A Tour of MicroStock

When first introduced to stock photography, most people approach the industry with a specific type of image in mind. Because I came to stock imagery from a billboard design angle (one of my previous adventures) I thought mostly of isolated object that I had used on a sign (a gas nozzle for a fuel station). Over the last ten years I have learned a lot more about stock photography and learned to keep a watchful eye as I look at magazines, signs, church bulletins and birthday invitations. Microstock images are everywhere! Some have the source clearly labeled, others don’t but soon you will start noticing them too.

I have used some of my own images in this article as well as the work of others. All images used from others have been licensed from one of the agencies listed on this site (usually either Deposit Photos or Fotolia).

If you are just starting out with stock photography and trying to decide if the style of images you shoot will work, here are a few ideas and tips to help you along your way:

desert landscape


Landscapes are one of the first categories to fill in with most stock photo agencies. Just try a search of mountain on and of the major stock photo sites and you’ll see what I mean. I you want to sell landscape, you need content that is unique and a style that separates you from the millions who have shoot the sunset before you and are already selling it.

I find that the most successful landscape image require me to wake up really early and setup for the right lighting moment. Unlike other types of images, you often have to wait on the lighting rather than controlling it.


Portraits sell very well on all the stock sites. If you are listing with one of the newer sites, these may be the only images selling well. The styles of portraits that sell best vary from site to site, so try several approaches. Business related images have always done well, but there are millions of the most common images. Woman Holding Cell phone is well covered, so you might have to get a little creative with both concept and pose. Model releases are always required for any images that clearly show faces or are otherwise identifiable.

As a rule of thumb: always get the model release if possible. You’ll never regret asking for it.

luxury home

Architectural Images

I have done very well with selling architectural images. Many of these images will require a property release ##link to example##. In addition to images of buildings, houses and construction materials you can also take pictures of nice interiors which will often sell just as well.

If your house is like mine, you may have to look around to find nice interiors. Although you can create details shots of a fixture or a desk and come up with amazing shots even in your own home.

Love birds

Isolated Objects

One of the most common topics in microstock is the isolated object (or in this case animal). Isolated photos are those shot on a white background. The key to these images is to get the shot as close to white as possible without blowing out the subject itself. It is possible to cleanup in Photoshop or other imaging software later, but its generally easier to shoot a clean shot and make minimal edits after. Some of my best shots have been isolated images that I never considered valuable. I have had hundreds of downloads of my squeegee tool image.

Wood Pattern

Textures & Backgrounds

Textures and background are often used subtly in a design. I used the image shown here on the back of a billboard (shown only very lightly). Keywording is very important with backgrounds and coming up with something with multiple uses will also increase sales. Natural textures, manmade patterns and fabrics can all be sources of cool texture images.

If you go through the extra work to make your texture seamless, make sure to point this out in the description


Abstract & Conceptual

I have to be careful mentioning abstract imaging and its uses in the stock business. Many of the images found on an abstract art site would not sell well in microstock. You have to remember the famous phrase of Shutterstock reviewers: “Limited commercial value”. An abstract shot needs to have implied meaning or use in a commercial designers world.

One of my abstract images shown here sells very well on one agency and not at all on others. One of the keys to microstock is to get a feel for the buyer that each agency attracts. As agencies expand they get a feel for their own buyers and only accept what they think will sell. Just because an image is rejected at iStockPhoto doesn’t mean you shouldn’t submit it to Shutterstock. You get the point.

Don’t stick to just business concepts of wealth and success. Think of emotions or social situations such as depression, poverty, greed or bliss.



There are a couple alternatives to pointing lights and a camera at a subject in order to create great selling images. Illustrations make up a large percentage of most microstock image agencies. About 30% of my portfolio is made up of illustrations or 3D Renderings. Some people do both and others specialize in only illustrations.

Many of the largest stock photo sites (like Dreamstime and Shutterstock) accept vector images (in .eps format)

hungry mouse

3D Renderings

Shown here is one of my images made from a 3D model purchased from DAZ 3D. There are two ways to create stock content from 3D models. Some artists do everything (model, texture, light and render) and others buy the models and pose, light and render a scene to have a specific meaning. Both have opportunity in selling images with most agencies.

Popular tools include 3D Studio and Poser. Daz3D actually has a free rendering tool called DAZ Studio

Video & Audio Files

iStockPhoto among others has expanded it media offering (and therefore earnings potential) to Audio and Video as well as the topics mentioned above. The video has become an excellent addition to many photographers portfolio. Although there are major differences between the two, many photographers are able to pick up short stock footage skills (and vice versa).