As I was writing my post about the exploitation of the masses by a few, I realized I was missing one very important point regarding microstock: it is a pass time of rich people.

For one, you need reasonably good quality camera equipment that still runs in the thousand of dollars. A lot seem to be using a canon 5D which is $4000 out of the box. You also need a decent quality computer and appropriate software, which still also runs in the lower thousands. And finally, you need a broadband connection which might not be so expensive but yet not available everywhere.
Second, you need time. Either you are supported by someone else, as we see in the housewives model, or you are personally so indescribably wealthy that you can spend hours working on something that will bring you back pennies. If you can afford to spend a lot of time on something that has little chance to pay your bills, let alone cover the cost of the equipment, you must have some other reasonable income. Nothing new here as photography was always the protected playground of rich kids. Niepce, Lartigue, Bresson, and many others came from wealthy families.
But make no mistake, Microstock contributor is not an activity that will lift third world nations out of poverty and into the realm of the most powerful nations. It is not going to help a starving family of five come out of misery and live a life of decency.

It is an activity for the few, the wealthy, the somewhat educated that have enough leisure time to dedicate to an activity which is not a profitable one for the mass majority. Even superstars of the microstock world had to rely on other income before they reached those legendary six figures income. On a side note, if famed Istockphoto shooter Lisa Gagne is really making $100,000 a year, why aren’t any of her images on the Getty site ? After all, if she is that good, shouldn’t she be rewarded by having her status elevated to being one of the “Big Boys” ?

Besides being a “dumping” business model, where creators license images at a lost, illegal in certain countries of the world, Microstock is also a club for the few and privileged that can afford to spend time on a non profit activity that might satisfy their ego but not their wallets.

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15 Thoughts on “A Game for the Wealthy

  1. Joseph on July 30, 2007 at 11:13 am said:

    I am afraid you are wrong, very few contributors are rich and people using Canon 5D with great lenses are not that common.

    If it was the case, Microstock would make more money with their contributors (selling advertisement space and personal data to brands) than with their customers.

    Just contributors got a day job as a photographer or anything else and some sparetime. Their Day job is not that great. They would like to work more and earn more money. Though markets are not perfect. I don t think microstock is about vanity, it is more about money.

    Did you think about low cost companies? their model is similar (though not the same) compress cost and offer good value services at a low price for a new market. Their employees are not rich, they are just people excluded from the normal job market. People that a normal employer would not even consider (too young, too old, too foreigner, too black, too asian, too disabled or whatever discrimination is about).

    Microstock are in a best seller logic, they sell millions of pictures to people who cannot afford agencies and don’t even know anything about photo agencies.

    I don’t know about personal reasons of Lise Gagne or Yuri Arcurs not to go for traditional stock but I guess they think they are stars on a huge market they don’t want to be insignificant in a tiny market. Maybe they are just rational and want to earn money.

    I am sorry but I really think rich people in that market are not significant. And even in much different markets like Art or Fashion i don t think rich photograph are strong enough to dump the market. Bored people maybe though…

  2. All depends what you consider rich. rich is someone that already has a job, a house, food on the table, enough money to buy a digital camera, a computer and a high speed connection. To the rest of the world, that is a lot of wealth.
    Poor people have no jobs or have to have 2 jobs in order to pay their bills and certainly not the luxury to contribute to microstock. Just run a quick check in which countries microstock is the most popular. United States, Western Europe. I did not see any photographers from Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh or any of the third world.
    Furthermore, big companies use Microstock too. It is not a resource exclusively for small companies.

  3. Joseph on July 30, 2007 at 3:56 pm said:

    I must agree that you are right, photography and digital imaging is still for rich people for global standards, for people with education and who can read and write and who are not in slavery somewhere in Africa. For people who have access to water and electricity.
    And still in developing countries photographers are quite rich.

    Of course most human beings don t really care about pictures, advertisement and visual communication they are not part of the consumer society circus. I agree.

    But the point is Microstock means a better productivity for the industry. Millions of small businesses will access to illustration legally and with a lot of choice, not with dull clip arts from Microsoft. Of course some big companies too, but they will increase their demand of pictures and will cut some cost for generic illustration and therefore have more disposable budget to pay very expensive exclusive images.

    The environment is changing, but I don’t agree to those equations: big stock= poor professionals and micro stock= wealthy amateurs.

    Microstocks are opening a new market.

    and by the way what do you think of Creative Commons in the commercial world? it is a big productivity gain too, not just because it is all free but because it is even more diverse and versatile, isn’t it?

  4. I believe Creative Commons is another word for free. I have no opinions or related thoughts about “free” besides that in my world, it is a very bad word.

  5. photomavin on July 30, 2007 at 10:30 pm said:

    One question Paul: how many “pro” photographers (count the Magnum superstars too please) do you know that started making a living as soon as they picked up a camera? In my experience: next to none. I remember a now very top LA fashion photographer who in his early days lived in a place where the combo kitchen/bathroom were in the same room. You could fry your morning egg while …well you know doing what. How many had day jobs until they ‘made’ it? HOw many cleaned the floors of the studios of the shooters that they assisted until their break came? Except for the very rich; almost all in my experience. You also have another flaw in your statements: all photo buyers do not work in the US and Western European economies. Nor do many microstock photographers. Dreamstime has photographers in 172 countries. So please factor that data into your equation.

  6. Joseph on July 31, 2007 at 12:50 am said:

    well, free doesn’t mean everything is allowed. And it doesn’t mean either that companies will drink their budget since they can source some pictures for free (too bad for drink producers).

    Question is what is the impact on budget, and what is the impact on price of pictures that are perceived more valuable? Free pictures might lead to an increase of some prices, since more money will be available.

  7. dear Photomavin,

    And how many microstock shooters work in the same condition. probably none because there is no hope of making a living.

  8. ruiponce on July 31, 2007 at 7:53 am said:


    Your first assumption is flawed: The cost of entering microstock does not need to be anywhere near the thousands of dollars that you calculate. Many contributors use high-end point-and-shoots and low-end SLRs. Lower limits on most sites are around 3mp while 8-12 mps are the norm in the latest models of the ranges described above. This can put the photo gear closer to $500 than a thousand. Photoshop is indeed outrageously expensive, but there are several legal alternatives, from the free-as-in-free-speech GIMP (used in some Hollywood blockbusters under the name Cinepaint, so please skip any disparaging comments) to the fantastic Capture by Nikon (less than $200). That leaves us with computer and broadband connection, which can be found in any cybercafé for pennies an hour. Even in most third world countries.

    Secondly, the fact of the matter is that there are already plenty of microstock contributors from Eastern Europe and some Indians too. I both buy and sell microstock and from my perspective it seems that countries like India and China will become both suppliers and markets sooner rather than later. I already need material for those markets now and then and it is very hard to get. I expect that many established photographers (as in: village photographer, wedding photographers, press folks, etc.) from those countries will begin to contribute images. As explained above, their entry fee is not that high – specially if they already own the photo and pc equipment. Granted, there might not be benefits for everyone involved. But the lure is already very strong for them to join.

    Anyway, my two cents. Great blog – keep up the good work (and occasional controversy)!

  9. photomavin on July 31, 2007 at 11:30 am said:

    Dear Paul,
    How many pro photographers do you know who can’t make it above the US poverty level?

  10. The real question is how many microstock photographers are making a living solely on Microstock?

  11. photomavin on July 31, 2007 at 11:44 am said:

    Probably more than last year’s graduates of Art Center, Brooks, RIT etc are by now.

  12. Jack on July 31, 2007 at 3:54 pm said:

    This article is more about speculation than facts.

    Sorry but you need better sources than your gut feelings.

  13. niemiga on July 31, 2007 at 10:48 pm said:


    I definitely agree with you that microstock is a hobby for rich people. I currently have several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment and have made a grand total of $3.75 from submitting to microstocks over the last month. I can’t even collect that because that is no where near the payoff amount.

    It feels to me that it is a bit of a pyramid scheme where people who joined sites a few years ago will benefit and the new users have to meet ridiculous standards to compete with 2 million other shots.

    Back to the expense of the hobby. How many people commenting on this post have been to a developing country? When I was in Africa I really realized how rich I was since I was carrying gear that would take an average person there 10-20 years income to purchase.

    After reading this blog I’m considering dropping the idea of making money from microstock. It seems like too much work for such a small payout. I may try selling prints at art shows or galleries. That seems like a lot less work for a greater return on my time. Plus you get to shoot more interesting subjects. How can you get excited about shooting an electric meter? That shot has been downloaded twice while shots that I like are downloaded but not purchased.

  14. niemiga on July 31, 2007 at 11:29 pm said:

    I agree that photography is a rich person’s hobby. Taking a trip to a developing country will definitely show you that. I went on a trip to Africa a few years ago with several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment. For a typical Malawian citizen that gear would take them 10-20 years of income to purchase if they spent it on nothing else. I felt extremely rich but not in a good way taking photos there. That trip made me realize how spoiled we are in the developed world. Photography is definitely a luxury.

    Onto another topic – I do agree that photographers that submit to microstocks are exploited to a degree. A 20% commission is obscenely low. 50-80% seems fair to me since the overhead on stock websites should be quite low.

    Also it seems to me that microstock is a bit of a pyramid scheme on the more established sites. Does a new member have a chance to compete against the early adopters? How does a new image get noticed when it is competing against 2 million others?

    Just my two cents

    Thanks for creating such a thought provoking blog Paul.

  15. July 31, 2007 at 11:35 am

    “The real question is how many microstock photographers are making a living solely on Microstock?”

    More than 400 and half of them live in first world countries. Get your facts rights instead of silly speculation, I used to be a web designer earning a stupid £1800 a month. Now I have been a full time microstock photographer for two years.

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