The beauty of stock photography is that it doesn’t require you to be a seasoned professional with years of experience to find success. Anyone with a camera can be a stock photographer, so long as they produce images that are wanted by the buying public, and which pass muster when submitted to a stock photography agency.
But, as with any business move, if you’re thinking about diving into the stock photography game, it’s important to be as well educated about it as possible. We’ve put together this handy step-by-step guide to help you learn more about the ins and outs of stock photography.
Stock Photography Explained: Microstock vs. Macrostock
If you sell photos via an image website without a specific end-user in mind, you’re participating in stock photography. And while that concept is understood by most, there is some confusion regarding the difference between microstock and macrostock sites.
Microstock is the more popular of the two, but certainly the more controversial one as well. Many photographers don’t appreciate microstock sites because they sell images for just a few dollars, and only pay photographers cents on the dollar. In this regard, microstock sites such as iStockPhoto and Shutterstock are viewed by some as pricing professional photographers out of the market.
However, microstock sites are extremely popular amongst bloggers, business owners, web designers, and the like, because of the wealth of images available for such a low price. Users often purchase a subscription that allows them to download a specific number of images, most of which are royalty free - meaning the end-user can do whatever they want with the image once they purchase it.
The Bottom Line on Microstock Sites: Anyone can submit photos, and once a photo is accepted, your work is done. Any future downloads are easy income, and you can sell as many copies of the same photos as you want.
Macrostock sites like Getty Images are the more traditional of the two stock photography types. Macrostock is far more expensive - anywhere from $30/image upwards of $3,000/image or more, depending on how the images are licensed and sold. Macrostock agencies used to have a niche on the very best photos, but that has changed in recent years. Images that used to only be available by companies like Getty are now available to a degree on microstock sites.
Where macrostock agencies differ is that they offer exclusive rights to some of the images they sell, thus, the primary reason why some people prefer macrostock. Publishing houses, advertising agencies, and businesses that need custom photos are all prime customers for macrostock sites. These types of end-users need exclusivity - an advertising agency, for example, wouldn’t want to use images in a campaign that anyone else could use.
Benefit of Macrostock Sites: You can earn much more money per image, but because of the exclusivity of some of the images, you might only get one sale out of an image. There is much lower volume of sales on macrostock sites as well.
For you as a photographer, likely the greatest influence on which type of stock site you submit your work to will be how much money you make. On the one hand, you earn less per image on microstock sites, but because of the sheer number of people that purchase images from microstock sites you have an opportunity to make a decent amount of money over time. On the other hand, you make more money per image on a macrostock site, but you might not sell many images given the price and the fact that it’s more of a niche audience that uses macrostock sites these days.
Popular Types of Photos
Another benefit of stock photography is that there is a virtually endless stream of possibilities when it comes to the subject matter of photos. There are some categories that are far more popular than others - landscapes, portraits, food, and lifestyle images among them. But there are also needs for imagery in categories such as hobbies, weddings, business themes, clothing, travel, and animals. Even more creative or niche photos, like macro, black and white, still life, point of view, and architecture can be profitable.
When deciding what subjects you should shoot, you might try looking at websites, magazines, posters, and other forms of advertising to see what types of imagery are popular. Investigate images not just on the subject matter, but also their composition and their theme. And don’t get stuck in the rut of only looking at photos from your own perspective. Stock photography is used by people around the globe, so taking a global perspective could help you find more sales as well. Look for ways to document cultural and ethnic vignettes both near to you and abroad, if possible.
If You Photograph People or Specific Products…
Get a release. You can’t sell an image of an identifiable person unless you have their written permission in the form of a model release. Likewise, you cannot include products, trademarks, logos, and other identifiable subjects without a property release.
Regardless of the subject matter of your images, you will have to be smart about the keywords you use to promote your images on stock photography sites. Keywords are the vehicle by which prospective buyers find your images, so it’s critical that you take the time to add appropriate keywords to your images so they can be found.
The key word here is “appropriate.” Adding irrelevant keywords that you think will be popular search terms is a big no-no. Similarly, it is not good practice to intentionally include misspellings of the keyword you wish to use in an effort to capitalize on common spelling errors. These sort of tricks will be noticed by the stock agency and could result in the removal of your images altogether. Instead, only use words that convey the content of the image or the context of the image, including where it is, what is happening in the image, how the image is composed, and the like.
Types of Licenses
As noted above, many microstock images are sold as royalty free (RF), meaning whoever purchases the image can do with it as they like once the transaction is complete. The photographer receives a one-time fee off of each purchase and has no right to dictate for what purposes the image is used. This is the most common type of license on microstock sites today.
If an image will be used in large quantities or in different formats, an extended RF license might be required. For example, if an advertising campaign is printing 1 million posters, an extended license would be needed. Similarly, if a small business intends to use an image on their website, on their print materials, in newspaper ads, and so on, an extended license might be necessary.
Another popular license type is rights managed (RM). Unlike royalty free images, rights managed images cannot be used for any purpose. In fact, purchasers are required to report the number of copies of the image that will be used, how large the image will be when used, and the specific industry in which it will be used, among other key details.
Read more about other license types in our article Stock Photography Primer: License Types Explained.
Which Sales Method is Best...Microstock or Macrostock?
The answer to this question really depends on your goals as a photographer. For some, microstock sales are the best bet because of the recurring income that can be generated without any recurring work. The profits might be small, but with time, they can add up. On the other hand, other photographers will find more success in a macrostock environment, selling a few images a year for a much higher rate.
A good compromise might be to utilize both microstock and macrostock sites as sources of income. Use the microstock website for royalty free images that are easier to create and edit, thus allowing you to have a constant inventory of fresh images ready for upload. Use a macrostock site for more complex or creative work to be licensed as rights managed or offered for exclusive use to macrostock customers. Having images for both types of sites will maximize your footprint and give you the best opportunity to earn an income as a stock photographer.