As high quality DSLR cameras are getting more affordable, the gap between skilled amateur and professional photographers is shrinking. If you have patience, a passion for photography, and think you have what it takes to create sellable stock photographs, consider signing up with a microstock agency. I spoke with Kelly Thompson, COO of iStockphoto, about what it takes to be a successful stock photographer. Before jumping in and putting a down-payment on that condo with your future microstock payments, take some time to learn how the system works.
Understand how it works
Microstock companies sell inexpensive stock images, illustrations, animations, and videos submitted by a large pool of professional and amateur artists. The big four agencies are iStockphoto (now owned by Getty), Shutterstock, Fotolia, and Dreamstime, and each one has different membership and technical requirements. Generally you sign-up, make sure your camera takes large enough images (nothing smaller than 2mp), and start uploading your photographs. If an image is accepted, it will become part of that site's stock inventory. If one of those images sells, you receive a small payment.
Selling stock photos is not easy money. It will take time to build up a decent sized portfolio (at least 100 pictures) before you see any sizable return. Payment systems differ from company to company, but it's typically a small flat-fee or percentage every time someone purchases one of your images. You can submit your photos to as many different agencies as you like. If you do well, an agency may offer to sign you to an exclusive contract which means more money per image but you can only sell them through that site.
Think like a designer
Take a moment to visualize your photo's final destination—it could end up in a print publication, a marketing brochure, on a bus ad, or on a Website. Chances are, your image will not be displayed as-is in a picture frame on someone's desk. Graphic designers are going to crop, dissect, manipulate, and pile on text and other elements to the photos they buy from microstock agencies. Look at your images and honestly ask yourself if they are something a designer can work with.
Designers want photographs with ample amounts of uncluttered negative space, so make sure you leave room for a headline or other text. It's also important to minimize the number of elements you include in a single image. The background should be clean—no messy telephone lines or passers-by in the background unless it's an integral part of the scene.
Another thing to keep in mind is that microstock customers are not usually looking for fine art. Super beautiful images just don't sell as well as less exciting utilitarian shots, according to Thompson. Choose simple, straight-forward pictures that don't try to tackle too many themes at once. If your image can't be used to neatly illustrate a single subject or concept, it won't sell.
Do your research
The microstock agencies are open books when it comes to telling photographers exactly what they need. Take the time to find out which images sell the most, what a company's technical guidelines are, and what topics they're interested in. Given the high volume of submissions, agencies can afford to be extremely picky about what images they sell. Read the small print carefully to avoid being rejected for something trivial, like dust or an errant logo.
FAQs are a good place to start, but stock photography demands are constantly changing and there are many important details the official requirements won't spell out for you. The large microstock sites always list their most popular images. (Shutterstock also helpfully lists their most commonly searched for keywords.) Look at the styles, moods, and color palettes of current top images to figure out trends. Read the news and keep and eye on current events and topics that might blow up. Constantly updating your portfolio with fresh and relevant images is the best way to maintain a steady flow of microstock revenue.
Let's discuss your cat. She's adorable, photogenic, and you already know how to shoot her with enough negative space to fit in those LOLCat captions. Unfortunately, she is just not stock photography material. Microstock agencies are flooded with massive amounts of the exact same unwanted images. For example, pictures of your pets, baby, summer vacation, and campfires to name just a few. What these sure-to-be rejected images have in common is that they are the easiest, and often closest, things to take pictures of.
Stray outside of your comfort zone. You don't have to set up an elaborate photo shoot or take on crazy concepts to get good stock photos. But you should get out of the chair, leave the house, and seek out new settings and subjects.
The cat is out, but one secret of stock photography is that there is a collection of prosaic themes and concepts that consistently sell well. For example, cheesy office scenes of men in suits, happy families, seasonal still-lifes, technology concepts, and anything "green." Designers are constantly looking for interesting new ways to illustrate these same ideas, so the demand for them is steady. You can get in on the action, but the key is to take these topics and put your own spin on them. Do not try to duplicate existing images. There are already thousands of images of two hands shaking, usually used to illustrate teamwork. Can you come up with a new image that would work for a designer in those same situations? Give the same set up a new look? If properly tapped into, these cliche shots will make up a good chunk of your microstock income.
Keep it legal
The most amazing stock photo will not make it past an agency's screening stage if it's not 100 percent legal. If you have people in your photographs, you must have signed model releases. This means professional models, but also your mom, a baby, or even someone who's face is partially obscured. If there's a chance of a face being recognized, you must have written consent from that person or their guardian.
Once your people are in order, scour your images for trademark infringements. Logos and trademarked symbols are everywhere. The tiniest McDonalds arch can invalidate a whole shoot. You cannot include paintings, sculptures, or any other possibly trademarked art in the background of your stock photos. Characters on t-shirts, labels, easily recognizable products (like Peeps candies) and certain landmarks (Seattle's Space Needle) should all be avoided or removed before uploading. If something is minor enough and you have adequate re-touching skills, it's OK to remove it from your image using Photoshop.
Don't fear rejection
Stock photo sites can receive hundreds of thousands of photograph submissions each month. Those images are submitted from a mixture of professional, hobbyist, and newbie photographers. Expect that only a very small percentage of your images will be accepted the first time, if any. This is just part of starting out in microstock photography and doesn't mean you should give up. In fact, being rejected can be one of the best best ways to learn what you need to improve. Some agencies like iStockphoto will tell you exactly why they are not accepting your photograph. Others, such as Shutterstock will only occasionally give a reason. If you have an image that you thought was amazing, but it didn't make the cut, try asking for more feedback.
For realistic advice on what it takes to make money as a microstock photographer, scour the microstock forums and check out helpful sites like The Microstock Diaries. Remember that the microstock industry thrives on new talent, so don't get discouraged.