How microstock is ruining the business of photography

Browsing through flickr groups today I came across a photographer who was thrilled that his photo ended up on the cover of Time Magazine. At first I thought well done but further reading revealed that Time bought the image from istockphoto.com; an image anyone can download for a 12 credits (total cost $25.25 AUD).

The photographer would have received a fraction of this purchase price.

The photographer didn’t even receive a photo credit (not that photo credits are worth much more than bragging rights).

This case highlights the dangers of micro stock and how it is driving the price of photography down in all sectors of the photographic industry and how it has permeated through to some of the biggest editorial publications in the world. A photographer would normally expect to receive in excess of $2,000 US for a cover shot on an iconic magazine like Time.

Neither Time or istockphoto.com can be blamed for this situation; photographers who go down the micro stock path do so with no regard for the value of photography and are responsible for driving prices down.

The Time Magazine cover shot can be seen here.

The New Frugality indeed! The Time eds were certainly being frugal when they stumped up for the cover shot!

18 Responses to “How microstock is ruining the business of photography”

  1. The use of an inexpensive stock image certainly was an interesting reflection of TIME’s own precarious financial position!

    I’m as frustrated as the next photographer about the sorry state of compensation. When I shot No Doubt, this past weekend, I polled a half a dozen of the 15 photographers present and five out of six were not being paid for the shoot, including me. An additional two were for wire services. I asked another photographer how much they were paid for a three day major festival and all they recieved was $200 for hotel/expenses while staying in San Francisco!

    It’s unclear to me where the blame ultimately lies. I’d love to see some data to support any hypothesis. It’s nice to see the conversation starting.

  2. Paul Dymond says:

    As a travel photographer I think I’m one of the hardest hit by the microstock juggernaut. While I can see the need for lower prices for small uses (personal use etc) I have yet to have anybody explain to me the rationale behind giving away extensive usage for peanuts. I mean seriously are photographers that stupid that they would give away their work for so cheap just for bragging rights? Don’t answer that because it looks like we already have the answer.

  3. blackshadow says:

    Paige I believe the blame lies with photographers who are prepared to shoot for free or for peanuts. They are usually amateurs who love photography; some of whom are very talented photographers but they don’t rely on photography as their income.

    In many cases clients are eager to cut costs and if they can get something that is “good enough” for free they will instead of paying a pro.

  4. It is a tricky situation. All I can suggest as an long time freelancer (over 20 years) is for photographers to try to be as original as you can in your work. I know this is easier said than done. I worked for TIME Australia as a freelancer for ten years until they closed shop about 18 months ago. Recently I really had to dig deep and decide how could I create work that is different as I watched all the pillars of my client base collapse. It’s only by photographers finding their unique qualities that they can then charge a premium. It’s a bit like turning the Queen Mary ocean liner around – it takes time and life goes on. I’m determined to create quality work that stands apart from all the weekend shooters. There won’t be any rewards overnight but a lot of this is about dignity and finding dignity in oneself and in our chosen profession. Great originality can come from adversity. One has to be positive in spite of the problems. Peter

  5. Anonymous says:

    Paying $10,000 for a shot of a jar of coins?

    Stupid photographers indeed!

  6. anon says:

    Time usually has simple stock photos for their covers – a pill bottle or a globe – with dramatic headlines positioned over it. Using an image from an inexpensive stock photo website isn’t really a big of deal as you make it in this article.

  7. Bec Thomas says:

    This is quite true; part of the problem is a there are alot of hobbyist photog’s that do not have alot of background and knowledge in the business side of things. Many in this sector feel honored that something they shot is published in a big brand magazine. They don’t see that Time is a huge corporation that should be paying for their materials and printed items, and can afford to. They don’t think about how much work and time went into creating that photo and selling it for a few dollars does not pay the bills.

  8. Rasmus says:

    Like it or not, microstock is here and every photographer has to deal with it. Even if he or she has no want or intention of selling their work that way (which I totally understand, even I sell my own work as microstock). Simply complaining about it however, is not constructive and will do as much good as it did the music industry, when mp3-files started popping up.

    The point is: The market value of EVERYTHING creative, photos, music, video etc. is dropping steadily, as the technology becomes more inexpensive and widely available.

  9. Well, I am not anonymous.

    And I think that people who think you can sustain a business that takes thousands of dollars to maintain, while selling a product that makes them a dollar is crazy.

    At least in this area.

    As the stock agencies keep growing, the cut per photographer gets smaller and smaller because there are more and more getting into it. What happens when there are trillions of images available and 3 million shooters involved?

    Does anyone think that there will be a market that will sustain an individual photographer at those numbers? Ok, then what numbers work for you.

    Markets are markets.

    Too many products will develop into far fewer buyers – per product.

    Meanwhile those of us who don’t get involved with this madness keep building businesses based on quality, value and vision.

    Competing with a $2 image is not something I would ever do. Why? Someone who feels they can get it for a couple of bucks are not my clients. Oh, and when those ‘clients’ paying cheapo bucks for images move into better and better jobs, they start looking for better and better photographers. That, is a fact.

  10. Paul Dymond “As a travel photographer I think I’m one of the hardest hit by the microstock juggernaut.”

    What makes you think only your industry is most affected? true that microstock has allowed someone at one side of the planet to sell an image to someone at the other – easily. so being able justify a flight somewhere is difficult when someone who already lives there can do it cheaper, I don’t think that’s microstocks fault.

    I’m a strong believer that microstock and digital has made the value of a stock photo more related to the time taken to create a photo, setup, models etc and less about how technically difficult it was, or the expense of the equipment needed.

  11. blackshadow says:

    I have just come across another blog post about the same issue that can be seen here

  12. Paul Dymond says:

    Hi there Steve, in answer to your question,

    I certainly don’t feel that microstock has affected only my section of the industry – obviously that is patently untrue. But it certainly has affected the ability to license travel images and garner assignments from clients in my country. If you look at a lot of travel magazines and newspapers here in Australia it is more common than not to find it filled with either microstock images or images given away by the tourism bureaus. (another argument all together)

    Part of the reason is the allure of travel photography. Who in the hell wouldn’t want to travel the world and get paid to sell their images? With the major stock agencies closed to new contributors many aspiring photographers are turning to microstock as they see it as a good way to get into the business.

    I don’t know how many travel photographers selling their work on microstock make a full-time living but I bet they’d make a whole lot more if they took the same amount of time and effort into promoting their own work directly and licensing it for RM prices. Especially if they managed to find themselves a niche subject or geographical area that they could really sell their extensive knowledge on.

    As for the cheap part of digital. Back in the days of film you would buy a $2000 camera and it would last for 20 years. These days your pro-level camera might cost double that and last for about 3 years before it needs to be replaced.

    Sure we had the cost of film but that has been replaced by the constant need to upgrade RAM, software, knowledge (you don’t get paid to have to constantly learn new techniques etc). Not to mention that when you’re shooting RAW you fill up hard drives pretty quickly. So it’s not as cheap as everyone likes to make out (if you do it properly. )

    Not only that but the other business overheads haven’t gone down but
    continue to go up like everything else. Business insurance, public liability insurance, business registration, accountant’s fees etc etc. All those things continue to go up.

    But at the end of the day the cost it takes you to produce your images is only used to calculate your MINIMUM price. The actual price you should be charging should be based on the usage. Like any piece of intellectual property. Want to use a song in an advert? It’ll cost you money every time you run the ad. Want to use that software on more than one computer? It’ll cost you every time.

    Why should photography be any different? As Peter says the trick is to maintain a high quality and to be able to differentiate yourself from the weekend shooter. In this day and age there really isn’t a middle ground left. You can either value your work cheaply or aim high.

    Which isn’t to say I’m against micro-prices. I think the mainstream stock industry neglected that segment of the market at its own peril. What I am against is extensive usage being sold for peanuts. If a great photograph helps a company make lots of money then I deserve my cut!

  13. blackshadow says:

    I’m still waiting for someone to come up with a compelling and logical argument of why ms is good for photographers and the business of photography.

    • John A. Swearingen says:

      Great question. So far there isn’t any. As I see it this will only change when photographers realize other people are making beaucoup bucks from their work and stop contributing to ms which supplies them at morally reprehensible prices. Photographers need to develop respect for themselves and their work and stop taking seriously those anal retentive techno-addled characters at all ms conerns. Photographs are art, The ms people have turned it into science with their impossible-to-achieve technical requirements measured by high tech gizmos. They are no-talents on a power trip spewing rejections with gratuitous negative farty-butt comments. .MS is a complete usufruct.populated by leaches. Serious, talented photographers should make this known worldwide.~ John A. Swearingen

  14. JDM says:

    Very difficult topic, and hard to see the big picture (no pun) when we are looking up from the bottom of the food chain, so to speak.

    As distribution of virtually all forms of media move from fungible goods to digital/internet (newspapers, magazines, music and movies) the margins and ability to compete in the marketplace of those who continue to distribute via physical medium, have declined dramatically (as we all know). This is further complicated by the fact that most internet content is free. The necessity to cut costs pushes all players (digital or print) towards RF/Microstock content, particularly when, to the publication, the value differential between RF and RM is minimal which the $ differential is large (ie. yes the RM is better, but does the consumer really care/notice?)

    The microstcock industry has been able to capitalize on this transition and turmoil due to (i) the number of people who have digital cameras and access to the internet, (ii) the aforementioned industry demand for cheap media to control costs, and (iii) the willingness/ignorance of an ever growing number of individuals to participate in the system.

    This willingness/ignorance to participate comes from two main sources: (A) the few professionals who are able to make good money in MS are used as posterchildren for the industry to convince others that they too can make good $, and/or (B) those whose only motivation is to see their work used commercially/portfolio/want some extra $ but have day jobs.

    The vast majority of the (A) participants quickly realize the low return and exploitive nature of the system and stop contributing, but the number of (B) shooters is large, growing, and quickly becoming a virtually limitless source of content, as many other posters have mentioned.

    There is no way to put a stop to this… it is the nature of economics. Unfortunately we are the inefficiency in the marketplace. As such, we are witnessing the elimination of our ability to maintain the prior value of our product as the market evolves… it is the Wal-Martization of the Photography Industry and we are the corner hardware store.

    In the spirt of full disclosure, I fall into the B category, and shoot for the love of the craft I make a little money every now and then, but do not participate in microstock and charge a proper price when I sell/license an image.

  15. […] Richard Sharman: microstock is ruining the business of photography […]

  16. elvinstar says:

    As a microstock photographer myself I feel the need to point out that everyone here seems to be forgetting that in microstock, images can sell THOUSANDS of times for that low price. I have quite a few images that have earned over $500 each and continue to sell. A much larger number of photos have earned over $100 each.

    If you feel that you are not being properly compensated for your equipment and time, perhaps you should be able to produce quality images with cheaper equipment and less time involved. Efficiency is key in microstock.

    While I don’t make all of my living from photography, it certainly comprises a good portion of my total earnings.

    Regarding the “driving down of prices of photography in all areas”, does anyone think that other industries have not suffered from the global availability of knowledge? How many people are now self-taught at web development, illustration or other fields that in the past required a degree? I’m sure that colleges and universities are feeling the pinch as well.

    All in all, I can’t think of a way other than microstock to make a few extra hundred dollars a week from approximately 4 hours each week of work. Just my two cents from the other side of the fence.

  17. Jacob Kelly says:

    As an outsider and someone just moving into shooting more seriously, I think that there are hords of people turning out interesting work. However, there are few who truly put out awe inspiring cutting edge work, consistently. That is the job of the professional photographer; always will be. You’re not paid for your equipment beyond a point, but because your eye is superior and trained.

    What this whole microstock thing reminds me of is the advent of napster, mind you those artistic files were free to every college student in America, who gladly downloaded them for free, ripping off the artist. Now, media is doing similarly and the true artists are being edged out by some pretty meager talent.

    The question this whole scenario begs to me, is why are the fine arts in general being marginalized in our society to something for the hobbyist? This all goes back to the final destination that is the information age. A new enlightment will have to come before art regains some foothold as valuable. When was the last time you saw a major movie studio put out something truly artistic and amazing?? I thinks it’s true to say that for “everyman” this is an exciting time, but again he’s numbed to the absence of art.

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