The rise of microstock photography has many established photographers wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over how microstock companies are destroying the business.

What is microstock? It is a relatively new internet-based business model that licenses existing images for scandalously low prices. Traditionally, images are licensed through highly selective stock agencies for amounts in the hundreds of dollars or so, but microstock turns everything upside-down, moving images for just pennies each. Microstock companies aren’t choosy about the images they peddle, as they need vast quantities of stock for their business model to work. By allowing anyone to upload photos, they’ve dropped nearly every barrier to entry into the photo licensing business aside from the cost of a camera itself. And those get cheaper every year. A deluge of digital hobbyists is now competing with the pros, and the pros aren’t happy.

As a portion of my income derives from traditional photo licensing, I’ve been curious for some time about how competition from microstock affects my bottom line. This weekend I devoted a few hours at the computer to comparing the holdings of a number of stock agencies, both traditional and micro, to get a handle on whether I ought to be worried about this new phenomenon.

The answer, it turns out, is no.


I selected a representative set of stock agencies, both microstock and traditional, and compared my main source of income from myrmecos.net- photographs of ants- with their competing offerings.

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Who are these agencies?

Minden Pictures is a high-end agency specializing in natural history. I choose Minden for this project because they represent professionals whose focus and background is similar to my own. For instance, their stables contain National Geographic’s Mark Moffett and Smaller Majority‘s Piotr Naskrecki, both of whom trained as biologists before becoming photographers. Minden is likely my biggest competitor, so I was keen to look at their selection. I’ve colored Minden in purple, the same color I used for myrmecos.net, as the focus of each is similarly specialized.

Two of the agencies, Corbis and Alamy, are more traditional stock agencies. They represent professional photographers across a great many subject areas and cover the high end Rights-Managed market. In theory, at least, they sell quality over quantity. I’ve colored them green.

Shutterstock and iStockphoto are the two biggest microstock agencies, and they engage in bulk licensing of cheap images. They’re shown in yellow. As you can see, they don’t have that many ant images. That’s the first indication they might not be that competitive in my little corner of the market.

Here’s what I did.  I typed “Ants” into the search window at each agency using the default setting for photo searches. To avoid spending weeks sorting through all the returns, I first recorded the raw number of images returned and then looked at the top 50 photos that definitively had ants in them. Then I used my superpowers as a trained ant taxonomist to identify the genus and (if possible) species in the photo, and compared that with the agencies’ opinion, if any. I generously allowed common names to count as a generic ID if the common name is relatively unambiguous (e.g., “Carpenter Ant” for Camponotus is acceptable, but “Black Ant” is not).

The number of ant photos listed in the graph above is an estimate, as I’ve revised the tally for each agency by factoring in the rate of false positives appearing among the first 50 true ants. For instance, I did not count highly stylized illustrations, images of ant mimics, mug shots of men named Anthony, or images of 80’s icon Adam Ant. For most agencies, the rate of false positives was about 20-25%, although Minden’s was an impressively low 5%.

What are the agencies photographing? By the looks of it, obvious epigaeic genera. Here’s a list of the most common genera using my determinations, pooled across all five agencies:

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the specialist agency Minden has the highest rate of photos identified to genus, the microstocks the lowest, and the traditional stock agencies somewhere in the middle. Intriguingly, while Alamy holds by far the largest library of ant images (4,081) among the two traditional agencies, Corbis (226) seems to have put more effort into acquiring identified photos, at least to genus.

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Where possible, I looked at species-level identification. Alamy was the only agency to remain error-free, although that’s partly because they didn’t stick their neck out with many identifications. Shutterstock got nearly as many wrong as right, including termites identified as ants and Camponotus confused with Myrmecia. Minden’s errors were limited to two: mistaking Crematogaster for Pheidole and Eciton hamatum for E. burchellii.

If I only count photographs that are correctly identified to the level of species, the agencies sort out like this:

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This graph is a good visual representation of how I’m able to make money, and why I have little to fear from microstock. It seems I’ve got a near-monopoly on the market for photos of identified ants. A buyer who needs a photo of a particular species or particular behavior is not going to find it in microstock, and their chances are only somewhat better at the traditional agencies.

This finding did not surprise me, since I already know that most of my clients’ requests concern particular species or particular behaviors. The images I license go overwhelmingly to accompany science articles, textbooks, or museum exhibits, and for those uses clients require images that are accompanied by reliable technical information.

If the dreaded microstock companies were encroaching on the same market, I might expect their photos of identified ants to sell better than their non-identified photos. Fortunately, we can test this prediction.

One of the microstock sites, istockphoto, posts their download statistics. Are identified ant photographs downloaded more often than unidentified photographs? The answer (after removing one extreme outlier) – appears to be no:

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The buyers for istockphoto images do not show much preference for identified versus non-indentified photos. This means, of course, that their buyers are unlikely to be the same as mine. Indeed, this is consistent with a pattern that industry analyst Dan Heller has noted previously: instead of impinging on the existing market, microstock appears to have created a whole new market. Their consumers are not bargain-hunters who used to pay top dollar at the stock agencies and are now saving themselves a buck. Instead, they are buyers who may have been priced out before but can afford to license images now that they’re cheap.

So, not only do the microstock agencies have fewer photographs than I do in my area of specialization, their photographs lack the associated biological information to make them competitive against myrmecos.net (and against Minden, presumably) in the high-end market. From my perspective, iStockphoto and Shutterstock may as well not even exist.

The losers- insofar as ant photographs are indicative of the larger stock industry- would appear to be the traditional generalist agencies. They are priced similarly to specialists like Myrmecos and Minden, but most of their images lack the taxonomic information that would make them competitive in that market. And with microstock practically giving away images that are comparable in artistry and composition, who would buy from Alamy and Corbis? My guess is that generalist agencies will either have to lower prices dramatically or figure a way to specialize effectively. Otherwise they’re done.