Whether you’re a pro photographer looking for a new income stream or a hobbyist photographer hunting for a side income, selling shots on stock photography websites could be a valuable tool in your arsenal.
Although there are plenty of ways to earn a living from photography, selling stock photography is one that’s often overlooked. It’s unlikely to provide you with a full-time income. But it could be a great way to earn some extra cash to cover the cost of your gear without taking up too much of your time.
To learn more about what it takes to earn some cash from stock photography, we spoke to keen photographer James Wheeler, who now routinely makes hundreds of dollars per month doing just this.
Like many of us, James first played around with photography with a point-and-shoot digital camera. It was mainly a way to document his travels. In 2009, however, he started taking photography more seriously; he purchased an entry-level DSLR and spent several years studying the subject.
He now shoots with a Nikon D600 and a Panasonic GH4, and sells his photos (and prints) on a number of stock photography websites, as well as on his own site, for a bit of extra income.
Here’s what I learned from chatting with him.
Keep Your Expectations in Check
Although James earned his first stock photography income within just a month of uploading his first batch of photos, you shouldn’t expect to make a full-time living from this. Those that do are a very rare breed.
With around 350 quality photos listed on half a dozen stock sites, James usually makes at least a couple hundred sales per month, totaling a few thousand dollars per year.
A couple times per month, James will sell a shot on stock photography site 500px and receive $5-$50. He also sells the rights to his photos on his own site for $99, but those sales are pretty sparse. Rather, the vast majority of his sales come from microstock sites that dish out $0.25-$5.00 for each sale.
As you can see, this is a numbers game. But don’t be fooled: selling stock photography is not passive income.
Unfortunately, you can’t just keep uploading more and more photos, and see your income increase in line with your submissions. This is because, as more people upload competing photos to stock sites, you’ll start to see your sales fall. So in order to maintain your income, you’ll need to to routinely upload more high-quality photos.
This isn’t meant to put you off, but rather to dispel any illusions you may have about using stock photography as a passive income stream.
Take Great Photos
When trying your hand at selling stock photos, you will face some rejection. Top stock photography sites such as Shutterstock and 500px maintain high standards, rejecting at least as many photos as they accept. In total, James has attempted to upload around 750 images to sites like these, with around 350 of them being accepted.
That’s why, before you even attempt to list any of your photos, you should browse these sites. Understand the standard you need to meet before the better stock sites will accept your work. There are, of course, other sites that have lower standards, but these generally pay a lower commission.
If your skills need some work, there are a number of fantastic (and affordable) photography courses available online. Spend time improving the areas of photography you most enjoy. As side income, it shouldn’t turn into a chore. For James, his passion is landscape photography. For you, it could be food, portrait, product, or architecture photography. Perhaps something else.
Know What Sells
Next, you’re going to want to learn about what actually sells on stock photography websites.
Remember, stock photos are not meant to be an artistic expression. They are photos that are (usually) used to fill a commercial need. They’re often used to portray a specific point or emotion, or to focus on a specific subject. Always keep this in mind when your camera is in your hands.
According to Photoworkout, topics that are currently in fashion include: nostalgia, mindfulness, tech advances, and social issues. According to Webascender, these are shots that show authenticity, people with tech, people with analog devices, people with plants, beautiful beaches, and people who are in the moment.
Don’t just rely on lists like these, though. Spend time doing your own research by browsing the top stock websites to see the subjects and styles that are popular.
On Shutterstock’s advanced search page, for instance, you can order your search results by popularity. The same can be done on iStockPhoto. Studying these results will give you valuable insight into the subjects and styles that you could choose to focus on.
Make Sure You Stand Out
Once you’ve figured out what kind of photos are likely to sell, simply copying these styles and subjects and expecting the cash to roll in isn’t enough.
James advises you to “search for what you plan to shoot. When you see the results, ask yourself, ‘Can I shoot this subject in a better/different way?‘ If the answer is No, move on to a different subject, but if the answer is Yes, try it.” And be sure to check out this guide on how to make your stock photos stand out.
He goes on to say that “people buy stock photography for almost anything, but you need to have the best photo of that subject to get the sale.”
Choosing Where to Sell
Selling stock photos is like selling any other product. If people can’t find what you’re selling, they won’t buy it.
First, you need to know where to sell your photos. For James, Shutterstock has always been his top performer, with 500px recently making it to second place. There are plenty of other options, though. These include Alamy, iStockPhoto, Photoshelter, Fotolia, and more.
Each of these sites offers different commissions (many offering to pay you more if you post your photos exclusively on their site). Do your due diligence to find the best places to sell your photos.
Knowing How to Sell
In the case of how to sell your stock photos, what’s important is your choice of title, description, and tags. When doing this, simply being literal isn’t enough. One example that Microstock Insider gives is that of a street sign with diverging arrows. This can also “represent choice or decision, but only gains that meaning when paired with a title.”
With all of the photos you upload, give careful consideration to your title, description, and tags to ensure your shots are appearing in search results that relate directly and indirectly to your photo.
Patience and Perseverance
Yes, James started earning a small amount of income within a month of submitting stock photographs. But if you want to earn enough to make a dent, you’re going to need to invest some time and energy.
Once you’ve gone through all of the steps above, you’ll have a good idea about what’s going to work for you and what isn’t. But based on the rejections you receive, and the results you experience, the learning curve will continue, and your approach will evolve.
This takes time. Trial and error. Patience. Perseverance. But when you start to get some hard evidence of how your photos are performing, use this information to scale what’s working, and cut back on what isn’t. After all, you’re going to need a considerable stock photo portfolio to generate a meaningful revenue stream.
To save time with this, James co-founded Photoloo, a site that simplifies uploading, posting and managing photos to multiple photography, social media, and microstock sites.
Unsurprisingly, there’s more to making money by selling stock photos than meets the eye. But now that you know the deal, you can approach this opportunity with your eyes wide open.
This is not a way to make a passive income. Nor is it an “easy” way to make money (if there is such a thing).
You’ll need to spend time figuring out what to shoot. Constantly improve your photography skills. Keep one eye on what’s happening in the stock photography world (Microstock Diaries is great for this). And you’ll need to consistently add more photos to your stock portfolio.
The positives, though, are that if you have a good eye for photography, the barriers to entry are low. Anyone can give this a go, and with some perserverance, have a good shot at generating a side-income that could make all the difference to your monthly budget.
And if you pop your photos up on Instagram, there are money-making opportunities there too. Check out the best affiliate programs to make money on Instagram?