Is there still money in microstock photography?

I’ve been asked the question “Is there still money in microstock?” three times, by three different people in the last week alone; and have had very similar questions over the last few months so I figured what a perfect time for a blog post.

If you’re one of those ‘pro’ photographers who has a hissy-fit when anyone criticises your work, stop reading now. If however you’re serious about making money in microstock, read on…

Who is asking this question?

This question is coming (to me at least) mainly from professional photographers, both stock and non-stock shooters who have yet to enter the microstock side of the market. Those who were hesistant to get involved early on due to microstock’s appearance as amateur-led, and through ignorance or distaste.

Some of these seasoned photographers are now seeing their traditional stock earnings drop and the number of and value of corporate and small-business assignments dropping. This is leading to the fear that they’ve ‘missed the boat’, and many are wondering how to go about getting into microstock at this stage, hoping mainly to enter as a pro and ‘take home’ a pro’s earnings.

I’ve also read a lot of articles, and particularly letters in print magazines, where traditional stock photographers have “tried” microstock and inevitably report that it’s not worth it. These photographers however all report more-or-less the same technique; they go into micro with only a few hundred images and/or with their second-tier content, for a few months, and expect, or even feel they deserve to be making Yuri-level earnings from their photos.

To these photographers in particular… NO there is no money in microstock for you. You’re too late and you’re not adaptable or resourceful enough to compete. Focus on what you’re good at, microstock is not for you. That is the best advice I have for you.

For everyone else, this is how to make money at microstock:

How to make money in microstock?

There are a few basic rules or guidelines of microstock photography (think of these like microstock-gravity, the fundamentals), these have applied pretty-much universally since about 2005-2007. Understand and accept these rules without sulking and you’re already ten-steps ahead.

  • Everyone is equal (more-or-less)
  • Quality is greater than quantity
  • Quality AND quantity are greater than either alone
  • Research and preparation are critical
  • Getting work online is harder than you think
  • Be objective… microstock is (mostly) NOT art
  • Whilst it works, do more; when it fails, move on

If you can’t read that and ‘get it’, you’re too late. There is no money for you here. If however you understand enough to realise a half-assed effort is not enough, then perhaps there’s hope for you.

So in this order, here is the best advice in the world to make money in microstock:

  1. Stop whining about how unfair the world is and put everything you have into your portfolio… you will find there is TONS of money in microstock photography.

The second question I get immediately after this one is ALWAYS “What do I shoot?”… for that, read the rest of this blog, it’s all here.

Good luck :)

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6 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Yes there is money, but it’s not as easy as people tend to think. The vast majority of photographers/hobbyists I refer, either never get a photo online or only get a handful accepted. Perseverance is also the key. I don’t produce much, but I keep digging away at it and slowly I get better, plus my earnings always grow, I’ve already earnt much more than last year and we’ve not even finished the 3rd quarter. Although, I do hear quite often from people with very large portfolios saying that they find it difficult to sustain growth. This could however be due their own lack of improvement. It’s fiercely competitive now and if you are submitting images, they have to be better than what others are submitting and what’s already online, otherwise it’s not really worth your effort. I often have a look at what’s already out there before choosing photos to submit, and often I just don’t bother to submit if I feel that what I have is quite simply not good enough.

  2. Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Good article! The problem with this though is that in some respects those who haven’t got started yet really have “missed the boat”. The point being that in the most lucrative searches (business, people, etc) the files from 2007-2009 appear to be very well established. While you can earn income from new content, its much less than from a portfolio that contains both old and new. For example on iStock at the moment, there isn’t a single file in the best match (top 50) for “business” that’s newer than 18 months, only 1 from 2010 and only a handful from 2009.

    New files are often getting starts, but not going on with it, mainly because the odds are so heavily stacked against them.

    I’ve been watching some newer profiles – those that are doing well really are exceptional stock content. Emphasis is on both exceptional images and exceptional stock. I see profiles with beautiful images fail, because they just don’t get what stock is about, or even because their images miss by very small margins.

    For new amateur-level contributors, there really is a steep learning curve, and they’re playing catch-up. Personally I think the effort required to start from scratch and become successful will be rewarded far more richly in other ventures.

    • bobbigmac
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree; Though mainly on the ‘most lucrative searches’ part, there is very little (if any) opportunity there, but there is still a lot of ground to be gained in the long-tail. I think by far the biggest opportunities for newcomers are there (which was why I made picNiche in the first place).

      Even there though it’s tough; pros and amateurs will really need to bring their A-game both in terms of technical expertise and stock-focussed content. Hence not pulling-my punches in this article :)

      Thanks :)

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        The problem with a long-tail portfolio, especially one that’s just starting out, is that most of the sites reward images and portfolio with high downloads. Long tail images are I think important for an agency because they add depth to the collection, but there’s absolutely no incentive to produce them.

        At DT, long tail images are going to languish as level 0 or 1, FT is known for huge rejection rates for these images, and gives really low commissions if you’re at the base level and doesn’t let you set higher prices, IS is the same except that you can bump up prices a bit, and SS’s rates at 0.38 (max) per download really mean you need massive numbers of long tail images for very small reward.

        For those producing high-value long-tal content, microstock really isn’t the right market.

        Your “niche” images are a little bit different though I think.

        • bobbigmac
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          You’re right, there are a lot of challenges with a long-tail portfolio, but I don’t think there’s much there that can’t be overcome with the right marketing. Something I’m working on to help there with picWorkflow. More in the near future :)

  3. Posted April 11, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Good article. I was thinking of doing this as a sideline.

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