Why I Quit Microstock

by | Jan 14, 2016 | 4 comments

Recent Conflict:

In January 2016 I found my photograph being sold by a major, online print-on-demand service.  In fact, it was a best seller!  Yay!  Long story short, several legal inquiries later and the originating contract was tracked back to one of my microstock agencies who politely informed me that the use was perfectly legal underneath the license that was sold and that the matter was settled.  Underneath the terms of an Extended License (EL) with this particular microstock company, the reproduction and commercial sale of a licensed image as a fine art print or canvas for their ongoing profit is allowed.  So, my new reality was that any Print-on-Demand service or Joe Blow could essentially act with all the meaningful rights of a copyright holder (when, where and how many to sell) after purchasing an extended license to my image, the only exception being that they cannot claim to actually be the copyright holder.  My microstock agency was quick to point out that I was still the copyright holder of the image.  Well, no shit!  Isn’t that convenient?  But what good does that do when any and all meaning to being the copyright holder was just licensed away?  Ridiculous.  In my small mind, borderline illegal.  Needless to say, I’ve asked the microstock agency to kindly erase every trace of me and my photography from their site as soon as possible and I’ve begun the process of eliminating myself from multiple other microstock agencies as well.

As far as the print-on-demand service goes, they did nothing wrong in legal terms but they also did absolutely nothing right.  They have economies of scale that allow them to print and distribute a variety of photo-based products efficiently and effectively.  However, they don’t have the content.  They don’t have compelling images to push their products out the door.  So, instead of valuing and partnering with photographers like virtually every other POD service on the internet (like Fine Art America or Imagekind or Redbubble for instance), they decided to find a low-cost, barely legal (if at all) option and to reproduce other photographer’s images for resale just to push their own printing materials.  It’s not admirable in any way and it certainly doesn’t fit their corporate tagline and slogan which I will not repeat here.  The responsibility ultimately resides with me and I’m comfortable putting that on my shoulders.  I’m very disappointed, however, in both the print-on-demand service and my microstock agency.  These two companies have chosen paths that erode the trust and goodwill of the very individuals that they ultimately need to give their own products value and worth.  I’m not a big karma guy, but…

A disclaimer:  This is not an exhaustive review of licensing.  These are only my own experiences and opinions.

What is Licensing?

Self-Representation vs. Agency?

Photographers don’t sell their photography in a literal sense:  the copyright to their works are typically guarded vigorously.  Photographers do, however, license the use of their photographs.  There are two primary ways to license your photography:  Royalty Free (RF) and Rights Managed (RM).  I’m no expert on either and don’t care to dive further into the details here than is necessary (it would get long and very complicated!).  In general, RF licenses grant the licensee an unlimited number of uses for an unlimited number of projects in perpetuity, or forever.  It’s cart blanche no strings attached.  The licensee has no responsibility to report where the image is to be used, how, or how many times.  The photographer receives an initial royalty for the sale, but the buyer incurs no additional costs–and the photographer no additional royalties–for uses beyond the initial buy.  Royalty Free (RF) images are non-exclusive by their very nature, meaning that the photographer and the agency are free to continue marketing and selling additional licenses while a current license holder is using the photograph.  Rights Managed (RM) licensing, on the other hand, matches a specific client need to a specific price and a specific contract for a one-time use.  A typical use might be broken down into the type of use, the size of photo required for the use, the overall size of the image distribution, the length / duration of use etc.  If the client desires additional uses beyond the initial buy in an RM scenario, a new license must be drafted and purchased for each individual use.  With RM, each use generates royalties for the photographer.  Rights Managed (RM) licenses can be offered with exclusivity (if the client desires), meaning that during the licensing period the photographer and/or agency holding the copyright cannot and will not actively license the file to anyone else.  Exclusivity becomes a value-added feature of the contractual arrangement.

Photographers must choose whether to license their photographs directly (self-representation) or through an agency–or in some instances, a combination of both.  Despite earning 100% of the license amount, self-representation requires a photographer to develop their own centralized and searchable databases and then to spend enormous amounts of time and expense marketing, advertising, and selling their own licensing services to attract potential buyers–all while continuing to be the primary content creators as well.  Not to mention that to self-represent, the photographer needs a solid grasp of each type of license being offered to buyers and both the ability and desire to write effective contracts for each individual buy.  Only the biggest-name photographers have been able to pull this off.

Agency representation allows a photographer to continue creating new work while a third-party (or parties) represent said work through their database(s) and marketing efforts.  The agency provides a centralized point of contact for potential photo buyers, as well as manages the distribution of files and customer service.  The photographer, when using an agency, gets a royalty from each license sold.  The percentage royalties differ by agency and license type.  Non-exclusive, RF licenses typically generate the smallest royalties on a per usage basis, and exclusive, rights-managed licenses generate the highest royalties on a per usage basis (again, this is a generalization).  For many photographers, having an agency-represented stock photography gallery is one of the diverse income streams that comprise their overall revenue generating strategy–this was certainly the case for me.

What is Microstock?

Microstock refers to low-cost, royalty-free photography sourced via online contributors.  The big microstock providers today are IStockPhoto, Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, 123RF, BigStock and so on.  These providers have developed extensive databases of keyworded images available to meet the various needs of photo buyers.  Virtually any photographer, from hobbyist to professional, is welcome to contribute to microstock agencies.  Photographers upload content.  Microstock agencies provide the platform.  Photo buyers pay the microstock agency, search the database, choose the necessary image(s), and the corresponding contributing photographers receive royalties for each buy.

Who Uses Microstock and How?

Microstock buyers can be anyone!  Some typical uses are print publications like magazines, newspapers, books, annual reports, newsletters, etc.; print, indoor/outdoor and broadcast advertising; and electronic uses such as PowerPoints, webpage design, blog posts, social media banners etc.  If there is a need for a non-exclusive image, microstock will likely fill that need at low cost and acceptable quality.

Numbers (2015):

  • 7 Agencies + Partner Sites
  • Avg. 400+ licenses / month

My Experience with Microstock:

I joined my first microstock agency, Dreamstime, in 2011.  At the time I was an avid amateur photographer with no notion of ever making a living from selling photographs.  However, the idea of making enough money to buy better gear was a pretty solid draw.  I quickly joined Shutterstock and IStock the same year and began learning the game of microstock.  It was a pretty good deal for me at the start:  image critique was free and with each upload, approval and sale I improved my technique and the commercial viability of my images.  I soon began to find traction with some of my images and I was off and running.  Confidence was the great byproduct of realizing that I could not only produce high-quality images that were commercially viable, but that I was also becoming one of the go-to contributors in my various niches at the microstock agencies.  I joined a myriad of other microstock agencies, figuring the more the merrier.  Outside of microstock, I continued to hone my skills behind the lens and low and behold in 2014 I did make the jump into full-time working photographer.  My entire strategy was under review at that point; I decided in 2015, one year into being full-time, that I would suspend uploading to all microstock agencies.  I left my existing microstock portfolios online to earn; I simply held back all newly created content.

I’ve always been more tolerant of microstock than most photographers.  There is a strong demand for low-cost photography from the public at large.  Microstock agencies utilized the increasing presence of cameras and the digital delivery platform of the internet to service this demand.  I figured, although not ideal, it was a viable avenue of revenue for an active amateur like myself to earn a few bucks and buy a bit of gear to continue feeding my growing hobby.  However, when I started my own photography business my photographs became my products and I quickly decided that microstock was not congruent with me and my vision of my photography.  Unfortunately, as I continue to evaluate where to place my images going forward, situations like the one at the start of this blog continue to happen and they just reinforce why I shouldn’t be part of microstock any further (and why being a part in the first place might not have been the most beneficial thing either).

Why I’m Quitting Microstock:

  1. No Longer Congruent with my Business Model

Microstock is low-priced photography offered to huge masses of people.  Microstock agencies are literally the superstores of online photography.  Their (and their customers’) appetites are voracious for new product.  The most successful microstockers are those who upload high quantities of photographs on a frequent basis.  It’s a numbers game.  I, on the other hand, am lucky to get maybe ten good images a year, of which only perhaps only one or two will function as solid earners for my business.  My focus is on finding incredible places and producing a small quantity of very high quality images.  It’s a game of scarcity.  Mother Nature only awards the Powerball jackpot of conditions once every blue moon, and guessing where to be and when is a challenging proposition with low odds.  When I do obtain those special images, it’s my responsibility to leverage the value carefully to be successful.  Trying to sell high-dollar images through microstock agencies has become, at best, illogical, and at worst, irresponsible, for me personally.

2.  Invites the Wrong Customers

I’ve met a number of great photo-buyers through microstock.  But, microstock is what it is:  low-priced, quantity goods.  When a buyer approaches your photography through microstock they expect low-price, easy-access imagery.  However, nothing that I do as a photographer to obtain images is low-cost or easy.  In fact, I spare no expense to travel and return frequently to locations of potential, expending tremendous amounts of resources to find the conditions necessary to create special images.  Sometimes this process has spanned the course of years.  The ask doesn’t fit the expense with microstock.  Buyers expect low-cost imagery; if I provide high-cost imagery to them I’m the one who is setting the improper expectation.  Buyers of microstock photography don’t understand (nor do they care) how an image is obtained:  they just need the photo right now for cheap with no strings attached.  These are not the buyers that I want demanding my photography, nor am I doing fellow photographers outside of microstock any favors by providing product within the microstock market that allows buyers to expect that they can get it all for nothing.

3.  Unprofessional, For Me

Offering my images at fire sale prices on microstock often got me into situations that made me look and feel vey unprofessional.  For example, I’ve had a magazine find and license my images through a mircostock agency and then contact and pay me their going editorial rate as well afterwards.  Sounds like a win-win, huh!  No!  I put them in an unprofessional situation where they felt ethically that the disparity between microstock and their going editorial rate was so great that they should pay me directly even though they didn’t have to by law.  That makes the magazine look professional; it makes me look unprofessional.  In another instance, a non-profit organization routinely sources my photography at rates that are substantially higher than they could (and know that they could) on microstock.  Putting that choice in someone else’s hands is unprofessional.  Undervaluing my own photography is unprofessional.

4.  Just Plain Illogical

I tried telling myself that microstock addressed an entirely separate market of buyers that otherwise would not be exposed to my work.  I also tried to explain away the low-cost aspect by assuring myself that higher quantities of buys over the lifetime of the image would equal out to the lower quantities of buys at higher prices that I was likely to get elsewhere in other markets.  However, when I actually sit down and run the numbers, nothing can explain away the illogical imbalance of value that is microstock (for my images).  Here’s an example:  In 2015, I sold two licenses at 500px of a particular image.  Each license netted me $175.00/each in profits for a total of $350.00 off two image licenses.  On my most popular microstock agency I sold 525 licenses of the same image over the course of two years time and made total royalties of $366.00.  Absurd.  How can I ignore that?  I just flooded a market of questionable buyers with over 525 full-sized, print ready files of one of my best images.  That scares me.  The imbalance of value scares me.  Giving my images to microstock is like selling the farm.  Oh, and did I mention, it feels rather unprofessional to me.

5.  Provides Downward Pressure on Other Revenue Streams

To think that microstock is completely separate from other revenue streams would be naïve of me.  In fact, I’ve seen and noted the mingling already.  Having a low-price offering available to any buyer through microstock has undoubtedly put downward pressure on my other direct and indirect revenue streams.  It’s hard for me or my photography to be viewed as “premium” or even average for that matter when I’m valuing my own work at below-average prices and catering to buyers who continually reinforce that very perception.

6.  Agents are Not Advocates

The conflict that I’m encountering right (at the opening of this blog) with a microstock agency has made it blatantly clear that although I may be represented by an agency, that agency is not my advocate in any way.  In fact, when I went to remove my own content from their microstock database I found that as a contributor I don’t even have the privilege to manage my own photographs.  I had to make a special written request and I still don’t know when and how completely my presence will be deleted from the agency in question.  Business is about relationships and about providing equitable value between contractual partners.  I don’t trust this agency anymore and it’s clear that the value equation has been inequitable for quite some time.

Other Options:

As a response to the general feelings that I stated above, a number of premium royalty-free agencies have popped up, most notably Offset (a product of Shutterstock).  Photographer selection is more choosy and royalties are much higher (trying to balance that equation a bit).  Some notable photographers you’ll find at Offset are Richard Bernabe and David duChemin.  Their presence is very important for you as a decision maker, as well as for Offset in marketing that they “value photographers.”  If you choose to go the exclusive, rights-managed direction, there are any number of agencies that exist from generalized to niche specific.  For me and my photography, I’ve always admired Tandem Stock.  However, realize that granting exclusivity essentially ties your own hands behind your back and places all trust with your agency.  Make sure that relationship is built on as much research as you can manage.

A word about joining the stock photography ranks if you haven’t already:  like most things in life, upward mobility is virtually impossible while downward mobility is always available.  If you begin your journey in microstock (the lowest rung) thinking that you’ll easily move up to premium when your skills improve, think again.  I’ve been trying to join Offset for two years and I can’t even get so much as an e-mail.  Perhaps my images are just not up to par, but I have a sneaky suspicion that because I’ve been a member of their non-premium offering (Shutterstock), I’m just the bastard-child with a perceived image that can’t be wiped clean.  Start as high as you can up the ladder.  If the results are not as you wish, the lower rung options (microstock) will always be there, waiting with open arms.

Microstock can be an incredibly fulfilling way to extend the reach of your photography, as well as to fuel your photography habit.  It’s very neat to see your images appear in books on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, or in real estate brochures in places you shoot, or heck, even up on billboards as you drive around!  However, if the value proposition becomes skewed towards the fact that the travel, energy, effort and resources necessary to obtain new images is a multiplier more than the payback from royalties, the equation just doesn’t work out.  And when you lose trust that an agency is even willing to protect your basic copyright, well…it’s just done at that point.  To be a full-time photographer is to find ways in which my images can earn.  I want to partner with agencies, buyers and organizations that recognize and value the photographer.  All roads, for me, are leading away from microstock photography.  And this latest incidence is nothing but gasoline on the fire to drive me away.

What say you?  Do you participate in the microstock photography markets?  Do I have it all wrong here?

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