Michael Jay Fotograf Berlin

Selling photos across agencies

From Zero to $100 a month with microstock in 2016

It’s been more than two years since I wrote How to make $200 from Shutterstock, iStockphoto or Fotolia?, my most read post up to date. A lot of little changes happened in those two years that add up. The libraries in all agencies have grown bigger, maybe even doubled in size. And my personal focus had shifted from microstock to premium agencies where images are being licensed for $20 or $50 or sometimes $500 each. And I picked up a lot of other tasks to make money here and there. Now I wanted to see how those changes impacted the statements I had made in that article above two years ago.

From Zero to Hundred Dollars a month with microstock images

From Zero to Hundred Dollars a month with microstock images

I had been mentioning the golden years in that article when I made up to $1,300 in a single month from about 800 rather mediocre (with very few exceptions) images. And I had said that it probably takes closer to 1,000 images than 100 these days to see consistent and relevant revenues.

Is it still worth it to upload new images?

There is a lot of talk (and has been for the past few years) if new uploads are still worth the time and effort. Not only are the image libraries growing but also the number of images added to Shutterstock, iStock, Fotolia and others is still rising. One, two, maybe three million new images are being shot, processed, keyworded, uploaded and accepted at microstock agencies each month. So how can you expect to still make money with your tiny fraction of 10, 50 or 200 images in this huge pool?

Well, the chart above is what I did since the beginning of this year: I have tracked all the images I uploaded in 2016 in a collection on StockPerformer to see how the revenue from this set of images develops over time. I think $100 a month is a solid goal for many beginners in the market and would satisfy a lot of those who start making money from their images online. And it’s most definitely not as easy to achieve as it was when I started in 2007.

However, given the knowledge and experience I had gained over the past decade, I wanted to see how fast the revenue grows on a set of new uploads. One of the targets I had set myself was to upload in the range of 50-100 images each month from the start of the year. As you can see from the grey bars on the bottom of the chart (the larger those grey bars go down, the more images I uploaded), I failed to upload in two months, April and July.

The total of images I uploaded is a bit less than 500 photos so far with a large part added in February and June. So for the latter part, their appearance in the search results is even too short to actually see the true results yet. However, the remarkable thing that made me start this article is that even within a very limited effort and lots of changes to the plans I have had, I managed to upload a new set of images that made it up to $100 in monthly revenues this year. In June and July, the revenue was around $97 each to be more precise. And that’s at the start and through the summer slowdown which usually isn’t the best selling season. So I have expectations to see this number grow even further towards the end of the year.

Okay, so $100 is not the world. But it is enough to buy a really nice lens each year. Or make a special trip to somewhere you couldn’t afford otherwise. Or go out for a great dinner every month with your spouse. Don’t consider $100 to be nothing because you are the pro photographer who relies on making a full time income. I am specifically talking about microstock here and the majority of contributors would be happy to have $100 a month as a secondary income.

For those of you who agree that $100 a month would be a great thing but can’t even get close to that number, there is one thing you need to consider before blaming yourself for not achieving the same: I have an established portfolio already, made it to a certain rank in most agencies and thus make a little more money from each sales that you do. That would mean me making 38 cents from each subscription sale at Shutterstock while you only get 25 cents. But still, it would “only” mean that you need to upload about 50% more images than I did to expect the same rewards.

However, I know that many of you will fall short. And that has some good reasons: You are probably less willing than I am to shoot what the market wants rather than trying to make money from the images I come up myself or even those images I would shoot anyway for the fun of the hobby photography is to many of you. I don’t blame you, that’s totally fine and obviously up to you. The only thing you should take away from my experiences is: No, the market isn’t really dead; if you wanted to make a decent amount of money from stock photography, you can still do so. It’s just up to you then to make the decision to fill a market need rather than forcing your product to a market that doesn’t want it in the “masses”. You can still make a few dollars here and there, I am sure, but feel fine with that.

What are the images that sell in microstock in 2016?

I have uploaded a fairly broad mix of the type of images I usually produce: Images found and shot in the city during my fun walks around; some studio shots mostly with myself or my son as a model; some simple graphics designed on the computer; and a lot of objects shot on tables, reflective surfaces or isolated on white.


Microstock Uploads of 2016 with sales numbers

Microstock Uploads of 2016 with sales numbers

And as you can see from the overview above, there is a good part of the mix represented in my sales lists. A graphic design element on white background at the top, three images featuring my son (including one editorial use shot with him playing Pokemon Go, a very popular theme these days), some more objects on white, sky scraper, design element, something on a wood table, a city scape, even a flower and some food in between…

The one thing I have noted that wasn’t worth my time at all was images with Easter themes. Sure, there were a couple of sales for those images (one is the third last in the screen shot) but with the amount and variety of images we produced this year, the sales were terribly small. Sure, this might also be different for some other people, maybe it takes a bit more specialization these days to come up with the perfect holiday themed shots. But at least for me it doesn’t look like I’m going to invest the same amount of time and energy into that topic again.

The other thing that didn’t sell well was “nature”. There are two flower photos in the image shown, one of them notably being a monochrome conversion; there also is a spring themed branch of a tree processed in pinkish color that sold six times for less than $5 but that’s about it. Not worth my time either. Okay, those images are “easy to produce” in the sense that I take those images while walking around in my daily life. But I still need to process, keyword and upload those images and all of those steps cost time that I don’t want to spend on images that aren’t selling well on average.

Where do the sales come from?

Microstock Uploads and Sales by Agency in 2016

Microstock Uploads and Sales by Agency in 2016

Another thing to look out for: Where do you generate the money and which sites aren’t worth the time you spend? My sales stats above show a very clear picture so far: Adding up the three iStock streams (iStock Credit Sales, the Partner Program and the Subscription sales) makes about the same amount as Shutterstock does; Fotolia is coming in third with about half the amount of Shutterstock and iStock each provided. But beyond that, Depositphotos, 123RF, Dreamstime and Bigstock combined made around $30, that’s less than 20% of the Shutterstock revenues alone but makes much more work. I’ll need to consider if it’s still worth the additional effort to provide those agencies. Even if it’s only five minutes extra for each upload, it probably means I have spent an hour or two on each of these agencies. They might make up for that amount of time in the long run (I’d say I need to make about $50 for two hours of computer based work at home to justify the effort) but it’s really getting tight at the lower ends of the market.

I have already given up uploading my images on several places – some of them made less than $50 a year from my 2,000 or so images and that just isn’t worth pursuing any longer. I’d expect the future to concentrate on the big three even more than it did in the past. Smaller agencies will struggle more and more to keep up with the variety the big ones can offer; and there will only be space in the market for agencies that offer different, additional services to customers like a tightly curated image collection, stricter editing, image research efforts or whatever makes the life of customers easier. And those services can’t be sold at microstock prices. Another reason for me to stay active in the premium price segments of the market because they are going to stay alive to provide the opposite of the massive libraries and choice the customers have to go through themselves in microstock. But within the microstock range, I’d say the race will focus on the top three and not beyond that anymore.

What’s the long term impact?

Okay, so now we have figured out that it is still possible to generate reasonable monthly revenues from microstock – maybe not to an extent a pro photographer would strive for but certainly a good number for the average hobbyist – let’s have a look at the prospects how those images might actually pay off in the end. There is an often stated opinion that uploading more images will grow your revenue. Well, there certainly is a connection between number of images uploaded and money made from licenses.

However, the connection is a bit more complex: For one, uploading a series of 30 very similar images (as I often see these days) is rather unlikely to generate 30 times more royalties than a single image would. There may be a sweet spot that could be anywhere between 3 and maybe 10 images that will offer all potential customers enough choice to make a decision for their personal needs. Someone might want to have an object straight forward, someone else needs a top down look and a third designer likes that 45 degrees angle with some drop shadow. Beyond that, we may only be offering more choices to the same customers but not offer images to attract other, additional customers. So from a given series, uploading more and more images is not likely to have a big effect on revenue.

Revenue generated from 500 images uploaded in 2014

Revenue generated from 500 images uploaded in 2014

More important however is the decrease in sales in the long run. There may be some aging of images going on, probably in people/lifestyle/fashion this is rather common; but also food trends change over the years, and more importantly image trends change. The tilt-shift effect, vintage color changes, lens flares, all those are types of image looks that get popular for a certain time and then drop off the radar of customers. But also there is a simple explanation: The search engines of most agencies favor two things – customer satisfaction (i.e. sales/downloads of an image) and new stuff. So over time, some of your images continue selling because they sold often enough to stay on top of searches. But most of your images will go deeper and deeper into the back of the search results. While every now and then an image uploaded in 2014 now gets randomly discovered by customers, this is less likely to happen than it was two or six months after its upload date. So over time, revenues will decline.

I have checked for the images I uploaded in 2014 in the chart above: As you can see, those images – coincidentally we are talking about roughly 500 images again – have made a relatively stable return between spring of 2014 and the end of 2015. Now in their third year, I am seeing some decline in revenues, so far the sales are about 25% below last year’s values. I’d expect this decline to slowly continue, though some of the images will continue to sell over the course of the next five or ten years. Overall I’d say the first year’s result can be reached a second time (or even beaten) in the second year but I expect a drop to 75% in the third and maybe 50% in the fourth year of their sales. Adding this up, a realistic total revenue would be three to five times the first year’s value in the long term.

Let me do the maths shortly for the 500 images I uploaded so far in 2016: They have now reached a first peak of $100 a month which I would expect to stay at that level for about two years, then drop off slowly to $75 and $50 a month in the next two years. So my overall expectation of revenue for these images would be 24 * $100, 12 * $75, 12 * $50 = a total of close to $ 4,000. This definitely isn’t worth seven months of work in Germany, even in the parts with the lower end living costs like Berlin still is. But as you can see from the first image, I didn’t do any work for microstock at all in two of the seven months, I only uploaded less than half of my images to microstock while the majority nowadays goes to premium segments like Stocksy United, Westend61, EyeEm or 500px . And I did spend a lot of my time on other projects in those months.

So all in all I might have only spend work time worth about a month or two on the images I uploaded to microstock. And for that time, making $4,000 in revenue for a job I can do at home at any time I want to, it’s still a decent amount and I’m feeling pretty well doing so. Let me know if you agree or not. 🙂

By the way: All screen shots in this post were generated from StockPerformer (affiliate link) which I use to analyze my sales data.


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