What It Takes To Create A Photo Buyer

When we spoke to Oleg Tscheltzoff, one of the founders of Fotolia, he told us that the potential market for microstock was some 2 billion images a year. He’d reached that conclusion by adding the 20 million small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to the same number of SMEs in Europe, and estimating their image needs at 50 photos a year each.food3.jpg

We always thought that figure sounded like a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the sort of thing Web entrepreneurs tell venture capitalists in the hope that they’ll throw money at them. He could be right, of course — Fotolia does sell a lot of pictures, 10,000 a day at last count — but it did sound just a touch simplistic.

But it wasn’t just the math that struck us as simple, it was also the idea of seeing the photo market as made up of SMEs with shopping lists. If the Internet has told us anything, it’s that a small business with an image need can be one person typing up a blog post once a rainy Sunday. And those sorts of buyers use all sorts of images in all sorts of different ways.

Robyn Lee, for example, is an editorial assistant at SeriousEats.com and creator of The Girl Who Ate Everything. She uses 100 images a month, mostly food-related, but draws a quarter of them from Flickr.

“I tend to find Creative Commons photos on Flickr, use my own photos or draw an illustration,” she says “If those options fail, then I look for stock images. But I think I’ve only done it once or twice.”

Dr. Hobart King, on the other hand, is another small site owner with big image demands. He only discovered microstock recently but now expects to be using iStockPhoto several times a week to illustrate his site, Geology.com. Even though he’s been impressed with microstock’s range and quality, Dr. King still likes to use photos that he can get for free.

“I use lots of public domain photos,” he says. “NASA and other government agencies are great photo sources. However, prospecting for public domain photos can consume a lot of time. That is what attracted me to iStockphoto.com. There I can type in a search, usually find a lot of great images, and use one for a reasonable fee.”

It’s likely that these two photo buyers are fairly typical of most online publishers: they have small budgets, potentially large image demands and they source their pictures from all sorts of different places.

So what would it take for people like these to pay even a small amount for photos?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to that. For Dr. King, the convenience of a quick search is enough to turn him into a regular microstock buyer. For Robyn Lee, only the absence of an image she wants on Flickr would send her to a stock site, and the wide availability of good free photos means that a photographer who asked even a buck for an image on Flickr would keep her looking.

“With so many photos to choose from on Flickr (at least, when I search for photos there are usually multiple good ones to choose from), I would probably just choose someone who didn’t want a dollar,” she explains.

What both Robyn and Dr. King do have in common though — and this is likely to be a commonality among all photo buyers — is that when choosing an image, relevance is the most important criterion. The first job the image has to do is illustrate the post.

That sounds obvious but it has a less obvious implication. For photographers, it’s not just the quality of an image that counts or its price — but its rarity. Photo users, whether they’re stock buyers like Dr. King or Flickr fans like Robyn, are most likely buy images of hard-to-find subjects.

So if you’re shooting the sort of topics that no one else shoots, don’t give your images away for free. There’s a good chance that even a blogger would buy it.

Photograph from reese on Flickr, and it appears on SeriousEats too.

[tags] photo buyers, photo buyer, photography marketing [/tags]

One comment for this post.

  1. Robert Miller Said:

    I enjoyed reading several of your articles, they are concise and informative. I have not tried micro stock, but have played with the idea as a potential market. I do sell through Flickr, and it happens pretty much as you suggest.

    Thanks again for the excellent information.

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