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The business of microstock photography is less than a decade old and is already a multi-million dollar industry. Every company needs good media, whether it is video footage, photos or graphics. When it comes to photography, smaller companies, more often than not, can't afford the price of traditional stock agencies or to hire a photographer for a custom shoot. Microstock fills that business need. Many professional photographers used to argue that microstock was demeaning the profession, dropping the value of their work by selling photos for as little as one dollar. Most traditional stock agencies will only sell a photo for as low as 50 dollars. Slowly the microstock agencies won over many of the sceptics by proving that microstock has a much larger client base than traditional stock agencies. With traditional stock agencies a photo may only sell once a year, but with a microstock agency that same photo may sell a hundred or two hundred times. The microstock model has proven it can be very lucrative.
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Making Good Microstock Photos
Taking good stock photos is not as easy as you might think. In fact books have been written on nothing more than making appealing stock photography. Although I can't teach you everything about stock photography in this one article, I can give you some quick tips that can help you get started.
There are certain things that are accepted in professional photography circles that microstock agencies tend not to tolerate. Chief among these is excessive jpeg noise. Some other examples of seldom accepted practices included selective colouring, lens flair, sepia, and the use of other photoshop actions. If a photo with these techniques is exceptional then an agency may still take that photo, but your chances will be better if you avoid them.
Here are some basic concepts that tend to be successful in stock photography: photos of people, indoors and outdoors, groups of people always do well, business and technology concepts, medical concepts, silhouettes, and anything on a white background. This list can go on and on, most agencies have lists of their most desired content. Regardless of what an agency requests, good stock photography is only limited by your imagination and the capabilities of your equipment.
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Of all the microstock agencies out there iStock is the most well known. They were also the first microstock agency, having opened back in 2000. iStock now has over six millions photos and graphics online and has since branched out into royalty free video and audio.
When applying to iStock as a photographer, you have to first sign up for an account then apply be to one of their photographers. To apply you have to upload three shots which will be reviewed and, if accepted, these three shots will be your first photos available for sale with iStock. When submitting your initial three, I would recommend only choosing your best work from three separate photo shoots. Of the “big six" iStock is easily the most critical in their review process. Don't be discouraged if you don't get accepted on the first try, just replace the rejected photo or photos with something fresh and try again.
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Dreamstime is one of my favourite microstock agencies. In my opinion they have some of the best community building activities available to microstock photographers, like their blog areas, monthly contests and much more. Dreamstime has also been the most profitable for me, so I may be a little biased towards them. Dreamstime is also one of the easier microstock agencies to get accepted to. You only need to sign up for an account and upload a set of photos for review. If too many of them get rejected you may be placed on a probation. To avoid this, just make sure you look over their guidelines.
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Microstock agencies originally ran only on a credit system, meaning that clients would buy credits in bulk and then use those credits to buy royalty free property. The higher the resolution of the downloaded photo, the more credits the download would cost. Shutterstock was the first to introduce a subscription business model to the microstock industry. In this case, clients pay a monthly fee which allows them to download a certain number of photos each day of the month. Each time a photographer's photo is be downloaded they receive a flat fee, no matter the resolution of the photo.
Shutterstock is also very critical when reviewing submissions. To apply as a photographer with Shutterstock you must sign up for an account and then submit ten photos for review. Seven of these ten must be deemed worthy to join the Shutterstock library, and for you to become a Shutterstock photographer.
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For your initial submission with Shutterstock there are two things I can tell you to help you get accepted. First, ensure you only upload photos that are devoid of jpeg noise. Shutterstock is very particular when it comes to jpeg noise, if there is even one stray pixel, then the shot may be rejected. The second thing is to make sure you choose ten very diverse shots for your first ten. Do not use any photos with the same model or landscape. I would recommend even try to stay away from the same type of shot composition. Shutterstock is another agency where I will advise you to be patient, don't be discouraged if you don't make it on your first try.
Read this review of Shutterstock for more information.
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Fotolia is the last of the microstock powerhouses. The fotolia website supports a wide variety of languages which entices clients from all across the globe which in turn puts more money in the hands of their photographers. The fotolia interface is easy to use, but submitting to them has been a challenge in the past as fotolia struggled with technical issues. This turned some photographers off but fotolia has worked hard to fix any uploading problems.
Now submitting to fotolia is pretty simple. Just sign up for an account and submit your photos via one of their uploading tools or FTP. That's it. Like Dreamstime, fotolia is not very harsh when reviewing submitted material. There is no formal application process.
Check out this full review of fotolia
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UPDATE: StockXpert has closed! The creators of StockXpert have opened a new agency called Stock Fresh while Getty has moved the StockXpert library onto their new subscription site ThinkStock.
StockXpert and Bigstockphoto are considered to be the fledglings of the “big 6". StockXpert was originally owned by Jupiter images. Getty, the worlds biggest traditional stock agency, recently purchased Jupiter images and, with it, StockXpert. Getty also owns iStock and is in the process of merging the two companies to some degree. The future of StockXpert seems to be uncertain but if you want to upload to them they are, at this time, still accepting new images.
StockXpert also has the most confusing interface in the microstock industry. The best way to upload to them is via FTP, then you have to move the files from their FTP to their Bulk Upload folders on the website. Then you have to add categories and keywords. It will take some patience and time exploring their system to really get use to it. The one good thing is that StockXpert doesn't have any restrictions for new photographers, like iStock or Shutterstock. You can upload as many pictures as you want right away.
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Bigstockphoto has also recently changed hands, having been bought out by Shutterstock, but unlike StockXpert, the future looks bright for Bigstockphoto. Shutterstock and Bigstockphoto have always focused on two different sides of the market. Shutterstock has always followed the subscription model and Bigstockphoto has always gone the way of credit sales. Bigstockphoto is remaining its own entity and will continue to do what it does best, which is sell photos through the credit business model.
Bigstockphoto is the easiest of all the “big 6" to submit to. You only need to sign up for an account and FTP your photos unto their server. Once uploaded you will need to choose categories for them, keyword them, and send them in for review. You can upload up to fifty at a time.
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Into the World of Microstock
Now that you have had a crash course in the major players in the microstock world, you are equipped to take your first steps into the industry. I have a couple more suggestions that will help you succeed in both the microstock industry and photography in general. The most important bit of advice I have for you is to try not to get frustrated with what can seem like ridiculous rejection reasons from microstock agencies. Life is too short to let them drive you crazy, and they will if you let them. Just let it go and move on to new and better photos. My second suggestion is to visit the microstock contributor forums often, particularly the forums on Dreamstime, iStock and Shutterstock. They are a wealth of information. I can't tell you how much I have learned from reading the Shutterstock forums.
There are all kinds of ways to make money with photography, but few offer the freedom that stock photography does and few are as easy to access as microstock. Be patient, and persistent and you will be prosperous.