That's what he said.

For Sale: Your Soul, Cheap

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 09:44 -- Doug

Several years ago I attended a week of offsite corporate training (read: mandatory conformity reprogramming) that, like many such events, didn't improve my life so much as waste a week of it. There were games to encourage teamwork. We took personality assessments before, during and after the course. We could have done as well with a crystal ball.

There were lame role-playing exercises and dull lectures full of unoriginal, uninspiring crap that we'd all heard before, and not a thing to stimulate an intelligent mind. It's a small miracle I didn't sprain my eyeballs from rolling them back so hard.

All of that should have been plenty on its own. Apparently, it wasn't. In one of the lectures, our dear instructor, a PhD in Psychology and founder of the company that was peddling this bullshit, left us with one particularly insulting little gem of wisdom that I really wish I hadn't heard, because I can't get the damn thing out of my head: 

"Do what you love, and the money will follow." 

Right. Tell that to someone who loves teaching. Or blogging. Or garbage collection. Actually, I know something that is potentially even more exhausting and less rewarding than any of those. It pays much, much less (on par with that Google Adsense account you've had open for four years now), costs more to run, and believe it or not, you'll be hard pressed to find a deeper lack of appreciation and respect for your hard work anywhere. I'm talking of course, about micro stock photography. 

I've been shooting for a while and have managed to accumulate a ton of photography that's just sitting in storage doing nothing. One day, I had this brilliant idea that if I could get my images to sell on stock sites, maybe I could squeeze a little money out of them. Not so fast.

The better stock agencies require you to submit around ten images or so as an audition. If they like you, you can be in their club. If not, you can try again later. I think that's fair. They're in it to make money, and to do that, they need quality images to sell.

I submitted my work to two agencies, iStockphoto and Shutterstock. Both of them rejected me on the first round, but just barely. I was an image or two short on each. It was disappointing at first, but I got over it quickly. I learned something valuable in each of the rejections and and was pleased in the knowledge that my work would be stronger going forward.

After waiting for the required time, I resubmitted my new and improved shots. This time, it worked, and I was accepted to both agencies. Now all I had to do was upload a bunch of my stuff and wait for the cash to roll in, right? Not so fast.  

The process of uploading and submitting is brutal at best. It took me hours—probably more time than actually shooting and editing the pictures in the first place. Here's more or less what was involved:

  • Upload the pictures. 
  • Scan and upload the model releases and associate them with the right pictures.
  • Come up with at least seven unique keywords per shot, (even for plain head shots on a white background, synonyms not allowed).
  • Title the picture.
  • Write a short description of the picture.
  • Assign each photo to site-specific categories. Do this once for each agency. They're  different on each site and couldn't be included in the metadata.

Wow! For all this effort, you'd think there's a ton of money to be made, right? HA! You're likely to make around 25 cents per image sold. Payouts typically start out after you've reached $100 in sales, so congratulations! You'll only have to sell 399 more times before your first check.

Now, I know there are plenty of photographers out there that are far more talented than I. I'm sure they'll do better. I don't want this to sound like a case of sour grapes. All the same, I'm betting most people will have to shoot, edit, upload, tag, title, describe and categorize a hell of a lot more than 400 pictures before seeing any money—if they ever do see any money. 

I mentioned Google Adsense earlier because there are similarities in the way they pay. Millions and millions of Web site and blog owners sport Google's ads somewhere hoping they'll make a buck or two. How many of those people actually ever realize any income? By comparison, how much of the Web runs ads that no one has to pay for? I'm inclined to think it's the same with stock photography. It would not surprise me at all to discover that a huge percentage of micro stock photographs sold never result in any sort of compensation to the photographer.

So that's it for me. Unless I have a sudden paradigm shift, I think I'm done with micro stock for good. After all, I could make more money taking my camera and a cardboard sign downtown. "Will shoot for cash. Get your 25-cent portraits here. Tips welcome."