Monday, 3 May 2010

Professional Photographers - a new business strategy?

Microstock is an opportunity for professional photographers, not a threat. In this article, using the simplest form of business strategy analysis (SWOT), I'll help you see why.

What is Microstock?

Microstock is the business model of selling multiple copies of the same image at a price lower than traditional rights-managed images. That doesn't necessarily mean they're of a lower quality. It's a great response to a changing environment. I am one these 'evil' microstock contributors - my portfolios can be viewed at various sites such as iStock, Shutterstock and Dreamstime.

What is a 'SWOT' Analysis?

A SWOT analysis is a simple way to help you analysis the strengths and weaknesses of your business, as well as the external threats and opportunities within which you operate. Using a simple template (example), you can construct one for your own business, but below is some generic analysis about microstock. The aim is to turn the threat of microstock into an opportunity; and your weaknesses into additional strengths.

THREAT - lower 'barriers to entry'

It is essential, as any business should, that it reviews, understands and if necessary, adopts or adapts to the changing external environment. And the major change for photographers is with the advent of digital, the 'barriers to entry' have been demolished. This may be perceived as a threat to some of the traditional ways professional photographers may have made their living. Here are some examples of what's changed:

  • Professional level quality images can be taken using prosumer-grade cameras (and cameras are now better, e.g. image stabilisation, better low-light performance, etc.)
  • The cost of storage space has fallen
  • High-power post processing techniques are available in consumer software
  • The internet has meant the marketplace is now global in reach - marketing is cheaper and exclusive relationships are less relevant
  • Web 2.0 (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) promotes a virtual community of friends, fans and followers

All of this means, it's much, much easier for anyone to enter the photography industry. And this isn't going to change in a hurry. So it's time to get used to a marketplace with a greater supply of images.


Hang on a minute though, if we have a careful look at the 'doom and gloom' above, we might notice several opportunities which you might be able to exploit:

  • With better kit, can you now take higher-quality photographs than you used to?
  • The marketplace is now global, not just local/regional/national. And as the cost for others to publish reduces (e.g. via blogs), demand for cheap imagery will continue to sky-rocket
  • There are new photographers entering the market - what have you got which could help them? (see strengths below)
  • You can benefit from lower costs of storage and processing too
  • You could use Web 2.0 to find out a lot more about opportunities to sell your services?


Which strengths do you posses, which new entrants to your market do not posses? Well, quite a few I'd expect:
  • You're good, possibly exceptional, at photography. That comes with many years of experience and can't be recreated easily
  • You have a huge library of images - a ready-made marketing portfolio
  • You know other professional photographers
  • You have a load of valuable equipment such as lenses, probably out of financial reach of the new entrants
  • You may be well-known and have a great reputation in your particular field
  • Depending on your area of focus, you're probably a patient person and a perfectionist
Interesting, that's quite a few feathers in your cap, isn't it? But you probably think you have some weaknesses too?


That's for you to think about. But I bet you can get around them!

What now?

You have four choices - denial, adopt, adapt, or a combination of adopt and adapt.

1.) Denial

Some are hoping that the new industry will just go away, or it's a minor, irrelevant, irritant. And some choose to cast microstock in a poor light (example). History would suggest this tactic will not last forever (e.g. the music industry denying digital downloads will be successful; .the US car industry not seeing a threat from the Japanese).

2.) Adopt

Why not join microstock? Rather than replace your existing work, perhaps it can compliment it? And if you think the quality of microstock is so poor, check out iStock's Vetta Collection for some reassurance. I'd also recommend Shutterstock as a site to consider signing-up to - with a royalty-free contract, you can sign-up to as many sites as you wish (although going exclusive may pay higher commissions).

3.) Adapt

Can you adapt the way you make money from photography to exploit the changing industry dynamic? Of course you can - here are some examples:
  • Hire my equipment out to local microstock photographers
  • Teach local microstock photographers how to be better
  • Use the Web 2.0 technologies to market my existing business and find new opportunities
  • Upgrade to the latest equipment allowing better use of low-light and new techniques in post-processing (e.g. HDR)
4.) Adopt and adapt

See 2 and 3 above.


We're living in very exciting times - never before has the photography industry been under such seismic shifts in demand and supply. That isn't a threat - it's an opportunity.

What do you think?