Introduction to Microstock Sales – how to start

In the previous post I gave a brief overview of how making sales through microstock sites works – now to dig deeper into how to get involved. How much can I earn? I have photographs on about 15 microstock sites on the Internet, with around 1300 images on average on each site – some sites more, others considerably less as their standards are either higher or they restrict the number of uploads you can make per week. iStockPhoto is the most restrictive, allowing only 20 images in any seven days. As their standards are also high, you can see how it takes a long time to build a large portfolio with iStock. Although I have been creating stock photographs for 3 years, I really focused on getting more images online in 2010. I had 360 images at the end of 2009 on Shutterstock – today it is almost 1400. Across the main sites, I had this number of files on-line at the end of March 2011:

How did that effort translate into hard cash? Earnings over the last year have steadily grown – I took more pictures, uploaded more pictures and, like clockwork, the income rose: Stock Earnings during 2010 As you can see, in March, I finally hit $750 for the month, and in 2010 as a whole, I earned almost $5000. A recent survey by a microstock proponent, MicrostockForum, of 540 stock photographers for 2010, reported that the average income was $13000, with the highest reported income being $211,000! The median (the most common income across the group) was $3200, of those who answered the survey, which shows that there are a lot of low earners, but some really successful photographers at the top end. Compared to the median, I did pretty well! If you want to have a go at making money from microstock sites with your stock photography, read on! Setting up a Limited Liability Company The first step is to think about taxes and how you can set the costs of setting up in business as a stock photographer against the earnings you receive. In my case, I decided to create a Limited Liability Company (LLC) that safeguards your assets from anyone who has a problem with an image that you have published. There are many useful articles on the web about how to set up an LLC – I followed one of those and wrote an earlier blog on setting up a Limited Liability Company for your earnings. Please consult with a tax adviser and lawyer if you are not sure about this. I do my own personal taxes, but I have used a professional to create the tax return for the LLC and pass the losses (in the early days) back to me for inclusion in my own tax return. As long as you are steadily attempting to make money, you can set the cost of your equipment, running expenses such as website hosting, phone, rent, software etc. against the income you receive. In the early days of your new business, this will almost always be an overall loss, and you can deduct that loss from your personal income on your own tax return. Although I haven’t yet gotten to the stage of taking photo collecting trips to exotic places, I assume that you can set the cost of such trips against income when you really start to earn some serious money from your photographs!

[Ed Note: The IRS encourages entrepreneurs to engage in business. Read chapter 16, “A Mini Tax Shelter” in Rohn Engh’s Sell & Resell Your Photos to learn how you are eligible to reduce your tax debt, including travel costs. Show chapter 16 to your tax advisor. If he/she does not agree, find a new advisor because that person is costing you tax savings. – RE ] What sort of equipment do you need? Most microstock sites are looking for high quality images that are at least 4 Mpixels. That is not too high a bar with today’s cameras, but the key thing they are looking for is high quality and low noise. I have had good success with the Canon G9/G10 series of compact cameras, as long as the ISO speed is set to the lowest value, and I also reduce the image down to about 6Mpixels to hide any other sharpness or noise issues. With your first images, always go with the minimum necessary as the reduction of size can hide a lot of problems in an image. Remember that the reviewers are looking at your images at 100% size on very good monitors, and so if there is noise in the shadows, or the eyes are not really in focus, they will reject the image. It is certainly true that to upload large images (and on some sites these command a premium in pricing), you probably need a good quality SLR camera, as the larger size of the sensor, and the better lenses, give you a good starting point for excellent large scale images. To decide if your equipment is good enough, take a well-exposed image, and process it properly for exposure and contrast. Then reduce it to around 4Mpixels (2000 x 2000 pixels). Enlarge it to 100% and carefully check the shadow areas – can you see color noise – small specks of color that are not really the same as the background hue? Look at the edges of dark objects against a bright background (like tree twigs against the sky), especially at the edges of the frame – can you see a colored halo caused by chromatic dispersion? Both of these issues can be fixed in software, but if you see a lot of noise, you are unlikely to make much progress with that camera. In the next post, I’ll go through my thinking on what you should consider for your first stock images.

Steve Heap is an accomplished photographer who has built up a profitable portfolio of microstock images over the past three years – mainly focusing on travel and landscape images. He blogs regularly about his day by day experiences in stock photography on and offers his best images for sale as prints or downloads on

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