Selling Your Photographs Through Stock Libraries: A Primer


Before the advent of digital photography, there was no micro and macro in stock photography, royalty free was a little used term and image catalogues were large glossy books with just a selection of the best images. To purchase an image you either asked one of the library’s researchers to look for it or you went in person and trawled through thousands of transparencies on light boxes. Apart from a few big stock agencies there were hundreds of smaller ones each dealing in their own niche’s such as music or historical images.

The face of traditional stock photography was changed beyond recognition by two major developments, the advent of the digital camera and the rise of the Royalty Free license, both of which lead to the development of the microstock agency . So if you wish to offer your images for sale at a stock library, which should you choose, micro or macro?

So What is Microstock and Macrostock?

Lets start with a brief explanation of each, starting with the new kid on the block – the microstock agency. The business philosophy of microstock could best be described as “pile them high, sell them cheap.” By selling a huge, diverse range of images at very low prices, microstock agencies attract less traditional buyers such as small web companies, start up magazines and you or I, looking for an image for a local newsletter or charity event. Until very recently most microstocks sold exclusively Royalty Free images, meaning once paid for, they could be used time and again for different projects by the purchaser.

Macrostock agencies are the remnants of the traditional agencies – many have merged together under one name or been bought out by the biggest players. These agencies generally sell higher quality imagery for much higher prices to more mainstream businesses such as newspapers, magazines and advertising agencies. They will sell both Royalty Free images and Rights Managed images.

2005-08-14 Cristiansand-017
An image that has sold well at a macrostock agency

So how do you decide which type to use? Well, whatever you choose, you need to know that all stock photography is a numbers game. The numbers in question are quantity and number of months. If you put 10 or 20 images on either Macro or Micro stock, it is unlikely you are going to see a return for many years. You need to have large numbers of images for many months before you are likely to start selling. To make a return, you are going to have to invest a lot of your time and skill in getting the images ready.

What You Should Know About Selling Microstock

Lets start with Microstock, the first problem you are going to run up against is Royalty Free licensing. Because an image sold under Royalty Free can be used for any purpose, any recognizable person, trademark and in some cases landmarks will need to have a release. So if you were planning on sending in shots of the crowds on the local beach, then each person in the image would have needed to have signed a release form. This can make choosing images for microstock a tough job.

Microstock agencies also tend to give quite poor commissions on images sold. These can go up if you offer exclusivity to one library, but that in turn is potentially reducing your profits that you may receive from any other agency. It is very much a balancing act. Although the commissions are low, you will find you can sell many images, many times in a year, leading to reasonable commissions. This can also help you isolate what types of images are viable and what not to submit.

A generic travel image suited to microstock
This image would be refused by microstock due to the visible company logo

Getting Into Macrostock

With macrostock, generally the libraries require a very high technical standard of image as well as being commercially viable. To get into a Macrostock library you will often have to show that you have a large collection of images ready to submit and show examples of previous work. You may well be rejected several times before being accepted for a macrostock library. 

Because they sell Rights Managed as well as Royalty Free licenses, you can submit images of people and trademarks without releases, for what is known as editorial use – that is in items such as a newspaper or magazine article. This can open up opportunities for a wider range of images in your catalogue. Commissions are generally much higher, as are the prices, however very few images will sell more than once per year.

A good selling macrostock shot due to its specialised subject
This shot was sold for an editorial Rights Managed license – it would have been rejected by microstock

So which one should you choose?

There are pro’s and cons to each but there is also no reason why you cannot put your best work in macrostock and more main stream images into microstock. There is no “best” strategy for making money but you will increase your chances with a wide range of diverse images or conversely a wide selection of very specific images – for example scientific images of fauna. There is no point in submitting 100 different views of the same scene to raise your numbers – just pick the very best three or four. Get away from the normal, find the unusual angle or interesting niche, by searching libraries you can see where there is under supply and concentrate your efforts there.

Many libraries also publish “want lists”, detailing what types of images are in high demand but short on supply. One last word of advice,  avoid pictures of sunsets, cats and pretty flowers, search any microstock for these and you will find the market somewhat saturated.

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Which should you choose? As an editorial stock photographer, you shouldn’t choose either one. You should specialize and open your own specialized stock agency and become known in that one field where you love working in.

Hi Jason

Thanks for the clear and “level-headed” outline of the options. So often we see a gushing article about how easy it is to make money from your photos. I started in the game about 4 years ago on the microstock sites, and now have around 2500 images on line on about 20 sites. I also upload to Alamy which is closer to the macrostock sites you mention. A couple of posts asked how much you can expect to earn – I publish my earnings each month on my blog, but in simple terms, I have now got to around $1300 a month from these images. Worked on per online image, it turns out to be around $0.70 per image per month.

I have written a book about how to get started in stock (see my blog) if anyone wants more details.


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