Top 8 Microstock Agencies Explained

Updated 15 May 2014

If you ended up reading this blog, then you are probably either interested in making money with your photography, or wanting to spend money on my images. If it’s the latter, you want to be here, if it’s the former, keep on reading.

Top 8 Microstock Agencies Explained

Selling images has been around for ages, it basically started with stock agencies archiving film images and sending out catalogs to potential buyers and then they would pick their images and the images were picked from the archive and posted (snail mail) to the buyers. Then along came digital cameras and the whole stock sales of images changed. Image banks have been around for ages as well, but at some point the microstock model was introduced. iStockphoto was the first agency to come up with the microstock model and Shutterstock introduced the subscription sales. Also images were no longer sold as Rights Managed but now offered as Royalty Free.

Basically the introduction of micro pricing, subscription sales, and royalty free images negatively affected the business a lot of pro shooters who were relying on the high prices per image sale. And images were sold with a limited license (rights managed) and now images are sold for as little as $0.16 cent and the usage is practically unlimited. So be prepared to get some evil looks when you tell other photographers you are a microstocker.

The world through your viewfinder

Alas, we are here now, the market has changed, and if you want to sell your images, you can. Its simple and easy, BUT it does take hard work, a lot of time, including processing, keywording, uploading and submitting the images to photo stock agencies. I know that with dedication and passion its still doable, but remember, the golden days of getting rich quickly are far over. However, once online, the images could start selling and making you money. Please bear in mind that microstock agencies take a commission and pay you a royalty for the sale of the image license. You don’t sell the actual image, you sell a license and the buyer downloads the image for them to use within the license they bought. There are standard licenses and extended licenses. An extended license can make you a nice bit of money per sale. Just make sure you check out the licenses your agency of choice is offering. Also check out any partnerships they have with other agencies and re-sellers, as they could have different licenses and different pricing.

There are literally hundreds of microstock agencies, and some agencies have more success in selling your images than others. So I made a list of the top 8 agencies. Well, the top 4 is basically set in stone, called the Big 4, or the top-tier. Then we have middle tier and lowest tier. I only selected the Big 4 and 4 agencies of the middle tier. As said, the top 4 hasn’t changed for a long time, in the middle tier there are a lot more position shifts, but I picked the ones that do best for me. Your mileage may vary.

 

1. Shutterstock

Shutterstock

 is the top-selling agency with probably the largest library of royalty free stock images. Shutterstock was founded in 2003 by Jon Oringer. With 34 million images, only Alamy with 44 million images is bigger as far as I know. You would think they don’t need more images, but they still take new contributors on board. Once you pass the test you can start submitting your images and hope for sales. Submit high quality images and you will be able to make money on Shutterstock. Shutterstock basically takes all images if they are technically perfect and have a commercial value. Shutterstock loves nice deep colorful images. You might get rejections on some subjects as candles and backgrounds such as walls. The many downloads you get make up for the low pricing. Starting at $0.25c per download things start slow, but once they pick up you can get a nice payout per month. My biggest sale on Shutterstock was $70 USD. The forum is very active and a lot of contributors are there to help you pass the initial test. I strongly advice you  to post your first 10 photos in the critique forum. If you fail the test you need to wait 30 days before you can try again. Good luck.

Application Test: Yes – 10 images (pass 7/10)

Minimum Image Requirements: 4 megapixels

Upload Limit: No

Exclusivity: No

Accept Editorial: Yes

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations, Footage

Royalties: $0.25c – $0.38c subscription sales depending on your level, 20%-30% for non subscription sales, up to $120 USD for Single On Demand licences.

Payout Level: $75 USD

Critique Forum: Yes

Subscription Sales: Yes

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

 

2. iStockphoto

iStockphotowas basically the first microstock agency founded and the lifeswork of Bruce Livingstone. In 2000 Istock was a free photo library but in 2001 it started to sell images and the microstock model was born. Istock is now a subsidiary to Getty Images and no longer an independent agency. Istock and Shutterstock are eternal competitors and their contributors can sometimes go head to head in the independent forums. But its all good banter. Istockphoto has a very strict release policy and basically they do not accept overly processed images. Up until recently you could only upload 18 high quality images per week. But the upload restriction has been loosened and the reviews are more lenient these days. The keywording process at Istock is quite tedious and for every photo shoot with people, you need a new model release. When you go exclusive with Istock you will get a fairly higher royalty. As independent photographer your royalty is the lowest in the industry, but the higher pricing can make up for that.  Another thing to consider is that as in non-exclusive contributor your images will be submitted into the Partner Program and sold on i.e. Thinkstock which as a low pricing structure. Exclusives can opt to do so. So if you still want to submit images to iStock, then your images will sit between 15 million images. I suggest using Deep Meta for submitting images to Istock. Good luck.

Application Test: Yes – Quiz Test + 3 images (pass 3/3)

Minimum Image Requirements: 1600 x 1200 pixels or larger

Upload Limit: Yes – 999 per week

Exclusivity: Yes – Agency Exclusive

Accept Editorial: Yes

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations, Footage, Audio, Flash

Royalties: 15%-20% depending on your performance in the previous year, 25%-45% for exclusives.

Payout Level:  $100 USD

Critique Forum: Yes

Subscription Sales: Yes, introduced April 2014

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

  

3. Fotolia

Fotolia

with 28 million has the second largest image library after Shutterstock. Before you read on, please read THIS first. Fotolia is a very peculiar agency and its never clear what images they want. But overall it seems they really like people and food images and isolations. If you are a landscape shooter like me you might find yourself getting more rejections then you bargained for. My acceptance ration on the different agencies is 90%-98%, but on Fotolia its 60%. However, if your work is stunning you might have a better result. Also make sure you untick the box for free images when submitting your images, otherwise all your rejected images will be offered in the free download section. I always wondered why an image costing less than 20 cent is rejected but good enough to offer for free? Submitting to Fotolia has become a little easier since they introduced image indexing. When signing up with Fotolia make sure you sign up with a Euro or British Pound account as the payout is with credits, and 1 credit is one $ USD or one € EUR or one £ GBP. I didn’t know at the time and signed up with a Dollar account and now miss out on at least 30% of income from Fotolia. Fotolia used to be my second earner, but due to a new price cut for slow selling images, it seems they are now down on the microstock ladder. Images that havent sold for 6 months are reduced in price, even if they are seasonal images, or images with lots of downloads. You need to find out for your self if it is worth submitting to them. Good Luck.

PS: Please make sure you OPT OUT OF THE DOLLAR PHOTO CLUB: Go to My Account / My Profile / Contributor Parameters. Below “Sell my files on DPC”, click “Modify” next to it. Make the text change to “don’t sell my files on DPC”, save settings!

Application Test: No

Minimum Image Requirements: 1600 x 2400 pixels or larger

Upload Limit: No

Exclusivity: Yes – Image Exclusivity

Accept Editorial: No

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations, Footage

Royalties: 0.25cr –  1.25cr subscription sales depending on your level, 20%-63% for credit sales.

Payout Level: 50 credits (depending on your account that is $50 USD or €50 EUR or £50 GBP)

Critique Forum: Yes

Subscription Sales: Yes

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

 

4. Dreamstime

Dreamstimeis one of two agencies I have quit submitting my images to and left altogether. Dreamstime seriously got on my nerves with their similar image rejections. It has been a complaint for years by many photographers but you have to learn to live with it. For me it didn’t work out as I have over 200 country flags which I had to combine in collages, thus making me less money. Lately it seems they are less strict on similar images, I guess 18 million images is not enough. You do get detailed information why an image was rejected. So you can learn from it as well.  Just be aware that if you have too many rejections, your uploads will be limited. And important is to know your images are locked in for 6 months, so if you want to leave, you can’t do that immediately, you need to be patient.  Dreamstime has for many contributors the highest return per image. So it’s definitely worth checking them out. Good luck.

PS: After dropping DepositPhotos I have opened my account with Dreamstime again to get some lost earnings back.

Application Test: No

Minimum Image Requirements: 3 megapixels

Upload Limit: Yes – depending on your acceptance ratio. 50 per week for new contributors

Exclusivity: Yes – Agency Exclusive or Image Exclusivity

Accept Editorial: Yes

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations

Royalties: $0.35c or $0.42c sub sales depending on exclusivity, 25%-45% on credit sales for non exclusive, depending on your level and 27.5%-60% on credit sales for exclusivity, depending on your level.

Payout Level: $100 USD

Critique Forum: Yes

Subscription Sales: Yes

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

 

5. 123RF

123RFis the top agency in the middle tier. 123RF has gotten some heat from the contributors at the beginning of the year for introducing a new royalty structure based on your performance in the previous 12 months. Many photographers were set back in royalty levels and receiving a lower royalty pay out per license sold. I have to say that I am making more money on 123RF then in 2012 but that could also be related to my ever-growing portfolio. The acceptance ratio on 123RF is high, and formerly they were more lenient in their reviews, lately it seems they are more tough on image quality. With 21 million images online they can afford to do that. Submitting to 123RF is one of the fastest across the board. Once the images are uploaded all you have to do is attach your releases where/if needed. Good luck.

Application Test: No

Minimum Image Requirements: 6 megapixels

Upload Limit: No

Exclusivity: No

Accept Editorial: Yes

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations, Footage

Royalties: $0.216c – $0.432c sub sales and 30%-60% for credit sales, depending on your performance of the previous 12 months. Due to discounts you will see lower royalties on sub sales.

Payout Level: $50 USD

Critique Forum: No

Subscription Sales: Yes

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

 

6. Depostitphotos

Depositphoto

is battling with 123RF and Photodune for the top spot in the middle tier. However, my sales on Depositphoto are mainly $0.30 cent subscription sales. Your content has to be really good with lots of potential and you must have lots of it. The uploading to Depositphoto is quite easy. The new editor lets you batch edit your images, and adding  releases is quite quick and easy. I average about $17 dollar per month with 900 images. But I shoot what I like, not specifically commercial, typical stock images. The acceptance ratio on Depositphoto is quite high, but they are not as tough with their reviews as Shutterstock or iStock. They have 16.5 million images for sale. Depositphotos is not a big earner for most, but if you have really good images, you might be able to get a pay out every month. Good luck.

PS: After finding out that DepositPhotos is seriously underpaying contributors through shady deals with Shotshop, I have deleted my portfolio there. Be careful when dealing with DepositPhotos and ask for your images to be removed from Shotshop.

Application Test: Yes – 5 images

Minimum Image Requirements: 2400 x 1600 pixels or lager

Upload Limit: No

Exclusivity: Yes – Agency Exclusive

Accept Editorial: Yes

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations, Footage

Royalties: $0.30c – $0.35c sub sales, 44%-52% for credit sales, depending on your level and non exclusive. $0.31c – $0.40c sub sales, 50%-60% for credit sales, depending on your level and being exclusive.

Payout Level: $50

Critique Forum: No

Subscription Sales: Yes

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

 

7. Photodune (Envato)

Photodune (Envato)oooh Photodune. I actually like Photodune. They are not a big earner for me, but they only have half my portfolio. Envato is very much geared towards graphic design, maybe that’s why Photodune only has 3,889,854 images in the library. They earn me around the same amount per month as Depositphotos. Their pricing is very simple and straightforward and their reviews are fair. The only problem with Photodune is to learn how to best use their uploading system. It’s quite complicated and you are best off using FTP upload for that as it simplifies attaching releases. If you use their web uploader you will go crazy. FTP is the easiest option. Once the images are ready for submitting, it’s just a simple click of the button. Most sales are $0.66c and $0.99c, and if you get a good few you can reach payout every month. It’s a bit of work, but it gets you that little bit of extra income. Good luck.

Application Test: Yes – Author Quiz

Minimum Image Requirements: 2 megapixels

Upload Limit: Yes – 1000-5000 per day

Exclusivity: Yes – Agency Exclusive but you are allowed to sell other images not submitted to PD elsewhere.

Accept Editorial: No

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations, Audio, Footage, Code, Software (Envato Marketplaces)

Royalties: 33% non exclusive, 50%-70% for exclusive images depending on your sales history.

Payout Level: $50

Critique Forum: Yes

Subscription Sales: No

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

 

8. CanStockPhoto

Can Stock Photo

is nicely floating in the middle tier. Canstockphoto is a nice little agency run by Duncan Enman. He basically runs this site on his own and has stabilized the agency nicely and is generating slow but steady sales. CSP has recently passed the 11 million images, built up in 9 years. What I like about CSP is that you can expect nice royalties of $2.50 or $5 dollar every now and then. Their reviews are the fastest in the industry, and their uploading system is very quick, no hassle. New contributors must first fill out an application first. You need to submit 3 sample images, and links to any agencies that you presently work with. The applications are evaluated as one piece, and the primary intention is to ensure you have the ability of providing commercial quality images. In other words, all 3 of the application images might not pass their current submissions, but if they show potential then you will still pass. Good luck.

Application Test: Yes – 3 images + link to portfolio

Minimum Image Requirements: 3 megapixels

Upload Limit: No

Exclusivity: Yes – Image Exclusivity

Accept Editorial: No

Other Media Accepted: Yes – Vectors, Illustrations, Footage

Royalties: $0.25c small & large sub sales, $0.35c x-large and vector sub sales, 50% for credit sales.

Payout Level: $50

Critique Forum: Yes

Subscription Sales: Yes

Credit/Packet Sales: Yes

 

So there you have it, 8 microstock agencies you can start submitting your images to and try and make some money. If you have the talent and if you manage to do well, it’s still possible to make a living solely from selling images through stock agencies. Its a lot of hard work, but if you love photography as much as I do, you don’t have to work another day in your life.

I hope this was helpful, feel free to ask me questions on any of the above agencies or on stock photography in general. I will do my best to answer them fast and accurate. In my next blog I will talk a bit more about my own experiences and income from the agencies I am submitting my images to. I am also still in the process of uploading my full portfolio to my site here. Once it is done, you will get a better picture on the potential of selling your images online.

Happy shooting

Update: My full portfolio is available now on Semmick Photo. Thank you for your interest. 

If you want to be my referral for a stock site, just click on the following links from your main computer

http://submit.shutterstock.com/?ref=952942
http://us.fotolia.com/partner/203148834
http://www.123rf.com/#semmickphoto
http://depositphotos.com/?ref=1470737
http://photodune.net/?ref=SemmickPhoto
http://www.canstockphoto.com/?r=156503

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