How "ordinary" photographers are making Big Money shooting for small stock
Royalty-free sites generally make it easy for amateurs to join, although they have quality inspectors who approve or reject images before they can be uploaded.
Most inspectors will offer hints and shortcuts for improving images, and many photographers take advantage of the sites' forums to share tips, ask for advice, and commiserate about the business.
Duplass learned by trial and error what makes good stock. "The kids used to tease me if I went to the grocery store or went shopping," she says. "All of that was going to get photographed before anyone could use it. Everyone knew: 'Leave it in the bag until Mommy photographs it.'"
As she moved from objects to people, she used to lead models into her makeshift studio in a closet off the converted garage.
Now, however, she can afford to rent a studio, as well as hire someone to do her processing; make mortgage, car, and utility payments; and buy her kids new clothes.
She's not alone. iStockphoto has almost 20,000 photographers, selling some 780,000 royalty-free files. Those numbers have not gone unnoticed-Getty Images recently purchased the company for $50 million.
Not such small change
With her photos now on Shutterstock.com, iStockphoto, and a few others, Duplass estimates that she sells at least 600 images daily.
She won't disclose exactly how much she makes, "but I can tell you it's a lot more than 10 cents a day," she says. "I plan to be in a new house and a new studio even one year from now. This is living comfortable. A year from now, it's going to be more like luxury. I intend to spoil my kids every step of the way."
Microstock payment models vary. Shutterstock offers buyers 25 downloads per day (750 per month) for a monthly fee of $159; photographers earn 25 cents per download.
iStockphoto sells downloads starting at $1 apiece; photographers make at least 20 percent.
While pennies per photo doesn't sound like much, royalty-free sites count on the high volume that low prices encourage.
Jon Oringer, president and founder of Shutterstock, estimates that the "sweet spot" for his site's shooters is $500 to $1,000 per month, though some make as much as $4,000 monthly.
"Some are using it to pay for that extra car they wanted or for their mortgage payment," he says. "And some have actually quit their jobs and are doing it full-time."
As Duplass discovered, however, getting to that level takes serious commitment. She shoots with a Canon EOS 20D with a Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 EF-S "kit" lens; in the studio, she uses Novatron strobe lights. She constantly returns to her early lessons in film photography for the basics of composition, lighting, and exposure.
And she's learned the hard way that it's best to listen to advice from the different site inspectors and the more experienced photographers on the forums.
"It really is good advice, but it makes no sense to you until you start to see success," she says. "At the beginning, you'll work hours and hours on an image, just to get it accepted, and it might only sell once a month. And they're like, 'Oh, forget it, move on to the next one.' And you're thinking, 'I can't let go! I know this is just an orange on a white background, but I can't let go!'"
She adds that while image-editing software skills are important, she tries to get much of the work done in-camera and avoid lots of fixing later. With microstock, quality is the first priority, but unless you have a critical mass of images to sell, you're still stuck making...10 cents a day.
Laurin Rinder, a longtime photographer from Los Angeles, who's one of the growing numbers of professionals making the jump to royalty-free sites, agrees with her. "You don't even need Photoshop-Elements is good enough," he says.
"If it's not there, it's not there. Dump it and shoot something else. If you love to twiddle on your computer, it's diminished returns. If you're going to spend three or four hours on one shot, you're finished before you started," he advises.
As far as microstock subject matter goes, there are varying schools of thought, but even the most experienced photographers are often surprised by what does and doesn't sell.
We've sprinkled a handful of top-selling photos from some microstock agencies throughout these pages.