02 Aug 2007 How to Microstock

Taking a Photo, Lee PettetWhile likely redundant for the majority of Microstock Diaries readers, this post lays out the fundamentals of how to make money selling photos in the microstock market. It’s written assuming that your ambition is to maximize your income, so if you’re interested in microstock as a promotion or branding opportunity, skip over the parts that aren’t appropriate.

Acquire Quality Photography Equipment

At absolute minimum, you’ll need a quality digital camera. While it’s possible to have some success with a point and shoot camera, it’s much more difficult. Get yourself a digital SLR as soon as you can if you don’t already have one. After that, the tripods, flashes and studio equipment you get will only add to your earning capability.

Professional photographers are at an advantage with equipment. If you’re a hobbyist like me, you can use your microstock earnings to slowly build your equipment collection over time. It’s an investment in your future earnings and fully tax deductible in most countries. The microstock portfolios that sell the most are shot using lots of top quality equipment.

Some microstock agencies accept smaller resolution photos, but you’ll miss the opportunity to sell large sizes for higher commissions. As a minimum, I suggest using 6 megapixel camera. The number of megapixels isn’t an indication of the quality of the camera or of the photos it produces, so take this into account when choosing a camera.

Obviously, you will also require non-photography equipment such as a computer and Internet connection. High speed Internet access is important, but I know microstockers with respectable earnings who have only ever used dial-up Internet access.

Choose your Subjects

What are you going to shoot? What do you enjoy, have ready access too, and what is going to sell well. Do some research about how well photos of your potential subjects sell. How many photos are there of that subject? How well have they sold? If you find a subject where there aren’t many images, but they’ve sold a lot, then you know you’ve found a subject that is in demand but under supplied. This is ideal, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful shooting popular subjects. The most successful microstockers shoot in the most popular topics, people and business.

Choose whether you want to specialize. There are many benefits and disadvantages which you will need to consider. This is different for every microstocker and every potential specialization subject.

Be aware that in microstock photos of people require signed model releases. We’ve had some success with photos of family and friends. They’ve been more than happy to sign a release for the chance to see photos of themselves published or to have some quality pictures to keep.

In many cases you will also require a property release. This is not just for buildings, but also works of art and design.


Get in action. Start taking photos. Ensure your photos are:

  • Yours – you must be the copyright owner of the photos you submit.
  • High quality – all microstock agencies review photos for technical quality so be realistic about the quality of your photos. Getting opinions from others, but make sure they can be honest with you. Your parents will like anything you shoot, so unless they’re professional photographers you’re unlikely to get an honest opinion.
  • Commercial – there’s not point having a great portfolio of images nobody will buy. Do some research to ensure there is demand for what you’re shooting and ensure your images are suitable for commercial use.
  • Released – get signed model and property releases where appropriate.

Prepare your Photos

You’ll need some good photo editing software for this. Adobe Photoshop and Apple Aperture are the most common. There are also many free alternatives to the commercial applications.

You will need to edit almost every image. Here’s what to do:

  • Remove trademarks and brands – your images will be rejected if there are any visible brands or trademarks when viewed at 100%.
  • Remove dust spots and imperfections – this improves the technical quality of the image and makes it more commercially attractive.
  • Eliminate noise – this is one of the most common reasons for rejection in my experience. There are plenty of tools which will automatically remove noise for you.

Prepare to be Paid

Most microstock agencies offer the same payment methods: PayPal, Moneybookers and check. I recommend registering with PayPal or Moneybookers if they’re available in your country. They’re a lot quicker and more convenient than a check. Moneybookers works in many countries where PayPal doesn’t.

I have a PayPal account but don’t have one with Moneybookers. I have always been impressed with the functionality and performance at PayPal. You can link your PayPal account to your bank account to withdraw funds, or use the money for other purchases.

Register with the Agencies

You’ll need to decide how many agencies you’ll contribute to, or if you’ll become exclusive. I don’t recommend exclusivity for profit-motivated contributors, but it’s something each contributor needs to consider for themselves.

It’s a good idea to start slow and register with one or a small collection of agencies. This will limit your workload and give you focus. You’ll learn a lot in the beginning and you’ll be able to leverage this experience when you sign up with more agencies.

iStockphoto are my best earning agency, but they have some of the higher quality requirements and require you to be approved before you can contribute. Consider starting with one of the easier entry agencies and one of the more lucrative ones to get a mix of approval success and high earnings. Use my survey of microstock approval rates and my earnings reports as a guide to who accepts more readily and who can provide higher earnings.

Keyword & Describe your Photos

Keywording and describing is a critical part of the process. This is where you can make a difference to the performance of your portfolio. Consider very carefully the descriptions and keywords you use, and research keyword ideas from similar images.

Keyword spamming is not a good idea. Most agencies have methods to limit its effectiveness so it will end up being a waste of time, and could even get you some unwanted attention. Worse still, it could get you banned by the agencies.

Ensure you embed your descriptions and keywords in the files. This drastically reduces your workload inputting the file information when you upload.

Upload your Photos

Microstock agencies have various methods of uploading your photos. Almost all have File Transfer Protocol (FTP) upload facilities, which simplify and accelerate contributing to multiple agencies and large quantities of files.

Consider using the commercial tool ProStockMaster. It is designed to organize and automate your photo uploading process. The commercial version allows you to upload as many files as you wish and is compatible with the majority of top agencies.

Monitor Progress

Many avid microstockers become obsessed with monitoring performance. They have elaborate spreadsheets to collect and analyze the data which they update multiple times each day.

There are spreadsheets and commercial tools to monitor your microstock earnings. A popular choice is Microstock Monitor. It’s a free Firefox plugin that monitors your earnings at 10 agencies. ProStockMaster also has an earnings monitoring facility which does a similar job.


Once you’re earning some money with your photos, your attention can turn to doing it better than you did before. Continue learning about photography and what specific things you can do to increase your microstock earnings.

Continue Researching

This is my advice on how to earn money in the microstock market, but there’s no correct or best method. I encourage you to continue your research and determine the methods that suit your individual situation. Here are some other how-to guides which provide other perspectives:





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