September 25, 2009, 3:42 PM — As high quality DSLR cameras are getting more affordable, the gap between skilled amateur and professional photographers is shrinking. If you have patience, a passion for photography, and think you have what it takes to create sellable stock photographs, consider signing up with a microstock agency. I spoke with Kelly Thompson, COO of iStockphoto, about what it takes to be a successful stock photographer. Before jumping in and putting a down-payment on that condo with your future microstock payments, take some time to learn how the system works.
Understand how it works
Microstock companies sell inexpensive stock images, illustrations, animations, and videos submitted by a large pool of professional and amateur artists. The big four agencies are iStockphoto (now owned by Getty), Shutterstock, Fotolia, and Dreamstime, and each one has different membership and technical requirements. Generally you sign-up, make sure your camera takes large enough images (nothing smaller than 2mp), and start uploading your images. If an image is accepted, it will become part of that site's stock inventory. If one of your images sells, you receive a small payment.
Selling stock photos is not easy money. It will take time to build up a decent sized portfolio (at least 100 pictures) before you see any sizable return. Payment systems differ from company to company, but it's typically a small flat-fee or percentage every time someone purchases one of your images. You can submit your photos to as many different agencies as you like. If you do well, an agency may offer to sign you to an exclusive contract which means more money per image but can only sell them through that site.
Think like a designer
Take a moment to visualize your photo's final destination--it could end up in a print publication, a marketing brochure, on a bus ad, or on a Website. Chances are, your image will not be displayed as-is in a picture frame on someone's desk. Graphic designers are going to crop, dissect, manipulate, and pile on text and other elements to the photos they buy from microstock agencies. Look at your images and honestly ask yourself if they are something a designer can work with.
Designers want photographs with ample amounts of uncluttered negative space so make sure you leave room for a headline or other text. It's also important to minimize the number of elements you include in a single image. The background should be clean--no messy telephone lines or passers-by in the background unless it's an integral part of the scene.