Microstock Photography – The Good and the Not so Good
Microstock photography has been around for many years now and almost everyone interested in this domain knows a thing or two about it. In the shortest definition ever, it includes websites where you get to sell your images for a usually small and variable amount, receiving royalty each time customers download one of your photos or files. The best thing about it is that theoretically, each file can be sold for an infinite number of times without the user having to do anything. As such, while it might bring very small amounts each time, it is a passive income source that has the potential to increase as you get better at photography and more involved. When stock photography is usually about higher prices and less sales, usually requires exclusivity and rights manages sales, microstock on the other hand is about royalty free images, sold non-exclusively and for a smaller prices, but usually far more sales.
Many years ago, when I started in this field, there were already millions of images sold on each microstock photography website, the number having multiplied many time over the last years. This means that it gets harder and more difficult to succeed and win money from this domain. The serious players that have earned a high level of quality and content have earned many thousands and sometimes millions of dollar from selling their photographs. But there are still places left for the best and most innovative photographers, the best advice being to be as creative and different as possible. Those that can stick to a small niche and do everything perfectly can still get far and earn a nice income.
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MY EXPERIENCE IN MICROSTOCK PHOTOGRAPHY
Although never fully successful or fully investing in this activity, I have some experience with microstock photography and its world. I have dabbled in the low-end bits of the business for many years and I think to have an understanding of what it is about and how some people make a lot of money through it. At first, it was just to see what it was about and how I could make a few cents every now and then with the snapshot I captured without any experience or vision in photography. I had a low-quality point and shoot camera and I kept photographing landscapes and nature subjects that I liked. I still had no idea that photography will someday be my biggest passion and only occupation.
I started uploading some of the best (awful really) images from my feeble collection and some of them got accepted into websites like Shutterstock and Fotolia. I tried for a full year to get together 10 good images in order to pass the quality test on iStockPhoto, finally getting accepted after many attempts. I soon started getting my nose into Adobe Illustrator and tried to learn to design simple things. Although some of these were accepted, only a handful really sold over the years and one even brought in over $100 over the years. Some of the photographs got accepted on all websites but I soon learned that what sells on one Microstock site will not also sell on the others. I started around 2008 or 2009 and I kept uploading and managing my collection up until 2003 or 2004. I then completely put this activity on hold and although some passive revenue continued to come over the next years, it was just to keep reminding me of this side option.
Extra change money
On the financial side of things, do not expect to get rich by selling photography (illustration, graphics, and video) on microstock. Of course, if you have a collection of a few thousand excellent images, you will earn some nice revenue, but I did not have such a thing at the moment. For a short breakdown, if you are interested in numbers alone, I will only take into account the four major players in the Microstock business. In 2009 I earned a total $226, in 2010 I earned another $233, while 2011 came with a major increase for me up to $552, 2012 earned me $482, while this decreased in 2013 to just $310. You will think that these are just extra change money, but at the time I was a student with no other income, so it meant something for me. Also take into account that my photography level was the lowest possible and I only got about 300-400 images accepted on 3 websites, while iStock only accepted about 180. The following years up to 2018 were still ok, but the revenue no longer satisfied me to the point that I felt like investing more time into uploading. Truth is, from time to time, I did get a big sale from a photo or a video clip (I only uploaded one and made me over $100) that got me thinking about starting again.
After many years in wedding photography, I started traveling more and going out for photo expeditions, so I got a little better at creating good images. My equipment also followed the development and now I have a good enough professional kit, although I continue to want more stuff (like any other photographer). In the beginning of 2018, I got some free time from editing events and put myself to work on selecting the best 200 or so images from the last years. These were mainly travel, landscapes and nature photos, as this is what I like to do. Unfortunately, these are also the most common and least sought after photographs in stock. Nevertheless, from the 180 images that I selected and uploaded on all websites, over 150 were selected, which is a huge increase from my earlier attempts.
I should say that until 2018, the total of my earnings in microstock photography have reached a total of about $2,500. Two months later, I selected another 50 photographs that I had don meanwhile and almost all got selected, increasing the total number of images on the first 3 microstock websites to over 600. I have no idea what the future will bring and if I will have any success, but I am determined to continue creating better and better images. Some of these will definitely get uploaded and probably bring me some change money, while the very best will be kept for my portfolio and who knows, maybe even high end stock or fine art prints someday…
WHY SHOULD YOU SELL IMAGES ONLINE
Mainly because you want to earn money online with your passion… This is the reason thousands of photographers choose to enter this market. You probably have thousands of images in your collection, not quite art, but good enough to earn you a little something passively. The nicest thing is that you get to upload an image and never have to do anything else, earning revenue for years to come. Some of my best images and files still sell after 7 years. The most successful and professional stock photographers earn hundreds of thousands each month or year, but few have the dedication and talent to produce constantly on a high scale and level of quality. Nevertheless, there are still subjects that are not as well covered as others. Unfortunately for me and many other photographers, travel and nature have plenty of competition and there are millions of images already sold online. Selling images on microstock is also a very good way to improve your photography and gain experience, learning from others and your own mistakes. Getting images rejected or accepted will show you what you are doing wrong and what you need to practice further. It is also a good introduction to setting yourself apart as an artist, growing and maybe moving forward to selling on major stock or selling printed photographs on your own.
When Not to Sell Your Images on Microstock
There is also a downside to selling images on Microstock photography websites. Your images will get downloaded with royalty free licenses, the buyers being able to use them on their own projects. You will still retain the copyrights to your images but when it has been bought hundreds of time, a little value is lost each time. If you are very attached to some or all of your images, maybe if you have some photographs that you consider unique and representative for your art, then it might be a good idea to keep them to yourself, waiting to sell them as art pieces.
HOW TO TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS FOR MICROSTOCK WEBSITES
Shooting for microstock is not as hard as having customers who desire a specific type of images. You get to shoot on your own terms, what you like and how you like it, as long as it has some commercial value. Otherwise, the content will simply not sell… Starting out in microstock photography and being successful in your endeavor are two separate things and there is no guarantee you will succeed eventually. Nevertheless, there are some things and pieces of information that might be of some use along the way.
Photograph the themes and subjects you know best and are comfortable with. Although not everything sells as well, you will do better if you like what you do. The bestselling files are those with commercial appeal and as rare or unique as possible. If you happen to find a niche that almost nobody else is doing and buyers are looking for it, you will definitely succeed. Finding your own particular style is also important, as in any other type of photography.
If fine art photography could theoretically be created with any equipment, microstock photography is about large images that can be used for large prints or all types of destinations. Your equipment has to produce good looking images, crisp and noise-free details, vibrant colors and clear subjects. Abstract artsy images, with unclear messages will usually not sell as well.
By all means, do not over edit your photographs, as this is an important reason for rejection. Applying just the basic edits like exposure correction, contrast, detail and white balance is probably the best choice at this point. Unnatural colors or monochrome filters over a colorful subject are also a bad choice. A good thing would be to apply a little noise reduction in your preferred photo editing program.
One of the best things you could do prior to uploading and that could potentially save you from a lot of time and stress consumption is to edit the attributes of your images. In many editing programs you can change the title, description and keywords for each photo in the IPTC field. Almost all microstock photography websites will recognize these and pre-fill the required fields. I lost a lot of time and nerves doing this manually for each file and with each website.
While it might be a good idea to upload images as soon as possible, it saves a lot of time if you prepare them in batches and only upload weekly or monthly, depending on your workflow. Some images might be very big in size so make sure you have a good internet connection and also check the requirements for each company you upload to, as some might be different.
One of the most important things when uploading to a microstock photography site is properly describing your image with keywords. It is important to be very careful into researching and correctly spelling the keywords that best describe your image, as this will lead to more views from buyers that are actually searching for it and ultimately more downloads.
You can still influence the success of your images even after uploading and getting them accepted. While they will still earn money without any intervention, you might want to promote your portfolio, reshoot photographs that have sold very well in the past, leading other photographers to microstock photography and earning from affiliates and others.
BEST MICROSTOCK PHOTOGRAPHY WEBSITES
There are at least two dozen microstock websites on the internet, some more popular and famous, while some might be specialized in different subjects or themes and others small players that come and go on the market. Nevertheless, over the years, four major players have risen and became the best known for their quality and income possibilities. Each has its own particularities and some might earn you more depending on the type of art you produce. I have tried at least a dozen names and there are several others that could be worth joining, although they have not worked as good for me. One major thing to keep in mind that all of these websites give you higher revenue percent depending if you are exclusive or not, meaning that you only upload to their website. Some might give the option to only having some images as exclusives and earning more for those alone. The following websites have proven their dominance of the microstock photography world over many years so you can rest assured of their quality and seriousness.
Shutterstock – JOIN
I have earned over half of my total income (over $1,300) from Shutterstock so it is no wonder I would definitely place it at the top of the list. It has a unique system that pays less for each download that its competitors, but it more than makes up for this in quantity. Photographers get up to 30% of the sale price from each download, the base amount being just $0.25 at the beginning, increasing to a maximum of $0.38 after a few levels of lifetime earnings. These are the types of downloads you will get most of the times, coming from customers that have monthly subscriptions to Shutterstock. The bigger revenues come from On-Demand images, with incomes between $0.81 and $2.85 depending on the level and image size. The Custom Image / Enhanced License sell brings contributors revenues of 20%-30%, to a maximum amount of $120. If you are a videographer, things are a lot better, with fixed revenue of 30% from the selling price, bringing massive income. I have a basic unedited; handheld video that got me almost $200 over the years with just 10 downloads. Imagine what the best videographers with top quality video content can earn. The process to upload photographs to Shutterstock after being accepted as a contributor is fairly simple. The review process is probably the fastest of the four websites, with a usual waiting time under 48 hours.
Adobe Stock (former Fotolia) – JOIN
Fotolia used to be one of the oldest and most famous names in the microstock photography industry. It was purchased by Adobe for about $800 million and it since was included in the Adobe Stock brand name. Photographers had their revenues and portfolios seamlessly moved to the new platform, while the old one remained active. I never earned very much from Fotolia and the new name did not bring a major change, although it could work very well in the future, as Adobe Stock is integrated into the most popular photography software programs in the world. I earned $328 so far from 561 sales so far on Fotolia/Adobe Stock and the website pays contributors following a similar scheme to Shutterstock. Depending on your lifetime rank, the minimum income varies between $0.25 and $0.40 (20%-46%), while ranks are based on total number of sales. These are just the base revenues with other subscription plans and types of licenses bringing anything from $0.66 to about $26. As always, video brings the most money, the sale of a single 4K clip can bring a maximum of $70. The upload process is fairly simple after you get used to the interface, with a pretty fast review time and a good acceptance ratio.
Dreamstime – JOIN
Dreamstime is a Romanian company and one of the greatest in the world, definitely among the first four microstock photography websites. It is also an overall cool place to be, with one if not the best communities. It is the only place where I found it useful to read articles and contribute in the past, one time even being lucky enough to win an iPad for an article submission contest. It also has cool milestone prizes, weekly or monthly assignments and a very innovative level system where images get leveled up instead of the overall collection of the contributor. Another cool thing that I liked many years ago has the option to upload additional files, RAW or of other types, which brought a greatly increased revenue. If you wish to be exclusive to Dreamstime there is a nice feature that awards $0.20 for each image accepted, even retroactively, also enabling greatly increased revenue (up to 60% for each image). The minimum earning for non-exclusive contributors is $0.35 for subscriptions, while the revenue for other licenses increases with each type of download and the level of the image, reaching up to $40 and more.
iStockPhoto / Getty Images – JOIN
iStock has been one of the most recognized brands for a very long time, probably the most elite and sought after microstock website. It used to pay the biggest commissions to photographers, but the quality requirements were also set pretty high. When others websites welcomed all contributors without any prerequisite, iStock had a test where it needed to approve 10 images before acceptance. I had just about 100 photos approved when other websites had 300, but it still earned me a nice $400 over the years. Several years ago, iStockPhoto announced that they were acquired by the biggest brand in stock photography, Getty Images. The partnership brought photographers on a bigger market, although this was not particularly transcribed in better sales. Although everything was migrated to the new contributor platform, I found it a little difficult at first to find your way around the new interface. IStock/Getty Images still have a test for new contributors and you will have to prove the quality of your photography before being able to earn anything. The good news is that now you have about 4 places where you files will get sold with just one account. Nevertheless, you will still get only around 15-20% for each sale and although it might be more than on other websites, it is a small percent.