My good and bad experiences with stock photo agencies, as a contributor
Why does it matter which photo agency you choose as a photographer?
I tried all the stock photographer sites below. Each has some oddities and works practically completely differently, different themes or different types of media do better, and the money you get for your sold images may be vastly different. That’s why I thought I’d describe my experience for each agency separately. Here and there I also use the interesting experiences of the photographers present on the forums. By the time you get to the end of reading this article, you will have a picture of the stock photography business as a phenomenon, and I hope you will be able to place yourself and your images in one or another agency's portfolio before you upload tons of photos to every site, waiting for your fortune.
I note there are many who upload their photos on an “everything everywhere” principle, but they also find that there are high performing agencies and there are ones that are not at all worth mentioning. All this, of course, depends on the composition of the portfolio (theme, media - photo, video, vector image, illustration).
However, I prefer the practice when the photographer selects one or two agencies and digs deeply into their operation and expectations. In my opinion, it is not possible to learn the whims of 10 agencies. Not to mention the different needs of customers.
Nowadays, the use of "AI", i.e. Artificial Intelligence, is spreading to analyze submitted photos / images, which I personally really hate ... I will explain why. Let's see the detailed report.
I would like to emphasize that below I express my personal experiences and opinions, others may have other experiences!
Dreamstime - "world's largest stock community"
Dreamstime is originally a Romanian company that is now based in the United States. I liked it very much in the beginning. All my pictures were accepted, even my Matchbox photo series, which was rejected elsewhere. It had become suspicious that while elsewhere you have to wait days for your photos to be accepted or rejected, this interval is often only minutes here. It turned out that AI was used, and virtually no one even saw the uploaded images before they were out in front of the customers. This is probably due to a well-conceived reason for the company to catch up with its larger (e.g. Shutterstock) competitors within a tight deadline, at least in terms of the number of photos in their portfolio.
Sometimes a whole series was rejected, saying "the image is very similar to an already uploaded one". I didn’t let it go, I made a complaint. I guess a flesh-and-blood wo/man took a look at my photos and s/he soon realized that the images were nowhere near similar, only the subject was the same (Matchbox models). Lesson: don’t let AI catch you!
If you don’t understand something or have a problem, even with image rejection, feel free to write to customer service! Agencies can also make a mistake, which they will correct, but only if you tell them.
I was almost thinking about becoming an exclusive photographer at Dreamstime, and I uploaded a few hundred of my pictures to them exclusively when I found an agency that was much more suitable for me, it was Alamy (see below).
You get a little more for exclusive photos (available only at Dreamstime), and if you’re an exclusive contributor (photographer) - that is, you only have photos with them, you work exclusively for them - then in principle you have a better chance of selling.
Why do I say that only in principle? There is a very kind, persistent but less talented photographer who writes regularly on the Dreamstime forum (Message board, as they call it). He decided to become an exclusive photographer. He reached the $100 payout limit in two years or so, which he was very happy with (photographers at Dreamstime will not be paid out under $100, even if they terminate their user account), however, it made me think if it was worth being exclusive at all.
After a few months of deliberation, I finally decided to get rid of them.
This had to be preceded by half a year of inactivity (no upload, no selling, no forum post, etc.). I have deactivated all my photos (you cannot remove them completely).
Why did I decide to leave? There are several reasons.
First of all, I barely had a sale. I realized that at Dreamstime, whoever sells a ton has a lot of set-up, edited images (Christmas mood, little girl with an open book - a fancy fairy atmosphere) and, above all, plenty of digital artwork uploaded as illustrations (abstract). There are some of them who photographed their baby a lot, too.
Second, browsing the forum daily, I realized it was highly moderated. It is not enough for certain words (e.g. the names of competitors) to be starred automatically, it is not advisable to make a critical remark. At first, the familiar, friendly forum seemed a bit "simple" after a while. Everyone is absolutely positive, enthusiastic, Dreamstime is a super company - though it's true that many don't even reach the $100 payout limit... The world's busiest stock photo forum mostly post photo chains (e.g. post your favorite image, or let's see your best cat photo, etc.). Substantive, constructive, developmental, professional posts and conversations are quite rare, and those who have been in the game for a long time, rarely speak.
After half a year of waiting (basically a delete button should appear on the user interface, but it didn’t appear for me) I finally asked if it was now possible to permanently delete me from their photographers, which they did without a word.
Dreamstime didn't work for me. I don’t make abstract illustrations, I don’t have baby photos, and I don’t have Christmas compositions either. If you think and create something like this, it is definitely worth a try! However, I do not recommend exclusivity!
Shutterstock - "offers the best quality, royalty free stock images"
Shutterstock is arguably the largest of the microstock agencies. That is, they sell the most images in this area. It is really busy, sales are high in number, but ridiculously low in terms of revenue. They currently give you 10 cents for a photo you sell, but depending on the number of your sales, that amount increases (slightly) over time.
Of course, there are also custom $10-20 sales, but they are rarer because the essence of the subscription model is that the buyer can download multiple images by paying a certain (small) amount.
At first I wasn’t sure I would stay, but then so many people write that Shutterstock is a must and you can already generate sales with few images that - after some hesitation - I continued.
Unlike Dreamstime, the uploaded images are reviewed by real people. My image of a cemetery cross with a Latin caption was rejected, claiming that there was too much non-English text on my photo (“Large amount of non-English text”). Well, I couldn't argue with that! As it turned out, this is also described in their rules: non-English text and captions cannot be on a large area of the image, even if you provide a translation in the title field (for small amounts of text, the translation must be provided in the title).
As with any microstock company, you can boost your sales by uploading photos regularly. Some people say it is enough to upload only a few at a time, the point is consistency.
My favorite professional photographer at Shutterstock is Nicole Glass. She has plenty of helpful videos on Youtube. You can learn a lot from her, how to start and what to expect from Shutterstock.
All in all, Shutterstock is a good choice if you upload photos regularly and build a portfolio of 8-10,000 photos. Here the principle of many a little makes a lickle applies.
If you don’t intend to take photos on a daily basis, then it’s only a good hobby, but by no means a livelihood. In any case, this agency will bring you success in the shortest time. The sale will start a few weeks after your registration. I personally waited 6 weeks for the first sale (which then brought in 25 cents, today it would only be 10 cents).
Another positive thing at Shutterstock is that they accept editorial (i.e. images of people or property without model/property release) images, too. More details here.
Adobe Stock - "earn royalties doing what you love"
Adobe Stock has recently become the most popular place to sell photos because they are relatively new, so the number of sales is on an upward trend. In addition, it pays a little more than other microstock agencies. On top of that, I got a great discount, because I had more than 300 images with them: I could use Photoshop and Lightroom for free for 2 years (Photography plan).
Multi-dollar sales are not uncommon, so you can even exceed your revenue on Shutterstock, which is large in number but low in revenue (per image). In a Youtube video, a photographer rejoices that his most sought-after image was licensed hundreds of times, earning some $100! Well, if that picture had been licensed only once on Alamy, he might have earned a lot more. But Adobe Stock also pays more if we know its needs. I mean, the needs of Adobe customers.
Editorial photos cannot be uploaded to Adobe. If your image contains people or property, you must provide a model/property release with it.
Adobe software is interoperable, therefore, you can easily access (Adobe) stock photos with a click from any Adobe software. The most sought-after images here are photos containing copy space (a homogeneous area reserved for captions). In addition, studio photos with a white background (cut-out) and photos with people doing something (images that express a sense of work or life) are also selling well. The most popular images of mine are clearly the plants, musical instruments on white background. My bestseller is the giant crane fly, which has no white background, but shows that you never know what photos sell...
They are very consistent in reviewing photos and each image is carefully examined before it can be included in their portfolio. They are very sensitive to sharpness, it is worth looking at your images (otherwise this is a general rule) at 100% crop before uploading. I’ve read in several places that there are contributors who upload a scaled-down photo, saying it’s big enough to be accepted, but not the maximum size that wouldn’t be good to give away for pennies. In my experience, this is a bad attitude. From time to time, agencies raise the minimum acceptable image size. What is big enough today, may be small tomorrow, and get out of the porfolio.
So Adobe Stock is the best microstock platform for me because it's sophisticated, doesn’t use AI, is on the rise, and you can even use their basic photography software for free.
Getty Images - "moving the world with images"
The forerunner of online stock photography and also the most divisive. When I first registered with them (I did it twice), I had the opportunity to publish my photos into the elite section of Getty Images. They decided to put me there based on the sample photos I submitted. The other option would have been iStock (iStock by Getty Images), where more general, microstock-type photos are collected.
We had clashes in the beginning. Their reviewing mechanism is quite rigid, so when I asked them to delete an erroneously submitted series before it was reviewed, they told me that once I had pressed the submit button, they could not delete the images. Not even after the review process.
Oddly, only some images of one of my series were accepted, even though the subject of the pictures was the same (model car). When I complained, each image was rejected, citing human error.
After some similar cases, I soon got to the point where I became fed up with this inflexible attitude. A few months later, I terminated my contract.
I re-registered much later, but then, I was put in the iStock portfolio. You can read about why I tried again later in the iStock chapter.
EyeEm - "authentic stock photos that make a statement"
EyeEm was a great adventure. Its very sleek interface, easy handling and uploading, online model and property releases (elsewhere you have to upload the scanned copy of a signed paper) were all in favor of trying out this relatively young initiative. It was originally started as a "social" photo-sharing platform, but they soon realized that it was not enough just to show them off, but to make it possible to sell the photos as a stock photo agency, as well. Their prices are quite high, so not microstock, but basically still a "like/follow" platform. Photos are sold not only on the EyeEm interface, but also in the portfolios of the agencies Getty Images or Alamy (among others).
There are two options after your photos are reviewed: your more superb images are passed on to the companies mentioned above, and the less good ones are kept only on their own site (called "market"). The former option gives your images a much greater opportunity to be found and sold.
Despite the slow review process, they also use AI technology, so quite a few funny cases happened.
I was asked for a model release for a picture of a statue of Jesus. My bike wheel photo was defined by their system as an animal that resides on a tree as a red leaf, and the keywords and the title of the photo were overwritten accordingly.
Here I would like to mention the extremely strange practice that the image title and keywords I entered for my images for sale were simply overwritten by the AI system, often absolutely wrongly. I noticed that the images passed to Getty Images had been re-keyworded and re-titled, completely ignoring the words I originally used.
It was interesting to see that when I looked at my images while logged in to the EyeEm website, I saw the correct keywords (entered by me), when I browsed while logged out (i.e. as a customer), the incorrect data appeared next to my images. In addition, it could not be modified.
Due to the wrong and funny automatic keywords, which were not modified after my complaints, EyeEm did not become my favorite, and I will avoid them in the future. Of course, I deleted all my pictures and waved goodbye.
If you sign up for EyeEm, I suggest you have a look at your photos while logged out so you don’t end up like me. If you have stunning images, you can even sell them sometimes, although based on the experience of others, you can’t expect big revenue.
It seems to me that EyeEm is still more of a social platform for photographers.
I tried to get in, but because they were looking for photos on a different topic, they refused my application. Regardless, I feel like I have to mention Stocksy, among the bigger agencies, as well. A special agency, a real community, because photographers also own a share of the company. They have a say in the operation of the company. Anyone who gets in can show their art to an exclusive audience.
I highly recommend Stocksy, well worth a try. Don’t expect a miracle, they may reject you :-)
Alamy - "the world’s most diverse stock photo collection"
The British photo agency Alamy is arguably my favorite. I wrote a detailed post about them, full of lots and lots of information for beginner stock photographers.
You might want to start getting to know this great company in the Alamy forums. Maybe because they're not American, they have some specialties. The founding company manager regularly meets in person with contributors, where he can be asked about any topics related to the company in a friendly atmosphere.
After a short time, people on the forum appear as long-known acquaintances, a good little team came together over the years, who enrich the photographic community with their very valuable experiences. On a monthly basis, one of them launches a topic about how many images he sold during that month and how much revenue he generated from it. This is on the one hand inspiring (if higher numbers are included) and on the other hand, we can form a concept of average results. For those who are learning English, the Alamy forum is also a great place because 90% of them are native English speakers.
I read many times that they are disappointed to leave Alamy there for half a year - photographers accustomed to Shutterstock in a year.
An old forum member wrote the following: you have 2-3 sales in the first year, 15-20 in the second, and that number rises significantly from the third. Of course, in case you do everything right (see here). Even to date, there are 3-digit sales (per image, in dollars). I also started the line with a $175 sale.
While a non-English (meaning not living in the UK) photographer is undoubtedly at a disadvantage on Alamy over a local (this is because of the Live News service, where photographers can upload newsworthy photos for English newspapers, with quick quality control process) contributor, I warmly recommend them to any editorial photographer.
iStock - "discover royalty-free images that will make you stand out"
I mentioned above, that I left Getty Images disappointed. A year later, I decided to give it another chance, but now I was targeting iStock. This is the microstock division of Getty Images. The revenue you can get for one image is therefore much lower, often around 1 cent (!). I registered and managed to get in.
I wondered if the news about the incredibly low prices was true. True, indeed.
I like the upload interface, especially the simple solution of the keywords. A separate software (DeepMeta) can be used to study sales statistics and more.
The payout limit, like Dreamstime, is $100, so we need to sell quite a few images before we can make a payout. In addition, the sales statement can only be downloaded once a month (around the 20th of each month).
IStock distinguishes between two sales categories: Regular and Connect. The amount of Regular sales per image for me ranges from 2 cents to $1.8 (excluding three larger sales). However, Connect sales are already painting a more worrying picture: from $0.00002 to 14 cents. On one occasion, virtually all of my images were bought by someone (I had 573 images) for $3.2.
Regarding the Connect sales type, iStock writes this in its user guide (I will only highlight the important parts):
Connect is a solution iStock offers to their customers that allows them to embed Getty Images content directly inside their tools, products and services. Because of high volumes and unique usages of Connect, royalties (contributor revenue) may be reported as fractions of a cent, to 5 decimal points.
The only problem with Connect is that you can’t opt-out. I emailed customer service that I just wanted to get rid of Connect, but they didn’t respond (we were already in correspondence, but they didn’t specifically respond to my request).
With regular uploads and a diverse portfolio, you can get results here as well (similar to other microstock platforms), but I was shocked to sell out my images for peanuts.
Finally, some data to consider
From the above, you can see that I ended up opting for the macrostock (or simply stock) agency (Alamy) and I also maintain my Adobe Stock portfolio. I’ve either discontinued the rest, or I’ll just leave my better-performing pictures and then delete my account after the next payment).
The basic royalties you get at the different agencies:
(links lead to the payment regulations of each agency)