As many people, I am using the week between Christmas and New Year’s to take a look back at the year and make plans for the next one coming. I have already done so at the end of 2015, end of 2014, and at the beginning of 2014.
Achievements in 2016
For me, this year has started in November 2015 when I received a request if I wanted to write a book about stock photography (still only available in German unfortunately 😉 ). Writing had always been part of my stock photography experience since the early days as a forum moderator at iStock in 2008, so I took up the challenge to put down all my experiences and opinions on slightly more than 300 pages. And while the writing itself didn’t take me all that much effort, finding the right images to go along with the text wasn’t all that easy. Also, I had to confirm a few experiences by producing, processing and uploading new images.
This has meant that a lot of effort on the side of the writing process went into creating new images, mainly for the microstock agencies. The way I had chosen in 2015 to go more into the higher priced was turned around by this, my uploads to Stocksy United and Westend61 have taken a deep dive this year and are my biggest regret looking back. Well, there is the first thing I am putting on my list to do better in 2017.
Overall productivity felt okay-ish this year. It has become increasingly difficult to track the number of images I am shooting, creating, processing and uploading to agencies. The more I diversify my reach, the more agencies with different portfolios I create. For the microstock images, I use StockPerformer (* affiliate link) to easily track my portfolio and it shows 1,045 new images this year, more than double the amount I managed to upload to microstock in 2015.
In addition, EyeEm has become an important part of my decision process these days (read more about that later in this article). I couldn’t find any indication how many images I had up for licensing through the EyeEm Market last year but it would have been around 300, many of them more of the “experimental” category, often older images that would not have made it into premium sites elsewhere and/or technically too bad to upload to microstock. Today, I have more than 900 images in the Market, so I uploaded around 600 new ones this year. A part of them, maybe around 100, are duplicates I also uploaded to microstock agencies. The huge majority are original files, available either only on EyeEm or in combination with a few other agencies above the usual subscription sites.
Overall, I have certainly fallen short of the goal of uploading at least 2,000 new images to my portfolios this year. Yet another goal to set for 2017, despite me failing almost traditionally every year. Though, I need to add that I shot a few hundred more images than the count indicates. I just didn’t manage to process all of my shoots this year and eventually will catch up, especially with those images I have planned for either Stocksy or Westend61.
My microstock sales have been mostly steady this year with Fotolia/Adobe showing a significant growth (alas, from a very low result in prior years) and the smaller agencies (Dreamstime, Deposit, CanStock, BigStock) showing a rather steep decline. iStock still is my second best earner in the microstock range but given the changes announced that will further reduce the royalties paid I am happy to be able to skip them for future uploads. Others have been catching up pretty fast, and I have no doubt that even if I would keep uploading, iStock would drop to fourth or fifth place next year.
Sales in premium collections like Stocksy United and Westend61 have been rising despite my failure to upload many new images. Longer sales cycles are not a surprise, and a single huge sale on these sites often make more money than a smaller agency in a few months. EyeEm was my most important growing agency this year, gaining a space in the top 5 already with a steep rise in the second half of the year. I expect EyeEm along with Shutterstock, Stocksy and Westend61 to be the fourth pillar in my royalty earnings next year.
- I uploaded less images than hope for (yet again)
- I uploaded to different sites than I would have thought a year ago
- I lost track of uploading to the higher priced sites that worked well for me, need to get better in 2017
- Effort still pays off, and diversification of sales channels has worked well for me
Decision making process: Micro, Macro, in between
These days, one of the question I get asked most often is how I decide which of my images I offer through which channels. The number of choices has certainly not become smaller these days. New offers pop up almost monthly, and as I often have published on my Facebook page, EyeEm has become the most important part of my decision process among those newcomers (if you are interested in the EyeEm Market, feel free to join our group on Facebook to discuss with others).
The early sales last year have been surprising, especially as my best selling image was one that I could not have sold anywhere else – a snap shot of me and my son driving in a car. We don’t own a car, so every time we rent a car feels very special to him (and me) and he wanted to share his excitement with his mom. That image was taken with the front camera of my old iPhone 4S with 1 megapixel resolution and rather crappy quality. Still it keeps selling almost every month, often multiple times, at rather high rates, so this image alone made me $460 in 2016 (also see my article on my best earners in 2016). With images like these, the decision is pretty easy. No other agency would accept them since they are too small or technically inferior to their expectations. And that’s how I started with having images for sale at EyeEm, Foap, Twenty20 or Markedshot. Partly images I shot with my smart phone but not good enough for Stocksy or Westend61’s SMART collection; partly images I shot in my early days with inferior cameras that resemble today’s smart phone quality.
Once EyeEm started to sell regularly – most of them through the partnership with Getty but apparently also a slowly growing amount directly on their own platform – it became much more interesting for me to try more. This has certainly worked well, EyeEm has overtaken many microstock agencies and already is in 5th place of my best earning agencies. The December sales report with almost $400 from just 16 sales was another highlight and rewarded the many uploads I have made. In addition, the changes to the collection going non-exclusive at the beginning of the year made the decision much easier since I can share the same images with 500px and Twenty20.
I also chose a certain number of images that I uploaded both to the microstock sites like Shutterstock and Fotolia, and sites with higher average prices. But in most cases I try to diversify, and I would not like to see the same image to show up at prices for $149 (at 500px for example) or even €550 at Getty Images if the same images is available for $10 at the highest resolution on the microstock sites. I am not even bothered that much by the subscription offers as Getty themselves are selling subscriptions to their large editorial clients with tiny royalties paid to contributors. But the single image prices should not vary by a factor of 50 for the same image in my opinion.
- “Authentic moments” are more than just a buzz word
- Technical quality is not important when it comes to sales
- A diverse mix of sales channels works well for me
- I am trying to differentiate between the channels rather than uploading everything everywhere
The market and me
In my opinion, 2016 has marked a turn in the stock imagery market. Not surprisingly Shutterstock has passed 100 million images in September, doubling its library once again within just 18 months – all other microstock agencies could have been celebrating their own versions of similar growth. The number itself is not really all that important. Yes, with the overall volume of the library, sales for each image on average is being diluted.
But I have noticed (maybe subjectively biased) that the variety of images appearing on the microstock sites is not growing along with the pure numbers. If you followed me for the last years and read the parts above, I have often quoted “2,000 images a year” as a goal. I felt this was a number that would have been shared by many others as achievable goal for a single photographer or maybe a team of two with some help from a spouse or partner. This year, I have more regularly seen contributors who achieve upload rates of 20-30 images per day. In the cases I have followed that didn’t necessarily mean compromises in technical quality or their photographic ability, in fact I was rather impressed by many of the examples.
However, I believe the number of “similars” seem to grow. A lot. Shutterstock had already outgrown the competitors by accepting many (almost unlimited) numbers of images as long as their technical criteria were matched. Other agencies were far more selective and started rejecting images as too similar, in some cases like Dreamstime to an almost (in my opinon) ridiculous level. With iStock significantly dropping their technical criteria to almost zero a few years ago, they seem to have started a new trend that now most other agencies follow. Acceptance of almost all and every image as long as it isn’t just the same object from almost the same angle with absolutely no additional customer value. Even tiny changes are acceptable these days if there is a chance that a customer could decide to not buy one of them.
This not only leads to growing libraries but more importantly to more boring, less diversified search results. Huge contributor protests against title and keyword spammers were the indirect result this year as some search results returned almost exclusively the same image in 50 variations. While contributors tend to exaggerate, I also assume these cases lead to customer dissatisfaction. In my opinion, the amount of images has went above the useful levels this year, and I am curious to find out how agencies will react. As it appears to me, this has already lead to certain customers (or some customers with a certain part of their demands) having turned away from the “afforadble and easy to use” microstock sites. Other place replicated the uncomplicated licensing process but added an element of curation which has become an important selling point. Though curation is always subjective and leads to confusion or anger on the contributor side, its main purpose is to present customers with all-good, all-different images. This is being appreciated by a slightly more sophisticated type of buyer than the average blogger and works well for agencies like Stocksy, Westend61 (both from my personal experience) and partly seems to work for Offset and 500px (both I can not offer personal experiences to tell).
The other trend I personally have observed that came to a new level this year was the shift from “many mid sized agencies” towards a more concentrated market. Adobe’s acquisition of Fotolia and the growing integration has certainly made a huge change. With iStock/Getty and Shutterstock as the established companies in the market, we have entered a three-way race with the smaller agencies rapidly falling behind in their ability to keep up in sales and marketing. The monthly earnings poll at MicroStockGroup used to show a “Big 4” with Dreamstime being close to the three mentioned; the “Mid Tier” section having five agencies like 123RF, CanStock or BigStock would have added up to more than one of the big tier agencies.
This year, the poll result lists was more confusing than helpful. Agencies like Alamy (more of a traditional agency with rights managed and rights ready images along with a lot of editorial imagery), Envato (more a market place than a classic agency/distributor) or Pond5 (likely on to be in there for video sales, not for still images) keep showing up in the Top section but not consistently and rather random at times; Dreamstime seem to have fallen behind; but also aside from those highly volatile agencies, adding up the smaller ones rarely gets close to one of the top 3, amongst which the difference is huge enough already. It appears that supplying smaller agencies is becoming more and more obsolete and as contributors notice this (or even more so, new contributors will not even start to supply the Dreamstimes and CanStocks), this kind of trend reinforces itself – less choice of images leads to less sales which again leads to less contributors uploading their images.
None of these trends are new or surprising but in my perception what had been a future vision has turned into reality rather quickly this year. I expect this to continue, and while I don’t give up supplying my smaller agencies (especially 123RF and CanStock which make uploading rather easy) I will follow closely if the additional effort still pays of.
- The microstock market continues to focus on the big three
- Huge libraries might become a challenge for customers to find the best images
- Curated collections are likely to profit from the overflowing mass market places
Overall look back to 2016
I couldn’t say that any previous years would have been boring. None of them went the way I had foreseen. Certain trends are obvious and could have been predicted long time ago but there are so many changes that each of us is affected differently. This year was not different, throughout the year I had to shift my attention and adapt my plans to the opportunities that came up and the disappointments that made some things impossible.
That being said, I feel very comfortable in my position at this time having the option to upload new images to so many different places to choose from. There is no way to tell if I always make the right choice about which images are going where. But as long as things work out all in all, I am confident to continue the path I have taken. Even after four years, I do not remember having regretted the decision to turn photography into my profession and leaving the exclusivity at iStock a single day. Arduous (to an extent of almost complete exhaustion at times) it certainly was but the rewards come with the effort. At this time I wouldn’t see a reason to change my path, only I expect further changes on the way ahead and the need to react to them.
I hope your year in review was a success as well, and/or you can prosper in the coming year. Stay tuned to read what I plan for 2017 in a new blog post soon.