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):
- Unique subject, high-profile, high-circulation shots for advertising or branding. Call John H.!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 CNN.com and others. Microstock might start taking a few sales here.
- 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.
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.