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I Tried, But I Just Can’t Get Microstock Numbers to Crunch.

March 9, 2010 Business 17 Comments

Written by: Charlie Borland

Microstock is here and it’s not going anywhere. It’s a business model that works for some clients and it works for some photographers. Does it work for outdoor and nature photographers? I am sure it does for some and not for others.

I like all photographers are looking at every potential revenue stream, however, I can’t make Microstock work for me.

There is plenty of talk that the industry is heading towards Microstock and photographers must accept lower prices. Okay, fine, show me why!

My last two stock sales of two images in the last week are more than the average Microstocker makes in a month. Traditional RM sales are still there, some clients still have money to spend.

But as outdoor and nature photographers looking to be profitable, examine where they fit into the market, the Microstock numbers don’t crunch.

Lee Torrens over at Microstock Diaries generously shares his sales figures in the Microstock market. Some of his shoots have been quite profitable others not so. He shares the fact that you have to keep costs down, way down, and he does that by piggybacking shooting with other activities.

Lee also mentions in this post that “Most hobbyist microstockers like myself don’t calculate out their costs for each shoot. Most of us don’t need to and many wouldn’t care if it turned out they were making a loss.”

That’s fine. He does not rely on stock sales for a living and many (not all) of the newcomers in the Microstock business are the same way, part timers. But outdoor and nature photographers have costs that can’t be avoided.

I will make an example of myself

Here is an example of my costs to drive 50 miles to Crater Lake for a day of shooting:

Gas: 150 miles roundtrip. 20 miles per gallon at $3.00 a gallon = $22.50 in gas costs.

My salary based on $60,000 per year or 2088 working hours = $28 an hour x an 8 hour shoot day = a payroll of $224.00 for that day.

I packed peanut butter and jelly plus a banana for lunch and will “eat” that expense.

Total shoot costs $250.00.

Post production time: 3 hours of post processing at the same hourly wage of $28 an hour = $84.00.

I just look at the cost of the shoot, $330.00, and divide that by an average download price of .30 cent per download, I need to have 1100 downloads from that day.

Is that possible? Sure it’s possible! Is it likely? I doubt it!

I also do other things like assignments, but that is not an excuse to intentionally subsidize stock shooting at a loss.

Am I missing something? Maybe, but the numbers just don’t crunch for me.

So what does this mean for the industry?

Some extremely talented photographers who created phenomenal work a decade ago aren’t shooting because the money is not there.

Microstock rock star Yuri Acurs, an incredibly talented lifestyle shooter, admits recently in this post that his income per image has been cut in half due to market conditions, alluding to the fact that he needs to shoot 11,000 images per year to maintain his level of profitability. That’s going to be some hard work!

What will clients think when the libraries they search for images are reduced to imagery that was created with no budget by ‘weekenders’?

Jim Pickerall adds in the same post: “It is not clear that agencies can eventually survive if the only people supplying them with images are amateurs with no desire to profit from their efforts.”

One thing I have always done is pay my models. In the early days I did what the Microstock advocates profess: keep costs down and since models are the most expensive cost generally, I asked friends and others to model.

This worked great, for awhile, until they said they had to be paid. It does not take long for generosity to evaporate when people feel you will make money and there is nothing in it for them.

So I shoot little stock with models these days and I charge as much as I can get for my current stock files with people.

Seriously, who are the winners here? In my opinion; the customer and the agency owners win but not the artist.

Look at Your Costs

What is most important is that outdoor and nature photographers take a look at what they shoot and the costs to shoot it. Unless photographers resort to shooting dandelions in their backyard with little or no costs, the photographer specializing in travel, national parks, or the photographer/climber specializing in global expeditions, the MS model won’t cover a fraction of costs.

Does the outdoor and nature photographer with exclusive coverage have to compete in those markets? It depends. There are plenty of photographers who in retirement hope to make some side money. But there are plenty of full timers who thought their stock was a retirement plan that is now crashing like the stock market.

Maybe this mean that outdoor and nature photographers will look at the stock agency as the place to earn a little extra income while their main focus is direct sales to publishers, agencies and designers, and maybe print sales. But if talented stock shooters shy away from the agency where does that leave them?

If my agents don’t take what I want to place as RM then I keep it for myself.

The whole issue for me indicates that stock will be a side gig for some time, but I am okay with whatever Rights Managed sales I can make, no matter how few.

In the end, you have to go place your work where you think you will do best.

I tried, I really did try to make the numbers crunch!

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Currently there are "17 comments" on this Article:

  1. Steve Gibson says:

    For Microstock:
    You should be spending no more than 30 minutes per photo on post processing – and more like 5mins would be ideal. then you factor in 5 mins to keyword and describe it (doing it in bulk you can manage that)

    You should also be taking at least a batch of 15 really usable shots (and aiming for 50+) on your day at crater lake (daytime at the lake, sunset at the lake, picnic at the lake, camping at the lake, walking by the lake, swimming at the lake or a no swimming sign at the lake etc…)

    Yes there is a battle here: your competition is people for who a day at the lake was an enjoyable experience which only cost them the price of the fuel to get there, worse still some of those will be amateur birdwatchers and the such who have all the equipment needed to get some ‘difficult’ wildlife shots.

  2. Lee Torrens says:

    Hey Charlie, you referenced my earnings which show download quantities and total earnings. Had you simply divided the former by the latter you would have seen the average return per download is actually much higher than 30 cents. So did you “really, really try”??

    Despite your flawed number crunching, your conclusion is actually correct. Successful microstock photographers get a MUCH higher rate of selects than RM photographers, usually live in places where an hourly rate a quarter of yours is more than comfortable, and the price of gas is just outrageous. Plus, I can’t imagine anyone being successful in microstock shooting nature and wildlife – it’s just too low in demand.

  3. Tyler Olson says:

    Well nobody said it was going to be easy, and despite the constant claims that everyone has a gold mine of images on their hard drive; that simply isn’t true.

    Focusing on the $0.30 X however many downloads is how a typical Macro shooter looks at microstock and just gives up. They see the handful of sales they are currently getting per month and can’t fathom anything in the 100′s of sales let alone 1000′s. With microstock, the number sales start to glaze over and really become unimportant. The only number that matters is $/picture/year or total return per image overall. If you can make $50/image you only need 7 good pictures from the day to make your shoot worthwhile – the rest is profit.

    Microstock agencies are also a different game than macro agencies, and it is also different than fine art photography, or studio portraits. Just because a photographer excels in field, doesn’t necessarily mean they are equipped for the other.

  4. I looked at your numbers and they are even mor dismal that you project. Somday you will have to replace your car, you are just charging for gas.

    Still trying to figure out how to keep my head above water and do photography….

  5. Greg Vaughn says:

    Steve: My hat is off to anyone who only needs 5 minutes per image for processing time. I can’t imagine that it’s possible to download the files, do a loose edit, backup all files to at least two other places/media, choose which images to fully process, convert the RAW files, make adjustments, check the entire image area at 100% for dust spots, add metadata, save and backup the master file, convert that to an 8-bit jpg to upload to the agency, and then do the uploading. In 5 minutes? wow.

  6. admin says:

    Hi Steve-

    Thanks for jumping in to comment. Your points are well taken and the suggestion on how to be profitable when at Crater Lake are good points….if the shoot is a lifestyle shoot. In fact, been there, done that. As one of the early shooters at Photodisc and later Direct Stock where I worked on more than 20 cd’s. We did everything as you suggest; production shooting and in volumes. Get a couple models, some close by locations, and crank out the volume. The themes are the same today: homes and gardens, asian business, senior living, Family life, business and technology, and more. I made a ton of money and am well aware of what takes to be profitable. Today the MS shooting approach is the same, volume, and you have to as I alluded to in the post, keep costs even more lower. Sure there is the weekend picnicer who may get a marketable shot, that is not a realistic assumption of what the pro bird photographer needs to run their business. Nature photographers, the ones who crank out the lovely coffee table books or illustrate a calendar with their name have to be out there shooting more than a day. Many travel for weeks at a time as I often do and that adds some substantial expense in some cases. So thats exactly my point: I cant make the numbers crunch!


    Thanks as well for jumping in and commenting. I dont see anywhere in my post referring or even alluding to your earnings or your royalties precentage. Rather I referenced to your points of having to keep costs way down and that as you mention, you piggyback your shoots to remain profitable. And I referenced your point as well that in your opinion most Micro shooters, including yourself, dont care if they are profitablke.

    In using myself as an example, this scenario could be a very realistic shoot day. Suggesting that my numbers are flawed is interesting. It’s simple: if you spend XX to create the product and the return is X you are not profitable. In MS you cannot spend X, you have to spend x in hopes you earn XX. You may make more than .30 downloads and I hope you do, but the .30 download is a fact, happens every day and i have seen the statements and its posted on Steves site.

    Thats where it does not work in nature photography. Landscape photographers dont go out and shoot machine gun style for volume because their market would never accept it. The African wildlife photographer or the global travel photographer would not be able to make it work. And you validated my point that nature photographers will have a hard time making the numbers crunch and it is exactly for the reasons you describe: demand is to low. Nature has historically been at the bottom of the list of in demand subjects through agencies. Wildlife even worse. Microstocks biggest success is in the lifestyle and business categories which happens to be where strongest sales have always been no matter the licensing model.

    But the nature photographer who creates images in that succeed cannot do it in a drive by, shooting out the window approach to reach that daily quota. The markets would not buy anything. Thats why I again stated that nature photographers are going to do better selling direct and that microstock numbers wont crunch for them.


    I am referencing only the cost to do a one day shoot and how many downloads required to break even. The new car comes from the salary I would like to make of $60k.

    Thanks you all for commenting.


  7. I can’t see the reasoning behind giving away your images for next to nothing. No matter how fast you process images and how cheap you eat and sleep on location it just doesn’t add up to a profit, at least for me. I just can’t create quality images with a Costco bulk discount mentality. Like many other nature landscape photographers I’m having a hard enough time paying bills upgrading equipment and getting out on location. And that’s with having regular clients that are willing to pay reasonable RM licensing fees. Should I accept pennies per image because there are a handful of photographers that somehow make Micro work for them? I don’t think so.

  8. Charlie:

    Good post. For myself, I just haven’t been able to see where “taking the red pill” (microstock) would lead me to a better place. I agree w/ Greg’s comments, when all told – 5 minutes per image is a bit of a stretch. Sure, I can do a quick raw conversion and color adjustments in 1-3 minutes. It’s all that other stuff that eats up the hours in a day.

    Cheers & keep up the good work.

    - Gary

  9. Mike Moats says:

    Hey Charlie, not sure if you have ever read the short story by Spencer Johnson, “who moved my cheese” basically the story gives an example about,

    Anticapate Change
    Monitor Change
    Adapt to change quickly

    Stock photography is not the only business that has to deal with the rapidly changing world due to the internet, everyone has to learn to adapt to the new changes or find another way to make a living. I see photographers peaching to others about pricing and how wrong it is to sell cheap, but nobody’s listening, so best to spend your energy finding new ways to make money at this rather then waste time fighting a losing battle. As you point out you still get some RM work so that will have to be a suppliment to what ever else you decide to do in the future with your images.

  10. admin says:

    Hey Mike-

    Thanks for jumping in. I could not agree with you more. Change is all around now like it was when I jumped into Royalty Free in the mid 90′s. Many were against that then like many are against Microstock now. But my points are not about accepting or denying change, rather can the nature, adventure, or travel photographer survive with the MS business model? I concluded, even with my “flawed” math, that I cannot be profitable with the MS model. I have studied it for some time and I learned alot by watching Lee’s Miscrostock Diaries. I no longer shoot lifestyle like I did 10-15 years ago because that is now the MS market and the way I like to work would not be profitable, so I now work in what I would say is my first love and side gig: travel, adventure, and landscape. I like many of us in the part of the profession travel and shoot for the love of it first, but if we rely on the income we cant do it long without a profitable model. I am curious as well about the future of MS as it is now with grumblings from the client side getting louder, that the stock on the web is really all looking the same. How many teens with a laptop on the lawn does the market need? At the same time how Delicate Arch shots does the market need? So what’s the next business model? Free? YOu cant get much cheaper so that is the obvious next step.

    Take Care

  11. Mike Moats says:

    Hey Charlie, when I started my business the royalty free was just getting rolling, and I always felt that as a nature photographer my images where not marketable enough to make money at a buck a pop. So I found other avenues. I do hear people say they do okay with RF but they are not nature photographers. So I think as a nature photographer you could use this to make a few extra dollars, but I can’t imagine any nature photographer ever making a living from RF.

  12. admin says:


    I think its pretty obvious now that Microstock is the RF model and it’s not going to change. But I still think that nature has a chance in traditional licensing models. Of the calendar publishers that I know of, which is certainly not all, few are using MS as their source of imagery. But this market is crowded with photographers like all else. RF became saturated where you could not do that well and my guess is so will MS.

  13. Steve Gibson says:

    Just to clarify my 5 minute post processing, I was a little vague, I didn’t include any time to download, backup or the often more time consuming (for me at least) putting stars on everything and ‘picking the best’ looking through the loupe at them all etc.

    5 minutes is what I would expect to spend on ‘processing’ each chosen image, that is:
    opening in ACR:
    adjusting contrast and colours (if there is a batch the colour can be done in bulk once / grey card etc),
    straighten horizon with the ruler tool if needed, and some simple lens correction,
    then open in photoshop:
    despot at 100% and perhaps remove a few simple to clone out distractions.

    There are some of photos where I might spend 10 minutes instead of 5, but few where I would spend more 20 or 30 mins on. Obviously if you want to strip in a new sky, remove a telegraph line, cut something out or add clipping paths that’s going to take longer but doing those might not increase microstock sales. There are almost 200 accounts on istockphoto with more than 3000 images (I’d imagine not all are individuals) I don’t think they spent 3 hours on post processing each photo, that would be 3 years worth of 8 hour days without a day off. All that said there are some microstock accounts on there that have huge sales just a small port of very specialised and time consuming to create images. Have a play with http://istockcharts.multimedia.de/

  14. gnohz says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I think it is relatively easy to get started on getting a decent earning from MS early in the days around 2004. But now, with everyone jumping on the boat hoping to get a slice of the pie, it is getting harder and more competitive with every passing day.

    I am also trying to figure out how the MS model will change in the near future. I am pretty sure it will not disappear altogether, neither will it get cheaper than what is available now. Probably the MS sites will branch off into more specific industries with specific niches such as travel, still life etc instead of including everything on the same platform. In that way, they will still be able to retain a larger portion on the pie, as well as keep the top contributors happy.

  15. basti says:

    You tried to win lost battle. MS was NEVER made for tight niche photos. Many ppl say you need niche – but that means MS niche, not highly specialised and expensively produced pictures! You need both quality and volume and since 2008 MS is getting highly competitive.

    Even Iofoto company, with Ron Chapple in front, did quit MS as non sustainable model. Ron was really volume and quality producing machine and for some period he had the largest portfolio on MS. It simply didn’t work. The production costs were too high. The same is with Yuri Arcurs – he did double (!!!) his huge portfolio in 2010 but he did get about the same money as in 2009 and his RPI is nose-diving despite better quality and huge uploads. If such guys producing real high-quality stock photos in demand have trouble with return, there is no way this will work for wildlife or serious landscape photography. These guys can produce huge numbers of pictures in studio, they can easily produce 100 pictures per one day – can you do 100 decent landscape shots per day? No way… They have low production costs (because of high volume of pictures produced per one session), they do outsource editing and keywording and still some of them have serious trouble to earn enough. Some outsourced Indian guy can easily keyword some studio isolated still life shots or “business” models etc. – but that guy is definitely not able to properly keyword landscapes with locations, determine fauna and flora etc. . you must do it yourself and that costs lot of time = money!

    There are just few buyers looking for some special location or special fauna/flora on micro = you will NOT get volume downloads necessary to succeed. So in fact it doesn’t really matter if you upload nice landscape from well known location or some remote and rare place – MS buyers do NOT care. They need nice images for their blogs, leaflets, websites and consumer magazines. Just look at most downloaded landscape and nature shots on eg Shutterstock and you’ll see what Im talking about. Btw. one of most searched words on micro is “flower”, however there is no need to upload some unique flowers – they just have to be nice. The only exception which works pretty well on MS are famous locations.

    MS is heading to dead-end with their current model. They can’t lower prices because there is already no room to do that and buyers do not care if they pay $.5 per picture or $.3 anyway. They also can’t cut commisions much more because eg. IStocks 85% is already too much. So the only solution is to higher price or offer free images and monetize on affills, PPC campaigns, banners…whatsoever. But there are already many MS veterans refferring nosediving returns or plateau despite significantly increasing both portfolios and quality. On the other hand MS editors reject more on more pictures with crappy reasons like “too many similar already online”, “low commercial value” and blahblah – simply agencies are saturated with some kind of pictures. They require more and more niche pictures but their low prices and high rejections rates makes this rarely profitable business. This cannot go forever and something must change. Im talking just MS in this example, not photography business as the whole. There I see future in smaller and tightly specialised agencies and peer-to-peer sales.

    So for wildlife and landscape photography I would go peer-to-peer, prints, direct sales, writing articles with photos etc. and keep reasonably higher prices. Who wants common crocus might go to MS agency – who wants some special mountain flora precisely determined must go elsewhere and pay significantly more. That’s the way…

  16. [...] the math is simple and I used the same approach Larry’s does in this post I wrote from last year: I Tried, But I Cant Get Microstock Numbers to Crunch, and was subsequently trashed by Microstock advocates suggesting I used faulty [...]

  17. Lee Mandrell says:

    This is a great article. I myself have been on the fence about this issue for 2 years at least. I work with a guy who constantly tells me, the images are sitting on a hard drive anyway, they might as well have a chance to make some money. My problem is the percentage of the payout. 25 to 30 cents a shot just doesn’t seem worth all the effort to me. Of course there are some people that upload as much as they can and seemingly spend a great deal of their free time doing nothing but this. I have recently read of one guy saying his yearly average is 17k. I personally believe that being too cheap is not a good thing for the market place, and I know what it takes to get a decent shot, so I’m not too keen on what feels like giving my work away. Every shot that we take costs us money to make and produce, no matter how you add it up. I don’t think there is anything particularly easy about the photography business, decisions included….

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