Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Microstock: Where Does Microstock Fit In?

When I got started in photography, a little over a year ago, I got the impression that microstock hurts photographers. The basic argument is that all these customers who'd normally buy an image from a normal stock agency for $100+ can now get images for maybe $1 an image. Not only would the classic stock agencies lose out on sales, but photographers in general lose out on a lot of income.

To put it another way, some soccer-mom in Kansas makes an extra $1 while a pro photographer in New York loses $100.

Now, though, I've somewhat revised my feelings on this. Yes, I understand that pro photographers are threatened by the microstock movement, and I'm sure they do lose some sales. For example, John Harrington over at Photo Business News & Forum doesn't exactly condemn microstock, but he's not a fan either.

In my mind, there's a spectrum of photo needs ranging from super-expensive shoots (top) to a cheap picture to use on your blog (bottom):

  1. Unique subject, high-profile, high-circulation shots for advertising or branding. Call John H.!
  2. General subject, high-profile, high-circulation shots with a need for managed rights. Like a national ad for a computer company that doesn't want to use the same college girl as a bunch of other ads. Companies are willing to pay more for the guarantee that their imagery will be unique.
  3. Unique subject, small use shots. Like family portraits. Call a pro photographer in your area, or go to Sears :) Obviously, for unique subjects, stock is useless.
  4. General subject, medium circulation, medium profile. I think this is right in the wheelhouse for the conventional stock photography sites. For example: book cover or regional magazine ad. Also, this includes high profile websites like and others. Microstock might start taking a few sales here.
  5. General subject, low circulation or low profile. This is where microstock starts really fitting in. If a company is just trying to pretty up a corporate report, there's no reason not to use microstock. If it doesn't matter if the images pop up other places, who cares? Many websites fit into this category.
This breakdown is far from scientific, but generally, things get cheaper as you go down. Professional photographers tend to float to the top because that's where they can make enough money to make ends meet. Realistically, microstock can't even make an impact at the top levels because stock can't include unique subjects and most microstock sites don't guarantee exclusive rights.

Instead, I believe microstock has opened markets on the low end -- if you can get microstock shots to use for less than $100, why not start using them?

Of course, all of this is second and third hand, so maybe I'm just way off. If anyone has more experience in the industry and can straighten me out, I'd love it.


Lee Torrens said...

No straightening out necessary. You're right on the money!

Only two corrections:

John Harrington HATES microstock with a passion! Search his blog for "luckyoliver" and you'll see what I mean.

Also, "most microstock sites don't guarantee exclusive rights" - actually no microstock agencies do because to make it worthwhile selling images at such low prices you need to see them repeatedly, which necessitates a Royalty Free license, which cannot include exclusive rights.

It's great to see you reconsidering your opinion on this issue. It's much easier to respect an opinion if it shows consideration of both sides of the argument, regardless of whether it's the same opinion as your own.


Sean said...

Thanks for the comment, Lee. Your site seems to have a lot of good information -- I've just started working my way through it!

I suspected as much about Harrington, but didn't want to come across too strong, just in case. The luckyoliver post definite makes his thoughts known.

The main question (raised by Harrington) is will the market support microstock sites? I think yes, but like he suggests, I think there will be consolidation and cost-saving, ultimately making it harder for new contributors to break in.

Lee Torrens said...

Yeah, Harrington is a smart man, no doubt, and I think he is one of the few with those sentiments about microstock that actually makes them known with little filtering. You can't help admire him for that.

There's no question that it's getting harder for people just entering the microstock market. The market is maturing and as it does the early adopter advantage diminishes. It's still a great place to learn and develop your photography, but I doubt microstock will create too many more photographers in the sense that a few early sales encourage them to develop their photography enough to become full time. Those who succeed in microstock now will be existing professional and those passionate enough to develop without too much encouragement from their microstock earnings.

And, the market will support the agencies, little doubt. The top five are growing fast and each have a solid customer base. The second tier agencies are all struggling to 'make it'. Some will, and some won't. There are enough buyers to support a handful of agencies, as we've seen over the last few years. And as the global economy is doing what it's doing, it's logical to assume that some more sales will filter down from the more expensive traditional (macrostock) market. Microstock is still a small portion of the stock photography market in terms of financial turnover, but according to reports from Getty Images and Jupiter Media, it's still the only part that's growing.

Wow, didn't expect to write quite so much!