Microstock Photography “Simplified”

Posted by on Dec 30, 2010 in Blog | 10 Comments

This posting is about  how to approach Microstock Photography in a Simplified Approach.

A caveat first.  I have only been doing this for 2 years.  Most of the info and advice below is my opinion.   There probably are better articles to read than this.  BUT…. I wish someone would have told me some of this stuff when I started.  So I think it should have some value to beginning Microstockers.

What is microstock photography Images?

People who are making websites, advertising leaflets, advertising in magazines & newspapers, or anyone who needs an image for anything use microstock photography agencies as a resource.  They pay per image or sign up and pay for a plan.  They buy small, medium, and large images.  And they purchase “rights” that can range from personal single use to many thousands of use on products sold.  So the price to these consumers can range from about $1 to $300 or more per image.  The consumer can then use the image for whatever use they desire as long as it fits within the “rights” of the conditions of the sale of that image.

Who sells the images?

Microstock photography companies.  There are lots of them.  My favorites, in the order of my preferences, are Shutterstock, iStockphoto, Dreamstime, Bigstockphoto, Fotolia, 123RF, Canstockphoto There are many more.  Here is a good site where image contributors discuss and rate them, Microstock Group.

How do I sell my images ?

The simple answer is go to the contributor’s section of each site and file an application, get accepted, and then start posting.

The longer answer comes in parts.

Do I really want to sell microstock photography?

Unless you want to make this a 40+ hr/week job, spending about 30% of your time taking photos and about 70% of your time processing the images…. don’t do this just for the money.  I don’t know the statistics but my guess is that maybe there are dozens of people in the world who make a good living on this…. but not getting really rich or anything like that.  There are probably hundreds making an OK living.  There are many thousands making enough to pay for their camera equipment.  Then there are many 10’s of thousands only getting a few hundred dollars a year.  My goal is to make enough money to pay for my camera stuff.  Over the past 2 years I have about about $1500.  I want to make about $3K/ year.  I think that I will get there.  I spend about  5 hrs a week taking shots and another 10 hrs processing/uploading.  I do it because I love photography,  you get to learn from rejections and sales, and then someone sends you money every now and then…..not bad.

What equipment do I need?

You need a DSLR.  There are some people who shoot with  prosumer point and shoots or bridge cameras but that’s a lot harder way to go and I think you may even have trouble qualifying as a contributor at some of the sites.  The type of DSLR is not that important.  An entry level camera will do.   It needs to produce file sizes that are at least 4MB and being able to take RAW images is important (more image data for processing later).  I started with a Canon Rebel XS.  Sold that to get a 50D. Sold that to get a 7D.  Recently added a 5DMKII.   You will also need lenses.  Any will do to start with.  I started with the kit lens zoom and have worked my way up to the better lenses.  The kind of lens you get kind of depends on the kind of shots you enjoy taking.  Lots of landscapes, get a wide prime or wide zoom, portraits get a mid range prime,  animals or sports get a tele zoom or tele prime.  You also need a computer.  I find laptop works best for me.  The serious guys use a laptop or desktop with a large high quality screen.  You will need photo software.  I use Aperture 3 (OS X) and photoshop.  Other people like Lightroom (multi-platform).  Plug-in software is good too.  Plug-ins work with your main programs like Aperture 3, Photoshop, or Lightroom.  I mostly use Topaz’s denoise.  I have tried them all and this one works best for me.  I also regularly use PT Lens.  Its great for making lens corrections, CA adjustments, and distortion adjustments.  Many times I take a photo looking up or at an angle.  This software and easily adjust the image to make it look like you were right in the middle of it.  Photoshop can do this too.

What kind of microstock photography images sell?

Anything that anyone can imagine that helps with visual arts for business or other use.  Sounds easy right.  Here is the tough part.  The image has to have good composition, good exposure, good focus, no artifacts at 100% and be either original compare to the other 10 million other images online….OR…. better than the existing similar images.  Note that any recognizable people images (that sell well) need to have a signed model release that you will need to scan and upload with the image.  Also you cannot submit any images of commercial products or buildings that are recognizable.  So you can take pictures of the back of people or a mass of people where faces are a blur.  You can take images of parts of cars or buildings as long as it is not easily recognizable as a Ford or as the Sears tower.

How can I take images that sell?

Take lots of images.  Review them.  Take more images.  Be very critical of your shots.  Have a friend review the shots.  Submit the shots to the microstock photography agency, or microstock group forums for critiques.  Read Photography books.   Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman is a GREAT book for understanding composition.  The good microstockers think about a message they want to portray then they go in search of subjects that support that message….This is mostly too hard for me.  Its probably why I will never be a high earner.  I like going for a walk in new places (although my backyard or neighborhood will do in a pinch) and I just let my instinct go to work….. I like to say I listen to my Muses  : ) …Subjects that catch my eye I go for.  I look for an angle with a good background.  I look for where copy space can be added (room for ad text).  I then take my shots.   I set my camera up for aperture priority and exposure bracketing.   In camera metering is something that can be tricky but with bracketing you are bound to get one shot right.  I change the aperture and play with different dof’s (depth of field).  I try to keep the ISO settings low.  The higher the ISO the more noise.  Noise is not allowed.  But high ISO allows for more DOF or higher speeds which are necessary for certain subjects or conditions.

How do I process what I take?

I will have 300-900 images from an outing.  I will probably end up with 20-30 good shots out of that.  So the first thing to do is get rid of the images that are not work working with.  So I go through quickly and eliminate those.  Again I use Aperture 3 so although I have trashed them…they are still in the trash folder if I need them.  Next I go through each one  (maybe now down to 100-300 images) and I add some sharpnesss,  using curves I bring in the white and black points to a saturated level.  Usually I put in a slight “s” curve shape to add some contrast.  I take a look at what I have done and I rate it.   Aperture and other programs allow for color coding or rating the images.  So I give them 2 or 3 stars according to how I like the image.  Then I go through and group the images that are similar and take the best….trash the others.  Next I spend more time on each image boosting or de-saturating colors,  getting rid of noise or CA (cromatic aberration or purple fringes).  I correct for lens distortion effects.  I mask or repair stuff in the image like a brown spot on a flower, or a piece of trash, or stuff in the copy space that is in the way.  I will also do burning and dodging where needed.  With that all done I now need to do the Meta data.  This would be the image title, caption, and keywords.  I do the title and caption first on my images.  You can do keywording by yourself….but its tedious.  So Luckily, one of the most successful microstockers in the work,  Yuri Arcurs,  has a keyword page.  It is located here.  You put in 2-3 key words and it pumps out 50+ keywords in order of most popular.  I love him for this.  Now you are ready to submit.

What is the best way to submit?

First, you need to be accepted as a contributor.  Go to the site.  A good starter site is Shutterstock.  Fill in an application.  Some require a test.  I knew all of the answers but you can look up the answers by googling the question  (is that cheating??).  Most require that you send in up to 10 shots.  This is the only tough part.  make sure you only submit your best stuff.  Get  critical help  from friends.  Submit your stuff for review ahead of time to one of the forums I mentioned.   Do get discouraged if you are rejected.  Some require that you wait 30-45 days if you get rejected to re-submit.  Stay with it.  You will get accepted by all of the sites I have listed above.  Once you are accepted…..  Each agency has an online upload site.  Typically they are tedious and slow.  Get an FTP program.  I use Fetch.  There are lots of others out there.  I only load about 10 at a time to each site.  Why?  I have noticed that sometimes reviewers have bad days or they have seen too many of you kind of shot or who knows.  But when I used to submit 20,30,40 or more I would sometimes get massive rejections at one site and minor rejections at another.  So I stagger my uploads.  I also try to mix up subjects from several shoots so they are not all the same.  You may have 5 great shots of a flower from different angles and with different dof’s.  But if you submit them all at once….they are likely to reject all but one.  Submit one every few days and they may all make it….if they are good. What next…. pay attention to what gets rejected, what sells, and what does not sell.  Learn from it.  Get better.

How do you get paid?

Microstock photography sites will wait till you get to some limit.  It can be $50, $75, or $100.  At that point you will ask to get paid or it will get done automatically.  They usually have different options.  I use Paypal.  Its easy.  Usually you get paid about 15-30 days after you get to the limit.  Most sites require that you provide some ID and tax info.  You get 1099 forms for that so you can add the income to your taxes.

So that’s it. My first Blog article!!!  I hope someone finds some value in this.


  1. Microstock Simplified my first blog
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  2. Microstock Posts
    January 1, 2011

    Very nice blog Bob. Some nice advice too. You are right about not expecting too much, for most people microstock is additional income, not too many go all the way to make it their main income.

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  6. John
    March 30, 2011

    Wow, that was an excellent article for anyone thinking about making money by selling their photos through stock photo sites. I’m glad to see that you’ve managed to steadily increase your income and support your camera equipment needs.

    These darn things are so expensive I’ve been looking for a way to support the expense and still be able to enjoy taking photos – this could be an option for me for sure.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your insight with the rest of us just looking to start out!

  7. Maia Bassette
    December 12, 2011

    Hey our family just loves your gorgeous site thanks and pls don’t stop!

  8. atindra
    July 5, 2012

    thanks a lot..I’m planing to buy a eos550d & some cheap prime lenses like 50mm f1.8,40mm…but the question is that I’m from India..so can I do the same as you explained above from being here….plz tell me can I???? thnk u

    • bobbyk
      July 5, 2012

      I think that you can be a microstock photographer and live anywhere. One restriction might be the ability to have Paypal. That seems to be the preferred method to receive payments. I believe that Paypal is available to anyone with a credit card and/ or a bank checking account.

      Some of the microstock sites will offer other options of payment but I am less familiar with them.

      Let me know if you need any further info.

  9. How to buy DSLR Stuff
    September 23, 2012

    […] I have done this starting with a Canon Rebel XS and a basic zoom lens.  Four years later I have a camera (had two but sold one) and the best of every lens I need or want.  I supplemented this effort with money that I earned in microstock. […]


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