Microstock for Digital Photography Students - Make Money From Your Photography

Microstock for Digital Photography Students – Make Money From Your Photography

Make-Money-PhotographyThis guest post was written by Lee Torrens, a student of digital photography who is blogging about his adventures selling photos online at Microstock Diaries.

I’m a subscriber to Digital Photography School and quite a few other resources which educate me about photography. I need to do this because I’m still a hobbyist photographer despite earning hundreds of dollars every month selling my photos. I’ve seen the opportunity of selling stock photos come up in the DPS forums so I thought I’d address some of the most common questions about microstock from the perspective of other digital photography students.

What does it take to get started?

I’m a web developer and my wife is a graphic designer. We started selling photos online over two years ago as a way to earn a little extra money out of something we enjoyed. We only had a little 4 megapixel point-n-shoot camera but my wife knew a little about editing photos from studying Design. We thought we knew about photography then, but now we know what we didn’t know then.

We only earned $16 in our first month, but with persistence and lots of research we raised this to $270 in six months. As it was a part time hobby we didn’t expect it to earn so much so quickly, but this early success convinced us of the potential and we quickly invested in a digital SLR. Over two years later we’re now earning around $600 each month with a modest portfolio of around 700 photos listed with eight agencies. We’re still hobbyist photographers creating stock photos in our spare time.

Who sells photos in the microstock market?

Through my blog I’ve connected with hundreds of other microstock contributors. There is an amazing variety of people contributing to this market and with a similarly impressive variety of reasons. I know retired couples who just love to see their work published and I know people who earn tens of thousands of dollars each month. There’s also a variety of people in the middle for whom microstock is their job or who, like me, have microstock as part of their income. However, one of the biggest groups are photography students – both formal students with photography as their chosen career and hobbyists who study for fun.

Why is microstock so good for students?

There are three main reasons: freedom; money; and education.

  1. Microstock is free to participate and there are no work hours, no bosses and no due dates.
  2. Microstock pays money which is great given photography isn’t cheap.
  3. Microstock is also a great way to educate yourself if you’re interested in learning about the commercial side of photography. What better teacher than a global market of photo buyers?

Isn’t microstock ‘bad’ for the industry?

If you do any research about microstock you will quickly find that it’s controversial. The concept only works with the Internet and high quality digital cameras, so it’s still relatively new. Subsequently there are still many professional stock photographers with strong feelings about the impact microstock is having on the industry.

I’ve personally spoken with a few of the world’s most successful stock photographers and they’re not noticing any impacts on their business from microstock. They know that their photos compete on quality and not price (microstock photos sell cheaper but in higher quantity) and their will always be buyers interested in the top level of the market, regardless of the price.

It’s also logical to expect that the hundreds of photographers who now make a living with microstock have displaced some ‘traditional’ stock photographers. This happens with any technological change as big as the Internet and digital photography and it’s understandable that those on the receiving end are not happy about it.

Microstock has also brought new buyers to the market. Small businesses, charities and bloggers weren’t big buyers of stock photos when they cost $350 or more. Now that blog size images are $1 and print size images are $10, you can imagine how sales have increased.

So how much can I earn in microstock?

That depends on both the quality and quantity of photos you can produce. Full time microstock contributors with a portfolio of 7,000 high quality images earn over $20,000 per MONTH! At the other end of the scale some contributors with only a handful of images earn just a few dollars. Like me, you’ll most likely find yourself between these two extremes.

I earn a little under $1 per photo per month. On my blog I publish my monthly earnings figures and links to my portfolios (About page). With this information you can easily compare your portfolio or photography skills to determine more or less how much you could expect to earn with your photos in the microstock market.

Is microstock easy?

Not at the start. Some agencies require a test submission which is more strict than their usual review process. Microstock agencies also review submissions based on what sells, which is images that are super sharp, noiseless and commercially appealing. As a result a lot of established and highly skilled photographers experience early rejections and are quick to dismiss the microstock opportunity. By starting with the middle tier agencies that don’t require you to pass a test, you can quickly get an idea of what type of photos are accepted and which ones sell well. After that, it’s relatively easy to start earning money.

Here’s two of my best selling photos. Each is a simple shot taken with the intention of selling for stock, but with no more preparation that being in the the necessary place with my camera. Both these photos earn over $30 per month though their success varies between agencies.



It’s also not easy creating above-average success. Average per-photo earnings of top microstock contributors can be up to ten times what I earn, so you can imagine the difference in the quality and appeal of the photos they produce. They also need to repeat this many times to create a portfolio large enough to raise their earnings above average.

How can I improve my chances of success?

These are my top tips for people getting started selling their photos in the microstock market:

  • Manage your expectations. It can often sound easier than it really is. A common sales pitch reads, “click here to start earning money from the photos sitting idle on your computer”. That’s not realistic and you’ll quickly quit if you start with this expectation. Do your own research to figure out what sells, create those photos well, and be smart about how your contribute.
  • Concentrate on workflow. If you plan to contribute lots of photos it makes sense to have an efficient workflow so you don’t waste time doing unnecessary repetitive tasks. Do your research and refine your workflow so you can get a quality product into the market as efficiently as possible.
  • Microstock is business. If you’re an artist more than a commercial photographer you may want to seriously consider if you and microstock are a good match. Artistic photos will sell in the microstock market, but not nearly as well as commercial photos.
  • Research. I’ve already given you a few things to research but don’t stop with those. Get all your questions answered before you get started so you save time and don’t accidentally do anything that doesn’t work to your advantage.

My blog is written for people selling photos in the microstock market, so I invite you to continue your research with me at Microstock Diaries. If you have any other questions or would like more details, you’re also welcome to ask me questions directly via my Contact page.

PS from Darren: Interested in making money from your photography? Check out the Earning With Photography section of our forums.

6 Microstock Sites Where You can Make Money from Your Photos

Here are a number of Microstock programs that offer photographers money for their images:

Read more from our category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Todd November 19, 2009 11:54 pm

    The microstock game has changed a lot in 4 years, since I started. No longer can someone with 7000 images make $20,000 a month - don't be misled. I'm sure it's possibly, but that's far from average. There has been an influx of contributor, market saturation, etc. I'm very glad I had a head start, because for those starting out it is going to be a challenging road ahead, even just to get approved with the larger agencies like Shutterstock and iStockphoto. I have a blog post about learning the trade - check it out: http://www.arenacreative.com/blog/microstock-related/learn-the-trade-getting-started-selling-microstock-photography/

  • Vince Khoo September 11, 2009 05:20 am

    Hi Darren,

    I'm very new to the DSLR scene and like many, one of my dream is to do something that I love and make money with it. While I'm not sure how good I am at the moment, I am determined to get better as I do love taking photos :)

    One of my question is, albeit a little early for me, is can microstock and stock co-exist for a photographer. In other words, if I start going down the path of selling my photos on microstock, will it later be a hindrance to me should I decide to take up photography professionally and start selling my own photos or stock photos?

    My own logic tells me that they can co-exist as they are for very different purposes. Microstock is more generic and commercial, while selling my own photos or stock photos are more artistic and targeted.

    I would just like to hear some of your views, and other readers experience as well if they like to share.


  • hkki May 4, 2009 07:21 am

    I have sent a few to test to a microstock site and 2 are excepted. They were taken with a simple point and shoot. (or not so simple may be)

  • Alysha February 18, 2009 12:56 pm

    I am a person that looks at something at think it beautiful.
    For example, A Tree in the winter time. I look at the tree, not thinking of it as just a tree, a cold tree. But as a tree that is alive and always growing.
    I can make vertually anything in this world and be beautiful. I can show anyone that belives and thinks that something is ugly, then turn around, show them a picture that I had taken of that "ugly" object and they feel as though it is beautiful.

  • Lee Torrens February 17, 2009 11:58 pm

    Hi Anontto, yes, you can upload the same images. Some agencies have optional 'exclusivity' deals, but they're off by default. Assuming you never turn them on, you're fine to upload the same images to multiple agencies.

    However, it's always wise to read the agreements and understand what you're committing to when you contribute your photos. All top microstock agencies (the ones mentioned at the end of the post) operate this way, but traditional agencies are usually image exclusive.


  • Anontto February 17, 2009 03:22 pm

    I really appreciated your efforts for this article and for sharing great experiences. I just have a question to you since you've been in this microstock market for quite while, can I submit same one picture in several sites like, 123rf, stockxpert?

    Please advise me on this issue. Once again, thank you.

  • Sam (stock photo review) May 31, 2008 11:36 pm

    you should check out my microstock review blog for more information on this subject

  • Erika May 29, 2008 01:22 am

    I subscribe to istockphoto, fotolia, dreamstime, bigstock. The folks who decided what is accepted and what isn't are just like the judges at photo contests. Show the same picture to two different sets of judges and you get two different sets of marks. One set will love what you presented, the other set will give it the lowest mark possible. It's a crap shoot.

    I've had submissions tossed back from istock that sell repeatedly on fotolia, and vice versa. I've had submissions tossed back from both the above and have sold well on bigstock.

    Go figure. I know commercial art is different from creative art photography but what is considered commercial keeps changing. I say submit and see what happens.

  • Harry Phillips May 28, 2008 03:14 pm

    Woooo hooooo... at last a way for my photography to pay for itself so that I can buy more gear. I know I won't be making millions but it can pay for some of the second hand lenses I have been buying off fleabay.

    My wife will be pleased :)

  • elena May 17, 2008 07:43 am

    yes illustrations are best way to start your artist world

  • Erwin May 16, 2008 05:00 pm

    Thanks for this Darren!! It's great!

    There's one microstock emerging that seems to be really attractive! I came across it while searching for microstock sites. Perhaps another article that would be useful for us would be one that is about how to shoot commercially attractive stock photos. :)


  • Rob May 16, 2008 04:35 pm

    Thanks Darren and Lee. Very helpful and succinct information from both of you. For me personally it would be a hobby similiar to the photgraph sites I can load my images to and have some critique/recognition, which in turn drives me to new challenges. Being able to generate a few bucks from something I love would just be added bonus.
    I'm looking into it.....cheers..Rob

  • Mathieu May 16, 2008 05:29 am

    Great post Darren. It helped me realize how much money can be made online by selling pictures and yet to be realistic with my expectations. I've been reading the blog for over a week and joined the forum recently. Both are great, keep it up! :)

  • Lee Torrens May 15, 2008 09:33 am

    Hi Al, thanks for reinforcing the fact that microstock isn't easy. If you remember the $1 per image per month average that I mentioned in the article, you can get a good idea of what you're likely to earn.

    If you're not prepared to put in the work and time to figure out what works well in microstock, you're certainly better off in the minimum wage job that Al mentions. If minimum wage is, for example, $7 in your part of the world, you'll have to wait seven months for one of your photos to earn you that amount, and it may have taken you more than an hour to create that photo.

    Check out my earnings reports on my blog and then compare your portfolio and/or skills to my portfolios. I've linked to my portfolios on my About page. This will enable you to get a clear idea of how much you can expect to earn without having to believe what I tell you or what Al tells you.

  • Al Tibbets May 15, 2008 04:57 am

    With the web driving microstock, will the pool of easily-accessible photos eventually out-grow demand?

    Lee's excellent article states that microstock has undermined the earnings of "traditional stock photographers." Here's the irony... eventually it might lower the earnings of those who themselves produce microstock.

    As to the referral model, it works to the benefit of the microstock websites because it increases their inventory. But that works against your earnings as an individual contributor (more competition, harder to get your own work seen).

    For *most* people, the bottom line is:

    If you love photography and want to get into microstock as a "paying hobby," it could be a lot of fun and a nice outlet for your creativity. It also might pay for your hobby.

    If you are mainly looking for a way to make money, a minimum wage job will pay better.

  • Al Tibbets May 15, 2008 03:09 am

    Referral plans of all kinds are great for the microstock sites, because they increase the size of their offerings.

    But ultimately it reduces the potential sales value of YOUR porfolio as a individual contributor, due to ever-increasing competition.

    So individual contributors ultimately have to become referrers or they face decreased earnings.

    Good business model for the microstock companies, not so good for the photogs.

  • Matthew Miller May 14, 2008 10:35 am

    Thanks for the explanations, guys. Referral schemes which revolve around ongoing payments from sales *made by* the referred users still seem at least step "dirtier" than simple Amazon-style sales referrals. It's not a pyramid scheme in the layered-sales-drones sense, but it still seems way too central to the business plan of many of these companies.

  • Darren May 14, 2008 10:02 am

    hfng and Matthew - yes you're right, the links at the end of the article are affiliate links.

    As we outline in the disclaimer page and about page - linked to on every page from our footer - we use these links to help cover the costs of running this site. We've also mentioned this on many pages from within our site - to the point where some readers have complained that we keep going on about the affiliate programs (the reason we stopped saying it every time we use a link like this and started having the disclaimer page).

    Many of our readers actually like us to use these links as a way of thanking us for providing them with daily photography tips. If you'd rather not then simply do a google search for the products mentioned and you can sign up with the knowledge that instead of giving us a little extra income that you've given the microstock companies a little extra instead.

    Like Lee says, I don't see these as Pyramid schemes. They are one level - DPS earns a few cents when those we refer make a few cents. We don't make money when those that our referrers refer make money.

    Ultimately - while we've used some of the affiliate programs mentioned in this post for more than 12 months we've made a total of $12.83 off them so far. If anyone feels ripped off by this and would like a refund of the 3 cents that they made us then I'm more than happy to send them a refund :-)

  • Lee Torrens May 14, 2008 09:39 am

    Thanks Matthew, I missed that. As I mentioned in my earlier comment, the referral link at the bottom of the article are Darren's. I didn't actually mention any agencies by name in the body of the article.

    I talk extensively about iStockphoto on my blog including tips of how to get accepted. They're my top earning agency most months.

  • Matthew Miller May 14, 2008 09:15 am

    Oh, hey, incidentally, I discovered the answer to the question in the second comment: why no http://www.istockphoto.com/ ? Well, they seem to only give referral bonuses for new customers, not new sellers.

  • Jeff & Candace Painter May 14, 2008 07:20 am

    The article was definately interesting and something I have been wanting to learn more about. The banter afterwards was also educational. It is nice to know what you are walking into, regardless of the strings attached.

  • Lee Torrens May 14, 2008 05:07 am

    @hfng - yep, the links to agencies on my blog are referral links. I mention this on my About page (been there since I started) and as it doesn't cost anyone any money when they click on it I don't feel the need to add a disclaimer to the top of every post.

    You'll also notice that the referral links at the bottom of the article are not mine. They're Darren's links. His model is the same as mine: provide as much value as possible to readers and monetize the traffic with referral programs and advertising. Neither of these methods cost readers any money.

    I don't mind if you delete your cookies before registering, go ahead. It's the same as tearing out the ads from the newspaper and gives you just as much benefit. ;)

    @Matthew Miller - the referral programs are only one level. If they paid me for the people referred by the people I referred, i.e. multiple levels, then it would be a pyramid scheme. These ones are no different to the Amazon links Darren uses here on DPS.

    My reviews are often quite negative, and I've written a few posts that are harsh criticisms of the agencies I promote. I'm consciously choosing to earn the respect of my readers rather than mindlessly promote their referral links even though it might earn me more money in the short term.

    And for your info, Commission Junction is the world's largest affiliate network. ;)

    @Jozef Nagy, thanks for explaining how it works. Indeed, I included the 'Manage your Expectations' paragraph to ensure people don't fall for those 'click here and earn millions' links, which you and I both know are deceptive.

    And thanks for recognizing that the article isn't fluff. I doubt Darren would have accepted it if it was. Just like on my blog, I put a lot of effort into writing it to ensure it created value for readers. If I don't give readers something they can use in their lives, there's no return for me. It's a great model as you get to earn a living by giving people helpful information for free!

  • Jozef Nagy May 14, 2008 04:32 am

    Matt: "that’s why my mailbox is full of spam for badly-spelled medicines."

    What do you mean? V()o>< has been keeping me healthy for years now!

    "At the very least, it’s disingenuous"

    I prefer when someone mentions that their referral ID is in a link.

    The reason I don't mind this time is because this isn't a fluff piece meant solely to drum up referral revenue. I not only agree with the author based on my own experience, but you'll find the same points being made elsewhere. If this was a "get rich by clicking these links and submitting your photos" article, then humbug.

  • Matthew Miller May 14, 2008 04:26 am

    Jozef Nagy: there is an inherent difference between a system which gives a referral fee for a click-through which leads to a sale, and a scheme which pays a fraction of future sales made by the referred users.

    At the very least, it's disingenuous for the article above to not mention that this little industry segment seems to entirely revolve around the refer-sellers-for-cash model.

    This may be "normal throughout the Internet", but, y'know, that's why my mailbox is full of spam for badly-spelled medicines.

  • Jozef Nagy May 14, 2008 04:08 am

    Miller: "Does anyone know of a NON-PYRAMID microstock company?"

    Matt, none of these companies are "pyramid" companies. They earn their revenue from selling stock images to buyers. Referral programs are normal throughout the Internet as a way to induce people to help sell your product. I have no problem with signing up via a referral link because it doesn't change the terms under which I sign up.

    If I'm going to sign up with a company as a buyer or seller, then I might as well make someone else a few cents by doing so. Generally, I'll "give" my referral money to blogs I like (like this one) to help them earn revenue. Believe me, no one gets rich doing this.

    One of the affiliate marketing programs I use for a commercial site I run pays something like <$0.10 for people who sign up with their site as free members. If the person upgrades to a paying membership, I get a few dollars out of that as a one time commission. Granted, I don't write reviews so there's no conflict of interest.

  • Matthew Miller May 14, 2008 04:02 am

    Okay, so, here's the scoop on the above:

    Shutterstock: 3¢ of each photo sold goes to the referrer.

    Dreamstime, Crestock, 123 Royalty Free: referral program includes 10% credit for referred photo sellers for six months. (Not good -- needs a disclosure added to the above, and I'll avoid using them until they drop that model.)

    Fotolia: a long complicated document explaining their scheme, which does include a fraction of sales. (Pressure to get new blood, I guess.) May be limited to thirty days, but it's unclear. I didn't have the patience to read the whole thing.

    Stockxpert -- I dunno, because when I remove the referral from the link, it goes to "Commission Junction", which seems to be a spam clearinghouse of some sort.

    So, yeah.

    Does anyone know of a NON-PYRAMID microstock company?

  • Juan May 14, 2008 02:50 am

    This is aexcellent information for a people like me that love photography stuff and want to explore about sell their photos.

    Thank you for share your experience,

  • Matthew Miller May 14, 2008 01:52 am

    hfng -- so, are there one-time referral payments, or is this is a pyramid scheme deal where the real way to make money is to pester everyone else into signing up?

    If the former, it would have been good to disclose but is really no different from the book reviews here. But if it's the latter, I strongly suggest that this entire story be deleted and replaced with an apology.

  • Jozef Nagy May 13, 2008 11:33 pm


    I don't mind when a link is a referral link. It helps pay the bills for the bloggers. Also, I'd do the same thing. However, I respect it more when a site author mentions that links are referral links. It's about transparency. Either way, it doesn't change the financial arrangement between you and the sites when you sign up. It's just a kick-back to the referrer.

  • hfng May 13, 2008 11:22 pm

    The only way not to be a referral is to delete your cookies before signing up.

  • hfng May 13, 2008 11:20 pm

    I wish you WARN readers that those are referral links!!!!!!

    If you sign up after clicking those links, then when you sell your photos, the author of the article makes money of you!!!!!!

  • Mike Panic May 13, 2008 11:11 pm

    Last year I started a multi-part series on my experience selling micro-stock photography over the last 5+ years. The first part is here: http://www.randomn3ss.com/2007/02/14/make-money-selling-digital-photos-part-i/.

    I'll also follow comments left in this thread if anyone has any.

  • Joe May 13, 2008 12:55 pm

    I had a lot of time between tasks while at work today so I read through the author's blog. I'd highly recommend it if you're unfamiliar with the pitfalls of selling microstock. What I keep telling people I know who are decent hobby photographers is that this is a perfect way to earn passive income. Anyone with a halfway decent portfolio can at least earn a few dollars doing this. And unlike most "passive income" methods, this will in fact work. The trouble is that it's been around for a few years. As such, a lot of the obvious stuff has been photographed to kingdom come. For example, no one wants photos of flowers, your dog, etc. Also, if you have access to people willing to be photographed, the most in demand items are photos involving people. I for one plan on shooting my photogenic girlfriend to see what I can come up with.

    Another thing to watch out for are all the stories and hype surrounding the top income earners. Keep in mind that they do this full time and are the best at what they do. Most of you, like myself, do this for fun. If you plan on doing this as a side hobby in addition to all your other responsibilities, don't expect to be earning the big figures you see plastered all over the internet.

    After spending a lot of time with Shutterstock, I wrote an introductory review of their service. It's worth checking out. The perspective is from that of a casual seller, not a dedicated photog.

    Shutterstock.com Review:

  • Leslie May 13, 2008 11:58 am

    Thanks for your reply. That's something I've wondered about so now I know!

  • Joe May 13, 2008 10:47 am

    Leslie: "Do any of the sites limit your ability to sell the same photos on other sites? In other words, are there any exclusivity clauses we should know about?"

    No; and that's the best part. In fact, if you follow the link to the author's blog, he keeps stats of his portfolio across at least half a dozen sites.

  • Leslie May 13, 2008 06:39 am

    Do any of the sites limit your ability to sell the same photos on other sites? In other words, are there any exclusivity clauses we should know about?

  • Teewinot May 13, 2008 06:01 am

    Great article, thanks!

  • Rasmus May 13, 2008 05:56 am

    Not getting expectations up too high is definitely important. Microstock is perfect for students or hobbyists, who want to make a little extra on the side, but only very few actually go full time pro.

    I am working on a long series of articles, intended to help those who want to get started in microstock. There are 16 so far (two still unpublished). Feel free to check them out.

    I do apologize for plugging so obviously (something I am not in the habit of doing normally). It does seem appropriate for the topic, though, and I'm sure there's useful information for a lot of people there. :)

  • Mandy May 13, 2008 05:55 am

    I've been waiting for a post like this, I've been wanting to try out microstock photography ever since I started my blog.

    And this is a great starting point, thanks for the tips I wasn't sure where to start but now I do!


  • Solburn May 13, 2008 04:12 am

    Can you submit the same photos to each of the Microstock sites?

  • Wayfaring Wanderer May 13, 2008 03:59 am

    Thanks for the info!

  • TannerShot May 13, 2008 02:33 am

    Wonderful round up on micro stock, but why no mention of www.istockphoto.com ??? I thought they were in the play?

    Reply here would be appreciated!

  • Aaron Snyder May 13, 2008 01:42 am

    I've been looking at shooting microstock photos for a long time now. Does anyone know which services are the most relaible for payments, which generally pay the most, and which are the ones I should focus on submitting to first. Also-- maybe we could get a post on microstock ideas-- which sell the best etc. Well, thanks for the wonderful article! I'll be trying this out soon.
    The thing I find annoying about shooting microstock shots is that I'm never quite sure what is the appropriate content. We all know there is a magic combination of simplicity and complexity, what is that combination?
    If you have a minute- check out my blog- are any of my shots microstock ready? Any suggestions are appreciated.

    -Aaron Snyder