Microstock Is a Great Deal — for Buyers

Recently, I visited the forum of a modeling Web site where a photographer boasted about his microstock image being used on the cover of Time Magazine. He was proud that Time had purchased the image — for $30.

Thirty bucks. Holy cow.

This topic has already been debated on a number of photography and journalism Web sites, but I wanted the dust to settle before I chimed in on this. I needed time to reflect.

I don’t want to pick on Robert Lam, the photographer. I hope that he is able to parlay the Time tear sheet to get other work and sell more stock.

But when I visited his Web site, it was a pretty bare-bones place. If Lam’s image had sold for $3,000 (as many Time cover images do) instead of $30, he’d be able to upgrade his site as a fitting reward for his achievement. I also saw that he was selling an 8×10 print of his cover image (before Time’s post-production work) for $7. Time, on the other hand, is selling prints of that cover for between $19.95 and $94.95.

Microstock is a great deal — for those who are buying. It’s not such a great deal for those of us who are giving away our photography. Time saved thousands of dollars. And if the photographer who shot the image decides to buy a print of that Time cover, to commemorate the occasion, the magazine has recouped all or most of its $30, just from that purchase.

Going Backwards

Call me crazy, but it seems to me the creation of photography is getting more expensive all the time — not less.  When I started taking pictures, a pricey Canon A-1 cost me $350.  My last camera cost 10 times that.  Will Seberger wrote recently about the rising cost of being a photographer:

Since about 2002, I have been stuck in an almost endless upgrade cycle. Where before I could do my job with some downright ancient hardware (by today’s standards, at least), today I have to move quickly to keep up with expectations.

Even if you are a hobbyist who only occasionally sells photography, you should understand your cost of doing business, shouldn’t you?

How long will your camera last? What about your computer?  When are you planning to upgrade your imaging software? These are hard costs that need to be taken into account.  Heck, your CF card costs more than what Time spent.

Oh, and don’t forget to factor in taxes. You are paying them, aren’t you?

The numbers don’t lie, and they all agree that selling microstock is a loser’s game.

I learned the other day that Twitter, which analysts value somewhere around $500 million, purchased its famous “birdie” graphic through a microstock site for less than $15.

I wonder where that artist took his family to celebrate the news.

17 Responses to “Microstock Is a Great Deal — for Buyers”

  1. The numbers don't lie, and they all agree that selling microstock is a game that losers can't win.

  2. Tell that to Yuri Arcurs - who turns over $1.3 million from micro stock sales.

    Check his website http://www.arcurs.com

    Good luck with your traditional libraries!?!?!?!


  3. I don't know Yuri. So, what is he doing that the rest of us are NOT doing?

  4. Tony:

    We need to educate the general public in pricing photos for big newspaper and magazines. The cameras is like a gun it looks cold in your hand, until you shoot your eyes out.

  5. Not that it makes much difference, but the story I heard was that the image sold for over $100 and the photographer's commission was $30. Yes, that's a lot less than $3000 - but seriously, how much is a photo of a jar of coins worth? It's not like the photographer rented a location, hired a makeup artist and model and paid a crew. Most covers are definitely worth $3k and I'm not saying he didn't have a great concept here, I think the value of this particular photo was somewhere in the middle.

  6. Well I make more on microstock than a full time position with the ap. Guess I should quit and work spec for a wire service and sell one cover a year for $500. I don't care where it's published. I have a business model a plan and I make a living for my family.

  7. @Lorraine Swanson — It doesn't matter what the jar costs where it was shot or paid a stylist. What matters is its usage. Time saw a wonderful opportunity and took advantage of it.

    At the end of the day what we are really selling is a license allowing use of our copyright protected, intellectual property. In my opinion, the license of stock photography should cost more than the license for a commissioned image. I say that because with a piece of stock photography, the client knows everything about the image before they use it (as opposed to hiring someone to create a custom image).

    There is excellent software available to help calculate usage. And I think we all need to learn the value of our product. A photographer shouldn't be a baby with a portfolio of candy for others to steal.

  8. I agree 100% with Mark. I make more on microstock than I did after 12 years as a manager in a multi-national corporation. This is my business - I have a plan, work hard and yes, pay my taxes.

  9. I am not a microstock hater - but I don't do microstock either. As for those who hail the photographer who took $30 for a Time magazine cover did undercut the market by a bunch. And those saying "screw you and your old model" I have one caution.

    Remember your present attitude when someone comes along and disintermediate's you - and you're out of a job because of YOUR old model. I wonder if you will yell with such glee at your own loss? Ummm no I don't - you'll all squeal like stuffed pigs.

  10. Tony Wrote:
    We need to educate the general public in pricing photos for big newspaper and magazines. The cameras is like a gun it looks cold in your hand, until you shoot your eyes out.

    The problem with that statement it was good 10 years ago, but the changes in the way people get thier news has changed, many get the news online, download it to a digital device, how many 16 - 30 year olds read a newspaper or magazine, how many newspapers and magazines have gone to the wall, London UK has just lost a free paper because of falling revenue, it is changing to an online subscription offering, as they cannot even give papers away.

    There will always be traditional image sales, free news online will change to subscription in time, but for many a medium resolution image that will load quickly in a webpage or on a mobile device is all that is required.

    I am not a microstock contributor, but I do look at the changes and trends in the Industry, and I think that the next 'new market' will be phone and websized, medium resolution pay-as-you-go images, with easy delivery.

    David 🙂

  11. I think the cover STORY was on frugal-ness and the photo was a plain jar of coins. Kinda smart on Tim'e part. I wouldn't consider this a typical case.

    Complain about how the 'good ole days' are over or learn to adapt, it's up to you.

  12. As of the last time Yuri Arcurs was interviewed, he was barely breaking even.

    $1.3 million sounds impressive, sure, until you take into account that it's revenue. It's not profit. It's not money in his pocket.

  13. If you're going to land a photo on a big magazine cover, how many do you expect to land each year? 200? 500? 10,000? If you're lucky, maybe just 1 or 2. Is that going to pay the bills, even if it paid 5 grand? That's just one month's income for the average Joe Schmoe in the US. I will agree that the enhanced licensing is sometimes a little whacked, and the artist for the most part gets the bad end of the stick in microstock, but the majority of microstock sales are standard RF files, for use in much smaller print runs. Most of the images purchased might not even leave the purchaser's hard drive. I know that when I would buy microstock images at work as designer, that's what would happen for the most part. Especially on subscription sites.

  14. Colin: Thanks. I have heard the same thing.

    As for the rest of you, I'm keeping my day job and my photo work will continue be a supplement. I've been a semi-pro for nearly 40 years now, and have been socking away that money for my retirement over the years. It dawned on me many years ago, that there are too many photographers chasing too few opportunities. Would Ansel Adams have been as great if he had started out today? Highly unlikely! Back in his day, there were very few people shooting with professional gear because 1.) It was horribly expensive 2.) Few knew which end to look into 3.) Few people had the opportunity to actually take pictures for a living.

    That being said, I may never sell another damn thing and frankly, I could care less. I turned 60 over the weekend and I plan to spend the rest of my days enjoying photography.

    Oh, and now that I'm "old" I can say what I damn well want. You will all have that priviledge some day.

  15. People like Yuri are trotted out whenever a discussion like this comes up. However they are the lottery winners how many people are selling microstock and will not only never make that sort of money but are struggling now?

    The reality is though that you can't "educate" people about something like this - just as you can't educate them that illegal downloading of music and video is wrong and they should stop. People only care about what something costs and if they can get it for less or for free (this includes corporations as well).

    With the digital age so many things have been commoditised (or bastardised - if you will) and photography is no exception. With cameras being so cheap and ubiquitous (with every phone capable of capturing an image) and digital media superseding the costliness of film the only thing left of value in photography is the rare and the unique.

    As for the photographer that got 30 bucks for his Time cover - more fool him.

  16. I predict that within the year, any company which values it's reputation will no longer use microstock images on their website/s. And it is happening already...


  17. I understand why so many are against microstock. As a microstock contributor I am also against it. However I am also against not having money to pay for my basic needs and this makes me "for" microstock. I am sure there are many other people like me who feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. As far as I see it the discussion of being for or against microstock is too simplistic. Can one say that McDonald's existence threatens luxury restaurants? Or that Radioshack competes with Bang & Olufsen? In my opinion you get you pay for. I don't sell photographs on microstock sites but I do sell illustrations. Does this mean that I will spend dozens of hours on an illustration that will sell for a few bucks? Not really. Because microstock is not about quality, it's about quantity. Best does not necessarily sell more. Most times popular sells more and as we all know popular doesn't mix with quality that well. Fortunately many of us live in so called free capitalism. Unfortunately this has a price. The price is that new markets rise all the time and these new markets undercut old markets with lower prices. So what happens to those who made a living in the old markets? They adapt or die. Is this fair to them? Absolutely not. But it is the way our societies are built. As far as I see it the question we should really be asking ourselves is: do the societies that we live in today make sense? Are they fair? Are they humane? Are they "profitable"? I think the answer is clearly: no. So this is really the problem we should address, both as individuals as well as organized groups. Microstock vs Rights Managed is really only symptomatic of a much wider problem.

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