Microstock :: SIM Cards in Cameras & Big Foam Fingers
Ahhhh. The ubiquitous image. What is it saying? Peace? Thoughtfulness? No. It is saying frustration. Or is it peaceful frustration while being thoughtful? Girl. Hair. Flipping. Black clothes. Chain. Dreds. I don’t know. #whatev.
So, to continue on with the talks about the photo business we’ve been having around here let’s talk about stock photography.
Previous discussions :: “Oversaturated market you say?” and “Cheap photographers only kill themselves, not the industry.”
As per usual, this post is going to sort of banter on in one direction for awhile. I’ll bring it back home near the end. There’s lots of words and stuff in this one. Snooze. Fest. More after the jump.
Now, I’m not a stock photographer. I’m an assignment photographer. If you need a photo then I go out and shoot one just for you. I say this to qualify myself regarding this post. I’m looking into the stock industry from the outside. My only qualifications to speak about this are A) I personally know people working in the stock industry and B) I’m an assignment photographer who has lost work to the stock industry.
As I see it there are three kinds of stock photographers.
1) The seasoned stock shooter – This kind of photographer has been shooting for stock for at least 15 years. They have seen the stock industry from every angle. They know what it was like in the days of film and were at the forefront of the switch to digital. This kind of photographer has been impacted the most by the micro stock industry. I know folks who have closed their studios thanks to microstock.
2) The microstock shooter – This kind of photographer is shooting specifically for microstock. I have a number of friends working in this industry right now. Some of them have opened studios based on microstock.
3) The assignment to stock shooter – This kind of photographer takes assignments ranging from editorial to corporate shoots. They hold on to the ownership of their images and after the initial client’s needs are met they release those same photos into the stock world for additional sales and income.
Let’s have a short history lesson that may or may not be completely accurate.
Back in the day if you wanted to be a stock shooter you had quite a process to go through to be selected for a stock company. Some companies had a minimum of images they wanted to see from you. Some were 1,000, some were 5,000. Imagine walking into an office with 5,000 slides or negatives that you have culled down for stock. Once accepted there were some agencies that set minimums that you had to meet each year. You had to submit at least XXX images per year to stay in the catalog. Stock agencies would produce massive catalogs (read- boat anchor) of select images in their library to send to clients. You could flip through a 500 page catalog (read – boat anchor) that was broken down in sections. Stock agencies also had researchers on staff that would help clients find the right images. It was a huge undertaking of time, research, and resources to run and operate a stock photography agency and the prices to sell stock reflected this. It also meant the editors at these agencies were more selective of the photographers that would be represented in their libraries.
Bruce Livingstone came along and started iStockphoto and created microstock. Microstock is clearly defined as “cheap as sh*t photography for the masses.” You can now get an image for as little as .95 cents. In 2006 the behemoth known as Getty came along and bought iStockphoto for a reported $50 million and the skies opened up and the microstock flood began. Bill Gates’ company, Corbis, got in the game and it seems like Getty or Corbis will one day own every image ever made in the world with the way they are buying up stock agencies and photo collections. I envision a day where you can go to the store and get a free DSLR. That camera will have a SIM card and upload every image you take into a stock library. I wouldn’t put it past these monsters to at least try it. I mean, they aren’t making a profit now so why not give it a try?
How did this happen? Cheap DSLRs and the flood of new interest in photography during the digital revolution. You don’t have to send slides in now. You just upload images. You don’t have to have 5,000 images to be considered. You can get in a library with a single image. And now, you can get into it just by having a Flickr account. Now, I’m not so naive to think that it’s just “as easy as that” to be a microstock photographer. Shooting for microstock is a hard job. There is a lot that you must do to be successful in it. I think of it as day trading for penny stocks or something like that. You bust your ass all day long making pennies on the dollar on each sale but if you do enough volume it begins to pay off. I mean, the real beauty of selling stock online is you can go to bed at night and wake up with more money in your account than you had the night before. Your images are out there working for you as much as you are out there working for your images. My big take-a-way from this is… Your images are worth more than the microstock companies are selling them for.
I ignored the microstock industry for awhile until I know for a fact I lost some jobs to $3 images. That kind of sucked but life went on. Then I met some microstock shooters who are grossing about $80k+ a year on selling $3 images over and over and over and over again. I’ve seen the bank statements. It’s true. $80k and up for selling images for nothing? Really? That got my attention. A few years ago I looked into shooting microstock and this is what I figured out for myself… There’s no way I want to do it.
Without offending my friends and colleagues who shoot stock I have to make this statement… Stock photography, for the most part, sucks. It’s supposed to suck in some ways. It has to say everything and nothing all at once. It has to be generic to be really successful over time. If you can get an image to say “happy” and “sad” all at one time you have found success! If you are shooting for stock PLEASE don’t be offended by this. I know some of you are and some of you I count as friends and know this… I totally respect you and your work. You have found something in microstock and you’re paying your bills, feeding your kids, and living a good life so a big high five in Borat’s voice to you for that. Seriously. There are some amazing images in some microstock libraries and microstock companies are starting to cull their best work into higher priced and more selective collections that sell for a whole whopping $400 or something stupid like that. Stupid in that some of these images are worth a few thousand dollars and they are being sold for a fraction of their worth. And then some of them are worth $1 and are over inflated. It’s a crap shoot really.
I won’t shoot stock because A) It has to be generic and I don’t want to be a generic photographer. B) A few bucks for an image? Are you serious? I don’t care if it can sell it a gabillion times. I’m not selling an image for .95 cents or something like that. At least for now I’m not. One thing I’ve learned in this industry… never say never. You never know when you may have to diversify and you never know what part of the industry that may take you. If all hell broke loose in my life and I had to start this thing again… then maybe I’d be looking at microstock.
IF I was going to shoot for microstock the first thing I would do is brand my stock images under some name not associated with mine because at some point I would want to separate myself from my cheap as sh!t microstock work.
Here is a photo to break up all this dang boring text. I like this photo. It has nothing to do with this post. I bet it would make a horrible stock photo.
So microstock filled a “need” I guess. That’s what people defending cheap as sh*t photography say. People “needed” photography for less. I say they filled more of a “want” and not a “need”. Sure the Internet created a demand for dumb ass photos of girls in pant suits wearing a telephone headset for tech banner ads. Operators standing by. But the world doesn’t “need” a photo for .95 cents. They want it and so somebody came along and gave it to them. Now the flood won’t stop but it is going to come to an end as we now know it and that’s what I’m sitting on the sidelines waiting for. I have my 50 yard line seat, my bleacher cusion, my bucket of beer and popcorn, and my big foam finger waving in the air. I’ll let you guess which finger.
Bitter? No. Absolutely not. Cynical? No. I welcome the microstock industry. I’m all about the free market and if someone wants to sell images for a dollar and a photographer is fine with getting, .20, .30. or maybe .40 cents out of that deal then who am I to stop it? The good thing about the free market though is the market will dictate what happens. Either they find success or they fail and currently, microstock is failing and, IMHO, they continue to make stupid decisions. Let’s look at it like this.
A clients needs a photo for an annual report. This annual report has the potential to bring in tens of thousands of dollars to tens of millions of dollars in investments into the company. They need some great photography for this annual report. This annual report has a lot of value to the company so therefore the photo that runs in it has a lot of value. If photographs weren’t valuable then no one would want them and if no one wanted photos then none of us would have a job. So…
Possible hypothetical solutions ::
• Hire an experienced photographer to shoot the photo – $5,000 – $10,000+
• Hire an emerging, less experienced, photographer to shoot the photo – $1,000 – $5,000
• Buy an exclusive license to an image from a reputable stock agency – $1,000 – $3,000+
• Buy a basic license from a stock agency – $800 – $2,000
• Buy a microstock image – $1 – $300
Look at the price ranges above. Some of these numbers are pulled out of my backside but still based in real world situations and dealings. Notice that the price ranges overlap each other until you get to microstock. Microstock pricing is so far undervalued than any other option. What they should have done from the very beginning is price their images higher. Had microstock had an entry level pricing plan starting at $100 they would have still been a VERY affordable option for many people. Had it been me I would have started stock pricing in the range of $100 – $500 per image instead of $1 – $50. They lowballed themselves from the very start and now that there is so much competition in the field these companies are fighting over pennies instead of dollars. I’ve heard this statement on many sites regarding the microstock industry… “These companies seem to be in a race for the bottom.”
Now images starting for $1 are the “norm” and these companies can not sustain themselves. iStock CEO, Kelly Thomson, has a post on their forums about changes in contributors payouts. Check out this quote…
Since roughly 2005 we’ve been aware of a basic problem with how our business works. As the company grows, the overall percentage we pay out to contributing artists increases. In the most basic terms that means that iStock becomes less profitable with increased success. As a business model, it’s simply unsustainable: businesses should get more profitable as they grow. This is a long-term problem that needs to be addressed.
Check out this notice about iStock getting in bed with Getty. “Nothing’s going to change…” Yeah, except contributors payouts. That’s going to change. But everything else will stay the same. Maybe.
There’s a massive amount of information in the quote above. They’ve been aware of a problem with their business model for five years. It’s like putting a ship out to sea when you know there’s a hole in the bottom of it. They knew the more successful they became the harder it would be to stay in business. They packed it off (read – sold the leaking boat) to Getty for $50 million and Getty sure isn’t known for being keen business developers. So instead of raising prices of stock to find a sustainable profit margin and STILL come in cheaper than traditional stock or assignment photography… they choose to cut the royalties they are paying to their contributors. Brilliant plan.
“Let’s starve the people who plant the crops we sell. The crops we sell, Bee Tee Double-U, for less than they are worth.”
As we can see, they already have a great track record of seeing they have a problem and not really doing the right things to solve it.
All of this sounds like Wal-Mart. Who in the hell in the photo industry would want to be associated with Wal-Mart? Sure they are successful but to what end? To the end of other companies in their towns and to their own vendors. I look at Getty and Corbis as the Wal-Mart of photography. Read this article from Fast Company about a jar of pickles. It is the microstock equivalent of what I’m talking about in this blog post.
I stopped shopping at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club last year because walking into their stores was much like looking through a microstock library. “Look at all of this shit that we don’t need but we want it.” People want this crappy plastic whatever and they want it for $1.97.” It’s true. I walked into a Wal-Mart one day last year, saw all the crap on the shelves, and I felt sick about neon pink plastic something-or-anothers that were on sale for $1.97 and they were damn near stacked to the ceiling and they all came from China. Truckloads of crap we don’t need, shipped from the other side of the earth, stacked to the ceiling. What the @#$# are we doing? I walked out and never went back.
I know what you are saying… Who the hell am I to sit from outside and armchair quarterback my thoughts into a market in which I don’t work? You’d be somewhat right to answer with “I’m a nobody with nothing to say.” But I am an assignment photographer who tries to educate my clients and my industry about the value of what we do. I’m also a photographer who has lost jobs to microstock. So companies slinging photos for less than a dollar sort of impacts the message I’m trying to convey AND the business I’m trying to run.
Another issue with all of this is the more successful you are with an image in microstock the image, in my mind, becomes less valuable. If you’ve sold an image 1,000 times then great success! But that image is out there 1,000 times in God-only-knows of what forms and uses. Check out this great compilation of the use of one microstock image. Over and over and over again the image goes. From one web site to another. From IT to bad credit loans for cosmetic surgery. You’re a company trying to promote your brand and you use the same images for the bad credit loan company? Seriously?
Ok Zack… bring it home. Microstock, as I see it, is a big over inflated balloon and these companies are still pumping air into it and I fear as they try to become profitable it will come at the price of paying their contributors less money.
I wanted to buy a stock image for this blog post. I got on the big stock sites and started looking for images. I typed in a few keywords and 800,000 images came back. I refined my keywords and 900,000 images came back! Nine hundred effing thousand pictures. I refined my search and got more results. I should have gotten fewer. I went from site to site and could only stomach about 20 pages of results for each. It was the same image over and over again with an occasional “oh wow, that’s pretty interesting but still not working” photograph. I mean, pixel for pixel these photos weren’t the same but they might as well have been. Tens of thousands of images that all look alike.
Put yourself in your client’s chair trying to find the right image. Not only do you have all these places boasting they have 25,000,000 photos and counting but now all of Flickr and its gabillion trillion jillion photos is opened up to find stock. DeviantArt got in on this game recently as well. You have 20 sites with 20 million images each and some of them cross pollinating polluting to each other so you’re getting the same bland results from brand to brand. You ask for a drink and someone opened a fire hydrant in your face and that water isn’t necessarily filtered very well. You’re getting the drink you asked for but you might just get sick to your stomach drinking what you asked for. You just need one image of a girl and/or guy doing a thing, holding a thing, communicating an emotion. You find an image that could work but see it’s been downloaded 3,000 times already so who knows where that image is sitting. Oh, and you have until the 10th to buy that image because there’s a notice on the front page that this particular stock company is going out of business.
From the folks on the buying end of microstock that I work with and have talked to about this matter, they hate the experience of searching for stock. Hate it. I’ve yet to meet anyone that enjoys the process of searching microstock. The only reason they are there is because their clients are demanding lower budgets for projects. As soon as they have a budget for photography microstock is NEVER an option because the process of finding the right image is worse than getting a root canal. And the larger these libraries get, the more painful it is to search through them.
How about you just give my studio a call at 404-939-2263. We’ll find out what your needs are and create an image for you and give you a great license for your needs and we will work with your budget provided it isn’t $1. You’re going to spend a week or two finding the perfect stock image. How much is a week of your time worth? Suddenly you have more of a budget than you thought and your eyes won’t be bleeding at the end of the process.
That’s what I’m on the sidelines with my big foam finger waiting for. Microstock can serve all the bad credit loans clients they want. Go for it. But from my discussions I’ve had with photo editors and art directors who have, at some point, been pushed by clients to use stock to save money, these PE’s and AD’s are pushing back saying money has to be found to hire a photographer for the job or the client is going to have to pay for hefty research fees and eye replacement surgeries. Suddenly assignment photography isn’t such a bad option.
The last take away, and the next blog post in this series, is watch your pricing. If you are getting started as a photographer you’re going to be pretty darn cheap but know that what you do has value. Know that if you are going to sustain yourself you will have to price yourself accordingly. These large microstock companies have millions in revenue but they are still trying to become sustainable. Get the cheap jobs and experience under your belt as soon as you can so you can move to sustainability as soon as possible. Don’t be five years into your business knowing you are in a losing situation. It’s one thing if you have an international corporation pouring cash into your bottomless pit. It’s another thing when you are a one person shop trying to feed kids.
PS – This is not an exhaustive look into the stock industry. This is not an end all be all statement as to the state of the industry. This is one guy with one opinion stating his viewpoint from where he sits. I’m looking forward to your comments because I know for a fact a few of you will have a different take on some of these points that will challenge and/or change my viewpoint on some of this.
PPS – How soon do you think the whole Flickr stock thing is going to come to a screeching halt when the first few lawsuits hit because somebody forges a model release to make a few bucks? Think it’s expensive to work with a professional? Wait until you see how much it can cost working with an amateur.