MicroStock Photography Part 2 – the Top 4 Agencies

[singlepic=288,320,240,,left]In part 1, I interviewed Microstock Phenomenon and shed the light on what microstock photography is all about. If you missed it, you can read it HERE.

Now lets look at the top four microstock agencies out there and what they can offer you as a photographer. I’ll limit this to photographers since that’s my field of expertise. But you can also contribute illustrations, videos and sound to certain agencies.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of each agency, here’s a bird’s eye view of the top 5 agencies in terms of traffic. Looking at the Alexa graph below, we can clearly see that IstockPhoto.com is the leader for traffic. The next 3, Shutterstock, Dreamstime and Fotolia are in a tight race with Fotolia taking a slight advantage in the last few months. And StockXpert still at the bottom.

The reason I’m showing you this graph is to give you a general idea of each site’s popularity. It doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily make more money at IstockPhoto than at Shutterstock.

OK, let’s get the ball rolling here.

[singlepic=337,320,240,,left]IstockPhoto.com: Istock was the first microstock site. It was purchased by macrostock agency GettyImages for $50 million so it has lots of marketing power. It’s a big community of buyers and contributors. Istock has the reputation of being the hardest microstock agency to get into so make sure you do your homework before applying. It’s also one of the top income generators so it’s worth getting into. Sales are pretty consistent without major fluctuations a part from the standard seasonal lows at all agencies (July, August, December).

How to make extra money

Exclusivity: As a contributor, once you reach 300 downloads and have a 50% acceptance rate, you’ll have the option of becoming an exclusive photographer. What does that mean? First, you get a raise. Depending on your number of downloads, you can go between 25% to 40% commission. Non exclusives make 20%. Your weekly upload limit increases… a lot! And other goodies as well. Check out the exclusivity page for all the details.

Referrals: All top 5 agencies have a referral program. How it works is pretty simple, you’ll get a referral URL that you can paste anywhere to promote the agency or your portfolio. At Istock, each successful referral will get you $10.


As your sales increase your canister color changes (see image). That really doesn’t mean much for non exclusive contributors a part from a little ego boost but exclusives can’t wait to get to the next level to have increased commissions. Canisters range from “base” to “black diamond”. Your images also get a flame ranking with different colors at 100, 500, 1000 downloads. There are speculations that this could play a role in search parameters but that hasn’t been proven.


[singlepic=332,320,240,,left]ShutterStock.com: Shutterstock is a unique agency in that it’s the only agency only offering subscription (subs) sales from their clients. You cannot purchase individual images, you must purchase a “package”. Most micros now have subs on top of their per photo sales to compete with the ShutterStock model. We’ll see if Shutterstock will eventually add a per photo sale model. It used to be easy to get into Shutterstock as a contributor but the standards in the last few years have dramatically increased. Once in, you’ll see sales right away. New images are favored by their search algorithm. The trick for more consistent sales is to upload often. Some say you’re better off uploading smaller batches more often than uploading bigger batches less often.

How to make extra money

Referrals: Shutterstock has, by far, the best referral program around. By referring other contributors, you’ll make $0.03 per image sold by your “recruits” for as long as the images are there and they sell! Roughly 10%-12% of my Shutterstock income comes from referrals. You can also refer buyers and you’ll earn up to $50. You can also earn 10% on each video sale by referring videographers.

Sales Ranking: Basically, the more you make, the higher your commission is. You can check out the full earning tables here. You’ll start at $0.25/download all the way up to $0.38/download.


[singlepic=334,320,240,,left]Fotolia.com: I love Fotolia’s design and ease of use as a contributor. One thing that I don’t like is the protective watermark on the images. It can easily be removed due to its size and location on the thumbnail images. The application process isn’t has strict as Istock or Shutterstock but you still need some quality files to get accepted.

How to make extra money

Referrals: Again you can make a few extra dollars by referring potential sellers and buyers. You’ll get 15% of the net profit (after paying the contributor) from buyers and 10% from photographer sales. Like Shutterstock, this doesn’t have a time limit as well. It a fair referral program. You can get the full details of the referral program here.

Color Ranking: The ranking works more like Istock. Your color changes as you downloads increase. You start off white and you work your way up to diamond. What’s great is that you don’t need to be an exclusive photographer or have exclusive material to take advantage of the price boost. But you do have to wait a while before you make it to the first price increase which is emerald (10000 downloads). Most photographers will never reach it. To give you an idea, I’m currently ranked 40 on Fotolia (out of over 50 000 contributors) and I’ll be hitting emerald this month. This means currently, less than 40 contributors have gotten a price increase.


[singlepic=331,320,240,,left]Dreamstime.com: Dreamstime is another great site to earn good income. I personally love the blog feature (that I use often) and also the stats page. The message boards are also quite active. It has lots of resources and monthly contests for contributors with some cool prizes like Ipods. I also like the way they promote your images with 8 small thumbnails under “More image from contributor’s portfolio” when someone views one of your images.

How to make extra money

Referrals: Dreamstime also has a good referral program. It gives you $5 per referral. Then you get 10% of all image sales or credit purchases for 3 years.

Image Levels: Contrary to other sites each image gets ranked as opposed to the photographer. The more an image sells the higher it will cost to buy it. They go from level 1 to 5. A small level 1 image is $1 and a small level 5 image is $5. For complete details click here.


This was a brief outline of the top microstock agencies. For a detailed list of other agencies, you can check out MicroStockListing.com.

In part 3, I’ll guide you into how to get the right images for your application process so that you pass the first time.

2 responses on "MicroStock Photography Part 2 - the Top 4 Agencies"

  1. Great series of articles. Your link to MicroStockListings goes to a website about penny stocks.

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