Earn big money taking photographs in your spare time!
Earn big money taking photographs in your spare time!
It sounds like a late-night TV come-on for a phony get-rich-quick scheme. But in this case, it might just be true.
Thanks to the Internet and digital cameras, thousands of semiprofessional photographers are now selling their shots through so-called microstock Web sites to customers around the world. But it’s not like the old days of stock photography — before 2000: the price that each shot fetches is not enough to buy a cup of coffee. Microstock Web sites have turned the pricing structure for picture licensing on its head.
Traditional photographic stock companies charge several hundred to several thousand dollars per image. Microstock prices can be as low as 25 cents, and payments to photographers are even lower, often not much more than pennies per sale.
But some photographers are making significant incomes from their pictures, making up in volume what they have lost in per-shot commissions. And that, in turn, is affecting the business of some mainstream professional photographers.
For small-business owners or others needing images, microstock sites can be an alternative to conventional stock agencies, which base fees on the published size of an image, circulation and other factors.
Microstock sites charge far less, and, with few exceptions, buyers pay a flat fee, no matter how large the image is or where it is used.
“Maybe a $300 photo for a pamphlet distributed to 300 people is not worth $300,” said Jon Oringer, the founder of Shutterstock (www.shutterstock.com), a four-year-old microstock agency.
Shutterstock customers, who pay a monthly subscription fee beginning at $199, can download up to 25 pictures a day of the site’s 1.8 million photos, at any resolution. For those who download the maximum, that amounts to 27 cents per shot. Shutterstock photographers are paid 25 cents for a purchased picture; the price rises to 30 cents once $500 worth of their work is bought.
In addition to Shutterstock, other microstock photo agencies include Big Stock Photo (bigstockphoto.com), Fotolia (fotolia.com), Dreamstime (dreamstime.com) and iStockphoto (istockphoto.com).
Each uses a different pricing and payment scheme; photographers have the option to upload the same pictures on multiple sites or, with some of the agencies, become an exclusive supplier for an increased commission. There is no fee to post photos on a microstock site.
Whether the varying approaches matter to customers and photographers is an open question. “The differences to consumers appear to be incremental,” said Bruce Livingstone, who founded an early microstock site, iStockphoto, in 2000.
Microstock sites do not accept all comers or all photographs. Each employs a team of inspectors who check every picture submitted for technical quality, as well as artistic and commercial merit.
Shots of dogs and cats are generally not welcome, while “lifestyle” photographs — pictures of people at work and play — are usually top sellers. Other subjects of interest include food, sports and fashion.
Getting photos accepted for a site is just one part of the battle. Potential buyers can find shots by browsing through a collection and its categories, or by searching using a keyword that describes what they want.
The photographer creates the keywords; most sites have no restrictions on how many, though Fotolia had to stop some photographers who were adding every keyword under the sun in the hopes that someone would stumble upon the shot.
Keeping one’s pictures confined to one site may not be a good idea, if the site attracts few customers, or becomes known for specializing in pictures of sheep while you are hoping to sell shots of toothpaste.
“We did not want to limit the ability of photographers to earn money,” said Tim Donahue, the founder of Big Stock Photo, which does not offer exclusivity.
Some photographers say exclusivity works. The same picture on multiple sites may have different prices. By being exclusive photographers can more easily trace those who might be misusing their work, either by using an image — on, say, a coffee mug — without buying rights to it or by stealing a concept they like, recreating a photograph and selling it as their own.
Those who are doing well selling their work on microstock sites have done their homework: they have figured out what type of photographs a site specializes in, what types of pictures sell and whether the commission is sufficient.
Lise Gagné of Quebec specializes in business shots, one of the most popular genres. Ms. Gagné, who has been shooting commercially for five years, earns more than $100,000 a year selling her work exclusively through iStockphoto.
“I like iStock’s sharing spirit,” Ms. Gagné said, referring to the extensive discussion groups and other client aides the site provides. “It’s a matter of being fair. You don’t have to go elsewhere.”
Because volume matters in microstock sales, a large number of shots must be uploaded. Ms. Gagné currently has 4,900 photographs available for sale on the site and adds 5 to 20 more each week.
Kelly Cline, a Seattle-based food photographer, has uploaded 1,363 images to iStockphoto, and her work has been bought 68,215 times. Significant payments began to arrive once she had 500 to 600 images in her portfolio, Ms. Cline said, adding, “If you upload more, it’s like shooting arrows in the air.”
Ms. Cline, a former food stylist, began shooting food four years ago. At first, she photographed her own work and then began uploading her material to iStockphoto.
Today, she said, she earns about $70,000 a year, 60 percent of her income, from microstock sales, and she remains an exclusive provider to iStockphoto.
But Stephen Coburn, a Web designer at Adobe Systems who began photography a few years ago as a hobby, said he would never use one microstock site exclusively. “I’d feel nervous about putting all my eggs in one basket,” he said.
Mr. Coburn supplies shots to five microstock sites, shooting people, objects and interiors. With 3,500 photos posted to the sites, he earns, on average, $6,000 per month.
Michael Shake, a tool-and-die maker in Toledo, Ohio, uploads pictures to 10 sites and earns $1,000 a month for his work. Specializing in shots of houses and new cars, he sells his work to real estate agents and car dealers looking for appropriate illustrations.
When a tire accessory manufacturer saw his work, he hired Mr. Shake to shoot an advertisement, shipping a tire to his home for the shot. “All I wanted was to earn enough money for new equipment,” Mr. Shake said. “It’s gone way past that.”
Not everyone is enamored with microstock Web sites. Professional photographers see the sites’ growth as diluting their own incomes.
“This is the death of beautiful photography,” said David Skernick, a professional photographer in Los Angeles who does not use the sites. Because of the low prices and large volumes of material, “now clients accept anything.”
Mr. Skernick has seen the value of his own work decrease, from a time when photographs were priced not just on their merit but on their intended use. He said he once sold a photograph that was used on a Brian Wilson album cover for $2,000. “Today I would get $2 for the same use,” he said.
Still, railing against the sites is about as useful as hoping cellphones will go away and phone booths will make a comeback.
“Every month, my income from microstock sales gets better,” Ms. Cline said. “You have to go with it or be left behind. Otherwise you’ll be saying, ‘Woe is me.’ ”
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