Dreamstime: The Anatomy of a Stock Photo Agency Gone Mad

Several months ago I saw two industry graphs put out by a government agency.  One showed the increase in the demand for images since 2008.  It was going almost straight up.  Year after year.  The other represented jobs in the industry and the earnings of those who create images.  It was going straight down at the same rate.

It occurred to me someone had to be working quite hard to strip photographers of their ability to earn a living for these two conditions to exist side by side.

It’s quite obvious the demand for images is soaring.  Anywhere you look, someone is promoting their product, service or cause.  And the hook to get you interested in it is always an image.  Yet as the demand increases, photographers are working harder, investing more and more into their businesses and earning less month after month.

Why is this happening?  Well, you don’t have to look any farther than the deal Dreamstime cooked up with Google to find out.  In an announcement to their contributors – that apparently contributors were suppose to be thrilled about – Dreamstime hammered out a deal where Google would pay a licensing fee of $2.00 per image and then people using Google display ads could use those images.

The first problem here is $2.00 per image license?  Really?  That won’t even buy a loaf of bread, let alone cover the cost or producing a professional quality photo.  The second is once Google has licensed the image for $2.00, each person running a Google ad gets to use the image without the creator of the image getting paid a royalty.   So the deal also cuts the creator of the image out of future license fees for a lousy couple of bucks.

The insanity here is mind boggling.  And I honestly have to ask myself if they are stupid, insane… or just plain evil.  The action doesn’t just hurt contributors… it hurts every photographer in the business by lowering the overall value of our work in the eyes of the public (a little like pouring toxic chemicals into a pristine river.  It eventually contaminates the river and the ocean it dumps into)… and it hurts Dreamstime.  It also hurts those who need quality photography for their advertising as the quality of images drops in direct ratio to the diminishing return on investment.

By hammering out a deal to license stock photos once and allow the company that licenses them to re-license use of the images (whether charging or including them in the price of the ad) to anyone running a display ad with no further payment to Dreamstime or the creator of the image is cheating both out of untold license fees they could have and should have earned.  The people who will no longer be paying to license these images are the exact client demographic stock photo agencies license work to.  It also cheats ALL stock photo agencies, and ALL photographers out of income because few of Googles advertisers are likely to pay for an image via any source when Google is providing it free… compliments of the photographers that got suckered.

Why do I think it was just plain evil?  Consider this.  What person who can afford to run a display ad can’t afford $2.00 to license an image to use in it?  I mean really???!!!  There was no good reason to hammer out the deal in the first place.  It benefits no one and does great harm to the industry.

I suppose it is unfair to pick on Dreamstime.  They aren’t the only ones in the industry who have gone mad.  In fact the entire industry has become quite cannibalistic.  There was the under the table Google Drive deal between Getty Images (or was it iStock, same thing now days) to provide images to Google under similar terms, also cheating photographers out of any commission they should have earned from the image on subsequent uses.  But in this deal, photographers got the grand sum of $12.00 per image.  Dreamstime has taken it to a new low.

We need look no farther than what Dreamtime employee Malina Tudoroiu told Peta Pixel in regards to the deal to understand just why it is that when the demand for images is out the roof, photographers are going out of business.  She said:  “There’s nothing unusual in this deal, except of course for the famous name…”

So this is business as usual at today’s stock photo agencies.  Hammer out “great” deals that cheat everyone concerned out of their royalties and devalue the industry as a whole.  And it is this type of insane, short term gain with long term destruction, type of business logic that is dragging the entire industry into the mud.


“Hey! Someone stole our photos!”

This morning when I opened my email, there was a frantic email from one of my clients saying “Hey! Someone stole our photos!”  She attached a link to the website of one of her direct competitors where I indeed found several of the same images she used in her marketing.

The problem is that they aren’t her photos.  That is they weren’t photos we shot ourselves for her marketing.  They were stock photos her ad agency had used to “save money.”  Worse, they weren’t rights managed stock photos, or even the standard royalty free stock photos, they were the cheap microstock photos.

Why does that make it more of a problem?  Because under a rights managed licensing system, you, the copyright holder and agency know if the images has been used before, and where the image has been used if it has.  You can decide if a conflict was created by prior use, and you can license rights that prevent the image from being used in a conflicting manner in the future.  Under the royalty free model, you have lost that protection.

Microstock takes is down a few more steps… into the garbage dump.  Not that you can’t find nice images on microstock if you are willing to spend the time sorting through the chaff, but they are licensed so cheaply and in such volume that you have NO control over where that image might appear.  And due to the dollar an image pricing model, many of those places could seriously harm your reputation (low reputation companies, trashy blogs, adult products and services, etc).  The high volume licensing also serves as a liability.  Microstock agencies and their contributors are unable to police illegal uses of the images as it is simply not economically viable to search the records for each use found and there are estimates that for each legitimate use of an image, there will be found dozens if not hundreds of illegal uses. In short, your marketing image could easily have been used by thousands, if not tens of thousands of other companies and individuals for any purpose.

I discussed this issue with both the client and the agency at the time they elected to use the stock images rather than doing a “custom” photoshoot.  They dismissed my argument (above) as self serving.  It may be, but it is also true, and they are now taking steps to do a shoot to replace the images, and, of course, re-create all of the marketing materials that the images were use in.  I don’t see the savings there.

The need to control where your image is used goes beyond stock photography.  It can seem to clients who are not old hands in the industry that the business practices of professional photographers are a “hassle” to them and we need to simply dismiss such “silly” things as registering our copyright and licensing our work.  Yet, it usually benefits the client more than the photographer that we hold the line and stick to professional business practices.

A well known architectural photographer I know told me her clients frequently object to her registering the copyright and licensing the images to them. They simply wish to have the images given to them without such encumbrances.  She points out to them that if she does not do so, then they have little to no recourse when someone steals the images for their own use.  How often does that happen?  With almost every client, she says, and each time she has worked with her attorneys get the offending images removed for the benefit of the client.

It may seem that cheap unencumbered images are a god send, but they are indeed the opposite.  While the current mantra is that it is good for you to let your images, copy and other materials be ripped off for the “exposure” you get, anyone who has worked hard to build a brand knows that is a major disaster in the making.

The best economy is to work with professionals who understand the risks and liabilities and follow business practices that will help you protect your investment and branding.  The photos you use in your marketing are your image, they are how the public perceives you.  You can’t afford to dilute it through loss of control.

Please !

Stock photographers take another hit

Stock photography has taken some interesting turns in the last decade, each one tightening the screws on photographers a bit more until it has become unwise and unprofitable for a good photographer to work with any of the existing stock photo agencies.

The latest hit came from Alamy who has announced that they will be funding their expansion by cutting royalties to photographers 10%.  The math on this isn’t very clear, but it works out to a loss of income of considerably more than a straight 10% cut in royalties.

Downward pressure can only go so far before it either breaks the machine, or springs back.  I believe this day has arrived in the stock photo market.  I do not currently know of one agency at this point who has not given the shaft to the photographers to which they owe their lifeblood.

It is interesting to see how the game is playing out.  Microstock pushed many of the bigger players, and ones who gave photographers a fair deal, out of business by accepting low quality images from amateur photographers and licensing them for pennies.  The price was so cheap that it couldn’t help but disrupt the industry.

Now the microstock companies are seeing their pricing was too low and are significantly raising prices, with two of the agencies approaching pre microstock prices on the images they license… while cutting rates to contributors at the same time.  Nice game, but eventually the margins cross and with some agencies paying less than 15% of royalties the zero line is near.

Both buyers and contributors lose here.  For example, iStock who initiated the race to the bottom by licensing images for 10 and 15 cents is now charging as much as $270 per image.  That is more than most royalty free stock agencies charged before being driven out of business by the pennies on the dollar pricing of microstock.  Those old royalty free stock photo agencies paid photographers a 60% or better commission on the images they licensed.  We now have a situation where buyers are paying more, and photographers are getting less.  Much less!

Quality images are expensive to produce.  Diminishing returns result in the more professional photographers pulling out, and all contributors cutting back on production values to maintain some modicum of profitability, and a severe decline of image quality.  Add to this the liabilities of the crowdsourcing business model where the agencies don’t know and refuse to even speak with their contributors and it will prove a wise move for buyers to also shun the stock photo agencies.

A growing number of photographers have pulled out of the stock photo agencies and have moved to direct licensing of stock.  I think we will see this becoming a trend.

For photographers who are looking for a way out, the following may be solutions for you:

Stockbox Photo
Ktools PhotoStore

These are a starting point.  There are many other options for licensing your own stock.

What’s wrong with this picture: The state of the stock photo industry

What’s wrong with this picture?

Stock photography pricing

Well, let’s see…  for one, we have a situation where photographers are being expected to produce high quality work and let anyone from individual bloggers to multimillion dollar corporations to license the work that drives their marketing and profits for pennies.

What does the photographer gain in return?  Enough money to:

  • park his car for two minutes
  • buy 1/3 of a postage stamp
  • enjoy 1/10th of a cup of coffee
  • buy a half a stick of “penny candy”
  • pay for under 1/8 of an inch of seamless background paper

I’m afraid I am having difficulty finding any one thing this royalty rate will pay for… other than a stock photo which should be licensing for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars!

How the industry came to this sad state of affairs is fully explained in an article in the British Photography Journal entitled: “Stockpiling trouble: How the stock industry ate itself.”  Written by the former founding executive director of the Stock Artists Alliance, this article provides very knowledgeable insight into how the stock photo industry has consumed the very foundation it depends on to survive.  It is a must read for any photographer, whether you shoot stock or not.

Unfortunately this is not limited to stock photography.  It seems to be the new business model that has emerged in a number of industries: a parasitic model where profits are temporarily sent skyward by feeding off the people who produce the product, and off of the very foundation of the the industry as a whole.  This works only in the short term and only for the owner who sells out and cashes in before the signs of erosion become too visible (as in the case of iStock and the Huffington Post).

I do disagree with the article on the overall premise that stock photography is dead.  It is far from it and clients are still very welling to pay fair prices… I still find I have art buyers would would rather license directly through me at fair prices than run the risk of finding out that cheap microstock photo has been used in way that will harm their brand..

As with all cancers, the stock photo industry is actually consuming itself and it doing so could quite well solve the problem for us.  The big agencies are finding they can’t survive on the low prices they put into existence either and they are passing down increasingly worse terms to their contributors in an effort to stay afloat.  As they do this, the contributors are leaving the game.  I know a couple of the heavy hitters who are now weary of spending more and working harder to produce a higher volume of work for less money each month.  One stopped shooting microstock completely about a year ago.  The other is now licensing his new work directly where he can demand fair prices. Another stopped giving his work to one specific agency after they introduced some new unacceptable terms.

Thanks to ANOTHER bad contract put out by Getty, photographers are up in arms against Getty and many are moving their work elsewhere rather than accept the terms. iStock exclusives went on the warpath a short while back  when iStock cut what are already the lowest percentage rates on royalties even further.  Fifteen percent of nothing is about as bad as it can get.

I’m also noticing ads popping up on the new with the microstock agencies advertising for “contributors.”  This would indicate that even  the amateurs wanting to break in are seeing through the favorite microstock lie that all you have to so is invest more money into your shoots, and shoot higher quality work in return for pennies and you will get rich.  It is pretty easy for anyone to look at the numbers and see it ain’t gonna happen!

It can seem that the big bad corporate giants hold all the cards and there is little a photographer can do other than bend over and take it.  This is a complete reversal of the truth.  Without the photographers who create the work, they have nothing to “sell”.  They have no business at all.

The solution is to have nothing to do with the stock photo agencies until they once again realize the value of the people who create the work they depend on and work to protect our earning power… and our ability to finance the cost of creating it.

There are a number of ways any photographer can move to direct licensing of work.  A number of outfits such as PhotoShelter provide photographers the means to license stock themselves.  And while it can seem a tough haul to get on the map, one photo license at a fair price can equal well over 7000 “downloads” at a microstock agency.

If you feel there is simply no way you can cut ties with your stock photo agency, at least take a moment to write them a letter expressing your disapproval for the lack of respect and devaluation of your work.  And take some time to learn healthy business practices and pass them on to your associates.

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.

Hold the Cell Phone to the Other Ear, Baby!

Okay, so the title should really be “How much is that cheap photo costing you?” but the one I chose in its place paints an accurate picture as well…

We’re talking about a cheap, cheap, cheap form of images called microstock. Microstock photographers can see as little as 20 cents or less per image license so they have to make up for it with quantity, quantity, quantity…  Thus, “Hold the cell phone to the other ear baby,” as the microstock photographer works to milk several hundred  “unique” images out of an 8 hour photoshoot.

About a year ago I wrote a post illustrating how several websites had used the same microstock image as an integral part of their branding and how in an age where marketing noise is at an all time high, this is the wrong direction to get noticed and get more business.

What I wrote then has now been proven out by a scientific study.

The New York Times reports that Jakob Nielsen, a Web site consultant and author of a number of books on website design and interface developed some eye-tracking software to track what visitors look at.

A study he recently completed reports that stock photos on websites are completely ignored by visitors. The “feel good images that are purely decorative” are ignored, as are the generic stock photos of people.

In contrast, the study found that when the photos were of real people related to what the article was about, or actual photos of the product being sold, that the images captured and held the readers attention.

The Times concluded with the following words:

Mr. Nielsen concludes with some advice to those using the Web to hawk products or content: “Invest in good photo shoots: a great photographer can add a fortune to your Web site’s business value.”

I would take it one step farther.  I believe the generic microstock photos of the smiling woman with the headset, or the business handshake, or worse, the groups of office professionals giving the thumbs up sign do more harm than good.  The first problem is they make you blend in with the crowd.  Many of these images and their look alike clones have been licensed hundreds of thousands of times.  Cases exist of direct competitors using the same image!

But the more damaging part is that the cheap microstock images cause your company to be perceived as equally cheap and common. While it is true most consumers don’t know that the image cost less than a buck, they do know that it looks just like every other image they have seen.

Yes, this is self serving.  But it is also true.  Cheap microstock images are costing you far more in lost income than it would have cost you to hire a photographer to do a shoot that produced images that related to you, your product and your services in a way that made you interesting to your clients.

Go get the business your competitors are throwing away!

Another microstock nightmare

Microstock has been rubbing professional photographers wrong for some time now due to their efforts to devalue the work of photographers to far below what it costs to produce it.

They accomplished this by promising camera enthusiasts and amateur photographers they will make a fortune by uploading their snapshots to the microstock sites, and then rejecting the vast majority of what they submit….  telling them on one hand that they don’t need fancy cameras or lights… and hey, don’t worry about those pesky permits just do it Paparazzi style. Several microstock sites have posted advice on how to dodge permits and get away with taking shots where it is prohibited, such as professional sporting games (just clone out the team logos and don’t let anyone catch you with your camera).  On the other hand, when contributors complain they are not making enough they are told all they have to do is invest in better gear, sets, props, wardrobe, makeup artists; spend more time scouting for exotic locations, and the big bucks will start rolling in.   Quite the contradiction.

Now the consumers of microstock photos are finding themselves equally upset.

I spoke to the art director of a magazine who told me they had to reprint the entire edition after they found the microstock image they had used for their cover on a billboard for an objectionable product days before the magazine was about to hit the stands.

Not much saving there, was there?

And it gets even more fun.  Today I read of a person who received official notification under the provisions of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) to effect removal of the above-reported infringements from the photographer who held the copyright.

He was shocked.  He had “legally” licensed the image from iStock photo.  Or so he thought.  Problem is that the person who uploaded the image to iStock had stolen it!  Worse, iStock photo refused to take the image down once the theft had been discovered!

Read about it here.

He got lucky.  He only had to pay for the rights to license an image he now can’t use.  He could have been sued.

If you google the topic, you will find the problem is prevalent.  There are countless blog and forum posts where photographers are complaining that they are finding their images have been downloaded from a microstock site, or lifted from Flickr or another source and then uploaded to microstock sites where they hope to profit from the theft.

The problem here is apparent.  Microstock pulled the rug out from under the industry by opening the door to amateur photographers who do not know the value of their work… and have not been shooting long enough to know what it costs to produce it.  Unfortunately for the client, they also do not know the business practices of the industry and see no reason they can’t upload someone else’s image to make a few more pennies, worry about whether or not it was actually legal to shoot where they took the photo, or they simply fill in the model release themselves rather than ask the subject of their photos to do so (who may not have consented to be photographed at all). Since microstock sites do not know their contributors, they have no way to protect you against this.

It has also opened the door so widely that it is impossible for them to track the legitimacy of the images they license.  Shutterstock for example boasts close to 300,000 “photographers.”

How well do you think they know their contributors?  Can you risk the damage that will be done to your business when your client is slapped with a lawsuit for copyright violation of the image you thought you legally licensed through one of the microstock providers?

Probably not.  The moral of the story is that it is probably cheaper to hire a pro to shoot what you need, or to license the work directly from a photographer you know you can trust.  Your image is valuable.  So is your reputation.  Can you afford to have them destroyed by a cheap image?

Dare to be different!

Entering the world of photography, I decided I was not willing to shoot the same look over and over – such as chain portrait studios tend to do.  I believed each subject and client was unique and deserved “special treatment.”  This thinking seems to go against the grain.  Schools and lighting books teach students to photograph their successful lighting set up and then use that exact same set up over and over.  I’ve even had photographer’s consultants tell me I need to focus on ONLY ONE style, that people will come to me because they want that look and lack the creativity to conceive something completely original.  Nonsense!  Creative people create original work.

Today creativity is taking a backseat to economics, yet at no time has it been more important.  In 1998, Jay Conrad Levinson wrote some intensely prophetic words in “Guerrilla Marketing.” He predicted that in the future “Your product or service will often be considered exactly the same as that of your competitors.  This is because an enormous influx of marketing will create mass confusion and the perception that all offerings are created equal.”

Today’s marketing noise has reached levels I doubt even Levinson could foresee when he authored those words.  Blogs, YouTube, MySpace and other social media have created an environment where anyone can shout their marketing message.  I also doubt Levinson could have foreseen just how homogenized and “average” the overall marketing images would become.  Crowdsourcing is the new buzz and stock photo websites known as microstock have thrown the door open wide to anyone with a camera and the ability to copy the images of others.  Even the most professional of these images suffer from a major drawback.  Just as anyone can contribute to microstock, anyone with a dollar or two in their pocket can also license the images.

Levinson also estimated that the individual is subjected to 2,700 marketing messages each day.  That number is far greater today.  Obviously marketing that doesn’t distinguish you from the crowd is wasted!  Many of the more popular microstock images have been licensed 100,000 times or more!  This is compounded by the fact the successful images are copied by many of the other microstock photographers.   Add an infinite number of nearly identical variations to the image and those who use it blend right into the faceless crowd.

In 2009 many of the magazines vanished from the racks and a number of businesses folded.  While the economy made a convenient scapegoat, there was another factor.  Many cut back significantly on their marketing and image quality.  Before the news magazines started to vanish from the shelves, I notice how the covers were all starting to look the same.  One week each of the major news magazines had remarkably similar pictures of money on white backgrounds for their covers.  Despite the message the cover intended to portray, there was another message that was louder.  They were the same as their competitors… and now many of them are gone.

Walking through the malls I am seeing a remarkable sameness and lack of quality creeping into the product images.   I cringed at the boxes of some rather expensive exercise equipment.  The models were anything but attractive, the lighting was bad and the color was as far off as it could get and still appear to be a skin tone.  A sameness appeared on the packaging of many types of goods, and some even used stock photos I recognized from other uses.  Even Walmart used a microstock photo to advertise their own portrait studio!

Stock photography can be good and it does have a place.  But it shouldn’t ever be used as a part of your corporate image and branding, or when you need to be distinctive.  Any form of marketing costs money.  In a difficult economy with marketing noise at unimagined levels, you can’t afford to spend money to become a part of the faceless crowd.

Trends should be created, not followed.  Escape the crowd.  Demand images that are as unique as you are.  Dare to be different and the world will beat down your door!

Note: company names have been removed from the example image below.  This is not an attack on the images themselves, or any company.  It is to illustrate the need to be unique.

Dare to be Different!

The Time Magazine Cover Photo “Ripoff”


When this stock photo appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, the photographer was bouncing off the walls with the thrill of having made the cover of a major magazine.  He posted the cover and his elation on Model Mayhem, a networking site for models and photographers, and received dozens if not hundreds of comments congratulating him on his “victory.”

His sense of accomplishment was short lived.  The problem here is that Time Magazine, who from the reports usually spends in the neighborhood of $3000 for its covers or about $1500 for a stock photo cover, licensed this image from iStock photo for a mere $30.00 – less than the coins in the jar.  Time also failed to read the license well enough when downloading the photo to see the requirement that they give credit to the photographer and iStock photo for the image and failed to do so.

I’m sure the wind in the photographer’s sails vanished when he and his image  became a poster child for the abuses currently occurring in the industry. Should you read this, I applaud you on your success.  Congratulations, it is a significant accomplishment to land the cover of Time magazine.  I also encourage you to now get educated on what you should be making for your work so you don’t get taken advantage of again.  While Time Magazine saved a bundle on their cover, I doubt they have passed this savings along to advertisers!  Call them and see if they will let you take out a full page ad for $30.00 (click here to see Time Mag’s Ad rates).  Why should you be expected to subsidize their business?

Some of the attacks on the photographer have been brutal and he doesn’t deserve them.  Likewise some of the attacks on the professional photographers who pointed out that the photographer screwed himself out of approximately $2970.00 are also brutal.  Truth is, $1500 sounds like a lot for a stock photo of a jar of coins, but I know of a stock photo of a glass of water on a white background that licensed for $10,000.  That is how stock photography is supposed to be licensed, based on the use and the number of people who will be seeing it and the profit it will result in for the clientThat is also how the independent designers who use your work as part of their creations charge for their work! It is an interesting double standard being run here.  Coca Cola paid far more for their logo than Joe’s pizza and there are sound business reasons for that practice.

I can remember the thrill of seeing my first image in a major magazine.  Money seemed quite secondary at that point.  But I quickly learned that I had better learn the business aspects of my art much better than I did at that time and FAST.

Time Magazine certainly cannot be faulted for licensing an image that works for them cheaply when it is made available for that price.  Nor can the photographer be blamed for seeking to make something off his work by licensing it as microstock.  However, the broader point seems to be missed by both sides of this argument.

With the advent of fully automatic digital cameras came a rush of people wanting to be pro photographers.  Most set about accomplishing their goal with no clue as to how the business works, who their clients are (or would be), what thier work is worth to these clients in terms of income, and how to market their work.  It was not long until some clever opportunists noticed the growing available harvest of “photographers” and devised a way to exploit them.  Microstock was born.

As the story goes, microstock began as a free image sharing community in 2000.  When Bruce Livingstone, the owner of the website, discovered how much the hosting fees were costing him started charging fees per image download and throwing some chump change to the photographers.  In that era, the fees charged were appropriate.  One of the top photographers back then that was inspiring the crowd had a portfolio online with thousands of pictures of coins, matchbooks, can openers and other household objects shot on white paper.

A few professional photographers entered the arena.  Back then there were only a couple hundred thousand images online.  Theirs stood out and met the needs of the market and they profited handsomely.  They were held up as examples and the increasing quality of the image libraries led microstock to be promoting itself to professional designers, ad agencies etc.  Slogans evolved from “turn your hard drive into cash” indicating the quality of the work produced in the early days to “The designers dirty little secret” indicating the shame a designer would face should his client discover where the images came from.

More and more beginning photographers saw it as a way to break into the industry and earn some money, hopefully enough to buy some of the equipment they needed to expand their business, or possibly make a full time living as a microstock photographer.  Almost all were sorely disappointed.  While the image libraries started growing a breakneck paces, there are still to date only about 10 or 20 photographers who are making enough to consider it a livable income out of an advertised 144,000 photographers contributing to microstock… and at least 2 of the top earning photographers have discovered that with the image libraries at over 7 million images and growing at the rate of 100,000 images a week that despite uploading in the neighborhood of 500 to 600 new images each month at the fantastic cost it takes to produce them (models, props, equipment, wardrobe, etc all has to be paid for), their “royalties” were beginning to fall.

No one could care less about this than the microstock industry itself.  Bruce Livingstone, the man who started it all, sold iStock photo  for a cool $50 million to Getty images who now runs it with an iron fist, demanding only professional quality images for peanuts (though their libraries are still littered with junk) and rapidly squelching anyone who might have the nerve to speak out against the injustices occurring.  Getty has continued to snap up microstock agencies and it has also had the unfortunate consequence of pulling licensing fees at Getty down toward the microstock rates.

The oddest thing about microstock is how the very lack of license fees equal to what it costs to produce the work fuel the growth.  Microstock now only markets to professionals in the industry.  As the more traditional stock agencies are folding up or photographers are discovering their income from these are reaching bottom, they unwillingly turn to microstock… often under assumed names.  It isn’t good for business to have the person you are charging professional rates for an assignment know your are licensing images elsewhere for less than a dollar.  This of course, as I mentioned above, is cutting into the income of the pros who got into it first and now they are looking for a way out.

The newbies getting into it are rapidly discovering that at rates of 20 cents per download paid to them that the the images uploaded into a body of 7 million existing images with 100,000 new images added each week, they cannot possibly earn enough to do more than dig a financial hole while trying to “make it”.  They see the injustice and complain in the forums where they are met with an army of shills who tell them “you just need to shoot better quality work” and so they expend more money and dig the hole deeper.  Then some get the bright idea to make up the difference through referral commissions.  This amounts to about 2 or 3 cents made from the images the photographers they refer sell.  This obviously will take a LOT of “sales” to make any difference, so they start blogs promoting the financial windfalls waiting for those who sell microstock and put up referral links; post ads on craigs list, refer photographers through networking sites and send out spam.  Instead of learning the value of their work and demanding to receive it, they encourage others to make the same mistake so they can profit.  They have just sold their soul.

As it emerged, microstock posed no threat to the industry.  The image quality was similar to the price asked for them.  Unfortunately, as more photographers joined, a certain percentage of the images by law of averages were quite good and their image inspectors simply started rejecting the rest.  As a result the quality of the image libraries is increasing, but other than small cost of living increases that do not keep up with costs, the prices charged for the work have remained at the level charged back in the days of photos of matchbooks and pet kittens.  This is hardly fair to photographers whether they are licensing through microstock or not.

The destructive practices of microstock are rampant.  Anything to get and license more images all destructive to the industry in which they have eroded so badly.  No loyalty at all to the people who are providing its lifeblood.  For example, iStock worked a deal with Microsoft to license images for $20 each.  Microsoft then made those images available FREE to all who bought their software.  These images are now available to millions of people free, at the expense of the photographers who produced them.  Try buying a copy of Windows Vista and then giving copies of it away to your clients free and see what Microsoft does to you (note that Microsoft uses a rights managed approach to licensing its software and polices abuses with an iron fist).  I’m always amazed when I see large organizations so concerned with protecting their own copyrights so eager to abuse those of others.  And while many photographers were patting themselves on the back for making $20 on an image instead of the usual dollar, Microsoft was laughing at how easy it was to screw photographers and profit from their ignorance.  The photographers who took advantage of this “deal” were played as fools because they failed to take the time to learn what their images are worth.  Rather than lining up at the queue and shouting “pick me, pick me” they should have been demanding of iStock photo that Microsoft pay rates commensurate with the intended use, which would have been thousands of dollars per licensed image.  Don’t think Microsoft didn’t know that!  They aren’t exactly known for fair play.

Other abuses of microstock include taking the best selling work of their top contributors and encouraging other photographers to copy it, licensing images in such volume that it becomes impossible to track whether an image was legitimately licensed or not or if the client paid the slightly higher fees required for extensive use of the image.  Kiss your copyright protection goodbye.  It also cannot monitor who is licensing the images and what they are used for.  Hence, it is frequently found that images in which the model may be in swimwear or shirtless, end up as advertisements for porn sites, adult modeling agencies, and adult products, as well as endorsement for political causes, alternative lifestyles and questionable products and services.  These uses harm the model, photographer and legitimate clients alike. Again, the volume of images licensed is so great that the microstock agenices are not able to determine if the images were even licensed through them, let alone take legal action.  And if it is, how much work do you think attorneys and the courts are going to go to in recovering the lost income from an image being offered to the world for as little as 14 cents on some microstock sites?

This also works against the clients who license the images.  The art director of a magazine in Denver told me the story of another magazine who as the issue came off the press found the image they licensed through microstock on the cover was also on a billboard advertising a rather objectionable product.  The entire issue had to be reprinted.  The owner of a modeling agency in Denver told me of a model who lost a shoot with Revlon.  After she was selected for the job, one of the people from the crew recognized her from one of her photos used to market an adult product.  She was not nude in the photo, merely in a sexy pose so typical of our designer ads. Revlon could not afford the negative implications and removed her from the shoot.  She had saved money on her portfolio shoot buy trading with the photographer who then sold the images as microstock.  In the end, she lost 5 times the amount she “saved” had she paid to have her portfolio professionally shot and kept the images away from microstock. I also noticed about 2 months ago at the magazine rack that three of the news magazines and one of our local magazines were running similar microstock images of a rolled up wad of cash tied in a bow.   Nothing like distinguishing yourself from the competition!  I’m sure there were some rather red faces in the board room the next day.

There are some positive aspects to microstock.  It is an easy way to get images to the public.  This is where the traditional stock agencies failed by holding to old traditions from the film days of accepting only photographers with thousands of images ready to license, submitted by snail mail, and failing to use the internet to market images until after microstock had already significantly eroded their market share.  This is where microstock saw and seized the opportunity.  It can also be a valuable learning ground for emerging photographers to begin learning professional standards.  Though the “professional standards” of microstock are considerably different from that of the industry as a whole.  It was ONCE a way for beginning photographers to earn some money from their work.  Those days are gone however, even the pros on board are finding they have to work harder each week just to earn the same level of income they did in the previous month.

Years ago I heard a quote: “Competition is the trick of the weak to fetter the strong.”  I didn’t understand it until the advent of Microstock.  Microstock has evolved from being a golden opportunity for amateur photographers to becoming a powerful parasite, a deadly cancer, destroying the very life of the industry from which it feeds.  As it has raised the bar on quality and gone after a professional market, it has held pricing levels to the low levels charged in the amateur days and has completely eroded the pricing structure needed to sustain the industry.  This is even harming the microstock agencies.  One when raised the licensing fees a few pennies to clients also cut the royalties paid to the photographers significantly.  Were it charging enough, this pay cut would not have been necessary.  Microstock is typically paying photographers 20 to 30 percent of the peanuts for which the images are licensed while the more traditional agencies once paid more than twice that percentage and licensed the images at fair prices.  I suspect they see this, but today each agency fears demanding professional prices for fear their competitors will continue to license images for pennies and continue the race to the bottom for fees.  Most of these are now continually encouraging photographers to make their work available free.  I fail to see the distinction.  When one is boasting images licenses for a mere 14 cents, it is essentially the same as free.  14 cents won’t even by a stick of “penny” candy today.  Clearly, if this trend they have created continues unchecked, the monster, the cancer, they have created will eventually consume the agencies who have created it.

Microstock can’t be blamed for this.  That responsibility lies on the shoulders of us, the photographers, who either failed to educate ourselves on the business aspects of the industry we hoped to enter, and on the established photographers who have failed to lend more of a hand and help educate more of those who are seeking to find their way in a rather confusing industry.

Microstock is here to stay.  However, just as some of the larger corporations (albiet it often forced by social pressures and legislation) are seeing the need to protect the environment and be “good neighbors” microstock needs to cease its more parasitic practices and begin contributing to the health of the industry in which it lives instead of destroying it.  There is nothing wrong with licensing images to blogs and producers of small newsletters, low circulation brochures etc. for low fees – under the original rights managed system such users paid far less to license images – but when billboards are graced with microstock images, full page magazine ads where the ad rates are over $100,000 per page are using microstock images and giant multi billion dollar corporations are snapping up images for peanuts to give away free to their clients as an incentive to buy their products, a crime is being committed… one the industry cannot long sustain and produce quality work.

I know that by now many of you have your blood boiling and are ready to launch an attack.  But before you attack me spend a moment to educate yourself on the business in which you hope to earn a living.  Do you know how much your clients are making off your images?  It would shock you.  Do you know what they paid for the ad space your image ran in?  Do you know what they would have paid for your image on the cover had microstock not given it away?  If you don’t really know these answers, then spend a few bucks to get a copy of FotoBiz and learn the industry averages, specific rates being charged by and paid by major magazines, business clients and what you should make for different uses of you images.  It will take you a while to recover from the shock of how badly you have been underpaid.  Do you completely understand the value of your copyrights and the reasons you need to protect them?  Do you know why some photographers can charge what they do and why their clients are so willing to pay it?  If not, spend some time on the Editorial Photographers website.   In particular read the War on Photography and The Value of Photography.  Do you know how much it really costs you to do business and produce your images?   You will also find very enlightening information on all aspects of the business, including stock photo pricing.  Then instead of attacking those who are working to protect your earning power, as well as their own,  start demanding what you are worth and educating others to do the same.  No one can be faulted for chasing their dreams.  What joy is there in life without them?  Just don’t allow some to turn your dream into a nightmare of poverty and hard work by failing to educate yourself on the industry in which you hope to thrive.

This is not an attack on anyone.  It is a snapshot of a faction of our industry and the need to force it to become more responsible before it is too late. The photographer who shot the Time Magazine cover apparently runs a furniture store.  Were someone to find people who loved making furniture so badly they would do it for nothing but the hope of one day making it big stuffing cushions, it would put him out of business.  And in time the competitor himself would be out of business when he learned that selling sofas for thirty bucks (or a buck as in the case of most microstock images) did not continue to bring in enough money to pay the rent once everyone had rushed in to get their new dollar sofa and had no room for a second one. Don’t let the love of what you do become your Archillis heel.

Microstock will abuse the rights of photographers as long as we permit it.  Change comes slow, but after reading this I hope a few will actually do the reasearch and perhaps suggest to the agencies that they are not charging enough for the work, urge higher fees for high profile uses of the images, and suggest they refrain from making images available to those who then redistribute them free.  That would be a good start.  The clients licensing microstock can as easily afford $40, $50 or much more as they can from the images they are currently getting for a quarter or so.  If they can’t they have no right being in business.  Many of them can afford thousands for the images, and one of them referred to above has used the imges to make millions.  I think they could have paid more without going broke…. and they gladly would have had we demanded they do so.  And to your friends entering the business, you might want to suggest they read the references, look at the numbers in terms on microstock images on line, new images added each week and pay per license (combined with how the user can keep reusing the image once downloaded) above before deciding that microstock is the route to riches as a photographer.  The numbers are certainly against it.

I fault no one for selling microstock.  I do fault those who do not at least learn what their work is worth and demand improvement and fair licensing fees from the industry.  As microstock is not likely to reform itself, I  hope they educate themselves on the markets and value of their work and find more viable ways of earning a living as a photographer.  And for those who attack anyone who suggests photographers should be treated as professionals, please, please, go get a job as a garbage collector.  It’s just too difficult to understand the logic of someone who not only holds himself back but insists the rest of us do not rise above your level.  We can do without your efforts to pull us into the mud with you!

Additional resources for photographers:

2008 Stock Photo Market Crash

Spec Photography Model: Custom Stock Photography Model is Really Just On Spec

How to Buy (license) Photography

Photographers Don’t Work Free

The Value of Photography

The War On Photography II

The Client Vendor Relationship (must watch this video)

The Free Exposure Trap

Some Thoughts About Microstock

Photo Libraries Devalue Photography