Is microstock really killing markets?

Some compare Microstock to pollution and see it destroying the industry, others see it as a natural innovation that is inevitable. It’s striking to see how opinions differ on this subject. One of the reasons I publish this magazine is to bring together outsiders’ opinions with insider views (and sometimes preconceptions) and here’s a debate that just heated up.

The popular Techdirt blog (Alexa ranking 14.000) has posted an article on microstock. In it Mike Masnick responds to a post by John Harrington on Photobusinessnews. In the original post Harrington compares Microstock to pollution:

“Microstock didn’t come into the market to serve high school children who need school report images, or even the mom-and-pop corner store. They came in like a drunk bull in a china shop with careless regard for the devastation on the existing market.

“The profits in microstock are like end products where the pollution dumped into fragile eco-systems as a part of the process is simply disregarded. Today, countries like China who don’t give a hoot about their environment or worker satisfaction are polluting the skies and streams with the post-manufacturing waste, and living wages are not paid to workers there either.”

“As a result, US manufacturing can’t compete, and irreversible damage has been done. In the same vein of thinking, microstock photographers have little to no regard for the damage they are doing to the photographic environment, causing immensely talented photographers to close up shop”

The post has received a number of comments that are worth reading. Most of the posts are in agreement and classify microstock as damaging to the industy. Masnick disagrees: 

It’s actually been really depressing to see so many photographers react so poorly to new technologies, and this case is no exception. In the ranting post, he compares microstock sites to pollution in China and drug dealing. All the rant really screams out is “I’m so set in my ways that I can’t compete or adapt my business model.”

Technology changes markets, and the more you look, the more you realize that it almost always enlarges the overall market for those who take advantage of it. Yes, there’s more competition in the photographer market, and the model for stock photography has changed. But the nice thing about the microstock market is that it has opened new markets.

In the end, it really comes down to how you deal with it. Do you whine and stomp your feet and compare the new world to pollution? Or do you figure out how to adapt? Economic progress doesn’t care in the slightest how much you liked how things used to be.

The Techdirt article has an even longer list of comments, mostly in favour of Masnick’s position. I’m interested to see what readers of Fast Media Magazine think so feel free to comment here and in the forum. Unsuprisingly you’ll find me in the corner of Techdirt on this one. Change happens and follows very basic economic theory. The trick is to adapt to the changing circumstances and look ahead at new opportunities. In fact, that is exactly why we write about a wide range of subjects that bring new insights and ideas.

Picture: iStockphoto | Plan B | Topshot UK

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

16 thoughts on “Is microstock really killing markets?

  • November 30, 2009 at 11:47 am

    As always, there are two sides to the medal…..
    Yes, technology is changing the market, and there are new circumstances to be dealt with.
    For big company’s who get their trade model right a huge opportunity.
    But, sorry to say, for photographers a downward spiral.
    First there was stock, it became increasingly easy for clients to find images witch were cheaper.
    And no risk, what you see is what you get.
    Now there is microstock, even more easy for clients to find even cheaper images…..
    The next step, and sorry to say, it is happening already, why pay anything at all??
    Just have a good look at flickr, photobucket, picasa, etc. etc.
    Loads of images to be found witch are not copyright protected.
    And even if they are copyright protected, who is going to give a F….!

    I’ts like the gold rush, in the beginning some get rich, then followed by more who could make a good living, then even more who made little money, etc. etc.
    at a certain point only the people who sell shovels made money…. see the parallels yet?
    In the end everybody went bankrupt, ghost towns.
    All what remains is a few huge mining companies with few people making money, and many exploited.

    I’m a photographer, and work because i love it. but as a business it has become very difficult to make a living.
    Even if you win dozens of nominations and win awards!

    I’ts becoming a snake witch bites tis own tail.
    the big danger with (micro) stock is that they seem to forget that their reason for living is good content!
    Why should anyone go in to photography in the future (other than a hobby) if you can’t make a living?

    Anno Pieterse

    • June 20, 2014 at 4:02 am

      The same thing is happening with music, video and photography. Micro stock does devalue content there is no way around that fact. Those who are in favor of micro stock say that it opens up markets for people who would otherwise not use stock media in the first place. In the end you are going to end up with a 2 tier system. Most composers that I know will never license their music on a micro stock site and becuase of this the quality is generally not as good as on a more high end site. I think you have made a very good point because no one is going to create high end music, photos, vecter art or videos if they can’t make money doing it. Micro stock sites work very well for the site because they may have thousand of photographers, composers and other artist so they get paid off of everyone. If you as the photographer are only selling a few photos per month you may be making pocket change but if everyone on the site sells a few photos the site is making a lot of money. The best way to make money selling stock media today is to have your own website. This way if you have to sell at a lower price you will sell more and make more money.

  • November 30, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    It´s three years too late for a lamento.
    We all have seen Getty overtaking istockphoto in 2006.
    And we might keep in mind: at that stage, ecommerce-enabled websites for picture agencies were just 10 years old. So, microstock has not killed a lifetime-market.
    In three years, Microstock Photographers will see that they a) leverage prices or b) stop doing microstock cause there are too many pictures, too much competition.

  • November 30, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    You can always tell when an amateur writes an article about professionals whining about the damage microstock does.

    The problem is, adapt and change is meaningless. I assume by adapt and change with the new technology the micro-payment apologists mean get a job flipping burgers or whatever, and spend every waking hour shooting mindless dross for istockphoto (who will make tidy sums of money while giving nothing back to the creative industry).

    Imagine if the micro-payment model was applied to manufacturing. Let’s take aircraft as an example. Thousands of amateur enthusiasts come into the hangar on their days off, each with their own set of skills and preferences, to crowdsource the building of the plane.

    80 % of the plane would be badly made, but 20% would be brilliant. Even if you switch the percentages, you won’t catch me traveling in a plane built by amateurs.

    These “adapt and change” ideas take no account of the damage microstock has had on the commissioned market, which is where I operate. And the only ones being mugged are the micro-stockers who supply big business with cheap, generic imagery.

    Of course because I disagree with your stance I’ll be accused of ranting. To me, the shrill pleading of micro-stockers who haven’t had the reality of being taken for mugs hit them yet is starting to sound rather shrill.

  • November 30, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Actually Microstock/iStock and a few other bright ideas like price/rates by Getty has pretty much killed the high end image supply by their most talented photographers.

    Getty is beginning to beg for creative, highly produced content. Ihis has never happened before. But giving it to them is just like a gift with no return. They have really done an amazing amount of damage to their non micro business. Just watch it in few years it will be quite funny to what they were like 3-5 years ago.

    So yes, there is alot of damage, but most of it is not visible.

  • November 30, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    When I was in high school there were companies making good money producing slide-rules. Within two years I bought my first calculator.

    The huge drawing supply store that I visited in the ’80 went OOB.

    A friend who used to score music by hand for some big rock bands was replaced by software.

    I used to code html by hand building websites – then came dreamweaver so everyone could build them.

    If hundreds of plant and animal species go extinct each year, it might be at least as bad for job categories. The workplace evolves – so must it’s workers. Evolution is impartial and merciless, and eagerly encouraged by big business (if not so impartial, as least as merciless). That definitely sucks – but “it is what it is”.

    In an interview with some detroit auto workers a few years after they’d been laid off, their communal lament was that they “just want things to be the way they were”.

    Job security is no longer being secure in your current job -its the ability to find a new job when you lose the one you have…

    • July 15, 2010 at 11:57 pm

      “Change is the essential process of all existence.”
      Lt. Cmdr. Spock (Star Trek, Let the Be Your Last Battlefield)

  • December 2, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Micro stock is killing markets, yes. It is also killing the ability to make a living and have a career as a professional photographer. In turn, the most talented, most driven people who want to make a living as image creators will go to other sectors of imaging or altogether different industries, eventually creating a talent vacuum in the stock business. Of course it will take a while for this to happen and for those relatively new to the stock image industry to get over the novelty of having their images used by others (big and small) for minuscule fees.

    I think eventually a new system for stock imagery will emerge with a sustainable business model more supportive of professional creators. The bar for what is considered professional imagery will definitely go up and clients who want the best imagery will find a way to pay for it. Perhaps the new business model will actually differentiate between customers and create appropriate licensing fees for both the local church bulletin and the multinational corporate advertising campaign.

    Only time will tell.

    Tim McGuire
    EVOstock Founder and Administrator, a virtual stock image collective for pro photographers and visual artists.
    EVOlve or go extinct!

  • December 2, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Great comments so far.

    I have always felt that as a ‘photography industry’ we have never been great at helping buyers understand the value of great photography. Clearly we’re now in a time where at least 80% of content has become a commodity and this will need to result in changed working practices and acceptance.

    That still leaves us with great photography that is undervalued. The ball is in the court of photographers and Stock agencies to come up with sensible models that clarify things for clients. It must be hard for them now to deal with so many different pricing models. Like you, I also feel that clients will want to pay for great photography (just like with any other product) but if is not presented to them in a clear, coherent and premium way it will be difficult to bring across the message and the great photography will end up in the same corner as the value content.

    Just a few thoughts.

  • December 3, 2009 at 11:37 am

    But Tim, we already have a model like that. It’s called selling Rights Managed exclusive content and it’s a model that existed when I got my first job in a picture library in 1989. The onset of digital and the different business models that accompanied it caused a lot of libraries to take their eye off the ball and forget some of the fundamentals of what had made them a success in the first place.

    Suddenly it stopped being about quality and started being about quantity – not just number of pictures sold (at an ever decreasing price) but number of outlets where clients could get exactly the same content.

    Microstock is a logical extension of this process.

    And yet….while everything about it offends my idea of what ‘stock’ photography should be, I have a feeling it may prove to be the salvation of its exact opposite.

    From the perspective of a small, specialist library our struggle over the past few years has been with other libraries (mainly the usual corporate suspects but increasingly our peers as well) selling quality photography from professional photographers at joke prices – £60 for full pages in high circulation magazines, £25 for quarter page broadsheet use.

    We have refused to go down that path and fortunately our work and our reputation has been strong enough to allow us to compete.

    Larger libraries have been able to get away with this because they’re shifting such a volume of pictures that the unit price being so low doesn’t matter so much (although of course it hurts the photographers).

    But if clients can now get similar content for a fraction of even those low prices from miscrostock sites then the volume of ‘traditional’ sales will surely collapse.

    And that then leaves a gap at the top of the market. By all means fill your web pages and your 1/16 page drop ins with adequate microstock. But when you need outstanding professional creative photography on your cover, dps, full page, brochure cover, advert – you go to a picture library offering high quality, exclusive pictures. And as Tim says “clients who want the best imagery will find a way to pay for it.”

    I’ve always been deeply sceptical about the idea of continual progress that underpins the notion that ‘change is good’. Yes things do continually change, but not always for the best. And just once in a while the best way to adapt to change is to go back not forwards – back to the fundamental principles that underpin this industry.

    Microstock will cause casualties. It will hurt those agencies who tried to shift units rather than sell photography and who don’t have the capacity – as Getty have – to buy their way into the microstock revolution. And it will hurt their photographers (for the record, I don’t see all these photographers as innocent victims – too many have stood by and allowed their work to be devalued). But it may just be the catalyst for a renaissance of high class creative photography sold by people with a passion for their trade.

  • December 3, 2009 at 11:45 am

    The problem with micros is not the prices they charge but the licence that they use. There is nothing at all damaging about low fees for small uses. Micros claim that they serve a new emerging market of church groups, mom and pop stores, bedroom designers and so on. But it is hugely damaging to undercut traditional pricing for magazines, books and so on when selling licences to traditional image users. The end result is Getty and others chasing down prices and an overall gross loss of revenue to the stock photography industry.

    Reform the micro licence to meet micro uses and the problem disappears.

    Ian Murray

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  • March 16, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Chew on this one for a minute fellow videographers and authors. Videography is an art, the quality work performed by every artist should allow full control of stock video assets. If you have a stock video library of clips, want to set your own prices for your artwork, get full statistical tracking of all clip sales, and a host of emerging web technology to do all the back office tasks for you without the high costs,then shoot me an email to chat.

    There is an alternative method to selling your stock footage. Just try to get away from the idea of a microstock company where full control over your stock footage is relinquished. Try to picture owning your own microsite/microstock site without the high costs of development, high bandwith costs, and hosting fees. Emerging web technologies make it possible to own an e-commerce site specifically designed to present and sell stock footage with all of the back office functions to track sales, set prices, and even editing the licensing agreements on each clip sold.

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