From microstocks to megabucks


The Problem with Microstock’ article a few weeks back. The curse of having a relatively high-profile blog, however, is that people tend to disagree with you. Well, that’s not really the curse, that’s a fact of life. The curse, specifically, is that you frequently get incredibly eloquent people disagreeing with you – people who disagree passionately enough to write their side of the story.

Seeing as how I’m not a politician, I’m fully entitled to change my mind about things, including Microstock. And while I still feel that the premise of Microstock is wrong for all the reasons described in that other post, I wouldn’t be much of an Economist subscriber if I didn’t see that there was a flipside to the proverbial coin as well – in this case, expressed by Willie Thomas, a man who makes his living with stock photography.

I caught up with him to find out how he does it…  


Selling for Pennies – Life as a Microstock Photographer

I make little secret of my dislike for microstock, as re-iterated in my ‘What is Microstock?

Things that define what a Microstock agency is are:

  1. Sells images exclusively via the Internet.
  2. More accessible to a wider range of photographers than traditional stock agencies.
  3. Sell their images at a lower than traditional rate.

This last point is why most traditional stock photographers often foster a deeply ingrained dislike of Microstock.

The counter-argument put forward by Microstock agencies is you will make-up lost income on a higher quantity of sold images. Ultimately, it’s all down to how much you earn in the long run. Say you need an income of $2000 per month, for example – does it matter if you sell 2 photos at $1000 a piece, or 1000 photos at $2 a piece?

Photographers submitting to traditional stock photography sites will say yes, and argue that making $2000 on 2000 sales is preposterous.

If all things in the world of stock photography were equal, this point of view wins – after all, nobody would dream of argue against making more money with less work? In the stock photography world, however, that’s no longer the way it works. Just like in all other free markets, a photograph has no value other than what a client is willing to pay. In practice, this still means that extremely good photographers are probably better off selling their work under rights managed licences – but for anyone who is mediocre, there is a huge slice of the pie left, in the shape of microstock photography.

The birth of Microstock

“I found Microstock back in the days when it still was the “Designer’s dirty little secret”.”, Thomas recalls. “I knew a designer that had many small business owners, restaurants owners and auto repair shops as customers”. Needless to say, they were all in the market for a new website. The problem was that in order to get imagery, you had a few choices available:

  1. Steal the photo off the internet and hope for the best
  2. Get a professional photographer involved
  3. Buy photos from the established stock photography houses
  4. Take the photos yourself

Take a look at those choices. In effect, 1 is illegal, 2 is brutally expensive (and not always possible – a grocery shop might not actually always sell dew-fresh tomatoes, but might still wish to use pictures of them on their website), 4 is probably impossible because photography is quite difficult, and, again, you may not have what you actually want photographed.

Which leaves option 3, which is also brutally expensive. On the other hand, there are a lot of quite good photographers on the internet, who take photos that are good enough for the mom-and-pop shop. If only there was a way to tap the amateur and semi-professional photographers, pay them a small fee, and use their photos…

Thus, microstock was born.

The economics of Microstock

The problem with the small websites, of course, was two-fold. “On average”, Thomas says “they had $400-$650 to spend. This is not much of a budget, if they needed five images, the licensing fees at a traditional stock houses each image would cost about $50, which totals to $250 USD”. Obviously, you can’t have photography alone take up more than half of the budget that is earmarked a website.

This puts web designers in a tight spot: “My web designer friend could not make a profit and still pay the licensing fees.”, Thomas concluded. And while he would love to be able to help, he couldn’t afford to shoot custom images and license them for $10 USD each.

Microstock to the rescue. “The designer gets to pay a license he can afford, the business owner gets a website that looks good, I can shoot the images, then license them to 10,000 other small business owners who are in the same boat”, Thomas says. That should leave just about everyone as a winner, right?


“Traditional stock houses photographers weren’t happy. At all.”, Thomas recalls. “Now that we are selling to this segment of the market that they have ignored, we are bottom feeders and accused of stealing the food from their mouths.”, he says, but points out that there’s something the traditional stock photographers seem to be forgetting. “The people who buy RF Microstock are not the same as the ones licensing RM.”

Why aren’t they the same people? Simple: “They are not the same ones that can afford to license RF from traditional stock houses.”, Thomas muses, and makes it clear how he feels: “These are customers that because of greed, arrogance, and mistaking business for art, photographers told to fuck off”.

Why the numbers don’t quite stack up…

Bruce Livingstone created the first Microstock company iStockPhoto in 2000, and sold it to Getty six years later for a mind-melting $50 million USD. The cynical would say that he was the only one who got rich of micro stock, but they’d be wrong.

Getty Images reported earning of 857.6 million USD for 2006. This was an increase over their 2005 earnings. In the same year a PDN survey reported, “In general, stock incomes have stagnated for most photographers over the past five years, with slightly more than half (52%) of respondents reporting incomes that have stayed the same or fallen”.

Wait a minute… The stock agencies are making more money, but the photographers shooting for the stock agencies are unhappy? How could that possibly be right?

The rumour has it that Photographers submitting to traditional stock houses are making the BIG BUCKS – and you frequently hear success stories of photographers who are making a very fine living indeed. Is that true for all of them, though?

“The PDN survey tells a different story”, Thomas says: Photographers selling images at traditional stock agency reported an average income of $86,400 (from all types of photography) half of that ($40,600) came from stock sells. Self-distributors those earned the majority of their stock income selling directly to clients reported an average income of $68,700 about 35% of that ($24,000) came from stock sells.

The big bucks microstockers feel they are missing comes down to $40,000 to $24,000 per year. These amounts are well within the range of any professional Microstocker to make. The survey also found that photographers that reported the majority of their income came from RF stock sales earning on average were $63,200 from this licensing model. For the photographers that reported the majority of their income came from RM stock sales the average was $38,500 in stock sales.

So, Why does the PDN survey reports an average microstock income of less then $1,000 per year? Thomas has an answer ready: “more people do photography as a hobby then a profession”. He also offers the flipside, though: “If you make it a profession, there’s ample opportunity to make a decent living in microstock”.

How can a photographer make a living on $.20 a download?

On any websites critical of microstock, you always see this amount ($0.20) reported. The chart above from the PDN survey shines a little more light on this subject.

As we can see, the only photographers making that amount are submitting to Shutterstock a subscription Microstock site. The other two sites shown, Dreamstime averages $1.15 per download and IstockPhoto $.85 per download payment.

Why are these figures per download payments so low? The majority of people submitting to Microstock site are hobbyist. These are the contributors with portfolio of 10-300 images and receive 2-4 downloads each day.

The professional Microstocker has much larger portfolios and higher download rates, though: “I define a professional Microstocker as someone with an average portfolio of 1000-10,000 images and an average download rate of about 30-250 images per day.”, Thomas says.

“In addition”, he claims – and I believe this is the crux of the matter “they treat working with Microstock sites as a business.” The problem with the large number of amateurs involved in microstock is that they have a very loud voice: Complaining about lack of sales or a low return isn’t countered by those who are doing well, because they’re too busy running their business.

“I will confine this discussion to Gold level exclusive iStockPhoto contributors, since I have the most knowledge about this level.”, Thomas says. “On average Gold, members have 1000 images in their portfolios, over 10,000 downloads and receive a 35% commission rate. The average payment per download would be closer to $1.54. A typical download rate per month would be about 1,100 images.”

If you’ve missed the math on that one, we’re talking pretty big money, but it doesn’t stop there, as Thomas points out: “Additional income consists of extended license sells, print sales, and custom jobs shoots from contacts made on these sites. Extended license sells and custom jobs shoots on average will add $50.00 to $100.00 to each month’s total. When we add these numbers together; (1.54 x 1100 = 1700 x 12 = $20,400) you get a better picture of the average professional Microstockers income.”

So, how does Microstock stack up against traditional stock photography?

At iStockPhoto a large file goes for $10 USD, a Gold level exclusive member would receive $3.50 USD or 35%. “Corbis licenses a 2 MB file for $140 USD of this I am guessing the photographer get about 20%, or $28 USD.”, Thomas estimates. “I have no way of knowing what the true commission is, but I know Getty pays a 20% commission. I can find no reason to believe Corbis would pay much higher.”

It is no surprise that the traditional stock houses photographer has made more money. The fact is he/she has made $24.50 more than the Microstockers.

How many large size downloads would it take the Microstockers to equal this income, seven large downloads. In the world of Microstock, images anything less than 10 downloads per month would be conceded a slow mover.

Buy for a penny and sale for a dime.

“I am not trying to convince photographers to switch over to shooting for RF Microstock.”, Thomas concedes. “Each person has their business to run and to make profitable”. He continues: “We really need really about how the new models of selling photography effect business and how we can capitalize on this new market.”

A keen eye for business can be as important as a sharp eye for a photograph: “Sometimes we treat our images like children, and we take things too personally. Stock photographic has always been about business, nothing has chanced in the last five years. What is the first rule of business? Buy for a penny and sale for a dime.”

By making a proper budget, doing the math, and operating like a proper business, you’re well on your way to making it big, then. Surely, there’s something missing from all of this… Oh, yeah. The photos…

So, what makes a good microstock photo?

There is little difference, as far as I can tell, about the type of photograph that sells well on Microstock sites or RF images sold by places like Getty or Corbis.

The only differences are the customer base and pricing. Some of the themes that seem to do very well are Business, Lifestyle images, and images dealing with concepts – think ‘illustration image’, and you’re thinking in the right direction.

Why choose microstock over big stock agencies?

“Microstock site are accessible!”, Thomas exclaims. “Microstock site do not ask you to submit 3,000 images for concretion. Microstock sites do not work under the “Good Old Boy” system of inclusion, and they’ve found new customer bases that were unable to buy images in the past. These customers are bringing lots of new money into the market”, Thomas enthuses.

In addition, there are a few advantages with the mediom of microstock: “Microstock sites have a very fast turn around time for getting these images on the market. An example would be, hot new media topic “world-wide food shortage”. I come up with a great idea for this topic, and submit images to a traditional stock agency. It may take weeks before those images pass thru the inspection and key wording process. Submitting the same images to a Microstock sites and the images can be online within hours.”


So, what does a good stock portfolio look like?

Willie Thomas is a successful microstock photographer, and that made me very curious about what his stock portfolio, in fact, looks like. Luckily, he’s happy to tell us: “As of April 23, 2008, I have 1176 images online. The pattern of downloads is 10% of these get multiple downloads each day. Another percent of the portfolio downloads once a day and some images download only once a month. What I am always surprise about is the total amount poor performers contribute to the bottom line.”

Despite all of this, he couldn’t quite live off his microstock earnings. “It question depends on how much money you need to support your standard of living.”, he quips. “You can find some very interesting ideas about this subject here. For mepersonally, I did not start in microstock to make a living. I started submitting images to supplement my photographic income.”

Thomas further explains that most of his images that sell well have people in them – not such a big surprise, really, considering his ‘day job’ is as a portrait photographer. “I shoot high-end portraits for business people, mostly”, he says, and believes that this gives him access to many location and models that work well as stock images. He has a few models he works with again and again, but is also on the look-out for new faces.

Investing in your stock portfolio

If you want to take (micro)stock photography seriously, though, you have to make some sacrifices. “Spend a penny to make a dime”, Thomas repeats, and clarifies that you really have to work hard and smart to make your stock portfolio pay for itself.

“With stock photography, since you do not know if or how long it will take to get your investment back, you must keep the costs low.”, he advises.

“I use 5% to 10% of each months earning and reinvest this into image making. This may not seem like much but so far, this has been working. I find you have to get creative to keep the costs this low.”

Just another grinder

When asked how good a photographer he is, Thomas jokes that he’s a “fucking rock star”, but once the laughter dies down, he admits he’s no better than many other photographers out there. “I am a grinder like 90% of the photographers working. I am passionate about photography and love my job. In my group of photo friends, I am the person who can light anything. In the end, I will let the images speak for themselves.”

“How long did it take you to build up your microstock portfolio?”, I ask him. “Hey, don’t ask a question like that – it make it sound like I have stop building it”!. The man’s got a point.

“I am a slow starter and it took me over six months to get 100 images into the portfolio.”, he says. ” Once I saw you could turn this into a profitable business I got serious about producing images. Remember selling stock images is just part of my photographic income. In the beginning I had to find a way to make, it fit into my schedule. To make this work and to keep cost low, my workflow had to be tight.”

A week in the life of a microstock star

Monday: Plan stock shoots/process images from last weeks’ shoots. I try to get two stock sessions done per week. For processing the images, I use Lightroom for about 90% of the work. I am a firm believer in getting it right in the camera, so I do not spend much time fixing images in Photoshop. I am a firm believer in Actions and Presets, if I do take an image into Photoshop more than likely I have built an Action to fix the problem.

Tuesday: Other studio business

Wednesday: Shoot stock images/upload images. A stock session last from two to three hours depending on what I have to shoot. After the shoot, it is back to other studio business for the rest of the day. I use software that allows me to bulk upload images, this part of the process is complete in the evening.

Thursday and Friday: Other studio business

Saturday: Flea markets/Stock shoots.

Sunday: Extreme couching!

Final advice

There’s no real secret to microstock photography: It’s all about the hard graft, putting in the hours, and delivering consistently good work. But then, that’s the case with all professions, right?


A huge thanks to Willie Thomas of EDPT fame – also check out his iStockPhoto portfolio!

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