The problem with microstock

We do an experiment with microstock, and discover that while I sold three times more photos, I earned 40 times less money from the micro stock sales than from a full-on agency – with the exact same photos on sale…

The lesson? If you’re a decent photographer, stay the hell away from micro-stock: The bigger agencies treat you better, pay you more, and actually make an effort to sell your photos on a bigger scale.  


A bit of background on this one: I used to work as a freelance photographer, and I have a huge back-library of photos that have been used in print, which is now sitting around, doing nothing much at all. I’ve long been selling them via Alamy, and have made a nice little income on the photos over the years.

A bit of history

The problem is that traditionally, stock photography has been a staple of high-end photographers who want a way to make a long-term investment into their photography: Huge agencies take on the very best photographers and represent them (hence the word ‘agency’), selling their photographs to newspapers, magazines, etc, and take a share of the money for their services, then look after the rest.

Then along came Alamy, which caused waves: It had high quality standards, and demanded the very best from its photographers, but it was one of the first times where any professional photographer could be tied to a large agency and start making money of their stock libraries.

Then something weird happened: Microstock. The basic idea of micro stock photography is that photographers upload their photos, which then are sold for what in the world of stock photography is a ridiculously low amount of money. How ridiculous? Well, a photo on iStockphoto sells typically for 20 times less than a photo on Alamy, which in turn sells for a third of the price of a photo from one of the ‘big boys’.

The real problem here, of course, is simple economics: Even if you have a phenomenally huge library, it’s nigh-on impossible to make a decent living off microstock, simply because the margins are far too low to bother. As a result, the entire low-end of the stock photography market is left to amateurs who want to try and break into making some cash of their photos. No harm done there, you may say, but the problem is that the amateurs – even though many of them are highly talented photographers – are grossly underselling their high-quality photos.

Whereas people used to turn to microstock with a slight tinge of disdain, and an approach of ‘these photos aren’t really good enough, but I can’t afford to use a big agency’s photos with this budget’, the current batch of photos on iStockphoto and the rest of the microstock brigade is actually pretty good.

Which is worrying, because it means that the people who are letting micro stock agencies represent themselves are probably underselling themselves quite drastically.

The experiment

Personally, I’ve got around 400 photos in my portfolio on Alamy, and I make a reasonably good amount of money per month – not enough to live off, but not bad either, considering it’s just sitting there, making money. In fact, 90% of the sales I make are of the same 3 photos, and that gets close to 100% when we take the top 10 photos. So I figured I’d try a little experiment: What happens if I take the same 10 best-selling photos, and upload them to iStockphoto? How many sales will I make? How much money will I make?

Quite apart from the absolutely ridiculous vetting procedures iStockphoto have (that’s another post waiting to happen – suffice to say that I’m vastly unimpressed how they reject photos that I’ve had in print in dozens of magazines, websites and books because of fictional ‘issues’ – and how photos that are very similar, taken within seconds of each other, but with a different angle – get accepted without any problems), the results of my little experiment were frightening.

Over the period I ran this test, I sold 3 photos from the top 10 via Alamy, and 8 photos from the same selection via iStockphoto. Not bad, you may say: I’ve just made nearly three times more sales via a microstock site. Which is entirely undeniable.

However, if you look at the paycheck, the difference is shocking: The 8 sales via iStockphoto put a total of $4.54 in my pocket: Definitely not worth the while it took me to upload, tag, and faff about with the photographs. In contrast, the pay-check from Alamy, was just over $200.

Apart from the entirely selfish approach, which can be summarised into ‘I would much rather make $200 than $4.54′, there is the grander scheme of things to keep in mind: It’s all fine and dandy to chuck your photos on a site and make some cash off them, but is it worth it if this means that you’re taking the bread and butter away from someone else?

The bigger picture

A recent article on the BBC News website explains what the problem really is:

“If photographers, like any artist, are going to continue to invest and create and be involved and if the business want to see the types of images from professional photographers that are really extraordinary then they are going to have to support the artists,” says Betsy Reid from the Stock Artists Alliance which represents professional stock photographers.

“Unfortunately, we need to be paid to survive. I have seen very little evidence, if any, that anyone can thrive on a microstock income,” says Reid.

Microstock has also put pressure on professional photographers like Shannon Fagan. He now has to produce 60 saleable shots in one session rather than the 10 he used to aim for and the budget cuts affect his entire operation.

“My fees are dropping. I presented that to the agencies that sell the photos, and said this is a problem. There is nothing they can do about it. It is not their problem. It gets transferred to me, the crew, the models, the locations,” he says.

Another piece of writing from the Photographers Direct site rings very true to me:

The painful injustice of microstock sites can be seen from the July 23rd 2007 cover of Time Magazine. The cover has 3 images. One is credited to Getty Images, one to istockphoto. How much did the photographers earn?

… obviously, both photographers were good enough to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine – but one of them screwed themselves over badly. While they can now say they’ve been published on the cover of Time Magazine, one of them hasn’t seen more than a few dollars for their photo, while the other photographer made enough for a week-end break in New York for his troubles. Does that seem fair to you?

A word on RF / RM

Microstock is typically sold as Royalty Free (RF). This means that once the end-user has purchased a licence to use this photograph, they can use it again and again without paying royalties – If a band decides to use your photograph on the front of a album cover, or if a magazine decides to use it in a mast-head (a banner that goes across the top, typically used to mark off a specific section of a magazine), they can use the photo again and again as often as they please.

Rights managed photography (RM), however, works differently – in this case, a publisher buys the right to use your photograph in a very specific setting (print run of up to 10,000, in the US only, in the months of April and May, for example), which means that if the magazine decides to use your photo one more time, they have to pay you one more time.

There has long been some animosity between professional stock photographers, who have traditionally been selling their images rights-managed, and photographers who have decided to sell their photos on an RF licence, because the former feel that the latter are devaluing the market.

The discussion rages further, of course, with the introduction of the microstock markets, where you not only don’t get a choice about which licence you sell your photographs under, but it’s also selling at much lower price

Some advice

If you’re good enough to take superb-quality photos, put some work into getting adequate representation, and sign with a good stock photography agency. Selling your best photos for cents is an insult – not just to yourself, but also to those who work full-time to produce high quality stock photography.

In the grand scheme of things, if you keep giving away your best photos for cheap, you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.

I, for one, will take down my photos off iStockPhoto. It’s not worth the hassle, and it’s just plain wrong.

Finally, you may be interested an article we wrote a while ago, entitled How Much should I charge for a Photo

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