How much can you make with microstock sites?
laryn — Fri, 11/06/2009 - 08:14
earnings (incl footage sales):
More info on:
Most people who are considering whether or not to upload to microstock sites are curious how much money can be made by doing so. (There are other reasons, too, but this is a biggie). The short answer is that it depends on how much time and energy you put into it, and it depends on the quality of your images. The top earners can make hundreds of dollars per day, but most people will not achieve that. For an overview of my experience, see below. I update the stats about once every month or two so you can get a sense of what I have earned -- without devoting a ton of time to it, to be honest.
My experience with microstock sites (so far): istock, shutterstock, dreamstime and bigstock
Originally posted in January 2006
I've had a few questions about how my microstock experiment is going, so here's a little summary. I started uploading images to a handful of microstock sites in February of 2005 as a test to see how it would go. These sites allow people to upload images which are then sold cheaply for royalty free use, with a certain percentage of the sale going to the photographer. There were two sides to the debate, in my mind: the first side that can’t believe how cheap these sites sell their images and can’t help but think that this business model is contributing to what might be called the “Wal-martization” of photography, and the second, which sees this as a model that is closer to an “Open source” model of photography, providing affordable images to a broader base of designers, bloggers, churches, nonprofits, etc.
On reflection, I have to come down on the latter side. For one thing, images on these sites are generally being uploaded by people with the means to buy a digital camera and access to the internet—not children in third world sweatshops. (That said, I do think a few of these sites could raise their payment rates some). Also, providing low-cost, legal imagery will allow many people to use it who would otherwise use none, or use other copyrighted images that they found online (perhaps illegally).
And for those who are worried about the future of photography as an occupation, you’ll always have the bigger companies and corporations who will pay top dollar for exclusivity or for images that are not sold on sites such as these. With the countless digital cameras that are out there, it was inevitable that a model like this would spring up.
My goals (beyond seeing how these sites worked) were fairly modest: to pay off my digital camera. I am well beyond that mark at this point--now I plan to use the earnings as seed money for an eventual full-time freelance career. To the right are the five sites I have uploaded to with my total revenue to date on each site listed beside it and a few graphs of earnings. If you are thinking about uploading, take these numbers with a grain of salt, because each site has a slightly different audience and not all sites have the same number of pictures uploaded (for various reasons). If you want to try selling images, I recommend submitting the same batch to all sites for a few months to see how your images do on each one and where they fit in best.
I also recommend editing the EXIF data in the files to add your keywords and description directly in the file. These sites can all read that information and input it automatically into the correct fields as you upload, saving a lot of time. (Keywords and description can be incredibly important in actually having your image come up when a designer is searching for imagery.) Once you have the keywords and description you just have to choose the categories it belongs to on each site as the final step after uploading. Many of the sites have batch upload capabilities as another way to save time.
It’s also worth noting that two of these sites allow vector imagery to be uploaded: istockphoto and shutterstock. So if you don’t have a digital camera, you could still create vectors (sort of like clip art) to upload.
Have fun and if you have any questions, feel free to post them.
Sample comments from the original posting
Peter Galbraith: I really enjoyed reading your comments on microstock sites. I agree, I think that many people who would grab images off of Google are now purchasing them at affordable prices. I just started a site that indexes and compares MicroStock Photography sites (number of images, compensation for photographers, etc.) The website is MicroStock Photography Forum. Check it out. It took me over a year to discover all these stock photography sites. One of the problems is that none of the sites allow you to talk abou thte others ones (makes sense). This is a site that allows you to share good and bad opinions of all the sites you can find. Good luck!PS: I still haven't paid off my digital camera(s), but everytime I get close I "need" to buy a new one.
laryn: thanks for your comments Peter and Glen. Glen, you are right that some of the rules of the microstock game are unfair and take advantage of the photographer. And you won't make a living at it. I think that many of these sites need to raise their payment rates (ie. not the rate they sell the images at, but the percentage of the sale that goes to the Photographer). The reason I said that I don't believe this qualifies as "Walmartization" (aka "sweat shop culture") is that--I think--most of the people who are participating are doing it as a hobby, in their spare time, for some spare change. They can stop whenever they want and not starve.That doesn't mean that there won't be exploitation and they won't be taken advantage of in some way. But in my mind, opening the market up to the "little guy" who couldn't afford stock photos before (non-profits, blogs, etc) is worth the trade-off. To go back to the open-source analogy, sure some corporate types will take advantage of the free software, but in the end it's empowering a lot of the little guys, which is worth a lot.Thanks again for your comments.
laryn: From an email conversation with a pro stock photographer:
I'm not as sanguine as you are about the role of microstock. Your argument is the precise one used 15 years ago when Royalty Free came on the scene. Stock got harder then, but the smart photographers adapted and became volume producers and were able to make a career of it. What I fail to see is how anyone can do the same with Microstock.
Thanks, XXXXX, I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I asked the question because I am an outsider (someone who loves photography/digital imagery but is not a professional) and was wondering what you thought, from the inside. I realize my perspective is very limited and as a result, that the market could be changing dramatically without me even realizing it.In some ways, though, as camera costs go down and with the rise of digital, it seems microstock was/is inevitable, and I love aspects of it in the same way I love open source software (giving access to the little guy / non-profit / etc). My sanguine attitude is tempered by the knowledge that people who could afford to pay will also take advantage of this, and by the ridiculous percentage that these sites pay. Those running the sites are making big money and paying chump change to the photographers. If I could change one thing about the microstock sites, I would work some kind of a scale into the system which provides the imagery at the lowest possible rate to non-profits (or small run projects) and increases dramatically for for-profit (or very large run projects).
Cinda: Question about what type of photos you show sell the best. I have been a florist for many years but lately have learned some of the Adobe software in order to create floral image photos. I lift the bouquet off the background to make it easier for one to use in many photos. Question: Do these type sell better than ones which the purchaser has to redo?
laryn: Speaking as a designer as well -- there are projects where either one or the other is useful. If you do an isolation (or a photo "over white") well, it can sell very well. If you have a shot with a background that works well with the image, it also can sell well. I recommend doing some of each, and if possible, use Photoshop sparingly -- try to get an isolation over white by shooting on a white background. (Photoshop is important, but if you can get it right before you load it up in PS you'll generally have a better image).
Dollar bill photo by David Siqueira.