Last week I have been testing Pictorama, an app that combines mobile photo taking with elements from microstock photography. Pictorama is quite simple: you take photos; you submit them for evaluation; if they are good enough, they are sent to the app’s marketplace, where people can purchase them. Part of the profits from the sales of your images is your own. At entry level, you earn 20% on sales. After deducting VAT for each purchase, Pictorama pockets the rest for “marketplace fees” that will be automatically withdrawn from your PayPal account. Talk about penny-pinching! As the number of your contributions grows though, your earnings will also increase, with up to 50% when you have more than 2,000 photos in the marketplace. You can keep track of your stats and revenues from the app’s main site, Pictorama.com.
What I described above is roughly how microstock works. In case you are not familiar with the term, microstock is a form of stock photography where you sell photos as Royalty Free material for very low rates. I should mention that microstock is one of the most controversial forms of commercial photography ever invented. Unless you can take a considerable and consistent amount of pictures, you cannot expect to make money on microstock’s competitive market. Selling depends greatly not only on your marketing skills but also on the number of photos you can provide. Many photographers choose to avoid microstock, unless it is just a side job to easily complement their income making use of the means they already have or unless they’re totally desperate.
Right now, microstock is not focused on mobile photography and on its audience. Microstock requirements in terms of image specs are often too high and controls too strict, in special way given the average profits per image sold — which is also why many professionals consider the whole microstock notion insulting. Mobile photography will eventually conquer a relevant position in microstock in a few years from now, especially as mobile cameras become more and more functional and the image quality they can deliver improves.
Pictorama is thus an exception, as it is solely targeted at mobile photographers. Even if the app’s team pointed out in the FAQ that their service is different from that available through other microstock sites (the various Shutterstock, Bigstockphoto, Fotolia, Dreamstime, etc.), the way Pictorama works at its core is the same. Minus the control you have over your submissions.
Unlike with microstock sites, photographers can only submit photos taken in-app. There is no way to fine tune images and to make even the most basic adjustments. As commercial photographers know, some degree of post-processing is required for most digital images destined to commercial ends, and this takes into account also stock photos. With Pictorama you have to do everything in-camera, correct framing and exposure included. This wouldn’t be so bad if the iPhone camera was equivalent to a professional or even an up-to-date prosumer camera. We all know, however, that photos straight out of the iPhone are actually more in the point-and-shoot quality range, as the camera has almost non-existent control over aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You can get very lucky and once in a while take that awesome picture that doesn’t really need any tweaking, but most of the time iPhone shots will require a little bit of contrast, brightness, white balance and saturation adjustment, straightening and cropping, in order to make them look consistently good. Therefore it is not surprising that the majority of pictures in Pictorama’s community — a bunch of mine included — look like crappy snapshots a 10-year-old took during his first school trip.
The worst part, however, is that you cannot save photos taken in-app to your device for personal enjoyment: even from this point of view, it seems the user is not in full control of his own content. Perhaps you take a great shot within Pictorama, but you cannot use it outside the app, even in the case you decided not to upload the photo or if it was rejected at a later date. If I own all the rights to my photo and I only grant to the service provider non-exclusive license, as the Terms of Service state, I would expect to be able to do with it what I like. If there is a way to use my own photos outside the app, I couldn’t find it out.
This leads us to the question of the approval of submitted content. For this purpose, Pictorama relies heavily on its community: each contributed photo is judged by other community members, picked at random. To upload every single photo, users spend a fixed amount of credit points, which they can earn by voting for photos by others. In Pictorama’s guide it is stated that if 50% of the community likes the picture you submit, the image is sent to the app’s internal staff for final evaluation and approval. However, it is not clear how this 50% rating actually works. As a test, I submitted several pictures over a period of four days. On the first day, a photo with 5 out of 5 positive votes was accepted within few hours. It looked like a promising start: not only said photo was immediately approved and sold one copy, it was even chosen as Photo of the Week. Days after that blazing start, other pictures I submitted at the same time as my infamous Photo of the Week are still in community check status, even if some have 25 or 28 out of 30 positive ratings (which equals respectively to above 80% and 90%). If you get a series of upvotes in a row, you immediately pass the first stage; if you don’t, things get trickier and you need more upvotes in a row than you required at the beginning to actually pass the community check. I must admit that, given my hostility to anything involving math, I have not invested enough time to figure out the exact Pictorama approval/rejection algorithm. And while we’re at it, it is also worth noting that no other sale came after that single occurrence on day one.
The community check would be great in a perfect world (or perhaps in Germany, the country of origin of the app) where people are diligent enough to just do what they are supposed to do: judge the actual quality of the image, leaving aside any other personal consideration. I am afraid in the real world people are not like that. Where money and even the slightest social prestige are involved, disruptive behavior is bound to surface, especially if anonymity encourages it. In clearer terms: trolls are everywhere and they especially love to do their trolling at other people’s expenses. Years of experience taught me that one in X users of any service is a troll and he will make a point to cast negativity upon the work of others, most of the time just for the fun of it.
Leaving aside trolls, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trust the judgement of random users like my mother, who don’t care in the least if I spent 20 minutes of my time sweating blood to keep my iPhone steady to get a sharp image with no tripod at hand, or if I tried to find a way to use proper lighting instead of the cheapening on-camera flash of my phone. My mother would likely go all “Oh” and “Ah” over the most boring, blurry, awfully framed and poorly exposed flower pictures, ignoring all about quality. To be completely honest, I couldn’t blame this kind of user too much, either. I am familiar with microstock’s ridiculous requirements and usually I can predict quite accurately if a photo is going to be rejected or approved; nevertheless, I had a hard time judging a few of the photos I was asked to vote for by Pictorama’s community checking system. At the resolution of iPhone’s screen, it is really tough in some cases to figure if a photo is good for the trash bin or for framing on the wall — unless it really has no redeeming points, that is.
I understand the will to keep everything community-friendly and even the will of — heck, why not? — filtering the gazillions of photos submitted for the benefit of Pictorama’s “internal experts”, but I am not sure this is the best approach we can hope for: especially if the app is going to get ridiculously popular as other social-oriented ones, it might take more than this to ensure that worthy submissions can reach the internal staff. I could also add as a criticism that the whole principle behind Pictorama may result detrimental to commercial photography and that this app and others of its kind may lower stock photography standards that are already quite low thanks to microstock’s prosperity.
To sum it up, what did I like about Pictorama and what did I dislike?
- That in-app pictures only are accepted creates a fairer marketplace;
- The chance to make a few extra bucks while having a good time taking pictures anywhere, anytime, makes it a casual and appealing take on microstock;
- Using a camera phone to take the best pictures possible without all the usual gimmicks — a variety of lenses, equipment items and an array of fancy filters to choose from, for instance — can help boost your creative side.
- The lack of basic editing features;
- The impossibility to save photos taken in-app to the device;
- The lack of an option to disable/remove geolocation data from photos;
- The high platform fees;
- The questionable community opinion in terms of actual quality and value.
Overall, Pictorama’s idea is simple and effective and it might work just fine — well, at least I think it will for its creators. If you are interested, you can check out the app and see if it suits you. Be sure to read the app’s FAQ, agreements and terms of service before snapping and submitting.