I've been wanting to post a blog about microstock agencies for awhile. I have some very strong opinions about microstock, and well, I guess I'll just feel a little better if I know I've put them out on the web for others to read. Maybe some photographer will come across this post and it will help them keep their integrity when deciding whether or not to join up with iStockphoto or Shutterstock. Then again, maybe I'll just piss off a lot of people and sound like a ranting idiot. Either way, I think I'll sleep better tonight.
I am ashamed to admit that I was with iStockphoto and Shutterstock for several months. I joined because I was uneducated on the photography market and what pictures are really worth. I would justify it with things like "there's no way to compete with microstock" and "that's where the industry is headed" and "the number of downloads makes up for the horribly low commissions." I used to liken it to iTunes. "iTunes sells songs for $0.99. I'm sure a lot of musicians aren't happy with that, but that's where the industry is headed. Same thing for stock photography. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," I'd say. I knew deep down that iTunes was selling songs for $0.99, but if you purchased a 12-song CD at Best Buy for $14.99, you were only paying $1.25 per song. So given the lack of CD production costs, selling a song on iTunes is right about on par with what the industry has always been collecting. Not to mention the fact that the songs on iTunes come with very limited rights!
Meanwhile, stock photos that used to sell with limited rights to a buyer for hundreds to thousands of dollars were now selling with unlimited rights for $1.00. I remember getting a raise at Shutterstock from $0.25 commission per download to $0.33! I couldn't believe the enthusiasm in the forums! They were excited about $.08 more per image! I find more than that in my couch cushions.
Shutterstock also offered extended license options to buyers. This is where a buyer can use more of their "credits" (or however the hell their system works) to buy an image that offered them more usage - billboards, multiple ads, anything. Earned me somewhere in the neighborhood of $20. Think about this: That would be like a movie production company purchasing a CD for $20 from Virgin Records and using a song on it, with no further royalties, in a multi-million dollar grossing movie. A musician and a record company wouldn't allow that in a million years - why are we?
I think photographers are doing this for a couple reasons.
The first is that a lot of the people signed on with these microstcok agencies aren't, in fact, photographers. Sure, they have a shiny new DSLR and they took a pretty good picture of their kid for which they will sign the model release, but they don't give a shit about the photographic community, the industry or what's fair. They make their living from a 9-5 and do this microstock stuff on the weekends. They have no reason to demand a fair compensation for their pictures - they're happy to get anything from their snapshots that they would have taken anyway. Their day job (or parents) pay their bills.
The second reason is because so many amateurs are suddenly "pros," the real pros feel like they have to sacrifice their integrity and what they know is fair compensation so they can compete with them. Rights managed agencies have been dropping like flies, so they feel they need to protect themselves by joining up with the microstock agencies. But if no self-respecting pro ever supported microstock, then the micrstock agencies would be flooded with so much crap and nothing of any real value, they'd all go under. People want quality - if the microstock agencies didn't have any quality to offer, they'd burn like the horrible garbage heaps they are.
There is some amazing work on these microstock agencies sprinkled in amongst all the crap. Here's an example search for "Half Dome". Both images are from Shutterstock. Clearly one is a much higher quality image. Why are they both getting the same shitty $0.33 commission?! If you have better work, you should get paid more!
And another example for "sunset."
And another example for "Golden Gate Bridge."
Now I'm not one to blow my own whistle and go around touting my pictures as the best thing since sliced bread. I don't claim to be a veteran or to know the ins and outs of this business. I've been taking pictures for 7 years, but hell, I'm only 21 and I've only been doing this full-time for a year now. I do, however, have the power of observation. I can see when a business model is ruining an industry. I can see when a picture is crap. I can see when something is unfair. And I can see when photographers worldwide are bent over with their pants down around their ankles.
YOU DESERVE MORE THAN $0.33 FOR YOU IMAGES. LET THE AMATUERS COLLECT THE $25 WEEKLY PAYCHECKS.