I came across this blog article from one of the tweets I received yesterday.  In this post, photographer Tony Blei blasted the guy, Robert Lam, who sold his image to Time Magazine for $30 via iStockPhoto. This isn’t the first angry professional photographer who got upset by the one controversial aspect of microstock photography: making many small (=cheap) sells and making as much as they could from just a few large sales on traditional stock photography. Here is another one who got angry about the same photo. It is fascinating to read the article and the 100+ comments posted by his readers.

Not meant to stir up controversy but here is my take on this debate.

First, did Robert got screwed by selling his photo so cheap? Probably not. If Robert had not been selling his photos via iStockPhoto, would Time Magazine be able to find his photo somehow and pay thousands of dollar for it? Perhaps not. With super thin margins from the magazine business,  Time Magazine was likely pressed to save cost so they could have found a similar photo from other microstock photo seller, or perhaps had their staff to shoot the image based on the same concept. Either way, Robert could end up with nothing. Not all microstock images get published by national magazines. Most end up in very low budget publications, websites etc. None of those can afford thousands of dollars those professional photographers demand. To a certain degree, microstock photography devalues the practice of photography but at the same time opens up a huge new market that wasn’t possible previously.

Secondly, technology has reduced the barrier for taking a good quality photos. Stock photography is no longer the exclusive realm of professional photographers. Non-professional photographers can take quality images, very often as good as ones taken by professional photographers. They can sell them at any price they want to. If there is anything wrong with this, that’s the fault of the Capitalism. Anyone can undersell others for their own benefits. We can certainly understand the fear and frustration of some professional photographers who were stunned to see amateur photographers who take great photos and sell for much less. It is also not strange some of that feelings turns into anger and disdain. However that is meaningless. The pros who feel threatened should really move up the ladder and distinguish themselves from lower tiers of the system. People like Robert or other non-professional photographers  may never get accepted to high end stock photo agencies that do sell photos for more money and have higher standards for accepting photos and photographers.

Thirdly, can microstock cover the costs? The question is probably better suited for professional photographers who make a living on photography. Most non-professional photographers started in photography only because of their passion for photography or using it as tool to capture the moments of life. If they don’t sell anything, they would never recover the cost of their equipments. Selling any is better than selling nothing. Can microstock sellers make a living? It depends on how much efforts you put in. I know many who on iStockPhoto that make very good amount of money and even livings out of their portfolios. Personally, I joined iStockPhoto since early 2005 and I have only about 350 photos and some illustrations. I have made over $6700 since without putting in too much effort. That’s enough to cover all the equipments I have bought over the years.

What is your opinion on microstock photography? Please share your thoughts below in the comment section.

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