So You wanna earn money from your photos?

by Ben Heys, September 5, 2013

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123 RF




My Introduction to MicroStock Photography

*edit* This is a re-post of an old article I wrote several years ago:

A few months back, around the beginning of the year (2007) I decided to do a little experiment and post some shots up on a couple microstock sites.  I didn’t expect much out of it as my work was mostly fashion and art nudes, not drops of water, mobile phones or business people shaking hands.  Nevertheless my shots started to sell better than I’d expected and so I delved a little deeper into this experiment.

To be fair I really haven’t put in all that much effort into it thus far, perhaps over the course of the year it would have averaged out to around 5-10 hours a week in submitting, key wording and editing (bear in mind this doesn’t include shooting and shoot organisation time).  I’ve really treated stock only as something to do with work I’ve shot anyway just to get a little more income out of it.  I’ve never done any specific stock shoots and only once or twice modified planned shoots to include specialist stock work.  I’ve simply shot what I normally shoot and then posted it afterward.

But it is exactly this freedom that I enjoy about stock.  You can shoot whatever you want, and so long as the results have quality it seems they will sell.  In just over 6 months I’ve now raised my stock income to a point where I can mostly give away my fashion/nude work (models really give me the shits sometimes) and should be able to sustain myself travelling around SE Asia (albeit on the cheap).  A feat I’m actually quite delighted with considering the relative neglect I’ve shown my stock portfolios.

Now before we get into specific sites or tips etc I thought I might post up a comparison table I put together of the different sites I submit to:

This table is designed to give you an idea of the relative performance of the different micro stock agencies.  The %income columns should be obvious but I’ll add that all percentage figures are rounded off for ease of reading, so they don’t always add up to exactly 100.  The $/month/photo columns provide a great way to see just how much money is made on each site per image per month.  These are my personal figures and of course you may find yours vary greatly from these, either higher or lower, depending on the saleability of your images.  However they may still serve as a guide to comparing the different sites, as each of these sites has had roughly the same shots submitted to them (with some exceptions we’ll deal with in the next part).  The ease of submitting number is merely a number I came up with to give you an idea how simple the process is to submit work to each site – 10 being the quickest/easiest and 1 being the most convoluted.  Lastly is my acceptance ratio, fairly obviously this is a percentage figure of roughly how many of my submissions make it live on each site.


Microstock: The players


Now if you’ve taken even a cursory glance at the table on the previous page it should be immediately evident that if there is one stock site you want to be on – this is it.  There isn’t too much to complain about with shutterstock, sure they are a little more discerning with their content than the other sites (bar Istock & SXP) but when you have the industry presence they obviously do, you can afford to be.  In fact it could well be part of the reason why they do so well – customers are going to go where the quality is, so tougher acceptance hoops to jump through can really only be a good thing for the contributers as a whole.  Uploads are as simple as FTPing a batch of shots, then assigning categories (1 or 2) for each shot and if applicable a model release.  Submitting could perhaps be made a touch swifter with some sort of bulk categorising/release assigning feature but that’s a reasonably small gripe given all the reasons ($) to be on here.  If you are looking to be a microstock shooter, you have to be on here, it’s as simple as that.


Ok so Shutterstock is a done deal, but if Shutterstock is number one on your list then for my money Dreamstime comes in at number 2.  Now I hear what you are saying “but look Ben, your own table shows us that Istock has earned you more money both overall and per shot per month! Are you crazy?”  Well yes, this is true (just ask one of my ex’s!), but in terms of effort vs payout Dreamstime wins hands down.  They are if anything a touch easier to submit to than SS as when categorising each shot you have the ability to just copy the categories from a previous shot, this makes things a tiny bit quicker.  They have a slightly longer approval time than SS but what’s a couple days when the shots will be earning you money for years down the track?


For my number 3 vote I really wish I could go with SXP because I love some of the things they do but well, you just can’t argue with numbers ($) and Istock has them.  Considered by many to be the first, the biggest and the best it certainly does sell a few pics (once you jump through the ridiculous hoops they set up to get them on there).  First of all there is no FTP, they are the one site on this entire list without it, so you have to manually upload each shot individually from a html upload page.  Then there are the upload limits, which although they’ve just been increased are still far lower than any of the other sites here.  I won’t bother listing them here as they tend to change more often than my car breaks down (and yeah – I drive a piece of shit).  Then there are the model releases, do you think they save them in a handy folder somewhere?  Of course not, got 20 pics of the same model?  Well you just have to upload that same model release document 20 times.  Then there is the ‘disambiguation’ process, what this means is you have to go through each keyword and tell the stupid computer what it means.   For example does ‘orange’ mean the color or the fruit? does ‘breakdown’ mean your car has stopped or you’ve just tried to submit 20 shots in a row to Istock?  Another factor that doesn’t help with time vs payout is the large amount of rejections one gets from here, although that’s the one thing I don’t really have a problem with.  To be honest half the time I get rejections from them are when I secretly knew the shot wasn’t good enough to upload anyways but figured I’d try my luck.  Good once you get the shots on here, but if your work is a little below standard or you just don’t like beating your head against a monitor in frustration then I’d pop this site a couple down your list of update priorities.

Stock Xpert

These guys have done a bunch of stuff right, first off is the (unique) ability to upload shots and have them approved BEFORE you go to the bother of assigning categories etc.  The one exception being model releases, if your shot requires one then you have to attach it before it will be reviewed.  Second thing right is the bulk editing tool, it allows you to tick off any number of shots in a folder and assign categories, model releases, descriptions, keywords & titles to all simultaneously.  Note that you don’t HAVE to do all these things, you can mix and match what you are editing, so you can just do categories, or just model releases – brilliant.  The combination of these two features means that even though they are pretty picky with the shots they accept, submitting is quite easy and painless.  For the most part you don’t have to put any time at all into your submissions until you know they are good enough for the site and going live – this saves a lot of time.  My only gripe with them is that along with Bigstock they have some outdated beliefs about the human body – in a forum thread about why they don’t accept nudes their admin actually made the comment  “I mean what are you going to use them for apart from your own enjoyment?” Which I must admit I find damn near offensive.  Once they grow up and join the 21st century the site will be nigh on perfect.

123 RF

Next up is 123 RF, I’m giving them a higher spot than Fotolia simply because they are so easy to submit to, FTP up a batch of images, go in and assign model releases and you are done.  Well that’s assuming you’ve been smart and pre keyworded all your images in photoshop or other software before uploading them to the different sites (more on this next article).  There are no categories, no lengthy drawn out processes and almost no rejections (not necessarily a great thing in my book but perhaps a good confidence builder for those starting out).  This one could even be a couple spots higher in this order simply because of how easy it is. I t has also really picked up in sales for me this last month or two, if that keeps happening it will be a winner of a site.


There isn’t too much great to say about Fotolia, some people seem to get good sales there but I wouldn’t call mine all that crash hot.  With a submission process that is only beaten by Istock’s at being a pain in the ass it doesn’t seem all that time efficient to upload here in comparison to the above sites.  The problem with the submission process here is that we have a prioritising system where you have to go through your keywords and sort them in order of priority.  When you are submitting a large amount of shots this quickly blows out to a VERY large amount of time.  There may be daylight between Fotolia and Istock with regard to submission ease but there is also daylight between Fotolia and all the other sites – just in the opposite direction.  On top of this the whole site has a clunky feel and is quite slow to load.  Still if you have your keywords, titles and descriptions already done you may as well upload here for a few extra dollars from shots you’ve already put the hard yards into.

Big Stock Photo

Last up is Bigstock and they are easy enough to submit to but if you have a look at the sales table from the previous page the reason for their position on the bottom of this list is clear to see.  No real problems (aside from the old fashioned view on nudity that they share with SXP) but given the poor sales they are a solid last place for me.

Tips to succeed

Here we come to the tips and techniques part of the article. Now bear in mind I’ve only been submitting to stock agencies for about 6 months and even that time could be best described as part time. So I’m no expert, in fact I could well be talking through my ass. Nevertheless I have put some time into it and discovered a few things that just may make your life a little easier if you are planning on going down this path:
#1 Keyword, title and describe your shots in PS

Please don’t tell me you are thinking of going exclusive with Istock – I almost did and I dodged the biggest bullet of my life next to my bride-to-be leaving me for another guy at 19!  Non-exclusive is where it is at.  If you need convincing then just head back to part one (can’t be arsed linking it) and look at the breakdown table.  Even if you worked your way to the highest exclusive rate at Istock you’d still earn more money JUST submitting to Shutterstock – and it’s a damn sight easier. Anyways, assuming you are submitting to multiple agencies, you don’t want to type all those descriptions and keywords out for every site do you? (I hear a big ” HELL NO”) so do it in PS. You can do it via file-file info.
#2 Shhhh, keep it down in there!

Microstock sites seem obsessed with silence. To reduce noise in your images you should shoot at the lowest ISO you can manage (although I’ve gotten away with 800 at times, that’s on a 5D and only on selective images, with good exposure and little editing). The more you push or pull (over or under expose) an image in photoshop the more noise you introduce into the image. The general rule is that you should expose so that the bulk of the bulge in the histogram is as close as possible to the right hand side of the graph without clipping highlights in the ‘area of concern’. That means clipping highlights that are in the background of an image isolated on a white background is fine but not if that clipping occurs within the subject. Even if the image looks a bit bright in the LCD preview that’s ok, so long as all the detail is there you can pull it back in your raw conversion and make a good image. It all comes down to digital sensors and how they work, to go into detail would be an article in and of itself but suffice it to say that exponentially more detail and color information is recorded in the areas of highest exposure (aside from clipping). If light is at all an issue (such as when you don’t have studio flash) then use a tripod and keep it to iso 100/200 and exposed correctly.

Also Photoshop’s reduce noise filter can be surprisingly good, especially when combined with some judicious masking.  A quick description of what I mean by masking is to duplicate your layer, apply the filter to the top layer, then apply a layer mask to it and mask out (paint in with black) the parts you don’t want filtered, eg eyes, hair, lips, details etc.  Make sure you go over your images at at least 100% and pay particular attention to any large areas of semi-solid colour (eg skies) and the darker parts of the image.  Smaller areas of noise can either be taken care of with funky masking or the blur brush.
# 3 He who shoots in the raw gets more exposure

For some of the reasons I went into in the last point and some I didn’t, raw is the king of image formats. Firstly it has a higher native dynamic range than jpg. Meaning it can capture more highlight/shadow detail than an equivalent jpg capture. This means that you can potentially save a (somewhat) over/under exposed image more readily if it was shot in RAW than in jpg. It also means that if you want to mess with your shot in PS (eg. contrast enhancement or pushing, pulling etc) that you have a much wider buffer to work with. It also has an advantage colour wise. Personally I have my white balance set to ‘overcast’ 99% of the time and it usually returns good results. If on occasion it is a little out then I can compromise easily with ACR (adobe camera raw). White balance is one of those things that is somewhat destructive and if you save an 8bit jpg (and every jpg must be 8 bit) with a certain white balance then there is only a certain amount of colour shift you can perform with the image without degrading quality. With a raw image however you can shift the white balance from one end of the spectrum to the other without any degradation in quality. The reason is that RAW format saves the image data directly as perceived by the sensor, before any involvement with the camera or it’s settings has taken place (ergo the name RAW) where as jpg mode applies certain preset calculations to that raw data that are then unable to be undone. jpg is a format in which certain losses in image data occur, this enables it to be much smaller than a raw file but also less flexible. Raw to jpg conversion though is very quick on today’s computers with today’s software, and with storage prices being as cheap as they are there’s no real reason as far as I see for anyone to shoot in jpg aside from sheer laziness. Sure 9 out of 10 times you might not need that flexibility but on that 10th time it can be a life saver (or more to the point – picture saver).
#4 If you work alone you do everything yourself.

Outsourcing is not a dirty word. Personally I have two people who are both happy to submit my stock shots for a fraction of what I can earn per hour shooting/submitting new work. Sure for this to work you have to be disciplined and make sure you do new work instead of the work you’d otherwise be doing submitting to the time consuming sites. But if you do then your $/per hr spent working on stock will definitely go up. Of the two people I have doing my stock submissions both were models (ergo I didn’t need to advertise anywhere to find them). One is/was travelling the world and was happy for the extra dollars (I pay US$12 per hour) the other lives in Asia and earns twice as much from me as she does doing her normal office job (she works in advertising). However you have to be reasonably content that your employees are trustworthy, after all they will have access to your stock account user names and passwords. A good idea might be to set up unique passwords for each person and watch your stock sales on the sites they manage for you closely. If you do then the most they can take from you of is one minimal payment to one stock site. A small risk really for the potential productivity results. The sites I have my girls manage for me are the ones that piss me off, ie Istock & Fotolia, I also have them do Bigstock not so much because it annoys me as because it’s a damn low priority.
#5 A picture is worth a thousand (key)words.

Be smart with your keywords. This means trying to find the balance between a/ not spamming and b/ using every APPLICABLE keyword. Sure you can keyword spam and end up in more searches, but you will only piss folks off and I don’t know about others but I tend to remember companies that have pissed me off and aren’t too likely to buy from them in the future. I also have no interest whatsoever in a picture of a girl that happens to be underexposed in a studio wearing white shoes when I get it as a result for searching for ‘white studio fashion silhouette’. Keep the keywords relevant but DO have a good think about concepts. First off with your keywords you should describe the main elements of the photo, but then you should think about messages it conveys & feelings inspired by it (or if you are a REALLY dedicated stock shooter these are actually the first things you’ll think about, before even picking up your camera!). Make sure if your image is of a model outdoors on a surfboard with a big smile on her face you don’t just use the keywords: model, girl, woman, surf, surfboard, ocean, water etc. You also should use: fun, summer, holiday, recreation etc. Also keep an eye on Shutterstock, in their members area they have a very useful function to tell you the top 100 searched for keywords, this will give you not only a good idea on which keywords to use but also a very good idea on what to shoot in general.
#6 Thou shalt not copy (but only if you want to have a hard time getting anywhere)

This is going to be a little bit controversial but hell, I say copy to your heart’s content. Copying may not be art, it may not be creative, but we are talking about stock photography here, a product, not an art. If nobody ever copied McDonalds then we’d have no Hungry Jacks (or as you in the states call it, Burger King) and that would be a damn shame. Imagine having to have a Big Mcshit every time you felt like an Aussie Burger? *shudders* (ok you probably don’t have Aussie burgers either over there but you get my point). Creativity is all well and good (and it honestly is very good). But it’s a VERY rare photo or concept that hasn’t been tried before, so rare in fact that were it a beef patty it might still be mooing. Copying might not be original but it is a VERY good learning experience. One of my favourite ways to learn is to find a shot that I like. I work out what it is about it that I like and then I try to replicate that in another setting. If it doesn’t work (and often it doesn’t) then I compare the differences and try to ascertain where it is that mine fails, what exactly I need to do differently. Also as I just implied copying doesn’t have to mean trying to make a shot as similar to another as physically possible. It might be as simple as copying a lighting setup, a concept, a photoshop technique or an overall antithetic look that you like. There are always ways to bring your own individual ideas and personality into every image and to my mind it is actually the highest and most ironic form of conformity to be different just for the sake of being different. Shoot what is in your heart and soul, shoot whatever takes your interest and learn what you can from it – regardless of whether it has been shot before a million times or never. That is the only true path to individuality I believe!


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