What Buyers Know About Microstock Photography

Browse the images on a few microstock sites and any photographer who knows anything about apertures, lighting and composition will start to feel that they’re looking at a golden opportunity. When a single image can be downloaded a couple of thousand times on one site — and the same image offered on a range of different sites, creating many more downloads, and a great deal of income — microstock can look like a very easy way for anyone with a camera to earn some extra money.horserider.jpg

It can be. In fact it can be even more than that. Yuri Arcus (who we profiled here) for example, has turned microstock into a small business employing twelve people. But few microstock photographers are that successful. That’s because like any business, to make large sums of money, you have to have a strategy, you have to know what you’re doing — and you have to do it all right.

That starts with the image. Unlike hobby photography, microstock isn’t solely about creating beautiful photos. It’s about creating photos that sell. While that’s true of all forms of professional photography, unlike photographers who shoot on assignment, the microstock photographer has to try to second-guess the market. He or she has to know what people — usually designers — want to buy. And that’s rarely just a nice shot of a flower. It can help then to have experience as a photo buyer as well as a photo seller.

“Being a previous buyer has been vital in my journey as a stock photographer,” Andres Rodriguez, a top-selling microstock photographer based in London, told us. “I ‘grew up’ as a designer so I always had an eye for stock images rather than artistic photographs.”

For Andres, who uploads at least 500 images a month — and receives an impressive 30,000 downloads in the same period — that means spending time doing research and examining the work of other photographers in a search for inspiration — and a guide to what sells.

“I do enjoy looking at other photos and I make sure I take notes on why [each picture] was used and what I like about it: for example, colors, context, which magazine it appeared in, composition, angle, DOF, lighting etc.,” Andres says about his work process. The next stage is to add a bit of his own magic. “Creativity and imagination play an important role in stock photography since the subjects that sell are around us every day.”

Lee Torrens, a web designer, has also that found his experience as a photography buyer has been helpful in creating the images that he and his partner have been selling sporadically for the last two years.

“We’ve realized that simplicity is more valuable than a complex composition,” he said. “We’ve realized that buyers can, and usually prefer, to do the creative post-processing themselves. We’ve learnt about including copy space in your composition. We’ve discovered that higher resolution images sell better and sell for more. Most of all, we’ve discovered that good stock tells a story with a picture. Objects are fine, but most buyers want to convey a message with their images.”

Lee has also found that keyword tagging is easier than it looks (“Strong images have an obvious theme, so it’s not difficult. We also search for other images with the keywords we’ve already identified. From these results we look for common keywords that we’ve missed.”); that nicheing can lower costs, improve focus and increase brand awareness; and that it pays to upload to multiple microstock sites.

“Excepting special circumstances, you’re never going to make more money being exclusive than contributing to multiple agencies,” Lee explained. “Therefore, exclusivity is only for people who use microstock for exposure or those who are time poor.”

That’s a lot of ingredients going into one sellable image — and one home-based photography business. It’s a mixture of creativity, technical skill and market awareness, all of which are necessary to make microstock photography profitable.

But it’s the story encapsulated in a single image that seems to be the difference between an image that sells and one that sits on a microstock site barely seen. And that’s something requires a lot more than a camera, an Internet connection and a desire to earn some extra spending money.

“Getting into stock photography can be very profitable but you get what you put in,” Andres said. “It is not easy to make money, you need lots of talent and hours of work.”

And images that sell.

Photo of Horse and Rider by Lee Torrens available on iStockPhoto.

[tags] microstock photography [/tags]

4 comments for this post.

  1. Paul Said:

    Good info but I must be missing something here. The Horse and Rider image on IS is Flavia Bottazzini's, not Lee Torrens'. And it has zero downloads. May be a good idea for a blog about images that sell to use an example image that has some sales. (?)

  2. Fred Voetsch Said:

    While I believe that micro will be a big part of stock photography in the future, one should consider that micro will be more and more pressured by price while there will always be a market for much higher priced and more exclusive photography.

  3. Todd Said:

    Great writeup and interviews here. Coming from a fellow full time microstocker, I agree with everything mentioned here 100%.

  4. Fotosíntesis Said:

    If Andrés R is so successful, I guess he wouldn´t want to loose his image and credibility... But he just "sponsored" a photocontest in Colombia, and he hasn´t payed to the person who won the the prize (me), and hasn´t answered or even sent an e-mail. So, what is success about? is it just about earning money? or being honest and living with principles? I hope to hear from Andrés soon, otherwise I will let the media know what´s going on. Thankyou.

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