Microstock FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Stock Photography?

Stock photography is photography that’s already been taken and is lying around somewhere, ready to use. The opposite is assignment photography, where someone pays you to go off and photograph something.

For the photographer, assignment photography is more glamorous and fun, in that “hey, National Geographic hired me to spend three months photographing in the rain-forest” sort of way. But stock is where the money’s at. Even professional photographers do assignment work almost at cost, just to get the stock. And assignment is a one-time payment, whereas stock is recurrent income — every month, you get money deposited into your bank account, almost for life. It’s like a salary or a retirement paycheck. You can do nothing, and lie on a beach, and still get paid. Now that’s what I want.

What About Copyright?

Don’t worry about that. You keep the copyright. All you’re doing is licensing the photo, meaning that someone is paying you to use that photo on a project. You still keep the photo, or, legally, the right to copy the photo. So you can let another person license the photo for their project, then another, then another, forever. This is the beauty of stock photography — you don’t get much money per license, but you can license each photo an unlimited number of times and get a constant stream of money.

Do I Have To Copyright The Photos First?

No. Your photos are automatically copyrighted — by law — when you take them. An official registration of copyright is only useful if you go to court, which is highly unlikely, so it’s generally not worth your time.

Won’t Someone Steal My Work?

No. This is a mature market and publishers are more than happy to pay the rates and follow the rules. Besides, the full-size versions of your photos are kept behind lock and key by the microstock sites, and are only accessible after payment.

The thumbnails (or “comps” in stock parlance) that are shown for free, are too small to be used properly in print, and are often stamped with a “watermark” (usually the site’s logo embedded in the photo) so that any online usage is pretty obvious. You might get some uneducated or dishonorable individuals using the little samples but this is usually minor usage and generally doesn’t detract from your sales.

Who Buys Stock Photography?

That’s a great question. To make the most money, you should keep in mind who’s buying your work.

Designers buy stock photography. People who have to put together books, brochures, websites, and magazines, etc. want pretty pictures that illustrate the subject of an article. Designers are often under a time crunch but have a budget for photography, so they go to a popular stock site, search using key words, try out a few “comps” (low-resolution images), and show them to the editor or client. Once approved, the designer downloads an appropriately-sized copy of the photo by paying a fee. You get a percentage of that fee.

How Much Money Do I Get?

The general rule of thumb for microstock is: one dollar per photo per month. “That’s not much” you may say. True. But if you have 1,000 photos, that’s $1,000 per month. And 10,000 photos is… nice money. So quantity is important. The more you offer, the more you get paid.

Can I Submit Any Photo?

Stock sites will reject photos that they feel won’t sell. And they are very selective. Thus, submitting all your photos will just be a waste of your time.

Additionally, microstock sites offer better terms and prominence to their best photographers. So you want to earn a good reputation and only submit images that are likely to be accepted. Thus, stringent editing is important.

What Photos Sell?

Look at magazines and brochures — that’s what sells. Your photos must be very simple. They must concisely convey the subject in an engaging and upbeat way. Remember, this is a very competitive market and the buyer will be comparing your shots with those of other photographers. Make your images well-composed, colorful, sharp, happy, direct, exciting, distinct. Remove any clutter and distraction. Use a tripod, lighting, and a simple background for a crisp, well-lit shot.

Think of how the pictures will be used: For magazine covers, include lots of sky for the masthead and text. For product shots, use a white background. For articles, find a “concept” shot — to illustrate this page, I searched for photos with the tags “money” and “camera.”

Do I Need An Expensive Camera?

It’s the picture that counts, not the camera. You need a good, clean, sharp lens; 6–10 megapixels (the more the better); and a good eye for photography.

Does The Make Or Model Of The Camera Affect Sales?

No. Buyers only care about the image. Whether you have a Nikon this or Canon that doesn’t matter.

What Camera Setting Should I Use?

Most microstock sites want JPEG images (“.jpg” or “.jpeg” files) — they don’t take RAW files (so if you don’t know what that is it doesn’t matter!). (If you do know what that is, you can shoot in RAW, process in Photoshop, and save in JPEG.)

Use the least amount of compression (the largest file size, sometimes called “fine”). Use some fill-flash for people shots.

Photoshop or other image manipulation could include:

  • Straighten
  • Crop
  • Sharpen (only a little)
  • Exposure and color correction

For basic photos, do the least amount of Photoshop work necessary. Don’t resave JPEG files multiple times as you lose quality in each save.

What About People?

You must have a signed model-release for any recognizable person in your photo. Without this, the stock site could get sued by the person for profiting from their likeness (an “invasion of privacy”). Stock sites will offer their own model releases that have to be signed and submitted with each photo. This is a time-consuming job but photos of people sell well.

How About Famous People?

Although pictures of celebrities and politicians can be used for “editorial” projects (such as in a newspaper), they can’t be used without permission from the person for “commercial” use, such as to advertise products. So stock agencies won’t accept your concert photos of Mick Jagger or street photos of Paris Hilton.

What About Animals?

You don’t need any release for any normal animal, even If it is someone’s pet or property (animals are not people so they don’t have a legal right to privacy). Famous animals used as artwork (e.g. the MGM lion) can come under copyright and/or trademark law. I don’t think that zoos can do anything to stop you from using photos of their animals other than to revoke your admission.

Can I Submit Photographs Of My Children?

Yes. You’ll still need a model release for each photo, but you sign that. Be aware that you have no control over where or how those photos can be used, so your children’s images could appear anywhere and without your knowledge.

Any Subjects To Avoid?

Artwork (including logos, paintings, drawings, signage, T-shirt designs, cartoon characters, etc.) should be avoided (unless it’s your own) as that needs permission from the artist (a model release.) Also ensure that no trademarks are visible in your photos. Any subject that’s controversial, dangerous, inciteful, unsavory, or could cause offence is not worth your while.

What Photos Should I Submit?

Edit, edit, edit. Pick only your very best. If you have ten good shots from a group, pick one horizontal, one vertical, and maybe one with extra space or headroom (for a magazine cover), and that’s it.

After a while in business, you might see a trend in what is licensed. Then you could expand in that area and build a niche for yourself.

How Do I Make My Pictures Come Up On The Search Engine?

Photos are searched not by the picture but by the keywords (text) which is attached to the picture file. Thus you must add keywords.

How Do I Add Keywords?

A time-consuming but critical part is to tag your photos with keywords. Your best photo of a beach won’t be seen by buyers looking for a “beach” shot unless it is tagged with the keyword “beach.”

Microstock sites offer tips on tagging and can suggest keywords for you. For a fee, some sites will even do the work for you. But you don’t want to be paying fees before getting revenue, and knowing the important keywords will help drive your photography.

You’ll need a photo editor such as Photoshop. Go to the information panel for the photo and you’ll see a field to enter keywords. There are ways that you can add keywords to a group of photos in bulk.

How Do I Upload My Photos?

First, you have to choose a microstock site and sign up for a (usually) free account. Once you’ve entered your basic information, there’ll be options to upload photos. These are all variations on the same theme, and usually include:

  • Web Page Use the site’s page to find and upload a photo or group of photos.
  • Software Some sites provide software for you to download (usually for free) which can then ease the task of finding and uploading. The software may interface directly to your photo management software, such as iPhoto.
  • FTP (File Transfer Protocol software). This is the choice for volume users. You can drag-and-drop a prepared folder of images. I use Fetch on a Mac.

Power users may want to schedule the uploads for a time that the computer is not being used, e.g. at nighttime.

Can I Upload The Same Photo To Different Sites?

Yes. This is part of the beauty of stock photography — you own the copyright so you can make your photo available anywhere you like.

This is called “non-exclusive” licensing, and is probably the way you want to start off. It comes with a slight opportunity cost however, as some sites offer a higher percentage of the fee if the photo (or the photographer) is “exclusive” to the agency. Most of the higher-end stock agencies only deal with exclusive photographers, since they spend money on marketing the images and want to offer unique images.

What Do RF And RM Mean?

RF=Royalty-Free, which means that the buyer can use the licensed photo in most ways. RM=Rights-Managed where the buyer has to pay for the specific usage, e.g. “for a color brochure with a print run of no more than 5,000 copies distributed in a limited area,” etc. Thus, designers generally prefer RF images for the simplicity and pricing. RM is used generally for higher-end images where the stock agency or the buyer want to control usage.

In microstock, your photos will likely be RF (Royalty-Free). If you want to sell RM (Rights-Managed), you’d probably need your own website. In both cases, you still retain the copyright.

What Price Do I Ask For?

You don’t set the price on microstock sites. Each site has fixed prices and payout fees, which depends on factors not related to your photo. You just get whatever they give you.

What If I Want To Set The Price, Get A Higher Amount Per Photo, Or Control Who Sees What?

If you want to set your own price or do anything custom, you have to have your own personal stock site. See Photography Website Design. Depending upon what you’re trying to achieve, it might be a good or bad thing that you have to consider storage, website design, layout, pricing, taxes, etc.

Note that you can offer the same photos on multiple microstock sites AND your own website, and charge different rates at different locations.

How Do I Get Paid?

Another beautiful part of this is that the money can be deposited directly into your bank account. It’s wonderful to check your balance and find more money in there than yesterday!

The microstock sites typically offer a choice of payment method. You can get a check mailed to you (usually after you’ve reached a certain amount, say $500. Once you’re established, payment can be made automatically by PayPal or direct desposit.

Do I Have To Upload Photos Every Month?

No. You are free to upload only when you wish. So you could take a sabbatical for two years and still get paid for the old photos.

What Should I Specialize In?

Whatever you enjoy. Your passion drives your artwork.

Is There A Maximum Number Of Images I Can Upload?

Depending on the site, there may be a limit for first-timers. But once you’re established (i.e. you have a reputation with the stock site for providing good images) then there’s usually no limit. The site, like you, makes money from quantity.

Is There A Cost?

No. Usually microstock sites are free to sign up with and use. There may be fees for optional services. You can try most microstock sites at no cost or commitment to you.

Do I Need A Business License?

Generally no. A business license is a local tax code thing so it depends on the law where you live. Generally you just declare the revenue as miscellaneous business income on your tax form and you should be OK.

What Size Or Format Do I Upload?

The largest original size in a JPEG (“.jpg” or “.jpeg”) format. (Don’t upsample your photos in software.)

What’s The Downside?

You don’t get much money per photo, and you don’t have control over display, pricing or usage. But if you’re OK with that, then microstock is the easiest way to make money from photography.

How Does The Buyer Get The Photo?

Once the buyer pays, the microstock site will give them a secret coded page or link to download a high-resolution copy of the image. The buyer can then use the image immediately. You don’t have to do anything, in fact you’re not even consulted about or aware of the transaction, unless you check your revenue breakdown.

How Do I See How Much I’ve Earned?

All the microstock sites provide online web pages where you can quickly see how much money you have earned today, this week, this month, or whatever. Some have iPhone and smartphone apps so that you can see if you’ve earned your lunch before you buy it!

What Are The Most Downloaded Microstock Photos?

See this list of Microstock Sites Ranked By Traffic

Next page: Top 10 Questions


Reply by Chanthi

March 22, 2013


Are there sites that accept illustrations and cartoons and in what format...jpeg?


Reply by Sian

January 10, 2013

Hi Andrew,

I found your article very helpful, thankyou. One question though - can I submit photos that I’ve already got on my blog?


Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 10, 2013


Hi Sian,

Yes. You can submit your photos even if you have published them online.


Reply by Beena

December 16, 2012


I have a lot of photos which I think probably are stock worthy.. But I had taken most of them with the "Automatic" setting on my

Nikon D3100. Is there a restriction about submitting such photos for "acceptance" to the iStockphoto site?

Appreciate your reply and help..



Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

January 6, 2013


Hi Beena,

The setting is not a problem. I take most of my photos on the auto setting.

Stock sites need good-quality photos. They want correct exposure, which can be achieved with the auto setting. Moreover, they want good focus and composition.

Try submitting some of your photos. If they get rejected, the site may give you a reason so that you know what to work on.


Reply by Levi

November 19, 2012

All this article did was support the false idea that is floating around that people can magically get into microstock and make money fast. It is just not true. Years have to be spent building up a nich, or a wide collection of pictures, building your reputation, and getting your name out there. I am sick of these types of articles. Microstock is NOT easy money.

Reply by Andrew Hudson, PhotoSecrets

December 3, 2012


Hi Levi,

Thank you for your comment. You are correct, microstock photography takes work, like most things. It is however an accessible avenue for amateur photographers to make some money from their art.


Reply by Chris

August 3, 2012

I agree - this was a terrific article! As a newbie, I have been searching "the net" for reliable guidance, which I believe I have found. The next thing I will do is search through vacation photos, upload them, and see what happens. Thank you!

Reply by Amber

February 24, 2012

Thank you for this article. It was a terrific in depth review of selling photos, just what I had been looking for. You covered every question in one fantastic spot. I appreciate it.

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