Do You Know Your Customers? A Photo Buyer’s Opinion


With the internet, not only microstock came up using the new technologies to easier distribute digital files – we also saw a vibrant and energetic community of stock contributors coming up. The exchange of information always helps us to learn from each other and get better. Also, some agencies have learned that sharing is vital in contributor communications, so they write articles and blogs, publish studies and let us know about demands.

But one important market player can rarely be found in all this – and not an unimportant one: The photo buyer. So we thought it is time to get some input from the other side of the market. We have asked Sibylle, a photo editor for several magazines in New Zealand to provide some insights to what she likes about microstock – and what we all could do better. Let's listen to what she says, there is something to learn for everyone.

How a photo buyer sees the microstock market today

As a buyer of imagery I have clocked up quite a few miles. I have worked for editorial publications as well as advertising and corporates while migrating from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern. Currently I am photo editor for a number of magazines for a big publisher in New Zealand.

No doubt the advent of microstock agencies has been a godsend for designers and publishers alike. The pricing allows us to use more images than ever before, helped by the fact that the quality, even with the cheap agencies has come along in leaps and bounds. This doesn't mean however that there aren't things that could be improved. 

As I am using these agencies on a daily basis I often find myself groaning in despair and wishing that photographers could walk in my shoes, if only for a day, especially as so many things would be easy to adjust.

Format and copy space – offer variations to serve every buyer's needs


Copyspace needed

One of the easiest is format. The photo is perfect for the purpose, but it is a horizontal and the page calls for a vertical. Why not do both? Sure enough, some motifs don't lend themselves to verticals, but most publications have vertical pages. Strangely, most images are horizontals.

Copy space is another one. The image may be beautiful, but where is the designer going to put his headline? In an ideal word I would suggest one landscape format, one portrait and each of them with variants that provide some copy space.

Keywords: Be precise and accurate – or lose some sales

Kailua Beach

Kailua Beach

Keywording is another crucial issues. Lets say the subject is Kailua Beach on Oahu island. I put the keywords Beach – Kailua – Oahu. The first 5 pictures may well show the beach I am after but as I get to the bottom of the page, beaches are offered  from the Seychelles or the Maldives or California. If I picked one of those unwittingly,  that choice could land me in very hot water because there is always a retired high school teacher who has been there and will let your editor know that they have got it wrong.

Similarly, when  looking for let's say a Riesling grape and I find a beautiful picture that is keyworded : Wine Grape Riesling Chardonnay Gewurztraminer  Pinot Gris, I won't go anywhere near it, because there is actually a difference between the grapes and enough people will know it. The person who doesn't mind and just wants a pretty grape picture won't care about however many grape varieties you stick in the keywords. They will buy the pic because it is pretty. The ones who look under grape variety will need the correct one and therefore can't run the risk to get it wrong.

Is this a Vineyard in New Zealand

Is this a Vineyard in New Zealand?

At the other end of the scale – we have a regular publication showcasing New Zealand vineyards, which lists every winery that is open to the public. I check the microstock agencies regularly for images. They are plentiful, generally labeled with the keywords “Vineyard New Zealand”.It may be the best picture ever. I will not be able to use it, if I don't know where it was taken.

Contributors need to be aware of the local markets for their images. Travelling photographers often don't care about details, but people who live and buy photos in the respective countries do very much. And the number of the locals who are buying the pictures is probably not insignificant.  I would expect that someone in New Zealand will download more images of New Zealand than of say Timbuktu, Rome or Atlanta. And that would go for most countries. My centre of gravity is the country where I live, so I will return to those pictures over and over again. It is utterly unhelpful when someone from the other end of the world labels his pictures ” small town New Zealand”. Unless I happen to recognise the spot, this image is dead for me.

There is another side on this planet: Shoot for the Southern Hemisphere

Then there is the issue of the seasonal holidays.I for one would be very grateful for Christmas imagery from South Africa and South America or Australia, countries where Christmas doesn't come with sleighs and snow and candle lights reflected in crystal champagne flutes, but with wilting fir trees, stuck in beach sand, Santa in flipflops doing barbecues and chillybins bulging with beer bottles.

And while I am at it, let's look at the nightmare that is Easter for anyone at the bottom of the globe. Has anyone in the Northern half ever considered that there are places where Easter is not associated with daffodils, apple blossom and catkins? Easter happens in autumn in the Southern hemisphere. Think of the money that could be made by the lone photographer, who shows Easter eggs in a nest of moss and lichen, padded with autumn leaves and red berries, with a grey bunny in attendance rather than a white. Or some more upmarket version thereof.  While I appreciate that most picture users live in the northern hemisphere, there are a quite a few millions who don't.

Stop the overdone clichés


Women in wheat fields – so many of them- what are they doing there?


Last there is the issue of tedious cliches. Women in wheat fields – so many of them- what are they doing there? Couples walking on the beach, holding hands. When did you last do that when you walked on the beach with your partner? Happy women seem to spend their time jumping into the air with oversize scarves floating behind them.”Freedom” brings up hundreds of pictures of women throwing their arms up or out, in fact whatever the subject, women appear to spend an awful lot of their time with their arms in the air. 

These are yesteryear's visual conventions, and no doubt they will still find buyers. But tastes are moving on and photographers need to be creative in finding different ways of expressing concepts.Yes, of course the honey-mooners can still hold hands, but while you are there and the light is right, let's get them to do something else too. 

Then there is the issue of models “looking at the camera” or “not looking at the camera”. Modern photography prefers the latter. Candid, impromptu unposed photography that suggests a glimpse of a moment in time, a snatched piece of unaware emotion. Again, if in doubt, do both!

What I would love to see would be groups of photographers to focus on niche markets. There are millions of really good photographers out there who love taking pictures of plants. We publish a garden magazine and need quite a high number of images of specific plants in garden settings or making compost or pruning roses. Dreamstime is quite good with that sort of thing because they often provide latin names. I could imagine though a microstock agency that specialises in plant and garden photography. The other thing is food/interior photography, which still lags behind – what the current players provide is often just too tacky and looks like the display in a third rate Chinese take-away bar.

In the end it is all important when producing an image to think of it's potential market, what group of buyers the image might appeal to. A rigorous and economical approach will save us buyers a lot of time scrolling through pages of useless images.

 Images ©


About Author

I write about the stock photo and microstock industry since 2006 on my several online-magazines. My goal for MyStockPhoto is to teach photographers and stock photographers how to sell more photos and earn money with their photography hobby.


  1. So, to put that into microstock reality:

    1) more image versions are 90 % likely to be rejected as “too many similars”
    2) copyspace = composition rejections
    3) people shoot horizontal beacuse the preview favors horizontal and editors too, also the wide angle screens strongly favor horizontal
    4) niche = NO sales and no profit, there are not enough buyers for this or they cant find it in the tons of keyword-spammed crap; the other problem is that these got often rejected as “low commercial value”
    5) detailed descriptions take time, less keywords means less sales and agencies dont care – and whats worse, their search engines are very very stupid
    6) as a contributor, I would like to sell precisely described, quality niche photos – but in the current state of microstock its simply very difficult; simply the rules, market and editors are set against it
    7) so there is chance to provide all of you wish – BUT it cant be done for insane pennies paid by microstock, the commision for download must be at least 10x more then common subs, otherwise its not worth it; the other obstacle is agency itself – you need skilled editors and no mass crap rejections, you have to check descriptions and keywords = much more work and of course you have to pay it = no way this could be done for insane end price like $1 per picture
    8) customers got accustomed for insane low prices but now demand the superb editorial stock results for the same price – this is not how the things work! – we photographers would be very happy to do it, but there is NO good stock agency providing good revenue, good quality and NOT screwing photographers (I see a huge start-up potential here btw.)

    • Hey Nick,

      I agree in almost all of your points. But I still think its very valuable to hear what a customer has to say about their needs. I found some of her points interesting because she would happily buy directly from certain stock photographers if they would supply an image she needs i.e. in that niches.
      This post might be also very interesting for the stock agencies. Feel free to share it with your agency contact.

      • I absolutely agree with the buyer perspective. I have been in all parts involved. I had my small agency, I was editor and Im photographer and buyer myself now. I think that the solution lies in quality mid-stock agency, better with some geographical or topic limitations. So no giant like Getty with all that exclusive things and high prices but also no common microstock flooded with cliches and keyword spammed photos. The other problem is that with the latest MOSS tax hell in EU it became almost impossible to sell directly.

        • Yes quality mid-stock would work for this buyer very well when it’s properly keyworded and maybe with Geotags as well. It could also be great to combine certain smaller agencies within a country (with local content) under one umbrella and get more buyers via better search and easier purchasing options. Don’t let me even think about MOSS – horrible for every business in EU and outside EU.

  2. Interesting and great clarification of some of the problems with microstock.
    1. Keyword spamming
    2. Incorrect or inaccurate description/location, etc.
    3. Cliches
    4. Copyspace
    5. Verticals & Horizontals

    I find the keyword spamming to be terrible, I can only imagine how frustrating it would be for a buyer, which is why I include latin names for animals where appropriate.

    Interestingly enough, as a nomad photographer, living in the Northern hemisphere, my number one selling image on Shutterstock is of a vineyard in New Zealand, although I have not identified the grape varietal, I have correctly identified the region/location which of course will help a knowledgeable person know what the varietal is. This image has sold all around the world, from the country of origin New Zealand to Chile, South Africa, in the Southern hemisphere to Germany, Sweden, China and the USA in the Northern hemisphere. The point that Sibylle makes about correctly identifying a location can make a great difference to an images usage. As Sibylle pointed out one should make verticals as well as horizontals, I did precisely that with the scenic of the vineyard, in fact took it one step further and made a panoramic, a series of shots stitched together. Of the three types of images the horizontal has sold the most, the vertical second and the pano the least. This is as I would expect, as I think there are fewer magazines that could use or devote space to a pano.

Leave A Reply