How much can you make selling microstock?

I’m always suspicious when I see an ad seeking photographers. Anyone who is providing legitimate work for photographers doesn’t have to advertise. They have photographers lined up at their door.

So when I saw an ad on the internet today hyping the fortunes to me made by becoming a microstock photographer, curiosity got the best of me. I clicked on it and out rolled a ten page document loaded with graphics.

Most photographers already know that the vast majority of images licensed through microstock result in a gross earnings paid to photographers of 15 cents to 38 cents per download. So the first paragraph hyped the insatiable appetite the world currently has for images and tells how they have licensed more than 250,000,000 million images since 2003. Nice.

Now they also say they have over 20 million images on line. Let’s do some math:

250,000,000 downloads divided by 20,000,000 images and we know each image has been downloaded 12.5 times. Divide that by the ten years they have been operating and the average number of sales per image you can expect each year is 1.2 … multiply that by the whipping 38 cents you will make for each of those downloads and each image you upload will average you a whopping 47 cents!

Now I know someone is going to rush over here and tell me my math is wrong, that they actually make far more than .38 cents per download… like as much as two or three dollars. So go ahead and do the same math using those numbers. It’s still a crime. And I checked the site and found that they now have 25,000,000 images on line and are adding 75,000 images per week!

It just doesn’t add up! Do the math and work out how many images you will need to reach your income goals…. whether you use the 38 cent figure, or the dollar or two one. Don’t forget to figure in your expenses.

And it gets worse. When microstock first came out they were telling us all to upload any old photos hanging out on our hard drives. Your dog, pet kitten, vegetable garden, the photos of your vacation you couldn’t get your friends to look at… They needed inventory if they were going to pull the rug out from under the then existing stock photo agencies.

They have succeeded in doing that. Now they are saying in the document that unfurled that to be successful today at microstock, you actually need to shoot good work and will need a full crew to do so. Makeup artists, wardrobe and prop stylists, food stylists etc and that you will need good professional models, professional lighting, and professional level cameras and lenses. Well, this is what the pros have been saying all along, and why the pros have been saying microstock is unfair to photographers.

Of course 38 cents doesn’t go far toward paying for these things. So they suggest you rent your lighting and gear. Um Hum… have they ever priced the cost of rentals? They state agency models are needed, and too expensive, so suggest getting the model to work outside of the agency and work free to get new images for their portfolios. This creates even more problems. It cheats photographers who shoot model portfolios out of their income, it cheats the agency out of the money they should get for representing the models and trying to find them work, and it cheats the model out of future income. Why would anyone pay him or her if all they have to do is give them a couple pictures?

For solving the problem with stylists etc, they suggest running a Craigs list ad to find ones wanting to break in who will work for free. Sounds fair. After all, they have the photographers working for next to free, why shouldn’t their crews do the same!

There is an old saying, if you give them an inch, they will take a mile. That is an understatement in this case. They have taken 10,000 miles and are still running with the same old lie: “If you just invest more into your shoots and shoot better quality images for less money you will soon find great riches…”

The few who did found out their riches ran out and that they were working harder and harder each month for less. We don’t hear much about them anymore!

The microstock business model is fundamentally opposed to the realities of producing good images. A good commercial image requires planning, working out the message and theme, finding locations, models, wardrobe, styling and leaving none of the details to chance. At microstock royalty rates and with their licensing models, photographers can’t afford to do that.

It is highly unethical to promise great fortunes to people when they know they are not there to be had. It is more unethical to urge these same people to find ways to get still people to work for free to subsidize the business of the agencies and the clients who both profit from the work. If the demand for photos is as great as they claim (and it is), then it was certainly unnecessary to devalue the work as drastically as microstock has.

It’s actually a bit worse than slavery. Before the Civil War, plantation owners paid for their slaves and then had to feed and clothe them. Microstock expects you to invest heavily into your gear, and again on each shoot under the false promise that one day you will see something in return for it.

So what was this ad all about? Simply another effort to get higher quality work without paying for it.

Please !

5 thoughts on “How much can you make selling microstock?

  1. A lot of great points Mark. Microstock peaked several years ago, and it is extremely hard for anyone to make a decent income from it these days – the gold rush is over.

    Another interesting point: if they have 25 million images, and tens of thousands of photographers, why on earth would they need to try to attract more photographers, who all have to learn from scratch?

    The obvious reason is that they have a horrific attrition rate of photographers who sign up to the dream offered, provide images for a while, and quickly realise that it is all a big con. So, they constantly need ‘fresh blood’.

    • Exactly! Though part of what I read seemed to indicate they are also trying to get photographers to invest more in their shoots, saying stylists, other crew members, good locations, good models, good gear etc are needed if you are going to have images that sell…. yet they are still licensing the work for the same rates as back in the day when they were simply urging anyone with a camera to point it at something, press the button and upload it. More work, MUCH more investment, and far less money… especially considering the image will drown in a sea of 25 million images.

  2. Well hey, who needs Microstock at all anymore when Google themselves just go right ahead and take any image they please and display it at full resolution in their search results without so much as an incentive to visit the photographers website?

    Capitalism has given us many gifts, but the kind of unregularted, unchecked capitalism we are seeing today is killing us.

  3. Yes, google is the next step down. Unfortunately, Google considers all it does for the “public good” and that “good” includes stripping creators of all walks of their right to earn a living from their work. We have seen that with their project to scan all books in print into their databases. Cheated a lot of authors and bookstores out of their incomes… but it was for the “public good”.

    What I don’t understand is why Google is so protective of their own code and won’t share that in the same manner they expect all others to do.

  4. Public good? Ha! That’s a laugh. Google only does things for the good of Google.

    The internet in general has been ruined. Once a free and open space, the vast majority of traffic has now concentrated into the hands of a few giant corporation who control and censor everything. Welcome to the future.

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