Microstock :: SIM Cards in Cameras & Big Foam Fingers

November 23, 2010 | • Discussion Shop Talk

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.

Cheers, Zack

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. :)


  • Brian said on November 23, 2010

    I can’t believe you hate Microsoft so much…

  • bryan lathrop said on November 23, 2010

    brother Zack…always on point. As an art director transitioning into photography professional over the past several years, I have had many occasions to experience exactly what you’re talking about here, particularly on the image-search front. And the clients don’t understand how much time can be pissed away looking for that [almost] perfect image. Keep on keeping on my friend…and don’t EVER degrade your own posts as snooze fests. As always, THANK YOU for your generosity. You rock.

  • Darla said on November 23, 2010

    I enjoyed reading your post. Nice photo break!

  • Richard Church said on November 23, 2010

    Definately some interesting points. I sell a small amount of stock each year and have started to notice that the revenue per image seems to be getting smaller. I’m now looking into stock agencies that are a bit more exclusive. Still I guess it won’t be long before they’re swallowed up too.

  • Brian said on November 23, 2010

    Wooo-eeee! Well written, you obviously put a lot of thought into this.

    I looked into microstock a year or so ago but when I saw they were selling the photos for nothing it made my heart skip a beat. I lot of people put a ton of time and effort into creating great images. To take those, the truly great images, and whore them out for a few cents just seems like such a waste.

    On the other side of the coin I do see the draw… it’s a way for people to make money, using a camera, if they manage it and know what they are getting into. Either way it’s a tempting thing for those just starting out and looking for a way to justify all the gear they are buying.

    Thanks for the image in the middle of the post… nice way to break it up.

  • Dorean said on November 23, 2010

    SO glad to see someone say this! I looked into going into stock photography, saw what they were paying, and decided if my work wasn’t worth more than that, what was the point?

  • Broderick said on November 23, 2010

    Thanks for the great post Zack. I’ve been on Flickr for a while and struggled as to whether I’d join up with the Getty/Flickr collection program. It doesn’t seem to be a great deal for photographers although some would argue that some money is better than no money. The same thing goes for iStock which a number of folks have recommended to me, the payouts seem to be pathetic. In addition to what you’ve mentioned above, the NY Times had an interesting blog post on a study that relates to some of the generic photography on the web: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/02/study-shows-people-ignore-generic-photos-online/

  • Jon Prentice said on November 23, 2010

    I’m new to the photography field and stock is one of the areas of work I considered investing time. I’ve avoided it because of a lot of the points you said.

    For a n00b like me trying to make real money it appeared overwhelming. I would need to upload hundreds or thousands of images before I had a large enough pipeline to sustain anything. Not to mention keywording and the approval process, etc. Or I could go shoot a portrait for a couple of hundred bucks. What some people seem to perceive as a low barrier of entry seems way too high.

    Thanks again for your insight Zack!

  • Chase said on November 23, 2010

    Zack to the effin Arias, preach brother!

    Somebody need to eat this post like a vitamin C on a sick day and let that just sink into their cells and change their freakin minds about value.

    Nuff said. Can’t wait for the next helpin a frikkin reality.

  • ArenaCreative said on November 23, 2010

    What up Zack. You know your stuff dude. As a pretty seasoned 5 yr microstocker (3 yrs full time) I can respect everything you stated here, and all of it is pretty much true. It is a scary thing, sometimes, that this is my full time gig right now, and my bread and butter… especially in an industry as shaky and as wiggy in still yet a youthful stage as it is. I’ve always been one to have a backup plan, though. In my case, microstock WAS my backup plan.

    I was a full time graphic designer, chewed up and spit out by the bad economy, and burnt out, stressed out nonetheless. Only an amateur photographer, I started uploading Photoshop graphics and point and shoot snapshots to the agencies, to the point where over the years I was paying my mortgage. Only having a few hours a week to dedicate to it, I got into it more seriously, and now earn 100% of my income from stock. I sell both microstock, midstock, and higher priced royalty free, but the majority of my income is from micro. The business is getting to the point where it’s not only what you produce, but how much of it. Pumping in endless streams of fresh stuff for the agency search engines is necessary in order for a guy like me to keep making a living. It’s tiring, and uploading, keywording sucks so bad you don’t even know – but in the end, I find myself pretty thankful to have something I’ve built up where I can work from home at my own pace, with no stress, and support my wife and I. The only stress you get is through redonkulous image rejections (but that’s a whole other story).

    Anyways, what the heck was I getting at – oh yeah: having a backup plan. In any creative field, and even any technological field, there’s going to be change, and lots of it. Also a lot of areas of the market you can target. There are more ways of making money in fields like this than there are to skin a cat – you just have to find one that you enjoy doing and that works. If not, move along and try something else. You did it, I’ve done it, and I will probably have to do it again sometime before I die. Long gone are the days where a person can work one job their entire life and collect a nice pension.

    In the end, we all have to be afraid about what we’re doing for a living. Anyone with a dayjob worries. I’d be worried as heck right now if I were in the commercial trades right now (painters, redecorators are really hurting). It’s just the basic anxieties of life we all had, and in the end we just have to be thankful for whatever we have, having faith that God will provide us our daily necessities. Microstock has pretty much been a recession proof business.

    In theory you can pretty much earn more money, with the more images you submit, the more you improve, and the more you work at it. It’s great collecting residuals, but the long tail effect is also a major factor. They should call it the “short tail” effect when it comes to the fact that with some agencies, your newest images are buried within a week’s time.

    Will I be doing this crazyness in 5 years? Who the heck knows… we’ll see. I’m sure the fleecing of photographers in the micro world is going to continue, but the ones that give a crap aren’t going to stand for it. That will probably only push them out and into a better situation. I personally feel like I have plenty of other things to fall back on. Microstock is definitely a game changer, but I don’t think it will ever stifle the careers of assignment shoots like yourself. Keep up the good work man, and suck down another New Castle for me – I got tired just thinking about how tired your fingers must have gotten after this huge arse post ;D

    PS: Lots more microstock blah blah blah and rants on my blog http://www.arenacreative.com/blog

  • Nathan Blaney said on November 23, 2010

    Actually, your photo above would fit in nicely at iStock (probably Vetta collection). The “person on a vintage wallpaper background with vignette” has been done quite a bit. Some seem to sell pretty well, too.

  • Jeremy Corbin said on November 23, 2010

    I hear you. When I first looked into getting started, I thought it would be cool to look into doing some stock photography. Then I browsed a site that I was interested in… and became completely disinterested. I don’t want my business to be a hobby, I want it to be a living. MY living. $1 a piece 3000 times is awesome and everything, but feeding my soul is almost as hard as feeding my family. I gotta feed both.

  • Chris said on November 23, 2010

    Love your thoughts on this, cant wait to read more.

  • Mark Spomer said on November 23, 2010

    Your last sentence pretty much is a wrap! Nicely Ranted my friend!

  • Senthil Prabhu said on November 23, 2010

    Its always an experience to read your blog post. Being a upcoming photographer, i always had this dilemma to try stock photography. But your example on walmart made it very clear. I definitely want a healthier environment for photographers and it starts from all photogs & proper education of our clients. Thank you again for sharing your great thoughts with us.

  • Jennifer said on November 23, 2010

    I am far from being a professional. I’m still learning and trying to grow. I spent a bit of time looking into microstock, trying to gather new avenues of revenue. But ultimately I decided against it. No offense to people who work hard at it, because I know they do, but I just can’t bring myself to sell an image I labored over for pennies. Plus, I don’t think I could generate enough images to make any realistic money at it anyway.

  • Michael Ericsson said on November 23, 2010

    Hi Zack,

    Awesome post, I’m a magazine art director wanting to switch into the photography world. I have dabbled in a bit of microstock and macrostock as part of my journey trying to find myself within the photography realm. I question myself every time I go to upload the photo to the stock agency. I say to myself “man, I know this is worth so much more then just $3.00”, but then you see all the successful people in the industry making a good living or using the money to bank roll better personal projects or keep the studio open when times get tough.

    I have no problem with the idea of microstock, I think we have no choice in the matter. But what makes me sick, is iStock, with it’s extremely low royalty structure. I have a few images on iStock myself, so it really pissed me off when they cut the royalty rate. I think the industry to get together and form some sort of fair trade type association for better rates. It worked for coffee beans, why not stock. I guess I’m a bit of a hypocrite because I never removed my portfolio from iStock, but at work, i did however, purchase my first batch of credits from Stockfresh – where they paid their contributors, 50%, straight up.

    My 2cents.

  • Nicole Young said on November 23, 2010

    I’m probably one of those “microstock shooters you know”, and don’t worry, no offense taken. You have some good points, but it won’t stop me from continuing to do this as my job. :) I don’t agree with everything you’ve said here (I’m so deep in the business and know it so well, so some of your statements weren’t spot on) but your overall gist is understood.

    Thanks Zack, always great to see things from your perspective. :)

  • zack said on November 23, 2010

    Yes Nicole, You are one who I know and I was thinking of you as I was typing this out wondering what you and others would think about this. Thanks for jumping in the comment pool!


  • Rob said on November 23, 2010

    What can I get for $3?

  • Tim Skipper said on November 23, 2010


    I effing luv ya!

    I think I’m older than you but when I do grow up, I want to be like you.

    When I started playing with photography I signed up as a contributor with some micro stock companies. I put up a few images nothing big and after hours of loading and key wording I made maybe $100 in six months.

    That’s when the bell went off that I was taking one up my backside and I didn’t even get a kiss first.

    I have totally stopped submitting work to them. Thankfully my stuff on there is so out of date now that no one is really looking at it.

    I’m a new assignment photographer (at least newer than most) and this article is excellent. I absolutely believe with you that they will all come crashing down sooner or later.

    Though I’m new to assignment work I’m not new to business. In any business if you compete on price alone you are already loosing. There will always be somebody who will do it for cheaper. Its been that way from the first day of business to today.

    Some idiot somewhere will do the job your doing for nothing or close to it. Believing that it will pay off in the long run. It never does, it never will.

    Business is business and there needs to be a FAIR exchange of service/product for money. Now I’m not talking about doing something for charity. Giving something to someone or organization to be charitable always comes back someway. Giving to someone who is just cheap is foolishness.

    I think every creative person who markets their talent to make a living should read this. Too many creatives are giving away their abilities for nothing and being burned up and thrown away by an uncreative, unimaginative, incapable of an original thought

  • ArenaCreative said on November 23, 2010

    @Rob Michael Ericsson probably meant $3, his cut.

  • puck said on November 23, 2010

    perfect! I recently had a potential client email and ask if i could supply them with photos from one of the stock licenses my team’s graphic design teams has – of course we can’t, the graphic design team has to be involved with the project to do this.

    I gave her my sell on hiring my team to knock out what she needs, but no, they had no budget.

    I bit my lip on microstock options, mostly because, i wanted to keep going for the project, but now, i’m glad i was that self-centered.

    I’m sure my firm has used images like the one in the fair trade photographer blog… I downloaded the plugin and found 234 uses of that photo in seconds…

    amazing, posting both to our internal social networking sites in the hopes of further educating my clients…

  • Kevin said on November 23, 2010

    Thanks for this post as well as so many others your have created. I am looking forward to your next post on pricing.

  • Mark Kenny said on November 23, 2010

    Nice post sir, very well thought out.

    My POV is from an ad’ agency side. We use all manner of photography.

    In presentation I’ll use micro-stock to find an image of, say, an apple on white background for presentation. $1 is better spent on a decent image with clipping path or channel mask than me trawling Google Images.

    Client buys the idea, so we need the apple in the right angle and lighting to previz the concept. This is in house photo studio and a cheap DSLR or local photographer.

    We produce the idea and creative picks the right photographer we pay thousands for global usage.

    (Replace apple with car or computer or any other product)

    There’s times and needs for different options, and if a photographer fails to get the model release, then there will be fallout and people with start to learn to appreciate usage rights.

    Each photographer will pick the business that works for them.

    That’s as long as a client still trusts the ad’ agency to provide a creative solution and employ skilled tradesmen and artist to execute that idea 😉

  • Mike M. said on November 23, 2010

    istock has yet to really explain how they see their business as “unsustainable.” In all likelihood, they are actually quite sustainable since they take 80% of each image sale from the vast majority of their photographers. I’m not sure how any business manages to be unsustainable when they’re keeping 80% of the money coming in on a product that they don’t have to manufacture or import.

    So what istock says is unsustainable may really be just a ploy to explain their latest attempt to grab even more of the profits in an already highly profitable business.

    Seriously, 80% profit, highest microstock prices in the industry, and what I’m guessing is the highest volume of sales in microstock. Unsustainable? Bull.

  • fotodevil said on November 23, 2010

    I remember reading that forum post that you reference on iStock. Towards the end of the post, Kelly states “we expect to see our total royalty payout increase by more than 30% next year, from $1.7-million per week to well over $2-million per week. Make no mistake, the total amount of money iStock contributors are making is going up.”

    Let’s do some math, shall we? iStock supposedly has over 30,000 contributers (I read this in a forum post on iStock and I believe the exact number is just over 30,500, so let’s use that number for this illustration). This year, iStock is averaging $1.7M/week in royalty payouts to 30,500 contributors, or to put it in paycheck terms $55.74 per week per contributor. They expect this to increase to $2M or $65.57 per week per contributor (on average, of course). If these numbers are wrong, then please correct me.

    I just don’t see how anyone can justify shooting for microstock as anything more than “fun-money”. How can you make a living off of that? $65/week doesn’t even cover my gas for the week! I am sure there are a few (very few) contributors who can make the model work, but at what cost to them, their work, their art, and their industry?

    I am by no means a working photographer (yet), but I have had a few people recently tell me I should look at iStock to sell my photos and make some money. I politely tell them I will look into it, but inside I cringe at the thought of giving a photo away for a buck! Hell, an 8X10 print costs more than that.

  • Derek said on November 23, 2010

    “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”

    Same here man.

  • ArenaCreative said on November 23, 2010

    At the same time, the graphic design world is going through crazy changes due to crowdsourcing and design contest websites. Some buyers only want to pay $50 for a logo, but honestly are those the individuals you want to sell to? Not me. You might as well advertise your services on craigslist for the tag salers and bargain shoppers of the world to haggle with you over every penny, dime and nickle. Design contests have taught these small businesses (and some larger businesses) that they can get the choices of 100 crummy designers to pick the one they like. I’m not so sure that this is the case with present day stock photography situation.

    There are many traditional stock images (higher end Rights Managed stuff) that are basically utter crap- stuff that would never even get approved by microstock standards when it comes to composition, subject, or other technical reasons (noise, focus, etc). Nevertheless, stuff that used to sell for $5,000 or $10,000 a pop – now similar images sell for $10-15. Those guys are crying about it, but one thing microstock has taught us is that maybe a portrait of a woman standing in front of a tree isn’t worth $10,000 anyways. The jig is up, anyone can take a photo of a handshake with an office building background or an apple on white. Should those things really be worth $10,000? No. That’s where microstock, I feel, has its place.

  • Phil. M said on November 23, 2010

    Do you love photography because it provides you with a creative outlet and want to get totally bummed out? Then watch best selling microstock dude Yuri Arcurs in action:


    Eat your heart out, Richard Avedon!

  • Matthew Carter said on November 23, 2010

    We are a small graphic design and photography firm and we purchase a decent amount of stock every year on behalf of our clients who are mostly low budget non-profits. The only reason we purchase stock is because we are too slammed and / or under time or budget constraints. Lots of the design work we do is very last minute and I can’t get to NYC and set up a shoot of kids playing basketball with the Empire State Building in the background. Otherwise, we shoot the images for the client. Tell me this microstock shooters, would you be willing to take $100 bucks for your stock images? We’d pay that if that was the industry standard. How about $1000? We’d pay that if the that was the industry standard. I’d mark up the cost of it too. If people wouldn’t be so quick to whore themselves out, we’d all be a lot happier. I can say that because I whore myself out on a regular basis too, I have a part time gig at Starbucks so my family can have cheap insurance.
    That being said, it’s important that folks with a voice like Zack scream the message. Photographer’s can’t do this alone. Designers are the ones buying this stuff. It’s not all easy either, because people have to be firm and stand their ground. Remember when people had standards? Set standards for thine self, I say. How low will you stoop? Okay, take that add 20% and then don’t ever go below it!
    Seemingly, more and more freelancers are popping up and companies would prefer a hire as needed situation rather than keep folks around full time. The good news about this is that the designers are the ones finding images and if they have a good list of photographers who hustle their asses off and let them know about their work, the photographer’s can charge more and cut out the middle man. The designer will probably mark it up a bit and they both win. If folks would just quit using these services except those who are really making some cash, things would probably correct themselves some.
    Quick recap -> If you want to shoot stock, shoot it (quality over quantity.) Here’s the kicker though, you’re going to have to hustle and make some calls and meet some new people. Knock on some doors. Get rejected. Somebody will bite.( http://bit.ly/bOPKZM -> video from Zack on how to hustle!)
    I’d guess that MOST people that shoot microstock for iStock and the like is because they shoot it and never make a phone call or send an e-mail or stop by an office.
    You must convince designers that independent stock shooters offer a better product and that in the end, it will help their designs stick out form the crowd. I’d even think that stock shooters should unite and create micro-agencies. Imagine ten folks from ten different regions who shoot different styles and subjects coming together, splitting the marketing costs and taking their collective stock book to those ten regional markets and hustling it.
    Zack, preach.

  • Nathan Blaney said on November 23, 2010

    “Nevertheless, stuff that used to sell for $5,000 or $10,000 a pop – now similar images sell for $10-15. Those guys are crying about it, but one thing microstock has taught us is that maybe a portrait of a woman standing in front of a tree isn’t worth $10,000 anyways. The jig is up, anyone can take a photo of a handshake with an office building background or an apple on white. Should those things really be worth $10,000? No. That’s where microstock, I feel, has its place.”

    Well said -I agree with this completely!

  • gary s. chapman said on November 23, 2010

    I am one of those old time stock shooters. I started with The Image Bank in 1983. Since 1993 I have made, and continue to make, a large percentage of our income via stock.

    A few thoughts: 1) I remember the days of paying 475.00 for the privilege of adding one of our images to an elephant of a printed stock catalog. It was a risk that proved to be well played since all but one image went on to make good earnings. 2) Great fear came in the 90’s with the tidal wave of royalty free stock that swept the industry. We now make half of our earnings with RF. 3) Elation from one of our images making 30,000.00 over a period of a few years to recent rights managed sales of 1.30 (to major US corporations) is causing tremors of uncertainty to rattle our business.

    Would I recommend a professional photographer enter the stock market now? No, I must say all indictors are pointing to the idea that low to mid-level stock is moving to a crowd sourcing model. A lot of people will make a little money for a few companies. However, I still feel that higher-end produced stock that is created for the rights managed market will still be viable for the time being. See veteran John Lund’s blog at : http://blog.johnlund.com/

  • dtbsz said on November 23, 2010

    halleluya’ :)

  • ArenaCreative said on November 23, 2010

    @Gary I agree with you. It is going to be an uphill battle for newer microstockers to get the ball rolling now, than it was for us 5-6 years ago. There’s more competition in micro, than ever. We got in at the right time, got our images indexed in the searches, and I feel that without that I probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if I was just starting out today. Price for micro are slowly increasing, as the quality increases, but there will always be other low-priced models.

    I’m surprised nobody has brought up the whole “free” RF images model. That’s not going anywhere either, but I don’t think it’s anything we have to worry about losing business too. Free stock photo sites have their place; usually to draw buyers over to where the good images are.

    I have a lot of respect for John Lund as well, and his blog http://blog.johnlund.com/ is chock full of knowledge relating to the industry. His work is amazing – he’s the type of artist that I feel should demand higher prices for his work. You can tell he spends a lot of time on his images, and that type of work pays off for higher priced RF or RM models. In microstock, you can’t spend more than 5 or 10 minutes in post on any image, unless you want to be making $5 an hour. I have images I’ve spent hours on, and the returns were not worth the efforts. Other cases were. Images that are more advanced, or more heavy in the post processing or digital manipulation are definitely better suited for RM. Someday I’ll wisen up and learn how to separate my work between RM and micro.

  • Sean Locke said on November 23, 2010

    ‘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.”’

    Actually, that ‘lowballing’ created a whole new market of buyers – students, small businesses, non-profits, churches, scrapbookers, etc. These people were never going to spend $100 on anything. Much like iTunes made it quick, easy and cheap to get your favorite song.

    Sure, you’re losing out some, because Yahoo can buy at the same price as Joe’s Corner Market, but that’s a fault of the licensing terms, not the price tag.

  • Debbi said on November 23, 2010

    Thank you Zack, you always bring it home!
    I agree 100%, but I don’t come here to see if you agree with me. You are always insightful and make me think, and that’s what’s it about for me.

  • Rick020200 said on November 23, 2010

    Thanks for the insightful post Zack. I’m an amateur photog with 0 experience in microstock.
    That being said, I see a parallel in your post to the music industry. THE microstock of the music world? iTunes. And what better way for thousands of artists to get their music heard and enjoyed by lots of people. iTunes probably doesn’t pay the bills for many small time performers whom I’m sure supplement with door gigs, merch sales, and probably day jobs. The music analog to an assignment photographer is a jingle writer, or movie sound track producer. The jingle writers of the world do much the same thing you do–work directly with clients to meet their needs. The iTunes/microstock artists are attempting to anticipate needs/wants of a much larger consumer base, but their potential customers aren’t willing or able to spend thousands for the art. But they are willing to spend a dollar or ten.
    And before you object, I understand the limitations of the analogy (microstock customers are businesses, whereas iTunes customers are consumers). My point is that microstock and assignment photography are as different as Miley Cyrus and Howard Shore. They work and produce for completely different reasons. I appreciate your work precisely because you’re more like Shore than Cyrus. If some of your potential clients thought they were better served by Cyrus level photography, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

  • Randall Douglas said on November 23, 2010

    Wow. This is almost exactly what I think.

    I’d give it a slightly rosier picture in that I think stock must exist and evolve and to exist it must make itself sustainable. Those changes to patch the hole in the ship, must also be sustainable for contributors (the salty dogs at the oars if you will) as well. Otherwise, ditto.

  • Michael Johnson said on November 23, 2010

    I’m enjoying this. From my seat in the industry I too am waiting for the bubble to burst. Its not just the stock photo market but just about all the photo markets that are being over inflated.
    As a media photographer its only a matter of time before it all comes crashing back to reality. Good images are created by good professionals and the days of “well he had a camera and a lens” will be over…. well almost.
    Media outlets just like other businesses involved in the use of photographer will eventually wake up and realize the mistakes that the digital revolution has caused and that cheaper is not always better.
    Keep up the good work and thanks for the blog… I enjoy reading sane thoughts (I hear a lot of insane things from other photographers in my field who rant more out of ignorance than knowledge over the current state of photography).

  • Justin Gill said on November 23, 2010

    Insightful post Zack, and the links were great illustrations.

    The thing about the whole Vampire Weekend ordeal goes to show just how much and image can actually be WORTH.

    “Oh, you paid $5000 for it? NOPE. NOT ENOUGH.”

  • Adrian St. Onge said on November 23, 2010

    Love this post.. I was on the fence with micro stock for a while now, I think I’ll stay there. (or just not use my name :P).

    Love the article from FastCompany also. Amazing read. Opened my eyes about walmart.

    — Adrian

  • Gilbert said on November 23, 2010

    Hey Zack,
    Actually that middle image would make a great stock photo! Perhaps keyword it ‘wallflower’ or ‘unnoticed beauty’ or ‘chameleon’…

    Thanks for the insightful & interesting post, esp the last paragraph about valuing your work. It seems so many these days expect to get photographs for next to nothing, or free even. If we as photographers don’t place a value on our work, then we’re only setting ourselves up for others to do the same.

  • Eve Morris said on November 24, 2010

    Great insights into this microstock industry poses some interesting questions. I for one hate having to pigeon-hole my photography in line with what stock agencies want on the (remote) off – chance that someone will “find” my image and use it.
    Where can I buy a foam finger? and more importantly are they serving beer to those of us sitting on the sidelines with the big foam fingers?

  • Jim said on November 24, 2010

    Hi Zack,

    Awesome article. I worked for 16 years full time as a graphic designer/art director before shifting to photography and I can say that you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned how much clients HATE searching through hundreds of thousands of mediocre images. Trust me, the graphic design industry suffered the same fate that photography is suffering now. When computers became widely available and affordable, guess what? Everybody was suddenly a designer! “Hey, I have 4,000 fonts on my computer and I’ll use every one of them in my uber cool design!” Now these bad designers can embellish their crap designs with crap photography.

    But it only cost them $1!

    People love garbage so long as it’s cheap and they can have a lot of it.

    As you mentioned, Microstock has an effect on other photographers as well. A couple of weeks ago I was contacted to photograph an event for a large online company. They had a decent budget but wanted to buy all the photos outright, with no license limit. And they wanted a lot of images. A $5,000 budget buying 100 or more with exclusive, permanent rights (print and web, world-wide)? I researched Getty online and that money won’t buy you exclusive use of a single Rights-Managed image for 2 years. Even pricing Royalty-Free images at $150 apiece (per Getty) would only net them about 30 images.

    I emailed them a proposal but they didn’t bother negotiating. They just went to another photographer who would give in to their demands – er – requirements.

    Next time I’ll just say “yes”, give them a couple good images and a bunch of filler, cherry pick the best images for myself and be done with it. Lesson learned.

    Lastly, here’s an article about a study done concerning online use of bad or irrelevant photography: http://www.aphotoeditor.com/2010/11/09/generic-photography-ignored-online/

    Thanks for the great work Zack. I’m a big fan.


  • Rock said on November 24, 2010

    It seems these recent forays into pricing, and work delivered are all breaking down to the almighty dollar. I chase after a dollar to support my family like everyone else. I just don’t want to stop being a photog because I’m not making the most $$ possible shooting what I shoot.

    Ive spent too long on families and babies that I never wanted to do to turn around and give away that experience. It might not have been a job I was excited about but I still pit all of myself into it.
    My current business model is bound to fail; overcharge foFr the work I dont want to do and charge next to nothing for the work I do want. This way if I do a job I might not like, I get paid well, and if I do a job I like I’ll make less but have more fun shooting.

  • Cedric said on November 24, 2010

    again..AGREE with you, Zack..you rock!

  • Patrick Ralph said on November 24, 2010

    As always Zac you have a great way with words. About six years ago I also thought about shooting stock and came to the same conclusion. No fun, no satisfaction, not a job I’d like to do. Decided instead to expand my wedding photography business and specialize in asian wedding photography in the UK. Never looked back!

  • Jussi said on November 24, 2010

    I was so clad that it was very easy to deny flickr to sell my images.. :)

    Zack – you spoke in my words, again.

  • Daf said on November 24, 2010

    Ha ha – yeah that is some waffle!
    And the replies are fairly lengthy too!

    By Day – I’m an IT manager / senior developer for a niche image Library and software company that makes systems for Image libraries. (By night I’m a photographer who’s not done much in the last 2 months due to moving house) And although I’ve only been in the industry about 3.5 years – I’ve seen all this microstock fuss.

    Although traditional libraries still exist their business have been dramatically hit by all the microstock businesses – even Getty itself! The big guys have lowered their lowest prices a few times.
    BTW traditional stock images will start from about £60 – for a small picture for a website – the big bugs only kick in with print and multiple regions etc.

    I think Microstock had a place for 2 main groups
    – Amateurs not good enough for traditional libraries i.e. shit stock
    – Pro’s with a BIG throughput – lets face it – to make a living on $1 it’s a VOLUME game.
    But unfortunately it’s sucked in the rest of the industry too – this is a damned shame. Clients are eternally doing the “oh but I going get it for $x at _____stock”. This shouldn’t happen to Niche libraries as their content is usually specialist and of good quality – but unfortunately it does.
    In a way some of the big libraries are to blame for this for keeping the entry requirements so high for years.
    I assume you’ve seen this video of Yuri Arcurs BTW ? HOW BIG is that studio!! All for microsotock. But then it’s the volume game – and as you said – generic stuff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYkNKP96b84

    AFAIK – Corbis have never made a profit BTW ! Or so I’ve been told.
    And yeah – Getty has been eating up lots of other image libraries – both big and small but it’s starting to slow – their purchase of Rex was recently blocked by anti-monopoly people I think.

  • tk said on November 24, 2010

    I do shoot stock and started in the stock industry in the film days. It was very hard, as you say, to get in back then. I stayed away at first from microstock until I read an interview with Tony Stone. He, of course, was the owner of a huge worldwide agency. He changed my mind about the low pricing.

    All your points are very valid but I will throw this out……what about the endless number of images that we all shoot that are just sitting on a hard drive making nothing? Isn’t $1, five hundred times a year better than zero?


  • Jonathan said on November 24, 2010

    Thanks for being so thoughtful. Great to see someone wrestling with the issues and having an opinion.

  • Andrejs Pidjass said on November 24, 2010

    Hi Zack!

    Interesting post. I’m one of those guys who makes a living on microstock. 4 years ago I couldn’t even imagine that it will be like that. I had a full time job and I was only starting in photography. Microstock gave me an opportunity to quit a job that I didn’t really like and begin to do something interesting, I try not to compromise between what I like and what microstock needs. My pictures should fit my style. I will not shoot what I don’t like personally, even if it will bring me more money. I want to keep it fun and interesting as it is now.

  • ST said on November 24, 2010

    I just read half of post, and I think this is an interesting topic. Thanks for the history Zack.

  • Ivan said on November 24, 2010

    I have to confess that I always read all this in silence and i love your blog (only read 5 blogs)… But I want to point 2 things out of this:
    – Commoditization of the Added Value.
    I am running a succesful business in from Latin America, from where I am and where I learnt to think… and i understand that we tend to name our professions as industries. For me that’s wrong. If I have a personal way to see it, the standards are about the tools and probably the prices but never about the eye.
    My clients are all over the world and when they buy from me, they buy an approach… They pay for my PERSONAL way of seeing and thinking.

    I said I am from latin America, because there is a huge difference in the way we perceive and process things… In my region we have production industries for food, fruits and so… Not for approach. For approach, we have friends, ideals, values, happyness… At the end for me, we have added value.

    So i completely agree with you, Zack, we can sit and wait for the industries to give us back some answers. I stay in my added value chair because it brings added value to my life.

    Money is noisy, when it is around and when it is not. I have made huge campaigns involving concept, art direction, retouching, animation, film production and direction, meetings and stuff, just pro bono because the added value is a chain that returns to you too.

    All this of the microstock reminds me when Corel Draw was out, it was funky because you could be a designer installing an app… It was a loooong time ago… And hey I didnt change my rates and i am still alive… But there is also a lot of Corel Draw apps running.

    Again, i stay with the person who adds the value.

    – Motivations to do what you do.
    This is my second point, because I do what I do for living because I LIKE IT. Intermediation in business is the most profitable thing… but i dont like it, so i dont do it… An interesting thing to think about is if at some point, the market, the industry, the need or the wanting, could give no money or even ask money to do the microstock stuff… would the microstockers do it?

    I take photos of my kid pro bono, at my studio and it cost me… and i will do it as much as i like… I also do it for fashion photography because i enjoy it a lot… Most of that work is just for my soul.

    And believe me, after doing what i want, i dont worry about money because my clients like my approach…not a standard, an industry or a price… Those who have had prices, standards and industries on their concerns were not my clients and i wasn’t their provider.

    Photography IMHO is vision and it could take a life to see…

    I guess a lot of microstockers enjoy and love what they do… They will survive, not only because the money but their souls 😉

    And for the intermediaries and the industries, i hope they love what they do 😉

    Sorry for the length, the bad english and the passion… for me it’s what really worth it.

    (Im the CEO of my design and animation business, i cook, i code and i love to read)

    PS. We should avoid the industry thinking and empower personal approaches and values… someday humanity wont pay for a picture because there would be a trillion of good ones… but that day could be a beautiful day.


  • John Early said on November 24, 2010

    Zack – Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down on paper. Very nicely written. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately the same thing is happening to some extent in the assignment market. Photographers leaving money on the table in negotiations and shooting each other in the foot to get paid less and less for jobs as time goes on.

    All professional photographers need to slow down, and research and realize the value their images have to clients and demand reasonable compensation for them. If we all did that all the time perhaps we could stem the tide of the devaluation of photography.

  • Luba V Nel said on November 24, 2010

    stunning post. the image will not be accepted to microstock, though :) much harder submission guidelines than what most traditional togs get away with.
    I got few good contracts out of my stock libraries: the reason: client saw my work, wanted more exclusive. So we scouted some amateur models, gave few people jobs and made history. Stock does nto suck that bad after all!

  • Christian Carroll said on November 24, 2010

    Good post Zack. Here’s a bit of a different perspective, for what it’s worth.

    I do both assignment and microstock photography. My assignment photography is highly specialized and is always customized to my client’s specific needs. Thus, I sell the images one time to one party for a fairly high price point. On the flip side, my microstock photography is fairly generic and is designed to appeal to a large audience. With my microstock work I sell one image many times at a low price point.

    These two business models are completely different, yet both are valid and both work for me quite well. During the cold winter months when my assignment work dries up, I’m focusing more on shooting stock (which continues to pay all year long BTW and has paid for the majority of my photography gear), and during the warmer months I’m shooting more assignment work.

    I’ve seen lots of comments on here to the effect of “yea, I thought about microstock, but then I realized that my photos are worth more than a few bucks each, so I saw the light and realized it was a poor business model, I’d never be able to make any decent money at it, and it undervalues my work. This perspective makes sense when viewed through a traditional assignment photographer’s lens (pun intended). But my point is that microstock is a completely different business model that is more akin to an investment strategy than a traditional “sell once and get paid once” strategy. I don’t believe that the microstock model is a major threat to the assignment model or vice versa. Is the microstock market currently over-inflated? Possibly. Time will tell. But I do think microstock is here to stay, in one form or another. As you said Zack, the market will decide.

  • Grady Layman said on November 24, 2010

    Can I give you 1 dollar for this blog???


  • Daniel Laflor said on November 24, 2010

    You are an artist, dear Zack. You care for the honor of your work :)

    Business people (vs artists) are concerned with money, not art. Production is in accordance with the need of the market in order to produce large amounts of wealth. Honor and personal brand is irrelevant :)

    My rule of thumb is that if you are actually a business person you don’t complain about the market, you simply adapt and go on earning money.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Kind regards,
    Daniel Laflor

  • Andrew Rutherford said on November 24, 2010

    I’m not gonna lie. This blog post really depresses me. I recently got my first cheapo off camera light and I started feeling optimistic about my journey to become an editorial photographer. It’s not just the idea of micro stock, it’s the fact that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to get my name out there on the web without somebody else making a buck on my hard work. Where can I go to really get my name out there? I’ve been working on making a website for myself, but is it going to be secure?
    Do I need to make all my close friends and family sign a release before I put them on flickr?

  • zack said on November 26, 2010

    Andrew – Don’t worry about people stealing your work. If they want it, they’ll take it. Simple as that. Register your images with the copyright office and network your ass off to make it in the editorial world. A living can still be had and a fun life of ups and downs is still available to anyone who works their ass off for it.


  • bigmike said on November 25, 2010

    Great post Z! I’m a designer/art director and iy does SUCK ASS to look for images because a client wants to save money, and they don’t realize they’re wasting they’re time (I’ve probably only found ONE image for ONE project out of about 300 that actually hit the nail, but it still was a ROYAL pain in the ass.) Anyway, I’ve been out of the ad business for a minute and NEVER want to do an image search again! It hurts just thinking about it… Anyway keep keeping on brother!

  • Mike Moss said on November 25, 2010

    My general sense is that the real driving force behind stock is that it is a way for many photographers to seek validation for their work. The do-it-like-a-pro mentality of the workshops, magazines, blogs etc is always connecting photography to a profession and money making. So a lot of people feel the need to be “accepted” or “chosen” to participate in something like a stock agency in order to believe that their work has the potential to earn a profit and is therefore valid. Yes, there are some photographers that make a living at stock. But most anybody that is smart enough to make a living at stock could probably earn even more money in commercial. The handful of people making a living at it are not really driving it, and increasingly, graphic designers and art directors are rejecting it. At this point, it might be safe to assume that the desire to shoot stock might mostly come from a need for validation rather than anything else.

  • Samuel said on November 25, 2010

    Ohhhh, soo many words, soo tired…
    I’m going to come back later and read, I just got curious about the random photo – is her neck really that long – really?

  • zack said on November 26, 2010

    Samuel – Yes. No post production there. At all.


  • Brandon Seidel said on November 25, 2010

    Very lengthy but good read. The next ten years in stock will be a roller coaster ride.

  • Stuart Carter said on November 26, 2010

    Thanks, Zack. Excellent post as always.

  • Benjaminlea said on November 27, 2010

    All I want to say is thanks for always having something to say. Being a amateur these things are not the sort of things I sit around and ponder so I’m glad someone else is.

    Also, thanks a million for the eVersion of the Field Guide

    Weather you feel your a successful photographer or not you are one hell of a teacher and I think you gift of giving is what makes you the person you are.

    I’ll forever be grateful for everything you share and continue to share and I promise I’ll shout you a beer!

    One day!


    Come back to Sydney!

  • Flavio Massari said on November 27, 2010

    >3) The assignment to stock shooter – …………same photos into the stock world for additional sales and income.
    Hi zack, I fall in this picture. From the inside of the microstock industry I believe the market will be sustainable for both contributor and agency when the price for the middle to high resolution will rise to a so called midstock price, ten to twenty factor I think will be Ok; I agree the low price for the web resolution, because usually this is the kind of photos that are stolen, and is no valuable to try to call an advocate for a company in the uzbekistan country showing your picture in their web pages. A low price make the stole the worst solution, better paying little dollars for it.

  • dawn said on November 27, 2010

    I appreciate what you are saying, Zack. However, comma, as a small business owner, when was the last time you (not necessarily Zack specifically as he has multiple projects that may not be soley on his dime) spent $5,000-$10,000 on a custom logo, a custom marketing campaign (all to designer, not to printing/mailing/ad placement, etc.)?

    Guess what? Designers working with small businesses feel the same way as you do. We _wish_ we could earn $5-10K on a custom logo. But, we also (hopefully) know that if that small business spends all their money on a logo, they have no money left to get the word out that they even exist. So we (I) choose to do it for less within a shorter timeframe – in hopes of keeping our clients alive and helping them thrive. If we don’t help them succeed, we are constantly starting over with new relationships. IMHO, a designer/client relationship is very personal and it takes a long time for trust to be built on both sides.

    For my small design and marketing firm, microstock photography and illustrations have opened the doors for me and my clients. Thank you all! FWIW, as a small 2-person marketing/design shop, my experience on searching microstock is much less time consuming, than hiring, directing, communicating, deciding, etc., with a hired photog or any other outsourced work.

    From a microstock contributor side: best part? I have NO client. I make money. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, however much I want.

    There is no doubt that higher priced custom work still has its place for both of us. It’s just a little harder to come by than it used to be since the market opened up thanks to technology. Microstock photogs get comfortable w/camera and are now shooting weddings; in-house personnel and anyone with a computer are designing.

    BTW, I love what Ivan (post 59) said.


  • zack said on November 28, 2010

    Dawn – our new site and branding launching at the end of the year cost us a pretty dime. Thousands of dollars. We are only working with designers on the new stuff. No diy or $99 logo specials. Just sayin’.


  • Nico said on November 27, 2010

    Just like bottom cheap wedding photographers, I believe microstock is here to stay under one form or another.

    There will always be people willing to undercut themselves just to get that extra little money, as long as they are not full time why should they care anyway.

    Good luck in trying to : “educate my clients and my industry”, I have stopped trying that, now I just work with already educated clients 😉

    and finally just to say thank you for posting great articles.


  • dD said on November 28, 2010

    What would be really interesting is to find out how many stock photographers learned how to shoot stuff using information found on site like zarias.com or did a one light course.

    Professional photography is dying, my friend. You either adapt or die right along with it.

  • Mark said on November 28, 2010

    Zack, You are too good for this rant. Great photographers like yourself never have to worry about getting work. Microstock fills a niche and may overlap with what you do but in the long run is good for the photography industry. Remember it’s not the camera, it’s the person behind it with the vision and skill. You have this and so much more.

  • Sébastien Staub said on November 29, 2010

    Thanks for this post! I totally agree with your point of view and arguments!

  • Charlemagne Obana said on November 30, 2010

    Great insight as usual. I, too, had looked at submitting stock photos to istock and others, but thankfully never followed through. That just doesn’t seem like a viable means of supplemental income for me although there are many that try to make it work.

    One thing I’ve definitely taken away from this after reading the article on walmart you referenced, I will cease shopping there immediately. I know that it is pretty damn near impossible to stop them, but I will no longer contribute. I talked with my wife about it and we’re not hurting ourselves by not shopping there and the drive is not worth it to save a buck. We always liked target more anyhow. Thank you.

  • Calvin said on December 1, 2010

    There are numerous quotes from the movie “Fight Club” about the state of our society in which we buy sh*t we don’t need, because society has trained us to live in a consumerism world, always buying useless sh*t. I apply this to cheap photography.

  • David Burke said on December 1, 2010


  • Todor said on December 4, 2010

    I have read this article with interest as it really has opened my eyes a little more about microstock.
    Having read this article I am still keen on getting into microstock, as I have seen that with effort and creativity you can make money and it does increase over the long term. However, I do feel that microstock does have a finite shelf life and for a newbie, like myself, it will either take double (or longer) to generate a good income from my pictures.
    I think that the established microstockers will continure to do well, whereas those new to it will have to compete against the images the sites are saturated with, already – how many more variants of shaking hands, or handing over a set of keys can there be?!?
    Like you I would not use my real name, or anything linking me to my main photography sites.
    Brilliant and informative article!
    Kindest regards

  • John Armstrong-Millar said on December 5, 2010

    You are right about creativity and stock. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to shoot stock.
    If you are busy 24/7 struggling with tight deadlines well I guess stock is not on your radar. If however you have downtime/need to experiment with different styles. why not get someone to help pay for that.

  • Zed said on December 5, 2010

    Business is slow because you are just not that good. haha just joking.
    Don’t worry corporate America relies on original photos and video to keep us all in a stupid daze, ignorant to reality. They will be calling soon.

  • Chris Hepburn said on December 16, 2010

    There are a lot of people who make a little bit of money from Stock photography. However there are microstock photographers out there that earn far more than the $80,000 you mention. We’re talking $300,000 – $500,000 a year, whilst I concede this is pretty rare and can’t be done without a lot of hard work, you can’t deny those figures are impressive.

  • Manuel said on December 17, 2010

    Man.. your basic point is that in stock you will never find the quality you need for your special project (everything is the same, right?).. have you seen this?


  • stephen said on December 18, 2010

    As an amateur stock photog, I have to agree with about 90% of the post. As an amateur, I do feel that shooting stock has helped me learn and build confidence, and put about $1000/year in my pocket.

    The problem you’re facing, and all photographers are facing, and one that you’ve blogged about before, is how many photographers are out there now. It’s simple economics; when there’s more of something it becomes cheaper. There’s nothing individuals can do about it, but they can differentiate themselves.

    There’s always the “can’t beat them, join them” theory that you may get to at some point.

  • Denver Portrait Photographer said on December 21, 2010

    Man I sure do like that second shot, I love the creativity of it.

    I certainly don’t think that stock photography will ever be for me. It just seems like so much work, for such little payoff.

  • Juan Rojo said on February 21, 2011

    “Think it’s expensive to work with a professional? Wait until you see how much it can cost working with an amateur.” Brilliant statement Zack and it truly permeates to every niche of our industry.

  • Jason said on April 8, 2011

    Hi Zack, on the quote from Kelly at iStock you got it wrong a little bit. He’s not saying that the buisness model itself is flawed, but rather how they were paying out royalties (I’m not agreeing with anyone here). They paid royalty percentages based on number of images sold per contributor, so over time all contributors increased their royalty percentage without ever facing the possibility of going back down. So over time iStock’s percentage of payouts increases while the amount iStock takes flatlines or decreases.

    However, now they set royalty goals each year and contributors have to meet those goals to get a certain royalty level. Anyway that’s their logic today.

  • Luis Santos said on May 1, 2011

    ZA I am not taking any of your credit, that´s impossible I have learned reading your blog and at CJ place but I am just not understanding a thing, why so many workshops?

  • mark said on January 20, 2013

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