Is iStockphoto ruining the insect photo business?

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– photographs of ants- with their competing offerings.


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, 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:


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.


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:


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:


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 (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.

16 thoughts on “Is iStockphoto ruining the insect photo business?”

  1. As a microstock photographer who submits a lot of insect shots, I basically agree with what you say here.

    Microstock agencies aren’t very interested in species specific shots – they want things that are generally interesting. For instance, I’ve had a number of shot where I attempted to determine the species (but admittedly may have been wrong) that were rejected due to not have stock appeal.

    However, for me microstock is still the best choice. I lack the entomologist background to be able to make the species identification that I would need for the naturalist sites and I lack the access to insects that don’t live in my area.

  2. Microstock shooters should really considering switching to PhotoShelter ( It’s free to join and they pay 70% commission on all sales. Since their pricing is based on typical RM and RF models, you’ll make a lot more money per image sold. Why waste your life selling your images for a quarter when you could make $100 or more off the same image. If the thrill of selling and having your images online all you crave, then you’ll find a home on PhotoShelter.

    If PhotoShelter gets enough of the great talent out there, it will raise the overall value (and income) of stock photography. Microstock is just bad business. They’re out there to steal from you and devalue your creativity. Don’t be fooled by dozen or so “successful” microstock shooters. They won’t last.

  3. It sounds like the only way that the microstock places can succeed is by taking advantage of amateur photographers who are unaware of how much their photos are worth. I suspect that, if the traditional agencies want to beat off the threat, their best approach will be a serious effort to educate all these amateurs about the markets. The amateurs will then know enough to submit their best stuff to agencies that will give them more than a pittance. The microstock companies will then either have to raise what they pay to something competitive, or settle for peddling only the dregs.

  4. Though I agree with your blog post — who
    couldn’t? — it isn’t exactly a direct challenge to the people tho scorn
    microstock. Your analysis concludes the same thing I have, that:

    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.

    But, critics who think microstock is hurting stock are basing their
    arguments on entirely different perceptions–it’s not whether people
    actually find what they want, it’s the proliferation of the *perception*
    that prices have dropped, which puts psychological pressure on
    photographers to lower their prices in kind. Many (most) photographers
    aren’t good negotiators, and simplistically throw up their hands and
    blame microstocks for the floor falling through. When a small handful
    of tire-kicking clients choose not to buy a photo because (they state)
    they saw lower prices on a microstock site, the photographer believes
    them, and lowers his prices accordingly. As more and more photographers
    capitulate to this market pressure, it has a deterioriative declining
    effect on the industry as a whole.

    Again, this is the _argument_. The reality of market pricing is entirely
    different. But because the arugment is so simple on the surface, and
    populus in its politics, that it instantly gains widespread acceptance.
    The more complicated reality can only be understood by understanding macro-
    economics. Simple retail realities are that customers will find *any*
    plausible way to negotiate prices down–microstock pricing just happens
    to be the “raison du jour.” Before that, it was “my budget won’t allow it,”
    or “our use is different,” or “my we never pay more than XXX.” The
    reality is that there will always be a fairly consistent ratio of buyers,
    tire-kickers, negotiators, and non-buyers — their proportion of any
    given photographer’s business is laregely based on the factors we’re
    already familiar with: ease of finding what you need, quality of images,
    perception of value in the site, credibility of the source (photographer),
    and, yes, price. Not all images can command the same perception of value;
    or more precisely, not all genres and topics command the same value.
    People need to understand their own photos, their market, their buyer
    demographics, and their own negotiating skills before the most effective
    pricing structure is found for any given photographer.

    While market prices in general ‘can’ affect pricing at the individual
    level, photo buying needs to be far more ubiquitous in our culture to
    affect prices at the individual stock photographer level. We see market
    forces in the price of CDs, gasoline, and a gallon of milk. Yet, we also
    see great variations of prices among those very same products as well,
    often by large percentages. But at least these are consumer products
    that people are familiar with and often choose their products based
    on the wider perception of prices.

    Photography is nowhere near that. Most stock buyers have never heard
    of microstock, let alone stock photo agencies of any kind. (Rarely do
    my buyers even know about Getty–they use google to search for photos.)
    Hence, the widespread effect of stock photography pricing shows no
    real evidence of being affected by microstock or any other kind as well.

    Yet, the echoes of war-chants against microstocks continue. Adding yet
    another voice to this crowd is the ever-increasing number of photographers
    that aren’t really professionals–they’re just generic shooters that are
    trying to make a buck in stock. So, their photos aren’t really that good,
    nor are they particularly topical. It’d be a compliment to say they are
    of general appeal. Yet, these people would have a hard time selling
    water to a man dying of thirst in a desert. This growing population
    of shooters is adding to the populus chants that “microstock is hurting
    sales” because, well, the alternative is to blame yourself, and we all
    know *that* isn’t the problem.

  5. Thanks for all your replies.

    I suspect that microstock- or something very like it- is here to stay. If there are a lot of people who will only buy images for less than $10 a pop, that’s a market and someone will sell it to them. And that model may actually work for some photographers. I’ve got nothing against it.

  6. Pingback: Why microstocks threaten traditional stock « Photographing the Earth, one millimeter at a time…

  7. I have to agree with your article. I never considered micro because it seemed to be very nonprofessional and when I dug through sites, i realized that the keywording and identification was also quite bad. I was accepted into AGE on a portfolio of 100 butterflies and when I did through stock sites, I usually find that lycaenidae are not identified well and that keywording often is very shallow. Bugs are not the easiest things to identify, but often there is no serious attempt to identify something correctly. It’s just a blue butterfly and even easily identifiable blues get marked as “common blue” when they are something else. I think that this makes a difference for serious buyers and on the general market because microstocks are very difficult to dig through and the quality of the images is pretty chancey, but a professional stock agency such as AGE will maintain some quality guarantees and they are held responsible for their licensing s well. Who knows what you get out of a micro because frequently, I’ve discovered flagrant copyright violations ongoing or neglect of basic issues such as property and model rights–and this is another area that calls for caution that serious stock agencies will try to avoid conflict or rights conflicts and legal hassles.

    So the micros might be out there, but I doubt if they will do serious damage to the legitimate market. Risk of copyright issues and legal battles regarding property and models releases is far higher at micro level. They seem to operate with total disregard for legal responsibility and the money goes to the sites and site owners. They are the counterpart of vanity presses it seems. so you can buy a dozen books off a vanity press for cheap download, but it doesn’t guarantee the quality or readability.

  8. Your statistical analysis makes fun reading but I believe, except for the esoteric sub-niche of “ants” perhaps, your conclusions are incorrect.

    I market insect images of a wide range of families. I see my customers, and potential customers, using istock images more and more frequently. And those istock images are correctly identified.

  9. You and Dan Heller exhibit a remarkably narrow, perhaps naive, assessment of what the markets for ant and all other specialized images are. They go far beyond the focussed photo users who need specific ID’s and other proper details for each image. For that kind of user, your analysis of current collective photo distributors (they aren’t “agencies” by any stretch of the imagination, if you know the legal clauses in contracts that make a distributor an agency) holds up for the most part. I say “for the most part” because you did not see fit to include all the easily located scientific and natural history websites with images that are being plumbed by photo researchers. The authors of those sites are often willing to give permission for a pittance–being a little bit ga-ga over the recognition, like the photo providers to the amateur microstock sites.

    Microstock and subscription stock are kinds of royalty-free (RF) photography, undercutting older RF with their pricing schemes in the willy-nilly race to the bottom. Microstock is set up as a business to make a short-term splash with no indication that surviving over the long term is important because it savages itself in many kinds of markets. But each succeeding image-demeaning and value-demeaning price-undercutting scheme in the stock image industry has taken a serious toll on more long-term and stable rights-managed stock sales.

    To see this, look at the credits lists in textbooks–the whole lists, not just the images that demand in-depth detail. All the RF uses were once uses legitimate photo providers got. (Look at the images, themselves and the captions in the same textbooks–the images are often not the best available (the familiar “good enough” of the price-undercutting world) and the caption dances around specific information such as a species name for the sake of using the cheap image. (This is in college-level textbooks, not just school division books.)

    Now make a survey of scientific and natural history periodicals. All those microstock and other RF uses you see were once rights-managed uses. The sophisticated provider of insect images once got the generic kinds of uses as well–as I did during the first 15 years of business for my agency. Market share *has* been lost to them over the past decade and a half, though it may not be so recognizable to someone who has only been marketing their stock images for a decade or so or to someone who has never experienced the breadth of stock photography markets.

    We reputable sources once got those covers now going to mediocre iStockphoto images. We once got nice advertising and commercial use fees now lost to RF and its kin. When we lost a use/sale, it was usually to a better-quality image or an image that had visual information that was a better fit to the client’s needs. No longer. Numerous among us have gone out of business due to the twin blows of having the marketplace forced online (impossibly costly) before digital was a better alternative and to loss of business to price undercutting schemes. (My agency survives only as a smaller, stripped-down version that concentrates on closely controlled imagery not widely available elsewhere and direct marketing to a select, key client base.)

    Carl May
    Biological Photo Service

  10. Pingback: Photography In The News » ARE THERE BUGS AT iSTOCK ???

  11. Hi, I have a question. How you value your photograph? in your other website i read like between $80 to $300. i know that time, specific tecnique for specific picture, and travel cost.


  12. Hi,
    I’m an entomologist myself (I work too in a university), and my husband is a microstock photographer, that works in several agencies listed above (including the ones demonized by this post…).
    The very nature of microstock photography is not to provide graphic material for specialized publications, these kind of media use to get material from specialized photographers, or public databases of research institutions.
    I’ve seen first hand that the level of determination of most part of the microstock agencies is very poor, but I also have seen through the years that the main buyer in these pages do not seek for taxonomic information photographies, rather than a shot that illustrates a concept or idea.
    As scientist I understand the power of statistics (and graphics) to illustrate an idea, but I also can recognize the use of flaw data to make this statistics.
    The Istock graphic, for instance, showing the percentage of identified/unidentified ant photographies downloaded in the page is surely made with real data, but it does not show the real motivation of the person that bought the file: did they want a photography with exact taxonomic determination, or they just liked the way the photography (identified or not) looked like?
    Microstock photographic websites leave a lot of issues to discuss, and surely scientific-related photography is one of them, but we have to understand that the old-time basis with few scientific publications has ended: now there are plenty of media (in paper, web and other kinds) that need graphic material to illustrate their publications. You cannot expect that an amateur webpage (or blog) pays what big (or specific) photographic companies ask for their photographies. They will go first to this “generalistic” microstock sites, where they can get a lot for very little.
    And it’s also true that things are changing (as have change for the last 10 years in the web), and more and more science-related people (zoologists, botanists, geologists and more) are begginning to colaborate with this microstock agencies, so we can expect some changes in the next years.

  13. Carmen-

    You have misunderstood me. My point in showing the identified/unidentified download statistics was not to provide “flawed data” but to emphasize the same point you made in your comment, namely, that the motivations of microstock buyers are different from that of traditional buyers, so microstock is not impinging as much on the same market as some photographers think it is.

    I’m not demonizing microstock. It’s a valid business model that seems to serve its purpose. It’s just that they don’t serve *my* purpose, so I don’t sell through those agencies.

  14. I just stumbled upon this post by chance, but I find the discussion very interesting. I am not a photographer, but as an istockphoto user myself since a few years now, I completely agree that they are completely different markets.

    Honestly, before the microstock sites most individuals like me who were creating personal websites or flyers for church, etc. simply ended up with ugly results (ie. Word Clipart) or breaking the law… whether it be through google images or by grabbing an image off of getty and cropping or cloning the watermark out. Paying over $100 for an image just wasn’t an option. But just like iTunes has proved that people will pay for something they could have gotten for free illegally if it is priced right and offered in the right way, these sites saw the market and capitalized on it. Some people need a new BMW, others are fine with their 1990 Toyota Corolla.

  15. Fotolia accused of systematically “ripping off” its contributors by witholding earnings and deleting their accounts

    Fotolia, an online stock-photo company, launched by Oleg Tscheltzoff in 2005, is accused of blocking access to accounts held by several contributors. Despite several phone calls and emails to various department heads, fotolia refuses to comment.

    According to one contributor, Gostwyck, “complaining on their own forum is unlikely to get you far as your post will probably be ignored/locked/deleted and also get you banned from accessing the forum. The discussion on either forum may be one-sided but in both cases it is due to FT’s policy.”

    By all accounts this is not the first time the people responsible for fotolia’s success have been treated with such contempt. In 2009 the company slashed earnings of its contributors in a change to their ranking system that led to many of its biggest earners removing their portfolio’s in protest.

    “By increasing the numbers required to reach a certain rank, fotolia did enormous damage to its goodwill,” says one contributor who wished to remain anonymous. “Fotolia is simply not a company you can trust. They keep changing the goalposts to suit themselves and contributors are seldom if ever consulted when it comes to decisions like this.”

    Photoshow, an ex-contributor who had his account deleted by fotolia in 2009, was quoted as saying; “while their changing the terms of ranking may not be illegal it most certainly is unethical to have so many work for so long toward a published goal only to move the goal miles and miles down the road just as a large number of contributors who have worked long and hard are on the threshold of reaching that goal.”

    Photoshow maintains the only thing that has ever worked against any of the agencies has been the threat to cut off the supply.
    “Remember we own the content therefore we do own the power. The question is do we have the courage of our own convictions to exert that power or are we going to surrender that power to the agencies by not standing up for ourselves,” Photoshow added.
    With reports of fotolia securing increased funding its backers and members of the public would do well to ask themselves if this at the expense of it contributors.

    More info on this story here:;PHPSESSID=a2945c8f4bfb320185f28c113a78186b#new

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