Life beyond Stock Photography

July 25th, 2012

Is there life beyond stock photography? And if so, is it worth living?

Stock certainly has a lot of advantages. It pays bills. It is fun to do. It is creative. It earns money even when you do other things. But then: it can also be a bit boring. The type of photography one is expected to deliver to the agencies is pretty well defined, and if you want to sell hotcakes you might narrow down it even further. Not only topic wise but also in terms of creative expression. No experiments. Even “new” trends (whatever there can be really new here) are toned down and adjusted to mainstream seeing habits before being accepted in the agencies and chewed down the chain.

In order not to become too narrow in what I do I decided to focus a then and when a bit on work that is out of scope for the main business. Work that is, in fact, not a business at all. I do not know exactly where this will lead to but am watching with curious excitement myself. I shall report further.

The Microstock Industry in 2011, Pt. 3: The Agency Side

July 17th, 2011

In the second part of this article we looked a bit at the challenges contributors face regarding the microstock industry today. Let us discuss the agency side in this third part.


What you notice first if you look at the agencies: there are many of them. Not as many as contributors of course, but nevertheless they need to look for an USP. There always was a need like this of course but with a rapidly growing market a lack of a good strategy or distinction was easy to hide; even so a large number of agencies failed. The pressure to stick out will get much worse.

One answer to that challenge was and maybe still is to be the agency with the lowest price. But on the long run the competition cannot work on the price front alone (and indeed the run to the bottom slowed down) simply because no business can survive with the price of its product reaching zero. Also with contributors becoming more professional and building their own trademarks, microstock on the (admittedly narrow) good end will be less of a commodity than it used to be. There will be (sort of) a war for talent and it cannot be won without some fair compensation.

Thus, other measures than lowering prices and cutting contributor shares will have to be found. As always, those things are – roughly – content management and relationship management.

  1. One obvious example could be to go for exclusive content. That will work for a while. The danger is that with the number of pix accumulating it will always be possible to find good pictures elsewhere. The concept may still work (if not as good as before) since with just one exclusive source to download an image it is easier for customers to check how often such image has already been downloaded and possibly used – maybe by competitors. An agency that is able to sell lots of exclusive content at a good price point may also be able to attract talented contributors who look for a way to ease the burden of account managing and wish to focus on shooting and procession pictures instead. Therefore expect to see even harder attempts by agencies to wall in their contributor base.
  2. Agencies will continue to look for more content and more types of content. Nevertheless, there will be a time when sheer numbers loose their magic. With 15 or 20 million pix on stock in the big players at this point another 500.000 seem less desirable that they did three years ago. Therefore, there might be more segmentation in the type of content in the future. Some agencies lead the pack here with a full set of media pieces (editorial and commercial pictures, code snippets, illustrations, sounds, videos and so on). They will be followed. Any agency that can pull the stunt to offer such a full set of media types can also show that it is capable of running the complex IT-infrastructure to do so. That I call building trust.
  3. Read the rest of this entry »

The Microstock Industry in 2011, Pt. 2: The contributor side

July 12th, 2011

In the first part of this article we looked a bit at “what you see” in the microstock industry today. But what does all this mean? There are, depending on your function and position in the market, different answers. Let us have a look at the contributor side first. For them there are numerous implications.


  1. In order to “survive” Contributors will have to produce better content. “Better” here is used in a broad sense: it does not only mean the visual quality of the picture – contributors love to focus on that. It also means that the picture has to transport a concept and the description / keywords have to verbalize this in a way understood both by the search engines and ranking algorithms of the agencies and the customers looking for pictures. Contributors will have to understand not only photography but also an agency (and their IT-systems) that treats them like air, a customer they do not know and a topic (in the picture) that is not theirs. In short: they will have to become much better in solving equations with lots of unknown variables.
  2. Contributors will have to produce more content and be able to process such content down the chain. They will very carefully have to decide whether they do everything themselves or whether or not it is wise to have other people process some given task, due to quality or for economic reasons. In order to decide this they will have to become aware of the processes they use, streamline them and make them outsourceable. They will, in fact, have to become a business.
  3. As with every business, the ability to act quickly and put the resources needed into every action will become more important. Microstock is a game where the contributor puts the money on the table first without knowing whether they will profit from that investment. The more one produces the more resources are needed to put in action. This is a financial as well as a logistical issue. For most new contributors with an emphasis on the first issue, for most established ones on the second.
  4. Contributors will have to have a much closer look on the market. Today many contributors still operate without any market research or content development based on the premise “produce and then see what happens”.
  5. Read the rest of this entry »

The Microstock Industry in 2011, Pt. 1: Analysis

July 3rd, 2011

If you are a microstock contributor, a fellow photographer or simply following the discussions in the respective web forums you might have noticed the complaints about falling RPI’s (Return per Image), growing competition, and generally the industry going downhill. The consensus seems to be that things were much better in the past.

Is there something to that? To a certain extend: yes. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.


You should know that indeed there was a gilded age for microstock. That was when the industry was young enough to be sniffed at by the professional photographers but mature enough to already have a strong customer base on the demand side. There was land to be claimed and relatively little competition. Even mediocre or outright trivial pictures could be sold simply because they were cheap. Conceptually good pictures, well executed, could make you a fortune.

Well, this is over. There are no sales anymore for the USB-stick with shallow depth of field or the not so incredibly well lit tomato isolated on white. The stocks of the agencies are filled with them and most of the existing pix have accumulated such an amount of ranking-juice that for the foreseeable future they will stick on the top. If somebody looks for a trivial (read: exchangeable) picture they will have an impulse to buy something from page one. That’s it for that.

On the other side there is no such thing as an end to stock photography just because there is already a lot of stuff, such as there is no end of science just because we already know a lot. There will always niches, there will be changes in the way we take pictures, in the taste of buyers, and the way models do their hair will be different in 2013. Promised. Read the rest of this entry »

Why shooting in a Disco Club is great

May 21st, 2011

When shooting standard situation you typically do standard things. More craft than art. Skills and equipment are there so you simply use them in the fashion you are comfortable with and you know that works. Therefore, to not get too boring, it is a splendid idea to do not so standard things in photography from time to time.

Two days ago I had the opportunity to shoot in a disco club with ten models, two make-up-artists, my full set of equipment, some time, and no force that kept me from experimenting. Now, if you ever worked in disco club with a party going on you know that due to the people moving, the light show, the dry ice fog etc. there is nothing you really can prepare for or count on. You more or less have to let go and simply try your best in every situation. Which simply means: having fun.

This is how I found out for example, that you can actually picture laser beams flashing through a group of people dancing. Never thought this could be done yet it can. I’ll have more of that later I think.


On the importance of a backup camera

March 23rd, 2011

there are situations that are unique. There are shootings that were difficult and expensive to set up. In such situations it is rather disturbing if your gear lets you down. Last weekend we staged a wedding (nobody was harmed). Logistics for such an undertaking is complicated, the mood is delicate and the whole thing wastes two handful of models and lots and lots of money. And my Canon 1 Ds Mk III – a camera the size of a mountain and the price of a well equipped city car – ceased to focus properly. Even with moderate apertures and under ideal conditions (much light, hi contrast, sedated models) the scrap rate was around 80%. It is known that Canon is the one camera maker who managed to somehow incorporate an epidemic failure in the AF-system not of the cheap cameras in its setup but exactly in the two most professional and expensive models. But my camera was fixed two years ago but now the error seems to return. It is surely not the lenses but the camera – all lenses work fine on the backup 5D Mk II. Which is probably what I want to say here: have a backup cam ready. It may seem as a waste of money so many times, but there will be a situation where it saves your life. Or at least your mental stability. Priceless.


Portugal calling

March 19th, 2011

Last October the kuhl crowd and I packed our stuff and drove (me) or flew (them) to Portugal’s amazing Algarve Coast to do a lot of stock photo shootings. I absolutely liked the mix of work and play (all work and no play makes Kzenon a dull boy): a nice old fashioned shoot on the beach in the morning, relaxation on the pool in noon, some sport and a bit party in the sunset for the camera in the afternoon and evening. I could have gone on forever but, of course, lasted only a week. I do not know if you ever had that thing of losing your spatial and temporal awareness completely because you are so absorbed by the things you do. This was what happened with all of us. I hope to be able to do something on this magnitude again this year of 2011.


How Adobe (nearly) prevented me from buying Adobe Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 3

June 13th, 2010

I just bought a new Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom 3 online on the Adobe site. Heaven prevents that I ever have to do this again. I had one of the worst possible customer experiences possible. I felt so much like 1996. Running a monopoly for too long has obviously dampened Adobe’s need to deliver, well, at least decent service to its paying customers. If there was any alternative to the Adobe products (at least to Photoshop – and do not say GIMP!) I would surely be using it now.


First of all it is surprisingly hard to convince Abobe to sell me anything at all. I used, as I always do, the US site. Well, US, the Internet is supposed to be international I thought. Through a desert which stylistically needs an update anyway I navigated to the products I wanted and put them in the shopping basket. For the checkout Adobe wanted me to log in with my Adobe ID. I did that. And was refused. The reason? My ID is valid only for the German store.

This is bad since for some silly reason the prices in the German and the US store are different, even for identical products. I want, obviously, an US/English Photoshop since virtually all books and tutorials are English as well. I could buy that for a good price on the US site or for an overcharged price on the German one. I was willing to swallow even that and typed the adress of the German site in my Browsers’s adress bar. Read the rest of this entry »


May 27th, 2010

It’s summer here. Finally. Kind of. That has, of course, a lot of disadvantages such as unbearable heat (we had close to 16 degrees today), sunburn (shone nearly one hour today) and general dryness (only 45 hours of rain in the last three days – the plants are suffering!). Then, on the other hand, there are the Dults and Waldfeste (traditional festivals) and there will be, finally, the Oktoberfest as the ending point of this season. After – and in case of the Oktoberfest which happens mostly end of September: before – a long and hard winter those festivals are a celebration of life, love, and beer.

People will wear colorful Tracht, the boys Lederhosen and the girls Dirndls which can be had in all colors and stylewise from straight laced to frivolous and where I personally and as a photographer prefer the latter option. Glorious times. And the best thing: they reappear each year.


Some private observations regarding the commercial real estate crisis

April 15th, 2010

Yesterday I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine who is – ironically – a real estate lawyer in America. We had a video call on Skype and he was doing some contract work sitting on the porch of his beach home. He is planning to abandon his office downtown soon – why would he want to pay the fixed cost of something he has no use for?


I do have a similar story. I always thought about moving my stock operations into a nice shiny loft downtown. It would feel good. And it would be of no use at all. I guess I’ll stay in my study and have my people working for me from wherever they choose to. I also do have no dedicated office as a lawyer – which I also happen to be.

The next big crisis in the US is the commercial real estate bubble. Why am I not surprised? Read the rest of this entry »


  • New Design, more Functions
    13. Aug 2011
    Finally, after hours (it only took hours, true!) of coding the new Blog is online. New design and improved functionality. You may download any stock photo shown here directly from Fotolia. Also, please feel free to check out the new "Free Stock" section. Have fun! Thanks Matze.
  • Good news for contributors - Abuse Report @ DS
    12. Aug 2011
    Dreamstime came up with a mechanism that enables contributors to report abuse of their intellectual property. Very good idea and I really which such systems would be introduced elsewhere as well since theft is becoming more and more of an issue. Read more here.
  • Rob translated my Series on the Microstock Industry
    12. Aug 2011
    Rob translated my series on the Microstock Industry as I see it to German. Read it on his Blog. Tank you, Rob!
  • Attending the Microstock Expo in Berlin
    12. Aug 2011
    I will definitely be at the Microstock Expo in Berlin in November. Great chance to meet and talk and drink way too much coffee. Will you be there? Just drop me a line!
  • New Blog Design is in the Making
    12. Aug 2011
    Codewarrior Matze is working on the new webdesign for - new look and improved capabilities. Watch out for the new stuff. Get your kicks at