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How To Make Money from Cents in Microstock

The unique selling point of the microstocks is their low pricing. This, in turn, means that the commission payable to the photographer can be as low as $0.25 per image sale, although, in practice, this fi gure is at the bottom end of a range that can go a lot higher. With such low commissions it might seem that it will be impossible to earn “real” money. That is a view thinking by many traditional stock photographers.

Yet, despite this, I have now reached sales from a portfolio of fi ve microstock sites of around $750 per month in around 2 years from a standing start. That’s useful money in anyone’s language, particularly as I am not shooting stock full time. But this is a far from exceptional result; the truth is I could have earned a lot more if I had not been so darn busy with other projects. And the income is increasing.

Now I believe I have some talent as a photographer, even if I am not Ansel Adams. But—and this is a critical point—in many ways, the demands of the microstock libraries are very different from the kind of camera club success stories keen amateurs might be familiar with.

For a modern-day microstock phenomenon, consider the case of Yuri Arcurs (see his site at www. arcurs. com), who claims to sell over 400,000 images a year. He has two assistants who help in the production and upload process, and he concentrates on popular themes. He is a great microstock success story. If you want to mimic that level of success, it will take a lot of time and effort. in fact, it's can be done.

Follow this advice: forget fi ne art and learn fi ne business if making money from the microstocks is your goal.

Readmore: Microstock Pricing and Download History

As far as I am concerned, the microstock case is proven. The microstocks are an open invitation to anyone with a modicum of talent and a little spare time to earn signifi cant extra cash. With real dedication, perhaps you can end up making a full-time living from the microstocks.

This image is one of my best sellers on the microstocks. In 1 year since fi rst uploaded, it has been downloaded from iStockphoto alone more than 700 times, earning over $290 in commission for me, the photographer, from just that one library. It has done very well elsewhere too, and sales continue at an impressive monthly rate. You may think that it is a studio shot taken with a megabucks camera and lighting.

Wrong! It was taken on a 6-MP Fuji F10 compact camera, with a little tender loving care applied in Photoshop CS2 (noise reduction, perspective correction, copyright logo removal). You don’t need expensive equipment (although good equipment helps); you just need to know how to use what you have.

The way the microstocks sell images is highly relevant to both photographers and photo buyers. There are three different standard system of microstock sales models to consider:
  1. Credit package (single sale) sites, where buyers purchase images singly, usually using credits purchased in advance 
  2. Subscription sale sites, where buyers purchase a subscription and can then download a set number of images overall and per day during the subscription period 
  3. Hybrid sites, which combine the best of both worlds
Let’s look in more detail at how four of the leading microstock libraries—Dreamstime, Shutterstock, iStockphoto, and Fotolia—sell images. I have chosen these libraries because they are among the largest and they have proven track records, but that is not to say other libraries are not as good or better choices for you. A list of leading microstock sites you can compare them online. Please bear in mind that these packages are liable to change and are provided as examples only.


We’ll start with Dreamstime (www. dreamstime. com), a hybrid library, offering buyers the choice of single-image downloads paid for with credits or a subscription. Dreamstime started as a royalty-free stock photography Web site in 2000, selling images on compact discs. It relaunched in March 2004 as a microstock site, and it has now grown to become one of the larger and more successful sites. As with all microstocks, it relies upon contributing photographers to provide the content through the online Web site and FTP upload, with a present minimum fi le size of 3 MP. 

Dreamstime has offers two purchase options. The packages of between 20 and 130 credits, start from $19.99 for a 20-credit package and ending at $99.99 for 130 credits. There is also a higher discount available using the custom order tool available for packages of more than 160 credits. Alternatively, you can become a subscriber by purchasing a subscription package that allows for as few as 30 days and 750 images to 1 year and 9,125 images, in each case with a 25-image-per-day download limit. 

Per-image pricing is dependent upon the resolution required, with prices increasing for larger, higher-resolution images and the “level” of the image (higher prices charged for the more popular images). This translates to higher commissions for photographers. For further information, see http:// www. dreamstime. com/sellimages. 

Dreamstime pricing in detail, it appears to subscription downloads, where per image prices are at their lowest. But, according to Serban Enache, chief executive offi cer (CEO) of Dreamstime, the credit packages are in practice the more popular choice with buyers.

Readmore: Evolutionary Development of Microstocks Libraries


Shutterstock (www. shutterstock. com) is a pure subscription site, offering packages starting at 1 month with a maximum of 25 downloads per day for $159.00 to 1 year with a maximum of 25 downloads per day for $1,599.00. It is arguably the most successful subscription site, and if you are thinking of sending some of your work to the microstock image libraries, my advice is to put Shutterstock at the top of your library list.

Unlike Dreamstime, at Shutterstock all image sizes are the same price and so are commission payments to photographers—$0.25 per download for junior photographers and $0.30 per download for more senior photographers with more sales ($500 worth in commission, to be precise). Some photographers deliberately send Shutterstock smaller fi le sizes only in the belief that this will force buyers to fi nd big fi les at other sites and pay more for the higher-resolution sizes. I’m not sure this is a sensible use of time and effort, and I would advise against trying to beat the system this way. Go and shoot more stock instead! 

Shutterstock is run by entrepreneur Jon Oringer. He has made Shutterstock the yin to iStockphoto’s yang. If you submit work to iStockphoto and Shutterstock, you have bagged what many would regard as the best single sale and the best subscription site, a great starting point in your microstock photographic career. Shutterstock advertises extensively and generates a considerable amount of user loyalty through its active online forums that are not too aggressively policed. 

Part of Shutterstock’s success seems to be linked to the sheer simplicity of its site. Shorn of fancy fripperies, it is seldom off-line and is well regarded among microstock photographers. Some other sites could learn a lesson or two from this no-frills approach. Speaking as a photo buyer as well as photographer, I know how easy it is to jump to another library if my fi rst choice is off-line. Keep it simple, keep it online! 

For more information on current subscription prices at Shutterstock, visit http:// www. shutterstock. com/subscribe. mhtml.


Fotolia (www. fotolia. com) is a credit package (single-sale) site. It sells credit packages ranging from $10 to $2,000. Images are purchased for download using these credits, with pricing based on image size (resolution) and, to a lesser extent, usage. 

Fotolia also claims to be the biggest site, although this is disputed by some, including Shutterstock. Frankly, it doesn’t matter much as all the major sites are enjoying rapid growth, but Fotolia’s growth does seem to have outstripped that of other libraries. A nice touch offered by Fotolia is that you can see who has downloaded your images, something not offered by most other major sites. Fotolia also has a strong presence in the European market, possibly more so than the other leading microstocks, where North American sales dominate.

Readmore: Start Selling Audio Files As Microstock


iStockphoto (www. istockphoto. com) is the “daddy” of the microstock sites, the site that began the microstock revolution and that many would say has stayed at the top of the pile ever since. It sells credit packages from 10 to 300 credits online, with larger packages available over the phone. At the time of this writing, prices are under review, but it is fair to say that iStockphoto aims for the “premium” end of the microstock market, assuming that premium microstock is not an oxymoron! 

Photographs cost from one credit for images with very low Web resolution to 15 credits for extra-large fi les, with a starting price of $1.30 per credit and discounts for quantity purchases. Contributing photographers can cash in earnings for credits, continuing the original philosophy behind iStockphoto as a community of artists and designers.

Apart from the “big four,” there are a number of other microstock sites, but all work along similar lines. You should check out each site for current pricing information and commission levels. What really matters is sales performance. 

When tracking sales over time, it does seem that the subscription-based sites such as Shutterstock tend to favor newer images. Conversely, in the single-sale libraries such as iStockphoto, it can take some time before an image accepted and added to the library sells for the fi rst time. Clearly, the pressure is on anyone whose subscription limit is about to expire to download whatever is available, just in case it is useful. It is better to have an image of limited use than nothing at all for your money. It is a bit too simple to leave it at that; other factors are in play, such as different search engines, target markets, and so on. Nonetheless, my advice is to make sure you send your work to both subscription-based and single-sale libraries if you want to maximize your market exposure and, thus, sales.

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