How "ordinary" photographers are making Big Money shooting for small stock
Stock photographer Jaimie Duplass likes to be surprised by where her pictures turn up.
The 38-year-old mother of three from Russellville, AR, often uses her son James as a model. At the age of three, he's already appeared on several magazine covers, the Wal-Mart website, and-one of Duplass' favorites-a billboard in Poland.
"Someone e-mailed me a photograph of it," she says. "It was a picture of him painting at an easel-they took away the easel, put a roof there, and now it's selling roofing tiles." She laughs. "I'm so proud of that one, I think because of the enormous size of it."
Duplass hadn't heard about the billboard at first because she rarely has any idea who's buying her photos.
She doesn't work for a traditional stock agency like Corbis or Getty Images, with their complicated royalties and exclusivity agreements.
She's part of a growing tribe of entrepreneurs who sell their photos through micro-stock websites for mere dollars-or even pennies-apiece to anonymous buyers, who pay a small one-time fee.
Many such shooters have only a basic camera and a hobbyist's love of photography, but the diligent few are turning their online portfolios into actual careers.
They've shifted the staid world of stock photography and changed who's buying stock, who's selling stock, how much rights to a photo cost, and most importantly, who's taking the pictures.
"We've an unbelievable number of people applying to be photographers," says Kelly Thompson, vice president of marketing for iStockphoto.com, the biggest and oldest of the royalty-free ventures. "There's lots of long-time people, but there's also thousands of newbies each month."
Many start out like Duplass, who in 2004 found herself looking for a job she could do from home. She'd taken photography classes years before and decided to apply to iStockphoto's microstock site.
"Stock photography is whole new level of quality, and I really got a slap in the face," recalls Duplass of her first attempts. "It was miserable-I probably worked 18-hour days with a baby in my arms to make 10 cents a day."
Royalty-free sites generally make it easy for amateurs to join, although they have quality inspectors who approve or reject images before they can be uploaded.
Most inspectors will offer hints and shortcuts for improving images, and many photographers take advantage of the sites' forums to share tips, ask for advice, and commiserate about the business.
Duplass learned by trial and error what makes good stock. "The kids used to tease me if I went to the grocery store or went shopping," she says. "All of that was going to get photographed before anyone could use it. Everyone knew: 'Leave it in the bag until Mommy photographs it.'"
As she moved from objects to people, she used to lead models into her makeshift studio in a closet off the converted garage.
Now, however, she can afford to rent a studio, as well as hire someone to do her processing; make mortgage, car, and utility payments; and buy her kids new clothes.
She's not alone. iStockphoto has almost 20,000 photographers, selling some 780,000 royalty-free files. Those numbers have not gone unnoticed-Getty Images recently purchased the company for $50 million.
Not such small change
With her photos now on Shutterstock.com, iStockphoto, and a few others, Duplass estimates that she sells at least 600 images daily.
She won't disclose exactly how much she makes, "but I can tell you it's a lot more than 10 cents a day," she says. "I plan to be in a new house and a new studio even one year from now. This is living comfortable. A year from now, it's going to be more like luxury. I intend to spoil my kids every step of the way."
Microstock payment models vary. Shutterstock offers buyers 25 downloads per day (750 per month) for a monthly fee of $159; photographers earn 25 cents per download.
iStockphoto sells downloads starting at $1 apiece; photographers make at least 20 percent.
While pennies per photo doesn't sound like much, royalty-free sites count on the high volume that low prices encourage.
Jon Oringer, president and founder of Shutterstock, estimates that the "sweet spot" for his site's shooters is $500 to $1,000 per month, though some make as much as $4,000 monthly.
"Some are using it to pay for that extra car they wanted or for their mortgage payment," he says. "And some have actually quit their jobs and are doing it full-time."
As Duplass discovered, however, getting to that level takes serious commitment. She shoots with a Canon EOS 20D with a Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 EF-S "kit" lens; in the studio, she uses Novatron strobe lights. She constantly returns to her early lessons in film photography for the basics of composition, lighting, and exposure.
And she's learned the hard way that it's best to listen to advice from the different site inspectors and the more experienced photographers on the forums.
"It really is good advice, but it makes no sense to you until you start to see success," she says. "At the beginning, you'll work hours and hours on an image, just to get it accepted, and it might only sell once a month. And they're like, 'Oh, forget it, move on to the next one.' And you're thinking, 'I can't let go! I know this is just an orange on a white background, but I can't let go!'"
She adds that while image-editing software skills are important, she tries to get much of the work done in-camera and avoid lots of fixing later. With microstock, quality is the first priority, but unless you have a critical mass of images to sell, you're still stuck making...10 cents a day.
Laurin Rinder, a longtime photographer from Los Angeles, who's one of the growing numbers of professionals making the jump to royalty-free sites, agrees with her. "You don't even need Photoshop-Elements is good enough," he says.
"If it's not there, it's not there. Dump it and shoot something else. If you love to twiddle on your computer, it's diminished returns. If you're going to spend three or four hours on one shot, you're finished before you started," he advises.
As far as microstock subject matter goes, there are varying schools of thought, but even the most experienced photographers are often surprised by what does and doesn't sell.
We've sprinkled a handful of top-selling photos from some microstock agencies throughout these pages.
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."