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fter more than a decade spent in the field, I can tell you that breaking into photography isn’t easy. I’m a professional photographer and the owner of a news photography agency. I get to work with a wide variety of photographers and historical archives, and my own work routinely appears in publications like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many others. I also sit on the board of the DMLA, a major industry trade group. It took me at least five years of building my own agency before my photographic work was used at all, though, and I’m still developing my portfolio today.

What if you’re not a professional, but you love to take photos and would like to get them in front of an audience — ideally while earning some money in the process? Or what if you already work in photography, and want an easy way to create a passive revenue stream from your older work or the incidental photos you take while out on formal shoots (or while traveling with your family)?

In both cases, microstock photography could be a great fit for you. Here’s my guide to getting started in microstock photography — and growing your microstock collection so that it earns you $100 per month or more.

What is microstock?

The global market for stock photography is currently worth about $3.5 billion and is expected to grow to $4 billion by 2023. When most people think of stock photos, they think of models dressed in suits standing around a conference room frowning and pointing at whiteboards, or models dressed in button-down shirts misusing soldering irons.

Today’s stock photos, though, are way different from these clichéd images. Stock photography today is vibrant, creative and reflective of a much broader range of experiences. Diversity-first agencies like Mocha Stock and Picha have helped push the field toward more representative and inclusive imagery, and photographer-owned collective agencies like Stocksy abound. More and more customers use stock photos, too, from big newspapers and TV broadcasters to bloggers and social media pros. The upshot is that no matter who you are — and no matter what kind of photos you shoot — there’s a place for you in the world of modern stock photography.

Broadly, the stock industry is divided into macrostock and microstock. Macrostock agencies include big players like Getty Images and Alamy, as well as more traditional newswire services like the Associated Press and SIPA, and specialist agencies like the Science and Society Picture Library. Again, many of these agencies are challenging to break into. In many cases, the macrostock world follows a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” model. If you distinguish yourself as a photographer and reach a certain level of notoriety (or have a large enough existing archive), you’ll likely get a call from a big-agency rep. You can approach these agencies directly, but it’s often harder to get a contract that way.

Microstock is different. This sector of the industry generally focuses on volume, with a large number of individual photographers providing an even larger number of images. Microstock licenses are generally simpler than in the macrostock world, following a royalty-free model. Royalty-free, or RF, doesn’t mean that the images are free — it means that customers can purchase one license and then use a photographer’s image for nearly any purpose without having to pay additional fees. Major marketplaces in the microstock world include iStockPhoto (a division of Getty Images), ShutterstockDreamstime, and Adobe.

Here’s the bad news first. The microstock world has experienced a decade-long race to the bottom, with competition driving per-sale earnings for some photographers as low as $0.10. If you couldn’t bear to see your photos licensed for $0.10, then microstock photography probably isn’t for you. But if you’re the kind of person who takes hundreds of photos per day anyway — or you’re treating photography as a side hustle and don’t need it to pay the bills — then microstock can be appealing (and lucrative). I mainly shoot for macrostock agencies, but I’ve always maintained a small microstock portfolio, primarily to stay up to speed on how the microstock world works.

Choose an agency and decide about exclusivity

To get started with microstock photography, pick an agency. I recommend iStock, Shutterstock, or Dreamstime for beginning photographers. To be approved as a photographer, you’ll generally need to submit five to 10 of your best-shot images, which the agency will review.

Make sure your images are technically perfect. They should be well-lit, evenly exposed, in focus, and should include a relatively generic subject, like a nature scene. Don’t worry — there will be plenty of room for visual creativity down the line. But at this point, the agency is just looking to make sure you know how to use your equipment, edit photos properly, and pick a subject. Don’t give them any reason to turn you away (and don’t worry if you’re not approved on your first try — it took me at least three tries to get approved at my first agency when I started shooting microstock photos).

Once you’re approved, you’ll get access to the agency’s system for submitting images. The next decision you’ll have to make is whether you want to be exclusive with one specific agency. If you opt to go exclusive, you’re committing to locking down your photos so that they’re only available at that agency. Some agencies (like Dreamstime) allow you to choose whether each photo you upload is exclusive, while others (like iStock) require you to lock down your whole portfolio.

If you go exclusive, you’ll generally get higher royalty rates, and your agency will promote your photos more aggressively. The downside is that you won’t be able to submit the same photos to multiple agencies (you’re often still allowed to sell them as fine art prints or use them for personal projects, but check your agency’s contract).

I usually advise new photographers to go exclusive with one agency. Being exclusive allows you to focus your energy on shooting more photos, rather than spending tons of time submitting your photos to lots of different agencies. In most cases, you can switch over to a nonexclusive contract down the line, once you’re more established. I went exclusive with iStock when I first started shooting microstock photos, and have been exclusive in various forms with other agencies over the years.

Upload your work, and become a metadata master

Once you’re set up with an agency and have decided about exclusivity, start uploading your work. To ensure that your photos sell, you also have to describe and keyword them properly once you’ve uploaded them to your agency’s platform.

Why? Microstock photography is fiercely competitive. A platform like iStock can easily have over 100 million images in its collection. For your images to stand out, they need to be well-described, so that customers can easily find them using your agency’s search engine or a third-party search platform like Google Images. Each of your images needs an accurate and complete title, description, and set of keywords. This information is known as metadata.

Metadata is absolutely crucial for success in the microstock world. A poorly shot photo with great metadata will almost always outsell a beautifully shot photo with bad metadata. Microstock photographers often spend far more time generating metadata for their images than they do actually taking them. Most agencies provide tools for adding metadata once you’ve uploaded an image. Some simplify the process by using A.I. to automatically suggest keywords based on the visual contents of your images. Another option is to add your own metadata to your images using a software platform like Adobe Lightroom. Most microstock agencies will import this metadata (which is stored in the image’s IPTC fields) automatically when you upload your images.

How can you write great metadata? For your titles and descriptions, focus on answering the five Ws — who/what, when, where, and why. A great description should say who or what is in your image, when the image was taken, what’s happening in it, and where you shot it. It should also offer some context for why the image matters. As a bonus, you can include some basic technical information about the photo, too. For example, here’s a microstock photo I took of some pie.

I described it as a “Close-up of homemade cherry pie with butter crust on a white plate with vanilla gelato, May 23, 2020.” My caption provides technical info on the photo’s composition (“close-up”), says what it depicts (“cherry pie" with “butter crust" and “vanilla gelato”), where the pie is located (on a “white plate") and when it was taken (“May 23, 2020”). It also provides some “why” context, by sharing that the pie is homemade.

For your own image descriptions, you should strive for a similar level of detail. Notice that my description isn’t very long. You don’t need to write a ton of text — you just need to ensure that what you do write fully captures the important details of the image. Some agencies use your descriptions as your images’ titles, whereas some require a separate title and description. If your agency requires a separate title, make it a simplified version of your description. I titled this photo “cherry pie on a white plate.”

As an exercise to test your descriptions, imagine sending your description to a friend who has never seen your photo. From the description alone, could they produce an accurate drawing of what’s in your photo? If the answer is yes, then you’ve written a good description.

Next, assign keywords to your image. Your keywords should capture many of the same details as your title and description, but they can also be broader and should encompass more general categories. I assigned the keywords “pie” and “cherry pie” to this image, but also “food” and “dessert.” In choosing keywords, you should also focus on how the photo makes you feel. Does a photo feel scary, inspirational, or joyful? Include those keywords. Also, make sure to note if the photo has “no people.” Customers often search for photos without visible people, so this keyword can help drive sales.

There are a few things to avoid when writing captions and keywords, too. You should only describe or keyword what’s actually visible in the photo. Maybe you know that a pie you photographed was baked by your uncle Joe, who happens to be a lawyer. You shouldn’t tag the pie with “lawyer” unless your uncle is visibly practicing law behind the pie in your shot. You should never pack your image with keywords that aren’t accurate just to get an SEO boost — this is an easy way to get banned by your agency.

If possible, aim to add between 20-50 keywords to each image. Again, many agencies will make this easier by suggesting keywords using A.I. Others (like Dreamstime) will do the keywording for you in exchange for a higher cut of future revenue. You can also hire an external company to title and keyword your images for you: Microstock Solutions and Capture are popular options.

During the submission process, you’ll often have to select whether your photos are Editorial or Creative/Commercial. The difference can get complex, but in general, editorial photos are intended for uses that would be covered by the First Amendment, like as a book illustration, the header image of a news story, or as part of a documentary film. As a result of their constitutional protections, they can include a much broader set of subjects. Creative images are intended for use in advertising. They generally can’t contain brands’ logos, identifiable buildings, or people, unless those people have signed a release form. Some photographers shoot both Creative and Editorial work, while others shoot both. I primarily take Editorial photos for the microstock market, but I do take some Creative images as well, such as landscapes and food photos.

When you submit a new photo to your agency, the agency will generally review the photo in three to five days, and either accept or reject it. Images can be rejected for technical issues (blurriness, bad lighting) or metadata issues (inaccurate keywords, etc.). Agencies generally review Editorial images faster than Creative ones, since these images sometimes relate to breaking news events. Don’t be discouraged if lots of your images get rejected — even as a professional, my acceptance rate at many microstock agencies is only around 70%.

What sells?

Now that you’ve got the basics of submitting images and writing metadata sorted out, you can start taking photos! What equipment should you use? Generally, you should use whatever equipment you have. Your camera should be at least 12 megapixels, and ideally over 17. Some marketplaces require that you use a DSLR or other standalone camera, whereas others allow photos taken on your phone. Some (like iStock) even provide a mobile app so you can upload directly from your compatible smartphone.

What sells on microstock? What kinds of topics should you cover? And perhaps even more importantly, how many photos will you need to take and upload in order to earn $100 per month from your work? To answer those questions, let’s look at some real-world sales data from one of my microstock agencies, iStock. The data covers two months of sales, from December 2019 to January 2020. I was exclusive with iStock at the time.

During the two-month period, I sold 132 microstock photos. This brought in $884 in gross sales, from which I took home $217 of profits or an average of $108.50 per month. My top-selling photo was this shot of water flowing through a gutter, which sold twice, bringing in $15.75 in profits.

My bestselling series of photos was a set of four Editorial shots of a real fire drill that occurred at an office where I worked in 2017. Photos from the series sold four times, bringing in $19. Here’s an example of one of the photos.

The gutter photo above would be considered Creative because it doesn’t have any visible people, logos, etc. present. My top Editorial photo was this shot of a green roof at the UCSF hospital in Mission Bay, in downtown San Francisco. It sold twice, earning $8.75.

Other notable sales included two photos of downtown Walnut Creek, California ($15.57 total), an overhead view of a slice of pizza on a paper plate ($6.77), and this shot of a handle on the interior roof of my car ($8.25).

Across all my microstock photos during the two-month period I analyzed, my average sale brought in $1.64 of profit. That’s not a lot, but it’s much better than the $0.10 that some photographers receive for each sale.

Looking at my sales, some helpful trends and patterns emerge. Most microstock images are used to illustrate specific, obvious concepts. They might appear at the top of a local news story about a specific place, or in a tutorial about a product. Here’s an example of one of my Editorial microstock photos illustrating an article about managing landscaping trucks, and one of my Creative photos illustrating an article about energy savings.

Whereas macrostock photos often illustrate complex concepts or document news events, the best microstock photos provide a quick, clear visual illustration of something specific and bounded. When shooting microstock, I like to imagine my photos completing the sentence “Here’s a photo of _______.” If the photo’s contents can complete that sentence in one or two words, it will probably do well at a microstock agency.

For example, my gutter photo’s imaginary sentence would read “Here’s a photo of a gutter,” and my green roof photo’s sentence might read “Here’s a photo of a green roof” or “Here’s a photo of Mission Bay.” If a photo requires too many words to complete the sentence, it’s probably a better fit for microstock instead of microstock. For example, this photo’s sentence might read “Here’s a photo of a DoorDash driver standing in front of a restaurant that was closed for indoor dining during Covid-19.” That’s too complex to work for microstock, so I placed it with a microstock agency instead.

The more specific you can get with your photos, the better. Identifying specific locations, concepts, and objects in your photos maximizes the chances that your photo will get discovered by a buyer with a specific, niche need. If you like photographing flowers, for example, don’t just caption your photos with a title like “pretty yellow flowers.” Instead, caption the photo with the Latin name of the specific flower you photographed. There are over 1.2 million photos of “pretty yellow flowers” on iStock, but only 178 photos of Lonicera japonica. Getting as specific as possible with your photos maximizes the chances that they’ll sell.

Another takeaway is that you can easily shoot tons of saleable microstock photos while going about your daily life. I took my gutter photo while walking my dog in the rain, the fire drill shots while traipsing outside for a real fire drill, and the car handle shot while my son was napping in his car seat. Anything which happens in your life can be the inspiration for a microstock photo. When some hail fell on my porch in 2017, I took photos of it, which have sold 12 times so far. A photo of a Food Mart which I took while walking into a gas station has sold 48 times, earning $57.64.

In most cases, these day-to-day photos of random, specific places or objects tend to sell much better than beautifully shot photos of more generic subjects. I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places, and have taken and uploaded lots of stunning shots of sunsets, cliffs, and the like. Yet my poorly shot photos of office workers during a fire drill handily outsell them.

Finally, it’s important to always shoot what you know. The deeper your knowledge of a specific subject, the easier it will be to take hyper-specific photos of that subject. And the more obscure your interests are, the less competition you’ll have in your chosen niche. Are you a devout roller derby enthusiast? Photograph multiple kinds of skates, and keyword them accurately. Love chess? Set up a bunch of classic board layouts and moves and photograph each one, tagging the specific move you’re illustrating. A photo of “a chessboard” won’t sell. A photo of “the Caro-Kann Defense” probably will.

Achieving scale

Once you’ve mastered the basics of working with an agency, become a metadata pro, and decided on some subjects to shoot, how many photos will you need in your portfolio in order to make $100 per month? In my case, I had about 4,900 photos in my microstock portfolio during the two months I analyzed. That means that my average microstock photo earned about $0.022 per month. I would need to take and upload about 4,500 microstock photos in order to earn $100 per month, based on those numbers (remember that those are just my numbers, and may not be representative of the industry as a whole, as I’ll explain below).

That might feel like a pretty high bar to clear. But when you stop to think about the scale of photography today, 4,500 photos actually aren’t that many. The average cat owner, for example, takes seven photos of their cat per day. If you own a cat — and if you uploaded all your cat photos to your microstock agency — you’d have 2,555 photos in your portfolio after a year. Even non-photographers take an average of five photos per day or 1,800 per year. If you’re consciously taking microstock photos, you’ll likely take many more.

You can also dip into your archive of existing photos and sell those through a microstock agency. That means that nearly any photo you’ve taken in the last several years is fair game. The average person has 630 photos on their phone at a given time, and if you use a service like Google Photos, you might have hundreds or thousands more in one easily accessible place. If you upload that backlog of old photos to a microstock agency, you’ll get a big jump on the 4,500 photos you need to earn $100 per month, again assuming your sales figures are similar to mine.

You can also get to $100 per month faster if you shoot and uploaded higher-value photos. Most of my microstock photos aren’t from formal shoots — again, they’re random photos I took throughout the day and felt wouldn’t be a fit for my microstock agencies, where the vast majority of my photographic work resides. If you focus all your photographic energy on microstock, you’ll likely take and upload better microstock photos than me, and they’ll likely earn more than mine do. In particular, if you shoot photos of people and include model releases, you’ll likely make a lot more than 2.2 cents per image, per month and get to $100 per month much faster. (Many photographers use their family members as free models.)

Artists in other genres thrive on the scale, so getting to 4,500 photos is absolutely achievable. And the even better news is that once you get there, your images will likely start earning you even more. Many microstock agencies pay photographers on a sliding scale, based on how many photos they’ve sold in the previous year. As your sales increase, so too will the amount you take home from each sale. It’s a virtuous circle that builds your portfolio’s value over time. And remember, once your photos are online, they’ll keep earning indefinitely. I have microstock photos which I shot in 2015, and which still earn me royalties today.

Is taking microstock photos an easy way to earn millions? No. But if you love photography and want to earn $100 per month (or more) in passive income from your photographic work, that’s absolutely achievable with microstock — provided you’re willing to put in the work. And if your main goal is to find an audience for your photos — while perhaps earning latte money in the process — you can get there even faster.

So the next time you see a rainy gutter, a strange bird, or a tasty bowl of pho, snap a picture and upload it to the microstock agency of your choice. You might earn a few dollars in the process. Photograph enough gutters, birds, and bowls, and you could be earning hundreds of dollars per month — or even more.