The Truth About Microstock and Monkeys

Photo Business News & Forum made a recent blog post about how an Orangutan has been given a camera and is earning more from taking pictures than microstock photographers earn.  The article is based on very weak statistics and half-truths.  To get up to speed I suggest you head over to the blog post first.

This is my rebuttal to the points made in the blog.

…”Thoughts of a Bohemian” blog (here), shares the news that a 33 year old Orangutan earns a raisin for every photo taken.

The Orangutan taking photos and receiving a raisin – no problems,  full story here.  More power to Nonja 🙂

… you shoot, say, a gross of 500 images and get, say, 10 accepted.

Nonja Self Portrait

If you are shooting 500 images you are going to get a lot more than 10 images accepted.  I can’t say for others, but I know for myself that on a recent shooting day I pressed the shutter 1000 x and will be getting around 200 microstock shots.  I also have a quote from Yuri who mentions he gets 200 images from a day of shooting microstock.  So 500 clicks of the shutter would give 100 images accepted, not 10.

How long does it take for those 10 accepted photos to make $75? Quite awhile, when the average per-sale figure is about $2, according to Jim Pickerell, in this article.

Using hard numbers (my own), I make about $2.00/image/month.  So how long would it take to get my raisins?  $75 (the cost of raisins) /(100 images  x $2.00/image/month) =  .375 months or 11.25 days.  Unlike the Orangutan’s payment however, microstock earnings are perpetual – they don’t stop earning after 11.25 days.  An average microstock image can be expected to earn well over $100 with those having strong portfolios earning over $200/image average.

The numbers could be even worse. According to the iStock Contributors site here, the TOP contributor, Yuri Arcurs, in 4 years only has 5,006 files uploaded, which equates to 104 images a month, on average, that are accepted. the site lists Arcurs as having 136 new files in the last 30 days. In his profile here, it is suggested he shoots “hundreds of 39mp files per day…”, so assuming he shoots 5 days a week, and let’s say 200 images a day, that’s 1,000 a week, 4,000 a month, and he’s only getting 136 accepted – and he’s the TOP guy? That’s a 3.5% shoot-to-acceptance ratio.

Yuri has over 24,000 images on Dreamstime and over 25,000 images on Shutterstock. So to say that Yuri only gets 136 files ‘accepted’ each week is simple mis-information.  Yuri has ‘so few’ images on iStock simply because of their strict upload limits.  Yuri is in the top tier of non-exclusives (black diamond) and is still limited to uploading 35 images/week.  At 35 images/week that gives him nearly 100% acceptance ratio if he were to use 100% of his upload spots.  We don’t know how many images he tried to upload but I am guessing his acceptance ratio is around 99%.  That is a pretty different picture than the 3.5% quoted.

So yes, this generalization of math and microstock income provides the rough estimation that even a monkey is smarter than almost all microstock photographers.

To say the orangutan is smarter than any human is quite insulting, but to say that the orangutan is earning more than some microstock photographers is no doubt true.  Many photographers are not trying to make a living from microstock and are using it as a form of entertainment – as a hobby.  It is no different than uploading your photos to flickr or facebook.  It is simply a fun photographic activity.  If the orangutan earns more in raisins than these people do from their photos it makes no difference.  For others however, those who are into microstock for the money – it does make a difference whether the industry is viable or not.

Pulling data from last years poll we can see that 10% of the photographers who responded (out of 244 respondants) earned more than $25,000.  This is a significant amount and although $25,000 wouldn’t be able to support many families living in the U.S. it would be a substantial secondary income.  It would also be an exceptional income for people living in many parts of the world.


Changing to an income of $50,000/year we get 5% of the photographers making the cut.


Personally, I think this whole argument is a little ridiculous.  Many photographers have proven that it is more than possible to make a very healthy living from microstock.  That in itself should be proof enough that microstock is a viable industry.  Given that 5% of the respondents from last year’s poll seem to be making a very healthy income is substantial proof that it isn’t just a select few that can achieve success.  Microstock can be a profession for anyone with a little talent, knowledge of photography and will to make a serious commitment to building a portfolio.

About The Author:

Tyler Olson works as a microstock photographer who also runs the MicrostockGroup forum and blog. Being so closely involved in the microstock community as a submitter, forum moderator and blogger, Tyler is able to keep updated in the constantly changing microstock marketplace.
Posted on December 7th, 2009 in Editorial | tags: , , ,
  • The original post was desperately inaccurate, my mouth was wide open reading it the first time.. It was sad in a way. That somebody can be so inflexible and stuck-in-their-ways that they can’t even adapt to microstock is a personal shortcoming and this article was the rantings of a person who is aggressively against change.

    I think the term ‘micro-‘ stock is dated. There should be no such thing. This is stock. I imagine more licenses are being sold in ‘micro’ than in the traditional sector, a trend not likely to change. As the amateurs and professionals meet somewhere in the middle, it will be the quality of images that determine where and for how much they are sold, not the size of some has-beens egos.

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  • Thank you for this article! I can understand the disappointment of a seasoned pre-microstock photographer having to change, but really find the complete bitter devaluing of microstock by some of them really disgusting.

    Digital photography has changed photography forever and that is a good thing! Why should only an elite few be able to take great photos and make some money?

    I for one am a microstock contributor. I sell photos and abstract textures designed in Photoshop. I don’t make a living at it, and also don’t expect to at this point. It is a part-time activity for me. It makes me happy when people buy my images.

    Yes, at Shutterstock for example, I may only make $0.25 on most downloads, but I have images that over the last year have made a good $100 there. When you add in the earnings from iStockphoto, Texturevault and Dreamstime for that image, I’d say that’s a pretty good return for the small amount of time it took to take/make, edit, and keyword that image.

    Long live microstock!