Friday, 22 April 2016

Stock Photography Review - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Below is a review of the stock photography web sites I have worked with over the last twelve months. You will find their web sites listed in order of preference. I have been taking photos for the best part of 30 years (since I was 18) so I am not new to photography. I am quite new to stock and micro stock photography however, and consider I am still learning what it means to be successful and make money in the stock sales business.

1. iStockPhoto

UPDATE - 04th March 2017: The iStock contributor portal and web site has been radically updated and improved (in my opinion) in what iStock are calling a "Unification Process". The new login is at the Getty  ESPAWS website which used to be and is now Both URL's will take you to the same place. If you were previously a video contributor at iStock you will already be familiar with the new web site as it is built around the existing ESP video uploader interface. You can now upload and submit stock photos, vectors, editorial and videos all at the same login and the whole process is vastly improved in terms of ease and time saved, both key wording and describing uploaded files. This is mainly because you can upload and batch edit multiple files at once and the keywords are now disambiguated in from a drop down menu of possible meanings and keyword suggestions. The upload and acceptance process is now based around batch uploads and approval times are around one to two days for regular stock images, depending on the inspectors workload, which is pretty amazing. My 3 main criticisms of the new web site are as follows :

1. Royalty statistics are now updated monthly instead of daily or in real time, which is OK, but I found being able to see image sales and downloads in real time a motivating factor to keep uploading.
2. You can no longer see an inventory of files uploaded previously to iStock, only an inspection record of the status of submitted files since the Unification Process are available. The only current record of your previously uploaded images and files is through your portfolio on the original web site, which is still where customers buy images and make downloads.
3. There are currently no statistics available for uploaded files to see how many times an upload has been viewed. Although we are informed this asset will be available "soon".

Other than that the whole upload process has been greatly improved and is quicker, easier and the interface is more intuitive to use generally. You can now also apply to be iStock Exclusive contributor without having to wait for the near impossible 250 credit downloads, which for newbys, could have taken years to reach. Applications are evaluated on an individual basis. Good work and thanks to the team at iStock/Getty.

UPDATE - 18th December 2016: iStockphoto are in the process of updating their website to a brand new portal which will make it much easier to upload photos and report sales. a lot of iStock's problems seem to be generated by their somewhat ageing and well patched website. I am really looking forward to the launch (date yet to be released) and hope it will bring with it some much needed improvements.
I have had an account on iStock since 2012 but only this year started contributing to my portfolio. I have about 200 images uploaded to date and have made around 60 sales which I think is OK. iStock are probably the best stock photography web site in terms of turnover (actual volume of sales) and possibly the worst in terms of commission (the royalty rate paid per sale). iStock were around at the beginning of the stock-boom-phenomenon and are still one of the biggest companies and have a lot of integrity, which to me is important. When I began uploading to stock web sites, iStock were the first. I started off by uploading grainy snap shots from my iPhone 4S and these were not only accepted, but to my surprise I began making sales. I then went back through my old Canon S3 archive and uploaded the best photos from there. It is a good thing that iStock accepted most of my files because this allowed me to learn the ropes and develop my understanding of what is required for stock photography . This is also good for iStock. If you think that for every sale that a contributor makes $1 on, iStock actually make $10, you can see that a large percentage of iStock's revenue is made up from the small number of sales that each accepted image earns. 

iStock also seem to be the most reasonable and sane when it comes to rejections. Most of my rejections were associated with logos, trademarks or identifiable people and properties that required a model release, which I have since learnt to avoid. When files were rejected, a real reason was given for the rejection which made it easy to understand, and I had the opportunity to correct the error and resubmit the file. Which is more than can be said of a lot of the smaller stock web sites.

iStock's contributor web site interface is showing its age, although functional. Sales reporting is comprehensive although difficult to keep track of, as they have multiple licenses and purchasing schemes and they are all reported not only separately, but differently, and not all sales show up on your profile. Royalties are reported one month in arrears and paid out when your account balance reaches $100. The main thing I do not like about the web site is the upload process. It is difficult to fathom that in 2016, I can still only upload ONE IMAGE at a time and have to meta-tag and describe each image separately. Other stock web sites allow you to upload multiple images at once and then auto-fill meta-data and simply press "next" for each similar image in a batch. Perhaps this is something iStock can develop in the near future because it would speed up the upload process tremendously. I am currently uploading two or three photos per night which takes too long when I have a batch of fifty or sixty files to upload. iStock does have excellent free software that allows multiple uploads called "Deep Meta" but if you are a die-hard Windows XP fan like myself, you will need to update to a newer operating system to install it.

CONCLUSION : I love iStock and iStock love me! I can see us going places together. However, if they could update the web site and pay a fare royalty rate I would be a lot happier. Giving newbies 15% (or 0.28c in the Partner Program) per sale of their own art, and keeping 85%, is not what I would call a "Fair Trade".

2. Shutterstock

UPDATE - 18th December 2016:
After about a year of negotiations and letting go and trusting, I FINALLY got my ID approved and am now uploading at Shutterstock, so I thought it was only fair to give Shutterstock a shout-out.

Shutterstock are my second best seller next to iStock. On my first day of uploading (the grainy iPhone pics from my phone) I sold FOUR images which was very encouraging. They have a neat app that is simple to use and upload to, functions well and reports sales to you in real-time. Shutterstock seem to have heaps of integrity and are not that fussy about accepting images, although I have had quite a few rejected for unfathomable reasons which is frustrating when you take the time to upload, describe and keyword your images. It seems like a control issue but in reality, it is probably just overworked inspectors being unreasonable. Having said that, the review time for images is never more than a few days which makes the whole upload process a lot less complicated.You can upload large numbers of files at once, copy and edit keywords easily and submit multiple files for inspection at the same time.

The website is clean, new, functional and has lots of helpful tips and tutorials to help photographers up their game and improve their stock photos. Contributors portfolios are also fresh and look appealing to customers. Sales are frequent but usually only subscription sales which earns the contributor 0.25c per image sale although there are opportunities for direct downloads with better commission rates and video sales if you are into video production.

Shutterstock deserve a special mention because although I joined Shutterstock around the same time as I joined iStock and all my sample images were approved, Shutterstock refused to authorise my account because I did not have photo ID. I first uploaded my passport which was rejected because it had expired the month previously. And my driving licence cannot be accepted because it does not contain a photograph of yours truly. In the UK there is no requirement by law to carry or even own photo ID and my "old school" pink driving licence is still perfectly legal, so I have no reason to update them. So there it stood. I had a Shutterstock account.... but Shutterstock would not let me use it. In fact, they even blocked my partners account temporarily because she added the same Paypal email address as mine and they thought we were trying to scam them! Many lengthy and frustrating emails later we managed to get it unblocked but Shutterstock still refused to budge on the ID issue. I finally broke the deadlock by uploading my expired passport, my pink driving licence, a bank statement, a utility bill and a press pass (with fingerprints), all at once in a single file which got accepted. It all worked out well, so no hard feelings in that department.

I hope to renew my passport or driving licence soon just for Shutterstock and hope it will be a worthy investment of my time and money.

CONCLUSION: I really like Shutterstock's professionalism and integrity and the way they stuck to their guns regarding the ID issue! I also like the quick file inspection times and clean, functional website. I am hoping to get more images on my portfolio this coming year, and with it increased sales, so I am putting Shutterstock as my number 2 stock photography company, right up there next to iStock.

3. Fotolia/Adobe

I like Fotolia. Fotolia are very professional and their web site interface is clean, modern and uncluttered. The upload process is simply, quick and easy too. Fotolia were recently partnered/bought up by Adobe so they need to keep their standards high because, as we know, Adobe produce some of the best image and video editing software in the world. It is early days yet and I need to upload some more stock photos to my portfolio. There does seem to be some cherry-picking going on at Fotolia (by "cherry-picking" I mean, choosing which files they want to accept and rejecting similar quality files without a justifiable reason) which can be quite confusing and frustrating if you do not understand what is actually going on. The royalty rate is OK at 33% of all files sold but the credit sales work out considerable less than this (but about average for subscription sales generally).

CONCLUSION : Some of my files that were rejected on other stock companies were accepted on Fotolia and with my first batch of uploads I made a sale, so Fotolia immediately got a thumbs up from me. I am hoping to make Fotolia my number one or two stock contributor but they will have their work cut out to compete with iStock and Shutterstock.

4. Dreamstime

I have not heard a lot about Dreamstime (good or bad) other than they rank in most stock contributors top 5 sellers so, in my opinion, that is a good thing! The Dreamstime web site and contributor interface is excellent, fully functional and jam packed with interesting features, tips and new areas to explore. I initially uploaded about thirty images. Half of these were stock festival photos from the Isle of Wight Festival two years ago and the other half were your basic run-of-the-mill stock images, flower macros, sunsets, etc. All the festival images were approved and ALL of the basic stock images were rejected, which led me to think "hmmmm" out loud. There was also an issue with exclusive images. Four images I had previously set to exclusive, I decided AFTER they had been accepted, to change them back to royalty free but despite changing the setting and saving them, three of them came back still set to exclusive, so the staff at Dreamstime do not want to let their exclusive images go easily, obviously. The other file I deleted and then re-uploaded, only to find that it became rejected this time, presumably for removing the exclusivity? There is the ability to resubmit files but as to date none of the files I have resubmitted have been approved. 

CONCLUSION : They seem a bit querky and special around approvals but it is too early to tell if this is deliberate or just a misunderstanding, so I will refrain from passing judgement at present. I still like Dreamstime but they will need to break out of the "festival only" mentality and get some real photos on my portfolio if we are to make any real progress together.

5. Alamy

Alamy are a stock photography web site but like Getty they are also host to newsworthy photography and your contributions can be labelled such during upload. This means that newsworthy and editorial photography can be shared at Alamy even if technically the photography is not perfect. You can also upload regular stock images to your profile but the quality must be good as the QC (quality control?) standard is quite high. The main reason for rejections at Alamy is quality - and my main dislike about Alamy - is that if only one image in a whole batch are found with artifacts or "imperfections" they will reject the whole batch and all uploads in the pending QC queue without inspection, and give the reason why only one or two of the images failed. It is recommended that newbies only upload small batches to reduce the likelihood of rejection and increase the chances of the whole batch being accepted. Luckily, images can only be meta-tagged after acceptance so not much time is wasted in this process and contributors are invited to correct any technical errors and resubmit their work. When I have had call to contact Alamy regarding queries their staff have always been courteous and professional. The main reason I like Alamy is because sales are geared towards professionalism and quality rather than quantity.

CONCLUSION : I love Alamy! I am not sure that Alamy love me yet but they will. It is too early to tell as I have not made any sales yet. I recommend checking them out especially if you are a journalist and have editorial files to upload and share. However TAKE NOTE: Rejected files are held in QC for 28 days before a rejection reason is given, which can seem like a long time if you consider your uploads are urgent and this is a month where you will not be adding new images to your income stream. You are not informed that your files have been rejected and ALL subsequent files you upload are held in the QC queue and rejected "ad hoc" - without inspection - at the end of the 28 day period, which is a complete waste of time for the contributor, because as a soon as one of your files becomes rejected, all further uploads will also be rejected for a period of 28 days! This does not encourage or foster learning since it takes time to learn different Stock Photographer's requirements, and during this 28 days there is no room for dialogue or improvement.

6. Pond5

Out of all the stock photography web sites I have tried to date, Pond5 is the I like the least. Why do I say this? Well, I had the misfortune of being a Pond5 member for six months and during that time, out of the 50+ uploads, only SIX were accepted and none of these made any sales. Entire batches of good stock photography files are rejected for bogus and made-up reasons and when questioned, artefacts are invented by the staff, which are clearly not visible on the actual image (or accountable to the truth). Of my first batch of 33 uploads, 28 of these were rejected, which started the circulatory defeating process of trying to (and failing) to get more batches approved. One image from my next batch of 13 images was approved and the quality of the file was so poor it lead me to delete the file myself and question the Pond5 curator's eyesight. I subsequently improved the quality of my uploads dramatically, only uploaded my best - most simple - stock photos, feeling confident they could not possibly be rejected unless by a blind man. 100% of this last batch of files was rejected and the reason given was that the images were "fuzzy" and that I should check my camera equipment for defects!

I wrote and complained of course, but the "help" system is designed to always make the photographer in the wrong and the staff at Pond5 right. The customer-curator representative assigned to your help ticket is a self professed "gladiator" who admits that she has no influence over curators decision but is willing to discuss your images to help you to see why they were rejected. This discussion is without exception, a one sided attempt to palm you off and tell you to try better next time because according to their criteria, your photography isn't good enough.

Note: Just to keep things in perspective here... most of the files that were rejected are already doing OK and selling licences on other web sites like iStock. I regularly have my photos featured in the Isle of Wight County Press and last year I was short-listed for the Isle of Wight Photographer of the Year competition, of which my "Milky Way and Comet" image is hanging in the gallery at the Dimbola Museum in Freshwater Bay, if you would like to go and view it. Really, I am giving Pond5 a hard time, but at least it is my time I am giving and I am not wasting it uploading, describing, pricing and tagging my best work only to have it thrown in the face of reason THREE MONTHS later (and for no good reason). Three months is the inspection wait time to have your uploaded files reviewed by the way. When I posted in the forum asking why the approval/rejection wait time is so long and why all my images were being rejected, I was told by other contributors to "man-up" and "get over it" and then my post was deleted. Enough said about Pond5.

CONCLUSION : To date I have stopped uploading to Pond5. I like the Pond5 interface and the ability to set your own price and receive 50% of the royalty which I think is fair. However, in order to sell photography you actually need some photos in your portfolio and with only SIX images accepted in as many months, it isn't going to happen any time soon. Pond5 seem to be cherry picking (or cock-a-roaching) contributors work and rejecting others without any real reason, consistency or criteria for their decisions other than "what we like" which is not a fair representation of an artists work. The unacceptable lead time to approval/rejection and the 95% rejection rate says to me they are trying to keep the company small and turn over a high profit at the same time, which is hurting the contributor and will, if they do not become more flexible, eventually lead to losses. Whether or not I like Pond5 and whether or not they like me, it is still impossible to sell your photography if you cannot advertise it on their web site, so to me, they are not much use to anyone. I hope they review their business model and prove me wrong.... but what they cannot do is show me the invented artefacts they claim to see in my photographs which simply put: ARE NOT THERE. And with that said, I will not be uploading another batch of my best photos only to wait THREE MONTHS to have them all rejected and be told I am not good enough, when it is clearly Pond5 who are experiencing the technical difficulties. I have now closed my account at Pond5!

You can see a selection of the images that were rejected at Pond5 below....

Click the images to enlarge.

There are many small, medium and large stock web sites to check out and discover. Some others I would like to join in the not-to-distant-future include 123RF, CanStockPhoto, and Stockfresh. PhotoDune are no longer accepting new contributors, so if you were hoping to start uploading there you might be disappointed.

Check out this list for more stock web sites to explore and contact me through the blog if you wish to work with me personally.....

And Have a Great Day!

Matt :)

Copyrights Inner Vision Photography, 2017.