Most of my blog posts are directed at the more seasoned stock photographer who are interested in staying up to date, get insights to someone else’s thoughts on the market etc. However, I get some newbies asking questions through my Facebook page or email as well who are just curious about making money from selling their images through Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, or 123RF. . Here is my answer to one of the most common questions:
How to make $200 – or $100 or more – from selling photos through microstock?
When I started submitting images to microstock in 2007, the rule of thumb was: You will see regular downloads when you have more than 100 images in your portfolio. Back then, this was more or less true in my case: It took about 200 images in my portfolio to get returns of $100 a month which was a milestone for me. The payout limit at iStockphoto was and is $100, and getting over that level meant I could get an additional payment to my regular salary every month.
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However, I said “back then” and “in my case”: When I started, I applied with iStockphoto and Shutterstock, got accepted at iStock in my second try and rejected from Shutterstock at first. I focused on iStock at that time, and there were strict inspections and very low upload limits of 15 images per week at that time. So it took me seven months to get 100 images online and about 11 months to get from $0 to $100 a month. It was not “quick and easy”, neither will it be today. Stock photography takes patience, probably even more today then in 2007.
The second remark (“in my case”) means that I put some extra effort into learning the game. I started out as most others with images like the one above: Whatever I found on the streets to look interesting, snap it, upload it, keyword it. But I noticed quickly that this is not going to be the best way to make the amount of money I wanted to. The image above has never sold – in total, I uploaded four images from that place, one of them actually sold. Twice. For a total of $1.28 in royalties.
Those images might look interesting to you but they are not what many people are going to pay for to use in their advertising, on their websites or to illustrate a magazine article or a blog post. How many internet pages have you read last week showing images like the one above? Not many. Most likely none.
Links und Infos aus meinem Buch “Stockfotografie
Viele interessante weiteren Informationen rund um die Stockfotografie habe ich im Rahmen meines Buches “Stockfotografie – Geld verdienen mit Shutterstock, Fotolia & Co” zusammengestellt. Das Buch ist über alle Buchhandlungen, online und offline, wie beispielsweise bei Amazon.de oder direkt beim dpunkt Verlag erhältlich.
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Make better microstock images, make more money
While I believe the “100 images in your portfolio” is aiming too short these days, you could probably even upload 1,000 images into your portfolios and still not get a decent return each month.
I not only wanted to make $100 a month, I wanted a bit more. And I wanted it quicker. So I decided, I will have to find out what kind of images sells more often, more regulary to get me better returns. While today I am shooting far more “what I find” again, I now do this with a trained eye for what actually looks interesting to potential buyers than rather just me. More of those images I upload today are selling but they are still not making big money. And to get there, I had to go through a process of specifically shooting images for stock – or microstock in particular.
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Microstock – as we mostly speak about when we discuss the most popular sites like Shutterstock, iStockphoto, Fotolia, Dreamstime – is a specific subset of the market for licensing images. The images are being sold at very low prices, so they are being used a lot by people who just want a quick solution for a common problem: Find an image that can be used to illustrate a certain topic without drawing the full attention to the image. Viewers and readers have to quickly understand what an article or ad is about without noticing the image as the “key content”. While there are also examples of images being used as the key visual or even as part of a product (be it a coffee mug or an art print), the masses of downloads are for images that you are likely to never find in use because they are just used in a tiny place as an eye catcher for something else.
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So the key to make money from microstock is to aim at that market: Images that can be used quickly, without much expertise of photoshop or design software, that also work in a small version and illustrate a topic that people are talking about, reading about or want to know more about. These are the images people click on and lead users to our customer’s article or website.
The image above shows how I made these thoughts work for me: In 2009, the swine flu has been an issue that many magazines, newspapers and web sites were talking about. I wanted to make a concept image that illustrates “swine flu”, so people could use it to illustrate all those articles. It was a short-lived theme, and the three images I shot are not among my all time bestsellers but they netted me about $200 from about 100 downloads. And I shot them on a glass desk at home with a single strobe within about 15 minutes on a weekend or after work. I believe it was what the “typical microstock contributor” would, could and should do with his/her limited time: Easy to shoot, clearly directed to a specific topic, fire and forget. Not much planning or organizing required, not much work to follow up on those images. And it made $200 from a total effort of $15 and two or three hours: Buying the piggy bank, setting it up, shooting, not much post processing, uploading, keywording.
Even a microstock beginner should consider time his most important resource
When you start out submitting your images for microstock today, I believe 100 images are far too low as a goal. I submitted my first images when the “golden years” of microstock had just started. Within less than two years, I was making $500 or more each month from the mostly mediocre images and a few lucky best sellers.
Today, you are facing a competition of 30 million images on Shutterstock and other sites, with 100 images you will hardly get noticed. Newbies on iStock are struggling for years to even get to the 250 downloads required to make the decision to go exclusive or not. And I just said, it took me “less than two years” which was quite good at the time but already far longer than the average microstock beginner is willing to invest time.
In 2014’s world, the almost 3,000 images I have in my portfolio at iStockphoto are merely enough to make a living. Then again, my standards and expectations are much higher today than they were when I started. To get back to the question of any (decent) regular amount, by my numbers today, I would estimate it takes somewhere between 300 and 500 nice microstock images to get there.
However, sticking to the random snap shots you take on your way to work or during the vacations, I doubt this will be a sufficient number. If that is your plan, I would recommend searching for a different way to make a second income. What you need to consider: When I started, doing microstock on the side was quite doable – shoot and upload maybe 10 images each week, the shooting itself was the fun part but keywording them to get found takes quite some effort as well at the start. Sitting on your computer for an hour or two is time you might be able to spend better. Do this on a regular basis, and you will easily have invested a few hundred hours of your (limited) time to get hundreds of snap shots online that no one will show interest in.
So even if you are not planning to turn stock photography into a business, you should resist from spending precious time with tedious tasks of photoshopping logos out of your images and come up with meaningful meta data to upload them. Rather reduce the amount of images you want to have for microstock, plan some additional time to set up a specific shoot aiming at actual customers. Getting 5 images conveying a clear message or good concept will probably do you better than upload 20 images of a hiking path.
Where to get the most money out of those microstock images?
As I described, for me the exclusivity at iStockphoto was the way to go in 2007: I needed to learn a lot of skills, so focusing on a single agency was taking out some complexity. Also, iStock was the undisputed market leader, and when I went exclusive, they allowed more uploads, paid more money. It was a good deal for me.
Today I am non-exclusive: For one because of the market development. iStockphoto no longer is the market leader by a huge margin, Shutterstock has grown quickly. In some European countries, Fotolia is still the most recognised microstock agency. Lots of other places have collected millions of images, offering them for a fraction of the cost that iStock does. All in all, I belive iStockphoto is not the best bet any longer.
Even more so when you just start out shooting for stock: iStock only pays 15% of the royalties made from your images when you are non-exclusive member; with the low number of downloads, it can take ages to get to the 250 downloads on iStock needed to make the commitment to go exclusive and finally get more money; downloads from partner sites and subscription sales are not even counting against those 250 required. I would not recommend beginners to limit themselves based on the idea that “one day” you might get more from your images when you finally reached that target.
Instead, I would at least try out three or four places to place your images. Some kind of images work better on site A, others work better on site B. The inspection/editing standards vary from site to site, so on one site you might get half or more of your images rejected while they could pick up a few sales on a different site and not be completely wasted time.
And once you are closing in to that 250 images required at iStock, you can still make an assessment if higher prices plus higher commissions are making up for the money you would have to give up from other sites.
My personal recommendation would be to start with Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, and 123RF. You will certainly read stories to “avoid agency X” about most of them. And I’m not the biggest fan of some of these agencies for several reasons but in the end, selling images through microstock sites is a business even if you just do it on the side of a real life job. None of them are out there to make you happy, you are just one of the suppliers they need to have a product to sell.
With the list of those five agencies, you should be busy uploading your images. They all have different standards which images they like and accept and which might sell well. If you master to produce images that are accepted at all of them, you have really made a big step. And while you are not there yet, your images are likely to find at least one place where they might be seen by buyers. Don’t bother too much with the rejections except learning from them.
What else does it take to make decent money from microstock?
As said before in this article, a long term view is required to achieve goals in microstock: I still sell licenses for images I shot and uploaded five or seven years ago. Old images are not wasted, instead new images are adding up to your portfolio size over time. Consistency and patience are definitely required, even though the sales might not be what you expect at the start. Give yourself more than just a few weeks to find out if it is the right thing to do for you personally.
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And here is another thing to consider: Photography is a really nice hobby as well. Making money from images is a completely different game. If you are bothered by administration tasks, lacking a long term view, getting impatient, it might have an impact on how you judge photography as a whole. So you might reconsider if trying to make a few bucks out of your images really is worth ruining the positive attitude you have towards photography. There is nothing wrong with just enjoying the pictures you shoot, learning from Youtube videos how to make your images look better and share them with your friends on Facebook. Go for the money only if you have the stamina to go down a bumpy road. It’s not easy and not always fun.