08 Sep 2009 Are You a Quality Microstocker Or a Quantity Microstocker?

Quantity versus Quality stock photoMost microstockers figure out the relationship between quality and quantity early in their careers.   All microstock superstars certainly did.

Success in microstock requires that you learn how to consistently create high quality (high selling) stock photos before you increase your volume of production.

That’s not to say that you can’t earn any amount of money in microstock by simply producing average quality photos in high volume. You can, in theory. But, if you’re one of the many microstockers out to make a million in microstock, would you prefer to do it with a portfolio of 10,000 photos or 100,000 photos? Which do you think would be more work? Which do you think you could achieve sooner? Which do you think would be more rewarding?

At the UGCX conference earlier this year, CEO, James West, stated that the two top earning Alamy photographers had massive differences in portfolio size. One focused intensely on quality, crafting each image carefully, and had a relatively small portfolio. The other used what James referred to as ˜the machine gun approach’, with a very large portfolio and less attention paid to quality. They generated similar amounts of revenue.

How Can You Figure Out Quality in Microstock?

The market has all the information you need. You just need to look. Microstock agencies all allow search results to be sorted by quantity of sales, enabling you to see what sells. Many also provide lists of top selling photos and statistics on how well individual contributors are performing.

Once you’ve used the market to figure out all the different aspects that make photos sell well, you can use the market again to test your research.   Create some photos based on what you found worked, upload them, and see how well they sell.   Within just a few days the market will tell you what works and what doesn’t.   Use this feedback to refine what you create and test again.

How do you Know When You’ve Achieved Quality?

The generally agreed benchmark earnings in microstock is one dollar per photo per month.   If your new photos are earning less than that, then you know your quality is below average.   Top microstockers Yuri Arcurs and Andres Rodriguez both have a monthly Return per Image (RPI) between $5 and $10.   Their RPI stays in that range during slow months, through rapid portfolio growth, and even with many of the photos in their portfolios more than four years old.

If you want to be a quality microstocker, you need to get your RPI consistently up above $1. If you’re happy being a quantity microstocker, then it doesn’t matter.

You can also compare your sell-through rates, your ‘Downloads per File’ ratio at Dreamstime, and your ‘Rank’ at Fotolia. The Downloads per Month statistics on your iStockphoto ‘My Uploads’ page is also a great indicator of quality in your portfolio.

I Figured it Out Too

Figuring this out is one of the reasons I haven’t been shooting or contributing new photos this year (I wasn’t one of the people who figured it out early). I can no longer bring myself to upload the same below-average photos that currently fill my portfolio.

One of the triggers to my understanding of the issue was when my new photos didn’t sell as well as they had in the past. While the quality of my shooting had improved marginally, the quality in the rest of the market had increased much more rapidly.

As microstock continues delivering photos of greater and greater quality, below-average photos will continue getting buried at the back of the search results, selling less and less. The high-volume game is rapidly losing its profitability.

For Some People Just Quality is Enough

Not everyone wants to be a microstock superstar. Not everyone wants to become a production machine either. And it’s certainly not a requirement for generating revenue or enjoying your microstock career. There’s no shortage of microstock portfolios with a relatively small number of photos and a massive number of sales.

Success in microstock can take many different forms, and you’re free to choose what works for you. But if you’re chasing superstar status, success will be considerably easier if you don’t raise the production volume before achieving a consistently high standard.

  • Luis Santos
    Posted at 18:15h, 08 September Reply

    Hi! You haven’t been shooting but the research and knowledge is with you 🙂
    I am trying to create something new, but sometimes I upload more and more, more than the ones that I have done for stock!.. It isn’t easy, because I think, this one will sell quite good, and that other maybe, and sometimes it came completely the opposite… I am getting better (technical and creatively) but can’t get ride of this “way of thinking”..!

    Thanks for your grown up post! 🙂

  • Andreas Karelias
    Posted at 19:52h, 08 September Reply

    Dear Lee,

    Excellent article once again, and congratulations on your overall work once again.

    I have one question though. When you say one dollar per photo per month, do you mean from each stock agency that a particular image has been uploaded to, or from all agencies in total?

    Although I have recently enlarged my portfolio to 400 images after a suspension of uploading for six months, I have noticed that by far the highest percentage of my earnings comes from a handful of my old images. Obviously in microstock the 80-20 % rules also applies (that is 80% of the earnings come from 20% of the images) like the rest of business, however, I was hoping that the higher number of uploads would have helped. I have read that the more you upload the more you earn, but this has not been happening to me.

    Do you feel that the microstock market has recently changed, and irrespective of quality, the huge number of images that has been uploaded over the years somehow “squashes” new uploads?

    I would be very interested to see your views as well as your naswer to the question at the beginning of my message.

    Best regards and thanks in advance. – Andreas

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 20:42h, 08 September Reply

      Hey Andreas,

      Good to hear you’re getting back into the business. I remember the interesting experiences you shared here before. That return per image is from all agencies in total.

      Yes, the 80-20 rule applies in so many ways. The higher number of uploads will help in general, but there are many factors that affect it, including the time since you uploaded them, the length of the break before, but most importantly, the new photos you upload. Even the time of year, relative to the subjects of the photos you uploaded, will have an effect.

      That being said, there is definitely a ‘squashing’ in the market as both the total quality and quantity of photos rise. The opportunities are there, but they’re getting more and more difficult to catch. But it’s not so much a ‘recent’ change, but one that has been constant since the beginning, and probably increasing consistently too.

      I’d suggest you keep testing, trying to replicate the successes of your top photos. I’m not suggesting you re-shoot the same photos, but figure out why they sell well. As the article says, research and test, then repeat. Keep going for as long as you’re enjoying it or have hope of finding that sweet spot. If finding it was easy I’d have nothing to write about. 😉


  • Pius
    Posted at 22:41h, 08 September Reply

    Lee, I’ve taken the past couple days and read your entire website and I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I plan to enter the microstock market soon and you’ve given me an invaluable crash course on microstock. One of the big reasons I like this site more than others is your honesty and humility. Keep up the great work!

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 23:03h, 08 September Reply

      Hi Pius, I’m glad the blog has been of value to you. Yeah, humility is easier than pretending. Good luck with your microstock career!


      • Zai Aragon
        Posted at 05:48h, 11 September Reply

        Hey Lee and Pius,
        this is the first time I write a comment in your blog, even though I’ve been reading it for the whole summer.
        I’ve read everything you’ve written while I was working abroad, getting ready to start collaborating in microstock when I got home in Spain.
        Now I’m home (I got here last week) and I’ve finally signed up for iStockphoto and Shutterstock. I’m waiting for the review of my photos…
        I wouldn’t know what to do with my photos if it wasn’t for you, Lee.
        Thank you so much for keeping us posted on your findings and for being such an inspiration.


        • Lee Torrens
          Posted at 22:19h, 11 September Reply

          Good luck Zai! I’m glad the information has been helpful for you and thanks for your comment and kind words.


  • numbeos
    Posted at 02:47h, 09 September Reply

    Lee, I admire the guys in the market whose portfolios are not “too” big, but sell a lot since being full of quality images. This is what I prefer while building my portfolio. On the other, what realy makes me perplexed is some of the high selling contributors who like putting almost similar photos from each photo session. So, time to time I ask myself if I’m doing something wrong though it’s highly advised by Rasmus Rasmussen (istock inspector) that “Don’t upload more than one in ten images from the same shoot”…


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:00h, 09 September Reply

      Hi Murat, I think Rasmus’s advice is solid and I would follow it. The top sellers play a slightly different game, where numbers and exposure have more influence.


  • Sergio Hayashi
    Posted at 03:46h, 09 September Reply

    Excellent article!, thanks
    siempre utiles e interesantes todos tus articulos, yo creo que en general la mayoria de quienes somos amateurs, al iniciar en esto del microstock nos empeñamos en subir el mayor numero posible de imagenes sin poner mucho interes en la calidad y a medida que vamos adquiriendo mas experiencia y conociendo que vende y que no vende, nos vamos enfocando mas en la calidad y ya no tanto a la cantidad, yo apenas me inicio en la fotografia, espero seguir aprendiendo e irme enfocando un poco mas en la calidad

    (excuseme for write in spanish, te sirve para practicar tu español) 🙂


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:04h, 09 September Reply

      Hola Sergio, gracias por ayudame practicar mi castellano. Si, somos asi al inicio, aprendiendo y subiendo lo mas posible. Funcionava bastante bien antes, pero ahora hai que enfocar mas en caliadad, como decis vos.


  • Willie B. thomas
    Posted at 17:49h, 09 September Reply

    Very good points Lee.

  • Cory
    Posted at 19:01h, 10 September Reply

    Nice article, although I’m not sure if quality is the right word. It makes it sound like images that don’t sell aren’t good. Some of my favorite images never sell and some of my least interesting images sell all the time. I always wondered though if the really nice images that never sell work as loss leaders. They don’t have much of a use as stock, but they draw people into your portfolio to buy something that is more useful.

    Anyway, I think I’ve been a quantity guy lately, although I think a good mix is important.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 19:43h, 10 September Reply

      Hey Cory, I spent a bit of time considering whether ‘quality’ was the appropriate term, given the entire point of the article was about created more ‘high selling’ images. While we as photographers and illustrators have our own idea about what is “nice” or “quality”, it doesn’t always translate into a commercially successful image, which is what I’m suggest microstockers focus on if they’re interested in achieving high sales.


  • John
    Posted at 22:40h, 10 September Reply

    Dear Lee, Thanks for your excellent blog. I was also a little confused about the term “quality” in the above article, although I understood your message. However having studied the best sellers at the top sites its clear that the main selling attributes are usually;

    1/ Yes picture quality, which is a given, (they passed quality control, – and most are obviously by excellent photographers, – not snappers) 2/ The images have great commercial potential or usefulness as illustration for the targeted market/s 3/ They are usually very slick or simple in concept. (Clean and uncluttered.) 4/ Aesthetically appealing, and look great as thumbnail.

    I’m sure there are other factors, including intellegent keyword choices, etc. They say cream rises to the top, and this is obviously true in stock photography. Mediocre images obviously get left by the wayside, – alongside thousands of similar images, – and only get the occasional sale if lucky. Therefor, IF going for “quantity” means mostly mediocre images, then this is likely to result in poor income potential per image. That is not to say that images that don’t sell well are necessarily mediocre. They might often be great photos, just not very commercial or in demand or not desirable for some other reason. (Ditch the dead donky!)
    Cheers, John.

  • hfng
    Posted at 03:40h, 12 September Reply

    This is one of the more interesting sites on microstock. It is on my feed and I look forward to reading each of your articles. Keep up the great work.

  • ryasick
    Posted at 15:30h, 12 September Reply


    Great insights on microstock. I’ve had many a conversation with fellow “stockers” regarding this matter..
    Something I’d like to add is that there is the fine line of being too critical when considering which new files to post. I revisited an old shoot that I did of a generic coffee cup and decided to post one of those files that I didn’t think would have much demand – boy was I wrong! It’s currently selling on iStock at a 33.3dl/m.
    Another point, I’ve had the same image refused by some sites as being “not stockworthy” while other sites accepted it in their collection. And it sold immediately on Istock as a XXXL. Just goes to show you, sometimes we’re at our own and others criticism as to what is worthy of stock.
    I’ve had what I thought were “surefire winners” languish while others I “reluctantly” put online, sold way better than expected. Sometimes you just never know.


    • John Richie
      Posted at 22:00h, 12 September Reply

      Rich, Well done with the coffee cup photo. Checking the term “Coffee cup” on istock shows over 14,000 submissions!!! (Photo’s only) This proves that despite huge competition in any particular catagory you may still get good sales. Something to bear in mind. Thanks for sharing this encouraging insight.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 10:42h, 13 September Reply

      Hi Rich,

      I’ve had the exact same experiences myself, so I agree with all your points. Sometimes when I look back I can see why certain images from a shoot were successful when they weren’t the ones I thought would be the heros. But, sometimes I still can’t see why. Sometimes it’s definitely the luck of getting ahead with the algorithms, which is proven when different images from a single shoot stand out at different agencies.

      However, I still think it’s a smarter strategy to do lots of research and analysis to figure out which photos will do well and submit fewer but better shots. Uploading every shot from a shoot just because ‘you never can tell’ which photo will stand out is exactly the ‘machine gun approach’ mentioned in the article.


  • john lund
    Posted at 16:59h, 12 September Reply


    Excellent article. As I have no experience in Micro I am wondering if there is a problem with people creating so many similar images to the best selling ones?



    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 10:53h, 13 September Reply

      Hey John,

      Yes, there is a lot of copying of the top-selling photos. The challenge is that when copying a top selling photo you need to make your copy substantially better than the original to have any chance of success. The metrics of a successful photo push it higher up the search results, so buyers need to look past it to choose your copy.

      And yes, we do end up with a large number of images all resembling the top sellers. It can be a thorn in the side of the innovators, but in the big picture it’s very Perfect Market (Adam Smith). Suppliers are providing what is in demand, there is tight competition to produce the highest quality product, and buyers have real-time information about what’s available at what price. As the needs of buyers change with changing styles, fashions, age of props, etc then the market will respond accordingly. Photographers have the opportunity to adjust their supply based on exactly what is selling now, rather than what somebody thinks is going to sell in the future. Indeed it’s tough if you want to play in the high-selling, high-competition areas, but each photographer has the same opportunities.


      • john lund
        Posted at 13:45h, 13 September Reply


        Great food for thought. I hadn’t thought about the “metrics” angle. That seems like an additional reason to go for quality or quantity as well.



  • Alex
    Posted at 08:16h, 14 September Reply

    Hi Lee,

    Thanks for the honest self appraisal in this post. I, and I’m sure many others, can see my own microstock experiences in what you’re saying. I agree a more thoughtful and quality oriented approach is the way to go now. That is no bad thing as I think most photographers will find this more interesting and rewarding, creatively and financially, in the long run.


  • Vitezslav Valka
    Posted at 07:58h, 16 September Reply

    Lee, this is True.

    Everyones speciality will be a knowledge of something others don’t know. And the second thing will be your local ability to shoot things that are close to you, cities close to you and all those things that needs a bit more activity. Not just skills in shooting…

  • John
    Posted at 11:39h, 16 September Reply

    I can’t be Yuri or IoFoto. But I can aspire to be mike ledray

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