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Sch67_PhotographerOne of the most talked-about movie releases of the year is the movie Avatar, directed by James Cameron.  This flick looks wicked cool, mostly because it is such a massive special effects undertaking.  Just from seeing the previews, I can’t even begin to fathom how some of it was done. But fortunately, most of the demand for videos, photo editing, etc., is not of the ”Avatar movie” caliber.

There’s a huge market out there for decent quality, affordable stock photography and footage, and it can be a great source of income for those creative types who want to work from home.  Stock photography – and specifically “microstock” (where you sell more images at lower prices) makes up about one-third of my current photography income.   The sites sell pictures (or videos, or logo design, or illustrations, or audio clips, or any variation of a combination of these) at lower prices than a traditional stock agency, like Getty or Corbis.  An agency like Getty will license one of their images for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and photographers generally have to pay a fee to the agency to have a photo offered through the agency.  On the flip side, microstock sites do not require a content contributor to pay any fees, they sell their images for much less (as low as a dollar on some sites) and do a pretty steady stream of business.  When one of your files sells, you get a piece of the sale.  (Per file sold, I can make anywhere from $.20 to over $40.00, depending on the site, the type of license, and the size of the file sold.)

When they first started out, microstock agencies had pretty sub-par quality compared to many of the traditional agencies, but that gap has narrowed a great deal (I’ve seen photos I recognize from sites where I contribute on product packaging and billboards, as well as seen the agencies credited in magazines).  But at the same time, microstock photography is still a very accessible, easy industry to enter; all you need is a decent digital camera (a DSLR, preferably), software to do some photo editing as needed, and some basic technical know-how and a good eye for composition.   It is a great way to supplement a small business income, or even (with a fair amount of effort) to create a respectable income, if you can put together a large portfolio of pretty universally desirable images (or videos).

There are lots of players in the microstock industry, and some have come and gone, but here are the main players that see the most web traffic (according to, provide me a steady income stream, and have been around for awhile:

iStockphoto – this is probably the biggest player.  It started out as a small business, and got so dominant and good that it was bought out by Getty, but still left to operate on its own.  While it’s a great site and the best source of my microstock income, they probably also have the strictest standards for photos, and it’s gotten harder to become a contributor there.  Then again, if you can get in the door, once you’ve reached a certain sales level you can become eligible to sell your work through the main Getty site, which is awesome.  iStock also accepts illustration, video and audio contributors as well.

ShutterStock – this site does sell photos on a “per photo” basis, but their main business model is a subscription model – customers purchase a monthly subscription and for that month can download a certain number of files, and the contributor gets a set fee for a file downloaded.  (other sites have subscriptions too, in fact most do, but Shutterstock pioneered it).  ShutterStock is a good income source too, but it is much more dependent on how ‘fresh’ your portfolio is – older images don’t sell nearly as well as newer stuff there.  They also do a good video footage business – a friend of mine sells footage (specifically computer animations) through them and makes pretty good money for it.

I’d call iStockPhoto and ShutterStock the real ‘first-tier’ players in the microstock industry, both for the volume of business they do and the quality of the images they offer.  The following sites are still really great sites, but it can be a little easier to be accepted as a contributor there and their standards aren’t quite as stringent as the first-tier players (which isn’t to say they’ll accept complete garbage, but many photos I’ve had rejected from the sites above have been accepted by one – or all – of the sites below.)

Dreamstime – What I love about Dreamstime is their pricing model – simply stated, more popular files cost more money to download.  This is cool for two reasons:  First, some buyers will look for cheaper files, bringing attention to newer (or less popular) files.  Second, the tried-and-true, good quality files generate an even greater income every time they sell.  You’d think that would mean that more of the less-popular files would get purchased, but I’d say that 80% of my income here comes from the download of a few files that have made it up the ranks and cost quite a bit of money to buy.  Maybe they don’t sell as often as they would if they were cheaper, but when they do sell – ka-ching!!

Fotolia -  Fotolia’s pricing model is similar to Dreamstime’s, except that on a per-file popularity basis, it’s per-photographer.  Meaning, if you as a photographer have 1000 sales, you get to charge more for your pictures (but you can control how much more, up to a certain maximum depending on your level) than a person who has 10 sales.  It’s a pretty neat set-up.  It’s a nice site that does a fair amount of business.

There are others, of course, but these are the main ones I work with.  There are photographers that literally will contribute to dozens of sites, but I honestly don’t see how that time outlay is worth the incremental increase in income.

If you’ve got good photography (or video) chops, microstock can be a great way to turn your hobby into income, or to generate a secondary income for established photographers.

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