The Big Guide to Improve Microstock Workflow

A few times a week I receive questions from microstock photographers who have discovered the picNiche toolbar, wondering about how they can make the whole microstock process better. As an experienced computer user (and coder) there are a lot of things I often take for granted about ‘the microstock workflow’, which others sometimes miss or choose to avoid due to the perceived complexity of moving to a new tool or method.

Just yesterday I was sent this great email, which summed up a few points where I KNOW there are significant improvements to be made:

I’m new to stock. I’ve only been submitting for a few weeks, but I’ve been behind the camera for 25 years. Much of my favorite things to shoot: landscapes, floral… seem to be well covered in the stock photo market, so I’m digging deep, as well as shooting new stuff with stock in mind. I’ve been trying to upload about 25-30 images each week.
I have a full time job, a kid, a husband, etc and my time is limited, but I really want to do this. I’m finding that the same thing that has kept me from doing this in the past is still a problem: It’s so time consuming to title, describe, categorize, keyword, and all that before you even can push the submit button!
I use Photoshop Elements and haven’t figured out how to keyword the image so that I don’t have to do it as I enter. I’ve been writing up a word doc and cutting and pasting into each agency’s submission page as I go along. There’s got to be a better way!!
Do you have any recommendations?

I’m often sending pretty quick responses to emails like this, so I thought I’d post here instead to discuss the workflow of preparing, processing and submitting images to microstock. (I’ll steer clear of the actual creation process, there are many blogs and books far better suited to cover that topic. Microstock Money Shots by Ellen Boughn and Rasmuss Rasmussen’s Microstock Photographers Guide are just two you might want to check out.)


It’s fairly safe to say that now Microstock Photography is a well-established business. Regardless of which agencies you are selling with, there’s a fair chance that shooting many of the more common topics just isn’t going to give you a good return for your time. This is discussed thoroghly throughout this blog, but in brief there are a few things you can do in advance to be confident of a reasonable income:

  • Find topics which you can shoot well, and focus on those. Targeting ‘just’ general business, flowers, pets, and household items will leave your new work at the bottom of a very big pile (especially if you’re not producing a quality to really rival the big producers).
  • Supply to as many agencies as you can. There aren’t many topics which can sell well on a single agency, even with exclusivity bonuses. You also benefit from different search algorthims, different target markets, and a lot more flexibility by NOT having all your ‘eggs in one basket’.
  • Really think about the type of work you enjoy shooting. It fast becomes a bit of a grind if you’re shooting just to make money. Remember that photography is one of the few industry people do for love, and when they do it’s clearly visible in the finished work.
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of time in front of the computer. Whilst most people think of successful photographers as always being ‘out on a shoot’. The reality is (especially in microstock) that you may well spend more time processing and distributing your work than you spent holding the camera.
  • Use your existing images where you can. Much of the start-up process of building a portfolio for stock is getting your numbers up. Often you can use shots you’ve taken previously for fun, by reprocessing them for stock. They may not sell like hot-cakes, but simply getting your protfolio above that first 1000 really gives you the drive (and the financial breathing room) to focus on creating new work.
  • Do your research. Watch the market for developing trends, keep apprised of big news stories and developments in technology. Just by following some of the biggest news and tech blogs you’ll have a pretty good idea of what people are writing about both on the web and in print. If you shoot specific topics (construction, plumbing, pet-care… whatever) keep up with the periodicals and blogs in that sector.
  • Think rationally. A lot of photographers, particularly those who have only shot for fun, or shot exclusively ‘creative’ work do not succeed in stock, simply because they think that only images which look ‘beautiful’ can be a success. Some of the biggest sellers in microstock would score zero in ‘beauty’, but if they clearly convey a single concept or issue they can be hugely successful. That is not to say of course that beauty doesn’t sell… add it where you can, just remember it’s not a prerequisite for a truly useful image.
  • Set yourself firm goals. Say 1000 images available for sale by the end of the year, or $1000 a month across all sites by your birthday. You’ll still be subject to the typical ebbs & flows of the marketplace, but knowing what you’re heading for is a huge start to actually getting your work selling.
  • Let yourself fail. I have about 200+ images which I made on a whim not long after I started. It was a pretty significant investment of time but has resulted in almost zero sales. Still, I respect that it taught me a little more about what is NOT in demand.
  • Microstock in particular is HARD. If you’ve read one of the guides around the web which basically said “upload your images and roll in oodles of cash”, it was talking bollocks. If you expect it to be easy: forget it… producing quality and quantity both to satisfy microstock buyers and build a stable portfolio is a LOT of hard work. There are many photographers coming into microstock expecting their handful of ‘less-than-perfect’ images to sell who are being seriously dissapointed. Don’t expect any different, it’s a marketplace: you need to be either Coca Cola or Dom Pérignon to succeed.
  • Have fun! If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. You need to put passion into every image, it will shine through to buyers when they browse that layout of 40-80 competing image thumbnails in any search results page.

Selection & Processing

Traditional agencies (ie. pre-microstock) usually have a staff of editors who carefully curate the collection they represent. They wouldn’t necessarily process the images, but they would have close ties to photographers, and would have a vested interest in tweaking the work and finding clients for the images under their hand.

Microstock has no such drive, if you don’t spend the time required to make your work stand out from the croed, you are effectively throwing everything into the bargain-basket and blindly hoping your work floats to the top. By making the effort to accurately edit, title/caption, keyword, categorise and present your images you will see a return on that time.

Notice how I highlighted ‘accurately’ there… yes… accuracy is critical. Don’t just put loose metadata on to get it through the minimum-required tags/words or whatever. Every time your work appears in search results you want it to be the 100% best-suited buy for that viewer. Many agencies apply their search algorithms based on conversion rate (I certainly would), and images which don’t convert viewers into buyers, eventually won’t get viewed at all.

Editing is a bit of an art-in-itself. There are many people who get paid ridiculous amounts of money just to ‘edit’ (ie. select the best) images. Ultimately you’re looking to import the images from your camera and then for each image assess whether it really is worthy of you spending the time to really get it into a saleable state. You should of course revisit your previous images as you learn more about the marketplace, ultimately keeping in mind as to whether that image really does stand up to others. If you’re not sure, try not to ask a loved one, and be wary at photo meet-ups of others who just want their ego stroked.

Try and find someone who really will be honest with you if they think an image is rubbish. It’s difficult for some people, but it’s critical to be emotionally stable enough to disconnect your work from your sense of self-worth. I embraced a concept called Radical Honesty a few years ago, and although it’s often difficult to balance with tact when dealing with others, it’s definitely a practice you should apply to yourself.

Ok so how should the edit process work:

  1. Does it project a single concept or subject? If not, fix it or trash it.
  2. Edit tight: If it’s borderline as to whether it would sell, skip it.
  3. Is is clean of artifacts, noise, distractions, logos, unreleased people? If not, fix it or trash it.
  4. Does your batch contain more than a few similar images. If so, pick just the best one or two.
  5. Zoom out to thumbnail view, if you can’t tell what it is, it will probably not perform well.
  6. Get those colour sliders rolling to add a little punch. But not too much.
  7. Is the image creative or commercial? If just one, can you change it to make it into both?
  8. Think like a craftsman, smooth any rough edges…

Captions & Keywording

Setting metadata depends a lot on what application you choose to use. The email I was sent mentions Photoshop Elements, which I used briefly several years ago. For a cataloguing app that is a lot better than many (often people who contact me are using Picasa, Windows Photo Gallery or similar trash). I am personally a fan of Adobe Lightroom for metadata editing (I don’t think much to it’s retouching tools, but then I’m a Photoshop expert and wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to trim my toenails :)).

The metadata tools in Lightroom are quite effective, less painful than alternatives such as the photoshop meta-editor, the free IrfanView or Exifer, Apple iPhoto, or anything which ships with Windows/Live. As a cataloging app it’s a bit clunky if you’re running on a slow system, but does that pretty well too considering the low price of the package. I’ve built a few metadata-editing apps (and am building another right now for picWorkflow) and when designing the UI for them my starting point is the Lightroom interface. I’ve also tried Aperture and CaptureOne, and I’m not keen on either (the latter in particular is far too poorly designed).

ALWAYS keyword in the image metadata rather than storing the keywords in spreadsheets or anywhere else. There are several online tools which still use things like CSV/TSV formats once you have keyworded an image, and to be frank, these sites are dinosaurs. If your tool doesn’t write to the image metadata, it’s a crappy tool, try a different one.

When you’re keywording and captioning, try to remember the following:

  • Set both the title and the description fields. The description field should be a more descriptive form of the title, so for an image of “young family camping trip at yellowstone”, the description might be “Family group visit yellowstone national park. Looking at viewer”
  • Include the most relevant keywords as part of your title and description. Many agencies will automatically weight your image higher in results where a word or phrase exists both as a keyword and in the title/description fields.
  • Always set your copyright name metadata. In europe it is illegal for agencies or any other third-parties to distribute your image with this metadata field removed (Article 7:PDF). This requirement is often ignored by both traditional and microstock agencies and although that situation is unlikely to change, if you specify it you know which sites are violating your rights.
  • More keywords are not necessarily better. Most agencies allow a maximum of 50 keywords, some have no limit, but remember the primary goal in keywording your image is NOT to add 50 keywords, it is to add as many keywords as necessary for a buyer to find your image. When it appears in search results you want to be the one image they choose, using irrelevant keywords will never help that goal.
  • Keyword spam happens, agencies are doing very little to help prevent it (despite it technically being a pretty simple issue to detect and stop). These spammers however are not seeing returns for their inaccurate keywords, it is merely a perception that more is better, which it is not. It’s annoying and inneffective, simply put: don’t do it.
  • When choosing keywords and the phrases for your title/description, try to focus on typable words. ‘Business’ is more typable than ‘commerce’… both of which are infinitely more common than ‘entrepreneurialship’. Don’t neglect these lesser used words, but find a line where adding fluffy keywords no longer results in a real financial return.
  • If you submit to multiple agencies (you should), try to keep in mind that some agencies favour certain words over others. iStock in particular is a bugger for this, their controlled vocabulary is highly selective (and often wrong) in what it thinks is related. It’s not really something you can write a permanent list for, but you get an intuitive feel for it after a while. Seeing the ‘discovery’ keywords like those shown on Dreamstime for image sales is very helpful for this.
  • Use a good relational keyword suggestion tool to find keywords (though make sure to only include ones relevant to your specific image). There is a high quality keyword tool in sidebar of the picNiche Microstock Contributor toolbar for firefox though there are several decent alternatives. Yuri’s Keywording tool is the most popular choice, though be doubly sure to remove innaccurate keywords for your specific image.
  • If you’re keywording in English, but are not a native English-speaker don’t rely on tools like Google translation, often it translates words in a context rather than individually, and doesn’t offer much in the way of alternative translations. A good English-Whatever/Whatever-English dictionary (even one made of dead trees) is a lot more likely to give the true translation for the words you choose. Pair this with an English thesaurus and you’ll broaden your own English vocabulary at the same time.
  • Some agencies allow non-english keywords, and for some languages it may be useful to do so, though it’s probably only really worth it for the main european languages, German and French are the main ones and are typically handled well (relative to Chinese, Turkish, Russian or anything else) for automated translation to apply worldwide, though for the broadest market I’d still stick to English first.
  • Find a balance in your keywords, you want high quality, not high quantity.


Once you’ve shot, selected and retouched your images, applied your caption, copyright and keywords, it’s time to upload and submit to as many agencies as you have the time to. I won’t get into the details comparing exclusivity with any one agency, but needless to say it’s a mug’s game, if your images are good enough to be exclusive, they’re good enough to sell 5-10 times as often everywhere else too.

Submission can be painful, and even with the few improvements made to the process by the picNiche toolbar, it will always be painful. Managing your model releases, categorising and checking terms is not quick, not fun, and sadly most of it is not necessary.

Many of the readers here are familiar with my ongoing attempts to get agencies to provide APIs (programmable interfaces for those not in the know) for their contributors. After more than a year of trying, I’m pretty much convinced it’s not going to happen, it’s just not in agencies interests to make it easier to submit to them when there are so many people willing to do it the slow-painful way. If you REALLY want submission to be easier, contact your agencies and demand it, or focus your submissions elsewhere and let the market decide. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

A few tips to make the submission process easier:

  • Organise your submissions into batches, I usually go with no more than 20-30 images per batch, although occasionally stretch this to 50 if I have a lot of images to submit.
  • Wherever possible run your uploads via FTP (File Transfer Protocol), a suprising number of people tell me they upload via flash or http on each agency website. This is slow mainly because it requires you to attend the batch, and is susceptible to things like browser crashes, but also adds an overhead to every file you transfer (upto as much as 10%). Use an FTP client such as FileZilla or many of the others available. If you submit to iStock, use DeepMeta to upload images there.
  • Upload and submit one batch at a time, then wait for that batch to be processed at each agency before uploading and submitting the next batch. This often reduces the number of rejections and ensures a constant stream of new content for those agencies which perform better when ‘feeding the beast’ (You know who I mean ;))
  • On most agencies you can select image categories pretty quickly, though it helps to know which agencies require specific categories for specific types. Shutterstock for example requires the People category for images of people (why they can’t determine that from the release status is beyond me), and likewise for Illustrations they require the approiate category (again somewhere there is smoking too much pot cos they also have a checkbox for that). Other agencies have similar crazy requirements, and after the first round of rejections for meta issues (something you will get used to) you’ll pickup on them.
  • You will get rejections. Use them, but don’t whine and moan, it won’t help you or anyone else. Pickup your image and fix them where you can, if you can’t don’t worry about it, add them to your rejection pile (collection/library/whatever) and learn from them. To be frank (actually my name is Bob ;)), I’m getting tired of many established photographers whining about how reviewers rejected all their work, when they need to realise that second-tier content can’t make it in microstock anymore.
  • Reviewers are only human, and often are being paid tiny amounts of money to review your work. You might have to live with their decisions and move on, but you do not have to agree with them. Be happy with this fact, and with your own work and you’ll be happy with the pace your microstock portfolio develops.
  • Many people suggest scheduling your uploads & submissions to coincide with time reviewers seem to be more ‘forgiving’, a couple of years ago you wanted to have your work reviewed on a Sunday evening, which depending on the size of queues at each agency meant having your uploads done as early as the preceeding Tuesday. This had the benefit of also getting you in front of buyers looking for fresh images on the Monday morning. I’m not sure if this is still relevant as there isn’t really any science here, but you will figure out what times work for you at each agency.
  • When submitting, try to get some peace & quiet from the hustle and bustle of family life. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to submit ~30 images to around 5-8 agencies, and it goes a lot quicker if you can really get into the swing of things (I usually blast a bit of Muse and zone-out whilst submitting). Have all your model releases uploaded first, take a deep-breath, then drop through your images one at a time, they will be ‘Pending Review’ before you know it.

Following all the steps, suggestions and tips above will not only improve the speed of your editing and submissions to your microstock portfolio, but will also improve the satisfaction you feel at a job well done, and ultimately your ROI (return on investment) for the time spent to prepare and sell your images.

There are many improvements still to be made in Microstock in particular, and despite agency resistance some are coming along nicely. My latest site is which is (at time of writing) still in development, but will bring some workflow improvements, metadata editing tools, upload and review status tracking to maximise your portfolio exposure, and in conjunction with the picNiche toolbar, the ability to track detailed sales statistics of your images.

Have I missed any tips? Have any more questions? Please catch up with me on the picNiche board at Microstock Group Forums or post a comment.

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  1. Posted October 31, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Great blog Bob. I think you covered all the bases. I will try and put a link to this post on my own blog at some point. Very useful.

  2. Posted November 1, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Great post bobbigmac. There is a ton of great info here. I’ll be linking to this in the future!

  3. Posted November 2, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    i breakdown some agencies that paid in different currencies, and tax or no tax. Since US currency is getting weak.

  4. Posted November 5, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Lots of substantial information in this very thoughtful post. Well done!

  5. Anne
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! Very interesting! One thing which i´ve been thinking of, is how to organise photos according to approval. As you know, images are approved on one site but refused on another. Any good ideas on how to keep track of what images were approved /refused where? Why do this you might wonder? Well, i find myself sometimes being totally confused as to whether i have submitted some images to a certain agency, and had them refused, or whether i forgot to submit them and should do so. I tried to make copies and keep in sep files, but v time consuming AND space consuming! Cheers Anne

  6. Dee
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the information just learned about stock photography and looking into joining the pack.

  7. Posted July 4, 2016 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Is FileZilla not working for iStock?

    • bobbigmac
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      iStock don’t have an FTP server. Try their software, DeepMeta, it’s better than their website submission process (though still much slower than agencies with FTP).

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