Evaluating Agencies

Several times a month we get a request to add a new agency to our listings. While we welcome new comers to the business and to a growing playing field, we have seen over hundred of these sites come and go (well, most of them haven’t gone anywhere and that is really the problem, no cashflow).

As a photographer looking to make money selling your images, you have a myriad of competing options driven by a group of competing forces in front of you. In this article we take a look at what I think are the driving forces of buyers to a particular agency (which in turn means success to the agency and maybe to you). Then we will look at the reasons that you may or may not want to list your images. Finally we will take a look at some methods to measure your success, and adjust your strategy.

Making the Sell

There are at least two types of buyers who are getting into microstock photographer. The first and most profitable is the “professional buyer”. This is a designer who is a regular consumer of images. While price is a good motivator for some of these, it is less important than speed and quality. If a client is paying $50.00/hr, than searching a small agency for an hour to save $3 is not really a good choice. The second type is the freebie-seeker-in-shocker: They started but searching Google Images, hoping to “grab” a photo for their website after finally seeing the perfect image; they spend the $1-3 to get one without a watermark.

Why Sell With the Big Guys

Many critics of the larger agencies like iStockPhoto and Shutterstock say that they are paying you so little for the amount they make (about 20% of the sale). However, when you speak to people who are actually making an income in microstock, they all seem to get over it quickly because they learn the price of marketing, infrastructure and support. Selling with the big agencies has the following advantages:

  1. 1.       Reliability – Submitting images can take many hours (on a portfolio of about 800 I have probably spent over 100 hours submitting to each agency).
  2. 2.       Marketing – Large agencies spend the money they make from your images to sell more images. That’s business. They will have booths and major events and advertisements in the major magazines.
  3. 3.       Support – Wouldn’t it be nice if everything always went according to plan? But it doesn’t, and you are going to need support in uploaded, tracking and getting payments. Larger agencies have a more proven method of this.

Some of the larger agencies offer substantial better rates if you sell single images or your entire portfolio exclusively with them. This could be of great benefit if you don’t have a lot of time to submit images. iStockPhoto has a very loyal “exclusive” following with many benefits. Dreamstime and Fotolia allow you to submit portions of your portfolio under exclusive terms and then sell the rest everywhere.

I sell with many agencies and have carefully chosen to do so for several reasons. The most important reason for me was diversity. I didn’t want to lose my months income if a single agency took a hit in search engine performance or just as bad had a major equipment failure and were offline for 2 weeks (which I have seen with even major agencies.)

Why Sell With the Little Guy

In almost every situation there is less up front money to be made by selling with the smaller agencies. So why do it? Here are a few thoughts

  1. 1.       Growth – Sometimes small guys become big. I started selling with Fotolia within their first year of business and now they are my best earner with a good diverse client base.
  2. 2.       Diversity – Selling with non-english website may help get your images in front of new buyers. One nice thing about stock photography is that most of it is “language-independent” although there may be cultural aspects that affect whether it will sell well.
  3. 3.       Reach – If you have time and nothing better to do, it generally doesn’t hurt to submit your images to more agencies.

So with these benefits in mind there are a few reasons to stick to the big guys. One of these is price, while you may make a larger percentage at the smaller agencies, you images are probably getting sold for less and some argue that this is bad for the industry. The second problem is image safety and sales tracking. I was submitting to one smaller agency for several years and then they just disappeared. It started with a lack of answering emails. When I requested my images be taken off the site, there was no response and then the site went down. Hopefully they deleted my images, but in all reality they may have a massive hard drive with hundreds of thousands of now “stolen” images that they can sell in big packages on eBay.

Overall the choice of agencies is a personal one. I don’t like to sell images on “ugly sites” even though I have had good offers for performance and profit. Many people really like LuckyOliver because of its new community feel. The reality is that I have made very little money selling through them, but enjoy the carnival feel.

Evaluating an Agency

  1. 1.       Needs to have a phone number, not just and email.
  2. 2.       Needs to have at least 50,000 images (unless you are personally connected to the owners).
  3. 3.       Check the WHOIS on the domain and make sure it is at least a year old.
  4. 4.       Ask others about their experiences

Of all of these, asking others will be the most useful. Remember that just like looking up reviews for a Ford versus Toyota, there will be people that hate both, but you are looking for a common theme or “group opinion”. I never submit images to an agency that has less than 50,000 images. (As a side note, don’t trust the number on the home page, read about honest total images).


Measuring Success

“When performance is measured performance improves. When performance is measured and reported the rate of performance improves. When performance is measured, reported, and compared the rate of performance continues to improve.” General Bruce Carlson

There are countless methods to track your earning and time spent on selling stock photography with microstock and traditional agencies. The most important point is that you need ##CONTINUE##

Final Thoughts

One final note that I would add is that anyone who gets involved in microstock must overcome two obsessions and start two others:


1.      Be obsessed with checking the balances on your accounts. For several months I spent 45-60 minutes a day checking how much I had made. DON’T do it. If you must look every day, get a utility to pull all the stats to one place (##LIKE ZZZZ##).

2.      Be obsessed with gripping about image rejections, they didn’t take it and there is no reason to fuss about it.


1.      Be obsessed with improving. If an image got rejected, learn why and improved

2.      Be obsessed with continually submitting new stuff. You will earn more on your new and old images, if you continue to add new images. Shutterstock in particular seems to sell a lot better if you have a steady flow of images (even if its 3-5 a week).

Please let me know what you think about this article and share your experience in the forum.