Saturday, 20 October 2012

Microstock Agencies Review - Part 1

A brief overview of some of the microstock agencies I have signed up with.  A few words of warning first:

  • YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET RICH OVERNIGHT SELLING PHOTOS ON MICROSTOCK AGENCIES.  Keep your expectations realistic.  Everyone is reporting that earnings from microstock are declining, partly because of all the competition and partly because agencies keep cutting prices and commissions paid to contributors. 

    If you rely on microstock for your living expenses, then you will need to invest a significant amount of resources (it isn’t just about the camera, but also lighting, models, post-processing, key wording, marketing, technique and ability) to stand any chance of earning a decent amount.
      There are people out there who have created huge organizations to be able to live off of microstock, and you will need to match their “mass production factories” to stand any chance of earning a reasonable amount.
  • Every agency seems to have their own specific audience, and just because 5 other agencies have accepted a picture doesn’t necessarily mean that others will.  This doesn’t mean that the picture is bad, just that it is perhaps not suited to the site in question.  Unless you rely entirely on microstock for your income, best not to let the rejections get to you.
  • Microstock may take up a lot of your time.  Especially if you have a large portfolio you want to upload.  Best thing to do is to enter as much information as possible as IPTC and then FTP the files.  Even then some sites may require you to spend time on preparing the images (e.g. assigning categories) before the actual submission for review and that takes time.
  • You need to keep feeding the beast.  With tens of thousands of contributors and several millions of photos, it is easy for your work to get lost.  There isn’t much you can do about it other than trying to beef up your portfolio as much as possible.  Upload regularly, keep your portfolio fresh and varied.  The more pictures you have and the greater the range of subjects, the better the chances that someone will find yours when searching.
  • Exclusivity is baloney.  I used to be exclusive, and more out of indolence than anything else, was convinced that it was the right thing for me.  I gave up on exclusivity because I realized that just one agency is never going to give me enough exposure.  As I said above, each agency has its own customer base.  If your images are not spread across a wide spectrum of potential buyers, you are losing out on possible sales.  Agencies often say that exclusive contributors are better protected and make more money.   This is not absolutely true.  You may get a slightly higher percentage of the sale value, but you may also be missing out on a whole different customer base.  I don’t believe that the difference in the non-exclusive and exclusive commission rate always makes up for it. 

    In terms of protection against theft of images, I never experienced any advantages during my time as an exclusive contributor.
      The times I reported an unauthorized use of my images (published on websites with the agency watermark), the agency sent an email to the site owner requesting that they either remove the image or legally purchase it and then promptly forgot about it.  When I followed up with the agency months later, I was informed that they had done all they could and if I wished to pursue it further I was on my own!!
  • Pick the agencies you sign up with this carefully.  Many agencies have come and disappeared, so you need to make sure you are not wasting your time.  You will end up spending a huge amount of time post-processing, key wording and submitting images. 

    Some agencies are worth it because of how well known they are and their already established customer base (iStock, Shutterstock, Dreamstime are prime examples). 
    Others are easy to upload to and don’t require much effort (e.g. don’t require you to provide additional information if they can read IPTC data or if they provide bulk edit functionality).  So weigh the pros and cons before investing too much time.  I signed up with quite a few agencies and later on stopped submitting to some of them because I wasn’t convinced that they were going to do much for me, but in the meantime I had already wasted a couple of months.

Here are some of the agencies I am currently signed up with.  I’ll include my referral links, so if you do sign-up with any of them, I would appreciate it if you would use my reference.


Seriously consider joining this one.   Payouts can be set to be made by Paypal or Moneybookers once the earnings hit $75.

There is a contributor test, where at least 7 of 10 photos need to pass the review.  But once that is done, I think the reviews are fair and they don’t have the silly “similar” policy which seems to get on everyone’s nerves at another site.  

Reviews take around a week, which is just about the average time for most sites.

Shutterstock is the daddy of all subscription sites.  Mostly you will be making $0.25 a sale.  Once in a while you will get a credit sale, but that can be fairly rare, so you might feel a bit frustrated.  Especially when you may make more for a subscription sale on some other agencies.  The key difference is the huge customer base at Shutterstock.  In theory the small commission is supposed to be compensated by the volume of downloads (because of the low prices, buyers may buy huge volumes of images).  Shutterstock is rated number 1 amongst contributors for revenue.

Shutterstock has been around a long time and is very popular with contributors.  So competition is huge.  However, Shutterstock do seem to favour newly uploaded material in the search algorithm, so there is a good chance that you will start selling almost immediately.


This one is a tough one, and I really am in two minds about it.  Fotolia is considered to be one of the top four microstock agencies in terms of earnings for contributors.  And though I have had a few sales there, they are nothing that made me jump around for joy.  I have heard that sales are tanking for nearly everyone and to top it off they are quite aggressive about slashing commissions for contributors.

Reviews are lightning fast.  In every single case my images have been reviewed within two hours.  It’s almost as if they have an army of reviewers sitting there ready to pounce on the images the second they are submitted.  The downside is that the reviews seem to be very unreasonable.  It’s almost as if they have a rule that regardless of quality they must reject 80-90% of my submissions.  I have seen a lot of complaints from other contributors to that effect as well.  They also do not provide any specific reasons for the rejections, so you are left scratching your head in an attempt to figure out what exactly they think is wrong with the picture (it is not doing anything at all for my bald spot).

Also, I find the submission process a little annoying.  Apart from assigning categories, you need to take care about the sequence of keywords.  It seems that the first 7 or 8 keywords are given priority, so either you must ensure that they are appropriately sequenced when you enter them as IPTC or you need to reorder them prior to submitting or once they have been accepted.
Fotolia do not accept Editorial images.

Personally, I don’t hold out much hope for either a huge amount of sales or a drastic increase in my on-line portfolio there.   But, for the moment I am continuing to submit there because of their ranking in the microstock world (I’m a sheep. Baaaaa) rather than because of any personal conviction.

They also seem to have a very bad reputation amongst contributors for underhandedness.  While every agency changes their terms and conditions (especially relating to commissions paid to contributors), Fotolia in particular seems to get extremely bad press about it.  I haven’t been with them long enough to experience this myself so can’t give any opinions, just thought it may be worth mentioning as a warning.

Dreamstime is also considered to be one of the top 4 earners for contributors.  This was the very first agency I joined back in 2006 as an exclusive and really learned a lot from them about stock photography.  Out of loyalty, I stayed exclusive for a lot longer than I probably should have.  I understand that they have to run a business and therefore must do what they think brings in the money for them, but I do think that perhaps exclusive contributors should be treated a little better than non-exclusive contributors (and this goes for any agency, not just DT). 

Review times are taking longer than before, which is an annoyance for the photographers on the site (possibly could mean that they are not investing in the business by hiring more reviewers).  I have at times had reviews pending for more than two weeks.  This can be especially annoying for editorial submissions related to recent events.  They claim that news related images are reviewed faster than normal submissions but I have had cases where they took 3 or more days and I am sure that other contributors submitting to other microstock agencies managed to get images related to the same event them out in the market before I did on DT.

Reviews do seem to be somewhat inconsistent at times.  But, even though, I have had an occasional run-in with the “head honcho”, support is still very helpful in providing very specific feedback about refusals if you ask them politely.  Though, I think, nowadays they might not answer every query due to the larger volume of submissions.

They have implemented a “no-similars” policy meaning that if they feel you have too many photographs from one photo session or too many images of a particular subject in your portfolio already, they will be rejected regardless of quality.  Though how much is “too many” no one seems to want to say.  I have found that sometimes they are not willing to accept more than one photograph of a subject, but at other times four can slip past.  This has had some photographers up in arms as they feel that this is used very subjectively and is frequently abused.  I don’t get riled up about this anymore since I gave up exclusivity as there are plenty of other sites that will accept what DT decides it doesn’t need.

For contributors, there is a rather attractive feature whereby pictures get upgraded to higher levels the more they sell, thereby increasing their price (hence not such a great feature for buyers perhaps) and also the commission.

Payout is at $100 via Paypal or Moneybookers.


Very easy place to upload to.  Just FTP the images, import them on the site and if you have already entered your title, description and keywords you don’t need to do anything else.  They will just go straight through for review. 

Review times are about 4-5 days for RF, 1 day for editorial and seem to be fairly reasonable.  I haven’t had a lot of rejections from them. 

Sales, so far, have been fairly slow for me, but they are considered as number 5 in the top microstock agencies ranking, so it’s probably worth having a go there.  Payouts can be received via Paypal once earnings hit $50 or Moneybookers once they hit $100).

Portfolio size does seem to matter in search placement so try and get as many images on there as fast as possible.


This is a pleasant enough site.  Sales have not really taken off yet for me, but for some strange reason I have big hopes for this one and I can’t really think of any big reason not to recommend this site to contributors.

Review times are pretty fast.  Generally my submissions are reviewed within two days, though I have seen other contributors occasionally complain about delays.  And even though at the beginning I had trouble understanding the reasons for some refusals, I now think that the refusals are fairly reasonable and don’t get upset about them anymore.

Once, I contacted their live support via the chat and found them to be very responsive, polite and helpful.

Payout is at $30 via Paypal or Moneybookers.

I do like this site a lot, primarily because it is very easy to use.

They make it particularly easy to copy image attributes for new images from those already submitted.

Review times seem to average about a week (sometimes shorter, sometimes longer).  Reviews seem to be very unpredictable and vacillate between being really tough and really easy.  In general, I have learnt that reviewing is very subjective, and depends more on the reviewer than the agency, and as you can’t really control who ends up reviewing your submissions it is often a matter of luck.

I think it is worth contributing here, as they are generally viewed as a solid agency with a lot of potential.  They are currently situated around the middle of the top ten microstock agencies. 

Payouts are via Paypal or Moneybookers at $50.

Reviews are reasonably easy and on average take a little more than a week.  General consensus amongst contributors currently seems to place them in the bottom half of the top ten microstock agencies for sales.  They have to compete with some agencies much bigger than them and need to be very aggressive in their marketing.

Payouts are via Paypal ($50) or Moneybookers ($100).


That's it for now. I’ll do another little blog on some of the other agencies I am a contributor at, but either I don’t feel they hold out much promise, or I have only joined them very recently so can’t really give much of an opinion on them.

If you have any questions, drop me a message and I’ll be happy to reply if I have the answers.

Please visit and like Shadow69 Photography on Facebook if you are on there.  Many thanks for your indulgence.

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