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Photographers Direct vs. Microstock Sites

Why will Photographers Direct not represent photographers who have images on microstock / micropayment sites?

Because they are the antithesis of Fair Trade Photography. Microstock sites (which sell Royalty Free images for 1 to 50 dollars) prey on the lack of industry-experience of amateur photographers.

The only people who benefit from these sites are:

  1. The site owners, because they make money from the images and do not care about the damage they are doing to professional photographers' livelihoods.
  2. The buyers, who cannot believe their luck at being able to get images for a few dollars, and being able to use them as often as they like, for as long as they like, wherever they like.

The people who lose out every time are the photographers. Almost every photographer we have spoken to on this issue has expressed regret at placing their images on microstock sites. Initially they are excited at people taking an interest in their images and paying for them. Of course they like making an income from their images, but here are the facts:

  • The average fee for an image licensed through Photographers Direct is about 100 dollars, of which the photographer will receive 80 dollars. Images have been licensed for up to 5000 dollars. These license fees are usually for a single usage, not a Royalty Free license. The photographer can license the same image again and again for similar fees.
  • The average earnings to a photographer per image licensed via microstock is about 50 cents. This means you will have to sell on average 160 images to earn the same amount. These images can be used anywhere at any time and cannot realistically be traced. You are not 'selling' your images, you are not 'having success'; you are giving away your images, and the buyers cannot believe their luck.

Imagine the day when you see one of your images on a book or magazine cover. You will probably be very happy and proud, until you realise you earned less than a dollar from an image that is helping to generate possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in publishing sales. Is this fair?

The microstock myth is that this does not happen, that images off microstock sites are only used by designers for initial layouts and by 'mom and pop' businesses who would never pay more for images. If this were true, then shouldn't the license reflect it? If you are only paying a few dollars for an image, then it should only be allowed for personal use, a blog, or for businesses with less than 4 employees, for example. However the licenses are open ended. You pay a couple of dollars and you can use the image for anything, for all time. It could be for a billboard advert, a magazine cover, a tv spot.

But does this really happen? Yes it does, and what is painfully ironic is that microstock photographers love to boast about where they have found their images published. Once they have got over the excitement of seeing their work in print, they need to step back, take another look at that paycheck, and think 'Is that all my work is worth?'

A Quote from Photo District News:

"SAA executive director Betsy Reid pointed out a discussion board on iStockPhoto where members were congratulating photographer Lise Gagne, who wrote that she had just seen one of her stock images on IBM's web site.
'Once you're done celebrating, is anyone going to stop and think that you got 20 cents for that image?' Reid asks."


Can IBM afford to pay market rates for images? Of course! Would they pay 500 dollars for this same image if that was the price? The odds are they would. So why did they pay 1 dollar? Because that was the price it was offered for. The photographer has thrown away 499 dollars.

The painful injustice of microstock sites can be seen from the July 23rd 2007 cover of Time Magazine (yes, that's right, Time Magazine). Of the images on the cover, one is credited to Getty Images, one to istockphoto. How much did the photographers earn? A conservative estimate would be that the Getty photographer earned over 1000 dollars. The istock photographer? 20 cents.

Surely photographers should have the right to market their images where they like?

Of course, but we also have the right to make conditions on who we will and will not represent, and Photographers Direct has a duty to protect the livelihoods of all our photographers who agree that microstock sites are just downright bad. Here is an example from a microstock newsgroup of the perils of playing 'both sides of the fence':

"I signed up to Photographers Direct and was right on the point of selling 6 of my images at $120 each. I then received an email from the guy politely saying that he had found my images on Shutterstock and would I mind if he used them instead before he downloaded them. I politely declined and removed all of them [from Shutterstock] before he could use any, I was fuming at my own stupidity."

In this case the photographer was lucky that the buyer was honest enough to tell him he had found the same images on a microstock site. The buyer could have just cancelled the sale through Photographers Direct and downloaded the same images from Shutterstock. Rather than 576 dollars (which the buyer was clearly happy to pay!) the photographer would then have earned 1 dollar and 50 cents for the use of his images.

Further damage is caused because any buyer who uses a microstock site will begin to see it as the norm. Whenever they get a normal quote from a photographer for an image, their response will be 'but I can get images at microwhateverstockphoto for 1 dollar!' Where does this leave the photographer?

For these reasons Photographers Direct cannot represent photographers who have any images on microstock sites. This is part of our Fair Trade policy.

- Chris Barton, Photographers Direct