Microstock…good or bad?

Those eWarehouse Pix
By Rohn Engh

The warehouse is growing. Some say by 45,000 new images a day.
I’m referring to the collective storehouse of all the photos in the online photo storefronts, the stock photo agencies, Flickr, et al.

This mass of unrelated images can be tapped into in milliseconds, thanks to search engine technology. And such access is becoming easier and easier by the minute.

Never before in history have photos been more accessible to art directors, photo editors, and private consumers. All these pictures can of course be categorized in several ways. But keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.What is one person’s treasure is another person’s trash.

So let’s take an overview of what we all, as editorial stock photographers, have played a part in getting us into.

We’re talking ‘microstock.’

Microstock photos. Are they good or bad? Yes, they are good or bad. This article maintains that microstock sites embrace only a certain mode of photography: standard clichés, tourist destinations, fantasy, generalized photos (beautiful scenics, etc.). This ever-popular cliché style of photography is becoming "staticized" (new word). It's being catalogued into microstock e-warehouses and cemented onto static polyester CD-ROM and DVD discs, and other digital storage formats.


Where do you find microstock in the media? Microstock photos are the generic photos we see in trade magazines and travel brochures, in websites and catalogs, in ads and newsletters and office announcements. They're everywhere. And now that they've become more available, we're going to be seeing even more of them. Does this affect your stock photo business? It could. It depends on the way you are doing business. If you are threatened by microstock, it's probably because you've been producing microstock-type photos your entire photography career and haven't realized it. In my book, Sell & ReSell Your Photos, I describe what is now defined as microstock photos, as "Track A" pictures-- the lovely exquisite cliches, the generic pictures that fill the pages of most advertising agency brochures and postcard mailings (sunsets, covered bridges, clouds, trees, office products, mountains, -many with an animated young couple or healthy seniors in the composition).


Opponents of microstock usually make a distinction in their assessment of this segment of stock photography.

On the one hand they declare the lower-priced microstock discs ($39.95 and lower) as inferior and not worthy of stock photography. On the other hand, they assess high-end discs ($250 and up) at high value. In reality both types of discs contain typical "Track A" pictures. The major factor that differentiates these two microstock categories is their technical quality. High-end microstock discs are usually produced by industrial-strength flatbed scanners or by drum scanning (equipment cost: $25,000 to $75,000), and because of their quality can substantially short cut the production process, saving the photobuyer hundreds of dollars. Low-end discs are scanned on low-end equipment (equipment cost: $1,500-$3,000). The resulting images usually can't be used larger than a quarter page, or are used in projects where professional reproduction quality is not paramount (newsletters, brochures, websites, etc.).


They are convenience photos. In my opinion, microstock photos are of the same genre as "Clip Art," the cookie-cutter drawings and universally accepted sketches of the last century that used to be taken from a clip book and pasted into a newspaper or magazine layout. They are always politically correct. Whether they come in the form of royalty-free image collections, drum-scanned images, or on-line, they can be called Clip Art Photos.

There are currently three echelons of companies that provide microstock stock photos. The good, the better and the best. Low-end companies are usually small enterprises that market to low-budget publications and art buyers. The high-end companies provide both uniqueness and technically superior products.


Everyone uses microstock photos, and they have been using them even before microstock was “coined.” A photograph of a mountain, or a cloud, is a mountain or a cloud, whether it's on a post card, calendar, clip disc or online storefront collection. Have you looked at a newsstand magazine or a book recently? We can all spot the microstock photos – they usually reside in the advertising section of the periodical. Rarely in the editorial section.

Do editorial art buyers, like at news organizations, photo editors at book publishers or newsstand magazines, use microstock photos? Not really. Because they can't afford to. Eagles don't fly with butterflies. Blatant microstock photos would detract from the uniqueness of their periodicals, books or magazines.

Major advertisers promoting a major product rarely use microstock. However, there is always the exception. If an ad agency needs to promote a "concept," yes, sure, they will use microstock photos if they can be assured a competitor is not using the same images. In this case, a stock photo agency will be able to provide “a use history.” It's called “rights Protected” (RP) image.


Microstock photos have a parallel in the music industry. When music recordings were introduced first on vinyl 78's, then 45's, and eventually on audio tapes, CD’s, and then MP3’s -each successive wave brought predictions of gloom & doom for musicians who generally made their living through live performances.

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"It did not put them out of business, -- it put the way they were doing business -out of business..."

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The reality, it turned out, was that the recording popularized (advertised) the musician. So it turned out the threat was not to musicians but to the way they the recording studios were delivering their music. Musicians and record houses either changed their delivery method or got out of the business.


Who cares? To argue the esthetic quality of microstock photos is a time-waster. Photobuyers don't buy photos because they like them; they buy them because they need them. Again, value is in the eye of the beholder.

Microstock photography is the equivalent of elevator music. It's nice music, and it sells, and just about anyone with some musical know-how can produce it. Microstock photography is the equivalent of the Barbie Doll. The same doll theme or concept is repeated year-after-year, only in different clothes. Microstock photos in on-line storefronts can be likened to ready-to-wear clothing. Before clothes-on-the-rack came along, seamstresses and tailors produced clothing. When less expensive, ready-to-wear clothing came along, it didn't put fashion designers or tailors out of business; in fact it elevated them to higher status. Microstock results in this same effect on stock photographers. The client who contracts with a photographer for an assignment, or buys from a photographer whose stock photos specialize in specific subject areas, is like the customer at an exclusive dress shop, who is paying for a "brand label."

Along with the garment sale comes the assurance that the price paid for the dress will insure that someone else at the cocktail party isn't going to be wearing the same dress. “And that's worth paying for, “ someone told me. Editorial photobuyers in the media most often need contemporary, non-cliché, content-specific pictures. If you have them, the buyers will come to you when they need them. And you'll be able to charge much more for your highly-specific, highly unique, non-cliché images. Microstock photos can be likened to the $2.99 Burger King bonus digital watch. No one fears that the inexpensive digital watch will put jewelers out of business. It may have put the Taiwan $5 watch out of business, but it didn't destroy the notion of wearing a quality timepiece. Swiss watches are selling better now than ever before. And microstock discs and online galleries can offer photographers extra income for their excess stock photos - photos that otherwise might be going no place but out of date.


Here's a test to tell if one of your photos is microstock photo:

1.) Using a tripod and similar lighting and models, could you (with some trial and error) reproduce the same scene or situation yourself? [Yes] [No].

2.) Cut out yours or a published photo and paste it in an online storefront display of microstock images. Does it blend in with the rest of the images? [Yes] [No].

3.) Compare your photo with the images on a "royalty-free" CD-ROM disc. Does it blend in with the rest of the images? [Yes] [No].

4.) Does your photo look contrived, garishly color-corrected, manufactured, photoshopped, too good to be true, or artificial and politically correct? [Yes] [No]

5.) Can your photo be reproduced by an amateur with professional equipment? [Yes] [No]

6.) Does the overall effect of the photo appear to be an "artistic" fabrication? [Yes] [No]

If you answered "Yes" to any of the above, you're probably looking at a microstock photo. Should we ban microstock photos? Photography is communication. In the last century, photography was perceived as an art form. Today, it's taking a role in our society as a communications tool, and is becoming as important and as pervasive as text, the written word. Back in the European Dark Ages, written words were confined to monasteries. The resulting lack of education and communication opportunities set learning back hundreds of years throughout Europe. No, we should not ban microstock photos. To restrict the free flow of photos today could result in a far-reaching impact similar to the stifling of learning and the exchange of ideas in Dark Ages Europe.


Microstock photos needn't be a negative dimension in the stock photography field. We shouldn't be afraid of microstock photos. Even though they may take away part of a market you once enjoyed. You can regroup. Who’s to say some other type of photography might have done the same if microstock hadn't come along? There's room for microstock. Looked upon with an open mind, microstock opens up a new form of communication for many editors, graphic designers, videographers, and art directors, who, in the past, never considered photography as one of their communicative options because photography was out of reach of their budget. Now, thousands of art budgets will begin to include photography thanks to the lower fees and speedy delivery system microstock provides.

Bottom line: Look at it this way. The reality is that microstock serves a good purpose. My suggestion: Don’t let microstock let you believe that you have reached the pinnacle of success, that there’s no further avenues to go with your stock photography. In reality, microstock can teach you what’s still to come. Keep observing, keep listening, and keep watching. When you discover this

you’ll enter an even more satisfying realm of photography and join many legends of our industry.

Rohn Engh is the best-selling author of “Sell & ReSell Your Photos” and “sellphotos.com.” He has produced an eBook, “How To Make the Marketable Photo,” and an eCourse, “How To Market Your Photos.” For more information and to receive a free eReport: “8 Steps to Becoming Published Photographer,” visit http://www.sellphotos.com 800 624-0266.

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