A few years ago, back when microstock agencies were still relatively in their infancy boasting “only” 1-2 millions photos, i decided to join such a service as a contributor. At the time, i naively believed in the “get rich fast by selling your content” scheme. Armed with a bridge camera which spit out files you would get today with any average mobile phone i set out on a mission to conquer the world of online photography. Several dozen rejections later, with only two images accepted, i got annoyed and decided it wasn’t worth it.
Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I finally succumbed to one of my friends’ propaganda about another stock agency he had been using for quite a while. Unlike the first time, i joined more out of curiosity, since i knew that with very few exceptions the financial gains are quite laughable. Another reason which made me pick that particular service was an apparent respect for contributors, reflected by their rather generous commission percentages when compared to other services on the market. About a month later, i was already contacting support asking them to close my account. So what really happened in the meantime that made me go from hopeful curiosity to complete discontent?
Here are just a few of the issues which i encountered during that short period which, when reported to their support department, were met with standard phrases as fake and plasticky as a magazine cover:
- downright appalling feedback accompanying rejected images. Based on their own documentation, any file would be under scrutiny for anything from 1 to 24 hours. However, they would not spend a couple of minutes (at most) to clarify whether the issues were irremediable or otherwise suggest the changes that would help validate the photo. Instead, you would get the same tired responses taken from a short list of messages that seldom provided any valuable input. Take lack of composition for example which meant anything from improper framing and cluttered scenes to alleged incorrect contrast between two adjacent colors (as later clarified by one of their staff members).
- inconsistent acceptance behavior to the point of absurdity. While i appreciate a fine critique any day of the week, some of those rejections came right out of the blue. At some point i even stopped caring and just became curious just how far can they go. While i can understand subjective reasoning, i do have a problem when it comes to technical issues which are easily quantifiable and thus can be assessed consistently by multiple editors. Softness, noise and exposure are just a couple of the things which despite their mathematical nature were more down to luck. As for their take on white balance, i can only think of the sunrise and sunset sections. Then, there were always the “not what we’re looking for”, “not stock material” and “too many similar items” kindly accompanied by a patronizing advice guiding you back to the study room. As if my skill as a photographer would depend on the amount of flower photos in their database.
- overall useless customer service and improperly trained staff. The way i see it the purpose of human based client support is to provide a live conversation on any issues that might arise regarding the product, which should conclude with a practical outcome. Had i wanted to read lines from a manual, i could do just that without wasting precious time writing emails. I’m not stupid enough to get all warm and cuddly when reading that someone cares a lot about my feedback. Of course, there’s a whole other ball game when you get rejections based on “improper keywording”, only to have it accepted upon complaining. You would imagine that a leading web service would spend more time ensuring their staff meets the basic requirements for the job. Receiving stuck up, insulting responses a week after submitting a question doesn’t help either.
- conflicts of interests and censorship. This might really be nothing but i tend to be a little suspicious when the person accepting my submissions is also competing head to head for sales. Then again, there’s the “recommendation” not to discuss specific issues about the service on any public online outlets. I for one have a very low tolerance for marching with a fist deep in my mouth and even a lower one for accepting an idiotic state of affairs with or without an explanation. As a contributor based system, you have a responsibility both to your clients and your contributors and limiting anyone of those’ ability to express their views is a deal breaker as far as I’m concerned.
- unfair terms of service. The great thing about it, is that i finally learned my lesson as to read the entire Terms of Service and any other attached documents (as hideously long and redundant as they often are) before accepting anything. Unfortunately, it happened right when i decided to close my account (what looked like a bug in the Sell the Rights feature helped me made up my mind). Some of the rather disturbing stipulations i missed the first time were the inability to close your account or remove all files earlier than 6 months. You’d imagine that a service boasting several million photos wouldn’t mind loosing 50 files. You’d be wrong. Remember that they are a company which is only interested in making a profit, so nothing is too out of line if it doesn’t affect the user base. Giving them the benefit of the doubt or trusting their good intentions is either naive or stupid depending on your choice of words.
- lack of transparency and lies regarding the things influencing the search results standings. As a designer, i see the search feature on any stock agency’s website as their most valuable asset when it comes to selling their content. It only matters if it’s effective in helping me find the right content in as little time as possible, without having to try every possible keyword combination in the book. I honestly don’t care about who’s the photographer, what’s his track record, if he’s “harassed” the support department with emails or if he has a high rejection ratio. These are all things which the service should take care internally, without affecting the quality of results and wasting the clients’ time by trying to punish a punk contributor. If you couple this complete lack of transparency with the fact that a lot of editors are also top contributors, it really makes you doubt their integrity.
Still, at the end of the day, as far as most users are concerned, the check is all that matters. Does it really pay that good for the average contributor to make up for the time lost editing, uploading and keywording the files? I honestly doubt it. For me at least it didn’t. Of course, I’ve heard success stories of users making 10-20k or more a month, but let’s face it, that’s hardly the kid toying with his camera type of user. These are probably (semi)professional photographers who have ready access to a studio, props, models and equipment most amateurs can only dream of. For the rest there’s the joy (?) of making a hundred bucks every other month.
If these are all things you can stomach, then by all means go ahead and share your content with the world. After all, without inexpensive high quality photographic content, a designer’s job would be both harder and more costly. Still, a more constructive and transparent attitude from the agencies would certainly improve the overall experience for all parties involved. I for one am done with microstock and focusing my efforts into providing free photography via Flickr. More details to follow soon.