Is Microstock Photography a Viable Source of Income for a Traveller?

Shooting photography is an art in itself, shooting stock photos to be used by marketing people around the world is a completely different art form. Yes, every now and then you hear people say that they earn a living shooting stock, or microstock, photography. But what about the every day travel photographer? Is it possible to earn a share of income by this means? This is my appraisal.

How to Shoot Stock

  • Learn the Art: Stock photography requires one to take a different approach to shooting an image than many photographers are used to. Images need to be tack sharp, noise free, and have some sort of marketing potential. Simply tossing your vacation photos into the program isn’t going to do the trick. There are lots of forums out there to help you get a hang of the system.
  • Look for Images Everywhere: Stock images can be as simple as a dinner setting. If you have the right lighting you can get a stock image from just about anywhere, including your home or hotel room. Obviously the more you shoot the more images are going to be of acceptable quality.
  • Shoot Different Things: There are already 4 million images of oranges in the stockpiles, so you need to shoot different things. Try exotic fruits and vegetables. Go and shoot the fruit in the orchards. One of my highest selling images is a pineapple I shot still growing on the bush.
  • Follow Stock Photography Shooting Practices: Getting a sharp image in the right light is the name of the game when if comes to microstock photography. Shoot everything on a really good tripod, have the mirror on your camera body locked up and shoot with a timer. Shooting hand held midday probably won’t do the trick, not consistently anyways.
  • Only use the Best Stock Agents: There are so many microstock sites out there that the value of an image sale is very small. I have stocked for about 10 different microstock sites over the past couple years and have settled on three as my favourites. ShutterStock might be the busiest microstock site online and thousands of images are downloaded every day. Although they have some seriously low incomes for download sales, the sheer volume they sell makes it worth it. One of the under-the-radar stock sites I’ve seen success with it Dreamstime. They have a simple process for getting images through the screening, and the price of images depends in part to how popular it is. Obviously, the better the image the higher the value. Also, iStockPhoto is a great site and the fact it is Canadian owned only makes it more appealing.
One of my best selling stock images is just a simple morning shot in Antigua, Guatemala

How Much am I Earning?

The truth is that you need to be patient with stock photography. It is a residual form of income that should grow slowly over time. For example, let’s say that you have 40 images in three different stock portfolios which are earning you about 50cents a day, or $15 a month. Well, as you grow that portfolio so will your income. At 400 images you’ll be earning $5 a day or $150 a month. If you can get those portfolios to 4,000 image you may be one of the lucky few that earns about $50 dollars a day, or $1,500 a month. I personally know a couple people who have been doing this for years that earn more $5,000 a month, but I’ll be honest in telling you that they have put in more work than you can ever imagine and they do nothing but shoot stock images all day.

Me personally, I don’t shoot stock. I recognize stock images within my every day photography and then submit them. Most of my stock images are landscapes, urban scenes, and a lot of wildlife. I have been submitting stock images for the past 6 months or so and have bumped by daily income from it to about $6 dollars a day, or just under $200 a month. It might not sound like much, but the fact is that $6 is about 15% of my daily spending while I travel. It pays for about half my food bill every month. And who knows, in 6 months time I might be able to double that number and pay my entire food bill through microstock.

Rare, and cute, animals in the wild always make good sales as well. Shots of your dog or cat… do not.

Conclusions

Although it is easy to become disenfranchised with shooting microstock photography it works well as a side project. Also, I find that like anything it is one of those things that you just need to keep slugging away at. Sure if you give up after a couple of months you may never see a paycheck (most sites payout once you reach 100$ of earnings). But if you keep submitting images, and keep plugging away that monthly income will only grow. If adding $6 a day to your income hardly sounds worth your time, then it might not be for you.

I suppose like anything photography-related to really make the most of stock photography you need to be shooting images all the time. If photography is a hobby for you than submitting images to the stock agents probably isn’t worth your time. However, if you are shooting photography that fits the stock mould on a regular basis then by all means why not push for a new source of income?


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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35 Comments

  1. Maybe since you’d need to be shooting all the time, and not just whenever you need to be paid it would work. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to rely on it as income and I would just consider it a bonus to shooting.

    Post a Reply
    • @Maria – That’s just it. I guess if you can look at it like a bonus income it doesn’t hurt at all. Basically, as a traveller, I’m going to be taking those pictures anyways, so at the very least it’s a little bit of money I wouldn’t have had in the bank before hand.

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  2. Thanks for the info. Been wondering about microstock for a while but don’t currently have the photos for it. Certainly hope to create an account at some point in the future and give it a go.

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    • @Sam – Let me know if you ever need advice. The Shutterstock.com website has a great critique forum for improving your stock images. They helped me a lot with not only my microstock stuff but also my photography in general.

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  3. This is a really interesting article, Brendan. I’ve been thinking about getting into microstock photography for a while now, but it’s one of those things I’ve never quite got round to doing – something for 2012! Are there any sites you can recommend? It’s not something I’d expect to get a huge income from, but it would just be a nice bonus every month and I’d feel I was doing something productive with my travel photos.

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    • @Polly – Thanks, I hope that it works out for you.

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  4. So your 156 images on Dreamstime have earned what about $30 in a year and its enough to earn a recommendation? Or is the real issue here that Shutterstock and Dreamstime are the only agencies that will pay you a commission if photographers happen to sign up through your referral links here?

    Post a Reply
    • @Holgs – Not at all. I could earn referral earnings from any one of the hundred stock agencies. I haven’t been putting very many images on Dreamstime very seriously until recently. I didn’t think it was worth my time. If you look closely most of my images there are very recent. I hadn’t realized until recently that dreamstime was worth it.

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  5. This post has motivated me to rekindle my microstock efforts. I logged into the sites I’d registered for over a year ago, and was somewhat amazed to find I’d actually made (an admittedly tiny) bit of cash from my existing uploads. Thanks very much!

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    • No worries Laurence, best of luck with it.

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  6. I had no idea that doing stock photo imagery could be so valuable. I always assumed that they were just freebies. You see this a lot in comments, but to be fair this is a really good post with all the in’s and out’s if you want to get into stock photo or at least help you earn a little bit extra

    Post a Reply
    • Muse – Like I state in the article, you are not going to earn a lot in the beginning. It takes a lot of time. I can’t tell you how many times I almost quite on it because it wasn’t earning much. Then over the past couple of months it has really started to roll.

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  7. Thanks for the candid, informative post Brendan! Esp. cool that you told us how much you’ve been making with stock photography and which companies you like. Thanks for sharing… Definitively something for me to keep in mind. Two Qs;

    1. Where can we learn the details about photo submissions?
    2. Do they want print quality images or smaller, compressed images for online use?

    cheers, Lash

    Post a Reply
    • @Lash –
      1. Each site has it’s specific protocol on submissions. Some have a “test” you have to go through and others just cut or take images based on each of your submissions. I recommend that you go to ShutterStock and go to the contributor’s forum and check a section called “Critique and tips.” There they give a lot of advice on whether your photos will pass. They will help you a lot. The truth is that as soon as you sign up the site will give you submission guidelines.
      2. It really depends to be honest. Sometimes a sale will result in a buyer downloading a small image that they are going to place on a brochure or work document, or blog. Other times you might sell something to a huge ad agency that whats to blow up a photo to put on a billboard. There is no real way of knowing where your photo is being used unless you actually see it in use.
      Let me know if you have any other questions.

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  8. Just an fyi – iStockPhoto is not actually Canadian owned, though they do have their headquarters there.

    It’s owned by Getty Images, who in turn are owned by US private equity firm Hellman & Friedman.

    I know at least one person who makes a good amount of money off of iStockPhoto. I could imagine it being a nice little source of income while on the road. Also, if you are a capable illustrator, you can make money by selling those on these sites as well.

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    • @Peter – Thanks for the clarification… how dare they fool me!!! Yes, I should have mentioned that illustrators do well on these sites as well.

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  9. Thanks for sharing the wealth with this idea. While to some it might be obvious, I’ve never considered it despite the fact that I’m constantly taking photos.

    More than anything, I’m really impressed by your candor. It’s tough to find people that are willing to talk dollars and cents / nuts and bolts/ etc. (and even write well about it, too!). Much appreciated 🙂

    Post a Reply
    • No worries Jenna – I’ve always tried to be transparent about my earnings and such. However, I tend not to share my earnings in general because I want my site to be about the travel and not the earnings… with this time being an exception.

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  10. Would be great to have a list of people who make $100 or more a month and maybe a short interview with them

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    • That’s a great Idea Eileen… I’m going to have a search to see if I can find someone to interview.

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  11. You have no idea how much I appreciate the details and the candor in this post. I found out recently that I may not be entitled to a pension, and have been angsting more than ever about how to put an income together. It did occur to me that it can be in dribs and drabs, and I think this may be a possibility for me. I’ve not concentrated on the quality of photos so much, just used them to illustrate my blog, but I will take more care from now on. I’ve been thinking along these lines, but had no idea how to go about it. It’s like your post in my new year’s present! Thank you!

    Post a Reply
    • @Linda – No worries, I’ve been planning this post for a while but have been lazy about it. I will be doing another update in the months to come about my progress. As for getting into it yourself, I recommend using the discussion forum in Shutterstock which is really helpful.

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  12. I did always wonder about this… a hearty thanks for this post. Hopefully your new NYC B&H equipment will even take your earnings to the next level.

    stay adventurous, Craig.

    Ps – love that photo in Antigua, I know exactly where that is. Made me smile.

    Post a Reply
  13. Excellent post! It’s not easy being a microstock photographer – but it can be fulfilling.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Amber, I think that sticking to it is the toughest part. Can be very rewarding if you can do that.

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  14. Dear Brendan,

    Thanks for the article and selling stock! I have recently registered with istock and sold one 😉 photo.
    They have an exclusivity program and that made me wonder if I would be better off selling to as many sites as possible (and earn more from the same shot) or it is better to stay with one site and get a higher income on each? Any comments on this will be highly appreciated. Kind Regards Jens

    Post a Reply
    • Personally Jens, I think it’s best to skip the exclusivity clause and sell on multiple sites. There’s an x-factor to selling stock which is each microstock’s search engine. It can mean that a photo on site A might sell like crazy but not get very many sales at all on site B. If you have a photo on only one site, you lose the chance of a photo ending up in a high sales position for a keyword on another site’s search platform. I have an image from Guatemala that sells almost every single day on shutterstock. On the other hand, it doesn’t hardly sell at all on other platforms.
      The exclusivity, in my opinion, isn’t worth it.

      Post a Reply
      • Thanks a lot for your comment,- highly appreciated!
        jens

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  15. Thank you for the inspiration Brendan. Half a year ago I started submitting my travel photos as stockphotos thanks to this article.

    Did you ever think about writing a follow-up? How did your opinions and income change 2.5 years later?

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Florian,

      I’m planning on a new version to this stock photography post in the New Year. I’ve been too busy to properly update my portfolio for a while so I want to refresh everything and see how it goes. Stay tuned via the newsletter and you’ll see the update!

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  16. Brendan, interesting post. Just a note: Microstock killed “Macrostok”. I’m in stock photography business since more than 15 year, I saw the statements dramatically going down each year since 2006, but still now with traditional agencies you can earn much more. Some top microstock shooters, like Yuri Arcurs, turned now to traditional stock… And right now, on traditional stock agencies, the key is exclusivity, in contrast with the mainly non exclusive usages available on microstock sources.

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    • Yeah, good points Sergio. I think that microstock might start fading away as more and more photographers realize it’s not an easy buck. But, let me ask you, what traditional stocks are you using? I was on Getty, but their last agreement update turned me off so far that I left.

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  17. Brendan, I have had a similar experience to you. I submit some of my travel photos to Microstock and now am able to make about 500+ a month, not enough to live off but it isn’t bad for residual income. I was about to write a blog post myself about my results when I found yours. Wondering if you are still posting to Microstock, is it still worth it in 2017?

    Post a Reply
    • Not as good as it was 10 years ago, for sure. But, there’s still benefit. I’m still pulling good profit from my images on micro.

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