Micro(stock): Passion, paychecks and an interview with Nicole S. Young

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(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

There’s little doubt that microstock is a contentious topic. On one hand, it gets the blame for placing downward pressure on the prices of stock photographs, to the detriment of photographers who make their living this way.

On the other hand, it receives credit for giving photographers, especially those new to the vocation, the opportunity to take some of their photos to the market and see if anyone is willing to pay for them (admittedly sometimes at ‘bargain basement’ prices). And it may lead to bigger things – there are photographers who started out at iStockPhoto who have been taken on by Getty, its parent company.

You’ve probably read about photographers like Yuri Acurs who make big money from microstock and the obvious question is how hard is it to reach the same level of success? There are so many variables that it’s impossible to give a definitive answer. I haven’t tried microstock myself so I’m not the person to ask (I have my opinion about it but it’s just an opinion, nothing more). However photographer Nicole S. Young does make a living from microstock photography and she’s written an eBook about it – (Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck – for Craft & Vision.

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck – for Craft & Vision

The thing I like about Nicole’s eBook is that she writes about her personal experiences with microstock and some of the important lessons she’s learnt along the way without making any wild claims or exaggerated promises. If you’re interested in making money from your photography in any way at all, regardless of whether you’re specifically interested in microstock, this book is a good buy.

That’s because Nicole explains some of the legalities (such as model releases and other permissions) that you need to be aware of regardless of how you intend to make money in photography. But you’ll also come away with a greater understanding of the microstock business model and whether it could be a viable part of your business plan. After all, you don’t have to make it your full time business – it may grow into a handy part-time income.

I thought it would be fun to ask Nicole some questions about her photography and some of the more controversial aspects of microstock photography. I didn’t quite give her a Jeremy Paxton style grilling but I asked what I like to think are some tough questions.

All the photos in this article are taken from Nicole’s eBook. They’ll give you a good idea of the quality and style that microstock demands. You can buy the eBook or read more about it at this link: (Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

Here’s the interview – Nicole’s contact details are at the bottom:


How would you describe your creative vision – what themes are you trying to explore in your work?

I love to photograph things that move (like people), things that don’t last (like a rolling fog), or things that challenge me (like having to style my food photographs, or play with and sculpt light). I love to be surprised by my work. I love the feeling of pre-visualizing a photograph, but still not knowing exactly what it’s going to look like and working through that tension. I love colour, happiness, and emotion.

Who are your three favourite photographers and why do you like them?

That’s a tough one. I really can only think of one at the moment – there are a lot of photographs I like but it’s difficult to say which photographers are my favourites. With that said, Gregory Crewdson has to be my number one favourite photographer—all of his work is amazing, inspiring, and seems to be the stuff that you only see in your dreams. His photographs are huge productions, like a movie with only one climactic still frame to show the entire story. His photos are surreal, dark, and powerful.

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck – Where did the idea for the eBook come from? Talk us through the process you went through – from gestation to publication.

I wrote this eBook because I got to know David through Twitter, he knew I was a full-time stock photographer and he asked if I would write about what I do. I’ve done a lot of writing about microstock, and this was a step further than I’ve ever taken it. The process was like a lot of my books – get it outlined, organise my thoughts and then piece it all together. A lot of it is organic, things will start one way and then go in a different direction. My goal was to just be as honest about my perception of the microstock industry as possible.

What are the key lessons you learnt from the process of writing the eBook? What advice would you give someone who would like to write something similar?

I think I learned to not write two books at the same time, haha. Writing for me feels like work. I really enjoy it, but it’s different than photography. It also can be exhausting — I tend to be really hard on myself and am a stickler with deadlines (give me a solid date and I’ll meet it!). I guess my advice would be to not force anything. Let it be natural, organic, and come from you. I always find it easy to talk and write about personal experiences, so that’s usually where I try to pull my energy from when I write.

You also have written several books for Peachpit Press. I’m going to ask you the same question – how did the ideas for the books come about and what steps did you have to take it to get them published? What advice would you give to anyone who would like to write a book about photography?

My book-writing experiences started with Peachpit started because they called me up and asked me to write a book. I had the Canon EOS 7D camera for a few months, they needed someone to write a book about it and the rest is history. My advice for anyone who wants to write about photography is to, well, write about photography. If you have a blog, use it. Post photos, stories, how-to’s – whatever style of writing you enjoy, put it on your blog. If you want to be noticed by a publisher then it’s always a good idea to make your work available – think of a blog as a “writer’s portfolio”.

Any more eBooks planned for the future? If so, can you drop a hint at this stage to the topic?

Right now, nothing solid but I do have some ideas. I just finished a book on Food Photography for Peachpit and I’m going to take some time to relax and focus on my own work and personal projects. I’m sure I have another eBook in me, probably some more print books, too, but right now I want to focus on photography.


Microstock is a controversial topic, because it’s a business model that’s seen to be lucrative for the microstock providers, a good deal for photo buyers (the price of stock photos has fallen dramatically) and a poor deal for photographers. Personally, I struggle to see how a photographer can recover the costs of a photo shoot, let alone other business overheads (depreciation etc.) plus make enough money on top of that to make the effort worthwhile.

I have sympathy with the idea that microstock companies concentrate on making money for themselves and are taking advantage of photographers, many of them amateurs, who are willing to upload photos to their sites and sell them for a profit of a few cents or dollars each. Am I wrong? What’s your take on this?

I hear this argument often, and a lot of people have brought it up and commented on this exact topic since the eBook has been published. I believe that we all have a choice with what we do with our photographs – I mean, nobody is holding me at gunpoint telling me to upload my photos to iStock “or else”. Then again, I sell enough photos so that the “few cents or dollars” per photo adds up to pay my bills, insurance, taxes, savings, photo-shoots, etc. Any photographer who doesn’t like this business model doesn’t have to be a part of it, and I don’t think that there’s any reason to feel sorry for photographers who are.

Really though, it’s always tough to navigate when it comes to talking about money and photography. I love photography, I’m an artist and I make a good living from it — I’m living my dream and couldn’t be happier. I know that a lot of people think that licensing images at a smaller amount than traditional stock photographers do might seem like I’m not getting what my photos are “worth”, but it’s not about just one photo.

I have several photos that have made well over $1,000 USD each, and I have some photos that have either never sold or only made me a few dollars. But it’s not about each individual photo, it’s about the collection of images that I have in my portfolio and the return I get based on that collection. If I were a traditional stock photographer with the same portfolio, made the exact same income but it was only off of four or five photos per month instead of one thousand (for example), then what’s the difference?

In your eBook, you write that microstock has bought affordable photography to casual users who perhaps couldn’t afford it before. But major photobuyers have also been using microstock to buy photos at rock bottom prices.

For example, Time magazine recently used a microstock image on its cover and paid the photographer $30, a saving of nearly $3000 for the magazine compared to the fees it normally pays for cover photos. What’s your opinion about this?

Again, another tricky topic. Overall, that’s just how it is and I personally don’t really care. If it were my photo used on the cover that would be pretty cool, but if Time (or any company, for that matter) approached me to actually create a cover shot, or use a photo I have that is not in my iStock portfolio, I wouldn’t charge them “microstock” prices. It’s also very rare to see microstock photos used in high-profile placements like magazine covers.

A lot of microstock customers are small companies—bloggers, teachers, non-profits, churches, etc. and it’s these customers that seem to make up a lot of the image licenses. I think it’s great that there are affordable high-quality images out there for smaller companies when, in the past, all they really had was clip-art or their own images to use – or illegal downloads from the internet (but that’s an entirely different topic altogether).

In terms of subject matter, what is the sort of thing that sells well? For instance, in your eBook you have plenty of photos of children. According to Amateur Photographer magazine, Alamy have over 15,000 photos of the Eiffel Tower in their library.

In other words – it seems that if you’re planning to make money from microstock taking photos of famous buildings, you’re going to have a difficult job. How do you decide what sort of subject matter to shoot?

Knowing what sells and what to shoot is one of those things that takes some learning when you get started in the microstock industry. I photograph a lot of people, and more recently I’ve been photographing a lot of food, too, and so far it’s been doing well for me.

Then again, there are so many concepts within those subjects that can be explored, and while I share a lot of information about photography and microstock the one thing I will never publish is my list of ideas for future photo-shoots. But even if you have a great subject and a great concept, you still have to execute the photograph well in order for it to have a better chance at making money. Photographic skill and talent is crucial to becoming successful as a stock photographer.

It seems to me that fine art photography and microstock are opposite approaches to selling photos. Fine art photographers want to sell a relatively small volume of photos at high prices, and microstock aims to sell lots of photos at a low price. Any thoughts on this?

Fine art and microstock are two very different things, since microstock is aimed more at commercial use of photographs rather than printing and hanging an image on a wall. However, there are a lot of microstock photographers who create work that is considered fine art.

The photographers I know who create that kind of imagery for stock do so because they love photography and want to express themselves through their art. In fact, iStock has some additional collections on their website where some of the fine-art and high-end commercial work is licensed at much higher prices than the regular collection, so it’s not all going for really low prices.


Nicole’s  blog
Nicole on Twitter

Photo Gallery


(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

(Micro)stock: From Passion to Paycheck

All photos copyright Nicole S Young. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

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