Selling Photos Online With Microstock Picture Libraries
As a keen amateur photographer since the days of film photography, I've dabbled with selling photos via picture libraries over the years, both traditional picture libraries and the newer microstock libraries. This article focuses on microstock libraries and how to sell pictures with them if you're interested in taking the types of pictures that they want. I'm, personally, not that interested in the types of image that sell best, so I remain a dabbler by choice. I've learned a lot about it, however, and it's certainly possible to make a decent income from it if you're prepared to invest the time and energy and focus on taking the type of pictures that they want, rather than the type that you want.
Microstock photography is big business these days. Many online microstock picture libraries have sprung up over the last few years offering downloadable digital images for a small price. The images are offered under a 'Royalty-Free license. (See below for more on licenses).
It's a thriving industry supplying stock photo images to customers such as magazines, (online or offline). brochures, company websites, books, individuals, etc., I've even heard of at least one HubPages member who has used the services of a microstock picture library for their articles.
Prices are typically very low compared to the price of traditional 'rights-managed' agencies. In fact, the 'micro' part of the name refers to micro-payment. The advantage for the library and the photographers (who get a portion of the download fee) is that the low fees, at least in theory, command a higher number of downloads.
Microstock picture libraries hold vast collections of 'stock-worthy' digital photos and illustrations that have been submitted by member-contributors. Customers, can browse, download and pay according to the size (in pixels) of the images they're downloading.
Can Anyone Contribute Photos?
In theory, yes. Anyone can apply to join as a contributing member to any microstock library. It's free, and you don't have to be a professional photographer. You don't even have to be a dedicated amateur photographer. You just need to be able to take good sharp photos of sufficient size and that have some commercial value. Unless you've chosen to go 'exclusive' with one (for a better commission), you can join as many of them as you like and submit the same photos to different sites.
Some microstock libraries require a test submission. They want to see that your photos have enough quality and commercial value before accepting you as a contributor. You can always re-apply, but you might have to wait a certain amount of time. Others will accept you without a test submission, but (as with those requiring a test submission) every photo will be accepted or declined on its own merits.
What Makes Stock-Worthy Photos?
Stock-worthy photos can be literal or conceptual or both.
The picture of the Buddhist pagoda at the top has both literal and conceptual appeal. It has literal appeal because it's a famous Burmese pagoda, so it could be used by anyone looking for a photo of that particular pagoda. It also has conceptual value because it can be used by someone looking for a photo to illustrate an article on Buddhism, far east travel, religion, meditation, yoga, spirituality, and more. Those words are included as keywords with the photo during upload to the library, because those are the type of search terms the customer would enter into the site's search function.
The fish picture below would never make it onto a picture postcard, but it could be used to introduce an article on the fishing industry, over-fishing, healthy eating, or anything related. It has been downloaded, but I've no idea by whom or what it was used for. Buyers are guaranteed anonymity as part of the royalty-free license.
The landscape picture below it is pretty enough, but it has no commercial stock value beyond its literal value as a picture of a not-too-well-known Scottish Highlands location. The original 35mm slide (not this poorly scanned copy) could appear in a guide book for the region, but that's such a highly-specific use that picture libraries would be unlikely to accept it. They know it could sit for years and never sell.
The most popular images, however, are those with people in situations such as a child on a swing laughing with joy. They can be very popular in parenting or leisure sites and magazines. Business settings such as two businessmen shaking hands in front of a bank are also very popular - symbolizing a successful business merger, although it's a bit of a cliché, these days.
Obviously, those are set-up shots. You can't stand outside a bank for hours hoping that two businessmen or women will come out and shake hands in front of it, and even if they did, you'd still have to obtain their permission to use the picture commercially. People in studio situations with professional lighting are also heavily featured among the best-sellers.
It's very easy to see what type of picture that picture libraries most require by looking at any library's home page. They splash the best selling pictures all over them. Dedicated microstock photographers check them regularly to see trends forming - then they go out and make and take the shots that they think will be popular.
To see the best sellers of a particular subject, such as "markets" just enter it as a search term into the image search engine of any microstock site. You can also enter a more specific phrase such as "fruit and vegetable markets in London". Every photo that has been uploaded along with at least one of the keywords (fruit, vegetable, market and London) will be presented in the search results in order of relevance. Photos that contain all of those keywords will head the search results. It works much the same as Google's image search engine.
Subjects Not Usually Required
Certain subjects are often refused either because they have little stock value or the library is over-saturated with them. These subjects, include flowers, common animals, (dogs, cats, etc.) landscapes, arty shots and more. They're not automatically excluded but they'd have to be good enough to stand a chance of being accepted.
Flowers are a good example of an unwanted subject. Flower photos are easy to take, so there are literally millions available. Don't waste your time uploading them, unless you think your shot is better than most shots already available.
Picture and Camera Quality
Some microstock picture libraries require all photos to have been taken using at least a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera to ensure sufficient technical quality. Most, however, don't stipulate the camera type and will accept photos taken with a decent compact camera or a hybrid camera. In fact of, some the images on this page were taken with a small (but decent) Samsung compact camera with a resolution of 8 megapixels. All have been accepted by several agencies and been downloaded. Nothing beats a good DSLR for this type of photography, however, and you can expect a higher acceptance rate with your submissions. As the quality of mobile phone cameras and tablets continue to increase, we're starting to see a market emerging for photos taken with those devices.
Every microstock site lists the technical requirements for uploaded images. Typically, they want sharp JPEG images of at least three or four megapixels in size.
Royalty-Free vs. Rights Managed
Traditional picture libraries and agencies have been supplying photos since long before the Internet and digital photography came along. Typically, they represent individual photographers and promote their work on a 'rights managed' basis. The price of any photo from these libraries depends on its intended usage and is shared between the agency and the photographer.
Microstock picture libraries are different. They don't represent the photographer in the same way. They just hold their photos along with photos of thousands of other photographers and make them available for download under a paid 'royalty-free' licence. The customer pays according to the size (pixel count) of the image and the photographer gets a percentage. Prices are generally far lower than what traditional 'macro' stock libraries charge, so the earnings per sale are much smaller, However, that may be offset by a greater number of downloads.
A 'Royalty-Free' licence grants the customer the right to use the image as often as they wish and for an unlimited amount of time, without having to pay royalties each time they use the image. There are some legal restrictions, however. They can't claim it as their own work, sell it, or make derivative products, such as putting the image on a thousand t-shirts, (although, there are extensions to the licence that can allow that too). Buyers remain anonymous and aren't obliged to say what the image will be used for. The one-off download fee is very small and can be less than a dollar for a very small photo. This makes a very attractive deal for buyers, so there is a huge amount of downloads every day worldwide. The big agencies have well over 50 million (and growing) images available and are well-placed to satisfy the demand.
If a photo contains any identifiable person or persons, it won't be accepted unless each person has given permission in the form of a signed model release form, which has to be uploaded along with the image file. A parent or legal guardian must sign on behalf of any children in the image.
Other restrictions also apply to images containing visible trademarks or copyrighted materials. An example is the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can submit a full-frame photo of the Eiffel Tower if you took it during the day, but not if you took it at night. That's because, while the design of the Eiffel Tower is in the public domain, the modern night-time illuminations are design-protected. Anyone can take a picture of the illuminated tower, but attempting to sell it is an infringement of the lighting designers' intellectual property rights. It could only be legally used if the lighting design company (or whoever owns the rights) gave written permission in the form of a property release form, which would have to be uploaded along with the photo.
Most modern buildings have similar restrictions. If the building is the centre-piece of an image, restrictions may apply and the image can't be sold without permission from the owner of the property rights. If the image is a cityscape, however, and that building happens to be in it, among lots of others, then restrictions don't apply - because it's not a picture of that building but of a cityscape skyline. There's obviously a very grey area in-between, but most reputable libraries err on the side of caution and reject anything that might infringe someone else's copyright or intellectual property rights.
Newsworthy Pictures — Editorial Use
An exception to all of these restrictions is available in the case of newsworthy pictures. Some libraries will accept them as editorial use images whether or not they contain recognizable people in the image or recognizable logos, brand names, etc. There are restrictions on how those images can be sold. In general, they are used by news agencies and news media. They can't be used in a commercial context, and, most importantly, they can't have been modified before uploading (apart from minor image enhancements). They have to depict the reality of the scene. You can't capture a bank robbery on camera and then photoshop your boss into the scene of the crime — tempting though it may be.
How Much Can I Earn with Microstock Libraries?
That depends on your ability and your level of commitment. While every major microstock site has many thousands of contributing photographers that make very little, there are also those that earn a full-time living with microstock. Some exceptionally successful microstock photographers even employ staff to do all the off-camera work.
To make a living at microstock, the following are necessary:
- You need a digital camera that can deliver the required quality and resolution of the image. That means a DSLR camera or a good (mirrorless) hybrid camera. Some images taken from a good compact camera are acceptable to most (but not all) libraries. However, to do microstock seriously, as a business, you should invest in a DSLR camera as soon as it's practical to do so if you don't already have one. The rejection rate will be much lower. You should also invest in good image editing software, such as Photoshop to enhance images where necessary. There are also free programs such as GIMP, which do almost as much.
- You need to be able to use your camera skillfully enough to produce pictures with enough quality. Sharp, well-composed images with good lighting are what's required. Always use the highest resolution and quality setting that the camera offers.
- You need to actively produce and upload stock-worthy photos on a daily basis. Thousands of new images are uploaded every week, so it's necessary to keep up.
- You need to learn the art of keywording in order for your photos to have any chance of being found among the millions on the site. For each photo, you have to put yourself in the position of a magazine photo editor and ask yourself, what keywords would the photo editor be most likely to enter when looking for an image like this one?
- You need to run your operation as a professional business because, if you're making a living at it, then that's exactly what it is - a professional business, with all its tax liabilities, etc. In addition to taking pictures, there's a lot of cataloging, keywording and uploading of images required. Post processing (contrast adjustment, etc) of images is another thing that takes up quite a bit of time.
For me, microstock is just one of many small income streams. I take the photos that I want to to take. Some of those are stock-worthy, and I will submit those. My own niche is travel photography, which, as a style of photography, isn't in the top-tier of stock-worthiness. The top tier is dominated by perfectly-lit studio shots of models, staged shots of happy people, especially parents and kids, in outdoor situations or professionals in business and office contexts.
This is a situation that anyone looking to make a living from microstock photography should consider. Take the photos that you love to take and submit those that happen to be stock-worthy OR change your thinking and only (or mostly) take photos with stock photography in mind, however, uninteresting the subject matter might be. The former will provide a small income stream; the latter will provide a much better income but, at least for me, not enough job satisfaction.
The Big Players
There are countless microstock picture agencies or libraries willing to accept submissions. Some come and go, but some others have been around for years and have the largest collections and most successful businesses. These include:
- iStockphoto (Getty Images)
These are worth focusing on at first. You are more likely to see downloads from those and a few other sites than from the more obscure sites. The mistake that I made was signing up to too many sites. Uploading to one site can be time-consuming enough; uploading to many takes forever and many of the lesser-known sites don't perform well because those looking to buy pictures go to the well-known libraries first.
Another option is to go 'exclusive' with one chosen microstock company. That means your accepted photos can only be handled and sold by that company. You receive a greater percentage of the download fee and it avoids having to upload batches of photos to many different sites. It does limit the download possibility to just one site, though. Most contributors don't go exclusive, but some do and seem happy with their decision.
The Top Four Microstock Sites
Minimum Image Size
Test submission Required?
10 images of which 7 must pass
3 - 70 megapixels
© 2013 chasmac