Is it worth submitting editorial images to microstock agencies?

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Shutterstock started the ball rolling with accepting images for editorial use only, and since then many other microstock agencies followed suit. However, some of these agencies took a few years before they began accepting editorial images, and there are still a number of agencies which don’t consider it worthwhile to accept them. An indication maybe that the market for these images in microstock is not huge. Editorial images have their place though as well as a certain value. However, many contributors seem to be put off from submitting editorial images to microstock sites, likely because of the lower sales potential, but I think also because of the overly complicated procedures agencies set for submitting these images, as well as the often confusing criteria for acceptance of these images. Before I go into detail, lets look at some advantages first.

Advantages of submitting editorial images

  • The agencies are not as stringent about image quality as with commercially viable images, this is not a fact and I’m sure the agencies would deny it, but it is a well tested theory, which is great for those who shoot with lower end DSLRs or even point and shoot cameras. off topic: It’s my own belief that many of the agencies prioritise image quality for commercial shots (the bulk of submissions), as a way of coping with the huge volume of submissions they receive, some also may be using automated technologies to do the initial checks. There probably is little need for the quality bar to be set as high as it is, other than to eliminate large sections of submissions they receive as quickly as possible. It would be an efficient and cost effective way for an agency to work like this, at least for an agency which has an overwhelming amount of submissions.
  • Unlike many of the commercially viable images produced, the costs of shooting editorial images are often at a bare minimum.
  • Unlike many commercially viable shots, no time is spent in obtaining, scanning and uploading model or property releases.

It is at times however quite difficult trying to second guess what each agency wants. Obviously breaking news images should be accepted, but “commentary worthy” images can also be accepted. However, this term used by the agencies is open to interpretation, and I’m convinced that many reviewers often don’t know what to make of images which aren’t evidently news images. More on this later.

Editorial submission headache procedure

I submit my editorial images to Shutterstock, RevolucyDreamstime and 123rf, and sometimes to Bigstock too, who I find to be by far the most stringent when it comes to accepting editorial images (Update: I’ve since stopped uploading to 3 of the above). Shutterstock and Dreamstime make you do a little song and dance before submitting, which can be time consuming to say the least. By far the most exhausting is Shutterstock.

It’s generally not acceptable to submit an editorial image to either Shutterstock or Dreamstime without explaining the details of the event or why a photo is newsworthy, backed up by facts, preferably with statistics. Dreamstime may not be so strict with this, but it’s worth adding anyway, especially as you’ve already obtained the information for Shutterstock. The details for Shutterstock  should be submitted in the caption for the photo (Bigstock too accepts the same caption format), for Dreamstime it is good enough to give the information in a separate ‘Editorial info’ box, preferably with a link to a site showing any relevant facts and statistics, or any other coverage of an event. So if you have have some great editorial images, as well as entering a basic description and relevant keywords you often need to do a search on Google to get more information. This can be quite time consuming and I’m not sure why providing these extra details are entirely necessary. Buyers are searching for images to illustrate what they have written or going to write about, they will have done their own research and just need images appropriate to what they’re working on. I would think the basic info. of an image would suffice for the majority of buyers. The biggest benefit of providing the extra information, is likely to be for reviewers, to aid them on making a decision on whether a photo is news or commentary worthy. I’d be surprised if there were many reviewers, reviewing editorial images with specific editorial backgrounds.

Shutterstock’s captions can be particularly tricky. The details we must give must fit into 200 characters, they don’t allow you to type more than this and you have to fit the town/ city, country and date of the shot into this space, twice. Don’t ask me why they need the same details twice in one caption. I often have to leave out commas, full stops and even articles (a, an, the), just so I can squeeze in a description which I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking of how to condense. It’s not that much more than a Tweet, but Twitter is not compelling us to provide a minimum amount of information as well as to duplicate parts of it. If anyone from Shutterstock happens to read this, would you be so kind to mention to Jon that 200 characters for an editorial caption with the details that are asked for, is a bit like asking an inmate to go for a run in his cell 😉 . I’ll remember to update this post if they ever increase the character amount. Here’s hoping! Update: Shutterstock finally made a change in 2014, now it is not necessary to repeat the date and location of the image in the description portion of the caption.

Sometimes editorial images sent to Shutterstock can be rejected solely on the basis that the caption was not in the exact format they want and submitters can receive the following if it’s not done correctly “Please follow EXACTLY the caption (title) guidelines for editorial (including CAPITAL LETTERS): please read link provided First: LOCATION Second: DATE Third: Description with date and location at the end of title“, or they can simply be told that not enough information was given (within the 200 characters). Here are a few replies I’ve received from reviewers concerning the captions.

  • Proper editorial caption format needed.
  • Big Business? How big? What does it generate in a dollar amount? How many businesses have opened in the last year? Please verify statement. thanks
  • Caption not newsworthy. Please provide a newsworthy statement or fact in your editorial caption for this image
  • why is this image newsworthy?
  • who are they? why did they do this?
  • Please include child(ren)’s name and age as required

I really find it objectionable that a stock image is rejected on the basis of the accompanying text (Par keyword spamming). The person who’s image was rejected may not send it back, and I don’t think an agency should refuse contributors images or deny customers from seeing them, for any other reason than the image itself.

The good news is that if you get rejections like these and you add the details they’ve asked for when resubmitting (the image is not put back into a pending section, but has to be uploaded again), with a note written to the editor showing what the previous rejection reason was and saying you’ve added the necessary, from my experience they will most likely accept the image. And no, I didn’t know the names and ages of the child(ren) in the last rejection example above. Kind of a bizarre request by Shutterstock, considering I submitted the image so it could be used for editorial purposes only. This was the image in question.

Balinese boys at night festival

Successful shots

Once you’ve negotiated your images through the various hoops and they make it online, the work is done and the images can be sold for years to come. These images can not be used commercially however, thus the market for them in general is not nearly as large. However, there are always some images which are successful.

Passengers waiting in line at airport

I sent the above shot to Shutterstock and elsewhere, at the height of the Swine flu outbreak in 2009. It was downloaded everyday, often several times a day for quite a few weeks and sat in the number one spot on my portfolio for months. Unfortunately it was rejected by Dreamstime, which was a disappointment, as seeing it being sold everyday on Shutterstock I was sure I was missing out on sales with it not being on Dreamstime. Being a little lazy as I sometimes am, instead of re-editing it and sending it again, I instead wrote to them asking for it to be reviewed again. It was rejected again. I wouldn’t recommend writing to the agencies asking for images to be re-reviewed, I’ve only once had a decision overturned. It really is best just to re-edit an image (if the rejection reason indicates this is possible) or move on to something else. It was January 2010 before I finally edited it for Dreamstime, it was accepted and has just sold 5 times there since. News of Swine flu had all but disappeared and this kind of  image was not as high in demand anymore. In retrospect, I should have re-edited it straight away, but I was probably busy jumping through other hoops at the time.

Read Also  Shutterstock makes a $75 million bet that the future of photography won’t always involve cameras

Passport control at Singapore airport

Another shot which is selling well is the image above, also taken when I was in line at the immigration queue at Singapore airport. The whole time I was shooting I was expecting to be approached by security guards, to ask me to stop taking photos. They could clearly see me but they didn’t object to me photographing. This photo was taken quickly though and manually focused and as a result it is not quite as sharp as it could be. I had feared the rejection reason “Your image is not in focus or focus is not located where we feel it works best”, but it seems that those words are only allocated to images which are perfectly sharp or focused where they work best. Confused? Welcome to microstock 🙂 . The photo however was accepted everywhere I sent it, and so far it’s been downloaded 87 times. For editorial, the image has to take precedent over technical perfection, ideally both are favourable, but editorial images are not shot in controlled environments and therefore a little leeway on technical perfection should be allowed.


The agencies criteria for accepting editorial images can often leave you confused, par 123rf which accept virtually everything. For me, Bigstock’s policy on accepting editorial images is by far the most frustrating. An online passive income is only possible if you have images that sell well, preferably selling well for years. Commentary worthy editorial images (not contemporary news images) are just the type of images which can create a consistent passive income. So many of my editorial images have been rejected by BigStock for being “Not newsworthy enough for Editorial Use: Images submitted as Editorial need to be news, or current events, or commentary worthy”, notice the order of preference. I even received a rejection reason for a shot of the last Indonesian General Election, which was only the second direct election in the country, “Sorry, editorial submissions need to be current news events”. As far as I know, there are no other election images of Indonesia in microstock, so if anyone is looking for images of politics of the country they’ll find my images, and these election images have been downloaded on the various sites long after the event itself. If you do have images which are breaking news or time sensitive, by the time the images are reviewed, and further more by the time the images appear in search results so buyers can see them, you’re probably looking at a time frame of at least 4 or 5 days from the submission date, but a week or more is also usual. If that’s the case, why would any agency consider current news images as a priority? And why would buyers use microstock agencies to search for images of events happening now?

Some rejection examples. The image below was rejected by Bigstock as well as Dreamstime, which was no surprise to me. I sent this image being totally convinced that it would probably never get past reviewers anywhere, but I could see the potential, so I sent it anyway.

Bigstock’s reason for rejection was, “Not newsworthy enough for Editorial Use.” This small island gets 6 million visitors a year which is a much greater amount than the population itself. People come for the sun and the beaches, but they also come for the nightlife. Does an editorial image of the nightlife of one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia not have sales potential? Shutterstock accepted the image and the image was exclusively on Shutterstock for a while, until 123rf allowed editorial submissions. To date it’s had 61 downloads on Shutterstock and 18 downloads on 123rf. The image is not news, but it’s certainly useful, an image like this would not only appeal to anyone writing about Bali, but also nightlife in general, and most importantly the image has a fairly long lifespan, maybe a longer lifespan than photos of Euro 2012 for example. These are the top ten keywords used by Shutterstock buyers to find the image.

bali (19%); bar (11%); club (11%); party (8%); people (6%); dancing (6%); kuta (6%); night (6%); clubbing (4%); tourists (4%)

Another example. Out of the agencies I’ve mentioned in this blog post, only Shutterstock accepted the image below.

Asian students learning English

Bigstock’s rejection reason was, “This image is more of a snapshot than a marketable stock image.” I really think Bigstock ought to stop calling images on Shutterstock snapshots, especially as Bigstock is owned by Shutterstock 😉 . It’s another classic example of what many reviewers don’t see the potential of. It’s not technically perfect, it’s a little underexposed and has a flash shadow, possibly why the Bigstock reviewer dismissed it as a snapshot. The image serves it’s purpose well though, real students in Asia learning English in a computer-assisted language class. So I sent it and buyers want it and so far I’ve earnt $34 from this image, from the one agency that accepted it, and I’m sure it will continue to sell for many more years yet.

An alternative agency for editorial images, which many microstock contributors seem to favour is Alamy. This is not a microstock agency but they do accept royalty free microstock images, for editorial images though they only offer images under a rights managed license, not royalty free like microstock. Therefore, you can’t have the same editorial images both on microstock sites and Alamy. The advantages with Alamy is that there are no reviewers breathing down your neck for not writing the perfect editorial caption (big advantage if you value your time), or rejecting saleable images which often microstock agency reviewers aren’t aware are saleable. However with Alamy, you do need to have good image quality, for both editorial and non-editorial images, as they basically only check for the quality, well they check one random image from each batch of images you send and if this one gets through, they all get through. Unlike microstock agencies which give very little away into their workings, Alamy say upfront, if your images pass the quality bar, they’re in. And many microstockers if they have editorial work, send these images to Alamy only. Like with microstock you also need to send large quantities of images to make good money, sales on Alamy are far more infrequent than with any of the top microstock sites, but each sale is usually worth far more.


So, is it worth submitting editorial images to microstock agencies? As it stands, I couldn’t really say it is. Almost half my microstock images are editorial. In the top 20 highest earning images I have, only 6 are editorial, the most downloaded has had 87 downloads, compared to my best selling commercial image which has 307 downloads. Considering the lower sales, if contributors are going to find it worthwhile to send the bulk of their editorial images to microstock, I would think the agencies would need to simplify the editorial submission process, and be less restrictive about what they accept. It’s stock, it makes more sense to me that they prioritise stock images that have long lifespans, more so than current news images. Current news images would need to be reviewed and indexed much faster to have optimal impact. If an important event happens today and a contributor sends images of the event today, it needs to be online TODAY. Maybe then more big editorial buyers would see microstock as an option.

If you shoot a lot of editorial images and you want to sell your images online, maybe trying Alamy (and other alternatives) would be better, so long as you are capable of passing their quality control, there really is no more drama. You’re not guaranteed success with the alternatives though. Alamy alone has over 30 million images, so there is a fair bit of competition too. But contributors who have top DSLR cameras and can consistently produce high quality images seldom have their images rejected, and being able to get your images online and visible with relative ease has to be a bonus. Your work still has to be good though and in demand, and of course good keywording is also paramount to better your chances for selling anywhere online.

As with many of the posts on this blog, I’m mostly expressing my views and experiences. If you have different or similar experiences in regards to microstock editorial images, feel free to share them.

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9 thoughts on “Is it worth submitting editorial images to microstock agencies?

  1. very interesting post my friend, I have similar opinion but I still do them if I enjoy taking them, in the end they will sell a little, some turn very nice sellers too, have a great day and thanks for sharing your insight!

    1. Sure, I’ve always enjoyed taking editorial shots and yes some shots turn out to be nice sellers, for me particularly non-news stuff, which I often have trouble getting online. The great thing about editorial shots is when you’re shooting, things are constantly changing, so each shot has a certain uniqueness. Sometimes I remember the shots which I never got. It’s a craft and needs to be practised like any other. Great feeling when you know you got some good ones though. 😉

  2. I submit mine to Alamy and other midstock agencies. Although I’m not a veteran photographer and haven’t submitted many editorial photos to microstock agencies, experience tells me the potential clients (newspapers, magazines) prefer a Rights Managed license in these photos.

  3. Shutterstock captions: yes we really do need a few extra characters allowed for these. I find that I quite frequently have to leave out useful information about the image because I have run out of letters. A recent example was of a band I had photographed performing. I wanted to say that they had just won a UK wide competition to find Britains best unsigned band -but had to leave that out entirely (OK it got accepted anyway but..). Long place names are also problematic – try captioning images taken where I live, St.Leonards-on-Sea, England! What’s really annoying is that I find I often only need four of five more characters. The only other site to restrict like this is Mostphotos, so consider me signed up for the campaign to get a few extra letters allowed. Regards,David.

  4. Excellent blog! Right now I am uploading about 80 editorial images to Shutterstock and Dreamstime. I found this blog by Googling “editorial caption format for dreamstime”. For sure it will save me the time of uploading to Bigstock. The images are about the 2013 Toronto International Auto Show. Stunning cars! Thanks.

  5. But I can sell my photos for editorial use? do the microstock pay me for the editotial photo if someone buy it?

  6. Hello, really good post, I wanted to know what about that stock agency called Revolucy? is it good? cause I couldn’t find anything on the internet. Thanks


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