Microstock is a method of selling images that you either love or hate, but without a doubt it has found a place in the image stock industry that is expanding in volume even though the number of serious sites is possibly contracting slightly.
What is Microstock?
For those of you that have never heard the term, Microstock is a method of selling your images but the 'Micro' in the word relates to the payments rather than the imagery! Typically, images sell for around the $3 mark, of which you get 20-50% and sometimes less. This means that you have to sell a seriously large number of images to make any money.
When you consider that the images you upload to Microstock sites are nowadays scrutinised just as closely as if you were submitting them to a regular stock agency, take just as much effort to process and keyword, and the same amout of skill to produce, you might wonder whether it is all worthwhile. Ask about Microstock in photography forums and, for the most part, you will get steered away from them with comments like "Nobody but the sites make money from Microstock", and, for those people that comment, they invariably don't make money.
Fotolia's best selling image
A numbers game.
The reason they have this opinion is that Microstock is certainly a numbers game where a large quantity of images, often on more than one site, is the best way to earn money from the model. The more successful contributers have portfolios of saleable images that all exceed 1000 files, often many more. Many of these sucessful photographers also submit their work to three, four, five or more Microstock sites. Of course, this is time consuming but a good workflow system, along with IPTC metadata (keywording within the image file) makes each extra site less work than the first.
Also, each Microstock site has a slightly different model and client base, making the use of a number of them worthwhile to these photographers who have been willing to put in the effort to cover a number of them. They have also found that some images declined by one site, through the reviews proceedures, have been accepted by another site and sold well! As always with photography, one man's meat is another man's poison!
There is, however, another side to the coin, where some Microstock sites reward their contributors at a higher rate for exclusivity, although none that I came across while researching this article demand it. It is apparent though, that a good number of the very top earners (2-5%) do work exclusively for the one site. An alternative, offered by some of the sites, is to make individual images exclusive to that site while still spreading other images throughout the portfolio of sites that you submit to.
Whichever route is chosen, the one constant with the successful photographers in the Microstock industry is lots of saleable images, being downloaded lots of times. If you just upload a few images, perhaps not your best at that, then you are like to get few downloads and never reach the minimum payment from the site, effectively giving your images away! This is what has happened to those forum posters that are most against the Microstock model. There is, obviously, the side of the arguement that Microstock is/will undermine the traditional stock image market, and the detractors will quickly point out the occasions where Microstock has appeared to damage that traditional high paying sale.
What they all miss is that Microstock has also brought buyers into the market place that would never have dreamed of paying £80-100 or more for an image. In fact, the likelyhood is that is has curbed the temptation for image theft in a lot of cases, making images affordable to the smaller enterprise and individual without a large budget.
Eggs and Baskets
We've seen that some photographers have followed the old adage of not putting all your eggs in one basket, but a few of the real top earners have ignored the advice. The salient point here though, is the size of the basket, and those earners tend to have chosen the bigger baskets early on whilst others, coming to the marketplace later, have chosen to spread their eggs around some slightly different shaped baskets.
Of the bigger players, contributors report good earnings from Shutterstock, who offer a model based on subscriptions that encourages clients to download more, resulting in more downloads for the photographers, albeit at a lower rate than many other sites. Fotolia, the only major European based library, along with Dreamstime, make their sales based on credits purchased by their clients but are now also offering subscription based models, while istockphoto, the undisputed No1 and owned by Getty, have also come up with a subscription model varying the use of their credit system.
Interestingly, Corbis, the second largest Macostock agency after Getty, opted not to purchase an existing micro site, but invented their own with Snapvillage, although, 18 months down the line, this has not taken off to the extent that the others already have. On the same note, Stockxpert, which is the Jupiter Images version of microstock, and well into the top six, does seem to be holding it's own even now that Jupiter has been bought by Getty. It will be interesting to see how it survives.
So, we can see a trend here, with all of the major players in the traditional image sales market having not just a toe, but a good armful dipped into the microstock model. In fact, Getty estimate that 25% of their total turnover will be through micostock by the end of 2009. That is their monetary turnover, not image turnover, proving that a huge number of images are being downloaded.
As to whether we, as freelance photographers, want to participate in this method of selling our images, it is up to the individual concerned. While earnings, where reported, are significantly higher than the headlined $0.15 - 0.25 per image that is there to attract the buyers, helped in part by things like extended licences, larger image files and exclusive tags, they price the photographer gets is still considerably lower than the traditional route. But, and this is the crux, they sell more! The choice is yours.