What is Microstock? Can I earn money with it?

What is Microstock? Can I earn money with it?

Every photographer sooner or later stumbles upon stock agencies. It makes sense, to have an agent selling your photos and doing all the marketing for you, doesn’t it? Let’s have a closer look at this business model. We usually differentiate between Microstock and Macrostock and both have some unique characteristics. In this article, we want to have a closer look at Microstock as a business model, particularly for travel photographers.

Table of Content

What is Microstock?

First of all, what is Microstock? Traditionally, Photo Agencies selected the photographers they worked with. They had catalogs of stock photos from which clients could choose. Mostly, agencies had networks of partners in most countries around the globe – something particularly interesting for us travel photographers since our works might be interesting for clients worldwide. In the digital era along with the internet, things changed.

First of all, the demand for photographs skyrocketed. With all Social Media, you have more graphic content used in businesses than ever before. And at the same time, photography became more and more accessible to many people. Microstock agencies saw a gap in the market and try to provide clients with large volumes of photographs for way cheaper prices than traditional photo agencies do.

The downside for the clients is, that the photos are often very frequently used and therefore can hardly be used for brand recognition purposes as competitors might use the very same photo, especially in the travel industry with infinite competitors. However, with a huge demand for image content, many smaller companies prefer this way of purchasing image rights nowadays to keep the costs low.

How much can you earn with Microstock?

Ok, I can’t speak from my own experience. As you’ll read below, I never got into working with a Microstock agency – though I was close at some point!
When I talk now with other Travel photographers who at some point signed up with such agency, what I hear is usually ridiculous. Mostly, they’re not even talking about Euros or Dollars, but Cents!

Well, that might come at a surprise if you have a look at the pricings of Microstock agencies. On iStock you can buy credits for as little as 5,83€. When I looked for photos of Berlin, I found some offered for 1 and some for 3 credits. So a company pays 6-18€ and can use the photo forever.

For the photo on sale for 1 credit, you can purchase an extended license for “Unlimited Reproduction / Print Runs” for an additional 18 credits. That’s 111€ in total, and you can sell up to 100.000 postcards or 10.000 posters with the photo.

If that sounds good to you so far, stay with me. This money doesn’t go into the photographer’s pocket right away. Of course, the agency has to get its “fair” share. 70/30 with the bigger side for the photographer? Or maybe 50/50 you might think, as it’s the photo that provides the value? Well, so did I before I earned my first cent with photography. No, the agency charges you – not kidding – 85% of what the user pays for the photo.

But wait, it gets even worse. iStock doesn’t only offer purchase via credits. Companies can buy a subscription to get access to multiple photos. In that case, it’s hard to identify how much a single photo costs. iStock guarantees you a minimum value for your photo. And it is 0,10€.

Of which you get 15%.

Guaranteed minimum of 0,015€ per licensing! Time to cool down the champagne!?

And hence a situation that many photographers got to know. You get an e-mail, “Somebody just bought your image”! Celebration time, cool down the champagne. Your first money ever earned with photography. This is how you start, you’ll be a star! And the incredible disappointment once you open that e-mail and see how many cents you’ve earned.

I know a lot of people who (used to) sell with Microstock agencies, and almost none of them earns more than 100-200€ on a monthly basis. Most earn far less with it.

I don’t go into the other Microstock agencies now, but they’re similar. If you ever consider one of them, have a careful look at

  1. their prices for credits/subscriptions
  2. credit need per photo,
  3. commission charges and
  4. minimum fees in case of subscriptions.

Work with Microstock agencies if…

  • you see yourself as a photo producer rather than an artist and are planning on doing generic corporate photography with tons of volume all day long. It can definitely work for niches.
  • you support slavery and would like to experience the bad side of the stick

Stay away from Microstock agencies if…

  • you want to make a living with high-quality photography
  • you spend more than 30 seconds to post-process your images
  • you want to keep control over your Copyrights
  • you do Travel, Cityscape or Landscape Photography

My personal experience and take on Microstock Agencies

I mentioned before, I was close getting into it. At some point I grew frustrated, seeing friends selling their images on poster portals and microstock agencies, earning money with their photography while I didn’t. Somehow I had this idea in my mind that my photos must be worth more. I put on average 40min of post-processing into each of them. How could I ever sell it for a price of 5€? The math doesn’t add up for me. 

Yet I was close, and I owe it to my wife who told me back then: Stop it. Forget about this. This is not the way for you.

And to this day, whenever someone asks me I have to say: This decision, to stay out of the microstock market, was the best decision I’ve ever done in my photographic career. It turns out the market is broken. It wasn’t that companies didn’t buy my photos from me directly because they didn’t like them. It was because they stole them instead. 

For every license sold, there are probably a hundred photos stolen in the world. And this is why staying out of Microstock was my best decision: The agencies don’t give a damn about you as the photographer.

You want to know who’s legally using your photo and who purchased your license? They won’t tell you. And because of that, you have a very hard time telling which of your photos copies on the internet are used legally or illegally. I know so many photographers who lost 20.000€ and much more in value, just because they cannot anymore go after copyright infringements.

Or other friends who see now their photo being used for postcards all over Berlin sold at 1€ each while they got maybe 10€ for it in total.

If you read this far and you want to make a living from your passion. Please don’t fall for the temptation of quick money. There are better ways to make a living with Travel Photography and we’ll explore them on this blog, I promise. And if by any chance you started with Microstock and you don’t make already a decent income with itand with decent I mean it pays for your rentplease take your photos off sale right now. 

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