Friday, September 25, 2009

Help is on the way for micro submissions

A major problem with Micro stock submissions is that they are very labor intensive -- particularly if you are making submissions across 5-10 agencies, all with different needs and criteria. Recently, I tried running a submission of a hundred plus images through the beta version of a new micro facilitator company called, LookStat ( Once I signed up, I was able to upload my jpgs, model releases, and a list of the micro agencies where I have accounts to their ftp site, and they took care of the rest. They performed all the keywording and uploading of images. And if there were any problems with the submission, they took care of those, too.

Sure there is a fee involved, but when I factor in the savings of time and aggravation and apply that time to producing even more pictures, I probably come out ahead of the game. Plus, the guys at LookStat know their stuff, which makes things even smoother for having images accepted.

There is a free analytic dashboard service on their web site that provides you with personal sales data for your micro sales in select agencies. Currently it is set up with iStock and Dreamstime, but other agencies are planned to be added in time.

Service provider companies, like LookStat, are an indicator of the growing micro outlet. Any one submitting to micro stock on a regular, professional basis will need to add either in-house staff to handle the increased load of work, or find a service like LookStat to do it for them.

For me, the service is money well spent.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Don't Blame Micro

Microstock is often blamed as the cause of the lower prices and high levels of competition that have crept into the stock photo industry this decade. I happen to believe that microstock is not the cause of the turbulence, but merely one of the results of a process that began awhile ago. The seeds of change go back over ten years, before there was a microstock. What we are witnessing today – including the emergence of microstock -- is a series of aftershocks from the massive, catastrophic change of events that took place ten years ago.

At that time the stock universe as many of us old timers knew it imploded into a black hole, which then exploded to create a new universe of the stock internet. The dispersed matter from the planets that had been big agencies (Image Bank, Stock Market, Photodisc, etc. ) in their own right now formed together into new planets called Getty, Corbis, and, a few years later, Jupiter.

Today microstock is at the forefront of every traditional shooters mind. But it is not, per se, the cause of the current decline in the traditional stock market. Microstock is merely one of the results of the egalitarian use of images brought on by the pervasiveness of the internet in the global design community, and one of the aftershocks of the internet. Computers became easy to use. Digital cameras, which themselves can be construed as nothing more than image computers, made it easy for anyone to take a correctly exposed photo suitable for at least low level design -- and there is currently a lot of low level design out there, also due to the prevalence of the internet.

The point I’m trying to make is that what stock photographers are experiencing right now is not something that just happened yesterday. It happened over a decade ago ,and a decade ago – not now -- was the time to begin implementing and sticking to a plan dealing with the new universe of stock photography. Why is this important? Because change is disruptive, and constant change is even more disruptive. Devising a master plan and sticking to it is more conducive to success. Ever see someone constantly changing highway lanes in bumper to bumper traffic? They get nowhere faster, but they do increase their anxiety level. It’s the same thing here.

I’m not saying that a stock photographer shouldn’t make course corrections along the way. These will always be necessary as the new universe continues to cool down and coalesce – to refer back to my initial metaphor. But we should never lose sight of the initial plan. Constant, violent changes in reaction to every dip and dive of the stock photo market will make you crazy and probably render you impotent for producing and selling real money making content on a steady basis. When I lecture, I always warn new stock shooters that the biggest pitfall they face is being lost in the fun house. There are just too many options constantly popping up in stock photography leading to complete paralysis on the one hand, and over-reaction on the other. Steady as she goes is the name of the game.

This begs the question: How do we measure the success of our strategies in these turbulent times? RPI is the obvious answer, but here, too, we can be fooled by a number. In today’s universe it is less important to have a high RPI, than it is to have a steady RPI number. When your number is steady, you can perform sound business planning. When it is high but fluctuating wildly, you can’t. This is one of the reasons I like the RF distribution agencies like Tetra, and Blend. They are aimed at producing a steady RPI through a wide, global distribution of images. In the recent financial crisis I noticed that in the beginning the U.S. was suffering the most from the downturn while income shifted more from the European side. As the U.S. results began to improve, Europe went down. This helps smooth out the curve of my returns.

This gets me back to microstock and what we should do about it right now. The RPI from a quality image placed with all of these agencies averages around $5-8 per month. This has held fairly steady over the two and a half year period I have been examining the market. I should add that the micro photographers who have been involved from the get-go are reporting to me that the image life in micro diminishes rapidly – far, far faster than it does in traditional stock, from what I can see.

Since this RPI is higher than a photographer can expect from other stock agencies except for Getty , Tetra, and Blend, and perhaps other distributor agencies, you might wonder why I don’t jump in whole hog producing for micro. The answer to that is more complex and involves what I said about micro being just one step (aftershock) in a continuing evolving universe.

Without strong traditional shooters capable of spending a hefty amount on image production, micro will flounder. It will have to stay right where it is serving a low level client with cheaply produced images– or it will have to raise its prices. The micro world is already showing signs of shakeup with some agencies going out of business, while the smaller ones are no longer able to gain new ground, and new competition as the big agencies -- Corbis and Getty -- jump into a low price model. The gap between the five largest micro agencies is widening so that, here too, change will occur. Right now a micro shooter can achieve a decent RPI because images can be placed over a number of agencies. What will happen when one agency takes such a prominent lead that it can demand exclusivity from its contributors? Think it won’t happen? iStock is the largest micro agency, currently out-pacing all the others in growth, and is owned by Getty. Think again.

So what’s a shooter to do? If you had a solid plan that began 5 to 10 years ago and it is still working, stick with it. Keep a wary eye on what is happening around you, but don’t jump ship in panic. My own strategy began forming almost ten years and was solidified nine years ago when I left Comstock and all my analog photos behind me to begin anew in the digital age without a single image. I realized that the largest planets in the new universe, Getty, and Corbis, as well as the agencies that survived near death with the black hole would all need a new form of digital product for the digital age. I subscribed to the advice I give anyone starting out in stock, namely to find around three or four solid outlets for your images. Firstly, I formed Tetra secretly in a quiet corner of the internet, for I knew that project would take at least three years to get to launch with only me doing partial shooting for it. Secondly, I joined a few major agencies in an effort to find which one would be best and winnowed the list down. Thirdly, I jumped on the Blend bandwagon, for his plan already dove-tailed with my newly formed philosophy of marketing in the internet age. Blend was a brilliant move during this business climate, and remains so today.

And since then? Since then, I have remained steady to the course, making only minor corrections along the way to adjust to changing winds. I have been fortunate to see income increase steadily every year -- yes, even this year despite the downturn -- since the inception of this plan with good prospects ahead. I have aimed most specifically for a steady RPI, not just a high RPI. This has taken me into some esoteric topics and strange areas of agencies, but allows my growth plan to remain steady. I keep a lookout up on the masthead at all times watching for dangerous shoals, such as microstock. I have purposefully kept overhead low, a thing I find important in a rapidly evolving global climate, such as the internet. This involved out-sourcing instead of hiring, and running a virtual office instead of over-spending on rent.

We can look at the stock marketplace as a glass half full or half empty. An important thing to keep in the forefront of your thoughts, however, is that there is always water in the glass – meaning there are always people buying stock photos. They may not pay what they did in the past. They may not buy the way they did in the past. But they are buying images every day, in every corner of the world. I don't think I have to go out on a limb here when I say that I do not see this changing in our life time. So the real question you must ask yourself is how do you stay in the water part of the glass.