On Microstock

The furor across the web about microstock has largely died down, but clearly there are still people out there who are (understandably) threatened by it. The argument, most recently expressed by Kenneth Jarecke in The Online Photographer, goes something like this: Time Magazine used to pay $4,000 for a cover photo, but now they only pay $125. That’s a bad thing. And the fault lies with the bean-counters. Or maybe it’s the fault of the photography community for selling photos so low (slitting their own throat). And this results in reduced quality, which is hurting the magazine publishing industry.


These essays almost universally fail to acknowledge the (ironically, far more well-known) similar meltdowns in the music, television, and movie business. The truth is, every industry whose product can be transmitted over the Internet is experiencing overwhelming changes, not just photography. This is no coincidence; the digital revolution has reduced the barriers to entry and distribution of content. This results in lower prices for consumers of the content. Some of the best-selling books for Kindle are free. Microsoft can’t make money selling encyclopedias. Movie studios fret about piracy. Musicians make more money from touring and licensing than from CDs. Why should photography be any different?

Further, the writers always seem to forget that we live in a Capitalist society, which is run by supply and demand. If a client is comfortable using a nonexclusive image from a source with high supply (microstock) and low price, why shouldn’t they use it? Similarly, if they desire to use an image that has a low supply — say, a unique news photo that cannot be replicated by amateurs in their basement studios — then the photographer and client are free to negotiate a price that both parties feel is fair.

As to the argument that photographers are hurting themselves, well, that’s an individual choice. I know a local landscape photographer in my area, and he handles all his own stock sales, at high rates. His reputation is well-known, his photos are better than mine, and clients seek him out to commission his photos. Fair enough. But I don’t have people knocking down my door to buy photography. When I started looking into stock, I didn’t have an extensive enough portfolio to submit to a conventional agency. The barriers to entry were too high. Microstock was, and remains, the best route for me to enter the photography market.

In the end, what annoys me the most about these essays is the fact that they offer no solutions to this supposed problem. What, every person with a DSLR and delusions of selling images online should apply to a high-end stock agency? And, if they are not accepted, they should just stuff their images in a drawer, never to be seen again? In what way is that realistic?

The fact is, there are legions of people willing to not only sell their photos for a few dollars, but many people willing to give away their photos for free (Flickr, I’m looking at you). Just as old-school photographers fear the microstock movement, I’m terrified of the folks who are happy to give away their stuff for free (and yes, some of it is quite good). To me, the difference betwen $4000 and $125 is actually a lot smaller than the difference between $125 and free. The fact is, it is possible to make a living selling photos at $125/pop. Competing against free is a lot harder.

Other blog entries on Microstock.