How "ordinary" photographers are making Big Money shooting for small stock
Holidays bring out a slew of theme images-Valentine's Day finds sites decked out with uploads in varying shades of red, and, as one microstock photographer notes, everyone has their Christmas ornaments.
Business images-with their workaday focus on laptops or line graphs or serious-looking people in suits-are often named as steady earners.
But many photographers prefer to find their own specialties. Kelly Cline, a photographer from Seattle who's on iStockphoto, enjoys taking pictures of food and has turned that into a full-time stock career.
"A niche is absolutely necessary," she says. "If you like taking pictures of nature, that's what you need to do. Do what you love, and do it well."
Sean Locke, who shoots primarily for iStockphoto, advises making do with what's available to you. "Landscapes aren't something I dabble in, since I live in St. Louis," he says. "I've got a lot of brown grass and dead trees."
Instead, he enjoys storyboarding shoots, hiring models, and posing them in situations that tell a story.
"One of my best-sellers is just a family in a yard," he says. "It was posed and everything." In fact, this photo is among iStockphoto's best-sellers, as well.
And then there are of course, the flowers. Rinder jokes, "There's more flowers on stock sites than there are probably stars in the universe." But he's quick to point out that even some of his old flower shots are still selling.
Indeed, Kelly Cline's biggest seller remains a simple shot of three tulips. "It's like every other flower image out there, and it has over a 1,000 downloads on it," she says. "By far my biggest-selling image. Who knew?"
A thousand downloads for one image is remarkable, but not everyone sees it as a step forward, especially when one download nets you only a few dimes apiece.
It used to be that photographers who worked with Corbis or Getty, say, would license their photos for a certain amount of time to a buyer, who in turn would pay on a sliding scale depending on the size of the company buying and how it was using the image.
The Stock Artists Alliance, an advocacy group, estimates that an average licensing fee under a rights-managed model could be $400 or $500.
Naturally, a photographer used to that kind of money wouldn't be too keen on earning 20 cents per picture for unlimited use.
Betsy Reid, executive director of the SAA, has been a vocal critic of the royalty-free model.
"If IBM wants to use an image for an international campaign, no photographer in the world was ever going to offer it for a dollar," she says. "That's what microstock does. When you look at the business of photography and the investments that photographers make and the talent they bring to it, and you take it down to that level...I think it's really devastating."
The royalty-free sites counter that they're appealing to a whole new stock market, especially the countless web designers who need cheap art fast.
Says iStockphoto's Thompson, "What's really exciting is the small and medium businesses, the nonprofit groups, the church groups-they flock to us by the tens of thousands, and they've never bought a stock photo before."
Deb Trevino, vice president of communications for Getty, argues that there will always be a place for rights-managed stock, "particularly in high-end campaigns, where there's a need for some level of exclusivity and the kind of quality that comes with that imagery."
But Reid's appeals resonate if only because they underline the seismic shifts so many creative fields have undergone since the rise of digital technology, whether it be music, or movies, or photography.
The most fundamental of questions doesn't really have a clear answer: What is a picture worth?
Time on their side?
For many microstock photographers, they're worth a lot more than the few cents apiece they net each time they're bought.
Rinder, who has worked in stock for 30 years, says, "I learned a long, long time ago, that I'm looking for annuities. I'm looking for things to generate income long after I'm dead for my kids and my wife. That's what turns me on about microstock probably more than anything else-it's the annuity that it can generate."
Jaimie Duplass has made the same conclusion. One of her daughters, Brittny, often helps out with Duplass' photo shoots, and she has learned her mother's lessons well.
"The images are out there making money," says Duplass. "If anything was to happen to me today, my kids are going to be collecting that money. My daughter knows that if anything happens these images are hers and if she wants to continue adding pictures and keep it going, she can. I have that peace of mind that I've set something up for them that could be there for several years."