Shutterstock - The First 1000 Images

The making of a microstockaholic

I bought a camera in July 2016. I used to like photography, but couldn't afford the film and processing because I was poor, so it never went anywhere. But virtually everything now has a camera, and there is no film or processing to worry about, so it seemed like the time to dive back in.

I knew pretty much nothing about the camera when I bought it. It was a Canon EOS Rebel T5, and it came with two lenses, a carrying case, and a battery charger, on sale for under $400. Not exactly professional grade or anything, but I figured it would be fine since it was the max I could afford.

I took it out, put it on auto mode, pointed it at things, and mashed the button. Pretty easy all in all. Some of the pictures came out great, but many others required some gentle nudging in Photoshop to get them reasonably nice. I began to wonder what I could do with my pictures that would make me some mailbox money.

Researching Microstock Companies

I am no stranger to making money online. I have designed products for years for Cafepress and Zazzle. At this same time, I had a job as Data Czar in the global marketing operations division of a company that happened to be redoing their website. They were having a lot of discussions about website images every day, and since it was a fairly open concept kind of place, it was easy to listen in on these discussions. 

I started to research microstock companies: which ones were the best and how much money could be made. It seemed like an intriguing idea, so I decided to apply to Shutterstock, the largest and most recommended microstock according to all the reviews I had read. 

Suddenly, I was hit with a gigantic wave of self doubt. Not surprising really. I barely knew how to take the lens cover off the camera, and I was a 55 year old woman with no experience in photography. Surely I was kidding myself. I spent the next several days doing sketches alone in my cubicle during lunchtime, and turning them into vectors at home in the evening. I submitted a small sampling of vectors to Shutterstock and they were accepted. I was in!

My First Microsoft Licensed Image

Eye Vector Drawing

Eye Vector Drawing

I licensed my first vector, a drawing of an eye, on August 8, 2016. It was the only thing I sold in August, and it netted me a whole 25 cents. Woo hoo! Not exactly enough to run to the bank, but someone bought something. That was enough to allow me to get up the nerve to submit a few photos. The early ones were simple stuff; some gnarly mushrooms, peeling paint on my front deck, and the outside of a wood fired kiln. To my surprise, they got accepted.

I knew, however, that for this to actually go anywhere, I was going to need to learn to use the camera. So I enrolled in an 8 week night class in Photography 101 at my local community college. The class was very basic, but I made sure to practice on the weekends. I took a lot of not terribly good pictures, along with a few remarkably decent ones, and learned to use my camera in manual mode. 

I submitted more and more photos, and to my surprise, many were accepted and actually licensed out. By December 2016, I had added portfolios with Fotolia/Adobe, 123RF, Dreamstime, and iStock. In September 2017, I added portfolios with BigStock and Pond5.

Taking Stock of Microstock

In January 2017, I set up a couple of spreadsheets and data gathering processes because, well, I do like data, and so I could begin to understand more about what I was selling and why. I decided to use Shutterstock as the official site for analysis, although I tracked analytics from all the sites ultimately.

Just the Stats, Ma'am

I started the year with 165 accepted images on Shutterstock, and ended the year with 1072 accepted images, the vast majority of these being photographs. [There are only 19 vectors in the portfolio.] In May, June, and July I submitted no images at all because I was in the process of getting my house sold and moving. Here is some of what I learned. 

The Good and Bad of the Numbers

Amputee with legs crossed

Amputee with legs crossed

The best selling group of photos, by far, are the photos I have taken of my husband, an amputee, along with pictures I have taken while on trips with him to his prosthetist and therapists. This group of photos has consistent sales. These 24 images account for 355 downloads over the past 16 months on Shutterstock alone. So does that mean you should run out and find an amputee to photograph? Not necessarily. What you should think about is finding that thing to which you have unique access, that maybe few others have. Is your daughter an architect? Does your best friend have a pottery studio in her basement? Does your neighbor have a home brewery? Find those things and shoot them well.

The least selling group of pictures, which also happens to be the largest group in my portfolio at this moment, are the nature pictures. Scenic vistas, babbling brooks, gorgeous flowers, really, who cares? The 472 photos I have in this group account for only 62 downloads on Shutterstock. That's pretty dismal. But because I have kept meticulous records, I can see the nature subjects that have been successful.

Split rail fence with autumn dogwood, not a big seller

Split rail fence with autumn dogwood, not a big seller

Most successful for me in the category of nature are pictures depicting nature not at its best. Examples would be forest fire charred logs, flash flood waters, boring insect damage, and seed pods. These overlooked moments are the ones that have made sales.

Where to Go From Here

While most of my portfolio has been developed between September and December 2017, I think it is probably too soon to know exactly how well these first 1000 images will do. The past couple of months have been mired in holidays, so if your portfolio is not holiday heavy, which mine is not particularly, it may be hard to adequately gauge how these most recent submissions will do. 


The Best Part About Microstock

So what exactly is the takeaway from this first 1000 images? For me, the idea that an older woman in her late 50's with no fancy or expensive equipment and virtually no experience can make this happen is awesome. Success has nothing to do with being young, having a fancy education [I have two degrees and really, no one cares], a huge social media following, or thousands of dollars in equipment. Anyone can do this. 

In the end, microstock is all about numbers: more pictures will equal more sales. It is also about the strategy of watching what you sell, and learning from it in order to concentrate your effort to the greatest advantage. More on this to come.


My Shutterstock Portfolio

Become a Shutterstock Contributor and make yourself some mailbox money

The latest version of the camera I use: