microstock contributors, sales and profits are harder to come by. Once, contributors like Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer could get away with images as poor and as cheap to produce as these. Today, they’re more likely to be professionally shot in a studio, using paid models and high expenses. But they’re also less likely to win the sales necessary to cover the costs of producing them. With nearly 80,000 contributors on iStockPhoto and just under half that number on Shutterstock, keywords are saturated and the number of sales generated by each image has fallen. Even Yuri Arcurs, the market’s leading producer, has now signed an exclusive deal with iStockPhoto ensuring that he receives the higher rates offered by exclusivity—and the premium he would have negotiated.
That’s likely to continue. While top contributors take up exclusivity, more occasional shooters can expect to see falling revenues that only produce profits if they disregard costs.
Single-Use Licenses For Microstock
But there may be an alternative route for contributors. One of the big stories of 2013 was Getty’s decision to ban Sean Locke for criticizing the company’s decision to license images for free use on Google Drive. Canva, a new graphic design tool that now employs Lee Torrens of Microstock Diaries, takes a similar approach but with a significant difference. Like Google, Canva allows producers—in this case designers—to access microstock imagery at the point of use. But while Google has paid a small amount in advance for the images so that users can access them for free, Canva charges a fee for each use.
Users of Canva pay a dollar to use the image once and Canva pays the photographer a commission of 35 percent. While those are still small amounts, they’re higher than the commissions received by many microstock photographers for a much less restricted license.
It’s possible that as WYSIWYG editors like Wix for website owners increase, we’ll see a rise in single-use licenses bought at point of use. Canva launched with a million photos. Whether that will mean better deals for part-time photographers looking for sales remains to be seen.
While microstock battles to stay relevant to small producers, other opportunities are rising. The growth of social media initially meant better marketing for event photographers on Facebook and better networking with other photographers on Twitter. Instagram, though, has changed all that. Build up a large following on the mobile photo-sharing site and photographers can find that they’re being approached by brands who want to put pictures of their products in their timelines.
Klouts Perks have brought the same opportunities to users of Twitter and Facebook. Companies can identify key influencers based on their Klout score and expertise, and offer them benefits in return for their ability to reach large numbers of followers. Perks have included a shooting trip to Vail and two new Sony cameras.
It’s not something you can depend on. But for photographers who are active on social media and who manage to build up large followings, the chances that they’ll receive attention and rewards from large firms has increased.
Chances Go Mobile
And photographers who like to shoot on their mobile phones have also seen new opportunities. When Bruce Livingstone launched iStockPhoto, smartphones with strong lenses were still a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. The iPhone didn’t launch until 2007 and even then it only had a 2 megapixel camera set to f/2.8. Now apps like Scoopshot send announcements of wanted images directly to phones and sell shots of news, accidents and extreme weather uploaded by its users. Those sorts of photos might not be the artistic, beautiful photography enthusiasts like to produce but they still require some photographic skill—and they’re opportunities that weren’t available previously.
And for photographers who are more artistic, an old opportunity may be returning, doubled. Flickr has been refurbished and still has an agreement with Getty which provides an easy way for buyers to license the images they find on the site. Its younger rival 500px pushes fine art photography prints—with help from the photographers who produce it.
For both the sites, the number of contributors have grown as well as the number of images they offer but because Facebook has siphoned off many of the social images which use to crowd Flickr (and for which the site was originally intended) the quality of the images left behind has also improved.
The bottom line for photography enthusiasts trying to sell images today is that the market continues to change. Microstock has got tighter but may open up again in new and different ways. Social media now offers a way to reward popularity directly as well as market and network. Mobile technology has opened markets for occasional photojournalists, and photo-sharing platforms that specialize in fine art photography continue to grow and develop.
The photography business has always changed, and it will continue to do so. The opportunities available five years ago are not the same as the opportunities available now. But if you can take great photos and are willing to put the effort into matching them to buyers, opportunities are still there.