The Difference Between Traditional and Micro Stock Agencies

What They Pay and How to Break In

By Shelly Perry

Microstock Agencies: A New Way to Sell Photos


A radical shift is underway in the world of stock photography today. Some argue it represents the death of professional photography as we know it. Others are embracing the changing market and finding ways to thrive in it.

Like it or not, the changes are upon us. Talking about stock photography today is much different than it was just a couple of years ago.

Today we have both "traditional" stock agencies (and by that I mean big corporations that act as brokers for all sorts of images) and we have the new kids on the block "micro stock" agencies which were birthed on the web and deal with digital files only.

Micro stock agencies are responsible for the big stir. They've only been around six or seven years. And while they started as a platform for trading and sharing between photographers, designers, and creatives they continued to evolve in response to several factors:

  1. A sort of "altruistic vision of creativity & community" as the traditional stock agencies became harder and harder for photographers to break into and their high sticker prices drove away low-budget buyers.
  2. A growing market of low-budget buyers. E-commerce is burgeoning world wide. Every business these days (no matter how small or large) needs a website, but not every business can afford (or wants) to pay $300-$500 or more for each image they display on it.
  3. Traditional agencies have been slow to catch on, reluctant to change their business model. And so these online stock photo agencies are filling a need for easy-access, low-cost photos. To meet the demand, they are willing to take on new and inexperienced photographers. (Note: Traditional stock agencies are catching on now, though. Some are buying into growing micro stock companies and merging them with their own.).


Micro Stock Agencies: What (and How) Photo Agencies Pay

You can expect an agency to take anywhere from 40% to 85% of the...
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gross sale of your images. That may sound like a lot. But remember that they handle all the promoting, storing, marketing, and sales of your work for you. You have only to take the pictures (something you enjoy anyway).

What does that leave you with, then?

Well, as a general rule of thumb, I've heard photographers with traditional agencies claim $1 per year for every image they have on file with an agency.

Why are they happy to give up their photos for $1 a piece a year?

Well, with traditional stock agencies you often have a contractual obligation to submit photos every month. One hundred photos a month (which is typical) translates to $1,200 a year, and your portfolio will grow exponentially each and every year.

Now, micro stock agencies also take a commission from your sales. But they charge buyers a lot less than traditional agencies do to purchase their photos. And they're dealing in much larger quantities -- that is, many, many more sales.

So instead of estimating income on a per-year basis, when it comes to micro stock agencies, photographers usually consider per-month numbers.

I, for example, currently earn an average of about $.80 a month per photograph on That's significantly more than $1.00 per photo per year. So I choose to host my photos with a micro stock site rather than with a traditional agency.

Micro Stock Agencies: How to Break into Traditional Agencies

To break into a traditional stock agency you need four things:

  1. Approximately 200 technically perfect images - good composition, perfect exposure, proper focus
  2. Captions for each (Turn Your Pictures into Cash program members should refer to their chapter on writing captions for details: )
  3. Keywords for each photo (Some agencies do this for you, check their guidelines.)
  4. A Word document that contains a list of all the photos you're submitting along with their captions. Then you have to find an agency. Go online and search for "stock photo agencies." Pick three or four from that list and read their guidelines to make sure your photos qualify.


Micro Stock Agencies: How to Break into Micro Stock Agencies

When it comes to micro stock agencies, I recommend you choose the agency first -- before you collect your pictures -- because that will affect the way you prepare them.

Each agency has different requirements, from the size of image they accept to the number of keywords they want you to submit. So take a look through the sites and read through the requirements and the photographer agreement before you decide.

Once you decide, you can upload your images at your own pace (there are no minimum requirements but there are some maximum limits). And you'll need to supply titles, descriptions, and keywords for each photo (be specific, descriptive and clear -- not prolific and creative).

WARNING: Be your own worst critic when it comes to sorting through your photographs and deciding which ones to submit. Most micro stock agencies monitor your acceptance rate and some will even put a hold on your account if you submit too many images that don't meet their needs or follow their guidelines.

If you get five rejections in a row without a single acceptance, stop submitting and go back to practicing your craft.

Microstock Agencies: A Word About Model Releases

Yes, you'll need model releases. No image with a recognizable person or people can be sold for commercial purposes without their permission in writing. Check the agency you are with as most have a release you can download, copy, and use.

[About the Author: Shelly Perry from Portland, Oregon, specializes in people photography, what she calls documentary or lifestyle portraits. She is known especially for her imaging of children. Shelly's concern for people is reflected both in her sense of purpose and the images she produces.

To read her full biography, browse through more of her articles, and learn about AWAI programs she has contributed to, visit her bio page on here:]


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