Brutally honest guide to microstock
Succeeding as a microstock contributor is tough, but if you combine a strong work ethic with a commercial eye and an ability to spot a trend, there is still good money to be made, says Alexandre Rotenberg
It will need effort, but there’s still money to be made in stock photography
Photography might just be a hobby for some of you, but it’s nice to earn cash from images that would otherwise be gathering digital dust. This extra income can be put towards photographic trips and/or upgrading equipment. The good news is that it is still possible to fund these activities by uploading your images to microstock agencies. Naturally, the market is tougher than it was a few years ago, but there are still plenty of ways to give your work an edge over the competition.
A stock agency maintains a library of images covering a wide array of subjects, and licenses these images to customers. Their customers desperately need commercial stock images to persuade consumers to purchase products and/or services. Alternatively, some customers need editorial stock images, which are used to support non-commercial media. According to MDG Advertising, articles featuring images average 94% more views than those without.
Due to legal restrictions, these businesses cannot simply ‘ lift’ a digital image to use (even though this occurs frequently), and it can be expensive to hire photographers to carry out commissioned work. This is where microstock agencies come in as they provide high-quality, royalty-free images to businesses and individuals, without the hefty price tag. The barriers for amateur photographers to earn money from their images have come crashing down in the past 10 years thanks to high-quality DSLRs and, more recently, mobile phones with better resolution. This is a double-edged sword, as it has also made the microstock market extremely competitive, with only a small percentage of the most talented and hard working earning enough to cover their living costs.
Succeeding as a microstock contributor is tough, and if you’re considering joining the ranks, it’s advisable to be aware of some of the challenges. The microstock business model is not a get-rich-quick scheme. A new breed of contributor is required – one that combines the right work ethic, a commercial eye, an ability to recognise an in-demand niche and, of course, natural talent. As the old saying goes, the cream rises to the top.
Licensing digital images
With stock photography, customers are granted the right to use certain images (intellectual property). Selling the use of these rights is known as licensing. A photographer licenses such intellectual property via an agency according to the usage needs of the customer. As the stock industry has evolved, two main licensing models have emerged: royalty free and rights managed.
Royalty-free licenses are the backbone of the microstock industry. A one-off fee is paid by the customer to use the image multiple times and for multiple purposes according to the license agreement. The price for the license usually depends on the image size, but is increasingly based on an agency’s monthly subscription plan (eg $100/month for a right to download a maximum of 25/images a day).
Rights-managed licenses require the end user to pay a licensing fee for a specific usage, such as location, type of media, length of usage and the option of
exclusivity. The licensing of rightsmanaged images is standard practice at agencies that license more premium and curated content.
What to shoot
Agencies hire quality-control reviewers to ensure images are up to scratch, particularly in the areas of composition, lighting, low noise and grain, sharp focus on the subject, accurate use of captions and keywords. Failure to adhere to one or more of these criteria would almost certainly lead to a rejection (see below). In the beginning, rejections come thick and fast, but don’t get frustrated – you need to see them as lessons on how to improve.
Microstock can be beautiful and glamorous, but most of the time it simply involves capturing mundane stuff in a way that is interesting enough to appeal to a range of clients. To be commercial, pictures need to be unique, which means avoiding overdone subject matter, unless you have a fresh approach, including pets, flags, beaches, flowers, and popular landmarks.
Critics of microstock argue that some pictures look fake and cheesy – a group of smiling corporate types sitting around a meeting table, or a pretty customer-service girl wearing a headset, for example. It’s a good idea to avoid such clichés. Nowadays, images that are licensed regularly often feature models acting in an ‘authentic’ way, which is not easy to capture. If you can ‘fake’ authenticity, you have made it.
For example, is a plumber coming round to fix your broken boiler? A technically excellent image of that boiler could pay for the cost of a new one and more, especially if the image features the plumber (fully model-released, of course). Similarly, the next time you’re enjoying a drink in a beautiful setting, take a few shots with an iconic feature in the background.
At first, you will probably submit images that are related to your hobbies and interests, which is fine while you are still getting to grips with the business model, improving technically, and developing your style. However, once your portfolio grows to a few hundred images, you will have more financial success if you choose to focus your energies on a few niches.
How much can you earn?
The microstock licensing model provides the means for serious enthusiasts to earn extra money from images that would otherwise sit on their hard drives. But the bar is set so high that many contributors become disillusioned and quit within a months. The reality is that the financial rewards from your hard work are unlikely to be much at first. In my book, I outline a case study of an average hard-working contributor over a two-year period. At the end of the two years, the contributor has 1,500 quality images spread out over multiple top agencies; accumulated gross revenue of $2,700; amassed revenue of just over $200/month at the 23rd month, which should keep generating more or less that amount monthly for some time, although images do tend to have a life cycle. Before giving microstock a go, experiment with different revenue scenarios using the Microstock Business Plan Calculator at www.stockperformer.com/calculator.
There are many intangibles involved, including market forces and changing keyword algorithms, but the scenario outlined above gives you an idea of the scalability of the microstock model.
This premium image of vineyards in Barbaresco, Italy, is licensed exclusively as rights managed via a travel-specialist agency
Tulip fields in the Netherlands. Combining your leisure time with your stock photography business is ideal
Commercial stock images are used to persuade consumers to purchase their products and/or services; in this case, a business may potentially use this model-released image to advertise a travel package