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?


  1. Richard, your target earnings are 200 pounds.... for the year.

    What are your earnings per hour of work put in?

    I am sorry, but I do not understand how anyone can claim that to be a business strategy.

    Of your 'opportunities', I have to say "Hire my equipment out to local microstock photographers" is my personal favorite... although "Upgrade to the latest equipment" is a close second. With you 'projected earnings' and the drop in equipment costs, you should be able to do that in say.... 2017?

  2. oh, while I was writing that last comment, I just sold an image for use for a few seconds in a documentary on National Geographic Channel.

    And I earned more from that one-off use, of that one image, than your 'projected earnings' for the entire year.

    As they say, why leave money on the table?

  3. Chris, thanks for taking the time to comment and congratulations on the recent sale.

    I admire what you've done with Photographers Direct, as I think it's a great example of adapting to the new environment of technology - matching buyers and sellers, with low-cost distribution.

    And although I do have a strategy, you're right to highlight that at its current scale, it is never going to be very sucessful. The vast majority of my sales have been based on my portfolio uploaded last year, so I'm hoping, without having to do any further marketing, my 'cost of sale' will be minimal.

  4. Hi Richard

    I have read Yuri Arcurs' analysis of his microstock sales recently (Yuri Arcurs is generally touted as 'the most successful' microstock photographer in the world), and from what I remember, he says microstock images have a 'shelf life' of about a year before sales drop off dramatically. With subscription microstock it is even faster.

    To continue making money from microstock you have to keep running, keep making images to replace the ones that are no longer earning. You can't just stick up a bunch of images and expect to be set for life.

    A tool was launched a few months back which shows the average sales of all istock photographers. The front page looks impressive as it shows earnings from photographers like Yuri Arcurs. But if you go to the mid pages to see what the average earnings are, it is around 200 dollars per photographer.

    That is total earnings, in all time. Not just for one year.

    And istock is the most sucessful microstock site out there.

    Interestingly 2 years ago Yuri Arcurs got 80% of his earnings from microstock, 20% from RM. Last year it was 50/50. Now, why would Yuri be shifting away from microstock and concentrating on RM?

  5. I'm not sure why anyone would now start in micro stock. Even on your numbers at $168 so far this year. That is impossible to ever pay for camera, lenses, software, computer, internet and especially time. For new entrants it must be a hobby cause it surely can't be a business. There are still good high priced stock agencies that still sell well. $168 is really not to difficult to make on a single sale at a larger established company. High quality cameras and now ridiculously low prices has brought true hobby shooters out so they can brag about selling a few hundred photos and making .30 cents each. After a short while a majority of new stock shoots give up due to low sales, no kidding. As long as "pros" continue to submit to the micro sites everyones income will continue to drop. It still makes me laugh when stock shooters brag about making a couple thousand dollars a year, where's the profit? Ouch. (I'm not talking about you, just a general observation.)

  6. Mr/Mrs Anonymous - thanks for taking the time to respond and I agree, starting microstock from scratch with no equipment would be a very tough gamble.

    For those that still enjoy an income from photography outside micrstock, but also have a portfolio of images not doing anything on a hard drive, it may make more sense? I agree though that time is still an issue (my latest post today ( is looking for inspiration on how I can minimise this myself)

    More than happy to hear your suggestions of non-microstock agencies that still offer good returns too!