Do’s and Don’ts for Microstock

There’s a lot of confusion about things that microstock sites like® do and don’t accept (blends? meshes? text? unclosed strokes?). Contributors who’ve been around a while have learned over the years, and iStock does have a great Illustrator Training Manual… Still, we figured it’d be a great time to put together a list of not-so-well-known do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when submitting your vector illustrations.

* Please note: We do brush upon some potential legal issues in this article. Please remember that I’m not a lawyer! Whatever I have to say isn’t intended as legal advice so please don’t take it as such. Whenever you’re in doubt regarding copyright or intellectual property, always consult a real lawyer who’s experienced in these fields (and not a scatterbrained illustrator in Calgary, AB, Canada).

1. Gradient Meshes


A lot of people assume that due to iStock’s stringent standards regarding transparency effects that gradient meshes aren’t useable. This definitely isn’t the case!

Any vector file submitted to iStock must be editable in Adobe Illustrator version 8.0 (for additional information on the AI8 file format, check out this article). The AI8 EPS file is a pretty old file format. However, you may be surprised to know that AI8 CAN open files containing gradient meshes. So yes, iStock will indeed accept them!

There’s one major downside to meshes though: They won’t work in programs other than Illustrator. This means all our Freehand, Corel, Xara, and Inkscape-using friends won’t be able to edit those meshes as vectors. If you do decide to use meshes, we strongly recommend you include a note in your image description letting customers know that if they’re not working in AI, they may have problems editing the mesh.

2. Blends


Blends, like meshes, are awesome. You can create some amazing shading effects using blends, and they’re generally easier for a newbie to edit than meshes are. iStock does accept blends, but there are a few things to keep in mind when using them.

If you’re expanding your blend before submission, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the results in AI8. Complex blends (say 10 or more color steps) can become extremely tricky to edit once expanded. Think of a woven blanket where each row of yarn is slightly lighter than the rest: It’d be very difficult to go in and change the color of a single row by re-weaving, let alone recolor the entire blanket row by row! Blends with too many color steps are the same way: They’re much too time consuming to edit manually for your average time-crunched designer.

When submitting a file containing blends to iStock, make sure that you’ve either left the blend unexpanded, or, that you’ve limited the number of levels when expanding (we recommend 10 color steps or less). Also, make sure you open the EPS file after you save it: Sometimes blends can do strange things when you downsave them.

3. Unfilled, Unexpanded Strokes


Open shapes can be a nightmare for printers and designers alike (if you’re wondering why, we definitely recommend you read this article!). That being said, there is one occasion where open shapes ARE acceptable on iStock. We’re talking about unfilled and unexpanded strokes.

Strokes that aren’t closed are acceptable as there is no fill color assigned to the shape. Sure, you can expand your strokes, but this can make it harder for designers to adjust your illustration. Due to the benefits of leaving strokes without fill colors unexpanded, iStock will still accept your submission even if you’ve left strokes unexpanded.

An exception to this rule: If you’ve used a custom brush or effect on your stroke, your file will be declined with a note to expand the stroke before resubmitting. This is because some programs may not read these custom strokes properly, resulting in a less than pleased customer!

4. Autotraces


At iStock, we gently try to discourage the use of autotraces. This is because they can make a terrible mess of a vector file. But there are still plenty of occasions where autotraces work, and in fact it’d be extremely difficult to create certain effects (texture, grunge, hand drawn styles) without autotracing!

If you are going to use an autotrace feature (such as Illustrator’s ‘Live Trace’), it’s critical you take the time to get to know how autotraces work. Twiddle with your settings and keep playing until you’ve found a good balance of detail and texture. For some great autotracing tips and tricks, check out this article.

5. Text


Rejections for text usage is always a hot-button subject in the iStock forums. Unfortunately, each file that uses text needs to be treated on a case-by-case basis. There’s no ‘blanket’ solution short of banning the use of text altogether (which would mean we’d lose out on a lot of good files!). Here’s the skinny on text.

If your illustration contains text elements, it’s important that they are well incorporated into your composition. Think of it this way: If you were ever taken to court by a type designer, could they look at your illustration and say, ‘well, the only reason the customer bought this is because of the text… Which you didn’t create’?. Because if this were the case you’d be in trouble, since you’re essentially profiting off of someone else’s work. The more that you incorporate text into your compositions, the more protected you’ll be if a dispute ever arises.

Ideally, you’d want to create your own text by hand or stick to generic typefaces that lack distinctive details. But here’s where things get trickier: iStock doesn’t accept type designs or illustrations that are mainly text-based even if you drew them yourself. iStock isn’t a type foundry, and they have no way of knowing for sure who the author of the text is. With all the free websites out there offering font downloads it’d be a real hassle to keep track of what came from where, and who created what. To help protect our customers, iStock does not accept any illustration where text is the primary focal point. This includes font designs, type treatments, text-heavy design templates, etc.

Another thing to note about iStock’s standards regards the use of captions or headlines. It’s so tempting to slap on a cute ‘Merry Christmas’ headline onto your adorable illustration of chubby Santa Claus stuck in a chimney. What you might have failed to take into account, however, is that your customer may not speak English, and is likely using a completely different typeface in their design. It’s always best to leave font and wording choices up to the customer: After all, the customer is always right 😉

You should try to avoid text altogether unless it’s a necessary supporting element within your composition (say, a highway scene with a ‘Stop’ sign in the distance, or, a family sitting down for breakfast with a carton on the table reading ‘Milk’). Remember that the less text you use, the more useable the illustration becomes for designers.

One last thing to mention regarding text in vectors: Artists ask me all the time, ‘what fonts am I safe to use in my illustrations?’ Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question, because I don’t own any fonts! The only way you could get an answer to such a question would be to contact the type foundry who designed your font, and see if they’d be willing to sign a Property Release (for more information on property releases please see the iStock Illustrator Training Manual). I wish I could grant everyone permission to use other people’s fonts, but that’s just not possible because I don’t have the right to grant anyone permission to use work that I didn’t create 😉

6. Duplicate or Similar Uploads


iStock has very strict standards for photographers: Each photo you submit must be unique and can’t resemble others in a series. This is to help our search engine and prevents customers from getting frustrated by seeing the same model shot from 200 almost identical angles.

But how does this affect vectors? One of the best things about vector files is you can pull them apart and modify the bits and pieces without losing image quality. It’s so easy to grab a few shapes, move them around, resize them, and change their colors to create a very different looking file.

Because of this, iStock is much more lenient on duplicate or similar vector uploads. Let’s face it, vectors take a long time to create, so if you’re drawing a beautiful woman it can be a real time saver to grab a hand you drew in an earlier file and recycle it in your new artwork. So yes, you can submit multiple versions of the same illustration to iStock.

We ask that people be respectful, though. The more complex the file, the more likely we will be to approve a second color version of the same artwork. If it’s just a simple icon set, we really don’t want to see it uploaded in every color of the rainbow! This isn’t useful to designers, most of whom can easily modify the colors themselves. Besides, you can offer alternate color versions in a single submission by ZIPping your alternate files into the optional ‘Extras’ folder and submit that along with your EPS and your JPEG preview.

There’s no hard and fast rule on exactly how many color versions of a file that you can submit. Again, it needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and the overall complexity of the file is a main consideration (ie, could a designer recolor this quickly and easily on their own, or, would they benefit from seeing 2 colored versions of the same file on iStock?). When in doubt, change up the composition of your file, or add or remove shapes to create a different look.

7. Needed and Not Needed Files

In the iStock Illustration Training Manual there is a list of files that we need and don’t need. We strongly suggest that you go through this list and get familiar with it, particularly if you’re applying to contribute on iStock (for some additional tips on applying as a contributor, check out this list of tips).

‘But wait’, you ask, ‘I see stuff from the Not Needed list uploaded all the time to iStock! What gives?’

This is a fair point… But, if you really take a look at those files, you’ll see they’re all a cut above average. The thing about the files on our Not Needed list (flags, maps, silhouettes, simple shapes, borders, swirly ornaments, etc) is they are very easy to create. Anyone with a little bit of Illustrator know-how can draw circles, squares, swirly lines, and trace a silhouette.

iStock has very high standards and we’re proud of the quality of our vector files. We have a fantastic and high quality collection! So when it comes to stuff that pretty much anybody could throw together, we’re much more critical during inspection.

Feel free to play with floral ornaments or simple patterns, but remember that if it took you only a few minutes to throw together, then you likely haven’t pushed yourself far enough for iStock’s tough acceptance standards.

In particular, if you’re applying to be an illustrator, please avoid the Not Needed files at all costs. We’ve already got tons of these files online. We’re looking to you to provide us new and exciting content, not content we’ve already got too much of!

8. Derivative Artwork


We figured we’d toss this into our list because it bears repeating: You cannot upload material derived from sources you did not create.

Have a snapshot from last summer’s holiday? It’s fine to base your illustration off of it. This is because you own the copyright for the photograph. You can either trace your photo directly into Illustrator, or, just use it as ‘inspiration’ for your vector. Ditto for sketches, renders, or anything else you might wish to use to create your file.

You can’t take photos you’ve found in Google searches, in magazines, in books, on billboards, or anywhere else unless you actually took that photo. This also goes for other artist’s illustrations: It’s OK to look at someone else’s portfolio but it’s a definite, DEFINITE no-no to copy their composition, subject, color use, and style.

People often mention Public Domain imagery. Technically, public domain images aren’t owned by anyone, so artists assume that it’s totally OK to trace it. Well, this is where things get tricky.

First off: How do you know that the photo is public domain? Just because someone uploaded it to Wikipedia Commons, it doesn’t necessarily mean they had the rights to do so. For all you know, they might have stolen the image from a Google search! Are you willing to put yourself at risk just because someone you don’t know has told you it’s public domain?

Secondly, iStock’s Artist’s Supply Agreement states that you are the sole copyright owner of anything that you submit. By definition public domain imagery isn’t copyrightable by anyone, so, how can you warrant you’re the sole copyright holder? Public domain imagery is tricky so it’s best to avoid it altogether if you’re planning on reselling your artwork for profit.

One last tip: When submitting to iStock, if your illustration appears derived from another work (a trace of an existing object, an illustration containing complex perspectives that would have been difficult to create from imagination, autotraced elements such as grunge textures, highly detailed people, etc) you will be asked to submit a ‘reference’ JPEG for the inspection team. But what if you’re just so talented you always draw directly into Illustrator?

Easy! Just start taking a few screen grabs as you’re working to show the inspection team that you are indeed working from imagination. Get into the habit and it soon becomes second thought. Always store your screen grabs with your illustrations when it comes time to archive them: If a dispute ever arises, it makes it quick and easy to track down your proof of copyright ownership.

9. Clipping Masks


There is a little confusion about whether or not it’s OK to use clipping masks on iStock submissions. The short answer is: Absolutely, we do accept clipping masks… But (there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?), keep the customer in mind.

If you use a clipping mask, be sure you indicate this clearly in your image description. We can’t begin to describe how many confused customers are out there right now, unsure of why they can’t seem to select any of the elements in a file! If you give them a head’s up, they’ll be able to figure out how to remove the mask and isolate the vector pieces they need.

Also, your file could be rejected if you’re masking out a lot, and we mean a LOT, of unnecessary shapes. If you’re cropping the outside pieces of a seamless pattern for example, that’s understandable. But if you have a whole other illustration hiding outside of your artboard, that’s not OK. Make sure you’re deleting any unnecessary shapes before setting up your mask: It keeps your file size down and helps prevent customer confusion!

For more information on clipping masks, check out this awesome article by Cheryl Graham, AKA ‘freetransform’ on iStockphoto.

10. Icon Sets


Deciding how many icons you can put into a single submission is a tough call. Like many other topics discussed here, it really depends on the individual file and how detailed each icon is.

We don’t want people uploading a set of 60 highly detailed icons – it makes the file impossible to price. Why cram 20 15-credit icons into a single submission when you know that the maximum price you could possibly get on iStock is only 25 credits? You’re selling yourself short!

If the icon set contains only simple objects, you should be fine with a set of say 12 or 16 objects (think silhouettes, or very simplified icons). We have no specific rules on how many objects you can submit in a single set but 12-16 is a good number for basic stuff and it keeps in line with our file pricing guidelines.

If each of your objects is highly detailed, say, they’d be worth 10 (or 15) credits each if you uploaded them one by one, you might want to stick to smaller sets of 4 or 6. Designers love icon sets but we do have to draw the line when the objects are highly complex!

Cramming a ton of detailed objects into a single file not only creates search engine nightmares (think of how much a drain it is on our searches if your file maps to hundreds, or even thousands, of parent terms in our Controlled Vocabulary), but it’s also unfair to artists who are creating great full and complicated compositions at a 25 credit price level.

That about wraps things up for now! If there are any other ‘gray’ areas regarding what iStock does and doesn’t accept, please let me know and we’ll add them to this article.

For more information on iStock’s submission requirements, check out the iStock Illustrator Training Manual.

© 2009 Jennifer Borton


11 thoughts on “Do’s and Don’ts for Microstock

  1. Hi, good article, looks like the one on iStockphoto. I have a question regarding icons. I’ve been uploading a totally new icon style lately, but it does not sell very well for now. Maybe the inspector think these icons are not new and are just treated differently, which is not the case at all. ‘Original’ sets always sell well, different treated sets of existing artwork don’t. My question: Are files with different treatment than originals rated differently (which obvious would result in lesser sales)? I understand this could be the case to push people to upload more ‘original’ artwork. In my case the inspector could have misinterpreted my files.

    • bortonia says:

      Yes, it’s the same article that’s on iStock, I gave them permission to use it 🙂

      As to your question about your iStock submissions, I’m very sorry however I don’t offer contributor support on my personal site. If you have a question about your iStock account, you can always contact Contributor Relations, post in the Critique Forum on iStock, or send your rejected file IDs onto the Scout team for review. Thanks for your understanding.

  2. Although there are lots confusions but I really get lots help from istockphoto or shutterstock. I appreciate your initiative to publish photography and microstock related information for peoples.

  3. Ethan says:

    Great article, Jen. Thanks!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Awesome article Jenn! Very helpful and answers so many of the common questions we see.

  5. Cheryl says:

    I like those purses!

  6. Kim says:

    Thanks Jen, great article and very informative. Even after 4 years as an istockphoto illustrator, I didnt know Freehand, Corel, Xara, and Inkscape cannot edit gradient mesh as vectors. 🙂

  7. Sean Hodge says:

    Thanks for all this information. Micro-stock is something I’ve considered getting into. Thx.

  8. Libby says:

    This was so helpful, and easy to understand. Thanks Jen 🙂

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