17 Aug 2007 How to Get Accepted as a Microstock Contributor

Yes, ArfoAt some microstock agencies you need to have a sample of your work evaluated to be approved as a contributing photographer or illustrator. They do this to maintain the quality of their portfolio. They also need to protect themselves from spending too much time and resources reviewing submissions from photographers whose photos aren’t yet commercial quality.

I’ve seen professional photographers with 20 years experience rejected by microstock agencies. There’s plenty of reasons why this happens regularly. Don’t underestimate the evaluation. It’s not easy.

I’m a hobbyist photographer and when I first started I had very little experience. I had to work harder than most to get through the process. I was rejected 3 times at iStockphoto, rejected twice at Shutterstock and rejected once at StockXpert. Here’s what I’ve learned from these experiences.

Wait Until You’re Ready

Maybe you just completed your photography degree. Maybe you just got your first digital SLR camera. Maybe you just discovered microstock. Whatever your situation, do some research and planning before jumping in. Why? Some agencies enforce a ‘training period’ if you’re rejected. At Shutterstock you need to wait a month before reapplying after a rejected application.

Apply with Technically Good Photos

If you don’t know how to spot noise, know workable composition and understand exposure, don’t apply. If you want to make any respectable amount of money with microstock, these are things you’re going to need to know very well. Resist the temptation to jump right in with what you’ve got if you don’t know if it’s good or not. The Internet is full of great resources to improve your knowledge of photography.

Apply with Commercial Photos

Do the research for what photos the microstock agencies are looking for and what they don’t want. Start with my post about what not to submit. If you apply with the same old images the agencies see all the time, you’re far less likely to be accepted. Give them some exciting and original photos they’d love to have in their portfolio.

Be Realistic

You think it’s simple, but this is the most difficult part. Unless you’re an experienced professional photographer, you are the worst person to judge the quality of your own images. Get opinions from people who know about photography. Don’t ask your partner or your mother. People who love you are not a good choice – they’re biased. If you can’t find any professional photographers or graphic designers, find some photography forums where you can upload your photos and have them reviewed by (mostly) knowledgeable strangers.

Test the Market

Not all agencies require you to submit examples of your work. Take advantage of this and contribute a few of your best photos to see what gets accepted, and if so, how it sells. You’ll quickly get a feeling for the quality of your photos and how they fair in the microstock market.

Don’t Make Rejection Mean Anything

We humans have an amazing capacity to take a piece of information and make it mean all sorts of other things. It rarely does. If your application is rejected, it does NOT mean:

  • the reviewer doesn’t know what they’re talking about
  • it’ll never work / I can’t do it
  • your photos are crap
  • that agency is crap
  • microstock is crap!
  • you’re a bad photographer

Here’s what is does mean:

That agency doesn’t consider those particular photos as an appropriate example of the images they’re looking for at this time.

Many great photographers – and ‘potentially great’ photographers – have, and will continue to, deprive themselves of a rewarding and highly passive source of income by making the rejection mean something it doesn’t mean. Use the advice in this post, use the advice in your feedback from the agency, improve your photography, and re-apply.

  • jhbeard
    Posted at 12:28h, 17 August Reply

    IStockPhoto reject feedback helped me a lot. Although I have been a photographer for a while, I didn’t really know what artifacts were or how to prevent them. Also I need to pay more attention to the focal plane and and try to go for a safer smaller aperture when possible.

    good stuff, and as you said, objective criticism is hard to find.

  • wim van es
    Posted at 18:41h, 04 November Reply


    Well, as my three images were rejected by Istock today, I luckily stumbled on your article…great article that exactly describes the first emotional reactions when the images are “subpar”… I also was inspired by your way of dealing with it.

    Keep up yor good blog,


    Wim van Es
    The Netherlands

  • newtothis
    Posted at 19:15h, 10 August Reply

    Thanks for your site, it is quite useful! I have a question about camera-type — I have a Panasonic DMC-LZ5 6MP camera. A lot of the microstock sites I see require at least 4MP images, some only 2.5MP, so I meet the MP qualification, but my camera is not a DSLR camera. My question is, is this camera OK to submit photos to microstock agencies with? I know mostly everyone has a DSLR these days, but I simply can’t afford one right now, and was wondering if I would be wasting my time trying to submit with this camera. I submitted some images to Photoshelter (which I know is a macro-stock agency) and as you might imagine, was wholly-rejected.

    Thanks in advance!

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 23:16h, 10 August Reply

      Hi there,

      Yes, you’re going to struggle with that camera. While it’s definately possible to get some great shots from non SLR cameras, it’s much more difficult to create what microstock (and macrostock) agencies are seeking. Standards are rising fast, so while many of us were lucky enough to get started in microstock with non SLR cameras, it’s almost impossible to do so now.

      Low end DSLR cameras are now very affordable and you can usually find good second hand DSLR cameras even cheaper. Also, don’t presume that once you have a DSLR camera that the expenses will stop. Producing profitable stock photos requires ongoing spending, so find a way to justify the expenses if you’re serious about entering this market.

      Good luck!


      • newtothis
        Posted at 00:44h, 11 August Reply

        I was afraid you would say that! 🙁 Thanks so much for your quick response though. I guess it is off to Amazon, eBay or Craigslist to see what I can find to break into the market!

  • ervstock
    Posted at 11:27h, 12 August Reply

    I’d like someone here to talk about artifacts and filtering. I’ve had many images rejected by iStock because of these issues.
    The cameras I use are Canon 20D and a PhaseOne H25. After taking the image, I do a certain amount of raw processing and then follow up with some retouching. I assume that is where my problem is. Could someone elaborate on these issues and how to avoid them?

    Also, following the last post I thought I would ask about the Canon G9. I’ve been considering buying this camera as an upgrade to my point and shoot only, but was wondering if microstock sites would consider images from this camera.
    It is 12mp and you can shoot in the RAW format. Any thoughts?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 13:33h, 12 August Reply

      Hi Ervstock,

      Thanks for your question, but I leave technical photography stuff to those more qualified. Rasmus has one of the better resources for technical aspects related to microstock, plus you can get great technical advice on the agency information pages and forums (just be sure to read around thoroughly before posting as they sometimes get too many new threads about technical issues).

      I hope that helps, and good luck!


  • Adam Loewen
    Posted at 00:40h, 11 December Reply


    Just stumbled upon you site, its great! I’ve been using iStock for a while and just joined with Fotolia and Shutterstock. For the initial ten images I submitted to Shutterstock I used my best selling images from iStock… and they all got rejected. Fotolia accepted them too. This seemed strange to me. Is Shutterstock looking for very different images than its counterparts?



    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 01:05h, 11 December Reply

      Hey Adam,

      You’re not alone with this experience. Just keep trying. It’s actually a smart strategy to use the best selling photos from one site to apply to another, so I recommend continuing to do that. Keep in mind that it’s actually very uncommon for someone to get accepted at Shutterstock on the first applications these days, as far as I hear. Don’t take it personally, and keep applying. If they accept some shots, use them with the next application, but don’t be surprised if the same shots get rejected on the second attempt!

      What you can add to your strategy is a little research about what sells well on Shutterstock in particular. Maybe you have some photos in your portfolio which are more suited to what works for Shutterstock. All agencies want the same photos – photos that sell well – so it’s more a case of the luck of the reviewer who gets your account each time. That’s just the way it is.

      Good luck!

  • Lorenzo Reffo
    Posted at 06:53h, 02 October Reply

    Many thanks for sharing these helpful informations, I just approached to a microstock site and probably I was going to do what you mentioned. I think I’ll wait a while, I’ll try to test the market with other platforms and then get back to it (that is actually the site where I want to be selling photos)

  • aladinooo
    Posted at 18:31h, 20 October Reply

    Thanks for the info especially the last part where you discussed how human emotions can interfere with clear judgement.

    All the best for you

  • Bob Kane
    Posted at 01:21h, 14 July Reply

    I spent a lot of time looking over what has already been accepted by iStockphoto. What I saw was very disappointing. Many photographs accepted by them were snapshot quality, virtually identical to others even though this is against their policy, and void of quality and imagination. Yet my own photos were rejected time and time again. BTW, I get praises from my fellow photographers. What they accept seems more arbitrary than logical.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 01:31h, 14 July Reply

      Hi Bob, thanks for your comment. Your experience is a common one. Due to the high volume nature of the microstock model, reviews are based almost entirely on technical issues, leaving the ‘commercial’ aspects of the photo as relatively unimportant. It’s not very logical, but that’s the only way it can work when an agency receives upwards of 500,000 submissions a month – they can’t afford to pay the kind of people who can judge a photo based on commercial aspects.

      And a lesson that has taken me a while to learn has been that fellow photographers are the least useful people to listen to. They’ll always say nice things. Instead, we must listen to the buyers by way of the download statistics. What you say about the unimaginative content in microstock is absolutely correct – and notice how few, if any, sales such photos accrue. If you expect to sell a lot of photos in microstock, you must produce what buyers buy or adjust your expectations if you want to shoot what ‘you’ want to shoot.

      Microstock can be brutal in teaching these lessons and many of us get very discouraged (I haven’t submitted anything for almost three years!), but that’s how it works. For us contributors, we either have to do what works in microstock, or do something else. Brutal, but that’s the reality of this business.


  • Glyn
    Posted at 03:17h, 20 July Reply

    Hi Lee, I found your article extremely useful so thank you for sharing your info. I signed up with an agency in the beginning of this year and after I reached the required 50 uploaded images I decided to go exclusive. This decision I am beginning to regret so I am thinking about going with multiple sites after my required 6 months exlusivity time period is up.. My question to you is I want to start joining other sites so I am ready to upload once I cancel my exclusivity, but I am concerned that most sites require as you said samples of your work. If your work is accepted and you then become a accepted member of the site are these sample pictures put on your portfolio? As being a exclusive member I am not allowed to have pictures for sale on other sites. Obvioulsy I want to join the leading sites but are there any European sites? Many thanks, Glyn

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 20:56h, 23 July Reply

      At Shutterstock your test images are automatically approved, but most other agencies simply discard them. Either way it’s not difficult to just deactivate them once they’re approved, or in the case of Shutterstock just deactivate your account (“Opt out of Shutterstock” in your account settings). With this opt-out option you can actually upload your entire portfolio and then simply activate it once your exclusivity obligations expire.

  • Tino
    Posted at 06:30h, 04 September Reply

    Hi Lee, after we got accepted as a contributor. Could we still submit the 10 portfolio we used for applying?
    Thank you, Tino.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 10:01h, 04 September Reply

      Yes, Tino, you can still submit them. At Shutterstock they automatically become part of your portfolio so you don’t need to re-submit them (at least that’s how it worked years ago – it may have changed).

  • jayv
    Posted at 07:58h, 05 September Reply

    I have portfolio at dreamstime but not very significant sale.


    Kindly have look and suggest me. Should I turn to different microstock agency. What is your opinion about age fototstock.

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