Is the New Stock Photography Business Model Right for You?

Article and Photography by William Manning

I remember well the days of making a reasonably good living or at least providing a respectable supplemental income selling pictures, especially compared to today. It took a fair amount talent, a good business sense and a little luck. That business model was called stock photography. Stock photography is still very much alive today but much of the business has taken on a slightly different term better known today as microstock. Microstock still requires a little talent, but business sense is debatable and a little luck has changed to an enormous amount of luck and a whole lot of hard work.

What’s the difference? For the most part it is the price for which these pictures sell. Just a few short years ago a stock photo could fetch anywhere from $100 to a few hundred dollars on average. Most of these were sold through a stock photography agency and the commissions were split between the agency and the photographer. In most cases 60% to agency and 40% to photographer, not bad when you considered the enormous amount of overhead the agency had invested to market and sell the pictures in an enormously competitive market place. But, not forgotten was also the expense in which photographers invested in creating those pictures.

The market was so competitive and promising at one point that the bigger players in the industry such as Getty Images and Corbis got into a buying competition gobbling up many of the smaller and promising stock agencies. This isn’t an unusual business practice when you look at other industries as this happens all the time, but in my opinion it created problems for the suppliers (the photographer). Unless you were already under contract it was nearly impossible to break into the stock photography business. Needless to say, there were a lot of hard feelings about the industry with literally millions of pictures piling up in hard drives all over the globe with few if any outlets to distribute these images. Not only were there plenty of pictures sitting idle but also the demand for pictures were increasing with the growing Internet industry, so came the new stock photography business model, microstock.

The Good News and Bad News of Microstock

Microstock was both good news and bad news to the photographer depending on what side of the fence you stood on. The good news was it opened the door to thousands of photographers and millions of new images to distribute in the market place. The bad news is the prices these pictures fetched. Buyers can purchase the usage rights of a picture from a dollar to a few dollars. These agencies work very much like the traditional agencies when it comes to working with the photographer; they split commissions in most cases about the same, roughly 25% to 40% going to the photographer. These sales typically bring in about .25 to .75 cents per sale for the photographer sometimes a little more. Not only are the commission payouts low but also practically anybody who owns a camera and has the time can sell through these agencies, which means millions of new pictures are uploaded on a monthly basis. The bad news continues, with so many pictures being uploaded each month the photos photographers uploaded a few short months ago fall farther behind in the database and therefore progressively becomes more and more difficult for the buyers to find. In other words, your potential sales from an image are greater within the first couple of months from its upload date and will diminish as each month passes. Therefore if you hope to make any substantial money from microstock, you’ll need the time and resources to upload thousands of new pictures every month.

There are claims throughout the internet of photographers making thousands of dollars each month through microstock sales. I can’t say if this is true or not, I simply don’t know but if I had to guess I would say there are no more than a handful from the tens of thousands involved. I will say I was intrigued by these claims for some time and had to experiment for myself. First let me say, I have been very much involved in the stock photography industry for about 18 years and have had a successful career selling through this business model. I would consider myself as being very knowledgeable about the industry and understand a good picture from bad and also what type of image might sell well for stock usage although no one can guarantee how an image will do in the market place.

A Market Test

Twelve months ago I took 100 images from my library, a diversified group of photos and placed the same 100 photos into seven different microstock sites. Each agency took a relatively high percentage of images from that 100. The best was 91 images from the selection and the worst was 46 images. The upload process was enormously time consuming as each agency had their own unique system. All agencies required keywords and descriptions as one would guess, some ingested the information and a couple did not but all did require a series of questions for each photo asking if it were a photo or an illustration and various other questions. This took some time as I mentioned. All the images went on sale in November of 2009 and here in November of 2010 I have had a total of 777 sales from the best of those agencies making me a grand total of $279.49 (other agencies far less). My November and December sales were the best and as each month passed the sales diminished considerably. I understand 100 images is not a lot of pictures, but after crunching some numbers what it does illustrate to me is what would be required of me from month to month to make any real money from microstock. I also understand my numbers are unique to my images and these numbers will vary depending of the subject matter. I think it is also important to mention regardless of what you may read or hear, no buyer is going to purchase an image based on who the photographer is. Every picture buyer comes to a stock photography site with a particular need and no matter how much time you spent on creating that image or much money you have invested in creating an image it won’t change the buyers mind.

Put Together a Good Game Plan

I would like to encourage photographers to look beyond the numbers I post or any other photographer and take a serious look at what you have invested in time, talent and maybe more importantly what you have invested in creating your images and then ask yourself a question, “What is my time worth and what kind of return do I need from my investment”? I ask myself these questions almost daily. I also like to think about how my pictures might be used and in all cases I know my photos are competing among possible hundreds of the same subject from the same agency. I can almost guarantee the buyer will chose the image they feel will best sell their product, service or deliver their message. If my photo has enough impact to influence a purchase or promote a service that someone takes pride in, then in my view its worth more than a dollar or two.

I am not suggesting a photographer stay away or get involved in stock photography, but rather suggest they make their business decisions based on a well thought out plan. If your a hobbyist looking for a few extra bucks I think you’ll still achieve greater financial rewards if you base you’re decisions on a solid plan. I wish all the best of luck.

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  1. Drawing conclusions from 100 images is a fairly small sample size, but I took a look at your portfolio and for the images you uploaded your earnings were not too far off what you should expect. Based on the 2009 Microstock poll I organized last year, I would agree that it only a handful of artists are earning over $1000 each month, but it is also only a handful of artists who are working hard at creating a full time income through microstock.

    You mentioned that between 46-91 images were accepted at the various agencies. For photographers wanting to do microstock full time they should be easily getting 90% acceptance across the board. Having experience with traditional stock agencies is certainly very beneficial but the same rules do not always apply to microstock.

  2. William says:

    Tyler, You're right about 100 images being a small sampling, but if one were to do the numbers one can see what it requires to produce a respectable check from a microstock agency. Notice I didn't say income, photographers all to often forget the cost of creating their photography and covering other overhead expenses. Before cash can be considered income (salary) one must recoup their upfront investment. My next post will cover the cost of doing business. The business of photography is no different than the restaurant business, plumbing business, coffee shop, accounting business, etc... There are upfront costs and I don't see microstock as the best venue for recovering these expenses and creating an income on top of that. Some do but very, very few. A $1000 a month isn't enough in most cases to cover expenses, of course much of it depends on what you shoot. 5 to 10 thousand dollars a month is required in most cases when you take into consideration taxes, business and health insurance, office expenses, etc... I'm not trying to talk anyone out of microstock, I simply want people to take a realistic look at the stock photography business in general. I think there is so much misinformation being posted throughout the web about microstock and even traditional stock.

  3. Wilbert says:

    I don't know anything about stock photography, but I'm a professional photographer, and I can entirely confirm what William says about upfront costs. A 1000 $ gross income from microtsock won't get you very far when you are running a day to day business. If you count all your costs for camera gear, car and petrol, computer and office supplies, taxes, insurances, heating and electricity, telephone and internet, etc. etc. etc. You have to earn at least 5 - 6 K$ to even reach a minimum wage. Even with a 90% acceptance rate you would have to produce at least 10.000 quality microtock photographs a month. Nobody is that good. Microstock millionaires ? L O L !

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