Tide Turns Against Microstock

A couple years ago I noticed that one of the microstock stock photo agencies was promoting that they licensed photos for as low as 14 cents.  Of that the photographer would get only a small percentage.  I was outraged and went to one of the major independent microstock forums and posted my concern over what was being done to the industry.

You would have thought I just assassinated the President by the reaction.  A firefight of great magnitude was kicked off, with one microstock photographer leading the charge against me, saying where did I get off suggesting my work was worth more…  I should be willing to be in the trenches shooting for peanuts with the rest of them and get off of my “high horse.”

Last night I noticed that the same photographer who was attacking me has numerous posts on his own blog complaining about the unfair treatment of photographers by microstock agencies, particularly iStock  and one linking to an interview with Yuri Arcurs, the number one top selling microstock photographer.

The interview, conducted by photographer John Lund, may be the final nail in the microstock coffin.

The truth is that microstock has always used deception to gain contributors.  They have one or two photographers who have done exceptionally well at it and held them up as examples of “how well you can do if you just invest more in your shoots, quit your day job and upload more.”

It banked on the many thousands of people who wanted to become photographers and didn’t know the business practices of the industry and would be suckered by the empty promises.  I was flamed when I spoke out against it simply because  new photographers WANTED to believe the lie they were being told.

Yuri is quite candid in the interview and I thank him for it.  The truth with which he speaks has opened the door to solving the problems in the industry.

From a brief email exchange I had with Yuri about the time of my rant a couple years back I knew he was more than a little disenchanted with the direction of the industry when he confided that he was having to invest more money into his shoots and upload more work just to keep his income from falling.

Where others interpreted his efforts to step up production as proof the business model would pay off if only they worked hard enough and invested enough in their shoots, I knew it was merely an effort to keep from losing any more ground.

He has now told the world the real scoop in his interview with Lund:

“my return per image has decreased with almost 1 USD a year since 2009. My return per image topped at 9.1 USD in 2009, and in 2010 it topped at 7.10 USD. It is continuously falling and I expect it to top at 5.6 USD in 2011. My total income, however, is not falling, but this is only due to my working and producing like a mad man. I have doubled my portfolio in 2010, but this is, of course, not sustainable. I can’t continue to increase production like this forever, so something has to change.”

How true.  The microstock business model is “more for less.”  It doesn’t work.

He was also asked if he believed a photographer entering microstock today had a chance of being successful.  The answer was “NO”.  Yuri explained that entering in 04 when he did, the game was different.  In the present, the odds are completely against it.  Here is what he said:

“Lund: Is it too late to get into the microstock game now?

Yuri: The short answer would be yes. If you plan to be successful in this industry it’ll cost you an enormous amount of money, you will have to work 24 hours a day for several years, and you will have to be exceptionally skilled. You will also have to be more than just an extraordinary photographer and you will have to know the industry of stock photography very well.”

The answer begs a question: “If I have to work THAT HARD to establish myself, wouldn’t I be better off devoting that time and energy to enter a market that pays what the work is worth?”

Some time back I took a look at that and the stock photo industry as a whole.  I concluded that it had become cannibalistic and that the only solution was to start licensing my work directly. Apparently Yuri is thinking along the same lines:

“Refined shooters will move to exclusivity and I will start selling primarily from my own site.”

He also predicts that buyers will soon become quite disenchanted with microstock if things don’t change.

Quite a bit has to change here.  Microstock has always been nothing other than a cancer that consumes its host and itself.  That day is almost here.  The contributors who once believed the lies are up in arms about the utter lack of respect (and fair payment for their work) of photographers.  The forums are ablaze with contributors objecting to business practices that do not support the cost of production of their work. Microstock is losing the one thing they depend on to survive: their contributors.  The better photographers are seeing the return on investment simply isn’t there and the newbies can’t contribute the quality of work that microstock tells the buyers they have.

And the buyers are finding that using microstock can be a fatal mistake.  Examples include the person who licensed an image from iStock only to learn that the person who uploaded it had stolen it, the magazine who used a microstock photo on the cover only to have to reprint the entire edition when a billboard promoting an adult product using the same image when up in town, or simply the lack of effectiveness of using an image that looks just like every other image as a part of their marketing.

Microstock crept in due to the refusal of traditional stock to adapt to the markets and changing technology and open the door to talented contributors.  This is unfortunate and it will take a long time and serious cooperation among photographers and photographer associations to repair the damage that has been done.

The web has changed how business is done drastically.  Old licensing models don’t work.  They need to be refined to fit the new medium.  The failure to address the issue is why we see rampant copyright abuse and expectations that images used on the web be free.  And the closed door practice of the photo industry backed up hundreds of thousands of hopefuls looking for a way in who eventually decided selling their work for peanuts was preferable to nothing at all.

Change for the better will require some of the following changes:

1. Experienced photographers need to adopt a more open door policy and be willing to share their business knowledge with those seeking to enter the profession.  There is plenty of work for all of us, but only if we all understand the value of our work and how to license it.

2. Serious discussion and evaluation of the licensing models needs to be undertaken by the major photography associations and a workable model evolved for the web.  Low circulation blogs and websites, combined with the tendency for electronic images to remain online for long durations don’t fit well with the print licensing models.  Failure to address this threw the door open wide to the microstock opportunists to create a market by essentially giving the images away for nothing.

3. This evolution could well lead us back to the “dark ages” of stock photography licensing.  That is the rights managed system.  Under it the blog with a hundred readers a month pays far less for the use of an image than a fortune 500 company using the image as a part of an international advertising campaign.  This will also protect the earning power (and thus the ability to produce more images) of photographers by preventing a company or designer from licensing an image once and then using it repeatedly in different campaigns without paying additional royalties.  Many will object to this I’m sure, but it is preferable to the alternative… no images of any quality.  It also has the advantage of knowing where your image has been.  Clients will no longer have to fear seeing the images used in a multi million dollar ad campaign also used by a competitor.

4. Microstock photographers will need to put serious pressure on microstock agencies to start using licensing methods that are fair, and demanding fees from their clients high enough to support the cost of production.  As long as photographers allow their work to be licensed for a dime and used without restrictions, the abuses will continue.  The race to to the bottom on stock prices has reached an end and everyone lost.  Should one now decide to emerge that respects the photographers that provide the work they depend on, and creates a business model that licenses the work for fair prices and in a manner that protects the copyright of the photographer, and works to protect the earning power of its contributors, it will emerge the victor.

I would like to close this with a thank you to Yuri Arcurs.  I have long respected the quality of your work and your open door policy toward other photographers coupled with your willingness to share your success.  It is open communication and cooperation that will put the industry back on track.  My thanks are for speaking the truth and opening the door to the changes we need to see to protect the industry we all love.  And also a thank you to John Lund for conducting the interview.  John has provided some of the most useful info on the evolving world of stock photography that I have seen.

To my readers, please take the time to read the original interview with Yuri.  He isn’t totally damning the industry, but he is saying it needs to change.  You need to read his exact words undiluted by my comments and form your own conclusions.

4 thoughts on “Tide Turns Against Microstock

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Although I disagree that microstock is dying, or that microstock agencies promote licensing “for a dime and without restrictions,” I do think change is coming.

    Pricing shifts at iStock have made images in their Vetta & Agency collections more expensive than many traditional RM/RF agencies. Also, almost all microstock agencies restrict image size & number of uses in their base licenses. (I’ve written on this issue before — if you think it worthwhile, I’m happy to post a link.)

    Best of luck to all of us in 2011.



    CEO & Founder, LookStat

    • The size of the image being the primary determination of price is not a good criteria and only part of the equation to be factored in when licensing images.

      Microstock may not promote the without restrictions but that is what is occurring. With the sheer number of downloads occurring and contributors not being allowed to know who is downloading their images and whey they are being used for, they have no way of even knowing when copyright violations occur. And in a case I personally experienced of a flagrant violation of terms of use one of the stock agencies told me that “unfortunately, this is quite common and with the sheer number of downloads your images have, there is nothing we can do to even verify it was validly licensed.”

      The basic problem here is that those entering the world of microstock to license their work have no idea what an industry standard licensing model is. Many do not even know that they have rights to their work or that their work is LICENSED and not SOLD. Even the agencies do not seem to be aware of this as they refer to licenses as “downloads” or “sales.”

      Hence microstock, which used that ignorance to exploit those wishing to become photographers and shatter their dreams in the process.

      No one is faulted for wishing to find a market for their work, but time spent learning the ropes of the business before doing so would be well spent. There are a number of professional organizations with a wealth of free information on this subject. It can be found and learned. No one can expect to do well in a business without first learning what the business actually is.

  2. The MS model definitely exploits the fact that amateurs feel like total outsiders in the market and evidently feel swayed by ‘selling’ their images, even if it’s only for pennies. I know because I did this myself. One year on, after selling high-res TIFFS for 35c through the subs plan, I’ve stopped uploading and moving to RM (which is much more suited to my editorial orientated portfolio). The vitriol that is unleashed when photographers voice genuine concerns about the direction of the industry on the MS forums is simply bizarre.

  3. I watched Mark shoot, working with my triplets for 3 days. I couldn’t believe the amount of work that went into it, planning shots, working to get the light, location, wardrobe and poses all just right. And that was just the beginning. There followed many hours of pouring over hundreds of images and processing them.

    It was an eye opening experience and I will never again think when I see a good photo in a magazine that all someone did was push a button. The perfection we see in the photos in magazines doesn’t “just happen.”

    A photographer certainly can’t deliver the quality of images we saw for a few bucks as is the current trend in stock photography. I am thrilled that we had the opportunity to work on a professional photoshoot and see the work that really occurs behind the scenes. I wish more could have a similar opportunity.

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