The microstock model is a relative newcomer in the world of commercial photography. Previously, only an elite few were able to make a decent living with stock photography since it required a lot of specialized training, expensive equipment and the elusive knowing the right people at the right time. The advent of digital photography turned this traditional stock world upside down and has made it all but obsolete. Anybody with a decent digital camera and a basic knowledge of photography has the potential to earn money with their photos now. However, in order to really make it big and earn a living with microstock, there are some things that are very important to know and do.
Know the Basics – You must at the very least be trained in the basics of photography. The vast majority of people who own a DSLR do not really know how to use it beyond turning the dial to auto, and leaving it there at all times. Perhaps you can get lucky every now and then and squeeze off a great shot in this mode, but those moments are truly going to be few and far between. Everybody who is truly successful in any commercial photography vocation has received training in some way, even if they sought out this training completely on their own online or in a book. Most have taken classes and/or have degrees in photography and know the fundamentals of light and exposure.
Look for Imperfections at Full Size – Every single image you hope to submit to a stock site must be inspected by yourself at 100%, which is something that the reviewer will certainly do as well. Many times a photo can look perfectly in focus and free of any noise or artifacts when viewed at a small resolution, but can be horrible in quality when viewed at 100%. There are ways to help minimize or even prevent these issues in the first place. Whenever possible, use a very low ISO setting. 100 ISO is best. Also, the use of a tripod for any stationary subjects will ensure that each and every exposure is not blurry from camera shake. Finally, choose the proper aperture and shutter speed for your subject to be sure that each part of the photo is fully in focus. There are a few occasions where a photo might be accepted if there is deliberate blur for creative effect, in the background for example, but most of the time stock sites want crisp focus throughout the image.
Create Quality Descriptions and Keywords – Create detailed descriptions and use every keyword that could reasonably apply to your photograph when uploading it. However, never “keyword stuff” or include unrelated keywords with the intention of getting more views. This is something that became a very big problem for stock sites at one point and had to be cracked down on to make the process of browsing for images a better experience for customers. Generally, you will sooner or later get caught and warned or possibly even banned from selling your photos. When brainstorming keywords, focus mostly on descriptive words and don’t worry about including a lot of conceptual words since they are rarely used in search. For example, if you are uploading a photo of a woman’s hand getting a manicure include words like “nail polish” or “manicure” and not concepts like “femininity”. Always check your spelling and remove useless words from your title such as “and” or “the”.
At Least Consider Free Images as “Loss Leads” – Some stock sites have the option to donate some of your images either permanently or temporarily to the free section. While this may seem counterintuitive, it is actually a very good idea. The free section gets a ton of traffic and often leads to a photographer's premium portfolios getting noticed, and therefore more sales.
Focus on the Larger Networks – Focus most of your energy on uploading to large and very established popular sites. There are many small and relatively unknown microstock sites popping up all over the internet. However, the process of uploading and keywording images is very time consuming and wasting hours of your time for no return doesn’t make sense. You could instead be spending that time taking more photos to build your portfolio on sites that do make sales. The larger your portfolio is the larger your income generally. It’s truly a numbers game. The average photographer will earn about $1 to $2 per image, per month so a large enough portfolio can really rake in good money.
Research Images That Sell – Think about what the customers who buy stock images are truly looking for and why. Most of them are designers and bloggers, so some subject matter is simply not going to be commercially viable. Hence the very common image rejection reason “this image is not commercially viable”. When first starting out, it pays to look at the images which are most downloaded and get a feel for what sells.
Find a Niche – Finally, there is an immense amount of competition in the microstock industry, and your work will really need to stand out in order to make significant sales. After getting a general idea for what is currently selling, consider coming up with a unique style or subject matter to focus on. You just might find a niche that so far holds no competition but is in demand nonetheless. The worst that could happen is that your images are rejected and you have to try a new idea.
Rachael Towne is a photographer, digital artist and creator of photoluminary.com