03 Jul 2008 10 Reasons Why Professional Photographers Often Struggle with Microstock

The microstock market is getting a lot of attention and large numbers are starting to be published in relation to contributor earnings. Many professional photographers expect that it must be easy for them to compete with hobbyists, and for non-stock professional photographers it’s an opportunity to make use of skills, equipment and time to generate some additional revenue – an opportunity that was previously prohibitively difficult.

Naturally many professional photographers flourish in the microstock market, but it’s common to hear tales of frustration and dismay from professional photographers trying microstock for the first time. Their applications are often rejected and so are photos they submit to agencies that don’t require an application. Additionally, many who pass the applications are disappointed with their sales and earnings. Here are 10 possible reasons for these experiences.

1. Microstock agencies review 100,000 images a week

Microstock is a high volume business and can’t employ experienced photo editors to carefully inspect each image. At agencies where reviewers aren’t on-site staff they’re usually remotely located and paid just a few cents for each inspected image. Professional photographers are likely to be more knowledgeable and experienced than the reviewer.

A structured set of rules enables them to quickly reject images with the click of a button. This set of rules is long and often very different to what professional photographers are accustomed to strive for in their work. Professional photographers subsequently receive rejections for images that would be considered outstanding in other photography markets.

2. Images must be omni-purpose

Professional photographers know how they need to shoot to satisfy their clients. Microstock images could be used for any purpose so they need to be technically perfect. Non-stock professional photographers such as journalistic photographers and portrait photographers, can find this frustrating when they’re accustomed to concentrating on particular elements of photography rather than everything all at once.

3. There’s lots of competition

Microstock agencies get a lot of submissions and many have already built large portfolios. They can afford to be very selective about the images they accept. Even great images are often rejected if the agency already has too many of that subject or photos they consider to be superior. Professional photographers who shoot directly for clients are seldom accustomed to rejections or competing with other photographers.

4. Do you know who I am?

Even established stock photographers who are known in the macrostock market experience rejections in the microstock market. This can be frustrating when their name and reputation earns them instant respect with editors and buyers. However, most microstock reviewers don’t know industry celebrities, don’t have time to look them up, and usually aren’t even aware of who submitted the images they review.

5. Reviewers know your approval rating

While they have instructions on how to use it, reviewers see contributors’ approval rate when they review an image. If a professional photographer’s early submissions are poorly received for any of the other reasons in this list, they’re more likely to experience higher rejections than they would normally expect due to a low approval rating.

6. No keywording experience

Microstock is one of the few areas of photography where photographers are required to keyword their own images. Professional photographers who are successful with getting their images accepted can have weak sales due to inexperience with this particular task. Whey they start with microstock, hobbyist photographers need to learn many things that professional photographers already know, and keywording is just one of many that they naturally investigate and learn.

7. Nothing is perfect

With such high volumes and such a variety of reviewers, inconsistency is guaranteed. All the reasons in this list can be factors, but the imperfection of the system is always a contributor. Many agencies have checks and audits in place to improve consistency, and they help, but great stock photos are sometimes still rejected. Hobbyists generally have less to lose and more to gain from microstock, so they’re more likely to push through the imperfections of the system until they find success.

8. Lack of market knowledge

Professional photographers reporting difficulties with microstock often only try a single agency and focus on the low earnings per sale as the reason they’re not generating a meaningful income from microstock. Even if they do some research and register with one of the top selling agencies, they often abandon the idea after their application is rejected unaware that most photographers have their applications rejected the first time and there’s nothing personal about it. Additionally, the usual difficulties of a microstock beginner ensures their earnings don’t grow in the initial stages, providing no incentive to continue.

9. They submit snapshots

Many professional photographers maintain a perception of microstock as a market for amateur photos and they submit accordingly. Indeed there are many snapshots in the microstock market, but the quality standards are rising rapidly. It’s now extremely difficult to achieve success in the microstock market without high quality photos of high demand subjects.

10. They want microstock to fail

Microstock represents a threat to the lifestyles of many established professional photographers, both stock and otherwise. Whether consciously or not, many set out to prove microstock is unsustainable, impossible, unprofessional or simply not workable for serious photographers. This is easy to “prove” if you keyword your images poorly, contribute to too few agencies, or contribute snapshots. You’re always winning the games you’re playing, so what games are you playing?

What about you?

This article was inspired by a professional photographer friend of mine who asked for help trying microstock for the first time. I learned a lot seeing the experience from his perspective. Do you know a professional photographer who’s struggled with microstock?

If there are any other reasons you’ve experienced or heard, add them in the comments.

  • Mikhail Lavrenov
    Posted at 11:57h, 03 July Reply

    While there was a very heavy critique towards microstock from photo professionals a couple of years ago, I see more and more professionals stepping into microstock. Many of them are quite successful. So I think it would be interesting to look at such examples in your future posts.

    However many photo professionals continue complaining about microstock. I think the points you made is a good reflection of not-so-professional attitude from them to their attempt to entry into microstock. As you mentioned in your point 10 such kind of photo professionals just want to prove their own statement about microstock being evil.

    I believe that experienced, established and successful photo professionals will always succeed in microstock if they take it really seriously.

  • Antonio D'Albore
    Posted at 12:39h, 03 July Reply

    Hi Lee,

    I don’t know how your friend is working but for me, moving from traditional RM agencies to microstock, was plain and straight.
    For me, whatever the client is, image quality and fine tuned workflow is a must.
    Of course, I dedicate a lot of time studying, making experiments, investing in new technologies and keeping me informed at the edge of what is necessary to be up-to-date.
    I believe that is responsibility of each photographer to challenge ourselves toward continuously improvement in style, techniques and fresh ideas.


    Antonio D’Albore

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:20h, 04 July Reply

      Hi Antonio,

      It sounds like you did a lot of smart research, which is obviously the key.

      My friend shoots editorial (sports and entertainment) and portraits (music industry) and as he himself pointed out to me, there are few media publications left that are serious about the quality of the photos they publish.

      It’s definately not a lack of knowledge or skill on his behalf, but those rock concert photos are certainly sell to magazines with a lot more noise than would pass in other parts of the market, including microstock. He’s often shooting at ISO 1600 with his D3 and is delighted with how “little” noise there is.

      I also like what you say about challenging ourselves, though I’d suggest it’s more of a competitive advantage rather than a responsibility. 😉


      • Antonio D'Albore
        Posted at 05:16h, 05 July Reply

        Ok Lee, now i understand and agree that should be tough for your friend! Being specialised in a market where the final use of the picture is printed paper (and is NOT architecture or art magazine…) it’s a matter of fact that the focus for publisher/photo editor is purely content not noise or other techy stuff.

        Perhaps the key to be able to grasp and become successfully in both micro and macro is to have two different mental approach to the shoot. While on macrostock you must have eye to catch the moment in macrostock you must ‘visualize’ the final result and do whenever is necessary to achieve it.

        Although easy to say on paper, I realize, this is not easy to be put in practice…


        Antonio D’Albore

  • Matt Antonino
    Posted at 12:57h, 03 July Reply

    “Do you know a professional photographer who’s struggled with microstock?”

    OOH ME ME!!!

    My first few YEARS of microstock were terrible. I hated it – I was making 6 figures in photography and couldn’t get more than 7/20 accepted at Shutterstock in any one batch. Your list is fairly accurate on my issues with the transition:

    1) Feeling like I knew more than the reviewers.
    2) “Noise” is something photographers in the field deal with – it happens. At a wedding, you don’t use ISO 100. It’s pretty much suicide to stay on ISO 100 the whole day.
    3) Going from “well lit” to “perfectly lit” is a challenge I still deal with, daily. I want to make 100% perfect images and it doesn’t happen … yet.

    As far as “Do you know who I am?!” that’s definitely something I ENJOY about this business. In the wedding industry, people “know” me. I gave myself a challenge to see if that was related to one thing that happened (someone who became a good friend of mine is a super-high-end photographer) or whether that was related to me. I wanted a “second chance” to build up some sort of name & credibility and see who I was, I guess. 🙂

    Great article – I know a lot of pros who are getting into microstock and I’ll definitely direct them to this post to show them what to expect!


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:25h, 04 July Reply

      Too late Matt! You’re already known in the microstock market! You can’t be loud and be everywhere like you are without expecting people not to recognize your name. 😉

      Thanks for your contribution – nice comment. I forgot you were previously a non-micro pro… such is your fame in microstock!


  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 13:59h, 04 July Reply

    Great Lee, but maybe one side view. On the other hand imagine some typical microstocker moving to macrostock – they are very likely to completely fail. You will very soon discover that image quality isnt made by “zero noise/artifacts” and that you must put much more into your work to succeed. Microstock is only very small part of the whole photography art and business and of course when you move to another area of it, the rules change dramatically.

    Ive personally started with direct contracts and later tried also macrostock agency. Cant say I do great in microstock but after nearly 2 years shooting for macrostock agency I did pass SS on the first try, however IS was another story. The main problem is “artifacts/noise” and this really makes me sick. I completely agree with that “knowing too much” – sometimes I think the editor must be kidding;) Still keeping acceptance at SS about 85% and IS + DT slightly over 60%:)

    Maybe the other problem is completely different business strategy, you need large portfolio and not too specific. Some topics (eg minerals, tropical orchids or whatever too specified) will not generate proper income just because there is not wide public buying them. And you MUST keep uploading, once you stop, the income decreases drastically. Not so bad at IS but images at SS “die” very fast. You must keep both quality and high quantity. Good technical quality + high quantity of average pics will generally earn much more then small portfolio of super pics with seldom uploads.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:29h, 04 July Reply

      Thanks Zbynek, I wouldn’t dream of commenting on the ‘other side’ until I had some experience there, so naturally my view is one sided. Thanks for contributing a little of perspective that I don’t have.


  • Perry
    Posted at 10:49h, 05 July Reply

    11. For a professional it’s ahrd to compete with those who work for free. Anyone submitting work to micros should really count their real RPI (including expenses). They’d propably earn more flipping burgers. I have no idea why anyone would want to work for free, shooting boring isolated objects can’t be that much fun.

    12. Majority of the reviewers have no idea or experiences of real world printing. I’d choose an tack-sharp image with great colors and tonality and a bit of noise over an soft and oversaturated – but noiseless photo with blown-out highlights any day.

    13. “Too many” rejections are really hard to take when your work is much better than those on the site already.

    14. Microstock sites generally prefer over-clean, bland, tacky and kitschy images.

    • Paul
      Posted at 03:30h, 13 November Reply

      After a few weeks experience of micro after many years in RM and Macro RF I can’t help but agree that the micro sites have pretty stringent technical requirements…but the same cannot be said of their aesthetic requirements.

      It seems to me that each new site that appears is soon overrun by the same images that can be downloaded from any of them…then after a while the big producers step in, or are paid an incentive to place images, and flood the site with tens of thousands of what are basically similar images…then what difference is there between the micro sites save a never ending spiral of competition on pricing…which is inevitably driven lower.

      I can’t really see the point of producing specifically for micro at their price points…but am starting to make good money from out takes and model tests that I get a release for.

      What is needed is for mid stock to gain a foothold, preferably with exclusive images that cannot be bought at flea market prices from the mainstream micro sites.

  • Dole
    Posted at 06:59h, 07 July Reply


    could it be that you forgot the most important reason? For being successful in Microstock you need to think of yourself as an assembly line worker working in your own factory.

    You know better than me that Microstock requires a very structured, disciplined approach were a high output of cliché images is key while too much creativity and risk taking is more of a hindrance.

    Mediocrity is not every bodies cup of tea.

    • Christopher Futcher
      Posted at 04:24h, 19 April Reply

      Hmm, I shoot a lot of microstock and haven’t really thought of myself as an assembly line worker but I guess there are some similarities. Basically, I think of a shoot that sounds fun and and think will sell, shoot it, process it, and upload it.

      For me it started as a way to have fun and make a few dollars but turned into enough to support my family comfortably even if I completely stopped taking clients.

      I’m working toward a more professional look so I’d really like to see your (Dole) portfolio so I can see what professionalism is.

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