Back in early 2021 I published the article, 7 Reasons Why Microstock Photography is (Probably) a Waste of Your Time, which has become one of my most-viewed articles. Two years on, feeling quite glum and pessimistic about this whole industry from seeing such poor returns on investment, I’ve decided to publish an update. Perhaps there will be a silver lining so read on until the end!
Reason 1: Average Returns Per Downloads and sales volumes are falling…fast!
I rightly called the decline in average return per download two years ago but I honestly didn’t think that they would be dropping so fast, both earnings and volumes. A factor are all those free-download sites popping up.
According to MicrostockR, Since 2021, the average return per downloads (which includes videos) has fallen, on average, 24% across all agencies. Combine this with an increase of around 20% in inflation since then and we’ve got ourselves a hugely unsustainable business model.
So far, in 2023, things aren’t looking promising with a further 4cent decline from 2022. Cut off below but it reads 65cents.
As for volumes, need to crunch some numbers which would take some time, but I estimate that they’re also down about 25% in the past two years.
Reason 2: You will most likely never recoup your travel costs with stock sales!
This was true two years ago and now add the unprecedented inflation from the past year and all but short-haul trips will be challenging to recover costs. Therefore, we’re forced to shoot locally, if possible. Sucks if you live in a place with not much going on so you you’d be better off creating a home-studio.
Reason 3: Professional Equipment is Expensive!
This is still true, although I would argue that the cost of a decent drone, such as the one I have (DJI Air Mavic 2s), isn’t prohibitively expensive for what it can capture at just over $1,000, see image below what it’s capable of capturing. Premium gear should cost you a lot and I have no regrets investing some $900 on a 105mm macro lens. You can get away with investing in third-party lenses from Sigma, Tamron though to cut on costs.
Reason 4: Agencies are always looking out for their best interest!
Indeed and the past two years have shown just how much they’re willing to protect their own interests. The latest is Wirestock introducing a premium plan for the majority of their contributors. We’ve also seen a bunch of “exciting news” with the most shocking of the past two years being Shutterstock acquiring Pond5. I haven’t had a decent sale at Pond5 for many months despite uploading quality content, so perhaps this may have something to do with this, who knows!? Maybe I’m just being paranoid.
I won’t be surprised if more agencies try to squeeze more out of their contributors.
Reason 5: The future is Computer Generated Graphics (CGI)!
I saw the writing on the wall then and will double down now, however instead of just being CGI, it will be AI. AI has really boomed recently and is a real threat to microstockers’ livelihoods, but also present opportunities.
Query-based AI image generators Midjourney and DALLE-2 are currently the most popular but new “agencies” are emerging often. It’s probably only a matter of time until stock agencies don’t need us contributors anymore and will use the existing content to “create” new AI-generated content. Shutterstock already has an AI Contributor fund which pays contributors on such works that have been generated by AI and a license has been purchased by a client. More details here.
In fact, I’m seeing more and more bots during my daily street photography rounds. Maybe they’re AI-generated already!
Reason 6: You may get sued/fined/arrested!
Certainly true! As for being sued, I commented in one of my earning reports about Alamy sending me a “legal notice” about one of my images perhaps being part of a legal claim. No news on that but certainly doesn’t bode confidence for further uploads of street photos.
I did mention how drone regulations were confusing two years ago and this was a barrier to entry but to be honest, they’re not that confusing once you do your research. So far, after nearly 60 hours of actual flight-time, I’ve had no major issues despite “bending some rules”.
As for being arrested/fined, not really worried. What bothers me more these days is being harassed by members of the public and I’ve had a few nasty encounters lately, which I’ve written about. Nothing physical came out of this and police were not involved but it may be only a matter of time before something does happen that would leave me with a sour taste in my mouth about street photography.
Reason 7: Microstock continues to have a bad reputation in the wider industry!
This one I’m less worried about these days. Everybody is just trying to scrape by and most clients don’t care what you do on the side as long as you’re hustling in a legal way. Also there isn’t SO MUCH a difference between macrostock/midstock/microstock anymore, seems like everything is heading towards a subscription RF-based model.
At the end of the day, just like agencies are in it for their best interests, so am I and I’ll gravitate towards uploading my content to agencies that will value the work that I do, such as Arcangel.
Updated 2023 Reason 8: It won’t give you many skills in a dystopian world
With everything that is going on in the world now: civil unrest, epidemics, threat of nuclear war, climate change, hyperinflation, banking crisis, etc. being a microstock photographer won’t give you many survival skills in case the worst of the worst does happen (assuming you’ve survived). Perhaps your tripod can be used as a weapon to protect yourself / your family.
So go out and do learn some survival skills…just in case!
So ending on this positive note, hope you’ve enjoyed this article and speak soon!
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
Why do you keep doing it?
My focus is on book covers and aerial footage. The rest are the leftovers that will go to micros.
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That’s my current mindset. If I go somewhere I shoot and what does not lend itself to good fine art goes to micro stock. Or if I go to an event, I’ll photograph some and upload editorial.