A Poke in the iStock.

I was hoping to ignore the insane ramblings of the micro-payment stock photo community for a while, but then this happened:

It’s finally dawned on someone at iStockphoto that although it should be easy enough to make a profit from selling something you’re given for free, really it’s a lot harder than it looks (poor diddums). But for anyone who missed it, here is the signed confession from the boss of iStockphoto, Kelly Thompson:

“Since roughly 2005 we’ve been aware of a basic problem with how our business works. As the company grows, the overall percentage we pay out to contributing artists increases. In the most basic terms that means that iStock becomes less profitable with increased success. As a business model, it’s simply unsustainable: businesses should get more profitable as they grow. This is a long-term problem that needs to be addressed.”

fireworks night bonfire

Flaming stock images; they're everywhere!

The answer? To kick contributors in the teeth by lowering percentage payouts, which will work out as little as 11p per image sold, and to move the goal posts to make it harder for contributors to sell enough photos to graduate to the higher percentage payouts. Nice!

What Thompson is saying is that microstock simply isn’t viable as a model for selling photography. Ignore the reference he makes to percentages, they don’t change just because the business grows. It’s just that the costs of running such a scheme are too high – storage, admin, quality checking, maintenance. Rather as the model for supplying images to micro-payment stock sites isn’t viable – equipment, software, storage, maintenance…

I won’t go over the entire mess here, even though it would be exquisite fun. Instead I’ll point you to Jeremy Nicholl’s excellent post on the original announcement, and the iStockphoto contributor forum where you can indulge yourself in hundreds of pages of iHate from its own contributors here, here and here.

What I do wonder though, is now that the True Followers of the iStock dream are waking up from their torpor, what’s next? Many on the forum talk of leaving iStockphoto, and many may leave stock photography altogether as they realise the difficulty of making it pay and the costs involved in participating. Could a mass exodus to other sites or out of the industry affect prices for buyers? Could it cause problems with licensing across different agencies if contributors switch their collections? My feeling is most will sit tight and wait for the next round of abuse as the new model fails to raise enough profit for iStock’s owners.

And will the lower-end designers start to desert iStockphoto and other exploitative sites if they see fellow creatives being hurt? I suspect not, because if micro-stock sites get too expensive they’ll switch to other methods – a bit of Grand Theft Flickr, or Google Images larceny. The problem is, too many people have been told that photography is cheap, and despite all the evidence to the contrary they’ll continue to expect what they’ve grown accustomed to.

What might happen (and is already starting to happen in my professional experience) is that the better designers and their clients will eschew microstock, or at least treat it more as a last resort. After all, if its reputation as exploitative and unsustainable is really starting to gain traction, would you want your business to be associated with that?

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6 comments

  • Ken of London September 13, 2010   Reply →

    The sale of stock photos for so little was never going to do anything but end in tears.

    In the wedding arena the new kid on the block will come out full of enthusiasm and low prices, it is my experience that around the 2 to 2+1/2 year mark thats when the trouble begins, they have to replace gear, they have a claim brought against them by a dissatisfied client, on and on it goes. These brash fresh young things just seem to disappear.

    The ones who stay the distance are the ones who have a proper set up businesswise, re-invest their profits into the business to help sustain and grow it etc etc.

    Using the above example – why would it be any different with microstock et el, why would cheap, prolific, average quality compositions think they can sustain business longevity against a more considered superior quality composition that is created using the client brief thus is more unique.

    They do say a sucker is born every minute and never give a sucker an even break. I say if you sign up to microstock as a photographer or as a buyer I will try not to smirk down at you all as I walk past the inevitable train wreck.

    • Glass Eye September 13, 2010   Reply →

      The problem is, Ken, that by the time these people leave the industry, they’ve already contributed to a little more damage. And it isn’t just young ones, there are many more mature people who take redundancy or early retirement and spend all their pay-off on camera gear, only to find it doesn’t work out.

      I’m afraid it’s difficult to have sympathy for micro-payment stock photographers. Many seem to enjoy telling professionals about how they’ve shaken up “our” industry and how they too can make a living from it (this attitude fueled, I suspect, by the rhetoric of the founders of the likes of iStock) and so now they’re finding out that the internet does nothing to change the basic business model of photography, and that the internet which gave them their “break” is also swallowing them up and spitting them back out. Poorer for it, and left with a bitter taste. My heart bleeds for them (not).

  • Ian Thraves September 14, 2010   Reply →

    As a former photo editor and photographer of a primary UK stock agency (15 years ago) and now photographer, I have seen the rapid decrease of stock revenue since the advent of digital cameras, the internet and the general throw away society in which we currently live. It’s not just stock, I have seen many areas of pro photography plummet since the arrival of digital and it is down to the idea that’s floating the industry that images are fast, easy and cheap to create and therefore anyone can do it. Unfortunately, it seems like everyone is (at least in some areas) and therefore the standard has dropped and fees with it. Sadly, I see fantastic images on Microstock sites, so professionals have obviously seen their sales drop with traditional sites and in panic followed amateurs down the Micro stock route. RM images had value, RF then lowered control over image use and abuse – Micro now makes a mockery of all photography! As for the future, some say it will go a full circle and pro’s will be fine in the end as the market realises they are better off paying more for an expert who produces quality work. Everybody also insisted digital wouldn’t replace film! Things change and I think they probably have for good. I can’t see photography ever regaining the value it once had in the days of film based cameras.

    • Glass Eye September 14, 2010   Reply →

      Hi Ian, and thanks for your incisive comments. You clearly do speak from more than a few minutes’ experience.

      I think you’re right that things have changed for good (but not in the sense of better, should anyone misunderstand your use of the word “good”), and I don’t think photography will ever regain its pre-digital value. Having said that, I recall in the days of film that clients would haggle hard and often expect rates which were unsustainable, so digital and the internet have merely accelerated the decline which had already begun.

      As a professional, I can’t understand any professional following amateurs down the microstock route, because a simple calculation shows it is a doomed business model model, and fabulous only to clients who don’t need images to promote their businesses. I declare here that I do submit some very limited stock to Alamy, but even then I regularly question the value of that.

      Full circle would be nice, but I’d settle for some sort of middle way where I capture and serve the discerning client while those “photographers” with less of an eye for providing quality, service and creativity can have the fun of selling photos for 11p each and losing all control of their copyright.

  • Rohn Engh September 21, 2010   Reply →

    There are several reasons why microstock has gained the popularity it has. And several factors have converged at the time of microstock’s introduction to catapult it to the position it’s gained:
    The internet, digital cameras, email, databases, search engines, metadata, cheap prices resulting in large demand and large supply.
    This whole sudden phenomenon has fit right into the visual society we’ve become. A century ago our magazines, newspapers, and textbooks, were lacking in quality illustration. Microstock has come along and filled the gap we didn’t know existed.
    Is this good or bad? Yes, this is good or bad. No one has invented a substitute for images whether they are Clip Art or Fine Art.
    Microstock is a viable way of filling the need for illustration in our communications world. It’ll probably be called something else a generation from today. But it will still be around and being produced by anyone with a good eye for design and composition.
    What we call editorial stock photography or photojournalism will still be around too, but more as a profession rather than a hobby. –RE photosource.com

    • Glass Eye September 26, 2010   Reply →

      Hi Rohn,

      Yes of course micro-payment stock photography has become immensely popular with buyers because of its easy access and price. I also agree it will never go away now, but it needs to change. You say it’s viable, but actually, in it’s present form it isn’t. Nobody is really making a long-term career out of it and the microstock agencies are struggling to make profits from it.

      The problem with microstock is that the fundamental costs of producing quality photography haven’t changed, yet there is a general perception that it has. What many microstock “photographers” are starting to realise is that selling their images for a few pence each is never going to convert into a viable business (apart from a handful of notable exceptions, and even they are seeing their incomes tumble). This is because if you flood your own market, you devalue your own stock. Photographers seeing their own images sell less and FOR less are then tempted to flood their own market even more and, well you get the picture.

      I’m sure you don’t mean to, but you make it sound a little as if we went from a situation 100 years ago with no images for publications to use to one where microstock saved The World with no stages in between. You also suggest that up to now photojournalism has been a hobby rather than a profession, where I would say it’s been a fine profession for the best part of 100 years, but is in dire danger of being consigned to the realms of hobby and a pursuit for gentlemen photographers with independent means. For the sake of democracy I hope not, but it’s a real danger.

      Thank you for all your thoughts though, and thank you for reading my blog.

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