This blog post is a long time coming as I’ve had a good time to think about the sad state of the industry and where we’re heading.
As you’ve seen from the title, I’m quite pessimistic on the sorry state of the industry, for the most part. Therefore, I’ve put together 7 reasons why microstock is (probably) a waste of time in 2021 onwards. I’ll focus on photos since I don’t yet have a large footage portfolio, nor is it at a quality that I’m happy with just yet (perhaps for another blog post). So here we go!
If you’ve been following me for a while you’ll know that I’ve been uploading regularly since 2013 and have amassed a collection of ports that I’m quite proud (around 15,000 images in total, both exclusively and non-exclusively, on around 15 agencies- honestly, I lost count).
Reason 1: Average Returns Per Downloads and sales volumes are falling…fast!
It’s no secret that especially in the past few years average returns per downloads, as reported by many contributors, are falling across the board (with some agencies more than others).
I’ve been closely tracking my earnings for the major agencies consisting of Adobe Stock, Alamy, iStock and Shutterstock, since March 2019 and stats don’t lie…
The other side of the earnings coin are sales volumes and those are also falling…double-whammy! Which means that even if average return per image stays roughly the same, with lower volumes = lower sales…as you can see below with my historical volumes over at the world’s favourite agency, Shutterstock:
Whereas my Alamy sales volumes are literally all over the place with an average return per download at $10/net.
Soon I’ll have to pay iStock to host my files…my predictions from 2031 are disturbingly coming true…
Main reasons for falling revenues/volumes
The reasons for falling return per download and volumes are complex but mainly down to oversupply of images and reduced demand mainly due to the epidemic, and of course greedy microstock agencies reducing earnings fees, such as done by Alamy reducing non-exclusive content by 20% and Shutterstock famously / notoriously putting the whole world into tier 1 from the New Year and introducing 10cent minimum subs.
If you do the math, you would struggle to find microstock to be a profitable return on your time/investment and any hope of turning this hobby into a semi-professional / professional career, especially if you live in a region with a high cost of living, is reserved to less than 0.1% of top contributors.
Reason 2: You will most likely never recoup your travel costs with stock sales!
I can only count a few times when during my travels, no matter how economical I tried to be, that I recouped my investment in travel with stock earnings.
Other times, such as visit to Venice and Cordoba, I haven’t even recouped the investment made in coffee.
Fortunately, my purpose for traveling isn’t primarily to earn money but to experience the places. Therefore, I keep my expectations super low and perhaps aim to recoup the costs of the accommodation only.
Reason 3: Professional Equipment is Expensive!
Whoever says that quality gear doesn’t matter so much and that making money from microstock photography is about talent is a fool. The first hurdle to have images accepted is to pass their Quality Control and that likely won’t happen if your images are soft in focus, noisy / grainy and other technical issues, no matter how commercially strong the subject-matter may be. Smartphone cameras are improving fast but they still have a ways to go to beat full-frame DSLRs.
I fortunately don’t consider myself someone that is infected by G.A.S (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) as I tend to only upgrade when absolutely necessary. My D7000 Nikon from 2012 still works just great, as does my D800 from 2013 with the 24-70 f2.8 (Sigma) purchased in 2014. My latest 105mm macro lens set me back about $1,000 and I’ll probably still use it 10 years from now.
Nevertheless, if I do add up ALL my gear purchased from Day One (since 2012) that I purchased for the main reason of creating microstock photos, I would estimate that the total value of my gear (plus laptop with good graphics card) comes to around $8,000 (another $1,500 if I invest in a drone). If you count the depreciation / re-sale value of this gear, I’d be lucky to get even $2,000 for all.
Now, you need to ask yourself if you think it’s feasible to have a return on investment in prospective gear with the amount that agencies are paying these days (see Reason 1). Probably not.
Reason 4: Agencies are always looking out for their best interest!
In the pecking order of where contributors stand in the eyes of microstock management, contributors come almost dead last behind the office cleaners (who have probably been made redundant by now, just like contributors).
To highlight the point, the following cut-out is from the transcript (full version available here) of Stan Pavlovsky’s earnings call to discuss the Q4 2020 Shutterstock. Also, I find it interesting / relevant that out of the 5915 words in the transcript, the word “contributor” was only mentioned once and in 3rd order behind employees and customers, and almost on the last paragraph – here it is:
Buyers are kings and contributors are peasants
Which leads to my next point in that since contributors are so down the pecking order of importance, the buyer is always king and agencies will do everything in their power to keep them happy, including offering steep discounts. At the very worst of the spectrum, even though the vast majority of buyers are honest, some do “accidently” purchase the wrong license for cheaper knowing that agencies won’t do anything (even when probed). For instance, I’ve been bugging Alamy for years on the subject of suspicious Personal Usage licenses and have received mainly non-answers by their Customer Relations. It’s reached the point where I prefer licensing via Alamy Rights-Managed just so I can disable the option to license as personal prints.
Infringements are difficult to fight in RF Microstock
I do know that once I’ve put it into micros as RF non-exclusive, there is practically nothing I can do about chasing infringements, such as the following which should only be licensed for editorial purposes and not to promote service. Not worth the time and effort.
The threat from free-download agencies is real
Last but certainly not least, there’s always a lingering threat that one of the microstock agencies will begin teaming up with the free-download sites, such as Unsplash and Pexels to license your images for free (or as they say, in return for “exposure”).
Reason 5: The future is Computer Generated Graphics (CGI)!
In early 2019, I wrote about the fascinating site, ThisPersonDoesNotExist, and since then I’m sure they’ve made progress.
The technology is evolving and creating such realistic images of cats that don’t exist. Watch out, Steve!
On a more serious note, the fact that computed-generated images are becoming so much more realistic means that in the future stock contributors are more likely to be programmers / architects than photographers. Another reason not to “invest” $6k on gear.
Reason 6: You may get sued/fined/arrested!
Leading on from the above point on the benefits of using fake models than real models, there are risk associated with submitting microstock photos. One of them is a disgruntled model (even with a model-release) upon discovering the use of her image in a “compromising situation”.
Risk in engaging in street photography / travel photography
However, if you’re like me and doing predominately travel photos, the greater risk is being on the wrong side of the law in a foreign country while shooting in public. Laws are open to interpretations and even if you research before, you may still not have a full grasp of the nuances. Not all countries are as photographer-friendly as the UK where you can pretty much shoot anything/anybody from a public place. Outside of the UK, I have had been asked to have my images deleted by police in some occasions.
So, next time you’re traveling somewhere exotic and want to take images in public, you have to think if it’s really worth having your liberties (or money from penalties) taken away from you for a few quarters.
Drone regulations remain confusing
In addition, now that drones are becoming more widely available, there are a whole set of rules and regulations that pilots must fall to stay on the right side of the law.
Reason 7: Microstock continues to have a bad reputation in the wider industry!
I wrote about this on my eBook three years ago and still rings true. Microstock, whether you like it or not, has generally a bad reputation within the wider stock photography industry. By submitting your images for subs you may inevitably hurt your chances to be accepted at one of the more premium stock agencies (Stocksy, Offset, Arcangel, Trevillion for instance).
Just something to be aware of if you do venture down this microstock path and want to try out at the Midstocks. I have no regrets as I took advantage of the tail end of this industry in terms of earnings and tend to ignore the criticism directed at microstock from those from other segments of the industry.
Conclusion – Do what feels right!
I’ll never tell anybody not to do something, which in human nature usually leads to them doing it to prove me wrong! So if you’re starting out now and looking for additional income and think that you may earn some from microstock, I say go for it but please don’t expect to recoup your time/investment in the short term.
Look at it as a learning experience and try to find more profitable ventures, perhaps working on commissioned work with the skills learned from contributing to microstock, or get into stock footage. Just be well aware that the good days of the microstock industry are long gone and you’ll be lucky to pick up some breadcrumbs from this dying industry.
I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Madrid, Spain, on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage, when things go back to normal (mid-2021??). I’ve devoted eight years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer (however, had recently go back into full-time office work to make ends meet). I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.
I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography