What is Microstock?


New York Skyline © 2013


Microstock is a word that comes from the merging of the terms micropayment and stock photography: in other words, Microstock is the combination of stock photos (image banks) of high quality, whose usage rights (licenses) can be purchased at a price infinitely lower than the price applied by a traditional photo agency.

Brief History of the stock photography market

The Microstock has emerged in the last 15 years spreading around the world, due to the thrust of technological change and the spread of the Internet on a large scale. Previously, since the 90s, the big stock photography agencies (i.e. Corbis and Getty Images) had developed a business model already perceived as revolutionary, creating stock photos of the highest quality, with the help of professional photographers. From these archives, customers such as advertising agencies, designers, publishers and webmasters could search for images and illustrations to suit their needs and buy them to finalize their projects without having to use a professional photo shoot, certainly more expensive, though more specific and tailored to the project.

Starting in the 2000s, two major trends have contributed decisively to the development of the Microstock market:

  • the technology to capture digital images of good quality has given access to a growing multitude of non-professionals people who are able to shoot photographs of more than acceptable quality. Moreover, the large spread in recent years of digital SLR cameras towards non-professional users had further increased the average quality of the images generated by amateur photographers and fans;
  • the spread of the Internet on a large scale has created a potential offer of online digital content, which was unimaginable until a few years before. Anyone with an internet acces who can generate good quality images, becomes a potential seller of valuable content at any corner of the globe: the encounter between potentially boundless supply and demand, a typical scale effect (although in a specific scope) of the so-called globalization.

In 2000 iStockphoto started as the first Microstock agency in the world, first created as a simple photographic community in which anyone could help by distributing their images for free. Since 2001 iStockphoto started to ask its users for a small financial contribution (micropayment) for downloading and using the pictures from the archive and that’s how the Microstock market was officially born. In the following years, the mechanism has been consolidated and other agencies have started their business in competition with iStockphoto, as for example Dreamstime, Shutterstock and Fotolia. The proliferation of online microstock agencies has created considerable concern to the traditional photo agencies, which could not help but join in the business race through acquisitions of small microstock agencies and, at the same time, through price reductions of the images in their archives.

The business started working soon and continued to grow because the demand for images each day all around the world is always constant. Just think about magazines, catalogs produced by companies, websites, advertising agencies. Examples are countless. We live in a world made of images and the opportunity to buy them at a very low price and with a high quality was obviously a decisive propellant for the development of this industry in recent years.

St. Peter’s Square, Rome, Italy © 2012


[dropcap size=”280%” textcolor=”#1e73be”]What exactly does it mean to buy a microstock image? It means being able to download a chosen image, achieving at the same time the license (and therefore the right) for using it for different purposes. If this right of use is achieved without limits of time and space, in general we talk about Royaltyfree images (RF): anyway there are restrictions applied to these limits, such as the limited edition (if the images are used on printed materials) or the limited use about the merchandising, for which it is needed a so-called extended license, much more expensive. Otherwise, if the use is only intended for limited circumstances, then we talk about Rights-managed images (RM). In all cases the cost of these licenses is relatively low, because these images are not specifically tailored to the buyer’s needs, but they have obviously a character of generality to which the buyer must somehow adapt. Furthermore, there are no constraints due to exclusivity: the same image can be sold thousands of times to different customers who may use it for different purposes. Finally, the author continues to keep full rights ahout the image, being able to use it personally or to sell its use whenever and to everybody he wants.

More about the world of Microstock at the following pages:

Top Microstock Agencies

What Images sell best on Microstock market?

Legal Issues about Microstock and Digital Photography

How do buyers use microstock pictures?

Earnings and Payments in Microstock 

Promoting your portfolio, Referral/Direct Links

Being an Exclusive Author in Microstock

Tax Center

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Expert in Marketing and Communication in a major company of the Italian FMCG market, traveler by vocation, passionate photographer, contributor at all major international microstock agencies, founder of Marcor$tock, a blog focused on Microstock Market and Digital Photography.