An Introduction to Making Money Selling Digital Photos

Who doesn’t want to make a little extra cash these days? The price of digital cameras is dropping on what seems to be a daily basis. Why not put yours to some use? For the past five years, I have been selling royalty-free stock photographs and will share my thoughts, ideas and concepts with you, along with some suggestions for getting started.

What is stock photography?

The Wikipedia entry for stock photography states:

Stock photography consists of existing photographs that can be licensed for specific uses. Book publishers, specialty publishers, magazines, advertising agencies, filmmakers, web designers, graphic artists, interior decor firms, corporate creative groups, and other entities utilize stock photography to fulfill the needs of their creative assignments. By using stock photography instead of hiring a photographer to perform on location shooting, customers can save valuable time and stay on budget.

Everything for commercial use these days has some sort of marketing on it; often this marketing takes the form of a photograph. Take a look at your cereal box — there’s a photo on it. Flip through any magazine — someone took the photographs in all those ads. This website often uses images to help describe a story better — someone had to take those. You cannot legally just right-click and save an image from the Internet and use it on a website, print article or magazine. A marketing firm based in Florida may need a photograph of snow-capped mountains. They obviously don’t have mountains in Florida, so they turn to stock photos, which they can purchase at a reasonable rate. The photographer makes a percentage of that image sale.

How can you start making money?

This is the first question everyone asks, but there are some precursor questions that should be answered first:

  • Do you have the time to invest (perhaps as much as four hours per week)?
  • Can you capture images other then your immediate surroundings?
  • Will friends and family be willing to sign model release forms?
  • Is your camera of high enough quality?
  • Do you know how to properly edit a photograph?
  • Will you be able to associate keywords to go along with your photo?
  • Will you be willing to invest more into gear and cameras?
  • Can you be objective with yourself?
  • How well do you handle rejection?
  • Are you willing to invest time to learn continually?

Do you have the time to invest?

Editing photos takes time. So does giving them full descriptions and uploading full-sized images. This is aside from actually taking photographs. When I was doing this on a regular basis, I would often spend an hour or more a day just editing photographs, another two hours to upload and catalog them.

Can you capture images other than your immediate surroundings?

In order to sell a photograph, you need to give the buyer something they can’t grab themselves. This rules out most of your everyday surroundings, including everything at your desk, kitchen, living room, even your sock drawer. Thousands of these images exist in stock catalogs already.

Will friends and family be willing to sign model release forms?

One of the best ways to sell a photograph is to have somebody in it. In order to do this, the models in the images need to sign off their rights to collect any money for them. Often times, I will do a trade with friends and family. I’ll agree to bring my camera to so-and-so’s birthday party and photograph the event for them if one or three agree to give me an hour or two time around the house, at the park or wherever to pose and let me photograph them, and sign the model release form. This works out well for both parties.

Is your camera of high enough quality?

Many online stock sites now have minimum requirements for files they will accept. Generally speaking, the baseline where you want to start is a 5mp camera. A digital SLR camera, one that you can change lenses on, is much more desirable as they produce better quality images. More megapixels doesn’t always mean better images; the quality of the sensor has a lot to do with it.

Do you know how to properly edit a photograph?

Photographs can often be improved by making adjustments to them, such as:

  • Cropping
  • Color
  • Density
  • Shadow detail
  • Sharpening

A basic photo-editing program will be needed, as every image that comes out of your camera can always be tweaked a bit for better quality. I’ve been using Photoshop for years now, current version is CS2, but Photoshop Elements is acceptable. You might also like the GIMP, which is free for both Windows and Mac users. Any corporate name will also need to be edited out of an image. Logos, text or other copyrighted material cannot appear in a photograph that will be sold as stock.

Will you be able to associate keywords to go along with your photo?

Stock photography sites use their own internal search engines; you find an image you’re looking for by putting in descriptive words. Nothing magical about that. It is when you need to convey more then what is physically in an image. You could associate 50 or more keywords with an image. This light bulb is an example of a stock photograph. If this were my photo for sale, some of the keywords I would associate with it are:

  • Light bulb
  • Glass
  • Red
  • Clear
  • Transparent
  • Illuminate
  • Idea
  • Copy space

As you can see, some are descriptive of the actual item, others are there as adjectives. The key wording “game” is directly related to how well people will be able to find your images. This will be covered in greater detail later on.

Will you be willing to invest more into gear and cameras?

As you progress, you will find yourself needing better cameras and lenses, more gear such as studio lights, tripods and just spending more money. You may not make the money back for several months, maybe not at all, but would you be willing to make a small investment? I found myself shooting three cameras and in a studio paying rent for it at one point. It was very much worth it.

Can you be objective with yourself?

Self-editing can be a photographer’s biggest downfall. I don’t mean editing the photographs in an image editor like Photoshop — I’m referring to selecting the best possible image from a group. The photographer who took the above light bulb photo more then likely has a dozen of them at slightly different angles; however, she chose what she thought would be the best example of that group. Uploading 15 photos of essentially the same photo all at slightly different angles doesn’t give buyers more choices, it confuses them and often leaves them second-guessing. Only show and sell your very best of the best images. I’ve found myself doing shoots with models with 400 or more shots from a two-hour session. When it was all said and done, I had about twenty I was really happy with and that’s all anyone ever saw.

How well do you handle rejection?

More then likely you are going to get images rejected. How often? Don’t be surprised if 50% or more of what you submit gets rejected. Don’t let this get you down, use it as a tool to help build upon your growing portfolio.

Are you willing to invest time to learn continually?

Whether you are new to photography or have been shooting for years, learning is part of the game. I’m on several different forums on a regular basis chatting with other photographers about how to shoot, tips, techniques and most importantly, critiques. Books and now DVDs are becoming increasingly more important tools to mastering different techniques as well and I often reference them prior to doing a shoot.


As this series continues at my own site, I will be writing articles on specific topics, giving examples and suggesting ideas to really maximize a hobby into a source of income. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

Much of this information is applicable to making money from any hobby. This article originally appeared at Randomn3ss in a slightly different format. The second part of this series gives a brief overview of a photographer’s workflow. The third part discusses types of images that sell well.

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