The Microstock Industry in 2011, Pt. 1: Analysis

If you are a microstock contributor, a fellow photographer or simply following the discussions in the respective web forums you might have noticed the complaints about falling RPI’s (Return per Image), growing competition, and generally the industry going downhill. The consensus seems to be that things were much better in the past.

Is there something to that? To a certain extend: yes. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

You should know that indeed there was a gilded age for microstock. That was when the industry was young enough to be sniffed at by the professional photographers but mature enough to already have a strong customer base on the demand side. There was land to be claimed and relatively little competition. Even mediocre or outright trivial pictures could be sold simply because they were cheap. Conceptually good pictures, well executed, could make you a fortune.

Well, this is over. There are no sales anymore for the USB-stick with shallow depth of field or the not so incredibly well lit tomato isolated on white. The stocks of the agencies are filled with them and most of the existing pix have accumulated such an amount of ranking-juice that for the foreseeable future they will stick on the top. If somebody looks for a trivial (read: exchangeable) picture they will have an impulse to buy something from page one. That’s it for that.

On the other side there is no such thing as an end to stock photography just because there is already a lot of stuff, such as there is no end of science just because we already know a lot. There will always niches, there will be changes in the way we take pictures, in the taste of buyers, and the way models do their hair will be different in 2013. Promised.

That being said: yes, microstock matured. To stay on top requires much more conceptual thinking, technical finesse and – not to forget – resources than it once did. That is due to a number of reasons.

  1. More and more professionals are entering the market and more and more of the once amateurs that claimed the first patches of microstock land became professionals. That means that both, quality and quantity of pix get better. The latter extremely fast with lots of professional photographers moving their “back catalogue” in the agencies at breathtaking pace.
  2. Buyers get more selective. They are simply used to high quality even in the cheap end of the market. We trained them that way. We might mourn at this yet I see no way to undo it. Accept it.
  3. The market cannot grow forever at the pace it did. There indeed was a time when the demand for microstock pictures grew faster than the GDP of China. However, today most people who could have a use for microstock already have heard of it. This does not mean that there will be no further growth – the world getting more visual has been a trend for some thousand years or so and I do not see a stop here – yet the inflationary state after the Big Bang is over.

Those things are obvious, but what does all this mean? The answer is different for each player in the market. Let’s have a look at the contributor side in the next article.

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