You are currently browsing the Mikhail Lavrenov blog posts tagged: business

Microstock – hobby or business?

Many microstock photographers treat their photography as a hobby not as a business. That is very natural when you make just a little supplement out of it rather than a full-time income. Some photographers who have grown their microstock activity to a full time job still a kind of a hobby attitude. That is also natural taking into account the background and the speed of the growth from a pure hobby to a job.

Recent changes in microstock, particularly commission cut at istock and fotolia caused a lot of negative reaction from the photographers. Of course it’s extremely unpleasant when the agencies reduce the share paid to photographers. Although legal it is perceived by many as a very unfair step.

How to react besides expressing your thoughts in various forums is the question for many. Is it worth to boycott such agencies, is it worth to unite the forces? Are there any other options?

I tried to summarize my thoughts on these 3 questions:

Boycott it or not?

I think it mainly depends on whether you have significant revenue from these agencies or neglectful. If it’s neglectful you can easily stop working with the agency. You should realize that you would only please yourself doing that but the agency wouldn’t notice your leave.

If your revenue is significant I would take a step away and try to look at it as one of your income streams, emotions aside. If the stream is significant, and if it will remain significant after the commission cut I would rather keep it. However I would explore other possibilities to extend other streams and/or add more streams.

Can photographers influence the behavior of the agencies? There are suggestions to unite forces which is supposed to increase the negotiation power. The fact is that about 80% of the agencies’ income is generated by approximately 20% of top photographers. That means that even uniting 80% of average contributors that isn’t too much value for the agencies. It would only make sense if the very top photographers would unite to negotiate the policy of the agencies. If you aren’t one of them any attempt to unite with your peers is pretty much useless.

One other part of the picture is ever increasing competition. The growth of supply is higher than the growth of demand. I suppose that will cause further saturation of microstock contributor with the middle layer being affected the most. I mean top contributors making a full time income for several people in their “picture production factories” will certainly be able to survive. They will have to optimize costs but I have no doubts they will stay successful. The low layer of hobbyist contributors will not be affected much. The main difference will be increased threshold for the acceptance of their pictures as the agencies can afford to become more selective. Other than that the hobbyist making a hundred or a couple per month will just continue at similar level… I suppose еhe most affected by competition will be the middle layer, i.e. the people just making the living from microstock but being around the threshold of their survival level. If they will not be able to grow significantly they will probably be pushed towards the low tier.

It’s again about the same story about 20% of people making 80% of income. Most of increasing competition are eating from the 20% piece of the pie. Even the pie is growing too, number of eaters is growing faster. If you manage to get to the top tier you’ll compete for a portion of 80% piece of the pie – the piece is much larger and the number of competitors is much lower.

Is it still possible to get to the top tier, or did it become a close club? It’s very difficult but is certainly possible. Daniel Laflor is one of the recent examples, Cathy Yeulet is one before; and there are some other too.

Jonathan Ross in stock photography

Jonathan Ross is one of the most successful traditional stock photographers in the United States. His photography business is called Anderson Ross. Jonathan works primarily in traditional RF and RM areas but tries new directions too like microstock or video. In microstock Jonathan operates under nickname avava.

I knew Jonathan since his appearance in internet forum couple years ago. I met Jonathan in person for the first time at CEPIC conference in Dublin a few months ago where he was one of the presenters. And finally I met Jonathan a few days ago at microstock conference STOCKinRUSSIA in Moscow (Russia). Jonathan was invited as one of the key speakers, and also gave a masterclass on stock photography. You can see a short interview with Jonathan that I took during the break:

I’ve written down a few bullet points about what I heard from Jonathan (combined from Dublin and from Moscow):

  • Be ready for change. Traditional stock photography market changed a lot last years but it still alive and isn’t dying; microstock market keeps changing too. Be ready and look for opportunities.
  • Jonathan regularly puts aside a part of his budget to try new things. He made successfull micrstock experiment back in 2008; the next test was video, and so on.
  • Plan your shoot. As Jonathan works on location, the team visits the location in advance, take some snapshots to visualize and to remember the place. Then the shoot list is written with every future picture described in 1-2 lines. The list for 5-hour-long shoot typically takes 10-12 pages.
  • Be prepared with your plan, do follow the plan, but be open to variations and new ideas during the shoot. And don’t be afraid to skip some pictures if you see something doesn’t work – don’t spend too much time trying to make adjustment for one picture, just move on to the next one.
  • It takes time to rearrange the light setup, so when you are doing the shoot, maximize the use of each setting before you move to the next one.
  • You will find yourself repeating your own pictures again and again – with new models, in new locations yet similar to what you’ve done before. This is perfectly fine for several reasons.
    • Nothing is truly new in photography, so you can’t be “original” with every new photo;
    • Buyers need variety. Same buyer needs same subject again and again, but they want a new picture;
    • Styles change – cloths, cars, mobile phones, etc. So same photo taken again in a couple of years will be quite different;
  • Microstock experiment Jonathan made was very successful. Jonathan produced around 3500 photos (meaning final processed portfolio); production cost was around $16.50 per photo (which is very high in microstock’s standards). What Jonathan said in microstockgroup forum: “I have returned over $120,000 in two year since my upload of the 3500 with another 2000 to upload at Istock I hope that helps give a base of what my returns are. This is also slightly before 2 years so I can’t say till we get to December what my 2 year sales are, I can only share what I have made to this time.”

Reference links: