What is Microstock Photography?

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Stock photographs are used by a lot of businesses, websites and blogs, advertising or print magazines and for hundreds of other reasons. You don’t actually ‘buy’ a stock photo or vector image, instead you buy a license to use it.

Traditionally these were licensed for a single-use, if you wanted an image for a magazine spread you would pay anywhere upto a couple of thousand US dollars for an image, you would use it once then either license another image for the next project or pay for another license on the image to use it again, you could buy an image on a royalty-free license for unlimited usage, but it was often very expensive. Stock photograpy was typically used by large companies, as it was usually more cost-effective than hiring a photographer to do a commissioned photo shoot.

As the web became more popular, and technology expanded the usage of images from just prints in magazines and books or TV, to an everyday-item used in millions of blogs and websites, a new licensing model was needed to make licensing images at a reasonable price a realistic alternative for most small website owners.

The arrival of Microstock Photography

The web not only increased the number of image-consumers, and therefore image-licensors, but also significantly increased the number of people both willing and able to produce images for this increased market. A few small sites started up offering images initially for free (this is how iStock started), but then they realised the huge market available and decided to start charging a few dollars for an image-buyer to use an image for (almost) anything they like. This low-cost royalty-free licensing model led to a huge increase in the number of stock image licenses being sold.

The Microstock industry is now huge: there are about 10-12 major agencies offering not just stock photos, but illustrations, vectors, stock audio and video files too. There are perhaps a hundred or so other licensing agencies targeting specific regions, industries or niches at the reasonable cost-per-image of just a couple of dollars per photo sale.

Microstock is now a truly professional industry

Microstock has developed a lot in the last 5 years or so, most of the original start-up companies have been bought out by the big traditional agencies (Getty, Jupiter and a few others), and what used to be a handful of artists creating images for specific and well-established usage (business images, concept photos and typical corporate graphics for the illustrators), has developed into a huge crowd-sourced content production field, consisting of at least 50,000 people worldwide (some people put that estimate as high as a quarter-million). Most of whom are considered amateurs by traditional stock photographers.

It’s been a good few years of ups & downs in the stock photography industry recently, and many smaller traditional agencies are still reeling from the shock. Prices are starting to rise, as more of the content producers are expanding the way they shoot images to provide higher quality images, across a broader range of topics to increase the visibility of their portfolios, but traditional ‘Macro’-stock agencies are also dropping their prices so it’s considered inevitable that both the old-market and the new market will meet somewhere in the middle eventually, with all types of stock images moving to a price-point relevant to both their technical and creative merits.

I’ve been in Microstock for only about 3 years now, and even in that time I’ve seen a significant change in the way images are licensed, in the types of and range of stock photos available to be licensed, and in the changing opinions of Microstock with old-school stock photographers joining the game. Even in that short few years things like Creative Commons free image licensing, advanced Google image search, and a slew of new technologies to track image misuse, to present images in new models, and the upcoming rise of high-resolution cellphones and tablets make rich multimedia print-style magazines a reality after their last few years appearing to die a slow death offline.

How to get great cheap stock photos?

If you need an image for virtually any use, but you don’t have a thousand-dollar-plus budget, you have two real choices, either try and find a free stock photo that says what you want, or splash out a couple of dollars (typical is $2-$7) on a cheap stock photo license for a great image from one of the many microstock image licensing agencies.

Microstock is permanently established as the most cost-effective way to find great stock images at reasonable prices. If you use any images for your website, blog, app or any other reason, and have never bought a stock photo, give it a go, you’ll be quite delighted at how much time and energy it will save you 🙂

There are currently 5 microstock agencies which can be subscribed-to on StockPhotoFeeds, my personal favourites are probably Dreamstime because their site design is very helpful or Shutterstock (they have a very knowledgable forum community). All microstock sites you can get feeds from here for are:

It’s a great way to find images to liven up your blog posts or articles, to add some sparkle to an aging website, or to get the latest fashions in graphic design and photography into your project.

To easily find awesome microstock photos, Get the Microstock Photo Power Search Tool for Chrome or Get the Microstock Image Search Toolbar for Firefox