I Hate Microstock & How You Can Fix That

I hate microstock. There, I said it. It crushes my soul every work day on both sides of the Image Researcher and Image Editor divide. It’s the final step in the complete dumbing down of cheap, mass-produced commercial photography; one step away from the entire industry solely providing content via Instagram or Pixlr or whatever the fuck is available on a smartphone that can provide the public with up to the minute shots of your cat’s arsehole through a lens half the size of the previously mentioned orifice. It’s terrible, and it’s been getting steadily worse since its inception less than a decade ago, mostly because of the immutable fact that everyone now has a camera in their pocket, and they all fancy themselves the next Helmut fucking Newton.

I started in this industry about 12 years ago as an Image Researcher for a publishing design company. Photo submissions at that time were almost entirely pro-shot, and my work day still employed the use of a loupe and a light table - shut up, I know I’m old. But the best part of macrostock content, beside the fact that technical quality & image design were things you didn’t really have to worry about, was a professional photographer's ability to self edit. You didn’t receive a binder with 99 images of a blurry, underexposed bee pollinating a flower; you got a photo of a bee pollinating a flower. Period. Microstock photographers, (not all, but an uncomfortable number of them), are what I like to call “spaghetti flingers”; they shoot an entire memory card worth of content, and then fling it at the wall to see what sticks, or in this case, dump it on a poor, unsuspecting editor and see what gets approved, and then complain after the fact that 99% of their images were rejected for publication. Microstock forums (microstockgroup.com, microstockforum.com) are chock-full of posts attesting to this. Complaints abound, but submissions of this nature continue to cement my view that the end is long fucking nigh for the death of quality commercial photography produced by the microstock community.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. The industry used to have some brilliant microstock community outreach, attempting to provide microstock contributors with technical tutorials on everything from lighting and shooting techniques, to post-production tutorials, as well as informing the community on content trends and collection gaps (images in demand but in short supply). Some still attempt to do this (iStock & Shutterstock comes to mind), but the communication lines are largely closed, decidedly one-way, and contributors have become frustrated.

I’m not going to get into the technical details on how to do layer transparency masks on alpha channels in Photoshop or some such thing - you can find those on YouTube. What I am going to do, over the course of a couple week’s worth of posts, is lay out all of the common, entirely avoidable things that often get a good image rejected when submitting to a microstock site, and some things to focus on in order to get more of your images approved. Let’s start broad:

  1. Learn to weed your images for submission. If you’re shooting a memory card's worth of content and then directly uploading it to a stock site, you shouldn’t be a photographer. Not even a microstock photographer. Truth. Don’t do this. Photographers used to have to mix chemicals, develop their film, expose a contact sheet in the darkroom, choose the best images from said contact sheet, head back into the darkroom and expose each individual shot, often exposing multiple prints of each image to get the print right; it took days - surely you can spend 20 fucking seconds to upload your SD or CF Card to an editing suite. So, buy a monthly subscription to Lightroom and learn how to use it. Google “contact sheet” and see how things used to be done with a light table and a grease pencil. The ability to self edit your content for the right pose, solid composition, proper lighting, etc., will bring your approval % from downright dismal to decidedly uplifting, and in turn, your photo sales may very well increase, since your images will be curated online in a way that appeals much more to a prospective stock buyer.

  2. Shoot RAW and learn how to post-process your files in Lightroom / Photoshop. I almost didn’t put this in the list as it seems to me to be a foregone conclusion, but the vast majority of stock images that hit a stock editor’s workflow are in-camera processed jpg’s, and this is a travesty. The control a RAW file gives you in creating an image, and increasing approval to a stock site and future sales is immeasurable. Underexposure or Overexposure, two highly used rejection criteria can largely be remedied using a RAW workflow, resulting in more image approvals on submission. RAW files can also save an image that would otherwise be technically inadmissible for commercial stock, and give it a chance at making you a buck or two.

  3. Learn all you can about 2-dimensional design as it relates to photography. What the Hell does that mean? Think advanced composition. 2-dimensional design is the proper use of positive and negative space - if you know what you’re doing in this regard, you’ll never have a poorly composed image. Microstock submissions often elicit the worst in commercial photography because contributors haven’t a clue on how to set up a shot using time tested design principles. Start with the rule-of-thirds and work your way up to the Golden Ratio / Fibonacci Spiral. It worked for the great masters, and the same principles work in photo composition, creating images that will not only be readily approved, but will sell better as well.

I think I’ll leave it there for now. Over the next couple weeks I’ll touch on “Titles, Keywords, and Metadata”, “Model & Property Releases”, “Image Categories”, “Most Common Post-Processing Mistakes that Get Images Rejected”, “Trademarks & Intellectual Property in Images”, “Trademarks & Intellectual Property in Metadata”, “What to Shoot & When to Shoot it - Tips in Planning for Seasonal Imagery”, “Image Noise & Digital Artifacts”, “Excessive Sharpening Techniques”, “Exposure Issues that Often Result in Rejected Images”, “Chromatic Aberration & Lens Issues”, “Excessive Noise Reduction Techniques”, “Using Proper White Balance”, and more.


-Myles Legacy is a photo industry professional with 10+ years working in the stock industry as an Image Researcher & Editor. Previous employers include Corbis, Veer, National Geographic Photographer Paul Nicken, and Sony Artisan of Imagery Cristina Mittermeier.