• In his first year he was making more money than a plastic surgeon
• Now has a staff of over 100 producing images
• Income “way higher than $3 Million a year”, 8 figures in sight
• Voted one of the most influential photographers of this decade
• Described by his staff as “irritatingly close to a pathological perfectionist”
Microstock photography, is a part of the stock photography industry. Although at first it was not welcomed by many in the industry, because it undercut the prices they demanded, it soon became too hard to ignore. Stock photography giant Getty demonstrated this in 2006 when they bought iStockPhoto, one of the leading Microstock photo sites, for $50 Million dollars.
The difference between a Microstock agency and a traditional stock agency is 1) Purchasing and offering images for sale is all done online & and 2) Images are sold at lower rates (anywhere between $1 – $20), with photographers concentrating on getting multiple downloads of each image to be successful.
When microstock agencies were young a select few made a lot of money by being the first to upload photos on popular subjects. Many exaggerated news articles were written which seemed to imply thousands of dollars could be made by simply ‘uploading holiday snapshots’. This made a lot of people attempt Microstock and abandon Microstock soon after. Usually due to experiencing disappointing download statistics or overwhelmed failure after having their photos rejected by Microstock agencies for quality reasons.
Time has taught want-to-be Microstock photographers that if you are to be successful – then it takes hard work, persistence and creativity.
My purpose in writing this article and doing this interview was not to exaggerate and excite people on the money that can be earned from Microstock photography – but instead, hopefully, give an insight into what it will take to be successful in this field in this day and age.
One man that has been there since the beginning, who has seen people come and go and who has a proven record in being successful as a Microstock photographer is Yuri Arcurs.
Yuri is from Denmark, although he spends most of half of his year in Hawaii, Thailand, the Maldives, South Africa, Norway or his photography takes him. For the last five years Yuri has been the most successful Microstock photographer in the world.
Over the last 10 years he has worked tirelessly to constantly improve the quality of Microstock photos and the quantity of Microstock photos he uploads and sells. Yuri licenses over 10 million individual images each and every year (which works out to about 5000 per day). Which means by the time he has prepared and eaten his breakfast he has already made more money than most people make in a day.
In 2010 PDN magazine voted Yuri as one of the most influential photographers of this decade. And they are right. He, along with other Microstock photographers, have turned the $100 million dollar stock photography business upside down. More and more people are turning to iStock, Dreamstime, Fotolia, Shutterstock (All Microstock agencies) for their photos – as opposed to paying the higher prices at traditional stock photography agencies like Getty and Corbis.
A recent survey done by MicrostockGroup.com on over 700 Microstock photographers discovered that 24% of them list as their biggest income – the income they get from Microstock. So potentially 24% of them are able to concentrate mostly on photography as their main income but what about the other 76%? What is it that Yuri has worked out which they have not yet?
Yuri Arcurs employs a full time staff of more than 100 people. How was he able to build up to this point, to be this successful – when he started just the same as all the other photographers – alone and with no Microstock experience.
Let’s find out:
AC: Hi Yuri, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Firstly let’s discuss the beginning. When and why did you get into Microstock Photography?
Yuri: I’ve always been interested in photography and specifically interested in perfecting shots. Technically, lighting wise or artistically. In the beginning, microstock was just a hobby. It was new and exiting, and I wanted to try it out. When I got a few great selling images, I started to study them, trying to figure out what made them sell so well, and I started to base my next shoots on research. Little by little, I started earning real money from it. In fact. I was earning the income of a plastic surgeon within the first year. At this point I found myself standing at a crossroad: Should I continue my studies in Psychology at Aarhus University, or should I risk it all and become a professional photographer? I decided to take out a month of my year to do nothing but photography. I wanted to test it out and see if it really had potential, and after that month I knew that this was just something I could not let go. I had found something I was good at, and I had to pursue it.
AC: How long did it take you to get up to an income you could live off, say 100 USD a day? And how many photos would you estimate you had online at that time?
Yuri: I believe it took about six months and I probably had about 800 images online at that point. I started doing microstock when it was very new and the competition wasn’t great. Today you have to be much more patient and have more files online before you can expect as much as 100 USD a day. Triple the months and amount of images, and you have yourself a good estimate of what it takes today.
AC: You seem to have been very business minded right from the beginning. It looks like you took everything you earned in the beginning and invested it all back into your business model. You built a studio, you hired staff. I remember reading a few years ago that although you were the most downloaded photographer you estimated you would be paying off your equipment and studio investments for the next year – can you explain why you did this, and explain how and if it paid off in the long run?
Yuri: I started doing microstock while being a student, and I lived as a student. It’s not really a luxurious way of life, but I continued living in a small apartment and spending very little on myself. I was always focused on not getting into too much debt, because I knew microstock could be a risky endavour, and I didn’t want to end up in a situation I would regret for the rest of my life. I took all the money I earned from doing microstock and invested it back into my business so that the next shots I would upload would be of a much higher quality than the older ones and thus be downloaded more often. I did this for the first four years of my carrier actually, never paying out much to myself really. Keeping to a very simple lifestyle. When I decided to upgrade it a bit, it started to dawn on me the monster I had created. I realized I had become extremely wealthy. Everything was within reach. I didn’t actually notice it for the first four years. I was so obsessed by creating the best images and being number one, that I kind of forgot the benefits to being successful.
All the investments definitively paid off and I was able to expand my business much faster than normal because of this re-invest everything philosophy. I never really spoiled myself or got into a “rich man’s lifestyle” if you will. I still continue this philosophy. I invest almost all the money I earn in the company and try to always push the limits and create better content than I have created previously. Many images cost much more than they will earn back. But…hey….They look great!
AC: What would your advice be to someone just starting off, having no experience in what is needed, not having the funds to hire professional models, what would you tell them to concentrate on?
Yuri: I would tell them to do their research before starting out and to prepare themselves for waiting a long time before they start earning real money – if they ever do. I see a lot of people just starting out doing microstock and expecting to earn 100+ USD after a month or two even though they have no knowledge of photography or even of what kind of content that sells. If you want to earn real money from doing microstock, you have to treat it as a real job, and acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to do it well takes time.
You don’t need professional models when you start out. You have to be creative and ask friends and family around you for help. A lot of photographers start out shooting still life images of fruit, baskets, office supplies, etc., instead of shooting real life human beings. What they don’t understand is that this particular area is so over flooded with content, and in order to excel, your images have to be more than amazing. The chances of getting such amazing shots when you’re first starting out are slim.
Yuri: I always consider all rejections I get, and I try to learn from them. If my images are rejected because of technical issues, I try to find out if it’s fixable or if it’s something I need to take into consideration during my next shoot. There’s no need to be angry about rejections. It’s a waste of your time and energy that both can be put to better use elsewhere. Some inspectors will be quite young in photography. Perhaps having just arrived at the position of being an inspector and simply don’t know very much about the technical aspects of photography. Just recently I got a stunning series of macro close-ups of eyes rejected for “out of focus” because the inspector did not know that on a macro shot you will have a very narrow focal plan as a consequence of the optics involved. Such rejections can irritate, but don’t mind them. It’s part of submitting to a micro agency.
AC: How do you come up with ideas for photo shoots?
Yuri: I review a lot of books and keep about 50 magazine subscriptions. Whenever I’m inspired, I write down the idea immediately so it’s not forgotten. Everything around you can inspire you – movies, music, conversations with your employees, friends or family, the weather, nature… Anything and everything. My iPhone is filled with snap-shots of ideas. Literally thousands.
AC: In your opinion what is the main reason people fail in becoming successful in Microstock?
Yuri: There are a few things. New photographers will fall in love with their own shots. They overestimate how good they are because they are young in mind. It’s a common problem with my new photographers, that they get too engulfed in their own work. Snap out of it and shoot some more instead. Also. A lot of photographers are impatient and expect to generate huge sums of money for mediocre shots right away. People have to accept the fact that microstock is becoming increasingly competitive, and if you want to earn real money from it, it will be a full time job, and you will need help with production, retouching, keywording, the uploading process and many other things. It’s hard work, and it takes time, skills and knowledge to become successful. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to still rise within the industry, but I think you have to have something special. A talent for both photography and business – being a skilled artist of photography alone is, unfortunately, no longer enough.
AC: One of you staff members described you as “irritatingly close to a pathological perfectionist” — a description you seem to agree with as you quote it on your website. How important is it in Microstock to be a perfectionist? In this day and age of Microstock would you say quality photos are a better investment than producing a quantity of photos?
Yuri: When I first started out, I used to value quantity a lot, but today I am much more interested in quality. You have to give the client what they need – even though they might not always be able to explain exactly what it is or even know it. As a microstock photographer, you create images that are seen by potential clients as small thumbnails among thousands – even millions – of other images. You have to give the client a reason to choose your specific image, and if you want this to happen, your images have to be perfect. On the matter of being a perfectionist. Yes. I am definitely an obsessive type in that regard, but unlike many other perfectionists I actually get out and create stuff. I get it done and accept the criticism of being “out there”, despite hating it sometimes.
AC: Is your income increasing or decreasing as the years go on? Do you feel like that is an indicator of the Microstock industry as a whole?
Yuri: In order to keep your income up within this industry, you have to constantly think of new ways of approaching challenges and ways of expanding your production and business as a whole. I have done just that, but it’s a constant struggle, and I think that is a good indicator of how the microstock industry is as a whole: It’s a battle and definitively becoming more and more competitive.
AC: A few people argue that there is no chance for people who start selling now to become as successful as some of the more established Microstock photographers. Do you agree? Could they learn something from your business model?
Yuri: I would really love to say that I didn’t agree, but I have to be honest. I think it will be incredibly difficult for people starting out now to become as successful as the people who started out 5-7 years ago. A lot of microstock images out there are of such high quality that you need really expensive gear and a very professional post-production process to get anywhere near this standard. I think you need to invest a lot of time and most likely also a lot of money in acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed. I would recommend that people wanting to start out would take jobs as photography assistants. Find a mentor who already has the gear and will help you learn how to use it. See how he or she does things and learn from it. When you’re ready to stand on your own, try not to. Instead, work together with other photographers in small groups or teams and share production costs while still all benefiting independently from the income generated by the shots each one of you take.
AC: I have seen a video of you doing a shoot on an exotic island with up to four staff present. When you plan out a shoot and the costs involved in doing this – do you weigh up how long it will take for those photos to pay themselves off? For instance it costs you $1000 to create 100 photos but these 100 photos will make you $1000 in one year. I just wonder if that is a way for new photographers to find a niche, find something that hasn’t been photographed, invest in doing the shoot – as opposed to shooting the same old shots others are shooting.
Yuri: I like your example, but making a profit in one year is nearly imposible. My average return on investment is currently about 30 months and I’m the world’s best! I always take financials into consideration, despite allowing a bit of freestyling here and there. Having been in the industry for such a long time now, I have a good idea about what kind of images pay off, and when I plan a production (especially one overseas), I always have a goal of how many images I need to walk away with in order for it to have not been a waste. When shooting in the Maldives the whole production cost about $80,000 and I got 1500 images out of that, but worked day and night literally for 20 days with about 6-7 staff + models. I came home from the Maldives and needed a vacation. Hehe.
I always recommend photographers to shoot the content that is in high demand and which is not already overrepresented online. I’ve even written a blog post about what kind of content I’d recommend people to shoot.
AC: I am not going to be as rude as to ask you how much you personally make, but can you tell us how much your company makes from downloads a year, before paying staff, rent, expenses etc.?
Yuri: Hehe. Turnover reveals profit to some extend so yes, you would be asking about my personal income. Last time I answered this question was in 2009 and the company had a royalty income of about 3 million USD per year. Today about three years later, it is way higher and the next goal is to reach into the 8 figures. But running a company like mine also costs millions. We have more than 100 people employed worldwide, and paying them their monthly salaries is our biggest expense.
AC: You have given a lot back to the photography community, with your key-wording program, your educational seminars, your tutorial type blog posts and most recently this boot camp. I guess that says a lot about you – as you could quite easily not do these things, stick to yourself, watch the downloads roll in and not help other photographers?
Yuri: I believe in sharing, but to share you have to have confidence in yourself. I am aware that the photography industry normally is known to be exceptionally restrictive and protective on their know-how. I truly believe this is a thing of the past. We live in an age where sharing is there whether you like it or not, and I’ve gained so much from being open minded and sharing my knowledge with other people. I would not swap the conversations I have, the people I meet and the opportunities arising as a result of this for any amount of money I could have earned by just sticking to myself and not helping anyone else out.
AC: Tell us about the boot camp – what is its purpose? How is it going? Has it taught you anything about how other photographers and the way they operate in the Microstock world as compared to how you work?
Yuri: The purpose is to give people a chance to learn stock photography. I once studied briefly at a photography school in Denmark, and I was so disappointed. When you study photography, it’s almost always in an old-fashioned manner. The schools are rarely equipped with up-to-date gear, and the teachers are almost never involved with the industry they teach their students about. Although you study photography because you intend to live off it some day, you’re not really taught how to shoot images that will give you any kind of income.
We’ve created this program with intention to change this idea of how to study photography. We want to prepare our students to the life beyond school.
So far, it’s going great. We’ve done boot camps before, but not at this scale. It is, however, great seeing how all these young minds interact and how much greatness and beauty that comes from this. They still have a lot to learn, but even during this first half-year, they have learned so much. I’m looking forward to the rest of the program.
AC: I understand you have invested in a new studio, along with enough lighting equipment to light a small town. How important was this for you to get this perfect setup? How much shooting do you find is done in the studio as opposed to on location?
Yuri: I think getting a studio like the one I have in the Danish office is a dream come true for most photographers. It’s a playground for photo geeks, which I certainly am. It’s proven to be a great asset, and I believe we have shot about 500, 000 RAWs in that studio, when we produce in Denmark. We have a similar setup in Cape Town, South Africa, but it’s still being worked on – it’s twice as big as the Danish studio.
AC: A lot of people will be very excited to hear that you have launched your own stock image site – PeopleImages.com why did you choose to do this?
Yuri: The agencies have been pushing commissions to an extreme low during the last few years, and as I’ve said earlier: You have to find new ways of approaching the challenges you face. This is one of the ways in which I’ve approached the challenge of dealing with low commissions. Commissions on iTunes for programmers and artists is 70% for example and they paid out 5 billion USD in royalty share last year. Much of the troubles I am warning about for new-starters in stock photography would be completely gone if commissions on Istock and Shutterstock for example would not be below 20%. The creative’s have it hard enough already, so why give them less than 20%? I think that if the designers, the buyers of images actually knew about this, they would reconsider where they bought images and by more direct. My site www.peopleimages.com is an attempt to give them this opputunity.
AC: Have you been planning People Images for some time?
Yuri: Yes, forever! To be exact, we’ve been working on the site for approx. 3 years, but the idea of the site is much older. The small features have been worked at again and again to perfection.
AC: I noticed that you offer “Custom Retouching” on People Images - is this the first stock site to do this?
Yuri: I believe it is. I’ve never come across it on any other site. We’ve chosen to offer this option for our clients, because it’s something we’ve been approached about quite a few times. It’s quite often that a client finds an image that is almost what he’s looking for, but not exactly right. Maybe the image has been cropped so that the models arm is missing or the very top of the hair is not within the frame. These are things that we can easily fix, and it won’t even take us long. We save all of our RAW files from all shoots, and because of this we are able to offer people this “custom retouching” at very low prices.
It’s also very common that people want to add their logo to the images or some kind of text. After all, we sell the images for commercial use, so people are of course interested in using them commercially, which often involves some kind of changes to the images. We are able to do this easily and make it look great at the same time, and it costs almost nothing. There is almost no limit to what we can do…
AC: It also has this function called the aiBot – explain this to our readers?
Yuri: It’s a quite brilliant thing, if I have to say it myself. It’s a small “robot” that helps you search for similar images using artificial intelligence. We have designed and engineered it in corporation with a team of German Professors and students. We love it! If you, for instance, are looking for images of a guy sitting in a specific position, and you’ve found two images where this position is shown, but none of them are really the image you want, you can place these two images in the aiBot and it will then find all images within our collection of people sitting in this position. It needs to similar images to find others. It works so well that we sometimes can’t believe it! The code behind it is quite technical, but it uses a lot of different parameters and the more it’s used, the better it gets.
AI is one of my small passions and always has been.
AC: Is buying your images from People Images cheaper than buying them from Microstock sites? Will you have images on People Images that are not on Microstock sites? What is the thing that will pull people to People Images?
Yuri: New users get $20 for free to learn how the site works. This is the highest sign-up bonus in the industry and besides that we try to keep prices lower than any other place and we are often able to keep them so low because we don’t have to pay out any commission like the microstock agencies and we don’t have huge server expenses because we only have good images. No 20 million crap images!!!
There are thousands of exclusive images that cannot be found anywhere else online, and we are constantly adding to this collection.
I hope that people will want to buy directly from PeopleImages.com because it is simply so user friendly compared to what I’ve seen elsewhere. You can search by model name, shoot, colors, model age, shoot, image date, gender, amount of people in the images and many other things. Things just work! Another thing I hope people will take into consideration is that by purchasing the images on this site, they support our in-house photographers and educational efforts!
To find out more about Yuri see the videos below:
Shooting Workshop with Yuri Arcurs:
All images courtesy of Yuri Arcurs.