Without a shadow of a doubt, for the average contributor, it’s considerably more difficult in 2022 to earn money than just a few years ago. Nevertheless, should you be brave enough to begin your journey towards passive income now by submitting your content to multiple agencies you’d be wise to read the following six tips carefully, which follow on nicely from Fabio Nodari’s tips in this blog post. Let’s get started!
1. Invest in the right gear for your style
It’s certainly true that top-end gear won’t necessarily make you a top-end photographer. The goal at the beginning of your journey is to be a master of what you have, even if it’s just a smartphone. Speaking of selling images taken by smartphones, see this useful article on Selling Smartphone Videos and Images at Microstock agencies.
Smartphones do have their limitations due to their relatively small sensor sizes, see here some differences, although the technology is clearly improving considerably with each new upgrade.
Should you wish to go down the more traditional route and invest in a DSLR, your focus should be at first on investing on a quality all-round lens, such as a 24-70mm with a wide aperture up to 2.8. The body doesn’t necessarily need to be full-frame as most agency requirements are easily met with a cropped-sensor.
After a few months, once you specialize more within your niche (more on this later) and hopefully have made a few hundred dollars, you may think about acquiring a specific lens for your style. This may include prime lenses, which tend to produce the best-quality in terms of focus with one of favourite being a macro / portrait 105mm lens at a maximum of 2.8 aperture.
Alternatively, should you wish to specialize in architectural / interior photography you may also think about investing in a tilt-shift lens. These unique lenses can be doubled as a creative option, as highlighted in this blog post.
Here are some examples of the types of lenses that you may wish to invest in as discussed in the Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography ebook.
2. Put yourself in the shoes of the Buyer
If you’re seriously looking to monetise your content, you’ll need to quickly get away from capturing only “pretty scenes” and look to identify opportunity that buyers may find useful to promote a product, service or location within an advertisement. Or in the case of editorials, in an educational or news piece.
Some of my best-selling shots are not ones that I would ever consider framing on my living-room. Vice-versa, some of what I consider to be my most beautiful artistic shots possess low commercial value as stock photos. Instead, they are generally specific concepts with an end in mind. For instance, the series I have created by digitally flooding famous cityscapes has sold well throughout.
If you’re shooting models, clichéd images of people on a white background with plastic smiles looking directly at the camera are thankfully out! These types of images increasingly put off businesses and consumers, as they appear impersonal. It is human nature to feelnegatively towards a smile that is not genuine, or a faked/awkward human interaction, so aim to capture authentic-appearing scenes.
Figuring out what may be potentially useful requires research, such as the Google Trends tool, on which subjects are potentially trending or may be trending soon. In addition, check out sources about “up and coming places” to visit in 2023 by guides such as Lonely Planet when planning your next stock trip.
3. Study Trends
An explorer without some sort of map or way to be guided would quickly get lost and potentially risk his/her own life. The same goes for Microstock contributors, who at the top-levels, often spend more time researching the market than actually shooting. Now, it’s fun and carefree to just walk around for hours and shoot what looks interesting, but if you’re treating this as a business, you’ll need to hone in on what customers want/need.
Therefore, you’ll need to focus not only what is currently trending but will perhaps be trending in the near future (think 6 months to two years into the future). Fortunately, there’s a useful and free to use online tool, Google Trends, where you’re able to research the popularity for a particular keyword and filter the results by its location, time frame and category. See the blog post at the Gallerist on using Google Trends with many examples.
4. Find a profitable Niche
When you first dip your toes into Microstock, you’ll probably be submitting images which are closely related to your hobbies and interests. That’s absolutely fine while you’re still getting to grips with the business, improving technically, and developing your own style. However, once your portfolio grows to a few thousand images, you’ll probably have more success if you focus your energies on a few specific genres and aim to become an expert in those. One example would be drone / aerial photography which is still relatively recent.
By then, up to a year after submitting your first images, you’ll have a rough idea of which types of content sell best and which don’t. Then it’s up to you to focus your energy on creating more of those types of content, while discarding “wasting your time” on creating content which only bloats your portfolio with no returns.
At the end of the day, finding a niche should be a combination of the following three aspects. If only one is lacking, it’s not worth pursuing, generally speaking as you may struggle to have a proper return on investment.
5. Learn how to caption / keyword accurately
As you look through a random sample of images on various microstock agencies, you will be amazed at how poorly most contributors keyword their images. This is a pity, since if they only include the most obvious keywords, or at worst, the minimum required which is only 5-7 depending on the agency, it means that a customer will not be able to find your images amongst the millions, literally.
In other words, the search engines are ‘blind’ without those tags. To wrap it up, a mediocre image with excellent use of key words will be way ahead of a great image with average key words.
Your starting point is a great caption to grab a viewer’s attention. In addition, some agencies use caption data for search engine optimisation. The caption needs should be a concise and accurate description of your image, including technical/scientific names where applicable.
When it comes to the actual keywords, there is a fine line between too few keywords and too many – too many is known as ‘keyword spam’. Too many irrelevant keywords will dilute your image showing up in search results and you may even receive a keyword rejection for irrelevant keywords. Just because most agencies have an upper limit of 50 keywords (or something equivalent in characters) does not mean that you should aim to reach that limit!
As a starting point, when selecting your keywords, think about the following three topics:
- Location: Describes the actual location of the photo. Start with a region of the world and work your way down to the city or town. For example: Europe, Western Europe, France, Paris, Montparnasse, 14th, Rue du Montparnasse. Remember to add any alternative local spellings: such as Florence / Firenze and Milan / Milano.
- Conceptual: Describe moods, emotions or ideas associated with an image. These can be tricky as they are often subjective. According to Shutterstock, if you have a photo of a man with his mouth wide open, then it’s okay to keyword both ‘yawn’ and ‘scream.’ It is not okay to keyword ‘loud’ which would reduce your image’s ranking in the search engine.
- Descriptive: What is actually happening or shown? Again, think about accuracy and be as specific as possible!
6. Diversify by shooting videos
The vast majority of contributors, including myself, started their journey in microstock as photographers. Many have continued as photographers until the present-day. However, some have been wise to diversify their investment by shooting videos. The major benefit to shooting video is first and foremost that, on average, they earn considerably more than the average of photos. Videos sold in 4K resolution can quite easily earn you more than $100 per clip licensed.
According to the blog post Creating Stock Video vs Photos: 5 Reasons Why It’s Easier Than You Think (Including Higher Royalties), photography and video are two different sides of the same coin, each with their own challenges as well as opportunities when it comes to earning money as stock. If you’re already an experienced stock photographer, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t already be dipping your toes in video.
The five reasons are summed up as:
- Your gear can already shoot clips
- Higher royalties than photos
- Footage market is generally less saturated
- You're already (generally) familiar with technical settings
And I’ll add one more, which is drone footage, which when done at a high level can sell for hundreds of dollars.
7. “It’s a Marathon not a Sprint”
Like it or not, we live in an age of instant gratification. So, it’s common to read these days on social media about “get rich quickly schemes”, which unfortunately some contributors have also included microstock. The truth is that this is a “get rich slowly scheme”.
If you’re joining this business simply to earn money, the brutal truth is that there are thousands of other businesses that require less investment and will make you more money more quickly. If you do enjoy shooting photos and are looking to monetize your content, then you’ll need extraordinary discipline to succeed as most of your content may take many months to sell, if ever.
Within that time, you’ll need to constantly strive to improve technically, but like (almost) everything in life, the more you practice the better you become, so keep at it!