Reader Reveals: The Truth about Online Stock Agencies

Earlier this month, I spoke to one reader who is off and running in stock photography. She offered some lessons she's learned about what sells best and where.

It turns out, certain types of photos sell better on certain stock-photo sites -- so, depending on the photos you're peddling, you'd be wise to target your efforts. Scroll down to find out how and to get this reader's in-the-trenches advice about the smartest way to get started…

An interview with reader Kathy Burns-Millyard

TRWTT: Hi Kathy.  Before I ask you about your experience with each of these stock sites individually, can you give us a little background about how you got started… what camera you use (digital, film… SLR or point-and-shoot)… and how long it took you to build a decent-sized portfolio with the agencies you use?

KATHY: Most of the photos I've submitted were taken with a digital SLR camera.  I started submitting to agencies around February or March of last year (2006). Shutterstock was the hardest to get into.  It took three tries before I finally got in around the end of May.

I put up roughly 100-150 pictures before my camera broke in early July. Then I was stuck until mid-November without a decent camera to shoot with. The point-and-shoot I had at that time wasn't good enough for Shutterstock. They're sticklers about noise -- zero tolerance many say -- and that point-and-shoot I had just didn't cut it. (I should clarify this point: Many photographers use point-and-shoot cameras successfully on Shutterstock. It's just that the particular camera I had at the time didn't produce photos of a high enough digital quality.)

Finally, around mid-November, I was able to get a new digital SLR and I began submitting photos again.

TRWTT: In our 2005 article, we sited several online stock agencies -- Shutterstock, BigStockPhoto, and Dreamstime among them.  Can you tell us which agencies you tried and which ones work best for you?

KATHY: First, let me say that even though my portfolios are of a decent size, about a quarter of my pictures are seasonal or holiday-specific.  That's because it was November when I got my new SLR and the first 50-100 pictures I took I snapped over the holidays.

Seasonal and holiday-specific photos only sell during the seasons when they're needed, so while I have a good number of pictures up on these sites, my average income per photo isn't that high.

Also, now that I have a little more experience, I'd say that another quarter of the shots aren't really "stock worthy."

That said, my current portfolios are divided this way:
Shutterstock: 471 live pictures
Fotolia: 581 live pictures
BigStock: 485 live pictures

Shutterstock is my favorite, and I always submit to them first. Then I send the same photos to both BigStock and Fotolia with the occasional exception of my people shots.

I won't put my people shots on sites that have a reputation for customers abusing the site's Terms of Service (i.e. manipulating the images inappropriately, using them on websites with sensitive subject matter, etc.).  I trust Shutterstock the most so I tend to send my best shots there.

They're also the pickiest.  It seems fairly easy to me to get things accepted elsewhere, and in fact I can't remember the last time I had a rejection at BigStock.

Fotolia has started getting a little more strict on quality in the past few months, but the rejections I get from them once in awhile are usually related to "not stock worthy" reasons -- which, of course, is a bit subjective.

Both Fotolia and BigStock seem to be more accepting of beginners. BigStock will take good shots even if they're slightly blurry at full size for instance, and just put a note on the picture that it's best used at smaller sizes. Both sites will take things that could have been composed a little better, or lit a little better, etc..

Fotolia does seem to be getting more choosy, as I said -- in the past several months I've seen more complaints on their boards about rejections. I honestly couldn't tell you if BigStock is also upping the bar on quality or not.

For me at least, and for a lot of other photographers, being accepted and continuing to get pictures accepted at Shutterstock is kind of a "you've made it" type of thing. They're extremely tough. But that challenges me to keep getting better.

TRWTT: So you've probably got over 500 unique photos between the three sites plus a bunch of repeats -- photos that appear on two or even all three of the sites.  Have you noticed a difference in what sells on the various sites or any preferences that, say, one site shows that another doesn't?

KATHY: Yes.  Even though I submit the same pictures to all three sites, they're not always accepted across the board. I've had many rejected by Shutterstock but then accepted at Fotolia and BigStock, which makes sense given the differences in quality standards.

Strangely enough, though, I've also had a few rejected at Fotolia or BigStock, but then had them accepted at Shutterstock. Their requirements and standards are a bit different, and their buyers seem to be a bit different too.

My food shots have done decently at BigStock -- that's almost all that's sold there so far -- though I have had a couple of hobby- and craft-related things sell there as well.

Fotolia is a tough one to figure out, because sales there are all over the place. I've sold fireworks, an ugly old wooden gate, drab-looking flood drains, and for some reason I keep selling this dirty old muffler shot I took on a whim one day. They also have more of a European market, and keywording is a little harder to figure out from an American perspective.

Shutterstock sales are also quite varied. I've sold many more people shots there (of course, it's where I have my people shots), lots of food shots, houses and architecture shots, and some more unique and conceptual things, too.

One thing I really like about Shutterstock is the ability to submit editorial photos. I have an American football series of a high school state championship playoff, and those have done nicely for being editorial. I also have some "aliens" there that were taken at the Roswell NM alien festival last year, and those were also decently popular for a few weeks or so after uploading them, even though they're editorial too.

I sell a lot of white background shots at Shutterstock, but that might be because I have a lot of those.  I was determined, last December and January, to teach myself how to do white background shots without having to use software to cut the objects out. So I practiced and practiced… and then I filled my portfolio quite a bit with those.

I've sold a few people shots at Fotolia but none that I know of at BigStock. Personally, I suspect my people shots aren't fully up-to-snuff just yet, but I'm getting there.

I'm told that the best sellers at BigStock are things which have a clipping path included (something you need extra software to create). This makes sense because they do seem to have more of a web designer client base. I avoid as much software work as I can, though, because I want to take pictures, not be a designer. I know I limit my income with this approach, but I find the software time consuming, and it drives me nuts so I just avoid it except for quick-and-easy clean-up fixes.

The only other major difference I can think of between the agencies is that Shutterstock more readily accepts very simple, clean, bright photos. By contrast, Fotolia and BigStock will accept things a little bit darker, with more dramatic lighting, or with a bit busier background.

Most of the differences between who accepts or rejects what tends to be more about technical quality than anything else.

As I mentioned before, Shutterstock is famous for having a zero-tolerance noise policy. And I have noticed that they are particular about cropping, too. Sometimes it almost seems like they want nothing that's cropped in too closely, other times it seems that they'll accept certain types of cropping, depending on the overall composition.

Composition is very important of course, as is focus and clarity. Shallow-depth-of-field shots aren't as easy to get accepted with Shutterstock from what I hear, though I seem to do ok with them myself.

I was surprised recently to find that Fotolia rejected some dollar-bill shots because of "too many in the database," but Shutterstock and BigStock accepted them.

I understand that it's very hard to get flower, landscape, and pet shots accepted at Shutterstock, though I have few of those shots myself and so can't confirm that through personal experience.

QUESTION: Do you have any other advice or pitfalls you'd like to warn our readers about?

KATHY: Well, I know that Shelly Perry has a lot of luck on and I hear that photographers really like having their images represented there because they have a large source of buyers.  But they limit you to something like 15 or 20 uploads a week, and that's way too slow a growth pace for me.

I've also heard that a lot of "newbie" web businesses and start ups use IStock for their photos and these users have absolutely no idea what copyright is and what copyright violations are. They take advantage of the cheap pictures and promptly violate every rule or law you can think of with them. Some of them even think they own the copyright.

I mention this simply to warn your readers about submitting just anywhere.

And, like I said earlier, be selective with your people shots.  I send my best to Shutterstock.

-- Kathy Burns-Millyard ~ Electronic Perceptions Professional Freelance Writing & Photography:

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