Micro Gets Big

A British astrophysicist once speculated that an infinite number of monkeys "strumming on typewriters" could potentially produce "all the books in the British Museum."

In the production world, the modern-day equivalent is the infinite number of five megapixel still cameras and snap-happy amateur photographers out there, publishing their copious but unfiltered output on sites like Photobucket and Flickr. Ever been tempted to swipe someone's snapshot for a video project? With all those images uploaded every hour of every day, it seems that you shouldn't have to pay $500 for a stock image of an egg, or a tree, or of the Eiffel Tower.

But that appealing logic is thwarted by the simple market economy of supply and demand: a potentially huge supply is no guarantee for success—not unless someone steps in to hook up the demand with that supply.

Enter the microstock merchants, providing a marketplace which connects shooters with image consumers. Within the last several years, several online outlets have sprung up which offer royalty-free still images—and, more recently, video footage—acquired from nontraditional sources. While the shooters are compensated in one form or another, acquisition costs are nowhere near the high-end session fees for traditional stock photography—so that users can buy royalty-free imagery for mere peanuts.

There are several forces at work which have bolstered the rise of the microstock houses. Simple economics are the most obvious. There are more of us today producing video—and getting paid less for it—than ever before, and the thought of paying hundreds of dollars each for visuals, or worse yet, for rights-managed visuals, is an unappealing one. Today's sagging economic conditions only amplify the problem.

Second, production people at all levels are becoming much more aware of intellectual property issues. As I often tell clients, I don't look good in stripes, and I don't want to be near them in adjoining cells. In an era where the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) persecutes teens for sharing songs, our clients will certainly demand that we've got our IP rights locked up across all possible uses of a finished program, from broadcast to Web use. And that requires non-rights-managed, royalty-free content.


Today, inexpensive, royalty-free images and footage are available from a variety of sources, ranging from small producers with narrow subject specialties to the big players in old-school, big ticket stock images, some of whom have created low cost collections in order to cash in on the microstock trend.

A pioneering presence in the microstock movement was Shutterstock amateur photographer Jon Oringer's attempt to make his 30,000-image collection available at realistic prices. Today, Shutterstock boasts an inventory of more than 4 million images, and has racked up a whopping 60 million downloads—a telling indicator of just how much demand exists for affordable visualization. A clever, flexible menu of subscription, package and pay-as-you-go rate plans offers economical options for a variety of usage scenarios.

For video professionals, the addition of microstock video footage collections holds special significance. Producers and editors are called upon, day after day, to flesh out their projects with meaningful visuals, and while the "Ken Burns" style of pans and zooms on still images is a helpful resource, there's nothing like moving footage to tell the story.


Like other microstock libraries, Shutterstock's video offerings come from a worldwide network of photographers who shoot locally and disseminate globally. But to my eye, Shutterstock has an edge over its competitors—its footage seems eminently more "usable," less like a collection of random leftovers and trims, and more like shot lists from the last dozen jobs we've worked on. Shutterstock's Oringer told me that while his company offers a wide variety of clips, "specialty shots like time lapse clips and stop motion have become especially popular, as well as clips of nature, particularly water, sky and fire clips."

One key ingredient of a library's success is the quality of its submissions. Among the microstock players, it's not uncommon to find a glut of DV-codec'ed, available-light footage; and while this class of footage can quickly bulk up the catalog, it's the up-market offerings which really distinguish a collection.

"Shutterstock maintains a stringent approval process," Oringer said. "If a submitted clip isn't of the highest quality and considered marketable, it doesn't make the cut."

And for those of us who think we fit that high quality, clever content profile, there's good news: Microstock libraries may want to buy our footage.

"Yes, we do encourage submissions," said Oringer. "Our submitters span from the seasoned professional to the talented amateur, but our focus is on the quality of the content submitted."

For us as suppliers—and, simultaneously, as demanders—the emergence of microstock couldn't have come at a better time. And it's much more convenient than relying on that infinite number of monkeys.

Walter Schoenknecht is a partner at Midnight Media Group Inc., a New York-area digital production facility. You can reach him via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.