Microstock Update - How the Market has Changed and What That Means For Digital Photography Students

Microstock Update – How the Market has Changed and What That Means For Digital Photography Students

A lot has changed since I first wrote about Microstock for Digital Photography Students here at DPS last year. I think it’s time for an update, a look at the changes which affect those getting started with microstock, and a few of the most important tips to help you be successful making money form your photos.

What’s Changed: Quality Requirements are Higher

Even in just one year, the quality requirements in microstock have risen. Quality affects both your acceptance rate and your sales rate. That means you have to submit higher quality photos to get them accepted, and they compete with more high quality photos for sales. That’s not to say that quality is the only factor as it’s not, but it is certainly one of the most important.

Quality also means many different things. It’s not just the technical quality of the photo (focus, exposure, etc) but also the composition, lighting style, and the professionalism of the subjects and setting. In the past few years it’s been possible to gather some friends in your living room with open curtains and all the lights turned on, and it would get accepted and sell. Today there are so many photos that are created with professional equipment, models and locations that it’s difficult to get started with simple, home-made photos. Can you see the difference?:

The reality is that the rising quality in microstock is making it more difficult to achieve success. This doesn’t mean it’s no longer possible for students and hobbyists to participate, but it does require some different strategies. You need to focus more on quality and less on quantity, particularly at the beginning. You also need to put more time and effort into analysis and planning your shoots. We’ll look at these topics in detail further down.

What’s Changed: More Agencies and More Services

In the past year more new microstock agencies have entered the market. Some have new and interesting twists on the standard microstock business model. Cutcaster, for example, offers photos priced with an algorithm which raises and lowers the price based on supply and demand. Vivozoom offer buyers a legal guarantee like high priced traditional stock photo agencies, and plan on never having much more than 1000 contributors.

Services and tools designed to make life easier for microstock photographers are also growing in number. PicNiche is a service which helps contributors find lucrative subjects to shoot based on keywords. There’s also a PicNiche toolbar which helps with uploading and monitoring earnings. iSyndica is a new company which distributes your photos to multiple agencies so you only have to upload once – a big bandwidth and time saver. LookStat provides contributors with analysis of their portfolio across multiple agencies and other analytics that help you sell more microstock.

What’s Changed: Less Sales but Same Money

Most microstock agencies have raised the prices over the past year which is great for contributing photographers. Some have lowered the commission rates too, but the net effect is positive. Most microstock photographers are finding that the number of times each photo sells is slightly lower than it was a year ago, and substantially lower than two years ago. However, thanks to higher prices, the total revenue is around the same level.

Most microstock photographers find that they need to continually upload lots of photos to increase their earnings. Uploading only a small number of photos each month will just maintain your earnings level, and not uploading anything will see your earnings drop. The number of photos required to increase earnings is different for each portfolio and is difficult to figure out with all the seasonal variations. Generally speaking, it will be a higher number for bigger portfolios.

And it’s not always the case. My own earnings have risen substantially this year despite not having uploaded any photos since January! I have no idea why. Everyone has different experiences.

Success Tip: Start Slow and Learn Fast

The abandonment rate of contributor account in microstock is very high. More than half of the people who register get frustrated and give up, losing all the time they’ve invested and the potential earnings they could have earned. There’s some easy things you can do to avoid this.

First, figure out if microstock is for you. You many not like shooting what sells and commercial styles, If you prefer shooting your own way or highly artistic styles, then think twice before starting with microstock. You may not be ready yet. Microstock is extremely difficult without a DSLR, and you really need to know how to use it well to avoid rejections and low sales. You also need a lot of time for the planning, producing, shooting, processing, uploading and submission of the photos. Then there’s the keywording & descriptions and managing model releases and property releases. In short, manage your expectations so you don’t get disappointed when you discover it’s actually hard work.

If you do decide to try selling your photos in the microstock market, start out slowly with a few of your best photos. Focus on the agencies that don’t require you to submit test photos first. Once you have some photos online with a few sales, use the feedback of what gets accepted and what sells to know which ones to use for the tests at the other agencies.

When building your portfolio, don’t get too excited and upload too fast. Look at what’s working well in your portfolio and repeat the successes. Find what the photos that don’t sell have in common and avoid repeating that. It’s true that you need a lot of photos to earn a lot of money in microstock, but it’s much easier to focus on increasing your quality before increasing your quantity.

Success Tip: Work Smart before Working Hard

Microstock is a very open market. You can see so much information about what’s selling, what’s not selling, who’s selling, where they’re selling it and why they’re selling it. Use this information to your advantage.

Analyze. Look at the data and find out what works. What subject, what style, what lighting, what composition, what keywords, what agencies, what models, what colors, what poses. Each insight you find with this analysis will save you lots of time creating photos which won’t sell. And keep in mind that reproducing the top selling photos is not a smart strategy. Unless your photos are substantially better, they won’t compete with high quality photos that already have a sales record behind them. Use your research not to imitate, but to find your own style and your own perspective.

Be business minded with your microstock activity. Look at what you’re spending on shoots and equipment, and record how much time you spend. If you find you’re spending more than you’re earning, or you’re not happy with how your profits relate to the time invested, you can adjust. You may change something to lower your costs, or look for ways to increase your revenue. You might even be happy to lose money if you’re learning or enjoying what you’re doing. But you’ll never know if you don’t do the math.

Lee Torrens blogs about microstock and his own experiences selling photos online at Microstock Diaries and via @microstock on Twitter. He reviews microstock agencies and services for microstock photographers, plus profiles the microstock superstars and analyzes what makes them so successful. If you’re interested in starting or improving your microstock photo career, head over and subscribe to Microstock Diaries.

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Some Older Comments

  • Jan March 3, 2012 09:44 pm

    What is really interesting is where the industry is going now. Microstock is already well established, and several years old. The industry is mature for another revolution. The question is who is going to be who will revolutionize the business this time?

  • Louie June 1, 2011 07:19 am

    Great insights, thanks a lot!

    This got me thinking: "If you prefer shooting your own way or highly artistic styles, then think twice before starting with microstock." If I find that this is true for myself, what other earning venues do you think I can explore? How/where do "artistic styles" earn? I've already sold some images via Flickr, but I'm looking to earn more through photography, and hopefully through my current style. (I hope that's possible!)

    I realize the question isn't really about microstock photography anymore, but I'd appreciate it if you can share some of your thoughts on this.


  • Rick March 12, 2010 03:40 am

    Hello: I contribute now to 3 sites, Shutterstock, Big Stock Photo and Fotolia. Often the photos shown in the newsletters are very creative, with eccentric color balance, blur and other effects. And they say they need more creativity. But when I submit something eccentric I'm rejected for color or other reason related to the eccentricity. Sure, my images may not measure up, but my impression is that the reviewers have a standard checklist which favors a standard response.
    I also like to heavily manipulate images in Photoshop and would like to have an agency that accepts such work.

  • Vitezslav Valka September 16, 2009 09:03 pm

    Hey, I just came from MicrostocDiaries and this is the same theme :-) So it approves that the situation is changing for sure. And that is what will burry traditional stock even faster.

    What scares me, is that Pixmac is understood as Fotolias affiliate only. But we do have our content! :-)

  • Lee Torrens September 12, 2009 10:38 pm

    @gunshe just click my name above my comment and it'll take you directly there. I'm pleased I could help you.


  • Gunshe Ramchandani September 12, 2009 03:41 pm

    Hi Mr. Lee,
    Thanks for your quick & clear response. I am very grateful to you. I would like to be a follower of your blog. Kindly let me know the address.
    Thanks once again

  • Lee Torrens September 12, 2009 01:13 am

    @Gunshe, yes, all microstock agencies are non-exclusive by default. Some have exclusivity options for individual photos or for all your images sold with the 'Royalty Free' license model. Unless you tick the box for one of these options (it'll be super-clear if you do) then you're free to submit the same photos to multiple agencies.

    Most contributors are non-exclusive and believe this enables them to earn more, though most contributors who have gone exclusive with one agency report being happy with their experience.


  • Denis September 12, 2009 12:59 am

    Actually, I am a bit confused... if someone (me!) wants to start contributing to microstock websites, with which one should he/she stick?

  • Gunshe Ramchandani September 11, 2009 11:12 pm

    Hi Lee Torrens,
    Your article is superb. I am already contributing to www.dreamstime.com, but via your article I came thrua photographer Katrina Brown, who is contributing to more than a dozen agencies(almost the same images). My question is is that allowed & regularly practiced by all photographers? Do let me know.
    Thanks in advance

  • Steve Kramer September 11, 2009 02:31 am

    Please don't imagine that the great photos that all your friends love have an eager market out there ready to enrich your coffers. Stock photography is a different animal all together. Definitely follow the advice to work smart.
    I have garnered meager sales and many frustrating rejections, but my work has improved markedly.

  • Mandy September 10, 2009 06:20 am

    @mystockphoto, thanks for the info I'll give them a go!

  • Jozef Nagy September 10, 2009 03:03 am

    Here's what people should've noticed early on in the microstock business: It's like the rise of so many other enterprises: blogging, social media, and various businesses. In the beginning you have low quality which draws the amateurs. Prices to customers are low as a result. Then, as the market matures, the entrants will improve in their work which raises prices to customers. So whereas microstock started as a hobby for many amateur photographers, it's now becoming a side business for semi-pro shooters.

  • Vilmis @ World In Snapshots September 9, 2009 08:29 pm

    @mystockphoto thanks, somehow I skipped that paragraph :)

  • mystockphoto September 9, 2009 06:14 pm

    Great round up Lee and glad to see you on DPS!
    @mandy You can try Fotolia and 123RF to see if you are "microstock oriented". Then Dreamstime. Then you can apply to Shutterstock and iStockphoto.
    @vilmis Lee mentions picniche, it's my fave. You can also browse the most popular photos of the microstock sites.

  • DS September 9, 2009 05:18 pm

    How do you get such light as in the second photo? Is it just the available light, or are there additional light sources involved there?

    I know this is off-topic, but I didn't know where else to post the question quickly.

  • Vilmis @ World In Snapshots September 9, 2009 10:12 am


    Do you find any online tools to check what kind of microstock is selling best? Best sellers probably most competitive stock, so I would prefer to avoid it.

  • Walter September 9, 2009 09:32 am

    A very informative post there!And I have to agree, there's just tons of microstock website to choose from today! And one would really need to work smart and narrow the options down through research and reviews from forums. Great post!

  • Mandy September 9, 2009 07:01 am

    This post has come just at the right time, as I've been looking at starting with microstock photography for a while, and my next step was to decide which agency to take the plunge with first?

    So this update has been really helpful, thanks. Could you tell us which agencies don't require test photos first?

    I know microstock's not for everyone but I'm still excited to give it a go, and I'm going to talk about my experiences on my blog, good or bad...