The Good, The Bad, The Traditional, and The Microstock

Shannon FaganBob Davies of PicNiche recently asked me, “There is a constant (and occasionally furious) debate about photography becoming commoditized by microstock producers and agencies. As a representative of photographers’ interests, do you think microstock or traditional stock offers the best opportunity for the stock photo industry as a whole to move forward, and will be a good or bad thing for photographers in general?”

The quick answer is that we’ve received reports from several directions that indicate that during the end of 2008, on average, it did not matter which licensing model an image was placed into for stock, relative to it’s average earnings over time.  What did matter was the ability to participate efficiently, in volume, over a duration of a significant amount of time (2-3 years minimum).

It’s a fact that for the overall scope of the traditional sector of the business, there have been only declines in revenue, number of participants, and number of new images available.  It’s also a fact that for the microstock sector of the business, there have been only increases for the same measurable areas of growth.  For the future, as an investor of time and money to create new imagery, it would be advisable (like a diversified mutual fund) to attempt to place bets into all areas of image licensing: RM, RF, and Micro.

More specifically however, given natural limited time and resources, I would personally advise to focus stock shoots specifically on either one’s higher-end craft (RM) and/or lower-end volume (Micro).  I would consider pulling back on the middle area of image making (RF).  The reason for this is ironically not too dissimilar to the “pressure upon the middle-class” as seen in the US free market economy.

It appears that to be in the “middle” is a difficult financial position to be in; as marketing strategist Jason Moriber with Wise Elephant explains.  At this time in history for licensing content online, there appears to be more incentives for being either in the lower-end “long tail” of sales or the higher-end “luxury” end of sales.  Image customers have been migrating their buying patterns to these two polar opposites.  There has been a consolidation of purchasing for reasons of price on one end and unique exclusivity on the other.  Partially this has to do with the availability of great content at low micro prices, an overabundance of mediocre content at traditional royalty-free prices, and the continued need for exclusive content where price is less of an issue.

Bob with PicNiche asks, “Will this be a good or bad thing for photographers?”  It will undoubtedly be a bad thing if the photographer needs to make a full-time living from photographic stock image licensing.  The reason for this is summed up in the human element of producing images.  It is extremely rare that the same photographer can individually shoot to both the high-end and low-end of the market for general consumer image needs.  This is a biological creative fact of our existence as artistic based businesses.

Stock photography is an innovative business that must manufacture images in volume to make enough money to reinvest in making more images.  Generally 99.9% of content creators do well in either one end or the other of this image creation; i.e. they are either great craftsmen or great manufacturers.  It’s difficult to be both.  While this can ideally change over time, doing it simultaneously is near impossible in the volume needed to succeed financially from stock sales alone.  It is thus advisable to focus on one end of the market and to make that decision based on one’s personal skill set and interests.

BTW: More on this topic over at the ASMP Strictly Business Blog today too.