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Image Libraries Changed The World For Designers (Part 2)

11/22/2012 11:30:30 AM
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FOR THE SELLER, the advantage of microstock over traditional libraries is that anyone can contribute; you don’t have to be specially selected, you needn’t be a full-time photographer or using high-end kit and it doesn’t matter how few or how many pictures you want to sell.

Description: Description: Description: Description: the advantage of microstock over traditional libraries is that anyone can contribute

the advantage of microstock over traditional libraries is that anyone can contribute

There’s generally a simple sign-up process where you submit an initial set of pictures for vetting. It’s pointless to do this unless you’ve fully read and understood the submission guidelines; you can always resubmit if you’re rejected, but there may be a waiting period. Once you’re accepted, you can submit pictures whenever you like, although they’ll still be subject to quality control.

The flip side of the low prices that attract buyers is, of course, low fees for the sellers. While this may be obvious, it comes as something of a shock to find out just how little of the price that a buyer pays is passed on to the contributor. Around 20-25% is the norm. Bearing in mind that the buyer will typically only be paying in the region of $15 for an image, sometimes much less, it’s clearly not worth your time to upload a picture that will only sell once.

The way to make money from microstock is to create pictures that will sell many times., for example, shows icons above image thumbnails indicating their popularity; the bands are >100, >500, >1,000, >10,000 and >25,000 downloads.

iStockphoto contributor Lise Gagne famously gave up her job to shoot exclusively for the site, and has made a steady six-figure income from it over a number of years, totalling several million dollars. But her experience isn’t typical. In 2007, US magazine Photo District News conducted a survey of stock image contributions. Among the 865 respondents, the average annual income from stock was under $4,000, and more than 60% of respondents were making less than $1,000.

Description: Description: Description: Description: iStockphoto


Stock is most realistically seen as a way for professionals to supplement their income from uncommissioned work ankd for non-professionals to sell occasional pieces. ‘Sales of my photos and illustrations through various collections have given me the freedom to concentrate on personal artistic projects,’ artist and filmmaker Hannah Gal told MacUser. ‘The safety net of regular royalty payments is priceless.’ But even for experienced contributions, stock today is not an easy ride. ‘This is not the exclusive club of ten years ago. Gone are the days where creators were given the option of cash in advance or royalties. Today’s market is flooded with cheap or free images, and there’s no escaping facing the new order head on. Maintaining my level of income has meant sharpening my focus and being alert to new styles and trends hitting the market.’

There’s something very attractive about the prospect of uploading an image once and receiving a commission for the foreseeable future every time someone buys it. But to get sales, you’ll need to understand what buyers want. Take some time to study the various stock sites, but there are plenty more and see the kind of word that’s featured. Most importantly, check which images are actually selling.

START BY READING all the guidance offered to contributors. Not every image, however beautiful or unique, is suitable for stock; guidelines will tell you what kind of content is and isn’t welcome. A superb picture of your cat is unlikely to be accepted unless something about it makes it good stock – for example, it’s a pristine shot of an attractive cat in a classic pose against a white background (even then, you’re pushing it with cats). Pictures of exotic locations aren’t valuable just because they’re rare; do people actually need pictures of this location?

Description: Description: Description: Description: START BY READING all the guidance offered to contributors

Start by reading all the guidance offered to contributors

Think as a buyer, not a seller, and look at adverts, magazines and newspapers to see what kinds of pictures get used. In general, designers and art directors need pictures that convey a recognizable topic or mood in a realistic and familiar way, but without being overly specific.

If a picture is easy to shoot, a hundred people have probably already shot it. Photos of professional models doing cool stuff and looking cool will sell well because they’re easy to use and difficult to shoot. Don’t underestimate the latter. Consider the style as well as the content; in staged shots, what kinds of people, clothing, scenes and backgrounds distinguish popular pictures? Don’t waste time trying to shoot cute friends who turn out not to be photogenic or are too self-conscious to take direction. Know collaborators with the skills you lack – styling, make-up, hair. Scout locations that will make a good picture great, bearing in mind you may need permission to shoot, especially if the location will be recognizable in the pictures.

Having created some pictures worth submitting, get to grips with key wording. Again, there should be plenty of advice about this on the site you’re planning to upload to. No buyer will ever find any of your pictures except when the search terms they type in match keywords you’ve attached to the image. So key wording is just as important as the picture itself – arguably more so.

Learn from your unsuccessfully pictures. An image that starts selling straight away may well continue to produce a reliable trickle of income. One that doesn’t will tend to slip quickly off the bottom of the search rankings and disappear from sight. Some libraries automatically discount images that haven’t sold in a few months, meaning even when you do get a sale it’ll make you next to nothing. Rethinking the key wording might help or is there something that’s preventing people from using the image? A huge number of stock photos have a glaring flaw that makes them almost impossible to use. Be harsh in judging your own work; if you think something might be wrong, it is.

Although it’s the most accessible market, microstock isn’t the only option for sellers. More traditional high-quality high-priced libraries still exist, but you’ll need to work harder to get into them. ‘I would advise considering some of the independent collections. It’s important to collaborate with one that best suits your style,’ says Hannah. Perhaps surprisingly, Science Photo Library is her highest earner. The more specialized the outlet, the more important it is to know your market. ‘The girl using an iPhone is on every royalty statement, as is the blue woman with DNA strands.’ What appeals to a cohort of buyers will sell again and again.

Conceiving the right pictures is the hard part; don’t neglect the easy parts. Pro kit isn’t essential, but it helps, and whatever you shoot with you’ll need to exceed your library’s quality threshold. This may be fairly low in the case of microstock, but you’ll still need to avoid noise (digital grain), typically a problem in shadows and low-light shots; camera shake and unintentional motion blur; and what’s known in the trade ad poor ‘image hygiene’, such as dust on still-life objects or bits of stray hair over models’ faces. It’s quite acceptable to use Photoshop to tidy up pictures, but your editing will need to be invisibly seamless.

Again, there’s no need to get any of this wrong; just take the time to read the guidelines provided by the stock services. When you do get pictures rejected – and almost everyone does – take on board the reasons given. Occasionally decisions will be capricious, but in general there’ll be something to learn from.

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