Microstock ABC. Guide to sell your pictures online.
by lev dolgachov(This guide is a purely informative piece and the author bears no responsibility for what you will do after reading it. It is you who will be responsible for your entire cooperation with microstock photography companies.)
The world is changing rapidly and one needs to take advantage of new opportunities that it offers.What is stock photography?
After recent breakthrough developments in digital photography a huge number of amateur photographers have been able to take great pictures but failed to get any serious benefits from their use. All their pictures are either stored on computer hard drives or posted on various gallery sites at best. They never realize that they could make money from their photos.
I'm one of microstock industry top-performers, selling over 120.000 pictures a year.
I have written this guide for such people, amateur photographers and illustrators. I’m getting increasingly more questions about how one should work with stocksites and sell pictures online, that’s why I’ve decided to put all information together in this one piece. So, I begin.
Stock photo agencies or stocksites are big collections of photographs and vector art available on the Internet and sold online. There are slightly more complex models, but we are not going to discuss them in this article. The piece focuses on micro payment agencies, websites that sell images for just a few US dollars, with photographers earning between a few dozens cents to a couple dollars per picture sold as a rule. However, the model allows photographers to sell one picture as many times as they want.
The price of an image charged by such websites depends on the type of license obtained by the buyer. Images are sold with three different types of licenses.
1. Royalty Free.
Most images available on stocksites are royalty-free, which means that the creator retains all rights to the picture after the sale, while the buyer only gets the right to use the image. Everything that you will read about cooperation with stock photo companies in the following chapters will concern this type of deals. Why? Because it is this type of license that allows photographers to sell one and the same image as many times as possible.
How does it work? The buyer pays a small fee, which usually varies between $1 and $10, and obtains the right to use the picture wherever he wants and as many times as he wants provided the number of the picture’s copies does not exceed its print run and he complies with certain terms. Say, all photo stock companies ban clients from using images of people in a way that would damage their reputation.
Nearly all websites have recently started using "extended royalty-free" licenses, which entitle downloaders to use the image on products that they sell, including calendars, T-shirts, mugs, or print a huge number of copies of a material with the purchased image (for instance, Chinese-language magazines). A picture sold under the license costs between $20 and $50 as a rule.
This type of license allows the creator to sell one image multiple times as he keeps all rights to the picture and buyers should realize that the image they download can be used by someone else absolutely legally. In an odd incident in the past, two rival cosmetics companies almost simultaneously launched ads containing the same image acquired under the extended royalty-free license. Those who want to prevent such unlucky things from happening to their businesses can buy pictures under rights-managed licenses.
2. Rights Managed.
Rights-managed images can be sold multiple times as well, but such pictures are generally sold through one photo stock agency, which keeps all data about their previous purchases. Sometimes photographers are allowed to sell a rights-managed picture through several image banks, but they are required to notify them of purchases of the picture through other stock photo companies, so that all of them have complete information about all deals involving the picture. This makes it possible for the buyer to make sure that the image it purchases has never been used by its rival businesses before or learn about any previous purchases before buying it.
Such images are usually sold for $200 or $300. The stocksites that I will write about do not use the scheme, which is still popular with stock agencies relying on more traditional models. If some of you have an interest in such deals, try cooperating with http://alamy.com
, for instance. They do use rights-managed licensing. But it represents no practical interest to us in this piece.
3. Exclusive buyout.
Exclusive buyout means that the buyer acquires all rights to the image. After the purchase under the license, a picture may no longer be sold to others and the creator has no rights to it anymore. Such images normally sell for $1,000-$5,000. Since some stocksites that I will mention below have the opportunity to sell pictures under the exclusive buyout scheme, one should keep in mind one important thing: the buyer acquires exclusive rights not only to the picture he buys but to all images of the series. If you have taken pictures of a berry from 40 different angles or shot a series of images featuring one model wearing the same clothes and with the same makeup, you may not post one picture for exclusive buyout and sell others under a different license. This will entail stiff punishment as the scheme implies that the buyer gets something unique in exchange for a sizable fee.
In general, I don’t believe that exclusive buy-outs are to be popular at microstocks in the future. While the buyer can be sure to a certain degree that the image he buys under the exclusive buyout license will be removed from the website and will not be acquired by anyone else, there is absolutely no guarantee that pictures of the same series are not available for sale on other stocksites or, what matters more, that the image has not been purchased under royalty-free licenses before. So, what’s the point of buying such images then? There’s none, definitely. Exclusive image sales through stocksites are extremely rare occasions that become the subject of heated debates on Internet forums. This scheme does not work at microstocks and is unlikely to in the future.
So, we are going to speak only about stock photo companies that allow royalty-free image deals and do not require creators to refuse from uploading their pictures to other websites. Some stocksites that I will mention below offer such an option, which makes photographers sell their images only through these websites but entitles them to a higher fee. But all of them allow photographers to opt out of the scheme and cooperate with other websites.
We are through with the boring stuff about licenses. I advice all those who are going to contact stocksites in the capacity of either photographers or buyers to read more about the subject and will not go into details in this piece.
Who needs this and why?
1. This is needed by stock photo agency owners above all. A commission paid to photographers ranges between 20 and 60 percent of the fee charged from buyers. Apart from website maintenance costs, the remaining amount is their net profit. The industry posts huge profits and such websites are owned by very rich people and corporations.
2. Designers and publishers also need this. Dozens thousand magazines, brochures and advertising leaflets are published across the world daily. Dozens thousand new websites appear daily. Designers are in a constant search for new images needed to create them. Every magazine contains hundreds articles, where text has to be accompanied by some pictures. Where can one find large quantities of such material, fresh and cheap? Right, on microstock sites.
A magazine providing advice on “how to make these males be faithful” can be stuffed with dozens high-quality images of repenting men caught cheating, while "Young Chauvinist’s Journal" can be filled with pictures of extremely sad women for just $100-$150. What is really good about stocksites that they contain millions of pictures related to any kind of subject and dozens thousand more are added every day. I bet I can collect enough images on a wide range of subjects within the boundaries of decency for a year’s worth of magazine issues in 30 minutes. Finding pictures for "The Coprophagist’s Almanac" would be a tougher task but I would cope with it too. All in all, microstock agencies are a true manna for designers. They had to pay dozens times as much for obtaining pictures from traditional photo banks in the past.
3. Photographers and illustrators do need this as well. Professional photographers find such websites less helpful as they have plenty of work, while cooperation with microstocks requires some time and effort. In addition, they can balk at the idea of selling their picture for just a few dollars and they may be right. Hobbyists need such websites much more.
If your upload you images or art on various photo galleries, where people post their pictures for free, write comments about each other’s work or rate photographs, there is a big chance that stocksites is a much more appropriate place for you. In a certain sense, there is a little difference between them. The only difference is that after switching on the computer in the morning you will find a few dollars on your account instead of a few comments on a good picture taken by you. The difference is that you will see your picture in the top-selling list instead of the top-rated list at the end of the week. I know what both things are and I may say that seeing your picture in the top-selling list is a much more interesting, useful and enjoyable experience.
Gallery sites are good, they help you meet new people and refine certain skills, but if your pictures have enjoyed some success on these websites and you have not yet registered on a stocksite, you really miss a lot and do for free what other people are paid for. If there’s someone who likes your photographs, they will certainly find a buyer.
Stock photography sites have three absolutely magic peculiarities:
a) the amount of money that you can make from one good picture is unlimited. I’ve seen images that have sold more than a thousand times and some of my pictures have as well. Some of them were taken years ago but still continue selling even now when you are reading this article. A single deal can yield you a few cents but you will earn much more as more and more deals follow. The sky is the limit at the end of the day.
b) your market spans the entire world. A picture taken by me may appear in an Indonesian magazine today and another may be featured in an advertisement leaflet to be published by a French company tomorrow. I may find a picture taken by a friend of mine in an airline’s brochure aboard a plane the day after tomorrow. This is a world without borders. The business aspect of the thing put aside, I may say this is a really cool feeling to know that your photographs are in demand across the world. Some unknown designer in the other part of the world has picked your photos for his work – wow! Great.
c) stocksites are open 24/7. You sleep, eat, go to work, go fishing or, God forbid, stay in hospital, and your pictures just keep selling all this time. “We’re doing nothing, and money keeps coming,” as they say. Every single purchase requires neither your efforts nor participation. This is a passive income, similar to royalties paid to writers and musicians. Having done some really good job once, you keep being paid for it for years. There is something very right about this.
Making money with microstock photography
So, you are a photographer or illustrator who has decided to give his works a chance to find buyers. Fine. What one should know to have a good start as a microstock photographer and what mistakes one should avoid? I must admit that I am not a great expert on illustrations, that is why most of my recommendations concern photographs. But in general the same rules apply to illustrations.
What pictures should be sent to stocksites?
All photographs uploaded to such websites should be taken by you and you only. Well, there is one exception. I know a girl who sends to stock photography companies vintage pictures of her long-deceased relatives taken by other long-deceased relatives. She negotiated the matter with stocksites, proving that she was an heir to the photographers and the models alike, inked some permit herself and was allowed to do this absolutely legally. So there may be certain exceptions but on very rare occasions. All pictures should be taken only by you as a rule.
Before it is offered for sale, every picture submitted by photographers is checked by a team of reviewers (and this can take from an hour to two weeks) and half of them are not accepted altogether. And even what has been accepted may never be sold. Here are some tips on how not to waste time on uploading images that may be either rejected or not find a buyer. One should know key picture requirements. What should be sent:
By subject matter:
Everything that can be used in magazines, brochures, ads and website designing. Adult people, children, interiors, food, water or just some really creative images. Avoid sending pictures depicting a berry, a butterfly, “a drinking party in our office” or “my neighbour with his dog.” Of course, if your neighbour is Brad Pitt and he authorizes you to sell his images, or if you are really capable of taking professional and unusual photos of butterflies, then fine, but don’t bother uploading a lovely dandelion picture that you took last summer and that your mummy and grandmother like so much. Before sending each picture, think about who might want to buy it and why. If it is not going to be bought by anyone then why waste time on processing and uploading the image and writing keywords. This picture will either not be accepted by any site or will be posted uselessly in your portfolio without generating any sales. Do you really need this?
Quality should be ideal or close to it. Noise must be avoided, images must be well-focused, properly exposed and cropped, and must have a resolution of at least four megapixels. Images must be taken with a digital camera, with rare exceptions. Film scans, even with the best quality, are rejected nearly by all websites because of noise and artifacting. Microstock photography agencies are normally reluctant to deal with film scans.
If you have a good picture but there’s too much noise and artifacting, noise reduction software is not going to help. Don’t waste your time on this picture, take another. If you have a good picture that is not well-focused, don’t bother sending it. If you have a good picture that is not properly exposed and this underexposure or overexposure does not seem to be intentional, don’t waste your time on the image.
I once tried to get technically bad images accepted by microstock agencies, sharpening and downsizing defocused images, reducing noise and lightening underexposed pictures, but to no avail. Don’t follow suit, this is just a waste of time. Yes, you will be happy when such a picture is accepted. After it is sold to a couple of clients, you may think, “How smart I am! That was worth it. I knew it is a masterpiece!” Then you realize that you spent several hours on a picture that sold just a few times, while other images that took just 15 minutes to process sell much better. Don’t try to fool anyone by submitting technically bad images, you will fool only yourself. A designer who buys this crappy photo will realize how bad it is sooner or later and will not download anything from your portfolio again. La comedia e finita.
The format of choice for stocksite supporters is JPEG. Images that you are going to send to such websites should have the best possible quality and the maximum resolution. If a picture has a bit of noise or is slightly defocused, you should reduce its resolution to cut noise and sharpen it, but to no less than four megapixels. But photographs should keep the original resolution as a rule. Set your camera for maximum picture quality and resolution. Shoot in RAW format, if your camera offers this image setting. This yields the best quality photographs. JPEG format compresses image data into a smaller file size when you shoot, which deteriorates the quality of the picture.
More things to know
Any photographs where people are the subject must be published only with their consent. Such permission must be obtained from each person who appears in the image. Even if you have taken a picture of yourself, you need to sign a model release and the paper also has to be inked by a witness. Don’t think about what the rule is for and how illogical and stupid it is, simply comply or else your pictures will not be accepted. These are the rules. Period.
A model release is a paper that reads, for example, “I, the model, certify that the rights to the image belong to the photographer and I permit him to retouch, edit or change it in any way, as well as sell it and use it in whatever way.” This paper has to be scanned or shot and supplied to microstock sites together with the image. If a child appears in the image, the model release must have information about the child and a parent or a guardian.
Never sell pictures of people without such permission, never content yourself with only oral consent or produce fake permission. First, this is a bad thing to do and, second, it is fraught with legal troubles.
The worst scandal involving the picture of a model who gave consent to its distribution was reported in a Scandinavian country, where a political party used the image of a smiling woman bought via a microstock website on its campaigning billboards ahead of elections. The woman happened to be an activist of a rival party and demanded that the billboards be removed, as all stock photography agencies ban the use of images in a way detrimental to models’ reputation, which was exactly the case. The ads were removed. This is it. This is the worst controversy involving a picture with a signed model release that has ever hit the industry. Much worse rows erupted after the publication of images without signed model releases or faked papers. Do not deceive anyone, this is unethical and will cost you in the future.
Children under 18 should fill out together with their parents a minor release.
Instead of downloading model release forms from all microstock websites, try filling out a generic model release, which will save you much time.http://dolgachov.com/abc/generic_release.doc
- an English-language release for adultshttp://dolgachov.com/abc/generic_release_minor.doc
- an English-language release for children
If a model is not a native English speaker, he or she is strongly recommended to fill in two releases, one in English and the other in his/her native language or the state language of his/her country. That will help them avoid misunderstanding and prevent claims like “I don’t know what is written there, I was deceived, they cheated me into signing this, I don’t speak English.”
If you cannot find a release in the language you need, ask the model to write somewhere in the margin or below the following text: “I certify that I speak English well enough, studied the contents of the document, understand it in full and declare my consent with all its provisions with my signature” and sign the document. But you’d better learn how this should be done according to your country’s rules.
Logos, trademarks and patented designs should not appear in pictures sent to microstock sites. An image of a model sporting, say, an Armani Exchange T-shirt will not be accepted. The T-shirt has to be changed or the words have to be deleted from the image through editing software.
Well, the logo and trademark stuff is pretty easy to understand, but designs protected with patents are a much more difficult thing and you will have to do some research yourself. Say, shooting an Eiffel Tower in daylight and selling the picture is OK, but its nighttime images may not be sold, they’ve got some lighting show protected with a patent there. In general, most modern architecture is protected with patents, so be careful.
Do not upload images of paintings, drawings, unique tattoos, toys, sculptures and sculpture-like fountains. These are objects of copyright. If you are the author of the works, you may send the pictures to microstock sites but before that sign a property release, a paper similar to a model release which concerns not people but inanimate objects. The form can be download from any stock photography website.
Be ready to provide a property release for any picture of a house or any other real estate, especially it its appearance is unique, carrying the owner’s signature. This is a normal practice.
Be careful with photographs that can be deemed violent or insulting. For instance, I had a picture of a naked model handcuffed behind her back rejected by some websites, although I provided a written consent from the model and a passport snapshot proving that she was legal age. They said it was too risky. Keep this in mind.
All naked body images should come with an ID snapshot or scan proving that the model is not a legal minor. Some believe that ID data should accompany all images of humans, even some look can be described by someone as “erotic content” and one should always be able to prove that the model is not a child. In my country, for instance, it is prohibited to take pictures of people who have not turned 18 yet if the images can be regarded as erotic. It is hard to define what is erotic, that’s why I choose not to shoot under 18-year-olds at all unless this is some family photo, where not a single pervert would be able to detect a hint of erotic content. The world is fighting child pornography, and if your images contain even the slightest hint of sexual content, the model has to be 18 and older and you must be able to prove this.
You cannot upload pictures of naked babies for the same reason. Please shoot infants wearing diapers or clothes. At least don't ever try to sell pictures of infants with genitals exposed. This will save you some worries. What is the norm in art photography may be not in stock photography. Remember this.
Making your pictures sell
We have already discussed quality and subject matter. There is another important detail. All images are divided by category on stocksites. You choose a category for your picture while uploading it. Be as much careful as possible while doing this as it will be key to your sales. Keywords are even more essential to robust sales than category. Each picture posted on a microstock website is accompanied by English keywords that should describe the subject matter as much precisely as possible. Say, a picture of a blonde reading a book on a bench in a park should be accompanied with the following keywords: “blonde, girl, beautiful, book, outdoor, reading, learning, study, park, student, pretty, young” and so on.Receiving payment
There should normally be 50 keywords. Well, fewer or more words are also allowed but stick to 50. This is the largest possible number accepted by two leading microstock sites and typing fewer words simply makes no sense. How do you find as many words? Type some simple word or two that characterize your picture best in a search icon on any major stocksite, find an image similar to yours and copy its keywords, then remove not revelant words. Repeat with 3 different images by 3 different contributors. You will find much more than 50. As simple as that.
Keywords should be relevant. Stocksites have recently started cracking down on keyword spammers, so avoid writing any things like “naked Britney Spears” or risk being kicked out.
Do not use the words “sex,” “child” and “teenager” under the same picture. It should be either the first word or the last two. Remember what I said about child porn? One may get severely punished on stock photography websites for such things.
Or, say, a naked body image may be described with the keyword “sexy” but not with the word “sex.” And a kissing couple lying in bed with their clothes on may be described with the latter word. You see the difference, don’t you? Be extremely accurate, especially when you copy keywords under one picture and paste them under a similar one. Some of the words may not match the new photo and, vice versa, the new one may require some other keywords. A correct and careful choice of keywords is a vital aspect, this is extremely important.
I recommend that you enter keywords into the file’s IPTC profile. There are plenty of software for this. Some do this right in their Photoshop software, click File and then File Info, where you find Document Title, Description and Keywords. Type your keywords and titles right there, save the file and there you go. After the image is uploaded, stocksites will find this information themselves and put them into proper entries. I wasted much time by entering keywords and titles for various pictures on different websites with the help of the copy&paste function before starting to use this technique. Do no repeat my mistakes.
Entering as many proper and relevant keywords as possible guarantees that buyers will see your photograph in their search results and it won’t get lost among millions similar pictures. I repeat once again, this is extremely important. Extremely.
How much this can earn you
1. If you live in a country where the PayPal
online finance service is available you will have no problem getting your payment. Websites will send money to your PayPal
account and you will transfer it to your bank account. Go to paypal.com
to check whether the service is available in your country.
2. If another online financial service, moneybookers
, is operating in your country, and it is already available almost everywhere, fine. Nearly all stock photography sites have the capability to transfer money to photographers through this service. This is really great because unlike PayPal
, this service is available in nearly all third-world countries. You can open your account at moneybookers.com
3. If none of the two options suit you, a microstock site will send you a check by mail that you will be able to cash in any civilized bank. Although this is a lengthy process that can take up to a month or even longer and banks charge a fee for this service, you can use it if you have no other options. Find how much your bank charges for the service to calculate an approximate amount that will be worth receiving from a microstock site through the bank. The lower limit is $500 as a rule.
Don’t forget that you will have to include your stocksite income in your tax returns. This is a usual practice in most countries.
It all depends on you. According to my observations, there are four major groups of photographers contributing pictures to stocksites.
"Amateur sellers" have a portfolio of between 100 and 200 pictures of average quality and subject matter, add 10 to 20 new images every month and make between $50 and $300 a month.
"Advanced sellers" portfolios include between 200 and 300 pictures of above-average quality or 500 to 1,000 photographs of average quality, with 50 to 100 new ones added every month. Their monthly earnings range between $500 and $1,000.
"Master sellers" have more than 1,000 pictures of above-average quality or over 500 top-quality pictures in their portfolios and they are constantly updated. They make between $1,000 and $4,000.
"Guru sellers" offer 2,000-5,000 photographs of above-average or top quality or even more, with new pictures on a wide spectrum of subjects added constantly. Their monthly income is in the region of $4,000 and more. Photography and sales through microstock websites are usually the main source of income for such people. They are the microstock photography elite, there are just some 200 or 300 such people in the world.
Most stocksite contributors make between $250 and $1,000 per month with fairly small portfolios consisting of pictures of above-average quality. There are some who make as little as $20. These are people with very poor or small portfolios. I have met some of them. I also know most of gurus. I have met a Danish photographer, who is already earning more than $20,000 per month, according to my estimates. So, it’s all up to you.
Do you risk sacrificing art?
The answer is no. I had such fears at the beginning of my cooperation with stock photography websites. I feared that stock photography is boring, with mainly successful businesspeople and smiling babies in top-selling pictures, and one needs to shoot the same kind of boring stuff to achieve success, which does not develop his skills and is a bore. I was wrong.Part Two. Major microstock websites and tips on cooperation with them.
First and foremost, if you have put your soul into a picture and it is really good, it will sell well, whatever its subject.
Second, no one will buy shoddy work. Well, some can once or twice, but it will be a pure accident. But in general, they are going to buy pictures of businesspeople or infants that you have really worked hard to shoot. And this is a really tough task and does develop your skills.
Third, technical requirements set by leading stocksites are very high. Very. Most photographers dramatically improve the general quality of their pictures after a few months’ cooperation with microstock websites. Such training is worthwhile. Looking now at photographs that I used to consider ideal and that were rejected by stocksites for technical problems that I could not detect, I see disastrous flaws. Maybe, they were not seen because of the pictures’ size on the Internet, but they are seen when the pictures are examined full-size as website reviewers do. It would have taken me years to independently develop such a critical look at my photos that I developed after just a few months of cooperation with stock photography agencies.
In this sense, it is difficult to exaggerate the contribution of stock photography to my development as a photographer.
follow this link to read Part Two