Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Choosing For the Future of Stock Photography

Social Networking, Stock Agencies and a Whole Lot of Images
I have recently been conducting searches on Getty, Corbis, SuperStock, BlendImages and iStockphoto to compare their offerings. In the case of the above-mentioned “traditional” stock agencies, I chose them because they carry my work. I chose iStock because it is the first micro agency most people think of. In many cases the images offered by iStock are far greater in both numbers and in creativity than the photos I could find from the traditional stock agencies. Look up “social networking” on Getty, for example, and you get 84 results. Do the same search on Corbis and you get 92 results (interestingly SuperStock came back with 238 images and a surprising variety to choose from). Blend Images has 21 images, which considering its smaller and more-targeted collection isn’t bad. Look up social networking on iStock and you get 2,443. Yeah, there are some sketchy images there, but there are a whole lot of great pictures as well…and Corbis and Getty also have their share of junk. On iStock, however, you get a much, much greater range of photos to search from.

Hundreds of Thousands of Shooters and Greater Choices
Increasingly, at least as far as I can see, the micro sites are offering greater choices, and, at least in some cases, better choices as well. It seems logical…hundreds of thousands of shooters contributing photos to an agency as opposed to thousands. So if you are an art director, art buyer, designer or even small businesswoman (or businessman) looking for images, and you can find more and better ones (not to mention less expensive) at micro sites…wouldn’t you go there? Am I missing something here?

Traditional Stock, Micro Sites and a Strategy
One strategy for us traditional shooters might be to begin to put images up on micro sites and to start to build a presence there just in case that scenario actually happens. For me, it is really hard to pull the trigger on that. I am still doing quite well in traditional stock and as I create relatively few images, I still feel that I am better off now in the RM and RF markets. But what about two or three years from now…will I wish that I had created a body of work that could have been moving up in the search results all this time?

Room For A Higher Priced Offering
Apparently the upscale Vetta collection at iStock is doing very well, fantastically well even. The higher prices seem to be no deterrent to those licensing micro stock. I don’t find that terribly surprising…micro prices started at such low levels it makes sense that there is room for a higher priced offering. In traditional stock it has always been a given that price was not the determining factor in the licensing of an image…but rather the photograph being the right one.

Lesser Images and More Competition
If I do eventually cave in to my fears (or logic?), and overcome my ego problems with placing a low monetary value (at least per licensing) on my imagery and begin to contribute to micro sites, should I do the same kind of work I am doing for my RM and RF agencies? There is the temptation to contribute “lesser” images to micro, and yet I suspect that doing so would condemn me to failure in micro. After all, in micro there is even more competition…and the added problem of, as a beginner, not having high rankings in search returns. Too, while some of the most popular photographs and illustrations on the micro sites have some pretty phenomenal download rates, it seems (at least to me) that the number of images that return stellar and even reasonable returns falls off rather quickly. 

High Volume and Higher Price Points
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to tap into the high volume of micro with a higher price point? Micro stock agencies are leaving a lot of money on the table…money that could go a long ways towards moving stock photography back in the direction of profitability for photographers.  There are a lot of very smart and talented people in this industry, so it isn’t far fetched to think that just such a scenario might be right around the corner. 

What Do You Think?
OK, this is an off-the-cuff look at the situation. Not having any work in micro limits what I know…and I haven’t spent hours and hours searching. So I am curious…what do those of you reading this blog think? What does your experience tell you…particularly those of you with both macro and micro experience? Is it time to step into micro…is it a better idea to wait a bit longer in the hopes a better scenario does come around? I would really like to hear from you!


Rahul said...


Happy to chat about this. If you enter micro, do NOT submit your 'dregs' - you will not succeed and will conclude the channel is worthless. In reality, while great photographers can find success in micro, you need to commit & invest to succeed. No shortcuts and no crap.

Call me if you'd like to discuss further.


Unknown said...

Lots of food for thought there, and I have thought at length about placing macro quality images on micro, and am still on the fence. It's not a bad idea but to actually do it is another matter.

From my understanding to make a good return on iStock you would need to become exclusive, which means no placing of RF anywhere else, which I think would not be an option for you.

Why not produce top notch images in these areas such as social networking that you see lacking on Getty and Corbis, thus providing clients equal quality with the benefits of rights management?

Jeff Colburn said...

Wow, it sounds like you were channeling me. I have the same questions and concerns as you do. I have my own stock site, and find it hard to put images on microstock. Seeing my hard work going for a dollar would kill me.

Like you, I'm going to see what happens with microstock. If I do decide to go with micro, I can probably get some decent rankings by putting my 2,000+ images up quickly.

For now, I'll stay with my site, and watch what happens.

Have Fun,

Unknown said...

Hi John,

As always good post.

I'm in micro and macro and I think there's opportunity in both. My return per image is much higher in macro but my sales volume is higher in micro.

I think now what's separating macro from micro is mainly service. Buyers who have a budget and like most of the work done for them go with macro. Those who lack the budget or prefer to do all of the legwork go with micro.

Sites like Istock are increasing pricing but IMO it still needs to go higher. Until then I think images with rarity like your elephant series should go to macro. High volume easily replicated images should go to micro. I personally would not submit the same images to both or leftovers to micro.

I'd be glad to share ideas but there's way too much to cover here. If you're interested let me know and I'll get in touch.

Webmaster said...

Interesting topic - I've had similar conversations with a few of my counterparts around the countryside. Many have bitten the bullet and have started to put what they classify secondary images up on a few sites.

What they have found is that what we as traditional stock photographers consider acceptable images are not by the micro-sites.

I experimented a year or so back while working on an article and submitted a few (10)images that I had licensed on numerous occasions and was told that over half had too much noise or they were blurry or some other of the many reasons they decide to reject an image. Amazingly, those same rejected images had generated quite a nice amount of revenue for me.

So for the traditional stock photographer, a change of thought is required, should they decide to go that route.

I've not made the choice to start using a micro-site as a additional marketplace, they have however, forced me to evaluate my current pricing structure and the type of licenses I provide to my clients.


Gary Crabbe / Enlightened Images said...

I still haven't been able to swallow the red pill. No matter how hard I try, I just haven't been able to wrap my head around giving away so much time and effort in exchange for such a low-valued return on all of that extensive commercial use. IMHO - There needs to be some new pricing models that are balanced between easy, comprehensive, and value-aware. Jim Pickerell has mentioned the need for a two tier system, but I'm thinking that a three tier system might be more suitable, and will be devoting more time to that formulation this summer.

FWIW - John, You're images are just too darn good for micro; but that's just me...

John Lund said...


I am trying to produce top notch images in areas that are weak with my concern is that the "eyeballs" might be migrating to the micro sites....


John Lund said...


I haven't swallowed that red pill yet either...just looking at it, trying to understand what the side effects are!


Jonathan Ross said...

Hi John,
Thanks for the article I think your questions are probably experienced by 75% of stock photographers, if not higher. I can offer my experience but I cannot promise it is the answer, just another perspective. I have to say that my feelings follow what Paul said earlier in the remarks.
I have a different visual style for my micro work that is very clean simple bright and straight to the buyers point. There are no secrets in my Micro images, they are what they are. My best sales in Micro seem to come from this style. We tried a more typical RF Macro shoot for Micro and we have not seen as much success as our standard Micro style.
Or RF Macro has taken a drop but for us we saw a drop back a year or two ago and it has steadied out considerably, so our returns don't seem to be as heavily effected now that the models are finding their sales point.
Especially having work in all three models. It seems this more than anything has kept our income at the same or growing over the past year.
We have spent a lot of time on RM over the past year just because it was the smallest piece of our pie and we wanted to help balance things out a bit.
The best new avenue for us has been motion. We have not done motion for Micro but more because we are just getting started and we are waiting to see some prodder sales numbers. The numbers are starting to show up and so far so good. It's also a blast wearing a Fedora and scarf to the shoots : )
At the end of the day I would say our business is holding up quite well in comparison to other alternatives. If you want to compare what it was 6 years ago then I think you will only come away with disappointment. If you want to look towards the future I see clear skies ahead. Still the greatest job in the world.


John Lund said...


Thanks for sharing that. Sounds like a reasonable and well-rounded approach!


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