I went back and forth on whether or not I should post this (this has been sitting as a draft for more than a few weeks), but I realized it was something that should be said. Hate it or love it, it’s the truth. My goal is not to discourage photographers from pursuing their dreams (if being a full-time microstock photographer is one of them), but rather to just tell the truth from my perspective on the last four+ years I’ve been involved with microstock photography.
My story behind being a microstock photographer is pretty similar to other microstock photographers out there: I had a normal job, found out about microstock, started doing it for fun and then realized I could really make a decent income with it and my life eventually evolved into doing it full-time. For me it was kind-of a surprise—I didn’t go into it thinking I would make a lot of money, I just wanted something to challenge me photographically so I could refine my skills. The couple bucks I was making each month (at first) was just a bonus.
Now that I’ve seen some success and do this as my job I’ve had several people see what I do and then decide that they want to become a full-time stock photographer, too. I don’t blame them … yeah, it’s a job that takes a lot of motivation, skill and work, but it’s also a great lifestyle. I have a lot of freedom, create my own schedule, shoot what I want and work from home. But it’s not something that you can just start doing one month and then start generating lots of money the next. Plus, I had to work “for free” (no profit) for a few years before the income actually started to become lucrative.
Another thing is that I (and other successful stock photographers) put a lot of time, thought and money into my images. I started to see my success grow when I started treating this like a business. I hire models, buy props, scout locations, lease a studio, do research … I pay taxes, insurance, and I’m incorporated. I plan a lot of my work—it’s very rare to get a random “best seller” from a grab-shot. Yeah, it happens but (IMO) you can’t make a living off of it.
I guess that a really big point I’m trying to get across is that if you want to get into this business (and be successful) then you not only have to take it seriously but you really have to know how to create great photos. If you don’t know what type of camera you should buy to do stock (and I’ve had people ask me this question in the past), then you probably have a long ways to go before it will work in your favor. When I started I was nowhere near as good as I am now, but I still had nearly ten years of film photography behind me, along with a good amount of Photoshop, darkroom and color photo-lab experience. My learning curve was mostly just learning the ins-and-outs of digital cameras and the new technology, and also working with lights. No one was around to hold my hand and show me the ropes, I did it all on my own.
Now, the great thing about microstock is that everyone gets a chance … for most of the sites people just need to submit an application with some sample photos, and once it becomes approved they can start uploading images and see what happens. The downside to this means that we see a lot of crap uploaded to these sites. I’m not trying to discourage people from doing this, I’m just trying to point out that it takes more than just a fancy camera and photos of your kids, pets, and random stuff around your house to make it work. Just because you have a great camera doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to quit your job and start making photos for a living. There is so much more to it than that. Some of the most successful new stock photographers are those with a solid commercial photography background … and those people are your competition.
So, in a nutshell if you want to be a successful microstock photographer you should first work at being a really great photographer … and this really can be applied to any genre of photography. There are always going to be techniques and skill-sets unique to each type of photography (even within the microstock field) but understanding the basics (exposure, composition, lighting, working with people/props, editing, etc.) are more important at first than gaining an in-depth knowledge of any one particular field. I fully believe that if you have a deep understanding of how photography works then you can photograph pretty much anything and make it look amazing.