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.
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.