A Russian photographer recently asked me what subjects he should shoot for microstock in order to maximize his earnings. He said: “I’m thinking cosmetics, photos of girls putting on makeup, girls and guys on the beach, girls in business suits with laptops, glamour club shots of girls in glam clothes, sometimes near crystal disco balls, modern dancers…”
And he asked: “Will I make any money with stock pics like these, if they are the best?”
Like Yuri — But Cheaper
He pointed out that Yuri Arcurs  makes $1.5 million a year shooting in Denmark, while he can hire good Russian photographers and models for 20 percent of what it costs in Denmark.
He said he has made millions shooting “cheesecake images for Maxim, FHM, Playboy, but those magazine revenues have dried up to some degree.”
He wants to expand.
He had read that the average lifetime return of an accepted microstock image is about $14 for Arcurs, but more like $2 for the average photographer.
Evidently, that is an acceptable level of income for a Russian photographer.
He feels that, with hard work, he can duplicate what Arcurs has done.
There are two flaws to this gentleman’s logic.
I doubt anyone else will ever come close to generating Arcurs’ microstock revenue. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of either photographer’s work. Arcurs has two major advantages that no other photographer will be able to overcome, unless microstock companies dramatically change the way they do business, Yuri quits producing or both.
The first is that Arcurs has been producing microstock since October 2005. He has grown up with the business. He was building his sales totals when there was much less choice and relatively little quality. And that points to the second advantage.
According to Arcurs, 80 to 90 percent of the time, microstock customers organize their search returns by download. This means that the images downloaded most frequently are always at the top of search results. That’s a big reason they get chosen again and again.
It’s very difficult for new images to get high enough in the search results to be seen. Most sites offer search by “best match” and “newest.” In theory, these options would improve the chances of new images being seen. But if customers never use these options, the chances of them seeing images that have never been downloaded is slim.
The only way photographers that have been around for a long time will stop having a huge advantage over those just starting out is if the microstock sites stop allowing customers to search based on the number of times an image has been licensed. This is unlikely to ever happen, because it benefits the customers and the site operators.
What to Shoot?
Now, to the Russian photographer’s primary question: “How do you identify the subjects in strong demand where there is limited supply?”
There is no simple way to develop such a shot list. As far as I know, no such lists exist. In fact, there is such an oversupply of every conceivable subject that I doubt it is possible to find anything to shoot where there is not already a huge oversupply relative to demand.
If I were going to try to develop such a shot list, I would hire computer database experts, not photographers, and have them develop an algorithm that searches iStockphoto, Fotolia and Dreamstime for every conceivable combination of words that relate to the kinds of pictures I am prepared to produce.
Broad, generic terms like “women in business” are worthless. Such general categories must be narrowed into much smaller groups — for instance, by using multi-word searches that return 500 or fewer images.
One example might be “woman, glasses, computer, outside,” which returns 76 results on Shutterstock. Chances are anyone looking for that combination will review all the images available, so even if mine were the last one it would probably get seen.
But take “glasses” out of the list of words, and there are 2,388 images returned. Chances are no one will look through that many images. Should I put glasses on every woman I photograph? How many customers will care whether the woman is wearing glasses or not and insert that word in their queries?
Once I find a niche with few returns, I have to determine how frequently customers are looking for and buying images that meet that criteria. This can be accomplished by going to iStockphoto, Fotolia or Dreamstime and checking the number of downloads of a significant number of images in the group.
On iStock, for example, there are 202 photos of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Two of them have sold more than 100 times, but the 40th image has only sold 10 times. Is that enough to make it worth my time to go to the Hermitage and shoot?
There are no shortcuts to finding an answer to this question. You either guess or do the research.
Nearly all photographers are guessing what will sell, and when they are lucky enough to hit on something that works, they shoot a lot more variations of the same subject. Almost no one does any research, because it is so time-consuming.
Even if you find a subject that is in high demand and short supply, there is no guarantee that it will stay that way for long, or that the images you produce will be the ones that customers want.
There is one other thing to keep in mind when trying to analyze such information. If you find an image that has sold a lot, all those sales may not be the result of the image being found using the keywords you used to find it.
A good example is the shot of a young woman  taken by Anouchka  that is number 3,781,332 on iStock. It has been downloaded more than 16,000 times. It has 60 keywords and if anyone uses any one of those keywords, or a combination, 3,781,332 will be the first image shown, because it has more downloads than anything else.
Those images that are well keyworded and have achieved a significant number of downloads will keep rising to the top of every search.
Finally, it is important to remember that the image you judge to be the best and most unique will not necessarily be the one the customer will buy. Stock photo customers (the ones spending the money) often have different ideas about what is best for their purposes than the photographers who take the pictures.