Ken Rhodes, chief scientific officer for Yumanity, had a rather surreal experience while en route to a meeting a few years back.
“We were raising a round of fund-raising for our startup and waiting in the reception area,” the Belmont resident recalled. “And the Boston Business Journal’s annual book of lists was there, and on the cover was one of my photographs.” Rhodes’s photograph, a serene twilight landscape of the Boston skyline twinkling across the Charles River, was featured throughout the issue. But it was no coincidence.
Rhodes’s photo was sold as microstock, the community-driven facet of stock photography that allows photographers of all levels to submit their work for profit. Stock image companies — like iStock, Shutterstock, Adobe — then filter through contributor submissions for quality control and put the best up for sale, sometimes for a royalty-free flat rate, sometimes on a pay-per-download basis. Photographers then receive a small profit from the usage.
“It’s not like commercial photography, where photographers are paid a lot for their work,” explained Rhodes. “The nice image of the city that was used — I don’t remember what I ultimately got paid for it, but it was pennies on the dollar.”
While the payout is somewhat minimal, some microstock photographers say they use the supplemental income to help fund — and determine — their travel experiences.
“I take photos wherever I go, but over time, I’ve found there are destinations and places that are more appealing and sell better,” said Ben Mead, a medical engineering graduate student at Harvard-MIT. “They tend to be places that people are familiar with but don’t go themselves. For me, it’s been like the Appalachian Trail through Maine and New Hampshire or the mountains of Southwestern Colorado.”
Likewise, Rhodes has found himself seeking exciting travel experiences that are equally picturesque. “Quite a lot of [my photos] are of Boston, but there are also some Caribbean islands, Scotland, Iceland, Ireland — I love to go places with great photography opportunities,” he said, also noting the ability to push his limits has led to his dabbling in aerial photography. “I’m terrified of heights so being in a helicopter without doors is scary for me,” he said with a laugh. “But you’re strapped in and it’s an exhilarating experience to shoot over Boston Harbor.”
“The best ones will also check a lot of boxes — like they’ll be a beautiful landscape that also emphasizes an activity, like hiking or water sports,” said Mead. “It’s randomly a very niche thing. One of my top photos is the top of a dome at MIT. Apparently there are many architecture photo examples of domes.”
Mead estimates he’s been paid “a couple hundred” each year since he started participating in microstock on Shutterstock in 2013. It’s not enough to finance the four or five times he travels outside Boston each year, but the incentive is enough to push the Colorado native to continue working on his photography.
“Microstock appeals to me because it sets a bar,” he said. “Shutterstock does a good job of reviewing the images you submit and they won’t just take anything. It becomes a challenge to improve and the opportunity to get paid for a hobby.”
Rhodes says he’s seen “about $5,000” over the past five years he’s participated in microstocks like Shutterstock and Gallery Stock. In addition to motivating his wanderlust, it’s become a practical supplement. “It’s not a lot of money but it covers my insurance I carry on my camera gear and sometimes pays for new supplies.”
Shutterstock, which claims to have paid out more than $500 million to contributors, estimates it will add 150,000 new images from users each day, measuring the submissions on three key factors. Technical composition (focus, lighting, noise) is evaluated, as is the ability to legally license an image (are there visible trademarks?), and the user-submitted metadata, that includes a title and up to 50 keywords.
And it’s the accuracy, strategy, and clarity of those keywords that can help make or break an image.
“It depends on [what users are] searching globally,” explained Paul Brennan, vice president of content for Shutterstock. “It can be a trend or seasonally driven. We do our own creative look at trends in the marketplace and try to help our users understand what’s happening globally.”
Shutterstock provides its users with some outlook on what popular search keywords are maybe driving purchases, but Brennan said it’s travelers who are both adventurous and culturally aware who get the best shot.
“When it comes down to travel and culture, it’s about images that capture what’s happening at a local level,” he explained. “We’re looking for [photos] where if you’re looking for a specific holiday or event in India, [those photos are] authentic.”
And sometimes it’s just a matter of responding to the news cycle that gets a download.
“We make sure we have great coverage in all major global locations,” Brennan continued. “Like . . . what we just saw with Guam. It’s in the news, and people want to know, what does Guam look like? We have images to represent that.”
And even if you’re not a pro — don’t be afraid to get started with your camera phone next time you’re away.
“We encourage people to shoot with their smartphones,” said Brennan, noting that users can tag and upload submissions via Shutterstock’s app. “We find that they’re able to capture those specific moments that are very authentic and genuine.”