Got a website? Company brochure? Newsletter? It is a safe bet that almost every company has at least a sales flier they can send to potential clients, but advertising can get expensive. There are costs for writing, editing, layout, printing, and photography before a final product can be released to the public and all of these costs can get quite steep unless done in-house.

There are a host of software packages to aid in advertising layout and most word processors are up to basic editing tasks. Writing can be tricky, but who better to tell your company’s story than you? That leaves photography.

Getting a good, high resolution photo — or group of photos — can be the most expensive part of putting together promotional materials for a fundraiser, an announcement of a product launch, or an internal newsletter. Cameras are expensive and professional photographers can easily command $1,000 a day. Taking the picture in-house is often not a good substitute. Even with a top-of-the-line camera, capturing just the right picture — at a high enough resolution to make the leap from digital camera to print — can be difficult, if not impossible, for an amateur.

Most photographers do offer rights to their “stock,” or pre-existing photographs, at a discount, but that can still run well into the hundreds of dollars per photo.

Enter microstock, a new concept in stock photography. A number of web-based companies are pushing their way into the photography world by offering photo rights for a small fraction of what a professional photographer would charge —in some cases as low as 18 cents for the right to reprint a photo 250,000 times.

How it works. Photographers — either professional or amateur — upload high quality photos to a microstock company. Many of the companies evaluate the photos for composition and quality before posting them. The company then catalogs the photos and offers them for sale to the general public at a deep discount and credits the photographer’s account with the a portion of the payment, in many cases as little as 25 cents.

This is obviously a great deal for the consumer, but is 25 cents enough of an incentive for taking and uploading a quality photo. It is however a good incentive to upload thousands of quality photos. Photographers work in quantity here. Instead of trying to sell a personal favorite for a large sum of money, they can upload hundreds, or even thousands, of their excess photos, not to one site but to several. The cumulative quarters can easily add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars per month. For the consumer this adds up to literally millions of photographs to choose from.

Some photographers work exclusively with one microstock company, which will pay them a bonus for doing so, but money is made on volume and most photographers will upload the same pictures to several sites. You can sometimes save a few dollars by shopping around for the best price on a particular image.

Microstock for heavy users. Microstock companies vary widely in their pricing plans. Companies like Shutterstock ( offer a monthly subscription service that is geared towards graphics professionals. Prepaying for a year’s service will set you back $1,599, but buys 750 downloads each month. A company that needs a huge number of photographs could download 9,000 high-quality images yearly for less that 18 cents each.

Microstock by the unit. For the average customer with a much smaller need for photos, several sites offer “pay-per-download” plans. iStockphoto (, for example, offers single downloads at prices based on image size. Downloading a photo at website quality is only $1. A photo large enough to use in a brochure is $3. For a photo to grace the cover of an annual report or similar publication, the cost would be $5. The same photo in a size that could be used for a two-page magazine spread runs between $20 and $40. Still a steal compared to the cost of a photo shoot.

How to pay. To develop — really, to force — customer loyalty, iStockphoto and several of its rivals, including Can Stock Photo ( and Dreamstime ( work on a credit system. Before downloading photos you have to purchase a block of credits to use as payment. Like the tokens video arcades started selling in response to customers walking home with a pocket full of quarters, download credits are non-refundable.

If all you need is a $1 photo, it may cost you $10 unless you find another $9 dollars’ worth of usable shots. You can save the credits for later use, but make sure to check the expiration date on them. After a period of time your money can simply disappear.

This payment method has the disadvantage that comes with buying so many things on the Internet. In order to buy credits, it is necessary to register as a site user, and to fill in many, many blanks with lots of personal information.

What rights you own. Once paid for and downloaded, you own the non-exclusive rights to use the photograph in a large number of advertising capacities. For an additional fee some sites offer extended licenses that allow you to reprint the photograph for resale on items such as calendars, tee-shirts, and coffee mugs, but the basic rights will generally restrict such activities. A good rule of thumb is that you cannot sell an item with a downloaded image on it.

For example, you can download an image of a man holding a coffee mug and make it into a poster. The poster can then be put on display and used to sell coffee mugs. The posters themselves however may not be stacked up and offered for sale as an artistic work.

Some sites also restrict how the photo is used in advertising and will not allow the photo to be used in a negative or lewd manner. While adult entertainment venues are an obvious fit for this restriction, it also may apply to ads that are well intentioned. A photographer may not want a charming photo of his teenage daughter used on a highway billboard advertising an all-adult video store.

There are also limits to the number of times an image can be reprinted. While the average limitations of 250,000 printings sounds big, you should be careful not to exceed the stated limits. If you do so, you risk costly litigation. If you’re not sure how close you are coming to the ceiling, it might be a good idea to update your brochure with more $3 photographs.

As with everything it is a good idea to read through the rights granted on each site, as they tend to differ from one to another. You may be able to shop around and find the same photo with rights more friendly to your usage on another site. While being able to shop around for a better deal on an image is a good thing, it is also one of the biggest downfalls of the microstock system.

You can save thousands of dollars by basing a national advertising campaign around $30 in microstock photos only to find that your competitors have the rights to use the same images in their counter-campaign. Professional photographers will be quick to point out the advantages of protecting your pictures by paying full price for a more comprehensive license.

But for the non-profit operating on a shoe-string or the start-up eager for some low-cost promotional materials, the money saved can be just the boost your advertising needs. After all, the less you spend on producing an ad, the more money you will have to distribute it.

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