:: introduction to microstock ::

what is microstock?

Microstock is the traditional image stock industry brought to the world of Web 2.0. Unlike traditional stock agencies (Getty Images, Corbis, Alamy, etc.), microstock is open to a large number of photographers, including amateurs, and offers images for a much lower price (e.g. 1$ to 20$ vs. minimum 300$ or so on the traditional stock agencies). This pricing, along with a simpler licensing scheme, translates into large selling volumes compared to tradition stock. For the photographer, the number of sale compensate for the tiny revenue per single sale.


why should I sell to microstock?

As a professional photographer, this is not an easy question to answer. It requires a careful study of the expected return for the time investment. For amateurs on the other hand, there are many good reasons to get involved with microstock and very few not to.

  • While making a living off microstock is probably much, much more complicated than, say, staying with your current day job, microstock is still the easiest way to make some money with photography. For example, it is easier than selling prints on sites like ImageKind, RedBubble or deviantART. It only takes a moderate success to pay for your photo gear...
  • Despite being passionate about photography, it is often necessary to have a drive to keep shooting. Sharing image with friend and family, or with a broader audience on community sites like deviantART or flickr, is such a drive. Microstock is clearly another. Each sale quickly becomes one more reason to go out and shoot! It also helps to diversify the style of shooting, as microstock typically demands less artsy, more commercial type of images.
  • Behind many microstock agencies, there are great communities that provide an invaluable assistance in the processes. It is a superb opportunity to learn and improve the photography skills. The best place is probably the submitters' forum of ShutterStock.


why should I not sell to microstock?

  • You're making a living at selling prints. You're in the art business, and (micro)stock is not art. Changing business may be risky if you depend on photography for living.
  • Time is an issue. Microstock is not like uploading a picture on flickr. Even getting accepted in the major agencies requires learning the rules and the skills, which translate into time and dedication.
  • If you don't like criticism of your pictures, it will hurt. Lots quit after all of their initial submission is outright rejected for (apparently) futile reasons, sometime insulting admins on the forum on their way out. Rejections are every time an opportunity to learn, but this requires some degree of humility...


process overview

Microstock sites screen photographers. You must first submit a set of five to ten images in order to be admitted for submission. Once this step is done, they review each submission, and only the ones they accept eventually appear online. Usually, the contract terms between the microstock agencies and the photographers are non-exclusive. It means that you can submit the same image to many microstock sites, which most submitters do. Some sites offer advantages for photographer that agree to exclusive terms.

Submitters have the responsibility for the metadata (caption, description, keywords, etc.) of their images. The upload process is usually based on FTP and require additional steps on the website (e.g. for categorisation). See the workflow section below for more details.

Earnings accumulate when people download your images and when they reach a threshold (50$ to 100$ depending on the site), the photographer can request a payout. On some other site, the payout is automatically sent at the end of the month, provided that the threshold is reached. In most case, payment are made through PayPal.



sale comparison

Relative sale volume for 8 microstock agencies based on my sales in 2007 (Jan-Nov). Note that these figures can vary largely depending on the size and the type of your portfolio. Also note that my portfolio on BigStock Photo is much smaller than on the other agencies as I do not submit to this site anymore (read below to know why).



One of the biggest seller. It is based on a subscription system, i.e. clients pay a monthly fee and can download lots of images. Individual sales are low (0.25$ or 0.30$ when total income reaches 500$) but the volume is huge. They are quite picky in the selection process and have ZERO tolerance to image noise. Appropriate use of noise reduction software is often mandatory. Their forum are quite active and one of the most useful learning resource.
Note that the sale volume depend on your submission activity. If you submit regularly, your sales will stay high, but will drop after 3-6 weeks if you don't submit. This is because people tend to look at newest images and then look at photographers' portfolio.

The choice for the initial ten images (for the initial registration) is critical. In case of failure, you have to wait 30 days for a new trial. Basically: no pet (unless stunningly original), no flower (unless stunningly original), variety, NO NOISE, technical soundness, no sunset (unless stunningly original). Forums and FAQ are good resources for more information on this.

Shutterstock is one of the rare agencies to accept editorial images (the other one is Dreamstime, see below). These images do not require model release from the people depicted and usually illustrate newsworthy event like concerts, celebrities, political meetings, etc. Shutterstock even offers a service that helps to obtain accreditations to attend event as press photographer.

Highly recommended.



Another among the best seller. They were recently bought by Getty. Very elitist, the submission process quite painful, but given the volume, this site a must. They offer an exclusive contract with willing photographers, but it is hard to imagine that the advantages match the added income of the other agencies.

Highly recommended.




A recent site, with excellent ergonomics. Not a huge volume, but very high payout rate (up to 2.50$ per download). It has a very efficient submission system which makes it worth submitting to. As ShutterStock, sales tend to depend a lot on submissions activity.

Highly recommended.



This site is considered to be among the bigger ones, but I've found it not to generate a huge income. They do not require the earnings to reach a threshold before sending money to photographers, which is an advantage over most other sites.




Another big site with respectable sale volume. This site also accept editorial images, like ShutterStock.

Highly recommended.



A smaller, more recent one. The sale volume have increased significantly lately (as of November 2007), thanks to their marketing efforts. One of the great thing about this site is that the submission system is very efficient and takes virtually no time (beyond FTP uploading), which makes it a must despite the lower sale volume.



CanStock Photo

Extremely low volume, but a very efficient submission system which can make it worth if you have a very large portfolio. Plus, the submission system provides hints about additional keywords, so you submit there first, you can refine your set of keyword before submitting to other sites.



This is the last site I submitted my images (Fev 2008). So far, very low volume, but again, zero submission effort, so why not? Even better, there is no initial acceptance process. You can directly start to upload images. Note that they have very strict quality policy. For me, they accepted on average only a fourth of what other sites accept. We will see in the future if this pays off.



BigStock Photo

Very small volume. They require to leave the image online for 90 days after submission, which can be a constraint: you cannot sell the copyright of an image during this time (an option offered by Dreamstime for example). I do not submit to this site anymore, mainly for this reason and because the submission process requires too much time compared to the resulting sales.

Not recommended.


Other agencies

They are other agencies, but I don't know of any that generate a large enough volume for me to bother :) Check the numerous forums on the topic for more information.


what sells?

Note that the requirements for stock image are by no means the same than for fine art pictures. They have to "sell", and it's not immediately obvious which images will be successful or not. This is part of the learning process... Both iStockphoto and ShutterStock offers tool to understand what sells and what doesn't.



One of the most important aspect of microstock is appropriate keywording. That is the basis on which people will find your images. The good thing is that most site will recognise IPTC and EXIF information stored in JPEG files (editable in Photoshop for example), so you do not need to re-enter information .

The workflow is typically as following.

  1. In case of RAW, convert to PSD. In case of JPG, save as PSD.
  2. Adjust level/saturation/usual post-processing.
  3. Check noise @ 100% view size. Use de-noising (I suggest NeatImage as I have great results with it) on a duplicate layer, then use masking to selectively apply de-noising. Layer opacity can also be used. Problems are typically found in sky and dark areas. Shoot at lowest possible ISO.
  4. Convert to JPG, highest quality setting
  5. Enter information (author, title, description, keywords) in Photoshop or Bridge (I suggest second option)
  6. Upload according to each site's procedure (you will see that it can be a lengthy step if you submit to many sites).

Note that pictures with people will need a model release to be submitted too.


learn more

Any doubt remaining? More questions? Have a look at these few links...

Also, do not hesitate to contact me. I will happily try to help...