Microstock Pictures: The devolution of the value of Photography

this is a creative common image example

We have all heard of the term, deflation, that's when things get cheaper economically. Now every economist will tell you a deflation is a bad thing. This is when the price of a product or service goes down either due to poorer market conditions or demand.

Stock photography has been in a deflation spiral for some years. Microstock photography, which hints broadly at cheaper pictures which can be sold more often therefore making its margins through bulk purchases. Microstock is also a royalty free approach to licensing photos, allowing consumers to pay as little as one dollar to use a stock image on a web site.

As the technology behind cameras evolve, it can't be said for the photography business in general. Everyone with a camera, mirrorless...DSLR....or a smartphone camera, can provide an image that is acceptable to most microstock agencies.

What's more there are thousands of images which are released into the Creative Commons domain, some of which are pretty outstanding in quality, all for free for web use. These photogs hope that by giving away some of their imagery, they could in turn get valuable web traffic to their site and promote their name.

This 'free' stock image sites (there are over 50 right now) compete directly with royalty free microstock images. So the the game has gotten even harder to compete in. 

Making it as a Stock Image Photographer

I have read stories of photographers pulling in hundred of thousands of dollar ins revenue from their stock image sales, but I can assure you this can't be from microstock photos.

Stock image agencies are always on the look out for more talent to contribute to their image library. It cost them very little to sign you up....or for that matter, validate your photos as acceptable after all you are responsible for potential lawsuits.

Microstock photography is probably a good way to start if you are thinking of submitting images to any photo agencies. The reason is simple. If your photos get rejected even at a microstock level, don't even hope of getting that past larger stock agencies like Getty, Alamy, Fotolia, etc, etc.

To start, all you need is a smartphone like the iPhone 5 or 6. If you already have one, then you don't need to spend another US$500 buying a compact camera.

Tips to Start Shooting as a Microstock Photographer

I am going to lay out some advice to keep you going and as cheaply as possible. This will work out in your best interest for one very simple reason....microstock is not going to make you rich but it can earn you some decent beer money.

Each region or continent of the world has a search term that stock agencies track, and these are very useful if you happen to live in a particular region of the world where they pay for such images. To get an idea, here is a list of key terms from one of the agencies. 

# Rule One : Be Opportunistic when Shooting Outdoors

As microstock photographer, you have to recognize a great photo opportunity when you see one. For example a great day, with the sunlight breaking through the clouds, or maybe a street scene where colorful flowers are arranged for sale. Shooting street vendors selling their wares (the wares...and not the vendors should be in the picture).

When you go out to order food or a coffee at a nice setting. Whip out your smartphone to capture a picture in the best possible arrangement. It's a photo opportunity that you have already paid so why not make the best out of it? Remember to arrange them in such a way that brand names are obscured. This makes them more marketable.

#Rule 2: Learn to capture photos without glaring brand signs or faces of people

This is another trick that will help you sell photos. Getting people into pictures is really very easy, especially identifiable people. The hard part is having them in the picture without their faces in it.

One way to do this is actually using long exposure on a tripod. People's figures and faces will get blurred while you get a public picture of a place. A festive atmosphere is best with people in them.

The other method is to spend time on photoshop to erase them out, which might or might not work since stock images of public places look more lively with people in them instead of without them.

#Rule 3: Use Hand, Arm and Leg Models

A object on its own is pretty useless unless a human interaction is in the image. This is where asking a friend for help will come in handy. Hands holding items, or any bodily part used as part of the composition is one way to get away from the model release conundrum most photographers have to get around.

You need to spend time and effort to arrange the shoot and once you do, shoot an entire theme on it. Won't cost you a dime as long as all the objects in the picture are borrowed.

#Rule 4: Get a Friend to Pose for You

These days, stock photos call for model releases and the same can be said of microstock images as well. If you have a friend who looks the part and is a willing victim of your photography exploitation, then ask them to sign on!

There are a lot of people who think they would make good models and for your part, you could help them on their way by giving them an online portfolio of images to use as their own.

Nearly every microstock agency these days ask for model releases once you have recognizable faces. If you go through the trouble to get one for them, the chances of you selling a picture is far greater than that without a model.

#Rule 5: List with Every Microstock Agency 

Royalty free means photos are not exclusive to one agency. So if you are going down this route, list with all the available ones you can manage and I can assure you that there are heaps out there. The best microstock photo agencies are the ones who find ready market for your photos. This means they should be advertising about their service either offline or online.

Microstocks that don't advertise often take on Photographic Missions as a way to address a client's requirement. They find willing client who are wiling to buy the right photo submission for rates amounting to a few hundred dollars at a time.

Here is where you make that distinction on which path to take. If you want to shoot what you like and submit them to microstock agencies all over the world, then make sure these agencies are doing their part by actively seeking buyers. There are loads of agencies that just exist online without doing much to push their services to buyers. These are dead ends and there are plenty of such agencies littering the Internet-scape. Go with one that actively advertises online to start with. They might get more exposure but you also get drowned out as their libraries probably have a hundred similar type photos as yours.

Lastly, you have to ask yourself what sort of buyers would be interested in your photos. And here is some food for thought. Over 20 years ago, I met a photographer who had gone to Myanmar's Bagan city, and he took beautiful panoramic slides of the place. However Myanmar at that time was going through a rough political patch so even though they were beautiful photos, no one ever wanted them because there was no market for it.

People who buy specific photos fall into a handful of categories. They are either in the news business, blogsite, tourism and promotions, hotels and service industry. This is a finite market and they are looking for the cheapest option for photos. Big brands and large corporations these days are also on the look out for cheaper images, so that too is another potential market for microstock photos.

The Last Word on Microstock Photography

The rule here is not to spend too much time and effort for just one photo. Make sure you have a whole theme of photos lined up when you do put in some money to make it happen. Microstock cannot be a zero cost business. You will have to come out with some form of monetary investment if you intend to pursue this further.

If you are lucky enough to make decent money on it, and enjoy doing it. Then you can consider moving up the chain by being a semi-pro stock image photographer (you will need to invest in a proper camera though). For that, you can start to hone your skills with more complex subjects as a larger sensor camera will give you greater latitude with low light or challenging lighting environments. Beyond that, just hope you are lucky enough to secure some sales to keep you going. 

[disclaimer: none of the photos featured here belong to me. These are royalty free photos for non commercial use.]