Friday, March 5, 2010

Microstock: why would a reputable company do this to themselves?

I was looking at a company website today, with the possibility of putting some business their way, when something I saw there made me cringe involuntarily.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, this one has a lot to say. It says microstock. It says perfect-people perfect-world lowest-common-denominator cookie-cutter pile-them-high sell-them-cheap image.

Why would a reputable company want to be associated with those words?

The problem with this image is that it has that.... 'Deja Vu' feeling to it, and for a good reason.

So, do these guys come as a package? Have they moved on from "Best of the Web" to form the Corporate Team at "123 Greetings"?

As you would expect from such a high powered team, they speak fluent German...

... and some East Asian language - you could probably find out which one if you bump into them at the:

and of course they come with a:


Now, this may all just seem a bit of a joke, just poking fun at the short-sightedness of companies using cheap microstock images to represent their... well, image, but:

About us? They didn't do a very good job of spotting this trouble on the horizon...

maybe financeme needs better financing if they don't have any headshots of their own staff and can only afford microstock images...

I think that should read 'Company Oversight'

...when it gets visibly misleading, you end up questioning the credibility of the company itself.

I don't believe these people really work at Targetti Poulsen... why would I trust anything else that Targetti Poulsen have to say?

And if I am wrong and they do work there, are Targetti Poulsen aware that their 'people' moonlight at:

On a side note, 'Bad Credit Cosmetic Surgery Loans dot co dot uk' wins this month's prize for "dodgiest domain name".

My final example I think rounds off this topic in an appropriate way:

from their track record, getting these 'good people' to stay does not look promising...

Okay, so HireView Magazine used the same silly microstock image. But that photo at the top? That's them. That's the team at HireView. I am confident about that because it isn't a perfect-people perfect-world lowest-common-denominator cookie-cutter pile-them-high sell-them-cheap image that has spread across the internet like a nasty virus. It is an honest picture, and because of that, I think I can trust HireView Magazine.

Which is more than I can say for the rest of these companies.

Companies need to think more carefully about the stock images they use. I suspect many businesses are unaware that the stock photos their designer has sold them are spread a-dime-a-dozen across the web. There is a good reason that microstock's original catchphrase was "the designer's dirty little secret".

At the very least, reputable companies should look at using rights-managed rather than royalty-free images, so they will KNOW if the image is being used elsewhere and whether a competitor (or sometimes something even worse: "Cosmetic Surgery for mens, Get your Dream Shape like stars")  is using the same 'team' to represent their company. Or maybe they should follow HireView Magazine's lead and actually hire a photographer to take real portraits of real people who work at their company. They may not be perfect, they may cost a bit more, but they will look genuine, and honest. And not just... cheap.

UPDATE: April 5th
To address questions regarding how all these image uses were easily found across the web, and how companies can prevent this problem with picture use on their own websites, I have written a follow-up piece about avoiding poisonous pictures.


  1. busted! _ All I can say is wooh.

  2. As a RM stock photographer, I am always seeking arguments to show clients why it is in their interest not use microstock. Your illustrations are wonderful.

  3. How do you find these nonexclusive image usages?
    I am sure all stock buyers would want to know. Don't they see the number of sales under the image at micro schlock sites. keep up the good work.

  4. Well said anonymous. As to how I found them? It took hours of painstaking research.


    It took 30 seconds.

    This is another technology game-changer... it is always impossible to know what will come along and how it may turn an industry on it's head. This is something that I believe will turn microstock on its head and put it in its place - which is on the websites of micro-companies and fly-by-nighters, and not on the website of any company which values its image.

    Picture buyers (and designers) who think they can get away with using microstock images have now got to contend with the fact that with one click of their mouse, anyone can find many many examples of the same image being used across the web. And that just makes it far too easy for a company's reputation to be ridiculed.

    Major corporations are already aware of this and that is why you will no longer find microstock images on their websites.

    Say hello to the era of the Poisonous Picture....

  5. Nice one, Chris.

    And all with the added benefit of being edifying and entertaining at the same time!

  6. thanks Liza

    - and whenever someone's response to your price quote is "But I can get images at microwhateverstock for 1 dollar!' you send them this link.


  7. This is a very good example to show a client when you're trying to explain to them what can happen when they use microstock images - even regular priced RF. I've been in stock production and sales of RM & RF for years and have found if you take the time to explain the differences between the sales models sometimes (not as often as we would like) they get it. RM is a very viable model for clients that are concerned the images/content they are licensing will show up on a competitors promotion or website.

    We know who is buying RM content and how they are using it, keep track of all end uses so we can let a client know about existing uses - I'm talking about non-exclusive use not exclusive - where the fee is much much higher. Yes, the fee is often higher for RM then RF, it is usually a 1x use and they can't use it forever like current RF or micro but they will have piece of mind - if they care!

    We seem to be in a race for the bottom, no one wins with this kind of competition!

    Would love to know how you found out about these uses - is it a link found on the microstock sites or something else. It's great information and I will pass it on!


    1. google can search for duplicates . just add your image to their search box

  8. Microstock is killing professional photography.Just had my pictures returned by a well known company,rejected not because they were not good enough but due to the scourge of microstock.Its becoming so difficult to sell quality work when anyone who can hold a digital camera sells out to this plague.Long live RM photography

  9. For those who want to know about how it is so easy to find image uses like this, The Holy Grail (or Poisoned Chalice from the point of view of microstock buyers), the answer is...

    Download their browser plugin, and then whenever you see an image on the web, just right click and Tineye will show you a list of sites using the same image - even if the photo has been cropped, altered, had text superimposed, switched, the lot.

    SO far they have only indexed a tiny percentage of the images on the web, but it is growing all the time.

    So microstock users beware... you can run, but you can't hide!

  10. This is hilarious!!! I love it. Who ever did this research is genius! And you would think the designer would to this kind of research! Great job exposing it!

  11. That's an hell of a post Chris! Wonderful work.

    I'm going to create a post in my blog linking to this article if you give me permission. We should spread the word about the danger of microstock.

  12. Ruben, I hearby grant the Entire Known World a Royalty-Free in Perpetuity All-You-Can-Eat License to link to this blog article.

  13. Nice work, Chris. Through TinEye, I found a Romanian publisher had used one of my images for the front cover of one of their titles, without actually approaching me or paying me for its use. They had cropped the image, taking out the watermark. I pursued them and it cost them 1,700 euros!


  14. I went to Istock, typed in business people and the image came up on the first page, 6500 downloads. Searched for it with Tineye and got 86 hits. It took much longer for Tineye to load the page than it took to type in the search.

    Massive inbound link action going to happen.

  15. Funny post but you've missed the point, microstock exists to enable people who don't want to spend a large budget on their images to get some professionally produced images at an affordable price, do you really think most of the sites you've listed actually care whether those images have been used before.
    Neither you or I can say what the designer told the client about the images they used, but one thing's for sure I'm sure the client is 100% totally aware it's not their staff and I'm pretty sure they'd be able to work out that if they wanted a shot of their own staff they'd have to commission a photographer, buy hey maybe that's why they chose to use a stock photo in the first place, to save money!

    I'd also like to clarify a point that buying a RM image does not mean you 'KNOW' whether a competitor is using an image, I've been selling RM for years and have never ever been asked about previous usage, it's not information that's automatically given out at time of licensing the prospective buyer would need to ask.

  16. Also check out a micro price comparison site. It can also be used to check out one or two photographers who get their RM and RF sort of muddled up and use both licences for the same image.

    Ian murray

  17. Hi anonymous

    Re: "microstock exists to enable people who don't want to spend a large budget on their images to get some professionally produced images at an affordable price, do you really think most of the sites you've listed actually care whether those images have been used before."

    MOST of the sites which use microstock may not care where the image has been used before. Reputable companies, that is companies with a reputation to maintain, DO care. Before they could get away with it because:
    1) microstock was a new concept and the images were not spread too widely
    2) there was no easy way to find duplicate uses of an image across the web.

    That has changed, and it is now easy for a company to be ridiculed in minutes for their 'team'/'people' doing "Cosmetic Surgery for mens, Get your Dream Shape like stars"

    Re: "I'm sure the client is 100% totally aware it's not their staff and I'm pretty sure they'd be able to work out that if they wanted a shot of their own staff they'd have to commission a photographer, buy hey maybe that's why they chose to use a stock photo in the first place, to save money!"

    Yes, and because they could get away with it because their customers would not know that the image was not their staff. That has now changed.... with one click.

    Re: "I'd also like to clarify a point that buying a RM image does not mean you 'KNOW' whether a competitor is using an image, I've been selling RM for years and have never ever been asked about previous usage, it's not information that's automatically given out at time of licensing the prospective buyer would need to ask."

    It means you can find out, particularly if you license direct from the photographer. That is one of the advantages of RM.

    It really comes down to risk assessment.

    1) You use a (popular) microstock image to represent your company: there are going to be hundreds, maybe thousands of websites/businesses out ther using the same 2 dollar image. Also, because it is a 2 dollar image, the dodgiest, seediest, fly-by-night businesses will be using it. Why would they pay more?

    2) You use a non-microstock RF image. There may well be quite a few other websites/businesses using that image, but nothing like the same scale as the microstock image. And the dodgiest, seediest, fly-by-night businesses will not be using it because... they like cheap!

    3) You use an RM image. Not many, if any, other businesses will be using it. As it is RM, you should also be able to find out where else it has been used before deciding on using it - particularly if you license direct from the photographer!

  18. Chris has suggested I relate my experience with TinEye finding an image being used illegally. I have posted this in my blog. There is a correction to the above amount. I received 1000 euros which is $1700 Australian.

  19. So the author is shocked shocked! to discover that RF images get used a lot, or that advertisers use stock images or images of models instead of real people.
    If these sites had used Rights Managed photos instead of microstock would he be equally indignant?

    Ridiculous but not at all surprising from a blog called “Fair Trade Photographer” which is actually a corporate mouthpiece for Photographers Direct masquerading as journalism/advocacy.

    Biased hypocritical nonsense…

  20. anonymous (always nice to hide behind that name) I think you have missed the point.

    As to 'indignant' I have just re-read the posting and I am having a real problem spotting a tone of indignation. Tongue-in-cheek surprise maybe, indignation, no.

    As to this:

    "“Fair Trade Photographer” which is actually a corporate mouthpiece for Photographers Direct masquerading as journalism/advocacy."

    you made me laugh out loud! I have been exposed!

    top left of every blog page it says:

    Fair Trade Photographer is written by Chris Barton, a photographer and the managing director of Photographers Direct.

    I have never been called a corporation before... maybe I should put it on my business card... I need to get some of those one day.


  21. So, if this is such an issue for image users, why are users not turning away from micro and RF in droves? For high-impact campaigns in the same segments, it can be a real issue. I know that very well. However, for different markets, different countries, different clients, small businesses, show me the evidence that this is a real-world problem. Show me real-world evidence for copmanies operating at regional, country, or local level only where problems are arising from multiple use of the same image by different companies.

    All you have shown are examples of the same image used by different companies. You have not provided evidence of the problems you claim to exist. Why not write to each of those companies and point out the issue? Ask if they are aware of serious problems impacting their marketing and brand. Please report back.

    Don't weaken your sales arguments by attempting to create unrealistic problems in the face of customers. If your photography is top-notch, cannot be replaced by an equivalent image at micro or RF sources (like the ones in your example), then build on the intrisic value of your images, not on unrealistic scenarios of how dagerous the mass-produced stuff could be for small and middle-sized businesses. Of course, if your imagery looks like that stuff, then you have little to offer.

  22. You are right. It is not a big problem at the moment.

    Maybe I'm wrong.

    But then.... maybe it is going to become a problem.

    So, if you are convinced this will not effect companies, then please prove me wrong. Go to companies you sell images to, direct them to look at this blog page, tell they.

    "Hey, trust me, you don't have to worry about this. Your potential customers won't care. They will trust you anyway. There is no way your reputation will be damaged by using images like this."

    Go on. Do it. For me. Please?

  23. Many years ago, long before microstock was born, companies such as Eyewire (also bought by Getty from Adobe)were producing and selling RF CDs. Canada was having a federal election during which 2 political parties used the identical image of a smiling black family in a national advertising campaign. Needless to say both parties fired their agencies. As a postscript, the family was American, not even Canadian. Draw your own conclusions.

  24. but surely companies can ignore this? The odds are it won't happen, and if it does you can just sweep it under the carpet.

    This happened in.. what? 2004? Still the number 1 result in Google.

    This was before the free plugin, when you only spotted these things by pure chance. Now, with the tineye plugin, any photo you see, right click and it will find the same image on other websites from its database of 1.3 BILLION images - and they have only indexed a tiny part of the web so far....

    This is going to grow. And grow. And grow.

    Anyone got any more examples of duplicate uses which, of course, just aren't going to hurt the companies involved in any way?

  25. You'd like to imagine that when people see the number of downloads, they are capable of making a cost/risk assessment, and have actually made that choice (because they loved the image?).

  26. Hi Anonymous, one would like to imagine that they think that... but many of the image choices will be done by the designer, they won't think about it, and they probably won't care. They are just selling a design. If it comes back later to bite their client... well, that's not their problem is it?

  27. hi chris
    Think this is great stuff. Have sent it on to all my friends in the picture buying community. But please don't keep blaming the designer. I am a graphic designer (and art director) as well as a photographer, so I know they can only be making these choices from budget constraints set by the client.

  28. thanks CK, you may well be right in a lot of cases.

    And when a client tells you their budget does not stretch beyond microstock, you need to show them a link to this page. Might make them think...

    I believe it is an easy problem to avoid because 'dodgy' sites will only ever pay the absolute minimum they can for images, and that means they will only ever use microstock.

    If a client does not buy microstock they will not be risking 'association' with the dodgy neighbourhoods (of course, if it is a RF image you have to hope the same RF image is not also available on a microstock site, but that is a whole other can of worms!)


  29. Great post, Chris.

    Will keep it as a 'microstock' reference.
    Picture is indeed worth thousands of words.


  30. Thanks for this Chris please never delete this blog as I want to point people to it.

    I have started on the offensive asking why any big brand would risk its whole image by buying micro stock photos that business, reputable or not, on the planet can afford. This has to make a serious companies marketing very shaky. Why for example would any serious brand risk instant copying by anyone in their sector.

    Incredible really how serious marketeers can risk their companies image and USP on a $1 photo.

    This bit of research proves the point so clearly I think its big thanks to Chris.


    Paul Williams

  31. I've already thanked Chris privately, but think it's worth mentioning this here: TinEye enabled me to find four of my photos used without permission online by a Croatian media organisation. I objected immediately to the top man (he was actually named, and contactable, through the site, much to my surprise) and my photos were removed within a day. I suspect the author of the article accompanying the photos was the culprit, and the organisation was unaware of the infringement. I certainly couldn't afford to pursue the matter further (I have done so successfully in another case, closer to home) but it's pleasing to get a positive result. I have the author's name and have checked other articles by him to see if he has used more of my photos.

  32. Nice note Chris. There ought to be a health warning attached to all micro stock purchases.
    I get the impression though that while regular stock prices may be suffering as a result of micro-stock there are some buyers that are having second thoughts and returning to quality.
    I hope so.

  33. Thanks very much for this. I'll send my clients to it as often as possible.

  34. Great work -- you laid out the issues and made all of our work easier (what used to be an full email is now simply a link to this page). Nice.

  35. But you gotta admit: those real people look scary. ;-)

  36. I like to look sometimes at a site called which shows examples of crap image manipulation which get into published media.... I am sure there's a case for a similar site showing examples of crap generic ie microstock image usage.

    However as a designer I would defend the existence and validity of microstock for SOME purposes but clearly not the 'team photo' example - that really is crap!

  37. I think there are perfectly appropriate times to use micro stock in a design. Not everything needs to be top quality, permanent or exclusive. While it would be nice it's not the reality, many things just have to be good enough. And yes I have used the image in question.

  38. All I can say... They buy them cheap :)

  39. Speaking as a semi-pro photographer and a web designer, most of these sites don't appear to have had tiny budgets or minimal design expertise. A few of them are clearly template-based. You're not going to get an RM sale from places like this.

    A lot of smaller non-profit clients I work with can't even budget enough for RF images from Getty/Veer/Jupiter, even if they have a web site and a sustainable business. The bar is lower now for sure.

    I feel that Microstock is mostly useful for images not including people or lifestyle photos. Objects, textures, raw materials – yes.

    And a lot of images we need where I work aren't even available for purchase anywhere else but the microstock sites - so it's definitely a useful resource.

    The sad thing is that clients have now caught on to iStockPhoto, Shutterstock, etc. and sometimes even insist on buying the images themselves for us to use in our design for them.

  40. Anyone got any more examples of duplicate uses which, of course, just aren't going to hurt the companies involved in any way?

    Google: everywhere girl.


  41. The best - [bows low and acknowledges genius]

  42. There's a difference between a blog saying, "be embarrassed," & real-world consequences. I've read enough of the former over recent years to prefer hearing about the latter, which is what really matters.

  43. Teehee, BUSTED! Well done on this one. I love it!

  44. As a photo editor who did a book for Random House on insects & critters, I'm now substituting iStock images for the Getty RF in the Brit edition because while the iStock cost pennies for world use the Getty cost hundreds for U.S. use only & the author is paying. I would have used Wide World for the difficult ones had they what was needed. Getty was ALWAYS the last resort but
    from now on its the NEVER resort.

  45. A lot of employees wouldn't even want to appear on their company website.

  46. serve 'em right. Cheap guys

  47. This should be sent out to as many people as possible who use/supply images. Great stuff Chris,

    clive sawyer

  48. I just love this! Since we have a rights-managed agency and are photographers as well,I just can´t believe how people like to sell there images for 7 cents...
    Thanks for the link to tineye also, allthough I don´t know how we can check thousands of images there ;)
    I really hope one day microstock will not be in anymore!!!

    Marie Taylor

  49. Jeff Greenberg, re your comment:

    There's a difference between a blog saying, "be embarrassed," & real-world consequences. I've read enough of the former over recent years to prefer hearing about the latter, which is what really matters.

    This blog page just got 6800 visitors. In one day. I think that is real-world consequences.

  50. The catch is you won't know visitors are leaving because the images don't convey trust. Look at the images used in a single industry and you will often find the same ones, because the design requirements are the same, because the target audience is the same. Like the student in the Dell Gateway example, why is it bad for both companies, simple it dilutes the value offered and in the age of Social Media it will be noticed.

    Why not use the real staff, great idea, but get a release and shoot a new picture every month so your customers can get to know you. Oh and the guy you fired is not smiling on our home page!

    If a business wants it's customers to think they are special and unique then they need to look that way. You don't want to pay for a photographer and designer, ask your self why customers come to you and don't do it without you. The answer is simple, you are how you look, check your site bounce rate!


  51. In this era of rarely-precedented job loss followed by sluggish economic growth rate, record numbers of people are out of the "mainstream" job market. Aaaand STAY out.

    It follows that there will be record numbers of startup businesses BECAUSE people will feel that they have to do something to keep body and soul together. They're gonna get creative.

    On one hand, you 're swarmed by hordes of us "dodgy" businesses that practice subpar image-management; on the other hand, startup business in the US in 2010 IS the creative process in a microcosm!

    Wonderful things are going to emerge from this chaos. Enjoy the show while you are creating it; it is better form to avoid snooty, professional club-members-only chest-thumping.

    You never know which one of us you cross the street to avoid now is going to become the next client everybody wants in their portfolio.

    I am good at what I do. I have been immersed in it for over 20 years. This the first year that I have put out a website. I don't have any photos on my website except a FREE photo I could download off the web. I would love to have pictures, I think the website needs quality pictures.

    I am not "dodgy" in any way shape or form. My business, while small, is respectable and in good standing in my community. I have a high credit rating and I pay my bills on time. One reason for that is, I cut unnecessary costs to the bone. I have to. Remember how hard it is to get credit these days?

    So, while this is a valuable and fascinating article, well-presented, timely and punchy - - comments at times sound pretentious and overly focused on one aspect of image management for business in the US in 2010.

    Whichever of you manages to grasp the bigger picture will empower us fragile, emerging businesses to become more savvy, more capable, more profitable; you'll offer us a solution to this sudden loss of acceptable, cost-effective image management and quietly emerge the ultimate winner.

  52. I'm sure HireView photo is real because no Photo Model would wear her hair like the woman second from the right.

  53. I wonder how many examples of that kind of thing are from web designers saying "I'll need a photo of your team in here," and corporate managers saying "We don't have one just yet," with the designer saying "OK, I'll stick in a placeholder for now to give you a rough idea of the layout, and you can update it later."

    Then, of course, it never gets updated, or someone in marketing or management says "That stock photo looks more professional than our actual people; keep that up instead."

  54. Get Real. It only matters to you guys in the trade. Us poor "visitors" could care less. Content, dude, content.

  55. "Then, of course, it never gets updated, or someone in marketing or management says "That stock photo looks more professional than our actual people; keep that up instead." - It happens every day. BUT, I have had a small increase in clients that INSIST on original photography. Most industries do not employee beautiful models and a smart consumer knows this. The word for 2010 is TRANSPARENCY. NO B.S..

  56. I absolutely agree that microstock is terrible. I also am guilty of using it, from time to time based on lack of budget. Frequently the clients do not care, or care but cannot afford to have a $400+ shot purchased, let alone commissioned (using 'real' people to skirt model fees). I wish so much for a decent photog budget on a project.

    But this approach is also common throughout all sectors of the web. For example - this website uses a templated design instead of having a hired professional to design it to give identity and distinction. This may be a case of lack of budget, lack of consideration for branding oneself, lack of time or lack of interest. It is hard to tell. But templated web pages and $500 websites are also the bane of designers and developers as much as microstock is, and frequently these cherapy sites use microstock.

    It is unfortunate that many of us in the creative field cannot seem to convince some clients on the value of spending money to differentiate ourselves, or that we take a stand against this behaviour to our entrepreneurial and business-minded clients. Sometimes I fail at convincing a client and then also fail to take a stand against this behaviour.

  57. Wow, a very telling reason yet again why micro-stock is killing quality and originality and everything that matters to photographers and is thus conversely making the shitty Corporate overlord types endlessly happy. The more it hurts a specialty, the happier the Corporate thugs are.

  58. This is fantastic - thanks for this wonderful article.

    The internet giveth (publicity, new fans, workshops, forums, seminars, high profile social media photographers!) and the Internet taketh away (hello Microstock, goodbye assignment!)

    Interesting times we live in... (Although "interesting" doesn't always put food on the table)

  59. Awesome. I will keep this article in my bookmarks for when my clients ask me more about micro-stock photography. Thanks for posting this.

  60. Hi Chris

    Excellent article, congrats. I'd like to ask permision to translated into Spanish and post it on my blog

    Juan Fach

  61. por supuesto Juan!

    Feel free to translate it, but please link back to the original article too.


  62. A good article. For a class we recently had a stock photographer stop by - he failed to mention this aspect of the business.

    And for those complaining about low budgets, who argue that they only use microstock because they have to "cut unnecessary costs to the bone," I ask: why do you consider imagery unnecessary? It's the face of your business, and is your best weapon for attracting customers. If your site is generic, people won't be drawn to it, or in this case, will be pushed away.

    It's this sort of thought process that is ruining the livelihoods of creative people in this economy. The one that advocates companies resorting to the lowest common denominator. I understand the economics of the microstock business - I just find it revolting. I put a lot of time and professional practice into my work - and it's worth more than $2. (Also, please let me know when Subway offers footlongs for $2)

  63. I'm not sure the abuse of cheap microstock is really sullying the image of these businesses very much beyond the fact that that particular photo screams "cheap generic photo" (which it does without any knowledge whatsoever of its use elsewhere), as few, if any, of their customers will ever notice or care. Yes, this blog has gotten a few thousand hits, and I'm willing to bet that none of them are readers of this blog, nor are they going to go hunting down an obscure browser plugin to search out images on a website. Real people have work to get done, and it usually doesn't involve deconstructing the websites of potential service providers.

    If a stock image happens to get used on some seedy website, like some cheesy online pharmacy... well, I'm not sure the operators of those sites feel particularly compelled to pay for even microstock, when they are perfectly capable of stealing an image from a legit site, no matter how much that site paid for it, and even if it was commissioned just for the one site. After all, when you are operating an illegal online business that probably won't be up a week before getting shut down by the host, what's a little copyright infringement put on top for good measure?

    Abuse of stock photography has gone on for years, and is certainly not confined to microstock. Even a custom-commissioned photo can have the "generic stock photo" look, if it sucks, which this image most certainly does.

    To use the "Subway" example of the previous poster: When Subway released their $5 footlongs, was their an outcry from some subset of deli bloggers about how Subway was destroying the sandwich industry? No, there wasn't. If an amateur photographer is willing to allow others to use his/her images for a few bucks, and the purchaser is willing to accept non-exclusivity, why should anybody think this is wrong?

    Yes, this does tend to reduce the income of professional photographers who rely on this sort of work, but the industry is going to evolve, and photographers are just going to have to learn to adapt. Just as B&M retailers have adapted (or not) to online shopping, and journalism has had to adapt (or not) to every change in media technology for the last two centuries.

    I, user of stock photography, do not owe photographers a living. Certainly I have an ethical obligation not to violate copyright when using resources, but if certain providers want to charge less than others why should that become my problem?

  64. I'll agree with SireWired that nobody owes me (a professional photographer) a living. However, I've written on this subject too, and the point being: Go ahead, use microstock, but don't be disappointed if your site looks as generic and fly-by-night as the next one. Looking at the examples above, some of the sites also include silly spelling mistakes - not all picked up by the author of the article, which add to the amateurish look of the sites.

    Designers have to accept that either design is important (which includes the copy, photos, graphics etc) or it is not. Designers cannot say that design is important to drive a business's standing and ultimately profits, and then argue that the photography isn't a critical part of that design.

    And remember, design is also often seen as an unnecessary cost. I happen to disagree with that view.


  65. Ah yes, the Dell "everywhere girl" of 2004. . . The Inquirer ( spent weeks digging up uses of her image.

  66. Thank you for this research, I was already wondering where the stock photography on the website of the company I work at came from:

    The particular picture is right there, in the header rotation, along with plenty of other examples.

  67. I am absolutely amazed it the total lack of understanding displayed in both the original article as well as the comments.

    Microstock did not "kill" RM stock, greed did.

    Did you as the author even bother to read up on the history of stock and stock photography?! The "Heros" of photography started the first agencies and the photographers all shouted "it's the end of the world" but today we look at those first agency owners (Robert Cappa, Henri Cartier Bresson) as the "masters" of photography.

    It's all a cycle, better, cheaper, faster, more content... I am betting that half of the agencies doing basic web design work has a $400 dslr shooting most of the company shots and packshots instead of hiring a photographer to do it...

    WHY?! because it's cheap and fast and possible... no more medium format or pro spec cameras to buy, no more developing film and waiting, no more drum scans, no more couriers, no more time wasted...

    Before microstock, there was, photodisk, 20,000 clipart CD's, etc, etc, etc.

    You bemoan the fact that there is a cheap alternative to overcharged Getty RM stock imaging, but I am pretty sure, you are running this blog on a free service? Or did you buy your own server? And off course, you definitely pay $200 to $500 for every app on your iphone, right? because really, would it be fair to only pay $0.99 after the thousands of dollars and manpower invested in creating those software applications?

    I think the guise of "fair trade" is very selectively applied here. Just like your selection of photography with a Microstock image and TinEye... Have you perhaps tried the same with a Getty RF Image?

    So... while you run a free blogspot page, your $1 apps and most probably writing your post on the free wifi at the local starbucks, you expect a small startup company, trying to scratch out a living in an ever competing world, to fork out money for:

    5x models
    1x make-up artist
    1x photographer + equipment

    ... for a day of shooting? to get one image for their website?

    (obviously paying all of them full price, no TFCD)

    ...and then you have this statement on your website:

    "...we are non-exclusive. This means we have no restrictions on photographers selling the same images through other agencies... "

    So... in all practicallity, exactly the same search can be applied with the same result from any image provided by your agency...

    I am sorry, but I do believe you wrote this article just for the hits and google links.

  68. "some oriental language"

    Nice - what are you, my Grandma?

  69. Im not in the photo business but i did laugh really hard reading this. Awesome.

  70. As an in-house designer, I was FORCED to use images like this despite my protestations either because of short-sightedness or budget. In-house designers often only have a limited library of purchased images to choose from and often these images are years old. Please don't blame the designers. This stuff makes me cringe. My last job was at a very large health insurance company - I won't say their name but they have a cross and a shield in their logo - and they ALWAYS used the same images over and over and over. It was hilarious but, at the same time, as a creative, it made me cringe. Thankfully, I'm freelancing again.

  71. so here's the funny thing.

    outside of pimping your blog on totalfark, nobody outside your little rabbit hole are going to care about stock art or all the rest.

    Public sees nice reassuring pictures, public nods "looks professional" and proceeds.

    industry insider sees nice reassuring pictures, thinks these things arent artistic, damnit we're artists here, how can we possibly be held accountable for this, and all the rest.

    nobody cares kids. Outside of your little special peoples club here .. nobody cares.

    And stop pimping this crap to totalfark. I fell for it once, nevar again.. Perma block.

  72. the only reason this blog got 6800 views (mine included) was he pimped it to totalfark and probably elsewhere.

    now that I added him to the "losers" ruleset on my proxy, I won't be adding to his hit count any more.

    The only thing "Fair" in "fair trade" is it helps whining losers that couldnt sell anything otherwise get work. Bravo. You're all special, everyones a winner.

  73. This is a brilliant post. Job well done. All I have to say is man, the photographer (or microstock site) who owns this photo must be making a killing! It's everywhere!


  75. I just started doing research on placing some photos and illustrations with a stock agency, so this is well timed, very interesting info. And that site,, is a great time saver to also find out if one's images are being used where they shouldn't be.

  76. Anonymous, Re:

    "stop pimping this crap to totalfark"

    I am the author of this article, and I have no idea what 'totalfark' is though it certainly sounds like it must be pretty cool and trendy.

    Or maybe this is a double bluff and you are actually 'pimping totalfark' on my blog?

    wheels within wheels...


  77. I hate to put you photographers out of business but besides you experts in your field nobody cares if the images are stock or not. The average person just doesn't spend time dwelling on a particular photo or go looking on the web to see wha other companies might be using it. There is less than one second of impact that makes a person either read the advertisement or not, and the history of the photo is not relevent. Even if I did remember seeing the picture elsewhere, that would just make me more likely to read the add.

  78. How can there be job growth in this terrible economy if these 5 people have taken all the jobs?

  79. Another one to add to your list (I found it totally by chance, a while after reading this entry of yours linked by a friend in Facebook):

    This is a Spanish bank, the second oldest one in the country (you may need to reload the page if you see a different set of people at the top banner -they do have 3 or 4 different top banners-).

    Enjoy! :-D

  80. Re: "How can there be job growth in this terrible economy if these 5 people have taken all the jobs?"

    Yes, looks like a viral joke has started:

    not bad....

  81. Laura: Re:

    I am a little concerned about 'Oscar' though. He was on the right. Where did he go? Did he get fired? Maybe Banco Pastor have had to tighten their belts in these tough times, and they only had positions for 4 of the 'Fantastic Five!'.

    They seemed such a solid team. I am really disappointed that they threw 'Oscar' under the bus....

  82. It's whores whoring!
    I'm a graphic artist. I would love to put my work out there and get a commission every time someone uses it. But what we've done is gotten paid once and now we're angry when the digital age steals our work.

  83. Wow, so many sites are using this image..

  84. Hahaha. Yes. This is awesome.

    There are far too many companies using the same stock photography. I think the rule of thumb is not to use it if at all possible.

    I actually wrote a piece on the elusive Tech Support Girl awhile back:

  85. Every RM photographer should be allowed to re-post this post on their blogs and websites with a link to the original mentioning these awesome comments.

    Or at the least, they should all post a link to this outstanding post.

    I'm about to get the tineye plugin. I actually use the tin eye name on my watermarks. I list the copyright and then have (protected by Tineye).

    I'll be tweeting this, digging it, etc. Great great job!

  86. I read a comment yesterday that said:

    Microstock is the photo ho stroll of the global village.

    Love your article!

  87. There was a day, a few years ago when the exact same picture appeared on the front of The Times (London), The Guardian & The Independent! This was very amusing but this is even better...

  88. A friend put this link on her facebook and I followed it here. After reading the entire article and every comment, I stand amazed. I've noticed this on other blogs--people are so completely capable of missing the author's points! (Granted, they are not mind readers, either.)
    If I was a large company whose clientele relied on my professionalism and honesty, I would put my OWN team on my page. My customers expect me to give them my best, and if I don't have the best people working for me and willing to be SEEN by those customers, maybe I should hire new people.
    If I was a small company, I would TRY to, using whatever resources I had--use a template to cut costs, but use my own employees for the photo REPRESENTING my company.

    On a side note, I applaud you, Mr. Barton, for your consistently professional, polite, well-written, and amusing comments/responses--especially when it would have been so easy on some to respond poorly. :)

  89. one more? Please:

  90. ""some oriental language"

    Nice - what are you, my Grandma?"

    Awesome, I was going to comment on that too. Way to roll with a discarded derogatory term, Fair Trade Jackass.

  91. Elena, a humble thank you.

    And you are right, all too often 'readers' skim through things, pick out the odd 'red flag' word or phrase and then kick off with a knee-jerk reaction which often has very little if any relevance to what someone is writing.

    But in this age of 'too much information' what can you do?


  92. Anonymous, Re:

    ""some oriental language"
    Awesome, I was going to comment on that too. Way to roll with a discarded derogatory term, Fair Trade Jackass."

    FYI - from Wikipedia:
    "Oriental" means generally "eastern"....
    In British English... Oriental is used to describe people of Eastern and Southeast Asian descent, most particularly Chinese and Japanese... Oriental is not usually considered an offensive term in Britain.

    Wikipedia also notes:

    ... a small number of reference works used in the United States describe Oriental as pejorative, antiquated but not necessarily offensive, etc...

    So, if you are American and find it offensive, I am sorry. It is a cultural difference, and is not meant to be offensive (though it is meant as a deliberately offhand and clumsy use of a phrase in reference to the offhand and clumsy use of images.)

  93. Update: I have now changed it from "some oriental language" to "some East Asian language" to avoid this becoming a distraction.

    And yes, I am aware that it is Cantonese/Chinese, but for the flow and meaning of the sentence to work, I cannot it that specific.

  94. Great demo of the pitfalls. It's scary to think how many similar examples are out there!

  95. Uh oh. hosts MY site! LOL!


  97. thanks Anonymous for the link:

    What is particularly awesome is that it shows they are not just dummies - they have another pose too! The WOOH! pose!


  98. Hold on, I have now had a rather more sobering thought...

    There are only 4 of them.... where's the dark haired girl gone? I have to say I always got the impression she was laughing at them all behind their backs.

    You don't think... they are jumping up and down on her body?

    I really hope not... but they do seem to be rather a ruthless bunch...

  99. oh dear. I just TinEyed the 'alternative' pose and (along with 72 other uses) it came up with this:

    it is, quite simply.... awesome.

  100. I once worked for a city that was SO cheap that when they went to re-do their website, they purchased microstock images OF ANOTHER CITY and used them all over the site.

  101. It's a little bit funny, that so many people get so excited about those images.
    When you finish watching your TV serial, go walk in the city and run into leading actor, you wouldn't ask him: "How's your granny? Pretty bad, ah?", cause you saw her almost dying in last episode. No, common sense tells you, he is an actor, his actual life has nothing to do with the film you saw. The same is with those guys - they are MODELS.
    Images are illustrations. It's not photojournalism. Illustrations are just TOOLS for highlighting or expressing IDEAS. At home you are also using same tools for several jobs. Why it's so big problem, that several companies are using same tools to express their ideas? We all are using same WORDS to express our ideas. Why images are different? The idea, what the image depicts, that's important. Of course if some website claims, that this IS my team, that's totally wrong and lie, but otherwise - why such a fuss over it?

  102. This is great! Our Chicago-based creative agency has a blast with fake taglines for images like these, mostly because they're so awfully cheesy and repetitive. Having pored through hundreds of images resulting from a search for "Corporate + fun" or "Super professional," it's amazing to see the core casting decisions and which actors play specific roles. Thanks for this post.

  103. Wow what a post!

    I am in the process of launching a stock photo and video store because all of my customers want to purchase stock images or video for their websites, print work and their online video promotions.

    This is something to think about.

    Thanks for the information.

  104. I'm sure that companies majority order sites to web-designers, and they have no idea what photos are used on it. May be they informed that this is a stock photo, may be not. I don't think that companies must observe Internet and look for the repeating pictures.

    But I think if companies take care about web-site looking, they could order a photographer and take shots of their employees, or use other picture (made by designers) in the header.

  105. Another fiasco featuring a microstock image.

    In Northern Ireland the DUP's current political election poster features a photo of young female sourced from iStock. Besides her a caption reads:

    I want an MP who answers to us - not to the Tories. I'm voting DUP'

    Rival party the UCU found another photo of the same model and spoofed the campaign with their own poster suggesting she's changed her mind. It reads:

    "Actually..on second thoughts...I want my MP to be at the heart of the Ubion. I'm voting Conservatives and Unionists"

    More here:

  106. Regarding the Northern ireland poster girl, it gets worse (or better depending on your point of view!)

    She also appears elsewhere as a Californian with a bad credit rating

    and as a Parisian promoting private airport transfers and luxury city tours

  107. An interesting article, which to me highlights the opportunity of microstock - the ability to capture an image which is generic enough to appeal to a wide range of buyers.

    IF the end-consumers of the websites who used common imagery ever did see both website and IF they decided to complain, with microstock, the cost of changing the image is minimal anyway.

    I've written an article on the microstock opportunity, rather than the threat here: - I'd be interested to hear constructuve feedback, as I think all photographers are actually on the same side!

  108. Richard, firstly I would like to clarify that my article is about the risks of microstock use, not about photographers selling images as microstock.

    Having said that, looking at your article it is an interesting analysis of microstock from a 'business theory' standpoint. However from my brief reading I see some flaws:

    Your target earnings in microstock are 200 pounds.... for the year.

    What are your earnings per hour of work put in?

    I am sorry, but I do not understand how anyone can claim that to be a business strategy.

    Of your 'opportunities', I have to say "Hire my equipment out to local microstock photographers" is my personal favorite... although "Upgrade to the latest equipment" is a close second. With you 'projected earnings' and the drop in equipment costs, you should be able to do that in say.... 2017? And that is as long as you save all your earnings and spend nothing on any other business costs or living expenses.

    Most businesses (with the notable exception of Corbis) cannot afford to be run like this. Literally.

  109. Fair enough - I agree that there are indeed potential risks when buyers purchase royalty-free licenses:

    - Firstly that if they choose imagery with models in them, it may misrepresent what they're trying to represent (e.g. their employees)
    - Secondly, that the same image may be used elsewhere - e.g. on a competitor website or even in an inappropriate context.

    I'd assume though, these are known risks for most buyers and if it's either the web design agency or the website owner directly, they'll have made a judgement?

  110. Hi Richard

    the problem is you are assuming. If you did a survey of companies you would find a surprisingly large number that:

    - think that when their designer "buys" them an image, they now own copyright in that image and no-one else can use it
    - never even think as far as the above - it is just an image.
    - have never had explained to them issues related to copyright, releases, RM, RF, exclusive/non-exclusive use etc

    I am hoping this article will prove a useful resource for photographers and designers to point their clients, so that they can begin to understand issues that they have possibly never thought about.

  111. You're right - it's an assumption and I'd be very interested to see a survey of companies as you've suggested. Has there been one? I wonder what proportion of buyers would actually be reassured to see one of their potential images used on an established website already?

    And I agree, your post is a useful resource to point potential clients to the reality of non-exclusive licenses - something which I'm sure does escape the end-users. The more open such discussions are the better - much worse to find out once it's too late.

  112. Fair Trade guy, you do realize that there are other photo subjects besides business people, right? You act as if putting people on your company's website that aren't really your employees represents 100% of microstock purchases. What if you're buying a weathered paper texture? Or a photo of a golden retriever? Are people going to care that that texture isn't actually from a paper you own, or that that isn't really your dog? Seriously.

    Not only that, but you seem to think that Tineye is some brand new company, when in fact it's been around for several years. The fact that you just found it and think it's some big game changer just goes to show how out of touch with the photo market you really are.

  113. Anonymous Posting guy, please don't put words in my mouth, please don't put 2 and 2 together and make 5, and please don't assume. There is an old saying about that...

  114. Chris, right after I write KUDOS to you - I am going to bookmark this, and the poisonous article as reference works for clients. In fact, I would love to link directly to both of these from my website - with your permission. Great information - thank you so much.

  115. Hey that's a good blog very informative.I just started doing research on placing some photos and illustrations with a stock agency. Thank you.

  116. Chris, brilliant stuff - about time that business model was given its marching orders.


  118. Boy, that image just seems so non-diverse (except for one person, perhaps, but even then, the ages seem awfully similar) -- to me, that's the most cookie-cutter thing about it.

    As someone who has created and used stock photos for various web sites, as well as managed photo archives, I can never see using a photo like that, for the reason stated above. If one image is going to stand for your business, one has to ask if it is at all representative of your clients or customers?

    I remember there was this one shot of a woman holding a cell phone that was on just about everything for a while... seems like I could always recognize the photodisc photos... they were everywhere.

  119. Excellent commentary, and also very insightful and useful comments by your readers.

  120. Awesome .... loved reading it!

  121. Nice and brilliant article about Microstock.

  122. As a graphic designer with a photographer as a husband and partner, I can say that there is a time and a place to use generic stock photography and a time and a place not to. Obviously budget is a big deal, but the other thing is accessibility.

    Since we do a lot of graphic and web design that requires images, we always offer our clients a "package" deal where they can hire us to do web, graphics, and photography for their site at a discounted rate.

    We basically figure out the types of images we need and see if it's worth using stock images or if we need to shoot our own. This way we know the specific types of images that we need for the specific project we are working on.

    Then we speak with the clients and get a feel for what their style is.

    The client hires us for a photo shoot. We shoot everything from head shots, group shots, building and architecture, action shots, and still life shots of elements in their office.

    We only charge for our time and not for the entire catalog of images, this way we can save money for the budge conscious clients by allowing them to pay licensing to us for the pictures that they want to use at specific times.

    This also gives the clients a large catalog of their own personal stock photography that will make their site really stand out with their branding and their personality.

    Stock photography is extremely useful in the case where you need a shot of something (a prop, person, experience) that the photographer would not be able to recreate due to restrictions in budgets. We used stock photography for one of our brochures which was a simple light bulb on a white background with some dirt and a small plant growing inside.

    To recreate that would cost a good deal of money. The first issue would be to find a small plant that we could work into the image, the correct soil, the light bulb, and then photo-shopping. Why do all of that when you have something that is pretty creative, nicely done, and easily accessible for something that random?

    Stock photography is very useful.. that is my point.. But if you are a photographer, then working directly with a designer to create a stock portfolio specifically for a client could be a great alternative for everyone involved.

  123. Do you not think you're overreacting just a little bit? Either that or you are just very naive. Does it really matter if 147 companies use the same shot sold as mircostock in their ad? It's just an ad and I think we all understand those pretty people don't really work for those companies. At least I thougth we all understood that.

  124. Hi Anonymous

    maybe you need to ask an ad agency if their clients mind if they use the same image as a competitor in an advert....

    And yes, as these images become ubiquitous, people are understanding more and more that "those pretty people don't really work for those companies".

    However, the consequence of people 'knowing' the images are fake, is that at best they have no effect on potential customers, and more likely they have a negative effect on potential customers.

    Is that good for these companies?

  125. That was gold! Funny article

    The problem is that a lot of employees dont want their image on their website, and also what happens when someone leaves? Do you have to get the web designer to do up a new banner.

    The thing that the stock photo says is that we are professional.

    But good article anyways...I had a laugh

  126. Don't you confuse microstock and RF-licensing? Not necessarily these images were bought from microstock, they could have been bought from Getty or Corbis by RF licensing as well.

  127. Hi Dmitry

    Microstock is RF, but at a very low price. I actually addressed the differences in my follow-up article:

  128. a well needed article. thanks.

  129. A professional photographer can capture the most heartfelt and genuine moments, and make it possible for you and your family to relive your day every time you look at the pictures.

  130. The actual concept of "microstock" is another topic in itself. This concept adds yet, another insidious factor into licensing as we know it. Aside from the average image licensing sites (getty etc.), people who buy micro pay in micro . . . so you'll see these kinds of images proliferate online for years to come. This is why I built and launched my own cartoon picture image licensing database to add my own offerings to the fold. Photographers ought best to consider building their own online catalogs and archive their own images to help combat this.

  131. This is hilarious and to the point. Hopefully businesses will see the value in commissioning the creation of original images in future!

  132. Micro? yes sure. Why are top notch, famous photographers like Accurs, Bentine, Lagereek, claridge and many more leaving micro? they either go their own way or simply sick of it.
    Above example is yet another proof why serious photographers dont want to associate themselves with these outlets.

  133. Buhuhuuuu I am an unemployed photographer and will soon have to get a real job, buhuhuuu

    Buhuhuuu I am still upset that most people now have running water at home, this has put thousands of water carriers out of business, buhuhuuu

    Buhuhuuu I am still resentful that the wheel was invented, that was the first time when a lot of water carriers where rationalized away.

  134. And yet again, Anonymous, you completely miss the point.

  135. yeah, but at least this photo is just a placeholder for a business portrait :)
    and people know that

  136. Roland, not sure what you mean. What people know that? How would they know that? It seems rather a broad assumption....

  137. well, at least they are famous in the business world :)

  138. I was going to say...These companies that use these images HAVE GOT TO KNOW! Because they're purchasing a license that allows them use it in certain situations etc. It's not like they're purchasing copyrights. But like the good ol saying get what you pay for.

    I couldn't help but laugh at this post. The sarcasm you put into this article made me chuckle. Thanks for the laugh.

    Jesus bless you.

  139. Dreamstime is the worst of the very worst. They'll rip you off if you do business with them in anyway and give you a computer virus to boot.

  140. Well, I landed here from Zack Arias' site. A post that manages to be amusing and depressing at the same time. The range of comments is intriguing too; I sometimes forget how the troll population has grown with the intrnet.

    Unless I've missed it though, no-one has mentioned a possible significant problem for the companies using the image. That of misrepresentaion(in short words, fraud or lying). By using this image in promo materials the users imply that these models are their staff. As it's pretty clear they aren't what does that say about the integrity of, for instance a finacial advice company who chooses to misrepresent themselve in this fashion? If they use the defence "we didn't realise this was as generic as a Times New Roman lower case "a" then that implies they're wilfully incompetant too.

    I think, for simple unrecognisable things like textures, digital background cloths etc. microstock is a great idea. For anything else it's a farce.

    For the record, I've been shooting assignment and stock for over thirty years.

  141. Hi
    I completely agree with commentators totally nice
    Very interesting article that you’ve posted. It’s been a while since I posted in my G+ account.Found the views to be quite informative and intriguing. Thanks for sharing.

  142. Wow, just wow.
    Found this today, and am shocked by the obviousness.
    I guess most people browsing the internet do not even realize how big of a scam such pictures are. Sad.
    Thank you for making it that obvious.
    PS: Like the writing

  143. Terrific info, thank you for sharing. LTB

  144. "I believe it is an easy problem to avoid because 'dodgy' sites will only ever pay the absolute minimum they can for images, and that means they will only ever use microstock."

    You're being a little optimistic here... dodgy sites will simply right-click and steal images, so while they're at it, RF or RM makes no difference to them

  145. Oh nice!!! Thanks for sharing!