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 then 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 release. 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.

Conclusion
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.

 

More about...Side Hustles

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
46 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
GG
GG
13 years ago

Here’s a response to “Is your camera of high enough quality?” and “Will you be willing to invest more into gear and cameras?”

http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/notcamera.htm

I’m not a pro photographer or anything. I’m probably more along the lines of a terrible photographer, but I’m under no illusion that spending thousands of dollars on cameras and lenses is going to produce any better pictures.

Charlie Park
Charlie Park
13 years ago

This is an interesting post, Mike, but what kind of money can you make selling stock photography through these channels? $1 per photo? 10 cents? $30? Maybe I missed it, but I don’t know that you ever covered that.

Elissa
Elissa
13 years ago

Charlie, the amount of money you make selling stock photos depends on where you’re selling them and how well they are selling.
Different stock photography websites pay different amounts for each photo sold/downloaded. Some pay $.25 per download, some pay $1 per download.

It may not seem like much to only get $.25 per download, but if it’s a popular photo that gets purchased/downloaded 20 times a week on average, you’ll have made about $20 in a month on one photo. The more photos you have, the more people purchase them, the more money you make. 🙂

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
13 years ago

Charlie, as mentioned, it depends on who you sell with. All of the stock I sell is through Istockphoto and I am an exclusive photographer with them, meaning I don’t sell stock to any of the dozens of other stock sites. Istock is considered a micro stock site, meaning it can cost as little as $1 to download. I get a bigger cut of that $1 because I am exclusive. For a while, Istock had a big brother, Istockpro, where you set the price and split it 50/50 with Istockpro, most files sold between $50-200 per download but were not… Read more »

theBagg
theBagg
13 years ago

I have a couple of questions to look at for your next article:

1) Should we or shouldn`t we be selling our photos that we also have setup in a flickr account? That is publicly viewable.

2)Could you supply an example “Model Release Form” and explain a little more in detail how many times we have to give this out, etc.

3) What are the common methods of payment from stock photography sites?

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
13 years ago

theBagg – Great points. I just got done publishing Part III but will most definatly get your questions answered in the next article. To give you the quick answers 1. I still don’t have a Flickr account, haven’t had a need. My imediate thoughts would be to limit the resolution size you upload to them, watermark them and if possible, provide a link directly to the site you are selling the stock photo on in the image description if someone does want a larger version. 2. The model release form that I use is available from iStockphoto directly, I think… Read more »

Seshu
Seshu
13 years ago

This is a timely post as I begin thinking about selling images that I usually shoot at either multi-ethnic or Indian weddings. Thanks for the inspiration.

Kim
Kim
13 years ago

Tought you guys might want to visit http://www.dphotojournal.com/sell-photos-online/

That guy makes an average of $2000/month..and he’s doing it part time.. not bad for some extra cash..

ZoofyTheJinx
ZoofyTheJinx
13 years ago

This article was really helpful. Thanks! 🙂

China Trade Study
China Trade Study
13 years ago

Very nice article! It reminds me to pick up my camera and start shooting. A little incentive may help me achieve the goal of polishing my skill.

Udi
Udi
13 years ago

this site has a huge (huge) list of micro stock sites

Tracy
Tracy
13 years ago

Hi Mike,

I have recently been asked to take a number of photographs for some brochures and website usage for a safari lodge in Zambia but have no idea what I should charge them. Do you or any one have idea’s what would be a reasonable price? I know that they would like to use them at least for a couple of years for marketing purposes.

Mnay thanks Tracy

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
13 years ago

Tracy,

I sent you a message via your site, but wanted to follow up here as well. There are many factors which you should look into, but this rate calculator, which was posted on my forums years ago, is a great place to start figuring out what your price point will be.

There is a fine line to walk though, bid too high and you could loose the client, bid too low and you could not only be taken advantage of, you are also under-cutting your fellow photographers, in turn driving the average price of your work down.

Ric
Ric
13 years ago

Is there a need to invest on a 19″ pc monitor to be able to edit and sell fotos?

Or is it enough having a 15´4 laptop at the moment?

Jordan
Jordan
13 years ago

I am also trying to earn money from photos online.

Most of my photos are not good enough to be accepted as stock images…

I went down the route of making all my images free (and available to hot-link to) at a resolution of 1024×768.

Most of the money I earn is from Google Adsense adverts on my web site.

I earned $520 from Adsense last month (May 2007).

Check my Make Money From Photos Online Blog which I will keep updated with current earnings etc…

Thanks.

Ryan VanZan
Ryan VanZan
13 years ago

This is a great article. Thanks for the tips!

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
12 years ago

Ric, Heres the thing about laptops, you won’t see accurate colors with them if you change your angle of view, use them in a different place of your home or office or be able to change a video card in them. The first thing I would do would be invest in a hardware color calibration unit, like the eye-one. They run around $150. This will be able to get your laptop color calibrated and that will be a vast imporvement over what you have now. That said, you will need to calibrate it where you plan on working on image… Read more »

Jordan McClements
Jordan McClements
12 years ago

Mike, thanks for the reply. I take it that if your image is downloaded from one of the stock sites and then used inappropriately (i.e. someone claims it as their own and tries to resell it on a high traffic web site) – then the stock photo site will handle legal proceedings on your behalf? If this is the case then that is a major plus right enough. With regards to marketing – I have not spent a single penny on this. I do get tiny amounts of traffic compared to the stock photo web sites – but I still… Read more »

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
12 years ago

I take it that if your image is downloaded from one of the stock sites and then used inappropriately (i.e. someone claims it as their own and tries to resell it on a high traffic web site) – then the stock photo site will handle legal proceedings on your behalf? Correct – bear in mind that they aren’t always out policing this stuff, you will be responsible for doing some of it on your own. If you put your images on several stock sites, there could be a problem finding out where the image was downloaded and what can be… Read more »

Jordan McClements
Jordan McClements
12 years ago

OK. Cheers.

Seth
Seth
12 years ago

How can you justify selling your images for a couple pennies?? Why would people who want to get into photography spend good money on equipment, setups and props, just for $.25 an image?? Sites like istockphoto are ruining the quality and integrity of an industry. Not to mention demeaning the value of a photographers efforts.

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
12 years ago

Seth, I’m sorry to say, iStock isn’t ruining the stock image marketplace, they’ve changed for good. I took a look at your stuff on shutterpoint, most seems to be around $50, mind if I ask how often your images get downloaded? Clearly there is a business model for micro stock photography, as well as super high-end stuff, ala Getty and Corbis. Point is most of the microstock stuff is way more available to people not willing to pay gobs of money for blogging and inner-office memos. While I’m aware that stuff on iStock gets used in books, magazines and billboards,… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

I have to echo Mike Panic’s comments. As a blogger, I could never afford to use $50 images. iStockPhoto rocks because for a buck (or less!) I can download an image to jazz up a piece that would otherwise remain plain vanilla. In fact, I’m off to download an image now…

Seth
Seth
12 years ago

I share you sentiment about making “Corbis Money”, Getty even told me that they like my port, but, they have a 10-12Mp MINIMUM for submissions, which equates to gear I cant afford yet. (That really burned me up 🙂 ) I get 3-5 downloads a month, but, unlike alot of my Shutterpoint counterparts, I dont just post my images and HOPE they sell. I actively email (Individually, not in spam fashion) all kinds of casino/poker related sites and companies and let them know my images are there. A point I try to get across to others, and this is important,… Read more »

Seth
Seth
12 years ago

A case in point-
istock made it almost impossible to find a specific photographer, I went lookin for ya Mike, but couldnt find you.

I finally found your website through you forum
iPhotoForum.com, (nice by the way, will be joining) Your work was good enough visually, was there a different issue that they werent accepted by the “Big Boys”?

Cool to see another Philly boy on the web!

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
12 years ago

Seth, Yes, Corbis has always had large file size requirements, they prefer drum scans from 120/220 negs if possible, that is why I never bothered. I’ve been selling stock since 2002, back then I couldn’t afford to shoot that much film just to hope it sold, I was mostly doing freelance photography. I’m pretty sure I covered this in my article, if not, stock is not my main income. I do work a regular job, but I’ve been doing freelance photography for the last 7 years. Most of the stock stuff I sell is left overs from other jobs, vacations… Read more »

Seth
Seth
12 years ago

I agree with quite a bit of what you are saying and I’m certainly not “preaching the glory of the all powerful shutterpoint” 😛 But I get 85% of sales, dont have to pay for a shopping cart, build all the pages, (I do that enough at my day-job), or wait for approval from someone I dont consider qualified to decide what are good stock images. I used to use iStock a few years ago (the plot thickens) but I really thought shutterpoint was better for what I was doing. Yes you right, istock has a lot of good search… Read more »

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
12 years ago

Yes, I think there is too much competition, this has in turn forced me to look at what I have and what I put on the site. It has in some ways forced me to step my game up.

Nilesh
Nilesh
12 years ago

You can checkout more info about selling images on the site given below:
http://sellimages.blogspot.com

Alex
Alex
12 years ago

There is a Lens on Squidoo about selling pics to microstock agencies:

http://www.squidoo.com/sellingpics

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
12 years ago

Just published Part VI to the series.

codes
codes
11 years ago

Interesting article. We discussed this subject at a recent class for my photography course. I think it would be extremely competitive but if I was needing extra income then this would be an area worth checking out. I offer my images totally free now and don’t plan to change that.

Ryan K from Going Carless
Ryan K from Going Carless
11 years ago

I used to get a lot more downloads on my http://www.dreamstime.com portfolio.

Now, as more and more people are uploading images the downloads are becoming scarce.

I have to post more and more just to keep the downloads at the same level.

I’ve gone a different route. I’ve gone the way of senior pics and wedding shots. That’s where the real money is.

http://www.goingCarless.com

PennySeeds.com
PennySeeds.com
11 years ago

Looks like a good idea – I might give it a try since I wanted to do some nature trailing. I like taking photos anyway – So if I snap anything particularly nice I can throw it up there.

If I don’t make anything it’s no biggie anyway.

The Almost Millionaire
The Almost Millionaire
11 years ago

Quick question, where do you actually sell the photos once you have taken them and made them of a higher quality? Thanks for the tip.

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
11 years ago

@The Almost Millionaire – I’ve been using http://www.istockphoto.com since 2002.

The Almost Millionaire
The Almost Millionaire
11 years ago

Excellent,
Thanks!
Brandon

Katja Heber
Katja Heber
11 years ago

Hi there,
I recently joined Alamy, which lets you sell your images as licensed or royalty free. I just wondered if anyone could give me any tipps on what kind of images would be better selling as licensed and which are better to be sold as royalty free images.
Thanks for any tipps.
Katja

Lincoln32
Lincoln32
10 years ago

Your own site to sell downloadable art is another route to take. That way you can use the site to both promote yourself/your work, and use it to sell downloadable files of your art. MadBeeTech at http://www.madbeetech.com includes a site builder that makes it fast and easy to set up your own site that includes support for fully automated digital download selling. Buyers end up at your PayPal page, so their money goes right into your PayPal account. No middleman to take a cut. Very inexpensive. I have two sites with them (one selling graphics, one selling ebooks) and it… Read more »

Marianne
Marianne
8 years ago

If you know what to shoot, stock photography can be a very lucrative business. It’s a $2 billion industry.

This video shows which are the top selling stock photos and why: http://www.pocketstock.com/academy/the-concepts-behind-images-that-sell-in-their-thousands

If you’re interested in other useful stock photography videos, you can also check out our Pocketstock Academy:
http://www.pocketstock.com/academy

Peter collins
Peter collins
7 years ago

Sorry but I have to say, stock libraries are VERY exploitative. They pay FRACTIONS of what a photographer would get paid for say, an editorial commission.
Example stock may pay cents- a few dollars.
An editorial commission may pay approx $800-2000.

Some difference.
If you are good enough to be accepted by a stock library then chances are good enough to sell your work editorially.

chris
chris
7 years ago

I will be getting my own DSLR camera soon and is interested with stock photography. I don’t have an idea of the numbers yet on how much one can earn per month on average.

Can someone give me an idea? Thanks

jafar
jafar
7 years ago

i have been using http://www.easemysell.com for sell my digital photos online , its easy and convenient to use and payment terms is also good

Keith Campoy
Keith Campoy
7 years ago

I loved the article! I totally agree with what you’ve said, and found some really useful tips here as well.

kostum badut maskot
kostum badut maskot
6 years ago

This Article very useful. It’s a good inspiration. I can Bookmark it. Thank you.

Sell photos online
Sell photos online
6 years ago

Here’s a one more great tutorial – how to sell photos online, Registration to Microstocks, Uploading the Photos to Microstocks:
http://sellphotosgetmoney.com

shares