selling microstock images on shutterstock

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How to start selling images online?

how to start selling mocrostock images

So you want to start selling your photos or illustrations online and earn some extra money. Microstock is the easiest and most accessable way to earn money with your pictures. Microstock agencies give professionals and amateurs an easy and clear platform to upload and sell their images. Before you can start selling you have to sign up and get accepted as a contributing photographer. There are quite some agencies where you can try to get accepted. For some of them it is quite easy to become a contributor, while at others it can be quite a challenge. Most difficult are shutterstock and Istock and most photographers (including me), will have to try more than once to get accepted there. Some other sites like Dreamstime and Fotolia don’t have an acceptance procedure; you can directly start uploading. Once you have been accepted as a contributor you can start to upload images. Submitted images have to pas an acceptance procedure, images have to be of high quality and they need some commercial value. Submitting images is free of charge, but for every sale the agency takes a percentage of the earnings.

Where to start?

I recommend you to register as a contributor at the 8 to 10 major agencies. You definitely want to register at Istock, Shutterstock, Dreamstime and Fotolia as they are the ones that generate most sales.
However I would advice to start with the sub top agencies first. There it will be easier to get you images accepted and will have the opportunity how microstock works. Next to them Fotolia is the only top agency where you should upload right from the start. For IStock, Shutterstock and Dreamstime it is wise to build some experience before you start uploading there.

When it comes to starting with microstock you have three kinds of agencies:

Every image you upload at microstock should be wel prepared and selected. They have to be of highest quality and suited for stock, otherwise they will be rejected. Read our guide “how to select and prepare your images before upload (coming soon)”.

Microstock agencies, easy or no application procedure

It is best to start with one or more of the following agencies (123RF, stockfresh, Canstock, Deposit photo, Cutcaster, Panthermedia…). At these sites it is easy to get accepted as a contributing artist. At some of them you will have to pas an application test or submit a small series of sample images. But application is a lot easier than at Istock or Shutterstock.

These agencies can be used to learn what microstock is all about. They can act as a stepping-stone towards the top selling agencies. If your images are rejected here, they will be most certainly rejected at the top agencies. The approval rate at these lower ranked agencies is relatively high. They will generate lower income than the top selling agencies, but together they generate quite some sales. For me they generate about 16% of my whole microstock income.


Fotolia is the only top agency I recommend submitting images to from the very first start. They don’t have any kind of application test, so you can register and start uploading right away. They have one of the most strict image quality standards. Images that get accepted at Fotolia have a very good chance to get accepted at other agencies. This makes Fotolia a perfect measure to evaluate your chances at Istock or Shutterstock. For more information you can read our Fotolia review.

Starting with dreamstime, different approach.

Dreamstime is one of the best selling microstock agencies. There are no application test or sample images to submit, making it very easy to start contributing here. It is however best not to submit here when first starting with microstock. Dreamstime is quite strict in its image approval and rejections have an influence on your weekly upload limit. When your approval rate falls below 80% you can only submit half the amount of the weekly upload limit. Below 50% it drops to 1/3, below 30% it drops to ¼ and below 10% it drops to 1/6 of the maximum upload limit. This is something you really don’t want to happen! When starting at Dreamstime it is best to start well prepared. At start only submit images that are accepted at Fotolia (or at Shutterstock or Istock). By doing this, most images will be accepted and your upload limit won’t be affected.

Unlike other agencies, Dreamstime does not allow to submit images that are to similar. Variation of different angles or compositions of the same subject are mostly refused by Dreamstime ‘Too many shots of the same item or from the same series. Please be more selective and choose only the best shots’ is the most common rejection reason on Dreamstime. If you do want to submit similar images, you should never submit them in the same batch. Otherwise you risk high numbers of refused images resulting in a lower approval rate and by this a reduction in your weekly upload limit. Check our Dreamstime review for more details.

The top selling microstock agencies, Istock and Shutterstock

Istock and Shutterstock are the two top selling microstock agencies. They are also the most difficult agencies to get accepted at. At both agencies you have to pas an application test and you have to submit a series of sample images.

At shutterstock you have to submit 10 sample images. If 7 out of 10 are approved you’re accepted as a contributor. Only submit your very best images. If you submit images that have been accepted at Fotolia and Dreamstime chances are quite high that you will pass the test. But it’s no guarantee! Should you fail the test you will have to wait 30 days before you can have another attempt. Most photographers, including me needed more than one attempt to get accepted.

Quality standards at Istock are even higher than they are at Shutterstock. To be accepted at IStockPhoto you must submit three pictures that all pass the review process. If any pictures fail, you can submit new ones. There is no waiting period so the result is that acceptance at IStockPhoto is quite a bit easier than at Shutterstock. For more information you may read our shutterstock or Istock review.

Passing the photographer application test

Some agencies you have to pass a quiz concerning your photography skills and microstock policies. The test can easily be completed if you take the time to consult their photography handbook or the sites photographers guide. All answers will be there provided for you. The questions cover subjects such as image quality (noise, artifacts, sharpness), trademarks, copyright and model releases. You will easily pass these tests if you consult the sites photographers guide.

Application sample stock photos

The second part of the acceptance test is the submisson of some test images. They urge you to submit only your best work. But with your best work they actually mean your pictures most suitable for stock sale. Highly altered neither artistic PS work nor a simple picture of your pet will be accepted. Preferably your test images should cover a wide variety of subjects, and not just images from one single series. The images should be of highest quality and suitable for stock. (What to shoot: coming soon) The images should be technically correct just as all photos you want to submit for sale later on. In fact they will undergo the most strict and precise inspection. There are several reasons why images can be rejected. The most important ones are noise, chromatic aberration, compression artifacts, sharpness, trademarks, over filtered, bad composition, unsuitable for stock, low quality,… We have a guide to prepare your images for a regular submission as well as to upload the initial sample images (coming soon).

Once you’ve been accepted as a contributor

Getting accepted as a contributing photographer is only the beginning of your ventures in microstock. Now you have to start uploading high quality images, give them a proper title, subscription and keywords so the will be found by potential buyers. Proper keywording is one of the most important tasks submitting images. Image approval rates differ from site to site. Istock is the most difficult to get images accepted at. Fotolia, Dreamstime, Shutterstock are still quite strick in their image selection while others like Canstock, 123RF and Deposit Photos accept almost anything.