What Is Microstock Photography?

If you've landed here from a search for “What is microstock photography?”, chances are you have a few other questions as well.

No problem – we've got those answered too.

Here you can learn what is stock photography in general, as well as the finer points of microstock photography.

We'll also help you to understand the licenses that are involved.

Plus we'll highlight why using stock images for your next web or print project is a great idea.

What is Microstock or Stock Photography?

To make things nice and easy we have divided this guide into three main sections:

  1. What is stock photography?
  2. What is image licensing?
  3. Should I use stock photos?

Each of these sections will be broken down into smaller ones, so that you can fully understand all that is involved in microstock photography.

Whether you want to sell your images or a wanting to buy stock photos, it's important to understand these basics.

So let's get started!

Quick Answer

What Is Microstock Photography?

Microstock photography is the name used to describe the low cost segment of the stock photography industry. Images are usually sold under a royalty free license, for which the contributor is paid a small amount (a micro payment).

What Is Stock Photography?

The term stock photography describes high quality photographs that are readily available for commercial purposes. Stock photos are part of a  pre-built collection (or stock) of photos on hand for when the need arises. This contrasts with having an image need and then commissioning the shoot.

Stock photography has reportedly been around since the 1920's, but really came into its own in the 1980's. Agencies would hold negatives or slides from professional photographers and sell them to clients. Eventually agencies began providing CD-ROM's with packs of images, until the internet changed the way the industry worked.

What Is Stock Photography?

What Is Microstock Photography?

Microstock photography is the name used to describe the low cost segment of the stock photography industry. Images are usually sold under a royalty free license, for which the contributor is paid a small amount (a micro payment).

While microstock encompasses much more than photography now, most people associate the two together. But it has now come to include photos, vectors, video footage and audio files. It is the most rapidly growing part of the overall stock photography industry. It usually involves the following conditions:

  • Images are sold at a low price
  • The image supplier receives a small commission
  • Images are sourced from both professionals and hobbyists
  • The images are sourced via the internet from a global audience
  • The buyer rarely, if ever, gets exclusive rights to the image
  • The image is sold under a royalty free license
  • The image won't be found in high-end traditional stock collections

Can You Actually Make Money With Microstock?


Think of it like this: Imagine you're an apple farmer.

You produce a lot of apples. But how do you sell them? You could hope to sell just a few apples, at insanely high prices. Or you could sell your whole harvest to the big supermarkets for a low per-piece price. That of course is what farmers do, but they make up for it in volume.

Microstock is similar.

You provide your photos or other media to the big agencies (supermarkets). When you sell in volume you receive small micro payments for each sale. People are willing to buy your images at that price because it is reasonable. And you are willing to sell on volume rather than at a premium. The beauty of microstock versus apple farming is your product is digital – meaning one image can sell thousands of times over.

But this is no get-rich-quick scheme. It will take patience and you'll have to learn how to do it.

Be sure to check out the ultimate beginner's guide to microstock to get you started.

What Are Microstock Sites?

Microstock sites are the websites or agencies through which you can sell your stock media.

In May 2000 iStockPhoto was founded and microstock began. This allowed many more photographers to be involved with stock, as the traditional stock agencies were difficult to break into. Shutterstock wasn't far behind, in 2003 introducing the monthly subscription modal.

Some of the biggest and best microstock sites include:

What Is Image Licensing?

It's important to remember what you are actually buying when you think about stock photography.

Here's the surprising part – you aren't buying an image!

Instead, you are buying a license to use that image in certain ways.

Thus, image licensing involves the different image licenses types that are commonly available, and understanding the differences between them.

After all, you want to buy the correct license for your usage.

Let's talk about the most common image license type first, royalty free.

What Is Image Licensing?

What Does Royalty Free Mean?

Royalty free (or RF) does not mean the image itself is free. Rather it defines that once the license has been paid for, the image can be used many times without the need for extra fees or licenses. Additionally royalty free designates that there are no geographical restrictions or time limits on image use.

Each stock agency will have slightly different terms in their royalty free license, such as the maximum number of print runs allowed before you need to purchase another royalty free license. But usually these limits are so high (often 500,000) that one license is sufficient for most buyers.

It is important to note that royalty free doesn't mean that there are no restrictions on image use. Almost all the agencies restrict things like pornographic or extremist use, or using an image of a model in such a way that could be demeaning to the model involved. Also, you generally cannot use a royalty free license to make a logo or to print on products for sale (such as a calendar). Some agencies offer an ‘extended' or ‘enhanced' license which gives rights for some of these uses.

What Does Rights Managed Mean?

A rights managed (or RM) license allows the buyer one-time use of the image within the boundaries of the license. For instance, the purchased RM license may have certain geographical restrictions or time limits. Or it may specify the type of media in which the image can be use (print, internet website etc).

Rights managed is the more traditional type of image license and is far more restrictive than royalty free.

Microstock does not use the rights managed license.

However, you may come across agencies like Alamy who do offer both types of licenses depending on their clients needs.

What Is An Editorial Image License?

Editorial licenses apply on images that cannot be used commercially to advertise or promote a product or service.

That is usually because the contents of the image (people, property or objects) do not have the necessary releases for a normal royalty free license. Thus an image licensed as editorial can only be used to illustrate newsworthy and current events.

You can read more about Shutterstock's editorial guidelines here.

Should I Use Stock Photos?

Stock photography has come under fire in recent years.

Some feel it is beneath them to sell or buy stock photos. Others note the sometimes ridiculous concepts illustrated in stock photos.

But the fact remains, selling or buying stock images can be a great idea for many reasons.

Using stock images can speed projects along, as well as provide variety and impact that could otherwise be missing.

Plus, the super low cost of stock images these days makes it such an accessible option for pretty much every designer out there.

Should I Use Stock Photos?

Stock Photos Provide Visual Impact & Variety

The incredible variety of microstock has to be seen to be believed.

Many of the big agencies now have 100's of millions of images in their collections. That is a whole lot of choice for buyers.

Think too, that this figure doesn't just hold photos. Many agencies now supply photos, vectors, footage and audio – with some even doing more. No matter what digital asset you are chasing, you are pretty much bound to find it in microstock. There are also great site like Envato Elements where for a flat monthly fee you get unlimited access to all media, from fonts to photos.

Don’t think for a moment that because the photo or vector illustration sells for a small amount that automatically the quality must be low. In fact, microstock is so strict these days that most images are taken on high-end digital SLR’s and processed by professionals using the best software available. The result is some truly amazing images that will no doubt enhance your project – and allow it to stay within budget.

Stock Images Provide Amazing Value

What you are buying is probably going to be far more useful than you initially think. Every time you buy microstock images, you are granted a Royalty Free (RF) license with that image. We discussed this above, but let's sum it up by quoting from one top agency, Dreamstime

“What Royalty-Free means is that you pay for the image only once and then you can use it as many times as you like, with just a few restrictions. In other words, there are no license fees except the initial fee and no other royalties to be paid except those included in the initial cost. Note that the maximum number of copies for printed materials is 500,000 copies.”

Wow is right. Pretty impressive stuff for just a couple of dollars! So just to clarify – you buy a microstock image once for a few dollars and then you can use it basically as many times as you like, in multiple mediums, and it’s legal! If you need to use the image to put on products to resell (eg: calendars, t-shirts, mugs, puzzles, print-on-demand services etc) then there is just a small additional fee to allow that as part of your license.

Stock Images Provide Legal Protection

No – you can't just copy images from Google. In most cases, that is infringing on copyright and opening yourself up to being sued!

Let’s think about this logically for just a minute. Which makes more sense – infringing copyright and being sued over a tiny picture used on your product, advertising, blog or other –  or paying about $5 to get it legally? Surely this one’s a no-brainer.

What most people probably don’t realize is that buying microstock makes getting pictures legally very, very cheap. So cheap that you’d be crazy to run the risk of being sued for thousands when you could have avoided it for peanuts.

So why is buying microstock a great idea? It makes perfect financial sense, plus it will protect you legally.

There’s no way around it. Buying microstock images is just simply the best option for almost any need.

Stock Photo Search

Show Your Support

Like the article? If you found it helpful, please show your support by purchasing a great stock image from just $5.

We rely on your generosity to continue to provide useful and up to date content for stock contributors.

Image Categories