Brutally Honest Interview with Alexandre Rotenberg

As part of the interview series, Elijah has kindly proposed to interview me for my own blog, which I’ve agreed! This is a good chance to get to know me better and have some further insight on my stock business and plans.


Hi, Alex, in the brutally honest tradition of your blog, lets interview the brutally honest guy! It’s been quite a journey so far with quite unexpected twists and turns. The thorny road to contributor success is still thorny, so let’s do some recap and see where do we stand at this juncture.

If memory serves me, you had this dream of travelling around the world and being able to support yourself with income from microstock industry. I guess it’s time to revisit the beautiful dream and make some brutally honest observations. What are yours? Do you still see this happening?

Hi Elijah, thanks for putting together these interesting questions. Let’s get started!

Back in 2016, when I had just finished a non-photography project in Italy, my plan was indeed to work hard to be able to earn enough in a few years’ time to support my “beautiful dream”, which is really one of passive income. At the time I set myself a goal to earn a quite modest net $2,000/month within two years, which would be 2018. This would be a good start to be able to cover most of my costs and then pick up some side-work.

Back in 2016, I recall that I was earning about $300-400/month on what was about 4,000 non-exclusive images. By 2018, I had more than tripled my port and also introduced a few hundred clips. Was encouraging to see that all that hard work was finally paying off as I began earning an average of around $1k/month particularly towards the end of 2018. I started publishing my brutally honest earnings reports in February 2019 and continue to do so until the present-day.

Since April-2020, as reported, my earnings began to stagnate and then eventually fell to about $500/month, other than the rare high-value book cover sales or Adobe free-images giveaway for $5/image. Really disappointing.

Therefore, the “beautiful dream” of passive income has been downgraded to a side-gig to pay off trips and upgrade gear guilt-free, which I suppose is still OK (always the optimist). The good news is that with the skills acquired via stock I’ve managed picked up some clients to shoot on the side to supplement my microstock income, mainly doing real-estate photography/footage.

Otherwise, as you know, I’m investing heavily in book-cover photography and more recently, drone footage/images, so I’m betting that these will eventually provide a decent return. More on this later. Perhaps I’ll eventually earn $2k/month in 2023, finally reaching the goal some 5 years later.

So, purely from a financial point of view it’s been a failure, although I have many other reasons to go down this creative route. Financially speaking, the ultimate lesson here is the old cliché, don’t quit your day-job!

“Passive Income Dream” lol

You speak about other reasons than financially for shooting stock, could you go into more details?

Sure – creating content, be it photos or videos, gives me peace of mind as it helps me to live in the present, which is difficult to do in when we have so many distractions. Then, again when I’m looking over the content during post-processing or generally browsing, it takes me back to that moment and they’re usually nice peaceful moments. Also happens when I have a sale, which gives me a sense of nostalgia of all the places I’ve visited.

When I’m not shooting sometimes I feel like I’m either depressed (living in the past) or anxious (living in the future), so I try to shoot as much as I can! It’s much more effective than any sort of drugs/alcohol/medication and highly recommend it to anybody who is trying to get through life in this crazy world.

I remember this equally funny and sarcastic post about what awaits us as contributors in 2031. There were a lot of ‘exciting news’ recently… what is your updated forecast for the foreseeable future?

It’s one of my favourite posts and has aged beautifully!

So many exciting-news to go through that it’s difficult to keep up. Obviously, the biggest news of the year has been Shutterstock’s acquisition of Pond5. This news is a game-changer and my worry but inevitable conclusion is that average prices at Pond5 will plummet from a decent net $35/download (my 2021 average) to Shutterstock’s average of $8/download (also my 2021 average), albeit with larger volumes. The race is to the bottom and as contributors we can’t depend our livelihoods on stocks income anymore. Not even close.

My updated forecast remains largely the same, Adobe Stock should soon take the first lead in the first tiers as they’re making good management decisions. Shutterstock will eventually be the first agency to reach one-billion images in probably around 2026. Meanwhile, many of the minnows won’t survive, including EyeEm, BigStock and 123RF. Dreamstime is a nice agency and I would like to see them do well, although I believe that they will struggle as the industry goes through a consolidation phase.

An interesting development is the rise of AI / CGI for stock photography. Although the technology is in its infancy, it will eventually have a major disruptive impact particularly on lifestyle model-released content. Just check out this person doesn’t exist. Also some exciting/scary developments by DALL·E, new AI system that can create realistic images and art from a description in natural language. I’ve joined their wait-list to get access to their software to test.

I witnessed your unexpected turn towards the book covers. You pretty much threw your microstock earnings under the bus in order to dedicate your energy to fairly niche book cover industry. What gives you hope and what makes you so relentlessly pursue this uncharted territory?

I don’t think the “turn towards book covers” was so unexpected. It happened gradually…keep in mind that I was accepted at Arcangel back in 2015, so they must have seen some potential back then! But I didn’t upload to them that often until 2020.

Around mid-2021 I was super-frustrated with Microstock earnings, as well as many rejections from Arcangel – see post 95% rejections. As you may recall, it was also in the middle of the pandemic and travel was almost impossible, which made the work of a travel photographer redundant. So, book covers were a natural choice to invest since it was/is possible for me to take a walk around my neighbourhood for a few hours and come back up with some decent content to work on. Or shoot at home.

A few months later in 2021, I was/am super fortunate and grateful to have received personalised coaching from Ignacio Mascaro, Arcangel’s Sales Director, on how to improve my graft during many months and zoom sessions. Overall, it’s been a steep learning curve and I’m glad that someone could finally look at my work objectively and tell me where I was messing up (and boy I was messing up). For the last year my Arcangel portfolio has grown by 700 images and many high-quality stuff. I still receive rejections but far fewer.  

I’m naturally drawn to book covers because it’s much more artistic / creative than other types of photography – see post about “embracing your dark side“. Also, for me it’s rewarding, not only financially, to see my work on physical book cover to last generations. This is direct contrast many microstock images sold for subs on a low-quality blog full of annoying ads. Some of the time I don’t even earn a cent as the images are stolen.

With the way the microstock earnings are dropping year-on-year, it makes sense to specialise in a niche market, such as book covers or whatever else you fancy. Although sales volumes are super low, the average sale earned is around $250 per book cover sale. I don’t have huge expectations regarding this venture, just enjoying the journey as I approach the 2,000-image portfolio and achieve more regular sales.  

Speaking about book covers – exhilarating sales of around $1,000 net are followed by month-long droughts with 0 earnings. Do you think you can consistently earn with Arcangel?

Indeed, the latest huge sale is great, although it’s not common. I’ll discuss this particular sale next week on the monthly report. Whether I can consistently earn, I think so, as most of my 700 or so images captured last year on Arcangel are top-notch imo. I’m confident that those will begin selling soon as, unlike microstock, there is quite a time-lag between images accepted and eventually being sold – at least a year but can be longer.  

I would be happy with just one or two book cover sale per month to earn about $250/average, to go along with my average of $600-750/month at micros. Modest goals to avoid disappointment. I don’t have a crystal ball but I feel like I’m on the right track. 

How was the transition to book-cover style photography? I know a couple of guys (myself among this group) that gave up or simply failed with this transition. What makes it difficult?

I first started photography in 1998/1999 when I was in High School in Vancouver, Canada. Back then digital photography was in its infancy and I was still working with film on an old Pentax.

Some 20+ years later, it often feels like I’m still that teenager exploring the neighbourhood looking for fun angles / shadows / subject to shoot and develop. So, first and foremost I’m not doing this for the money because if I took the amount of time, I’ve invested divided by what I’ve earned it would amount to pittance. Only more recently have I taken a more professional attitude with the coaching I’ve received. These latest batches not only took less than time to create but have a greater probability to sell.   

What makes uploading book covers more difficult than other types of stock photography are that other than the initial review process (accepted/rejected/to modify), there is almost no feedback on the work. For instance, if you upload your images to let’s say Shutterstock, you’ll know within quite a short time some feedback on whether it’s “commercially-strong”. This is because sales will start occurring quite quickly after being accepted. If some microstock images haven’t sold within a month they are probably lost in the search engine algorithm maze forever.

With book covers, on the other hand, the image(s) may take literally years before being picked up by a buyer, if at all. So, if you want to be a successful book cover contributor, you’ll need to think at least three years ahead and not expect sales in that time. Just keep plugging along.

Most contributors can’t even be three months without sales.  Also, upon receiving many rejections many eventually become so frustrated that they quit. It’s a pity because often those contributors won’t ever know just how close they were to achieving “success” if only they stuck with it for a little bit longer and took a critical long/deep look at their own work. It’s common to think that our work is better than it actually is!     

In addition, you’ll constantly need to develop strong technical skills so your image can compete with other contributors on the collection. It’s quite easy to see who are the top contributors at Arcangel because they often post about their sales on social media. Many have also been interviewed here on this blog and I’m always on the lookout for more to gain and share insight.

Also, Arcangel publish monthly highlights / showcases and I’ve been fortunate to have been featured once. The trick is that once you can’t tell your images apart, from both a conceptual and technical level, from those top contributors you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Some of my High School Photography Images

You recently started exploring footage exclusivity options, mostly with OverflightStock. A lot of effort goes into this and from what I hear your earnings are still firmly around zero. I’m afraid I have to ask you an ‘Agent Smith question”. Why Mr. Andreson? Why do you persist?

True, Overflightstock is yet to produce a sale, true, although it’s only been about four months and my portfolio on there is relatively small with just 85 clips.

The main reason why I’ve decided to upload some content to OverflightStock is that I have a direct line of communication with their Content Director, Peter Chigmaroff, who has provided some useful inputs on my work. With Shutterstock, Adobe Stock and Pond5 there is none of that and RIP the Shutterstock forum. Therefore, I don’t mind sacrificing a little bit of earnings for the tips to be able to improve.

In addition, the content is placed alongside other top content at an exclusive Pond5 account and the average price can be considerably higher than the average at Shutterstock, etc. I’ll keep uploading and reassess after some months/years.

Unlike you, I managed to grow my earnings on microstock platforms. You see Adam Melnyk getting some encouraging results with stock footage sales. Do you plan on getting back to micros at some point or are you in ‘all’s lost’ camp?

I never completely stopped uploading to micros, although the pace is considerably slower than when I was hitting my stride in 2017-2019.

I’m happy to see Adam doing well, he has found a good niche shooting with his drone and the location where he’s shooting (Vancouver, Canada) seems to be in-demand.

I have no plans to devote anymore time than I currently do uploading to micros, that is unless I see a drastic positive change in my earnings at the microstock agencies, which as you know won’t happen as the writing is on the wall that it’s a dying business-model.

You’ve been around for a while and gained some valuable experience in the industry, not only with the craft itself but also with regards to human interactions with lots of contributors. What are your thoughts on the “state of the union”? Do you see them a uniformed mass? As generational groups? (Some stick to the old values, some just couldn’t care less, etc… )

Yes, for sure I’ve met great people, such as yourself, during my journey which I regularly keep in contact. Talented professionals as well as great human beings.

The feeling I have is that it depends but the overall feeling from the group is one of acceptance that nobody expects to make a living from microstock. Most are just “content” with to keep earning what they are currently earning even after regular uploads, but there’s a lingering feeling that things are going to get worse, much worse. That is if we keep on doing the same thing…

Although we’ve all been in this business for many years it’s important not to be complacent and always try to improve our craft. Just because we were crushing it a few years ago with some of our content it’s no guarantee that we will do so with similar content now. The market is always changing, as are the algorithms. Adapt or die.

You seem to avoid using models at all cost (girlfriend excluded). What stops you from doing this?

Yes, she’s been a great help for book covers! I know that lifestyle model-released images can be some of the highest earners but it comes at a “cost”. Not just of the model itself (when not using friends/relatives/yourself) but the administration, logistics and post-processing. I see Kaspars Grinvald earning net average of $4,000/month uploading lifestyle shots and he deserves it as his work is top-notch.

I’m a travel photographer and I prefer to have the freedom of not being at the mercy of a schedule or people, even if I’ll eventually end up earnings less. It comes down to doing more of what I enjoy than what would earn me more. So I shouldn’t really complain if my earnings are depressed, but I do make an effort sometimes to shoot more of what will sell for micros.

For book covers, hiring models is something that I’m currently researching on how I may expand. It’s really important to have someone in the frame of a book cover, even if it’s part of a body part or silhouette.  

Since we are touching some controversial subjects here, what’s your take on Dark Lord Voldermot of microstock industry, namely Freepik? I noticed you started submitting there. Is it ‘milk them while you can’ approach or something else?

I’ve been uploading to Freepik for about three months and have 300 images accepted. As you can see below, although the average return per download is a pathetic 7cents, the volumes are strong and consistent.

My take is that few buyers search around for the same image at different agencies. Without having the data it’s impossible to know for sure but I think we’re better off having most of our non-premium images at all agencies so it’s seen by as many people as possible.

You have some legal background and recently took on some legal-related position in some corporate behemoth. Does having some familiarity with legal industry help understand how ‘the world works’ and microstock industry in particular?

Sure, the legal background helps me to interpret the licensing agreements. I can also go after infringements on my own if I wish to do so or defend potential claims. I’ve also drafted a few licensing agreements for people and revised photography-related documents. The most I’ve gained from my legal background though is writing blog posts on here.

You are a proud self-professed technophobe. Brave statement but… how’s your personal development with regards to software used to process and edit images and footage? Do you lag behind, are you content with the current level or do you feel like your butt should be kicked to be improved in this sense?

Yes, indeed I’m a technophobe! I do need to push myself to learn / improve some new technical skills, such as Photoshop. Most recently, I’ve started using some actions on Photoshop which have taken some of my book covers to a new level.

As mentioned before, I have some real-estate / architecture clients and the post-processing needed to correct distortions, etc. are fundamental.

I do need to invest some time in regularly watching technical tutorials on post-processing. It’s one of those things that sometimes we’re so busy doing the “same old” that we forget to pick up new skills, so I do have to kick myself once in a while.

It looks like you are taking a sabbatical this year. Any plans on traveling amidst this Covid/Post-Covid madness? I witnessed first-hand the airport chaos and crazy hotel prices. Gotta be a difficult time to travel.

Hopefully will be more than a year but depends on my finances! I do wish to travel more, although it’s so expensive at the moment, so waiting until the Autumn. I recently left the Iberian Peninsula after three years to visit the UK, which was a nice break and captured some cool book covers mainly.

On the medium-term I will visit some places locally, notably Galicia, Azores, and then Brazil at the end of the year as haven’t been there for three years. Will be taking my drone to all those places for some unique angles, stay tuned!

Thanks for the interview, Alex and best of luck with whatever you do in the future!


About Alex

I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Lisbon, Portugal, on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage. I’ve devoted eight years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.

Most recently I’ve gone all in on submitting book cover images to Arcangel Images. Oh and also recently purchased a DJI Mavic 2s drone and taking full advantage.

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

6 comments

  1. Alex, the link for the phrase “Also, Arcangel publish monthly highlights…” gives me an error. Seeing the web to which the link directs I see that it is a “download-video…” Is that correct? I was interested in seeing that link for the information I think is interesting. I do not know that information through the web or Arcangel’s blog. Thank you!

    Like

  2. Thank you both. An interesting interview and good to learn more about you Alex. I am very impressed by your Arc uploads now. Also, I found your words about Arc encouraging as I am often discouraged by lack of sales. All the best with your sales. May they grow and multiply 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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