29 Feb 2012 10 Ways to Spot a Dodgy Microstock Agency

I often hear from photographers who’ve been burned by some microstock agency. I sometimes refer them to my post on evaluating new microstock agencies, but it doesn’t always apply or cover the specifics of their situation. I’ve considered writing a Black List a few times, but the maintenance and legal implications are pretty scarey.

Instead, I figured it would be more useful to make a clear list of what to look out for when considering your microstock distribution. There’s always some tell-tale signs that, when you know what to look for, tell you when when to run away.

So here’s my list of the most obvious 10 ways to identify dubious microstock agencies. If you use any that I haven’t listed, add them in the comments below.

1. Unprofessional Website Design

A serious microstock agency will always have a professional website design. Always.

This is always the quickest and most reliable way to tell a professional microstock agency from a backyard job.

Not everyone can instantly tell what’s professional and what isn’t.   I’ve seen some very successful microstockers compliment the website design of agencies that actually had horrible design.

So look for consistency and clarity in the site design.   If it looks like Facebook in 2004, or gives you that “it’s just so 1980” feeling, then it’s not professional.

2. They’re Anonymous

I covered this in that other post, but it’s crucial to have it on this list.

It’s so easy to make online businesses anonymous these days. But do you really want to send your photo portfolio to a company where the owner doesn’t want to give you his/her name?

If they don’t name the owner and/or manager on the website and you can’t find any listing for employees on LinkedIn, don’t submit.

Anonymous agencies almost always have something to hide, and they’re probably hiding it from you because you wouldn’t submit if you knew. Until they can be open about who they are, leave them on the dodgy list.

3. Missing or Copied Legal Agreements

Creating proper legal agreements is a boring and expensive part of creating a new microstock agency.

A license agreement and contributor agreement are crucial, and it’s better if they also have separate terms of service and/or general user agreement.

A few agencies have launched without them, saying “we’ll take care of that later”. That’s a sure sign that they’re cutting corners.   So where else are they going to cut corners? Security of your files? Generating sales?

No legals, no submit!

The same goes for those legal agreements that seem oddly familiar, i.e. copied from another agency.

4. Requires Payment to Submit

Some companies require contributors to pay to submit photos. This can work at traditional pricing levels, but not in microstock.

Businesses that charge for submissions often see contributors as customers and so have less need to seek buyers. Yet buyers are the only thing that can make submission profitable for the contributors.

Such agencies are also inclined to accept poor quality photos with little chance of ever selling because that’s how they earn their money. But photos that never sell don’t help the contributor.

If a microstock agency isn’t willing to risk the cost of reviewing and hosting your photos, don’t risk the time to submit to them.

5. Nobody Else is There

stock photo of an empty waiting roomSerious microstock agencies directly recruit the top microstockers before they launch, or shortly after.

As top microstockers know what to look for and have the resources to investigate thoroughly, they generally don’t submit to dodgy agencies.

So you can safely assume that agencies who have successfully recruited a few microstock superstars are serious and dependable. They often also promote the famous contributors to attract others.

A quick image search will reveal the quality of content the agency already has and reveal any top microstockers who are already online. If the quality is low and you don’t recognize any contributors, it’s most likely not in your interests to be there either.

6. No Reputation, or Poor Reputation

A professional microstock agency that can generate worthwhile sales will have an established online reputation.

A quick Google search for the name of the company, perhaps with the keyword “review”, will reveal what you need to know.

Getting reviews on microstock blogs isn’t difficult, especially if the agency has an affiliate program (always a good idea anyway).

So if there’s no reviews, or the reviews are negative or only fluff reviews, chances are it’s best to avoid the agency.   At least until their reputation improves, which will happen if they start generating worthwhile sales volume.

7. Poor Responsiveness

Another quick and easy test for a microstock agency is to send them a question. You’ll learn a lot about the agency from whether or not they respond,   how quickly they respond, and what they say in the response.

Naturally if there’s no response, chances are the agency won’t be there to help you if you have problems with their site or your photos.

The quality of the response is also critical. Did you get a canned response, or did they actually read your question and respond appropriately.

No response, or a poor quality one, is a sign that the agency isn’t on top of their business and most likely isn’t in a position to provide you with a profitable contributor relationship.

8. Competing on Price

This one is quite ironic if you know the history of the stock photography market.

The microstock business model itself drastically undercut the existing market when digital photography and Internet distribution made it possible.

But today there’s an established market price in microstock that works for photographers who know how to shoot cost effectively, and works for the many microstock agencies who know how to sell online.

Still, it’s not uncommon for new and small microstock agencies who have nothing new in their business model to try to complete on price, drastically undercutting the market (a slight discount is common and not usually a negative sign)

But continual increases in prices at top microstock agencies over the years have proven that buyers are more interested in the quality of the content and finding photos quickly than they are in price.   A new microstock agency whose only selling proposition is that they’re cheaper clearly doesn’t understand the market.

Until they do, they’re unlikely to generate a level of sales that makes it profitable to contribute.

9. Missing Vital Functionality

Any microstock agency that doesn’t have FTP upload, IPTC data extraction and a release library doesn’t know the market and is unprepared.

And “we’ve only just started” is never an acceptable excuse. It’s code for “we’re working on things that help our profitability before the things that help your profitability.”

For contributors, uploading and submitting is a cost. Agencies which don’t implement basic technical functions to keep that cost to a minimum can’t make submitting profitable for contributors

That is, of course, unless they have the selling power of iStockphoto – the only top microstock agency without FTP and a release library.   But I recommend being especially cautious of any agency that claimed to have that!

10. Won’t Accept Bulk Submissions

Most new and smaller microstock agencies will accept bulk submissions.

This means receiving a portfolio on a hard drive in the post, with a spreadsheet to match the releases.

Today, only the top few agencies remain unwilling to do this.

So any agency which refuses to accept bulk submissions is either uninformed or unprepared.

Those are two characteristics a company needs if they’re going to provide you with a safe and profitable contributing experience.

How do You Spot a Suspect or Doubtful Microstock Agency?

I have some more indicators that mean more to me than others, such as whether they purchased my research report (the price weeds out the less serious) and whether they attended Microstock Expo.

But what about you?   How do you evaluate the legitimacy of a microstock agency?

  • Amos
    Posted at 13:01h, 29 February Reply

    What a great post (again) and i must say you are right in most of the points (if not all). I think most of the starters are endangered to get “trapped” by agencies described above. As a professional stock producer you should have your own checklist for new agencies.

  • Jean-Marie
    Posted at 01:28h, 02 March Reply

    Lee, to the point as usual. I will add the promise of (abnormal for the industry) high commission rates. But as the market evolute, there should be place for new comers (Photodune for example).

    Maybe you could add that if these new agencies are not present ay the Microstock Expo, then NO contributor should trust these agencies 🙂 LOL

    • Jeff
      Posted at 18:37h, 02 March Reply

      At least I was at PACA 🙂

      Good article and one to take to heart.

  • Cory
    Posted at 01:10h, 05 March Reply

    It’s funny. I always thought some of the best selling micros were the worst looking sites. A lot of them have improved in their site aesthetics over the years though, but they still aren’t going to win any awards. 😉

    Really though, there is no way to be safe from any agency. Agreements change, promises are broken and reputations change. You just have to do as much research as you can and hope for the best.

  • Zbynek Burival
    Posted at 03:27h, 05 March Reply

    The problem is WHAT is pro design? I build website myself and what “graphic designers” consider “pro” and “modern” I often consider absolutely bad. They often think too much about “great look” and forget about usability. IStock is a clear example – typical “modern design” but full of bugs, very difficult to navigate, absolutely unfriendly. That is site I consider VERY unprofessional for example. I see everyone making projects online today just to squeeze some more money – many of them have “modern” or “pro” design. And 90% of that is bullshit – no value for customer. So better study exact conditions, agreements, reputation and you will see. Design is very very tricky thing, usually made to look nice for the customer/contributor…

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 10:29h, 05 March Reply

      Yep, as I said, it’s quite subjective, and even the experts differ in opinion.

      To make it clear, here’s a comparison:


      One of those has a design that’s unprofessional due to lack of effort and professionalism. The other is extremely thoroughly tested for usability.

      I believe that’s pretty clear. I’m not trying to suggest anyone try to tell the difference in professionalism between iStock and Shutterstock for example. Those are minor differences. But the example above shows the point I’m trying to make, and I’m confident you’ll agree with me on those specifics.

      While I agree with you about iStock’s bugs, I can’t agree with you about the design. I was a full time web designer too, and I believe iStock’s current design is among the best in our industry. Just unfortunately still full of bugs.

      • Cory
        Posted at 01:36h, 07 March Reply

        LOL. Does that mean Pixmac is a wolf in sheep’s clothing? I can’t say I know the whole story (or even ever got it), but I definitely remember the bad reputation they got for some of their practices.

        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 11:01h, 07 March Reply

          Fair enough, but I ‘do’ know the whole story, and despite making some mistakes (like everyone else) Pixmac is solid agency with good intentions.

          But back on topic, Pixmac’s design is pleasing to professional designers who are the biggest buyers of stock photography. The other example provided would turn most professional designers away.

  • rodho
    Posted at 03:11h, 08 March Reply

    Good article!
    Alternative,view the Internet Traffic Stats in Alexa or Google.For a Suspect or Doubtful Microstock Agency, something must be poor in Stats.

  • Dimitar
    Posted at 14:56h, 29 April Reply

    Lee, have you deserted us? There hasn’t been a post over some time now. You must be very busy working on the next important batch series of photos. Love your posts, they bring reason/enlightenment to the world of micro stock fog.

    Best regards,

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:32h, 30 April Reply

      Hi Dimitar, thanks for your concern. I’ve been dealing with some personal stuff this year so my posting frequency has dropped lower than my already low standards. I have a few posts coming through in the coming weeks and I hope to resume a more regular rate of posting after that. Thanks for sticking with me!

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