Freelance photographers make a living by finding people and businesses that need small or large projects or a series of assignments shot and edited. Freelancers aren't hired as employees, so they have to continually look for work and hope to find recurring clients. Many photographers, though, prefer to work this way, and many business people actually prefer to hire freelancers as opposed to full-time photography staff. But one of the biggest problems facing freelancers today is the popularity of microstock agencies.
The Benefits of Microstock Agencies for Buyers
While some stock agencies are very strict about who's allowed to submit images, some are quite lenient and allow anyone, from a budding amateur to a full-time professional, to contribute photos of diverse subjects. All reputable stock agencies, though, have teams of employees who review all submissions to make sure they fit specific guidelines for quality. This allows buyers to browse through the images with confidence, no matter what level of photographer took the photos.
Depending on the microstock site and the type of use contract you're buying, photos are available at varying prices, making it convenient for those with high or low budgets. Obviously, having a large library of fairly inexpensive photography available 24/7 is a huge plus for designers or people looking for generic photos, so these microstock agency sites are very popular.
The Drawbacks of Microstock Agencies for Photographers
Despite the benefits that microstock agencies provide to buyers, and the opportunity to make some extra money that they provide to photographers, there's a major drawback that should also be considered. Would these freelancers have otherwise been paid more to create these images directly for a client?
If you're a food photographer, for example, and one of your clients added a new dish to their menu, they could either call you and pay an hourly rate plus any other applicable fees, or they could get a generic image of something that resembles their new menu item for a fraction of what an hour of your time would cost them. Unless they're incredibly loyal, the odds are they're going to grab the inexpensive stock image instead. You might still get hired if they need to revamp the entire set of images their restaurant is using, but in this economy, businesses are cutting corners and being more mindful of how they spend their money.
It's scenarios like this one that lead many freelancers to believe that microstock sites devalue the worth of photography on a whole. Having so many pre-shot images of common items, as well as large libraries of models in various poses, wardrobes, and situations, drastically reduces the need for freelance professionals. So while microstock agencies may not be the ultimate downfall of freelance photographers, they certainly don't help photographers make the money they deserve.
Finding the Happy Medium
Many professional photographers have embraced microstock as part of their own business model. When they're not working on assignments for clients, they'll shoot some stock images and submit them to their agencies of choice. This allows them to stay busy in between other gigs, and it also helps them gain some passive supplemental income while practicing and refining their skills.
Though this can be a happy medium between the pros and cons of microstock agencies, it's worth noting that there's no guaranteed return on investment of time and resources for shooting stock, as there's no control over if or when someone will purchase the images after they're uploaded.
Do microstock agencies help or hinder freelance photographers? Feel free to comment below. You can also join other photographers as part of the PT community while gaining access to courses, contests, and more.