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Micro Stock Photo Agency Guide
by Stephen Finn
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Photos Lighting Copyright Size Submitting Keywords Image prices
Earnings Payment methods Referrals Comparison chart Exclusivity Strategy
The Photos Top


- have to be taken by you so you own the copyright.

- must be at least 1200 x 1600 pixels in size about 2 mega pixels see the table for variation between the agencies

- must not contain any copyrighted material, company names and logos but also some buildings and most recent works of art statues, paintings etc.

-identifiable marks such licence plates and advertising should be cloned or blurred out.

No recognizable faces without a model's release form (which needs to be signed by the model and a witness) Most sites don't like blurred faces in the background none will accept a blurred face in the foreground.

Care must be taken with digital noise and the compression setting on your camera. The later should be set to the fine or superfine.

What is Digital noise? It is the slight variations in colour seen in digital photos use neat image.

After any manipulations remember to save at JPEG setting 12 to ensure maximum quality.


Lighting, Composition and Colour Top

Most of the agencies have their own help pages on these subject so I won't go into too much detail but the points to watch out for

Under and over exposure

If its only slight you can alter this yourself using the brightness/contrast bar or better yet the curves feature on adjustments on Photoshop it gives you more control..

Hard Shadows

The Agencies don't like them so try to avoid them.

Blown out highlights

Areas which are just white and have no detail, unfortunately the camera doesn't record anything other than white so adjusting the brightness won't solve it.  Best to find another photo unless you can crop out that area

Composition + Size

Composition - Books have been written on this subject, all I will say is don't be afraid to crop if you can spare the pixels if they is something distracting near the edge of the photo. I tend to find that having people doing something is always a plus point (especially in natural landscapes) also make sure the subject really is the subject and its not lost in the background.

Keep the horizon absolutely level - 1-2 degrees off will be noticed and the photo will be rejected.

Don't over crop as remember the bigger the photo the more money it can earn as some agencies have a tiered pricing structure depending on the image size.

Don't be tempted to oversize, (resizing your 1024x768 photo to  1200 x 1600) as when viewed at 100% they will notice and it will be rejected and they will be sceptical about your subsequent uploads.


I do know the Agencies don't like over saturation of colour I know its tempting to tweak the colours but keep it natural its not pop art.

Blurred, out of focus, or lens flare

Are all unacceptable so don't waste your time and theirs


Copyright issues Top

Potentially any modern building, I personally have had problems with The Gherkin in London, The Louvre pyramid, the Pompidou Centre and the Eiffel Tower at night. Some agencies with allow photos if the building is part of a larger skyline.

In the same theme any gadget with a recognizable shape such as an iPod is also off limits for photographs.


Size of photos + timing of submitting Top

I have recently changed my mind on this subject I now submit full size photos to all agencies apart from Shutterstock as they upsize the images anyway.

Downsizing will sharpen a photo but microstock is a volatile market fortunately with prices on the increase as of May 2008, even 123RF wil,l reward photographers for submitting larger images.

Some of the most successful photographers will upload their photos to the higher paying sites first then wait a few months before submitting to the others.

Unfortunately a common rejection now is "too many on site" so best not to wait too long.


Submitting/uploading Top

So you have your photos and are ready to submit, Broadband is essential but note uploading is slower than downloading. In the UK a 10 meg and a 2 meg connection have the same upload speed 384k (about 20-30k per second or 100 meg/hour).

Shutterstock, iStockphoto, Can Stock Photo, 123RF and SXP all want you to send samples of your work before you can submit so best to wait until you know your photos are up to standard. Plus the Istock, Big Stock and Can Stock make you sit a little test regarding model release forms and copyright before you can even send your sample photos.

If you thought uploading took a long time wait until you have to start categorizing your photos this is a very important step as without the correct keywords how is anyone ever going to find yours amongst the hundreds of thousands of images?

All sites apart from 123Royalty free have a category system which is worth exploring before you start any serious uploads as useful categories can be in some rather unlikely places.

For example for Big Stock Photo both beaches and winter are subcategories of places.


Keywords Top

Every site seems to have different categories but they all have keywords before submitting any photo it is always a good idea to check out the competition.

If there are a huge number of results reconsider uploading unless you have a unique angle or strange shot.

Forget about uploading photos of flowers, pets and sunsets. Most sites are full to the brim you are just going to annoy the reviewers and frustrate yourself when the rejections arrive in your inbox.

If there are absolute no results of a well known landmark or object (especially if it is a modern building or recognizable gadget) they may be copyright issues so perhaps think again or just send one photo.

But hopefully its is somewhere in between so you can pick a few of the most popular results and see what categories and keywords they used. I am fairly lazy so if it is a picture of the Eiffel Tower I would use that in the title, description and as the first key words. I usually just expand the title in the description. Most agencies want at least 7-10 keywords. Big Stock want seven words and Dreamstime want five words in their description

Sometimes its hard to think of that many so hence my suggestion to check other peoples entries, though in bear in mind on some sites that are multilingual the translations get messed up. Don't use irrelevant keywords it will annoy both the reviewers and those looking for photos.

For Example if you had a picture of the Eiffel Tower from the Montparnasse Tower you might write

Title - Eiffel Tower

Description - Eiffel Tower viewed from  the Montparnasse Tower,Paris

Keywords - eiffel tower, eiffel, tower, montparnasse, view, iron, metal, tall, structure, monument, paris,  tourism, attraction, landmark, france, french,

I usually enter in eiffel, tower and eiffel tower

Keywords -updated I have finally seen the light!!

I usually write my title, description and keywords (with commas between the words) on notepad then using pixvue I copy and paste these details into the IPTC fields. I save the text file in the folder with the photos. All the agencies can read the IPTC details filling in the fields so you only have to worry about the categories but mistakes happen so keeping  the txt file handy is very useful.

Unfortunately pixvue seems to be no longer available the best of free programs is from Microsoft

Microsoft Photo Info

Of note sometimes shutterstock appears to missread the IPTC details before you start copy and pasting wait for a few minutes and try clicking on submit and sometimes it will read the IPTC details and fill in all those boxes.

Shutterstock and Fotolia version 2 have a compulsory spellchecker so be prepared for it picking up place names and UK spelling. It also deletes purals I usually submit to them first and then correct my IPTC tags before submitting to the other sites.

Some of the sites won't let you alter your keywords after they are accepted but Fotolia and Featurepics won't let you alter them after you submit for approval, so watch out for typos.

123RF don't allow alterations to keywords after acceptance

Istock, Shutterstock Dreamstime and SXP will let you alter your keywords after acceptance (DT will even let other people suggest keywords)

You can alter your keywords at Big Stock Photos but they require approval


Image sizes and prices Top

Approximate sizes

Minimum amount needed to convert
  300 x 400  600 x 800 2mp 4mp 5mp 8mp 12mp 16mp 30mp eps Chq


PayPal Money


Dreamstime   50c $1 $1 $1.50 $1.50 $2     $2-4 $100 $100 $100 also 25c subscription sales
Stockxpert   50c $1 $1.50   $2.50   $5   $5   $50 $50 also 30c subscription sales
  37.5c -50c 75c -$1 $1.12 -$1.50           36c or $1.50 $200 $50 $100 36c from subscriptions You have to wait a 2 weeks  for the payment.

eps files 36c for subscription or $1.12 - $1.50 for credit downloads

Fotolia 33c 66c 99c $1.32   $1.65   $1.98 $2.31 $2.31   $2 $2 Payments of $2-$49 incur a $1 surcharge
Big Stock Photo   50c $1   $2   $3 #     $3 $50 $30 $30 New Prices Nov 2007

# actually 11mp

iStock Photo 26c 78c $1.30 $1.30 $2.60 $2.60 $3.90 $5.20   # $100 $100 $100 the maximum payout per image istock for more info bulk purchases credits earn much lower # illustration prices depend on complexity
Shutterstock   25c (30c per DL once you earn $500)   $300 $75 $75 Payments at beginning of the month only
Can Stock Photo   50c 75c $1     $1.25     NA $100 $50 - new $100 25c from subscriptions, guest are charged double. $1.25 for 10 mp images.
StockPhotoMedia   0.35E 1.35E 2.75E           1.50E   60 Euros   Prices in Euros can request a payment every three months
Featurepics   You set the price and receive 70% * $50 $50   * you set the price for eps
Earnings Top
  Feb'08 Jan'08 2007 Dec'07 Nov'07 Oct'07 Sep'07 Aug '07 Jul' 07 Jun'07 May '07 Apr'07 Mar'07 Feb '07 Jan '07
Shutterstock  46.2% 43.6%  46.2% 49.6% 43.1% 49.4% 46.7% 49.4% 51.6 % 53.3% 40.2% 45.3% 38.3% 43.6% 41.7%
Dreamstime  16.5% 15.8%  15.0% 15.3% 16.5% 13.8% 15.6% 13.4% 13.5% 7.0% 16.7% 17.7% 20.5% 16.3% 10.4%
Fotolia  9.4% 9.6%  10.8% 7.8% 11.4% 10.9% 8.4% 8.1% 8.0% 8.8% 20.6% 9.4% 11.7% 9.7% 13.9%
StockXpert  7.0% 7.4%  7.9% 8.3% 10.8% 8.6% 8.5% 7.6% 6.7% 7.8% 6.1% 6.7% 10.6% 5.6% 5.2%
istock  6.3% 6.1%  7.2% 5.8% 6.7% 5.9% 5.9% 5.8% 5.6% 8.5% 6.9% 8.2% 8.4% 11.1% 12.2%
Big Stock photo  6.1% 9.4%  5.8% 6.0% 5.2% 5.4% 6.3% 8.2% 6.3% 7.3% 4.8% 5.4% 4.2% 5.9% 4.2%
123 Royalty free  7.0% 6.3%  4.9% 4.8% 3.9% 4.0% 6.7% 4.7% 6.9% 5.5% 3.3% 4.8% 3.6% 5.5% 7.7%
Featurepics  1.2% 1.8%  1.4% 2.3% 2.0% 1.6% 1.4% 1.0% 1.1% 0.9% 0.8% 1.1% 0.6% 0.9% 3.6%
Can Stock Photo 0.3% 0.1% 0.5% 0 0.2% 0.2% 0.3% 0.5% 0.3% 0.6% 0.5% 0.8% 0.8% 0.7% 1.0%
Stockphotomedia 0 0 0.4% 0 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 1.2% 0 0.4% 0.2% 0.6% 1.3% 0.8% 0.1%
Payment methods  Top

Microstock sites pay by three methods

Cheque in US Dollars (usually a larger minimum amount)



The latter two methods are more useful if you are based outside of the USA all amounts are in British pounds.

Paypal wouldn't charge for withdrawals to your bank account if the amount if over 50. There is a 25p charge for amounts less than 50

Moneybookers charge about 1.28 for all withdraws to a bank account but have a better exchange rate so if you are a higher earner over $1,000 per month you would be better off with Moneybookers.

If you have a unverified Paypal personal account

you can receive 250 /month
you can withdraw 500/month

until you withdraw a total of 1,500 then you HAVE to get verified to withdraw any more money

Verification is a three step process

1 - provide your bank account details (if you have been withdrawing money they have that anyway) they deposit two small amounts in your account and you have to enter those on the paypal site.

2 - provide credit card details *

3 - provide your landline phone number you receive an automated call and you have to enter a number on your telephone.

* I eventually received a letter with a six digit code at the address my credit card bills go to which I had to enter on the site.

Then you are verified and you can withdraw with no limits any withdraws less than 50 incur a 25p fee over 50 no fee.

HOWEVER you still have the 250/month receiving limit. This limit resets on a particularly day each month (the anniversary of the day you opened the PayPal account).

If you want to receive more than 250/month then you will have to upgrade to a premier or business account, where you may incur fees.

You won't have any paypal fees iS, SS, DT, FT, SXP, BSP, FP,123 pay the paypal fee

CSP do not pay the fee so I had a $2.25 charge on a $50 payment

Referrals / Affiliation programs Top

  Buyers Sellers (photographers) Other
10% of all their purchases for 3 years after they opened a new account from your referral 10% of all their sales for 3 years (3c to 20c)

used to be 6 months

Earn $5 for displaying Dreamstime badge.

Dynamic badge available for latest or most popular uploads

Stockxpert 10% of credit purchases Nothing ?
15% of every purchase of credits

5% of every renewal

3c - $2 per sale depending on sale for first 6 months Dynamic badge available

for latest or most popular uploads + search box

Fotolia 15% 10% of all sales even extended licence (for 5 years!!) Dynamic badge available

scrolling slide of your favourite photos

Big Stock Photo earn 35% of first purchase of credits

but nothing for future credit purchases

When new referred photographer has 75 approved photos you earn $5  
iStock Photo $10 for each a new buyer (with ID check)    
Shutterstock 20% of subscriptions 3c for every download forever  
Featurepics 1.5% 1.5%  
Can Stock Photo 10% of credit purchases only for the first six months. $5 for every 50 photos your referred photographer sells, (only for the first six months). Never received a payment Dynamic badge available

3 photos

scrolling slide

Comparison chart Top

  Imagebase  size Sample my portfolio Upload limits Sub/



XL =extended license

Shutterstock 3,167,827 4 MP 10 7,839 None sub Large payouts as subscription system. Quick review times easy categories


Just switched from 2.5 mp to 4mp minimum for newbies.

1 month wait if you fail test

Fotolia 3,248,363 4 MP N/A 6,378 None size reasonable acceptance rate


@ Can't alter keywords after acceptance.  Vague rejections.
Dreamstime 2,494,152 1500 x 2000

3 MP

N/A 5,007 100/ day but varies with acceptance rate   sub


 indication of review time when you upload. autopopulate keywords and categories from other photos or pay 20c to have someone else do it


Need 3 mega pixels.

Have got really fussy in last 3 months.

Big Stock Photo 1,817,000 1200 x 1600

(600 x 800)

N/A 7,252 20 before initial review # size Accept small 600 x 800 photos but prefer 2 MP IPTC  FTP Can't alter keywords after submitting photos stuck online for 90 days
Stockxpert 1,000,000+ 600 x 800 5 4,458 50/day sub


Photos reviewed (very fast usually a few hours) bulk editor for adding details. Arrange photos in folders


5 photo sample

strange rejections

iStock Photo 2,775,551 1200 x 1600

2 MP

3 1,047 15-30 photos/


size The most popular site, maximum exposure


20% of sales

* 15-30 uploads per week

123RF 1,600,000+ 1700x2200


N/A 7,694 None sub


very simple uploading and categories just a title and 7 keywords. High acceptance rate


Can't alter keywords after acceptance

Need 4 megapixels

Featurepics 529,550 600x 800 N/A 8,130


None   You set the price and receive 70%

Accept 600 x 800 FTP IPTC XL

low sales

Can't alter keywords after acceptance

need to e-mail them to delete a photo

Stopped uploading to these two sites
Can Stock Photo 666,878 1500 x 2000

3 MP

3 1,673


varies with acceptance rate

3-70 / day

sub size

Series wizard to arrange your photos

auto category


Need 3 megapixels

very Slow sales

& Always need model release form.

196,954 1600 x 1200

2 MP

N/A 3,259


None size Based in Europe so paid in Euros. High acceptance rate


extremely low sales

The bigger the image database the more the competition but the more popular the site.

Required picture size

Sample - number of photos you need to submit before they let you upload

The idea of stating the number of photos I have had accepted and acceptance rate is to show you the variation in the quality threshold, I tend to send batches of photos to four of more agencies at a time and they never seem to accept the same photos.

Upload limits how many photos can you upload a day

sub - the site offers a subscription program which means more downloads but smaller fees

size - the bigger the image the more it will cost to download so greater earnings.

IPTC are text tags on a file which are read by all the agencies so you only have to enter your title, description and keywords once. I use either photoshop or Pixvue. The former allows you to enter the details under file info, keywords have to be entered individually but you can save a template. Pixvue allows you to enter a string of keywords separated by commas but you can't save a template.

FTP File transfer Protocol - allows you to drag and drop and upload many files (can't see thumbnails so need to have files arranged appropriately).

XL - extended licence

ED -editorial/news related photo release forms not necessary only really at SS

90 day minimum if you upload photos to Big Stock they have to remain online for 90 days in the former case you have to give them three months notice if you want to delete a file. This is an important factor if you are thinking of going exclusive with one agency or are hoping to sell special licences for a photo which requires you to remove it from all other sites.

Most sites have a forum but you can't talk about other sites one excellent independent forum

http://www.microstockgroup.com/forum/  over 1000 members a wealth of information

Exclusivity Top

You can upload all your non-exclusive royalty free images to all the listed Microstock agencies with no restrictions unless you choose to go exclusive

Exclusive images (can't sell that image anywhere else)

At Fotolia images can be exclusive so for newbies you earn 50% of a sale instead of 33%

Once you have 100 downloads you can change the minimum price to 2 credits and earn 52%

more details at my Fotolia page

At Dreamstime images can be exclusive so you earn 60% of a sale instead of 50%

You can't have that image at another site but you can have different images at other sites

Exclusive photographers (can't sell any images anywhere else)

At Dreamstime an exclusive photographer earns 60% of each sale and receives 20c for every image uploaded and accepted

At iStock only photographers can be exclusive once you have 250 downloads you can be exclusive.

This only makes sense if you have over 25,000 downloads at iStock and make nearly 50% of your microstock income there as your cut of sales doubles from 20% to 40%

Istock Exclusives

500 - 2,499 downloads 25%

2,499 - 4,999 downloads 30%

5,000 - 24,999 downloads 35%

25,000 + downloads 40%

More details at my iStock page.


A Stock Photo Strategy: Patience is a virtue  Top

Pick one of the agencies that allow a lot of uploads such as Dreamstime select up to 30 good pictures over a range of subjects address all issues regarding copyright and noise, check them against their existing database. To save time, type your keywords into a text file save that in the folder with your images then enter these details into the IPTC data fields on the file, this will save a lot of time as all sites will read these data so you should have to do this only once.

Popular buildings or objects from unusual perspectives are a good bet or good shots from under represented countries.

Most sites have pages listed photos they are looking for.

Submit them, then whilst you are waiting either forget about it or have a look through their image base to see what they are lacking (you would be surprised regarding some of the gaps) to prepare for subsequent uploads.

Once you have got some accepted photos you can try them with other agencies though sometimes they will be rejected but they have a better chance.

When you have got ten accepted photos of a variety of subjects you might want to consider trying Stockxpert, iStockphoto or Shutterstock. I made the mistake of trying Shutterstock too early and was refused and told to come back in three months due to ignorance about digital noise. Unfortunately the three month wait is non negotiable (but has now been reduced to 1 month). Stockxpert were more sympathetic they asked for another 5 photos before making their decision, they send their decision to your SXP site mail NOT your e-mail account..

IStock have recently started a 15 photo/week upload limit for newbies so if you have a lot of photos it would be best to test your photos with Dreamtime first and then upload to iStock.

It is very important for every agency to keep a careful track of what you have uploaded put all the files into a folder with the company name and date on as its easy to lose track and you will get yourself in trouble if you uploaded the same image. Though all sites have pages where you can see what you have uploaded though sometimes this can be hidden.

So explore each website just as the categories aren't very logical also the sites themselves can be rather confusing with useful features hidden away. The "management area"  link of Dreamstime opens up a page with links to show what has been uploaded, accepted rejected and even why?

Keep an eye on the forum regarding news about special offers or uploading problems, just because a site has a ftp option doesn't mean it always works. I have included a link below for free speech forum regarding micro stock agencies which is actually much better as it is uncensored you can discuss all the sites .

Featurepics Fotolia
iStock StockPhotoMedia Shutterstock StockXpert 123RF