The Microstock debate

To a certain extent stock photographers are not often that popular with other photographers, particularly if you sell via microstock sites. We are often accused of taking work away from other photographers, driving down prices and generally contibuting to the general demise of professional photography. The fact that I have read things like this since I started doing it back in the late 1980's shows just how long these criticisms have been going on and also in many ways that a lot of photographers are moaning S.O.B's. 

A little history. Yes back in the 1970's and 1980's certain photographers charged a lot of money. An awful lot of money, to often do pretty simple jobs. So this was good for photographers right? Wrong, it was good for certain photographers who would do everything in their power to keep their access to the gravy train and make sure no one else got near it. When things changed and agencies like Getty started provided high quality stock photography for advertising at prices a lot cheaper than the cost of hiring one of these pro's, the elite photographers (or more accurately the cartel) started squealing. This has gone on and on until we now have microstock. Mostly royalty-free images sold at low prices. Though as I will outline later on, nowhere near as low as many imagine.

So basically the argument goes like this "I can't make the living I used to by charging clients alarming amounts of money for simple product shots anymore. This is obviously a bad thing, and I need someone to blame. Oh yes its those talentless amateurs who are prepared to give their images away for virtually nothing. Why can't I do the same? Well I'm not selling my images for a dollar or whatever it is, my talent is worth more than that. Whats that you say? Some of these people sell a million+ images a year and clear 2-3 Million dollars in commission every year? Where do I sign up?"

OK so thats a little harsh, but its not that far from the truth. There are two inevitable truths that all photographers have to grasp these days. Firstly people won't pay 100's of pounds or dollars anymore for simple basic pictures for brochures, publications and websites and tie themselves up in complicated licensing deals so that they have to keep paying again and again. Secondly people just steal images off the internet.

So with that in mind what do photographers do? Commissioned photography, unless you are someone like Mario Testino or Rankin, is not as lucrative as it was. However with the explosion of stock photography companies are much more likely to hire a photographer these days to shoot something exclusive, because a lot of stock is used over and over again. In fact thats what its meant to do. It is also of course true that stock photographers make less per picture than they used to. I have sold images for advertising use that have netted me several thousand pounds in the past and that hasn't happened for a long time, and I doubt it will ever happen again. But the bottom line of all this is that last year I sold more pictures and made more money selling them than ever before.

I wrote a while ago that I had sold 1000+ pictures in a month with one agency. And as you can see from the graphic I posted at the top at the page, I've just done it again. Now this is peanuts to some of the giants of stock. There are several who have had over a million downloads and there is one who claims to sell a million + every year. But these are lifestyle and people photographers. The ones who shoot those happy smiling images of ecstatic to be at work attractive people who populate offices beaming and flashing their white teeth at the sheer joy of working for the company that wants your money. In other words, models.

I shoot trees and thatched cottages and rivers and canals (a LOT of canals) mountains, footpaths and country churches and stiles and gates (LOTS of stiles and gates) and bathrooms and lounges and kitchens and front doors. Well its a rotten job but somebody has to do it! So I've always thought I don't do so bad.

Of course the great advantage of what I shoot is that it doesn't go out of date. Nature, landscape and historic architecture looks the same now as it did 100's of years ago and will probably look the same in 100's of years from now. So I'm not in the constant business of updating my stock. Not so if you take pictures of business persons on mobile phones, which I imagine have to be updated daily.

And yes I sell a lot via Microstock. So here I am dumbing down photography, putting my fellow photographers out of work, and generally letting the side down.

A few myths.

Microstock photography is second rate photography.

Well actually its not. Some of it is but then that applies to all photographic output. A lot of it however is creative, well thought out and executed and there are some real talents contributing to it.

You get virtually nothing for a stock photograph.

Again this isn't true. It depends on the use and the library. You can still buy a very small web size image for a few pounds or dollars but once you start selling at sizes that can be reproduced in a magazine or book then prices rise substantially. I still sell through conventional libraries and I'm now often getting smaller amounts than I get via microstock.

Microstock will kill professional photography.

Well no it won't. Professional photography will only die if people don't want to buy pictures anymore.  And believe it or not, magazines, newspapers and book publishers as well as as agencies and designers are still looking for the right photograph, the good photograph, the photograph that fits their copy. The notion that all these people will use any old crap just because its free isn't the case. If designers just use something ordinary they pinched off the internet then they won't last long as designers. As long as photography is an important part of the print and electronic media then photographers and stock libraries will continue in business.

There's just too much images around, we don't need anymore. So how can photographers make a living?

Well are there too many images? Some sites have 20 or 30 million images online and people still can't find the images they want. Plus despite people saying print media is dying, it simply isn't. Have a guess as to what you think the % of people who read a newspaper online is. 60%? 50%? 40%? well apparently its nearer 3%. The real problem is that less people are reading newspapers, but then Rupert Murdoch and his competitors seem to be in no hurry to dump their publications so there is probably some mileage left in paper news yet.

Plus the notion that we have enough images is plainly not true if you look at library websites. I take a lot of pictures of English country churches. I actually sell quite a few as well. But on some of the best known microstock sites its basically me and a few others who shoot those. Not a huge market I grant you, but worth my while doing it. Plus a lot of images look the same, and a lot of them are shot in the U.S. (and look like it) While that country is obviously a huge market, there is the rest of the world out there, and that needs to be catered for. For some bizarre reason I sell a lot of English house interiors to South America. ??? Yes I know, why on earth would that be? But I do and its a significant amount. Go figure.

The fact is that I've heard this doom and gloom ever since I started to think about selling my images. Photographic armageddon is always just around the corner, but last year I sold more images and made more money from selling them than ever before. So do I have some magic touch and an insight into the market place that others don't? Well I doubt it, since I'm pretty much shooting what I always have. The only reason I can think of is that I shoot well-composed, well exposed straightforward pictures of attractive landscapes, scenic locations and buildings. Sounds simple doesn't it? But then you wouldn't believe just how many people can't do that. 

Microstock isn't evil as a concept, and the people who set up these libraries and the photographers who contribute to them have just as much a right to make a living as jobbing commercial photographers. And I don't owe anyone an apology or an explanation for what I do and how I choose to make my living. All professional photographers aren't some jolly masonic type club where we all protect each others interests. We are in competition for gods sake. Like any other freelance activity there is a limited amount of money out there available to us and like it or not we are scambling for it. Just like any other job, profession or business. Ultimately I'm sick and tired of being branded as some kind of photographic traitor by talentless no-hopers who are unable to adapt to what the rest of us can see is a changed situation. 

I remember the wedding and social photographers of the early 2000's who said digital will never be good enough and promptly went out and spent a fortune on film bulk processing machines. Was it their fault that their lack of foresight caused their bankrupcy? No of course not, how could it be? It was obviously the "weekend warriors" with their DSLR's who were undercutting them that caused their demise.

People who fail at any business venture can go two routes. Look at what they have done that was wrong and try to acknowledge and remedy their mistakes. Or lash out at someone else and say "Its your fault. You and the way you work have made me go broke." I'm generally pretty unforgiving about this. If you can't make a living in photography, its pretty simple. You just aren't good enough. And by good enough I mean several things. Good at providing what people want. Good at pricing what you do properly. Good at being flexible enough to work in whatever way is required. Good at seeing what the future might bring. Good at making sure that people who give you money are happy with how you work and how you behave. Good at not overstretching yourself financially. Good at knowing what you are good at and what you are not. Good at finding the right places to market and sell your work. Good at being honest with yourself regarding your talent and what its capable of. Good at working hard and long hours. Good at recognising where the real fault lies if things don't go as well as you expected.

Nothing especially insightful there, just plain common sense, I would have thought. But you would be surprised at how often people just don't acknowledge any of that. There have been many opinions that we are now living in a "blame culture" a culture that says "It is never my fault, I have a right to a good job, a good income and a comfortable lifestyle. If these things are denied me then it is somebody elses fault, never mine." Well in the world of the self-employed, the independent, the sole trader, we know different, or at least we should do.

Final word - instead of blaming microstock and its photographers for ruining your photographic career, why not embrace it and learn to make it make you money. I did, and I'm nothing special, why can't you?

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