It seems that whatever photography site you visit these days, there is an article encouraging you to sell your photos online and make money from stock libraries. These articles often make the process as simple as uploading a few royalty free images and watching the dollars roll in.
Of course, if it were that simple, we would all be doing it and all be making enough money to retire. Like many things in life, the expectation will far exceed the reality. This article will look at some of the harsh realities to be aware of should you decide to sell photos online.
Before we go further, let’s have a look at what microstock is. Put simply, it is a stock library that sells predominantly royalty free images at very low prices. They are the photographic equivalent of the “pile them high, sell them cheap” stores; the idea being that your image, although only selling for a dollar, will sell many, many times. So what are the realities of this?
Lets start at the beginning, with myth number one. The “sell your images” posts tell you to upload your initial submission, and you will be accepted within a few days. This, for the vast majority of photographers, is not true. First, remember that microstock agencies are inundated with new shots every day, so they deliberately apply very strict technical standards that your images must adhere to before you can be accepted for a library.
Very often, it will take several submissions before you get accepted, and the reasons for rejection might bear no relationship to the images you submitted. In fact, I have resubmitted the same batch of images that have been rejected before, without changes, and they have been accepted. Don’t take rejection personally; they are just trying to limit the number of photographers on their books.
Myth two is that you will start to make money within weeks of being accepted. This, unfortunately, is not usually the case. If you have an excellent collection of difficult to get, unique images, you may start to see immediate returns; but for the most part, if you are uploading travel images, stock lifestyle work, or anything else mainstream, it is going to take some time before you sell anything.
You will also need a large number of technically excellent, diverse images to get sales. Uploading 20 shots of a local landmark from different angles is unlikely to see any return, ever. You will need a minimum of 200 different images to start seeing some sales.
Myth three is that, once you are accepted, uploading is a simple procedure. Some stock agencies have uploading procedures that make it difficult to submit large batches of images at once. In order for your shots to have any chance of being seen among the myriad of competing imagery, you will need to caption and keyword your shots well.
For example, if you have a shot of the Houses of Parliament in London, simply putting that with a few other keywords will not lead to your image being found by potential buyers. You will need to research each and every shot, adding a minimum of 20 topical and relevant keywords for your shot to stand a chance of selling. It is tedious, time-consuming work, and only the dedicated will stick it out.
Myth four is that, once you are up and running with a good, diverse collection, you will make good money. Unfortunately, this is entirely untrue. For the most part, microstock agencies are selling your photos for as little as a dollar at a time. Some will only give you 5% of that dollar. So even if your best images are selling multiple times, you will need each one to sell ten times to make a dollar on each.
Beyond that, in the fine print when you signed up, you will often find that there is a minimum payout clause. This means you will not receive any money until you reach that minimum. For many, it can take years to reach that sum; in the meantime, the agency has that money in their bank account, earning interest. Whilst this may not sound much on $100 or less, multiply that by the tens of thousands of photographers in the same position, and you will see that microstocks are potentially making huge money purely on your commissions.
As you can see, the realities of microstock photography are that, while it is possible to sell photos online and make money, you will need to work very hard, submit a large and diverse portfolio, and wait a considerable amount of time before you see any return on your investment.