Stock photography

What is stock photography?

Whether you want to buy an image or maybe thinking of selling some of your best then do have a read of this brief guide to stock photography.  It is just my views but I hope it might help you decide if it’s for you.

In the past if you wanted a photograph to illustrate a leaflet, article or a website you either commissioned a photographer to take the pictures for you, took the pictures yourself or had a look in your files for any pictures that might have been acquired over the years.  Your options are very different now.  If you want generic photos, that maybe show a particular species of bird or an insect, you can just get it from the web, paid for or free, rather than going to the expense of paying someone to take the photo for you or learning how to do it yourself. Another advantage comes when you need to include people in your project. In most cases a model release form will already exist on file for the people in the pictures. You must have this if the image is used in any “commercial” way.

Most images bought off the web are from what are called microstock agencies.  Microstock has largely replaced the traditional macrostock agencies.  Microstock is all about selling high volumes at low cost.  You might be surprised to find that images can be bought for as little as $1 (they’re mostly North American) and it is generally free to upload images to the microstock agencies as a contributor (photographer). You will already be familiar with microstock as many generic images of happy, smiling people used in print or online, especially those that are business oriented, come from microstock agencies.

How is it organised?

I use over a dozen agencies. These vary from large and well established ones to small and growing businesses.  The way they operate is as varied as the number of agencies. They all have different ways of doing things and their charging policies for buyers and the commissions they pay to contributors varies widely.  Most are based in the USA though some do have offices in Europe.

I will only be talking about photographs but be aware that most do illustrations, sound and video.  It is not all photography as the name implies.

How does it work?

This all depends whether you are a buyer or a contributor.  Lets deal with buying first as it is important as a contributor to know what buyers think.  However, I will mostly be talking in this guide about selling images through the agencies as a contributor.

As a buyer

If you are looking for an image to use you simply go to one of the microstock websites, type in some words to search on and then wait a few seconds for the search results.  The more general your search terms the more images are returned.  Don’t be surprised if, when your search terms are too general, you get literally tens of thousands of images returned.  The trick is to make your search terms sufficiently detailed to get a manageable number of images to look through for the right one for your purpose.  Using the right keywords is important as a buyer but critical if you are a contributor. Sometimes the search returns are a little strange but that’s usually how they have been keyworded in the first place. Many buyers only look through the first few pages of images.

The cost of the image you purchase is then dependent on resolution (but not always) and the type of licence you want to purchase for the use.  Many of the images are for sale at a very low cost so you can quickly and cheaply complete your project.  Many of the agencies also offer images for free.  You have less choice but the standards are good and if you only want it for a website or facebook page no one will be able to tell the difference anyway at that resolution.  So using free images is a very low cost option.  Combined with the occasional purchase for the key areas in your website design you can get a decent website up and running fairly quickly at low cost.

The current trend for agencies is for buyers is to purchase a subscription package that allows them to purchase a certain number of images a month for a fixed price.  These are good value if you are a regular user of images.  You can still, in some cases, just go to the website and buy a single image.  This is more expensive.  The choice is yours dependent on your circumstances.

Whichever way you choose you can find almost every generic image you would want from microstock agencies for your project.  You might still have to go and take some photographs on site but that is less of a problem when you already have some great images to start with.

As a contributor

If you think you will get rich quick from selling your photos think again.  The financial rewards in the past were certainly better but the market has changed and matured.  The change to subscription based sales has certainly hit the financial rewards for contributors but I believe it has also generated much more interest and enlarged the market.  The reality is that for most subscription sales you will receive less than $1.  Credit sales do generate more and there are other options available but I think this illustrates the problem.  To make a decent living you will need tens of thousands of high quality images that are in demand.

Having said that, in the case of most agencies the more you sell the more the return to you increases. There are various tiers and the higher the sales the higher your tier and the greater your percentage per sale. So it is a bit more complicated than my simplistic view above but the principle remains the same. You needs to sell lots. It is all about volume.

What you will learn over a period of time is a better understanding of what makes a good commercial image and you cannot put a price on that.  You will get much fussier over the “snaps” that you take and you will strive to get that great light and perfect composition.  So expect your overall standard of photography to improve.  Effectively your images are being peer reviewed by thousands!  I have already noticed I am much more aware of lighting, background and the other aspects of a successful photograph.  But the fun and challenge is still there – just a little more focussed (forgive the pun)!

Firstly before I get on to the mechanics of uploading images I should say a little about post production processing.  This is amending the images to improve their commercial value and acceptability.  Generally, designers don’t like you to do many changes.   All I normally do is crop, straighten and maybe lighten a few areas.  I take the view that designers are far better at improving images than I will ever be so it is best to let them do the changes.  One other bit of advice is not to crop the images too tightly.  Let the designers do that.  Your images are likely to have some text added to them so you need to leave copy space for that. Negative space not filled with anything is good.

The industry standard software is Photoshop and I am sure everyone knows about that.  I use Photoshop Elements which is a cut down version of Photoshop but more than adequate for my simple needs.  Photoshop Elements is often bundled with the software provided with your camera so it won’t cost you anything.  There are other products on the market and they pretty much do the same type of thing.  It is all down to what you feel comfortable with using.  If you choose to use Photoshop there is a steep learning curve. It’s an amazing piece of software. I am increasingly using Lightroom (the classic version) on a desktop. This has a lot of photo editing options and is a great library for your photos. Now on to the uploading process.

Using a website or via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) you upload your photos, decide whether they are royalty free or editorial, write a brief description of the image, assign it to a category and provide some keywords.  That’s all there is to it and for some agencies you do not even have to do that.  In order to become a contributor most agencies require you to submit samples of your work for checking or even take a test!  Just submit your very best images to avoid disappointment and having to resubmit.  Don’t worry about rejections.  It will happen. I get lots and usually for strange reasons. Increasingly AI is being used to do a first check of images. AI does not like selective focus and struggles with leaves thinking they are out of focus. Now some of the detail.

Check your photos – Do it at 100% to see if they are out of focus or have other image problems and to look for trademarks etc.  More about that later.

Do they meet the standards? – Probably the most important standard set is the minimum size.  Usually this is 3 or 4 Megapixels.  My oldest camera is twenty years old but it’s a 6Mp one so that is easily achieved and most modern ones, even mobile phones, will do so now.  If you want to work it out for yourself just multiply the numbers of pixels on each side of the image.  So an image that is 2000 pixels square comes out at 4,000,000 pixels (4Mp).

Decide whether it is royalty free or editorial – The financial rewards for royalty free can be greater but if your photo is newsworthy and includes groups of people or trademarks I would go for editorial.  This is the bread and butter of photojournalism. If you choose royalty free (RF) and if you have people in the picture you will need model release forms completed for every person.  No exceptions.  It is a little more complicated with properties. Copyright and intellectual property is a minefield that I avoid in my photo sales by being careful on what I upload. Some agencies use rights managed which is a little like royalty free but usually for a specific purpose for a limited time. That is generally being phased out.

Upload your photos – As there is usually a minimum size required in the region of 3 or 4 megapixels be aware that heavily cropped pictures will fall below that limit.  There is a temptation to upload all of your photos to increase your chances of a sale. It is better to upload only your best so you don’t have the disappointment of having your images rejected.

Write a brief description of the image – This just needs to be pretty factual but something that persuades someone to buy. Avoid the use of flowery language like “attractive” or “stunning”.

Assign it to a category – These are fairly self explanatory but don’t expect it to fit precisely and avoid using categories that don’t apply.  Most agencies don’t ask for this now.  It helps buyers to search and browse.

Provide some keywords – This is by far the most important step in the whole selling process.  Keywords are what helps people find your images.  You simply have to make them accurate.  Put yourself in the buyers shoes and think about how you would look for a photo like yours.  Well, there is a bit more to it than that but that is the basic principle.  For a contributor keywords are the most important issue.  If no one can find your images you are not likely to sell them.  Avoid keywords that don’t describe the image.  Try to be simple and to the point and avoid flowery terms.  It might be a stunning picture but would a buyer use the word stunning to search for an image?

Workflow – If you are signed up with a number of agencies there are a number of ways you can speed up this process.  You can copy titles etc., from one image in an agency to the same image in a different agency so you only write the text once and copy and paste as needed.  I would highly recommend attaching metadata to the image using the likes of IPTC.  This significantly speeds up the process.  Also be aware that there is software that can help you upload many images to multiple agencies.  Your workflow is what saves you time. You might consider the use of templates or presets. It all depends on your style of photography.

Approval or review  process – This is done by the agencies to check whether your images reach their standards and can be released for sale.  This is not an automatic process.  Someone does actually look at your image.  This is changing though and AI is starting to be used!  You will certainly learn from rejections and you should expect plenty of them.  The process of rejection is somewhat quirky but that is all part of the challenge and it will certainly develop your understanding of microstock photography and improve your commercial sense.  Remember that a fundamental part of the approval process is to look for commercially attractive and not just visually attractive photos.  It is not unusual to get an image rejected by one agency that sells well with another.

After all the hard work on your part and your image looks splendid on the agency website you just have to wait for a buyer to find your photos, decide whether your image is what they want, at a price they can afford and then purchase them. Each of the agencies provides statistical feedback back on how well you are doing, which images have been sold etc.  Some sites are better than others at this. Don’t expect immediate sales. Some of my images sell with in an hour of being upproved but some take several years. Some don’t sell at all.

Finally, you will get paid once you reach the relevant minimum payout limit.  But you will also have the joy of knowing  that others like your pictures enough to pay money for them.  The only thing you will never know from most of the agencies is what the images are actually being used for.  I’m always curious about that. It’s sometimes worth doing a web search on your name or business name. You will be amazed what some images are used for. It’s a good way of identifying those that have been stolen too. Online can be a bit like the wild west. You nearly always retain the copyright and people should pay you for the use of your images.

Once you have had a read of the above do go on and look at the individual agencies below and see what you think.  I can send you a referral link. That doesn’t cost you anything and makes a little extra for me.

What can you do next

So if you like the idea of selling some of your photos then I would suggest your give it a go.  It is free and in reality will probably improve your photography skills.  It will be a challenge but you will have fun doing it. Just don’t expect to get rich quick or even slowly. Very few photographers do from microstock. For me it pays my running costs and gets me a bit of kit now and then.

My current agencies

  • 123RF
  • Dreamstime
  • iStock
  • Shutterstock
  • Bigstock
  • Alamy
  • 500px
  • Fotolia (now Adobe Stock)
  • Canstock (just ceased trading)
  • Picfair
  • Panthermedia
  • Pixta
  • Pond5
  • Depositphotos
  • Fine Art America

If you think  there is anything I have got wrong in this guide or you have suggestions for improvement just send me a message.  It is a large subject and I will update it as I experience new things within the world of stock photography.

Happy snapping……………well more than that I hope.