I would describe myself a typical example of a photo 'enthusiast' - I have an SLR, read photo magazines,
belong to a club, secretly dream of becoming a pro but know it will never happen (but see update 7 years later !),
and once a month or so I produce an image that is worthy of hanging on my wall,
and I wonder if maybe someone else would be willing to pay money for it.
Ten years ago there was no way to find out - to join a stock agency you had to be very good, and extremely prolific, with many agencies requiring thousands of high-quality images before they were interested. But that has all changed with the advent of the web. There are now dozens of sites encouraging you to upload your images with the promise of getting rich from your art, and they span the spectrum of quality and price.
A rule of thumb for stock professionals is apparently that you can earn about $1 per picture per year, and so I set myself the goal of earning maybe $100 a year from stock from my 100 most saleable pictures. That doesn't mean that I think I'm as a good as the pros, because it took me 30 years to make those 100 images, and a stock pro has to earn that $100 every day in order to make a living (which is why not many do only that). Still, it seemed like something significant to aim for. And with that in mind, I joined a few quite different sites to get a feel for how useful they are to a keen amateur.
1) FotoLibra was my first choice, as it seemed to have dived alone into the middle ground of quality and price. Photographers have to pay ~ $100 a year to join, and buyers pay considerably less than at the traditional agencies. The agency does no selection, scoring or tagging, and so a lot of trust is given to the contributors. Uploading and keywording is very simple and robust.
I think the significant membership fee works to keep the stock free of the really bad images that end up on the free sites, and thus presumably attracts more serious buyers, but the lack of scoring and free-for-all tagging means that the hits that buyers get for a particular search are rather arbitary, or worse, seem to be ranked by age in the system. Is that the reason that I have only 3 pictures for a total of $120 after having 100 images with them for 3 years ? I don't know, maybe my pictures are just not good enough. Have a look at my images on the link above to judge for yourself.
Another feature of FotoLibra is that they put out photo calls, so you can actually go out and shoot fresh images of specific subjects that someone is currently looking for. Like an competitive commission. This got me excited, but even when I had unique images of little-known buildings in Sweden, the buyer still didn't want them.
2) iStockPhoto is the biggest microstock agency, meaning they use a shotgun approach to sales, charging very low sums of money, in the belief that more images will be sold. Membership is free, but you have to pass a simple photography theory and practice test to get in. More importantly, every image is judged by by staff before it's let in, with 50% of mine being rejected for various reasons, both technical and artistic, and many inexplicable to me. The management tools are clumsy, and images need to be catagorised using a complex system that I hadn't really got the hang of after submitting 50 images. On top of this, logos, shop names, and trademarks of all sorts have to be cloned out of images because they don't accept editorial stock, and they are very strict about the use of their model releases, meaning that old images covered by perfectly good releases such as ASMP's, won't be accepted. It was all very hard work, and since I work with computers all day, it's not how I wanted to spend my weekends so I gave up on iStock after 50 submissions, and about as many hours.
But with around 35 images in the agency for up to 2 years, I've sold around 100 images and earned $165. That actually equates to $4 per picture per year, although sales seem to have levelled off now (new images are given extra weight). So if I got my 100 images in, it seems I would reach my target. Interestingly, my images are quite consistent in selling to about 10% of those who viewed them, and those that didn't sell have also never been looked at, so I should really work on the tagging of those images. This illustrates one of the nice things about iStock - that you get very good statistics on the interest for your images. You can see which ones get looked at (indicating interesting subject with good keywords), and then what fraction of those get sold (indicating quality of image and relevance of keywords). But also bear in mind that being so cheap attracts a different clientel from the expensive agencies - I think my pretty landscapes sell disproportionately well here because individuals are willing to pay a couple of dollars for a pretty screensaver, whereas at the expensive sites there will only be sales of images that are useful to professional designers. The high technical standards for acceptance are also a useful quality check on your work.
This agency attracted my attention because of its scoring system - anyone can upload
any number of images, and indeed they seem to encourage you to use their disks
as a free backup system, but then they keep the crap out of the way by having
members score each other's images, and the most popular are prioritised in searches.
Stategic voting is made difficult by offering up images for scoring
in random order, and by making your voting statistics public.
So as long as your keywords are adequate, sales will be on pure merit.
Pricing is flat for royalty-free sales (25 Euros), with 50% going to the photographer,
but there is also an option to set your own prices for exclusive copyright sales.
No sales yet, but since it's a kind of a photo club as well as an agency, at least I get some feedback on my pictures in return for the work of uploading. Although it aims to be international, MostPhotos is based in Sweden, which is a disadvantage for me since I have more competition for snowy pictures.
3) ImageVortex. These guys not only review your pictures but also keyword them, so I joined mostly for the latter service. It's free to join, and you set your own price, but they are rather selective about what type of image they take, so only 3 of my best 10 images got accepted in my first batch. At least none was flagged with dubious technical errors as they were with iStockphoto, just "Don't think this will sell". No sales after a year.
So do I have any conclusions ? Well, Fotolibra doesn't work for me. Maybe my pictures are not good enough, not saleable enough, or too low resolution (Most of my pics were taken with a 6MP camera, which is considered too small for a full-page image by many buyers). They also want a lot of images taken in the UK, which I don't have. But someone must be selling there, so don't write them off. iStockPhoto looks like it could earn me enough to buy some camera toys each year, if I were willing to put in the work, but I found their system just too frustrating to do so. MostPhotos feels like a nice local community, so you get something back even if you don't make sales.
Update 2013 :
7 years into the experiment, I have 40 images on iStock, and have earned a total of $500, which is close to my target. On the other hand my impossible dream of going pro has come true, so now I have to have higher goals.
Still no sale at ImageVortex, and Mostphotos have dropped their selling prices to microstock levels, so the occasional sale there gives very little.
Fotolibra sales are slow, and I suspect that they don't cover my membership fees.
Maybe it's time to get another bunch of pics to iStock.
For a couple of years I also joined IMGhouse, which was rather similar to FotoLibra, in that clients could announce requests for images, and we members competed for the sale. I did really well through them, selling a dozen or so images for several hundred dollars each, but alas, and maybe inevitably, they went out of business.
Update 2015 :
Last year I took out $700 from iStock, $300 from Fotolibra, and have $300 sitting in Mostphotos. So having a small amount of stock sitting around for 10 years has bought me a new lens. Converted to an hourly wage for the deposition work, it's not much, but then I had the spare time, so I wouldn't have been earning during those hours anyway. Had I 1000 images uploaded it would be a nice addition to my income, and with a streamlined workflow maybe it would be worthwhile. Maybe.