September 17, 2019

The Microstock Report #1: Insights on fundamentals of photos that sell.

As a contributor to Twenty20.com 1, I’m always looking for ways to improve sales of my photos. This report is actually created for me as an objective way to learn which photos to submit that stand the best chance of selling. Hopefully you’ll find it useful as well.

## Where the data comes from. I see some photographers determining what photos they submit based on popularity of hashtags or what’s in the Signature collection. But neither of these are evidence of the most important metric: what actually sold. Fortunately the Twenty20 app includes a Recently Sold section in your feed. This is a constantly-updated list of about 120 photos. It’s the most valuable resource for determining what improves sales on Twenty20. Below are my recent findings. Note that this assessment isn’t scientific at all and the methodology (or lack of it) is explained here. 2.

The fundamentals that buyers are looking for.

This first Microstock Report focuses on some important rudimentary aspects of photos. When you see advice on microstock, it often focuses on subject matter. But it’s surprising just how important these rudimentary aspects are reflected in sales. Twenty20 preaches most of these in Help, but it wasn’t until I examined the evidence first hand that I saw how important the four rudiments below are. The difference in what I’ve been submitting and what sells is alarming.

1. Most images sold are horizontal.

Most microstock is bought to accompany social media posts. Most social platforms favor horizontal images, so that’s what buyers are buying. When it comes to still images, posting horizontally-oriented photos is a must if you expect get sales.

2. Most images sold are large.

I’m always getting prodded by Twenty20 to post larger images, despite all my images qualifying as large, which is 3mp. (Note that Twenty20 Help seems to suggest the large classification is being upped to 6mp.) Since Twenty20 started their microstock business by making it easy to sell your Instagram images, the original images were small, at only 1mp. Many of those images are still available, which is probably why Twenty20 is pushing to post larger versions if you have them. Also many photographers seem to be submitting smaller images for microstock and saving larger versions for stock in hopes of getting better prices. But as you can see, those smaller images are not selling well.

Most of the images sold on Twenty20 are between 8-12 megapixels (which can be shot with your smartphone) but quite a few are 20mp or larger. I think it’s important that you submit the original-size images to Twenty20, not anything that’s been scaled down. If shooting with an iPhone or editing with an iPad and looking to upsize your 12mp images to 20mp, I have an app for that. (Buyers of background images prefer them larger.)

3. Almost all images sold are color.

I often see photographers posting both a color and black-and-white version of the same image. It’s not necessary, since an art director can easily convert any color image to back and white. Those extra black-and-white copies are cluttering up your profile. Even if a majority of your work is black and white, it’s your color images that should be submitted to Twenty20, since they’re more likely to sell.

4. Almost all images sold don’t have effects.

If you’re like me, you may love adding subtle effects that really bring out the mood in your images. Save those effects for Instagram. For microstock, you want to submit the straightforward, clean version, which is more likely to sell. An art director can easily add effects like soft focus, bold color filters, fades, light leaks and lens flare if needed. But they can’t take those away from an image that already has them. So effected photos could be losing you sales.

Editing should be limited to enhancements that aren’t obvious and make the photo more clear. I should also note that bokeh is fine since it’s not really an effect, but a lens characteristic we’ve all come to love. Buyers are looking for well-lit, well-exposed, realistic photos that they can manipulate to fit their brand.

5. Almost no images sold are Dutch tilt.

Less that 1% of photos sold are shot with the camera purposely tilted. In video, the Dutch tilt is used to hint that something is ominously wrong, but in microstock stills buyers find a horizon line that’s askew to be a frustration, since rotating the photo to straighten it can lose a large portion of the photo. They consider it one more reason to pass a photo by.

Lessons learned: It ain’t Instagram.

It’s a shock, but buyers could be bypassing your photos because they don’t meet these very basic criteria above. There will be exceptions, but to see if these numbers prove true for your own sales—in the Twenty20 app: Tap the Activity tab > tap the Earnings tab and compare your photos that actually sold. 67% of my sold photos were horizontal, 83% did not have effects and 100% were color. But comparing those to the images in my profile that are available for sale: 41% of my submitted photos are not horizontal (34% square and 7% vertical), 25% have effects and 5% are black and white. Though many of the photos I have available for sale get lots of loves from fellow photographers and place high in Challenges, they’re just not what buyers are looking for. The course or action for me is:

  • evaluate my submitted photos that don’t meet the above criteria and determine what’s dead weight and can be deleted
  • verify that all images are at least 6mp and remove those that aren’t
  • change out photos for ones without effects or with color versions
  • in future submissions, make sure most submissions meet this criteria

I’m probably the least likely photographer to be dabbling in microstock: My passion is shooting statues in cemeteries with my iPhone, not shooting happy millennials drinking wine. So I’ll be the last to encourage you to change what you shoot for the microstock market. What these stats can help you with is in posting more sellable photos and avoiding wasting time submitting those that buyers just aren’t looking for. The stark realization for me was this: What’s liked on Instagram, loved on Twenty20 or even placed in the top 20 entries in Challenges on Twenty20 may have no bearing on its sales potential.

The Microstock Report #2: Peopleing your photos. Coming soon.


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  1. Twenty20.com is a popular microstock site with an iPhone app for selling rights to use your photos. There are many microstock sites out there. I chose Twenty20 for my microstock experiments because, they have a great app and a built-in strong social community, they pay promptly and their focus is on candid shots that look like they were shot by Buffy-down-the-street rather than staged by a professional photographer.

  2. I’ll be the first to admit that this ain’t scientific research. These are just musings on broad trends I see on Twenty20 based on small samples sets. The rolling window of the 120 most recent photos can easily be skewed by one buyer who just bought 37 photos of Volkswagen campers, so when I see anomalies like that I throw that sample out. Each Microstock Report will contain my casual observations that I hope will form a mosaic of the state of microstock.


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