Microstock Photography Part 1 – What is It?

[singlepic=288,320,240,,left]As some of you might know, my main source of income derives from stock photography sales… more specifically, microstock photography. It accounts for roughly 75% of my photography income. When I meet new people, the conversation usually goes like this…

So Yanik, what do you do?
I’m a professional photographer.
Hey, that’s cool! So what do you do? Weddings or portraits?
Actually, I mostly do commercial and editorial photography but my main source of revenue comes from microstock photography.
Micro what?


Many people are still learning about microstock photography, so I though I would do a series of articles explaining the ins and outs of this new Web phenomenon. In part 1, I’ll give you a breakdown of what it actually is and how it all started. So let’s get started! I think the best way to start this series is to interview my good budy, Microstock Phenomenon (MP for short)…

Hi MP, thanks for taking the time to let readers know what you’re all about.

Hi Yanik, my pleasure!

First off, what is stock photography?

Well Yanik, simply put, stock photography consists of a database of images ready for licensing. The photographer shoots images and submits them to stock agencies. The agencies then market the images to their clients (publishers, advertising agencies, graphic artists…). Clients then purchase the desired images. The agency then gives the photographer a predetermined commission on the sale.

So what you’re saying is that the photographer is free to shoot whatever he wants, whenever he wants?

Yes. Since this is non-commissioned work, the photographer has the freedom to shoot whatever he wants. But if he wants to make a decent income, he might actually shoot themes that have a more commercial appeal. A good stock photographer will always try to think like his clients. See what they need as opposed to what he likes shooting. Sometimes you get the best of both worlds! 🙂

Interesting. Now what about microstock? What’s the difference between microstock and traditional stock?

Good question Yanik! There are two main differences. The first one, and the most obvious, is the cost of the licenses. Before my arrival, traditional stock agencies would license royalty free (RF) images from roughly $250. Lately, some traditional or “macro” agencies have lowered their prices to compete with me. But the prices are still a lot higher than what my agencies sell them for. Most of the microstock agencies sell images from $1. The second difference is that microstock, for the moment, only sell RF images. Macro agencies also sell rights managed licenses (RM).

Now back up a second here MP. Can you explain to our readers the difference between RF and RM licensing?

Sure! RF means that once a client has purchased the rights to use the image(s), he’s free to use the image when, where and how he wants, within the agency’s terms of use. Also, RF images are non-exclusive. That means anyone can purchase the rights to use the images at any time. RM images have many restrictions. Those can include, duration, geographical location, quantities and exclusivity. RM images have more value because of these restrictions.

Let me give you an example for both license types. Let’s say I need an image for my local environmental group. I go to Fotolia, find my image, purchase the RF license and bingo! I have the image. Now since this image is non-exclusive other local businesses could purchase the same license. But I don’t really care as long as the image I got works for my business.

Now, let’s say that’s I’m the VP Marketing for a big multi-national company and I need an image for a national marketing campaign. I’ll be purchasing a RM license because I don’t want another company purchasing the same image during my ad campaign. So I’ll purchase the right to use the image for the duration of my campaign (3 months), for all of North America. So this gives me exclusivity for that image throughout North America for 3 months.

Got it! Now MP, how did you come about?

Well Yanik, I started back in May 2000 when IstockPhoto was born. It was the 1st of many to offer RF images at a very low price. It actually gave its images away at first! Then many other agencies joined in the fun like ShutterStock, Dreamstime, Fotolia and StockXpert. They all offer image licensing for just a few dollars. My growth is now exponential! A part from photos and graphics I now found a love for video and sound! 🙂


Thank you MP! It was great chatting with you and I hope that you’ll be able to shed some light in part 2 of my microstock series as I write about the different agencies out there and what they offer for both the clients and contributors.

Here are some of my favorite stock images from my personal portfolio.

3 responses on "Microstock Photography Part 1 - What is It?"

  1. This is a great subject that I would like to learn more about. Thanks

  2. Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

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