What Is Microstock?

What Is Microstock?

Microstock is the name used to describe the low cost segment of the stock photography industry. Images are usually sold under a royalty free license, for which the contributor is paid a small amount (micro payment). Microstock has now come to include photos, vectors, video footage and audio files.

So what is microstock? It usually involves the following conditions:

  1. Images are sold at a low price
  2. The image supplier receives a small commission
  3. Images are sourced from both professionals and hobbyists
  4. The images are sourced via the internet from a global audience
  5. The buyer rarely, if ever, gets exclusive rights to the image
  6. The image is sold under a royalty free license
  7. The image won’t be found in high-end traditional stock collections

What Is Stock Photography?

The term stock photography describes high quality photographs that are readily available for commercial purposes. Stock photos are part of a  pre-built collection (or stock) of photos on hand for when the need arises. This contrasts with having an image need and then commissioning the shoot.

Stock photography has reportedly been around since the 1920’s, but really came into its own in the 1980’s. Agencies would hold negatives or slides from professional photographers and sell them to clients. Eventually agencies began providing CD-ROM’s with packs of images, until the internet changed the way the industry worked.

Stock Photography

What Is Microstock Photography?

It is the low cost segment of the stock photography industry. While microstock encompasses much more than photography now, most people associate the two together. It is the most rapidly growing part of the overall stock photography industry.

In May 2000 iStockPhoto was founded and microstock began. This allowed many more photographers to be involved with stock, as the traditional agencies were difficult to break into. Shutterstock wasn’t far behind, in 2003 introducing the monthly subscription modal.

So we’ve answered what is microstock, but why would you want to be involved with microstock photography?

Think of it like this: Imagine you’re an apple farmer. You produce a lot of apples. But how do you sell them? You could hope to sell just a few apples, at insanely high prices. Or you could sell your whole harvest to the big supermarkets for a low per-piece price. That of course is what farmers do, but they make up for it in volume.

Microstock is similar. You provide your photos or other media to the big agencies (supermarkets). When you sell in volume you receive small micro payments for each sale. People are willing to buy your images at that price because it is reasonable. And you are willing to sell on volume rather than at a premium. The beauty of microstock versus apple farming is your product is digital – meaning one image can sell thousands of times over.

What Is Royalty Free?

Royalty free (or RF) does not mean the image itself is free. Rather it defines that once the license has been paid for, the image can be used many times without the need for extra fees or licenses. Additionally royalty free designates that there are no geographical restrictions or time limits on image use.

Each stock agency will have slightly different terms in their royalty free license, such as the maximum number of print runs allowed before you need to purchase another royalty free license. But usually these limits are so high (often 500,000) that one license is sufficient for most buyers.

Royalty Free Stock Photos

It is important to note that royalty free doesn’t mean that there are no restrictions on image use. Almost all the agencies restrict things like pornographic or extremist use, or using an image of a model in such a way that could be demeaning to the model involved. Also, you generally cannot use a royalty free license to make a logo or to print on products for sale (such as a calendar). Some agencies offer an ‘extended’ or ‘enhanced’ license which gives rights for some of these uses.

What is Rights Managed?

A rights managed (or RM) license allows the buyer one-time use of the image within the boundaries of the license. For instance, the purchased RM license may have certain geographical restrictions or time limits. Or it may specify the type of media in which the image can be use (print, internet website etc).

Rights managed is the more traditional type of image license and is far more restrictive than royalty free. Microstock does not use the rights managed license.

What is an Editorial License?

Editorial licenses apply on images that cannot be used commercially to advertise or promote a product or service. That is usually because the contents of the image (people, property or objects) do not have the necessary releases for a normal royalty free license. Thus an image licensed as editorial can only be used to illustrate newsworthy and current events. You can read more about Shutterstock’s editorial guidelines here.

Why Buy Stock Photos?

We’ve answered the big question – what is microstock? But why should you consider buying stock photos? It can seem like everyone else is just copying images from other people’s blogs or Google Image Search. But is that wise? Briefly outlined below are just some of the reasons why spending a few dollars on paid images makes so much sense and how it protects you from any nasty surprises.

Buying Microstock Images Protects You

Let’s think about this logically for just a minute. Which makes more sense – infringing copyright and being sued over a tiny picture used on your product, advertising, blog or other –  or paying about $5 to get it legally? Surely this one’s a no-brainer.

What most people probably don’t realize is that buying microstock makes getting pictures legally very, very cheap. So cheap that you’d be crazy to run the risk of being sued for thousands when you could have avoided it for peanuts. So why is buying microstock a great idea? It makes perfect financial sense, plus it will protect you legally.

Microstock Licensing Gives You Options

What you are buying is probably going to be far more useful than you initially think. Every time you buy microstock images, you are granted a Royalty Free (RF) license with that image. We discussed this above, but let’s sum it up by quoting from one top agency, Dreamstime

“What Royalty-Free means is that you pay for the image only once and then you can use it as many times as you like, with just a few restrictions. In other words, there are no license fees except the initial fee and no other royalties to be paid except those included in the initial cost. Note that the maximum number of copies for printed materials is 500,000 copies.”

Wow is right. Pretty impressive stuff for just a couple of dollars! So just to clarify – you buy a microstock image once for a few dollars and then you can use it basically as many times as you like, in multiple mediums, and it’s legal! If you need to use the image to put on products to resell (eg: calendars, t-shirts, mugs, puzzles, print-on-demand services etc) then there is just a small additional fee to allow that as part of your license.

So Much Variety

The incredible variety of microstock has to be seen to be believed. Many of the big agencies now have 100’s of millions of images in their collections. That is a whole lot of choice for buyers. Think too, that this figure doesn’t just hold photos. Many agencies now supply photos, vectors, footage and audio – with some even doing more. No matter what digital asset you are chasing, you are pretty much bound to find it in microstock. There are also great site like Envato Elements where for a flat monthly fee you get unlimited access to all media, from fonts to photos.

One final thought on why it makes sense to buy microstock images is the sheer brilliance of some of the work out there.

Don’t think for a moment that because the photo or vector illustration sells for a small amount that automatically the quality must be low. In fact, microstock is so strict these days that most images are taken on high-end digital SLR’s and processed by professionals using the best software available. The result is some truly amazing images that will no doubt enhance your project – and allow it to stay within budget.

There’s no way around it. Buying microstock images is just simply the best option for almost any need.