selling microstock images on shutterstock

Royalty Free Images

Stock Photos from 123RF

My experiences in microstock photography

My journey into microstock started about three years ago. I don’t really remember how I got the idea to start uploading images, but I know I rapidly started enjoying it. And before I knew I was hooked. I was already into photography for quite a while and at the time I was enrolled in a four year photography course. Actually I was studying analog photography and still didn’t know a lot about digital photography. My digital post processing skills were near zero and although I owned a Canon 400D I didn’t use it a lot. Black and white film photography was the thing that interested me most, and I still practice and love it. But during my microstock journey I learned a lot about digital photography and post-processing. I learned most of my post processing skills at Kelby training. Nowadays I mainly shoot digital.

Now three years later I take a look back to analyze my progress. I’ve uploaded images to 18 or 19 different agencies. Nine of them have proven to be more or less successful, the others didn’t generate any significant income and for some I stopped uploading. I will mainly discuss my 2011 statistics but I start with a small overview of my first two microstock years.

At first I was quite skeptical about the microstock concept and I really doubted its possibilities. I tried to get accepted at shutterstock but failed so I had to wait one month before I could try again. At the same time I submitted a small series of images to Fotolia, I thought them to be my trial images and gave them one month to convince me. One week after I got my first download and I submitted some more images. My first microstock sell was an image of a resting humming bird and earned me a staggering 0,29$. Not a big deal you think but it was the start of a lot more.

That first month my sales were very slow; but my portfolio was still quite small and I was only submitting at Fotolia. On my second try I got accepted at Shutterstock and at the same time at Istock. In my second month I also started uploading at Dreamstime, Canstock, and 123RF. I was really amazed about Shutterstock, 11$ in my first month with the first download only one day after my first images were accepted. Soon after I was uploading images to 15 different microstock sites and earning about 20$ a month. Looking back it still seems crazy that I continued uploading, but now I’m really happy I persisted in it. Short term thinking doesn’t work for microstock, real results will only show in the long run.

start selling microstock images

Some of my first microstock submissions with at the middle my first sold image.

Most images I submitted were not really stock orientated, I was still taking the images that I wanted to take. Now and then I tried something specific for microstock but mainly I was just shooting the kind of images I used to shoot. They were selling, but not very good. I soon noticed that a lot of artists were quite successful by submitting illustrations, so I started to make some simple illustrations. These illustrations were more stock orientated and sales were on the rise. At that time I really liked making these illustrations and started to focus more on them. Especially the time when I had a broken wrist and couldn’t handle a camera I produced quite a lot of them. Although these images were downloaded more frequently, revenue per downoad for my illustrations tended to be lower than for my images. I still produce illustrations occasionally but I started to focus again on my photos and I am doing quite well with them. Some of my frog images are among the best selling frog images at many agencies.

earn money online by selling photos

Some of the illustrations I produced in illustrator and submitted on microstock.

During these first two years I learned a lot about microstock, I was putting quite some time and energy in it. In fact I was more studying the microstock sites than I was submitting images to them. This really helped me to increase my sales, I submitted fewer images, but the ones that I submitted generated a higher revenue. The most important lessen I’ve learned is that it is all about visibility. Good images with low visibility will generate fewer sales than moderate images with good visibility. So I started to focus on my search ranking. How could I get my images high up in search ranking? There are five key features that will help increase visibility. These features are composition, stock suitability, timing, keywording and image quality. As soon as I started to focus on these features my sales were rising fast, even if I was still taking the images I wanted to take. So one of the important features, stock suitability, I haven’t really worked on. My Illustrations are more stock focused and generate reasonable income. They are ok but not superb, I lack the skills to produce top quality illustrations.

earning money selling images

More conceptual images 1 missing or vacancy, 2 safe me, 3 decay


As my portfolio grew in size so did my revenue and last year my microstock earnings really got a boost. In 2011 I  received a little more than 18,500 downloads from my top 9 microstock agencies. My best selling site is Shutterstock that generates 48% of my microstock income. Together with Dreamstime (16,5%), Istock (9%), 123RF (7,8%) and Fotolia (7,6%) they make up my top five selling agencies.

Results per site (2011)

Microstock is all about small earnings in large quantities. And the best way to show its possibilities is by showing my 2011 microstock statistics. It is the second full year that I’m selling stock photos. So for all beginners; this is where you could be after 2 or 3 years into microstock. My microstock images include pictures as well as illustrations. While most illustrations are stock orientated, most of my photos are not.


My shutterstock portfolio is with 2,106 images my biggest and it also generates most sales and highest income. Mean royalty per image on yearly basis ( RPI 2011) is with 3$ the second highest of all my ports, only Istock has a higher RPI. This high RPI is caused by the high amount of sold images (10,634) while the revenue per sale is among the lowest, with only 0,59$ per download. Only Depositphoto generates a lower revenue per sale.
Shutterstock is mainly a subscription based agency with low revenue per download, but the vast amount of downloads make them the best selling agency for many microstockers.


My Dreamstime portfolio is with 726 images one of my smallest microstock ports. Despite this smaller port they are my second best in regard to total revenue. They also generate the second highest revenue per sale with 1,57$ per download. My Dreamstime port is significantly smaller than most of my other ports. This results in a higher mean image quality, although many of my top sellers at other agencies are lacking from my Dreamstime port. This is caused by their policy in regard to similar images. I have many successful series in my microstock ports, but at Dreamstime I only succeed at uploading a very limited number of images from a series. Otherwise my revenue at Dreramstime could be a lot higher. Total revenue per image on a yearly basis, is with 3 as high as at Shutterstock. While at Shutterstock it is the vast amount of downloads that leads to this high RPI; at Dreamstime it is mainly caused by the high revenue per sale.


My small Istock port contains most of my better images and with the highest downloads per image (7,1) it generates a RPI of 4,24. With 9% of my total microstock revenue. Istock is my 3th best agency. Looking at these numbers, I realize I should start uploading a lot more images at Istock.  Many microstockers consider Istock to be their best earner and many choose to become exclusive at this agency. But due to my low acceptance rate, exclusivity wouldn’t be a good move for me.
Istock has my smallest portfolio with only 286 images. This low number is caused by their upload limits as well as my relatively low image approval rate at this site. I also have become quite selective towards what images to upload at Istock. Upload process is quite time consuming so don’t want to waste too much time. My illustrations seem to be of inferior quality for their catalogue and are mostly rejected. All my illustrations are produced in Illustrator but they are mainly 3D and there are much better software to produce these kind of images. But I lack the skills to use them.


My 123RF port is with 1512 images significantly smaller than my Shutterstock port. This is mainly caused by the fact that I started later uploading here and I haven’t uploaded all my older low quality images at this agency. 123 RF is by many considered to be a sub top agency, but for me they come 4th with 7,8% of my microstock income. With an RPI of 0,67 they generate a significantly lower income per image in regard to my top 3 agencies. Revenue per sale is with 0,7 higher than most other top agencies, only Istock generates a higher one. Before 2011 my 123RF sales were a lot lower, but as soon as I discovered their ‘faved’ ranking system, my sales were on the rise. More detailed info can be found at my 123RF review.


Fotolia completes my top 5 agencies and generates 7,6% of my yearly microstock earnings. My Fotolia portfolio is with 1192 images only half the size of my Shutterstock port. This is caused by two factors: a lower acceptance rate at Fotolia but mainly because I stopped uploading for a certain period. Just as with 123RF my Fotolia port wasn’t generating a lot of income and because of their more time consuming uploading process, I lost my interest in Fotolia. By the end of 2010 I really improved my skills to get my images higher in search ranking. I was getting better and better results at other sites, so I decided to give Fotolia a second chance. I Applied my newly discovered tricks and payed more attention to their ranking system. As you can see in my Fotolia graph, results came soon after and sales were rising quickly. By the end of 2011 Fotolia had entered my top 5 agencies by generating 1655 sales with a revenue per sale of 0,60$. Fotolia is competing with 123RF to become my 4th best selling agency, but I don’t expect them to enter top 3. The gap between 3 and 4 is simply to big and I expect it to become bigger when I get more images uploaded at IStock.


Although Castock has the highest acceptance ratio, my Canstock port is a little smaller than at Shutterstock. I started later uploading here and my older low quality images are not represented at this agency. With 3,8% of my microstock revenue, they just fall out my top 5 agencies. They generate a steady income but I don’t expect them to enter the top 5. As uploading at this agency is so easy, I would recomand everyone to submit at Canstock. What most people don’t know s that they have a search ranking systems quite similar to that of Fotolia. The first 15 keywords have more weight into search rank. For more details see my Canstock review. Revenue per sale is with 1,26 a lot higher than at most higher ranked agencies, only Istock has a higher one.


Bigstock has with 1910 images my second biggest portfolio. This big port only generates 2% of my microstock revenue. Big Stock was one of the microstock agencies I abandoned about 1,5 years after starting with microstock. Sales were low and I lost intertest. Since a lot has changed at Bigstock. They have become part of Shutterstock and sales have been rising since. It really was Shutterstock that got me back to Bigstock as  I have been selected to profit of the created bridge between Bigstock and Shutterstock. Thanks to this system all images accepted at Shutterstock are automatically accepted at bigstock. For more details check my Bigstock review.


My Veer portfolio is one of my smallest. Acceptance ratios are lower and only recently I started submitting here. They generate the highest revenue per sale (2,9) but sale numbers remain quite small.


Deposit photo is one of the latest agencies I started uploading at. My Depositphoto port is with 1004 images a lot smaller than at most other agencies. Acceptance ratios are high and I expect this portfolio to grow quickly as I will upload more of my older images. Depositphoto generates the lowest revenue per sale which is reflected in their low sales revenue (1,3%) and dispite the fact that at Depostiphotos number of sales are higher than at the 3 previous agencies. Just as at most other agencies, sales at Depositphotes are rising.


Table: Microstock sales statistics 2011


# images

RPI 2011

Sold images 2011

Revenue 2011

Revenue per sale

Sales% 2011


















2,033 (929)*

1,215 (880)*

0,60 (0,94)*














































12,58 RPI





# images: Total numbers of images in this portfolio at the end of 2011
RPI 2011: revenue per image, the mean amount of money each image generated in 2011
Sold images 2011: My total revenue earned at this agency in 2011
Revenue 2011 : Total revenue at site in $
Revenue per sale: Mean revenue per sale in 2011
Sales% 2011: percentage of my total microstock revenue in 2011

*Sales statistics at Istock without taking Istock partner sales into account