Do Self-Hosted stock photo sites ever work?

It is the dream of every stock photographer – host your own images on your own site, set the prices you want for the licenses and cut out the ridiculous percentage that agencies take out of the payment. What could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, quite a lot!

This post is a run through of the history, and the results, of my own efforts in this space. And, of course, my conclusions! I started this venture way, way back in 2013 when the buzz on the Microstock Group was all about a new wordpress based theme and plugin called SymbioStock. With some clever interactions between all the independent personal agencies, the intent was to build a networked stock ecosystem that ranked well in Google searches and promoted other sites if your own didn’t happen to have an image that met the buyer’s needs. The expectations were sky high – control over which images were accepted, control over pricing, and great search rankings to boot.

Early interactions between the Symbiostock websites

The image above is an early map of the interactions of the sites, produced by Cascoly.com. As you can see, each site would also be able to see an index of images on the other sites and refer buyers as appropriate. The wordpress theme worked – yes, it had numerous early bugs, but I was able to put together my first online agency and get the images available for license via Paypal. But, the load on the hosting company underpinning the site was high during the critical time that you were uploading and processing the images to provide watermarked preview images and various sizes for licensing which resulted in throttling of the site and poor performance in updating pages in response to searches. Nothing is worse than a poorly performing site with a long wait for the page to load. So the natural next step was to move up the hierarchy of hosting contracts to have a more professional Virtual Private Server system where you basically have the equivalent of a processor and memory dedicated to your needs. That solved the bottleneck, but at a price – $45 a month from what I recall. But did it earn something in sales and licenses – 2013 sales were $144, but it picked up in 2014 to provide $360 in sales, of which I kept the bulk, apart from Paypal fees. But even so – income of $360 and outlays of $540 (12 x $45) was not a great business model. My original site has been replaced by later versions, but a examples of the design are still around.

The developer of the first Symbiostock then seemed to be heading for a nervous breakdown with the pressure of bugs being reported and a growing complaint from some contributors that the networking was biased in favor of his own site and some of this friends. I personally didn’t think that was the case, but it got very nasty and eventually the name and some of the software was sold to another developer and Symbiostock V2 was developed. This new developer was more professional and did accept requests for new features, but was very controlled over what he accepted. As a result, the software, which was solidly rewritten, turned out to be very stable. Still a resource hog during uploading of images and so the developer offered a hosting service for the application as well. This was more reasonably priced that my commercial service – $305 for the year. There was also a reliable conversion service between the old design and the new and so no need to re-upload all the images. Throughout this time (mid 2015 to now), I’ve had around 5500 images online. Just short of 50GB of storage needed for all my images, which was the limit of the package being offered.

The new design came with an optional theme for purchase (about $80 I think), but it was a very professional look. You can see my site, BackyardStockPhotos.com as it still is using the theme here. Robin, the developer, also created an alternative way of handling a broader set of images than each contributor might have – he developed a common site, Symzio, that contained all the images that each individual contributor had uploaded. So a search on my site would also pull up images from other contributors via Symzio that may meet those keywords.

The final step in this saga is that Robin stopped offering hosting around November 2018 and I tried Bluehost for a time with a standard hosting package. Once again, issues in the load on the server caused slow page loads and so I finally ended up with a VPS on Inmotion Hosting. This time just over $30 a month for a two year commitment. As I also host this website with my stock photo site, I thought that was worthwhile.

So – a ton of text here. What did I learn?

First, setting up your own site is not that easy, especially if you want to customize descriptions beyond what you have on the main agencies perhaps. The latest Symbiostock is stable and still supported (the team helped me move to SSL status (the https:// security approach), but I haven’t added new images in several years. I still have around 5500.

The ranking on Google Images was actually pretty good when I was uploading images and adding new ones. Some of my images would appear on the first few rows of Google Images, above those same images on a regular stock agency. So my images could be found by people searching on Google.

The pricing I could apply was reasonable – there was more structure in the latest Symbiostock and I think we all agreed at the time to a pricing structure of $0.99 to $35 ranging from a small websized jpeg through to an extended license. I got all of this minus Paypal fees.

Illustrators seemed to do better than photographers with more sales. Perhaps photos are “two a penny” and easy to steal. Illustrations are harder to get in forms where you can modify the drawing and did seem to be more in demand from casual buyers.

I got views, but hardly anyone then decided to buy. I don’t think this was because the site was difficult to use – the checkout process didn’t require creating an account – just off to Paypal to pay the license and the image was downloaded to the buyer. But perhaps the sort of people that buy from an independent site just don’t actually want to pay. They want it free. If they are a company, they use a commercial stock agency. If they are an individual or someone just building a website or a blog, they want to just download the image and use it.

My earnings never improved. Each year’s totals have been:

Earnings from running my own personal stock agency on Symbiostock
Earnings from Backyard Stock Photos – my personal stock agency

Apart from 2014 when this was at the peak level for uploads, the earnings have been pitiful. Well below a breakeven for the cost of running the site.

I still get people who find images there and buy them – but they are very few and far between. I just leave it there now because I did the work and someone might find something of interest, but my images are getting out of date and of course none of my more popular later works are included. I could add images regularly, but I would have to increase the size of my VPS contract and I have little confidence that I would earn money that way. So it basically just sits these. There still is a forum up and running for current users if you are interested. I haven’t asked there recently if anyone sells anything – that could be interesting and perhaps I will! But my bottom line in this history is that I tried all the recommended things but people are just not willing to pay for images!

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9 Responses

  1. Hey Steve,

    Great article as always. I forgot about that old image from Cascoly, cool to see my old site thpstockphotos.com in there! I think i was user number 7 of the original Symbiostock!

    I still maintain a Symbiostock site too, but these days its merged with my other site (https://www.microstockman.com). I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, it’s no easy ride self hosting your images.

    But I still think it’s worth it.

    I wish the current Symbiostock would get updated more frequently, but they keep insisting their software is built solid and doesn’t need it….meanwhile, years pass and WooCommerce (which is essential for Symbiostock to run) gets updated like crazy for security and performance issues, and Symbiostock doesn’t support it. That’s my biggest gripe with it, but otherwise, it’s a platform that does work.

    On a side note, I hope the original creator, Leo, is doing well. He put a lot of work into it!

    • Steven Heap says:

      Yes, I haven’t heard from Leo since the changeover of the project to Robin, although I think he did suggest some other approach via MSG later, didn’t he?
      Interesting that you think your site is still worthwhile. Where do you host it now, did you run into the issues I did about slow page loads, and do you still upload new images to it? What sort of sales do you see?
      Steve

      • You’re right Steve, I think Leo did try another approach, but it didn’t take off.

        Don’t get me wrong, sales are not booming (sadly). But i enjoy running it, and sales basically cover hosting costs. As a developer as well, it’s a good way for me to keep up-to-date on WooCommerce/other software before working on clients sites. As a strategy for photographers to earn a living – no, probably not worth it.

        I was on Bluehost for ages, but the performance was terrible. So I moved to a wholesale hosting solution we use for our web clients – WAY faster, more secure, better support. Only downside is limit of 50GB SSD, so I’ve had to cull my portfolio, but I’m fine with it.

  2. Thank you for your post and the cristal clear view of this solution. I have been thinking about it and your experience really valuable. Best.

  3. Ajay says:

    In one of your recent blogs you entioned about Video submissions, please explain ore how to post process like color adjustment etc etc., and then putting title or keywording before submissions?

    • Steven Heap says:

      I don’t do very much color or exposure correction – there is a whole field of color grading that I haven’t really explored. I used Premiere and sometimes increase the exposure and perhaps a bit of saturation, but that is all. I then use Stock Submitter to submit my videos – in that program you can add the description, title and keywords in the App, and then it uploads the videos then logs onto the agency site to add the keywording etc. and submits them automatically. I have a blog post about that.
      Steve

  4. Ajay says:

    Sir,
    Thanks very uch for your very quick response. What progra can be used for such corrections, as we use Lr for still photos? Now I will try stock subitter for videos ad will share my experience. I have soe video clips and feel must try y luck in this.

    • Steven Heap says:

      I use Adobe Premiere, although any reasonable video editor would also work. I do use the stabilizing function in Premiere for my hand held shots to make them appear to be steady and tripod mounted.

I'm always interested in what you think - please let me know!