What’s Wrong With Microstock?

There’s been some sniggering going on lately. We’ve heard it. It came from some parts of the established photography industry, from the people who have traditional photography jobs, people who only deal with professionals and who only supply images for major publishers.

When they heard that Lucky Oliver, a microstock site, was shutting down, they couldn’t wait to announce the death of the low-cost photography model and breathe a sigh of relief that the old way of selling images was safe.

Maybe they’re right. It’s possible that microstock isn’t sustainable, that selling image licenses for a buck a piece isn’t going to make profits for anyone. It’s more likely though that Lucky Oliver’s problems were specific. It’s certainly inevitable that with around a dozen companies all offering exactly the same service, those who aren’t careful with their costs won’t be able to compete. Just as early dating sites consolidated while others sank, it’s possible that we’ll see the same process in microstock until we’re left with a few major players such as iStock, Fotolia, Shutterstock and Dreamstime. It’s possible that in the future, there will be fewer microstock sites but they’ll be bigger and stronger — and the uploading will take less time.

But maybe we should join in the celebrations. After all, no business model is perfect for everyone and microstock has its problems.

How Much?!
The first problem, of course, is the unrealistically low payments. Lee Torrens, a microstock photographer who tracks his results on MicrostockDiaries.com, has found that on average the most he receives per image is just 30 cents. As Lincoln Barbour, a commercial photographer, points out, once you’ve factored in the price of equipment and shooting time, at that rate you have to sell an awful lot of licenses to cover the true costs of creating the photos.

It’s unlikely that many contributors do. Fotolia, for example, has around 50,000 photographers but according to Oleg Tscheltzoff, the company’s co-founder and President, only fifteen of them generate over $200,000 a year although several are close to that figure.

Even if 50 of Fotolia’s photographers were making six-figure incomes that would still mean that your chances of making good money were only one-in-1,000. And as Lincoln Barbour would no doubt be quick to point out, that’s income, not profit.

Those photographers who are successful though treat microstock as a business. They upload thousands of images each month and employ teams of people to arrange shoots and edit the photos. Yuri Arcurs, Fotolia’s top-earning photographer, told us that he spends $10,000-$11,000 a month on salaries for his assistants alone.

If it wasn’t profitable though, he clearly wouldn’t be doing it, and it’s telling that Yuri turned down an offer from a traditional stock company in order to enjoy the benefits of multiple small sales through microstock.

Nor are the other 49,950 photographers on Fotolia necessarily losing money. The appeal of microstock is that anyone who owns a digital camera can now earn cash from it. The “costs” that microstock’s critics count then aren’t true professional expenses because the equipment wasn’t bought for professional reasons. It was bought to have fun and any income that results is then profit. That’s always going to be true for the bulk of microstock photographers, whether they’re making $3,000 a month or just $3.

Why Pay More?
That though causes microstock’s second problem: that the large number of amateurs shooting for fun and treating money as a bonus rather than a way of paying the mortgage devalues commercial images and makes earning a living harder for professionals.

It’s certainly true that life has become harder for professional photographers since the rise of digital cameras, but it’s hard to say whether that’s a result of an increased supply of images or a reduced demand in the photography industry as a whole. And while it’s understandable that professionals would be unhappy seeing some of their income draining away to weekend shooters who care nothing about costs, it’s hard to see why those hobbyists would care. Everyone wants to make money and if amateurs and semi-pros have the advantage of not having to cover their expenses, then that’s a situation that professionals will have to adapt to whether they like it or not.

No one is going to be persuaded to turn down the opportunity to make money by being told that it means a competitor won’t get it.

You Get What you Pay for
And it’s possible that microstock photographers aren’t really competing directly with professionals anyway. At the same time that microstock’s critics pan amateurs for taking away the livings of pros, they also criticize the low quality and predictability of the images they shoot and predict that no serious photo editor will buy them.

They’re right, of course — even if that does mean that microstock isn’t the great threat they claim it to be. Serious photo editors tend not to use microstock for serious use. They use it — and other amateur resources — largely for online use. Graham Douglas, Head of Graphics at Economist.com, told us that he buys images from a variety of sources, including the news wires, agencies and Flickr. It’s notable though, that photos from Shutterstock turn up frequently on the company’s blogs — pages which are provided free for readers and which presumably generate little income. It’s unlikely that the publication would have been willing to pay a large sum to put a stock photo on a loss-making Web page so no job was taken from a professional. (German magazine Der Spiegel operates in a similar manner. When it asked Flickr photographer, Andreas Reinhold, for permission to use some of his images on the magazine’s website, it wanted to use them for free; when it later published three of his photos in the print version, the magazine paid the full commercial rate.)

While microstock might be a new supplier then, it’s largely meeting the needs of a new market — that of websites which have small budgets. If that’s the case, professionals should have little to worry about from competition from the likes of Lucky Oliver. And while microstock doesn’t necessarily pay much per image, it can still be a useful for some people to recoup some of the expenses of their photography hobby.

10 comments for this post.

  1. Lee Torrens Said:

    Accurate, realistic and balanced. Nice article indeed.

    The quality of microstock is rising rapidly, but photographers producing images in the upper quality levels are looking for faster ROI than what they can get in microstock. This is why many photographers and agencies are moving into the 'midstock' middle ground.

    As for sustainability, did you read the profit figures from iStockphoto earlier this month??


  2. leaf Said:

    Well I think I would favor the idea that LuckyOliver's demise was poor business planning and not the product they were selling. Istock is turning profit quite well as well as the other big 6 sites.

    Yuri also made an interesting comment in this thread
    which perhaps proves the macrostock photographers point of high budget shoots just aren't worth it. They are likely correct. The majority of microstock however is low budget shoots, and rightly so.

    When quoting Lee Torrens earnings you make .30 / image sound quite small. The reality however is that the 30 cents was monthly/image from one site. His images in total are earning (accroding to his figures) $1.50/month on average each, or $18 / image / year which is quite a successful amount according to an average macro stock photographer.

  3. Dan Scott Said:

    Good news!!! I will celebrate all failures of microstock companies that cheapen our profession and take advantage of ignorant amateur photographers.

    Microstock companies are the greedy parasites of the photography industry. Their standards are low but occasionally the law of numbers prevails and great images are discovered. The companies themselves profit only if high volume is achieved. While the "photographers" make very little. All the while flooding the market with mediocre imagery and siginificantly lowering the value of the great ones. While this is great for those companies that buy images to sell their products it is hardly fair to the photographer who created the image.

    Since the poliferation of high quality cameras many advanced amateurs are encouraged to try and turn a hobby into a income stream. Many do and contribute to the artform. It would be great if they also educated themselves as to the true value images have to those buying licences to them. Many great images are licensed for far less that they are worth. Everyone would do well not to accept contracts from companies the want to give you 30 cents for an image. Why should someone use your image to make thousands of dollars while you only get 30 cents???

    What's wrong with microstock??? Greed that's what...

    It's only a matter of time before people (amateur
    photographers) start to relize that they are being ripped off by microstock companies and the clients they service.

  4. Otto Said:

    Death to microstock - long life to RM!

  5. Mike Said:

    $0.30 per sale isn't a bad price if you get a few thousand sales per month, as I do and many others do. Sure you have to compromise a bit and accept the reality that those $0.30 sales will put your image on everything from a blog to a billboard to a national ad, but if you can look past the idea of 30 cents per image and look at the bigger picture, where a single image still generates several hundreds or thousands of dollars per year, it's not a bad way to make a living.

    And obviously $0.30 is the low end of the spectrum. Critics will always refer to that rate while ignoring the higher end, at sites that pay higher commissions and generate higher per-image returns. Some microstock sellers report averages of $2-3 per sale (yes, averages).

    As long as profits continue to rise in microstock, as they have for me and many many others, I see no reason to ever leave this business. Long live microstock.

  6. Dan Scott Said:


    If your making a few thousand sales per month from you collection, that means that the stock agencey is more than likely making many more thousands of sales at $1, $2, or $3. When you consider the amount of money that is garnered (people are 10times more likely to but a product with a picture attached than not) from the use of you images don't you feel a bit ripped-off??

    Oh lets do the math (.30 x 3000=$900) the rate that the "critics" refer to $900/month is not a good living by any means in America.

    The high end of the scale (1.5 x 3000= $4,500) is shameful considering the billions or revenue that is generated for those using the images.

    The end user is not really to blame, they are just responding to an increase of cheap images flooding the market. The blame rests soley with those greedy indiviuals who manage microstock. Shame on them for cheapening an artform. With the increase of Royalty free comes even more abuse of photographer's copyrights the posting of unprotected content is a common practice and many people simply save a photo off a blog and post it to their own. I think we can look to the music industry (and napster) for an example there.

    So I ask you... Do you know where your images are? How much have you lost in revenue? And Mike, what image in this world has sold enough (at the generous .75 per sale) to make "several hundreds or thousands of dollars per year" ???

  7. Dan Scott Said:

    What nothing to say Mike?? Didn't think so...

    Down with Microsuck!!!

  8. Eric Hamilton Said:

    Reality Check:

    Microstock is here to stay.

    Hell, it's even possible to find decent photos available with CC licenses that allow commercial use FOR FREE, as more and more photographers release bits of their collections to gain recognition and sell other photos.

    If that trend continues, we'll start to see FREE stock collections popping up, supported by keyword-driven advertising.

    - Eric

  9. Krista Neher Said:

    You may be interested in checking out Photrade (yes, I work there).

    We allow photographers to sell prints and stock at any price, giving power back to photographers.

    You can request an invite on the site 🙂 (it is currently in private closed beta as we iron out the bugs).
    - Krista

  10. Dave P Said:

    Eric I think you hit the nail on the head, microstock is certainly here to stay, all the microstock sites have put their prices up over the past few years and moved away from $1 download except for very low res - they are viable

    For at least the past 10 years there have been people giving their work away online, and since CC and then flickr came along it's made it even easier.

    There is still a huge gulf between 'decent' photos on microstock sites and the kind of unique, stylish and thought provoking subjects you can find on the full price stock sites. There will always be a market for your full priced photography if you are good at what you do.

    Microstock came along because there is just no justification to charge 250 dollars for a photo like a picture of pen laying on a listing of share prices.

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