How many for how much

This week, thanks to the honest reply of a photographer in the microstock agencies, I got my first real life look at some ‘average to better than average” returns, and I must say, the glimpse was quite “enlightening”.

Last month, this photographer made jsut shy of $300 from approx 300 images each on a handful of microagents. Playing the straight numbers game, that’s a dollar an image per month, or $12.00 per image per year. On the surface, that seems like a good return; in fact it’s better than the same traditional calculations from regular agencies a decade ago; before ‘traditional’ RF, and long before Micro RF. But this has always been the crux of the commoditization thought process vs. the fair value based on use sales models. And in fact, if we stop the calculations right there, then it’s easy to see the attraction for photographers to dive right into this market.

But that’s not what opened my eyes and caught my attention. What got me was that to make that $300.00, he had to have his images downloaded approx. 750 times. Now let’s consider each download as a new “Client” – and since clients are rarely likely to buy more than a couple images from any given photographer at a time; that’s almost 750 new Clients he made that month; and combined, those 750 clients paid him $300.00. But that’s still not what gets me….

He has now given 750 new clients the unlimited rights to exploit the commercial use of an image forever. This means that each one of these clients can now take their image and use it in:

  • 10 double page ads in MARTHAS MONTHLY PRISON JOURNAL or MY HOT ROD IS COOLER THAN YOUR HOT ROD Magazines, where the client happily pays $10,000.00+ per ad.
  • 1.5 Million catalogs that the client has paid $48,000 to produce.
  •  39 Billboards in downtown Tokyo for a year, for X-bazzillion Yen.
  • A full years of Tradeshow Booth Displays where in the year, the client stantds to make $12 Million dollars in sales and new contracts.   …. Yada yada yada year after year after year after year.

Now granted, Most clients may not exploit an image like that, but the point is, that THEY COULD. From my observations, it seems as if most photographers in the RF or MICRO agencies simply don’t understand or care about how a commercial client uses images to attract customers to their business so they can make more sales and earn more money. And these types of clients pay lots of money to lots of people to get that type of attention and sales. But they don’t give any of that money to the photographers because the photographers don’t ask for it, or dont care about getting it.

In our example here, our photographer – And I respect him for his choices and honesty and forthrightness – has given each of those 750 clients, all of the above rights and so much more, for about $0.39 per client. Next month, another 750 new clients will also get all of those same rights for $0.39. each.

For the record, I think there’s a place in the market for both RF and microstock. But I don’t think a microstock sale should include all those commercial rights. If a company can pay to print 60,000 magazines, or run a full page ad, or pay to be at an industry tradeshow, that they should be able to benefit from what our images do for them, for more than $0.39. If they can pay thousands of dollars to everyone else, why can they get away with not paying more to the photographers? Answer: Because photographer have let them. They know we’re mostly a bunch of suckers, and they’re happy as clams in a sea of brine shrimp to take full advantage of our choices.

There has to be a middle ground in the market. For my own self, I know there’s a number where I’d let a client have unlimited non-exclusive commercial use for 6 months, a year, 2 years etc. – kinda like renting a Blockbuster movie, and watching it as many times and places as you want, but your rental fee varies based on how long you want to keep the movie. But whatever that number is, it’s not going to be $1.00, $5.00, $10.00, $25.00, $50.00, $100.00, or even $500.00 per year. (Do I hear $501.00?) That type of use should be worth more. Simple. Wanna use an image of mine for your personal blog, a family invitation, or a small run of locally distributed brochures, fine. But if you can afford to spend a few thousand dollars or more on what your making or using our images for, then by golly – why shouldn’t we care enough about the value of our work to ask for some of that larger pie. To me, That seems like “Good Business” beyond the pure numbers game.

Years ago, when ‘traditional’ RF first appeared, I had an (ex-)friend that hopped on board early on in the RF game. I felt like I could have bashed my head against the wall tellling him “Ask for More” – but he just didn’t get it or didn’t care. It was about easy and numbers. But now, along with the traditional RF crowd, the newly named “crowdsourcing” onslaught is teaching everyone new lessons. What we all learn as a group, and as a profession has yet to be flushed out in full.

As more amateurs enter the “crowdsourced” micro market, they’re going to get the taste of money, and they’ll learn a bit of the ropes, and they’ll get hungry for more money, and that’s fine. The Micros can certainly be seen as a good entry ground to the business, especially for people whose shooting skills may not be up to commercial standards, or fully ‘professional’ quality. But as the market opening gold-rush mentality draws in more of those “professional shooters”  who start filling out their ranks, and as the quality of images goes up, the people that started selling in this market will start losing sales to those who make better images and are happy to get their $0.39 slice of pie.

The bottom line now is that we can ALL make lots MORE MONEY – if we just learn to ask for it. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I believe that one source for flushing out the middle ground will be the PLUS Coalition, and their efforts to bring a streamlined, easy, and renewable licensing format into the market place, one that even mom & pop businesspersons and teenage myspacers can understand and benefit from.

 So – I guess I should be asking: Who doesn’t want MORE MONEY?

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14 Comments on “How many for how much”

  1. Richard Says:

    Ironic isn’t it. American’s are stereotyped for being capitalistic and greedy. Yet many are choosing to be on the short end of the stick when it comes to photography.

    If someone can make $300 for 300 images by being scammed out of their photos, I wonder how much in potential income they’ve lost out on. If I had 750 clients, I’d be able to retire right now and live like Gary Fong with his 11 houses. Somehow I dont think Fong got there by doing royalty free wedding photography.

    I’m happy to say I don’t know anyone personally who sells out.

  2. seadragon Says:

    The question in my mind is, what percentage of those 750 new clients would have purchased a higher priced image if that’s all that was available to them? If the microstock image cost twice as much, would the number of buyers be halved? I wonder whether the ratio of image cost to number of buyers remains about the same? (I have no idea.)

    I think that I have also heard that some sales are of images that may only potentially be used (if it’s only $.50 or so to download it, why not). So to get sales, you just need to catch a buyer’s eye, even if your image won’t make it into the final project. (Again, I have no idea if this is true.)

    I am still trying to understand the microstock model works and I’m trying to understand how much sales differ from traditional stock. I wonder if the microstock model is truly different and it really is all about mass selling and so it does have to be done at rock bottom prices. I don’t know…

    Of course, I know that my questions above don’t really get at the ultimate point of your post, which is that microstock photography shouldn’t offer so much for so little. I have to agree with that, or … at least, I think I agree with that, given that I still don’t really understand how the microstock market works. At a gut level, it does seem that for such a small amount of pay, the use of the image should be pretty limited. But I guess that brings me back to my original question, which is whether higher priced images would bring in the same proportion of buyers as the lower prices images do.

    (By the way, for disclosure, I am someone who is just entering the market, just traded in my old camera for a dSLR a few days ago, and I am hoping to use microstock to “move up” eventually. I have to say that I have learned an enormous amount from microstock so far, but still have a long way to go, both in terms of photography and in understanding licensing, pricing, etc. I am also trying to learn about the market and evaluate whether microstock does actually hurt traditional stock photographers and/or even the microstock photographers themselves. I wonder if microstock is a good place for me or whether I could make more at a traditional agency one day – or a revised microstock model. So I appreciate dialogs like this!)

  3. Richard Says:

    Seadragon, I’m a bit confused. You said, “at least, I think I agree with that, given that I still don’t really understand how the microstock market works.” but at the same time you’re trying micro now so you can move up? Before making such a choice for your artwork, I sure hope you would understand how that market works.

    “Moving up” from micro – I would think any photography you dealt away through micro stock is forever lost to micro because it would be unethical to go back later and market the same images as rights-managed. You either take one path or the other. It ain’t that hard to get into a legit agency like Alamy anyway, so moving up isn’t even a valid concept. What happens several years later should you decide to get out of that into the regular market? You would have lost several years worth of images to micro, then basically would have to start over again. Again, that’s not moving up. That’s starting over.

  4. Peter T. Says:

    I have to agree with Richard.

    Seadragon, just remember this: It will be really hard to make any SUBSTANTIAL amount of money doing microstock. The only images I would EVER consider submitting to a microstock would be images I personally consider throwaways — images I would rather not have my name associated with.

    At the VERY LEAST, if you images are of any value, you should consider the Royalty Free (RF) market, but as Richard has already stated, it’s not too hard, if you are really serious about getting into stock photography, to get your photos into some non-microstock agencies like Alamy.

    Just go to their web site, , and you will see it’s not too difficult to submit your quality work to them (instead of to a microstock agency). You’ll be doing YOURSELF a BIG FAVOR, and probably will earn A LOT MORE MONEY in the process.

  5. QT Luong Says:

    It is actually easier to get images accepted by Alamy than by several micros, since Alamy doesn’t edit your submission other than for technical criteria that are pretty easy to meet. I think the average return would be about the same, but at least you preserve the potential for a big sale (those can go into the 5 figures), you have less images to prepare, and the satisfaction of knowing your image was not licensed for $1.

  6. seadragon Says:

    Thanks for the feedback everyone.

    One reason I talk about the microstocks as a place to start and learn and then move up is because I really was just starting out, and many of my images were as small as 4 MP. Could those even be sold through a traditional stock agency?

    I also still have the question about whether the mass amount of sales at the extremely low price of microstock actually adds up to more in the end. My personal experience is that it does not, but some people seem to think that they have found this to be true. Of course, since you can’t place the same images in a microstock portfolio that you place elsewhere, you can’t really run a true test.

    As for Gary Crabbe’s point that microstock is dangerous because it’s licensing models are too lenient, I am starting to get concerned about this too. Dreamstime has just begun offering a new license called “Sell the Rights”, which (as far as I can tell) means that you can sell your image for $300 and up and once you’ve sold it you can’t ever (!) sell it again. The person who bought it can’t resell it as their own photo, but they have exclusive rights to it forever. (I could be wrong on the details, but it’s something like that.) My first instinct is to stay away from that licensing option, but many contributors are delighted with this option because it means they could make several hundred in one fell swoop.

    So yes, I agree there is reason to be concerned about the microstock model. What I am still not sure of, however, is whether the *idea* of microstock is a workable one – that the volume of sales at much lower prices may be produce a greater profit in the end than fewer sales at higher prices.

    Anyway, in the past week I have started pulling together images to submit to Alamy now, and will be looking into other agencies as well.

    Richard (and others), I do know that once the images have sold as RF that they can’t be sold as RM. However, one question I have is whether it would be ethical to pull some of my images from the microstocks and sell them as RF at an agency such as Alamy? Right now, the images I intend to submit to Alamy are ones that I have been setting aside and have not ever submitted to the micros. But I was wondering whether it is ethical to pull some from the micros and move them to a traditional agency as long as the licensing does not conflict?

  7. enlightphoto Says:

    Seadragon: First, congrats on the recent marriage – if I read that right. That means we share our anniversary day. Second, great for you for having an open mind and looking up the ladder. You’re right, 4mp might be a bit small for the traditionals, but that’s also one reason I mention that micros can be a good place for people to learn the ropes before they’re submitting work thats of full commercial quality and value.

    Personally, I don’t see any problem pulling Micro RF and placing it on Alamy, provided it really is “Pulled” from the first site. Nothing on the books that I’ve read has said that you can’t raise your prices. Everyone that bought it early got a hell of a deal, but once on Alamy, I don’t see why future buyers can’t be made to pay the higher RF price.

    Best of luck, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment in such depth. It’s greatly appreciated, not just by me, but I’m sure by many in a position similar to yours.


  8. Richard Says:

    This is a photographer’s response to how many megapixels it takes to submit to stock agencies. Courtesy of’s Q&A forum:

    Carolina K. Smith

    Hi Susan,
    For any of the microstock agencies, you would NOT want to resize a photo, since ‘Upsizing’ is prohibited. Once they have your file, THEY do any upsizing they want. Upsizing can get you banned. As for cameras, most of the microstock agencies have a minimum size of 2MP or 3MP cameras…so you can see how this is very easy to accomplish with most any of today’s digital cameras.

    Having said that, it seems that prices have come down to the point that most microstock photographers seem to be using around 6MP cameras, and the size bar does seem to be going up as photographers upgrade their cameras. But technically, you can get by with smaller sizes. I would buy the best camera you can based on features and how it works for you (ergonomics). I shoot with the Nikon D2x (12MP camera), but am still selling photos from my Nikon CoolPix cameras.

    One thing that has recently surprised me about the microstock photobusiness is that if you can produce marketable work (and THEY do the marketing, that’s what is so great), it can produce income for you even ‘while you are sleeping.’. I have had to put photography on the back burner for a couple of months due to another pressing project. I happened to check my earnings 2 days ago, and found that even though I had not submitted any new photos for a month, I still made $500+ (i.e., for the last month). And this from only ~ 230 photos online.

    To date (June 2006) I have made $3,875.43 from microstock photography, starting with only 3 photos in April 2005. I can’t wait to get back into it.

    Check out my link to ShutterStock, a good one to start with:

    (her SS url)

  9. enlightphoto Says:


    It’d be interesting to see what her protfolio is like. Some might see her earnings as very impressive, at a few hundred a month. That seems to be about average for “good” performers.

    In comparsion, last month I made almost double her total, and in the last two months, I’ve had one agent sell nearly the same amount, dollarwise. But if we compare, even at $0.50 per download for her, she must have had over 7,000 new “clients” obtain unlimited use to her images forever, where as I, or my agents, licensed one time use rights for a couple dozen images.

    Some people are just so stuck on the “numbers game” that they must not see the forest thru the trees. I can only imagine how much she could have made if only a fraction of those 7,000 had bought her images as either Traditional Royalty Free or Rights Managed. I guess she and I will never know, because nobody bothered to ask those 7000 buyers to pony up more $$$ for all those unlimited use licenses.

  10. Thomas Hawk Says:

    Gary, you are so right about this. There are pros and then there are amateurs. The gatekeepers at the Getty/Corbis of the world keep so many out. While the microsites might be appropriate for the truly amateur person with no hope really ever of doing anything significant in photography, there is a whole class of talented pro/ams putting out some of the best freshest stuff out there today. I’d like to figure out a way to build an on ramp to a career in photography for these people. Appreciate your thoughts and welcome any input or advice you may have.

  11. JT Says:

    Hello Gary. I ran across this piece while I was doing some research about iStockphoto. You make some valid points but there is some room for disagreement.

    I think that you’re wrongly assuming that every image a photographer takes is worth more than what the microstock companies are paying. And I’m talking about a professional shooter with the skills and the background to take first rate stuff. I personally have sold images for several thousand dollars, and I’ve sold them for far less. I also have literally thousands of well exposed, well composed, perfectly saleable shots that will never see the light of day. This is mainly because they are very generic by nature, and frankly, the market is flooded with them. I’m sure you have many, too.

    This is where iStockphoto comes in (or a similar agency). Here is a place where I can upload, at my leisure, my shots that are sitting in slide trays or taking up space on my hard drive. Once again, these are not amateur shots (and they do go through an inspection process). They’re simply nice images that now have a chance to be published somewhere, even if it is for pocket change. For example, while vacationing in the Provence region of France I happened upon a field of blooming sunflowers. Like any photographer would, I pulled the car over and took a couple of dozen (digital) shots. I had great, late afternoon light, it was perfect. Back home, I wanted to find a market for them, naturally.

    AGPix, where I have some of my images, wasn’t interested. And they told me why. To paraphrase, “they’re wonderful, but we have thousands already”. Seasoned stock shooters hear this all the time.

    Of course we all strive for fresh, unique images. And I occasionally capture a few and they go to the big stock house. My sunflower shots??? they’re on iStockphoto regularly earning me some money.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s obviously and endless market for generic sunflower shots because they get download often, along with a lot of other folks’ sunflower shots. I have countless examples like this…fruit and vegetable shots from street markets, kids playing soccer, industrial shots, scenics, etc.

    Practically the only market available for these images is the microstocks. Why not take advantage of that? I look at them as another outlet for my work. Of course I’d like to get more money. But there’s no one out there willing to pay more. Not in today’s market. The internet has made photography a great equalizer. That’s great for some folks and bad for others. Me, I fall somewhere in the middle where I suspect many other shooters will land. It doesn’t mean I hold little value for my work, or my work is poor, etc. The work is there and up to standards. The market has changed.

    I have images with Alamy. They pay more, but not that much more. And they don’t sell as often as they do on iStockphoto. So, to be honest, the pay is about the same. I guess there’s more potential with Alamy, but potential doesn’t put money in your pocket. AGPix pays well, but not as well as they used to, and the competition is fierce.

    So there it is. I place images in several places. I find the best fit for them and that’s where they go.

    Like it or not, this is the way photography is going. Getty recently purchased iStockphoto, so that should tell you something. I know many other pros with accounts on iStockphoto. It’s just another outlet. All those shots that I thought would never see the light of day are now out there earning.

    So it’s not a totally bad thing.

    Take care & happy shooting.

  12. enlightphoto Says:


    An absolutely fantastic reply. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation. Just to address one point: I can stomach the idea that microstocks offer a valuable asset for the marketplace, and I could even see some of the same “deep file” images I have going onto a microsite. BUT (and that’s a BIG “But”) not under a model which offers unlimited commercial use for things like National Print ads. If it was limited to personal, blogs, low-end print uses (i.e. under 10K copies), local & regional web use, then I might be on board and willing to test float the concept. BUt when it comes to a company that runs a dozen national consumer print ads and pays $40,000 for each, or a company that wants to print 100K brochures – They Have The Money. And it’s under those circumstances where “Fair Value based on use” should come into consideration.

    It boils down to the fact that I’d rather have one sale on Alamy for $150.00, than give away the full, unlimited commercial use of my images to 150 new “clients” at a dollar each.

    I hope you will bookmark my site, and chime in every so often. I’d welcome your extremely well though out comments anytime, and as a valuable addition to the other commenters. (Even though I may not agree 100% with some of your comments, I’m glad to have a balance of opinions.)

  13. JT Says:

    Although it’s certainly possible for a microstock photo to be used in “National Print Ads” or similar projects promoted by large corporations with deep pockets, it’s not likely. Such corporations normally hire established ad agencies who then work with their own photographers. Plus, large, national ads are very often of a timely nature, featuring “freshly-shot” work…not stock. And, they usually have a short shelf life.

    However, microstock does show up regularly in magazines with a large regional or national circulation. These questions then must be asked and answered by the photographer: “Do I want to give up the potential for more income? Do I even have the opportunity and marketing skills to earn more income? Every photographer who is considering placing work on a microstock site needs to address these questions.

    My suggestion is to submit small image files, slightly above the minimum required, or not more than double the minimum. That will almost guarantee that your work will stay on websites, blogs, small publications, etc…

    There is some potential for more money on microstock sites. On iStockphoto, more established photographers can be bumped-up to iStockphoto Pro, where images are sold for higher prices. Remember that a dollar-per-image is the minimum. Many images are sold for more.

    Also, microstock sites usually don’t demand exclusivity. You can upload the same images to several sites to increase your potential earnings.

    So, as I said above, microstock sites are just another outlet. You can tailor your image files for specific markets. Make them work to YOUR advantage.

  14. Ethan Meleg Says:

    Gary, excellent article. Mass marketing of RF images terrifies me… it will certainly make it difficult for most stock photographers to make a living in the future. You’d have to sell alot of RF photos at .39c each to make a mortgage payment!

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