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Microstock Update – How the Market has Changed and What That Means For Digital Photography Students

A lot has changed since I first wrote about Microstock for Digital Photography Students here at DPS last year. I think it’s time for an update, a look at the changes which affect those getting started with microstock, and a few of the most important tips to help you be successful making money form your photos.

What’s Changed: Quality Requirements are Higher

Even in just one year, the quality requirements in microstock have risen. Quality affects both your acceptance rate and your sales rate. That means you have to submit higher quality photos to get them accepted, and they compete with more high quality photos for sales. That’s not to say that quality is the only factor as it’s not, but it is certainly one of the most important.

Quality also means many different things. It’s not just the technical quality of the photo (focus, exposure, etc) but also the composition, lighting style, and the professionalism of the subjects and setting. In the past few years it’s been possible to gather some friends in your living room with open curtains and all the lights turned on, and it would get accepted and sell. Today there are so many photos that are created with professional equipment, models and locations that it’s difficult to get started with simple, home-made photos. Can you see the difference?:

Microstock Update - How the Market has Changed and What That Means For Digital Photography Students
Microstock Update - How the Market has Changed and What That Means For Digital Photography Students

The reality is that the rising quality in microstock is making it more difficult to achieve success. This doesn’t mean it’s no longer possible for students and hobbyists to participate, but it does require some different strategies. You need to focus more on quality and less on quantity, particularly at the beginning. You also need to put more time and effort into analysis and planning your shoots. We’ll look at these topics in detail further down.

What’s Changed: More Agencies and More Services

In the past year more new microstock agencies have entered the market. Some have new and interesting twists on the standard microstock business model. Cutcaster, for example, offers photos priced with an algorithm which raises and lowers the price based on supply and demand. Vivozoom offer buyers a legal guarantee like high priced traditional stock photo agencies, and plan on never having much more than 1000 contributors.

Services and tools designed to make life easier for microstock photographers are also growing in number. PicNiche is a service which helps contributors find lucrative subjects to shoot based on keywords. There’s also a PicNiche toolbar which helps with uploading and monitoring earnings. iSyndica is a new company which distributes your photos to multiple agencies so you only have to upload once – a big bandwidth and time saver. LookStat provides contributors with analysis of their portfolio across multiple agencies and other analytics that help you sell more microstock.

What’s Changed: Less Sales but Same Money

Most microstock agencies have raised the prices over the past year which is great for contributing photographers. Some have lowered the commission rates too, but the net effect is positive. Most microstock photographers are finding that the number of times each photo sells is slightly lower than it was a year ago, and substantially lower than two years ago. However, thanks to higher prices, the total revenue is around the same level.

Most microstock photographers find that they need to continually upload lots of photos to increase their earnings. Uploading only a small number of photos each month will just maintain your earnings level, and not uploading anything will see your earnings drop. The number of photos required to increase earnings is different for each portfolio and is difficult to figure out with all the seasonal variations. Generally speaking, it will be a higher number for bigger portfolios.

And it’s not always the case. My own earnings have risen substantially this year despite not having uploaded any photos since January! I have no idea why. Everyone has different experiences.

Success Tip: Start Slow and Learn Fast

The abandonment rate of contributor account in microstock is very high. More than half of the people who register get frustrated and give up, losing all the time they’ve invested and the potential earnings they could have earned. There’s some easy things you can do to avoid this.

First, figure out if microstock is for you. You many not like shooting what sells and commercial styles, If you prefer shooting your own way or highly artistic styles, then think twice before starting with microstock. You may not be ready yet. Microstock is extremely difficult without a DSLR, and you really need to know how to use it well to avoid rejections and low sales. You also need a lot of time for the planning, producing, shooting, processing, uploading and submission of the photos. Then there’s the keywording & descriptions and managing model releases and property releases. In short, manage your expectations so you don’t get disappointed when you discover it’s actually hard work.

If you do decide to try selling your photos in the microstock market, start out slowly with a few of your best photos. Focus on the agencies that don’t require you to submit test photos first. Once you have some photos online with a few sales, use the feedback of what gets accepted and what sells to know which ones to use for the tests at the other agencies.

When building your portfolio, don’t get too excited and upload too fast. Look at what’s working well in your portfolio and repeat the successes. Find what the photos that don’t sell have in common and avoid repeating that. It’s true that you need a lot of photos to earn a lot of money in microstock, but it’s much easier to focus on increasing your quality before increasing your quantity.

Success Tip: Work Smart before Working Hard

Microstock is a very open market. You can see so much information about what’s selling, what’s not selling, who’s selling, where they’re selling it and why they’re selling it. Use this information to your advantage.

Analyze. Look at the data and find out what works. What subject, what style, what lighting, what composition, what keywords, what agencies, what models, what colors, what poses. Each insight you find with this analysis will save you lots of time creating photos which won’t sell. And keep in mind that reproducing the top selling photos is not a smart strategy. Unless your photos are substantially better, they won’t compete with high quality photos that already have a sales record behind them. Use your research not to imitate, but to find your own style and your own perspective.

Be business minded with your microstock activity. Look at what you’re spending on shoots and equipment, and record how much time you spend. If you find you’re spending more than you’re earning, or you’re not happy with how your profits relate to the time invested, you can adjust. You may change something to lower your costs, or look for ways to increase your revenue. You might even be happy to lose money if you’re learning or enjoying what you’re doing. But you’ll never know if you don’t do the math.

Lee Torrens blogs about microstock and his own experiences selling photos online at Microstock Diaries and via @microstock on Twitter. He reviews microstock agencies and services for microstock photographers, plus profiles the microstock superstars and analyzes what makes them so successful. If you’re interested in starting or improving your microstock photo career, head over and subscribe to Microstock Diaries.

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