In this day and age, it’s EASY to call yourself a photographer. If you've ever been on social media, you've seen it… Do it for the ‘gram, anyone?
Fortunately, even with an almost nonexistent barrier-to-entry, there's also more demand than ever for GOOD photos! You can see this just by going to all the different websites putting out content every day!
So, can taking and selling photos be a potential side business (or even a full-time one)? Do you have to be super skilled? How much can you realistically make selling photos?
In a nutshell, yes, people sell photos online and make money.
Skill levels vary, and so does income. Many people make nothing at all, but determined photographers can make anywhere from a few bucks to a few hundred dollars a month, and in some cases, even 6-figure incomes.
Selling pictures is just ONE of many ways to make money online, but it can be a great opportunity for a self-motivated entrepreneur or aspiring photographer. Here's exactly how you can get started selling pictures online today!
Sell Pictures Online: An Overview
There are lots of ways to make money from your photos, but the most popular way people get paid selling photos online is through stock photography websites.
Say you’re a travel and tourism company. You organize trips to Egypt, and you’re constantly in need of quality photos and videos to market the destination. Let’s also assume that you don’t have your own footage/photos yet, and you're not going to hop on a plane to Egypt and lug along expensive equipment to snap the photos yourself.
What do you do?
Well, some people would just search “Egypt” on Google Images and grab a few good-looking photos. However, this is a very risky practice, as you may never be sure what the usage licenses/rights are for the images you find on Google. You could also get yourself in hot water quickly and have the original image owner sue you for copyright infringement if you use their content without permission.
You DON'T want that – trust me on this one.
Sure, you can ask for permission, but that’s another big headache – especially if you're in need of some images quickly. Photographers aren't always willing to sell rights to their images, or the rights might be for sale at a crazy expensive price.
So, as a business owner, where do you go? Stock photography websites.
One of the most popular examples is Shutterstock. Let’s hop on Shutterstock and search for “Egypt” real quick.
Here are the results:
As you can see from the screenshot, this photography website has almost 300,000 photos tagged “Egypt” right now.
The simple difference between this and Google search is that these images are all FOR SALE, submitted mostly by independent photographers. This is just ONE example in the travel industry.
Imagine how many businesses look for professional photos every single day for use in commercials, presentations, and more. To give you just a rough idea of how big the market is, Shutterstock sells an average of 4.7 images per SECOND, to over 1.4 million customers spread across 150 countries.
As we can see with a simple calculation, that’s over 12 million photos every single month. That’s a lot of photos, I tell ya!
Listing Your Photos on Stock Websites
Before we go into the whole step-by-step process of starting your online photography business, I want to share the biggest online moneymakers for selling photos.
Once you’ve bought your equipment, learned photography basics, taken some photos, and established a basic online presence, THESE stock websites are going to be the best places to sell your photos.
Shutterstock is one of the largest stock photo libraries on the web. If you've been online anytime in the last 15 years, you've seen their photos on the web – I guarantee it. To date, Shutterstock has paid their contributors in excess of $500 million!
Shutterstock pays 25 cents per stock photo download, but that number increases as your lifetime earnings with the website increase. There’s also a different set of licensing options that pay you a lot more for “high-viewership commercial use.”
It might not seem like that much at first, but the numbers add up quickly when you sell multiple licenses per stock photo and multiply that by the number of photos you’ve uploaded.
They accept images, vectors, and videos. You can see Shutterstock’s full earning schedule here.Start Contributing to Shutterstock Here
iStock Photo is another big player in the industry. They're newbie-friendly, with forums and resources providing a lot of help for newcomers.
Their rates start at 15%, but you can earn up to 45% depending on the popularity of your photos. iStock also rewards you with greater commissions if you decide to list your photos exclusively with them.Start Contributing to iStock Here
Getty Images is the big dog in the industry and is known to offer premium quality photos at premium prices. Getty Images’ main advantage is their earning potential. You can earn $100+ per stock photo sold. No other website even comes close.
Getty’s approval process is pretty tough and not newbie-friendly by any means. You've surely noticed that professional news organizations often include photos licensed from Getty Images, so you're in a different league altogether with Getty.
The other big catch is that ALL their contracts are exclusive. If the photo's on Getty, it can’t be anywhere else. This could mean you miss out on potential opportunities from other websites – but it's well worth contributing to Getty Images if you can swing it!Start Contributing to Getty Images Here
Adobe Stock (formerly Fotolia) is owned by the creative software giant Adobe. They sell stock photos to millions of professionals worldwide with a royalty rate of 33% – and if you do video at all, the video royalty rate is actually 35%.
For subscription options, royalties range between $0.99 to $3.3 per image. For a full breakdown of their royalty scheme, review their full compensation schedule.Start Contributing to Adobe Stock Here
If you’re a student, then you’re in luck, because Alamy offers you 100% commission on any photos you sell. Yes, you read that right: 100%!
If you aren’t a student, you still get a very generous 50% commission on sold photos, which beats most other websites that usually offer 30% or less.
Of course, the main catch here is that Alamy isn’t as popular as the websites above, and therefore is frequented by fewer buyers, which translates to less potential for your images to be seen and sold. According to Alamy itself, they have 110,000+ buyers. This isn't bad by any means, but it's not anywhere near the millions of buyers on the most popular stock websites.
However, the incredibly lucrative commissions alone make this website a solid choice, particularly if you don’t have any exclusive contracts with other websites. In that case, you could just add Alamy as another channel among the other channels you’re already uploading photos to.Start Contributing to Alamy Here
Dreamstime is similar to the bigger stock photos sites, but with an interesting competitive twist!
They'll give you a 20 cent bonus upfront for each approved image you upload, if you agree to an exclusivity contract. Sure, that’s not a ton, but considering you earn it BEFORE even selling anything, it’s pretty sweet – and with hundreds or thousands of photos, you're starting to see some real money with Dreamstime.
Their regular compensation varies between 25%-50% for each image sold. This jumps to 60% if you sign the exclusivity contract.Start Contributing to Dreamstime Here
Crestock is a great place to buy and sell images, with prices starting at $1. They offer 3 different ways to buy: pay and go, subscriptions, and credit packages. As a photographer, you retain the copyright of all images and are able to sell them or use them elsewhere.
When you first start out with Crestock, you can only upload 10 images per week until Crestock gets a sense of what percentage of your photos are getting approved. In terms of royalties, their payouts are calculated on a progressive scale, with a percentage of the sale based on how many downloads an image has earned. It starts at a 20% royalty for an image with 1 to 249 downloads, and goes up to a 40% royalty in the 10,000+ downloads range.Start Contributing to Crestock Here
PhotoMoolah does not operate using the regular “licensing” business model, but actually opts to use a “contest” format. The major advantage here is that you retain copyrights for the images you upload.
You also get a nice payday should you win a contest ($100+). The obvious catch here is that you actually have to win the contest to earn anything. Still, it's a great option for those wanting to try something besides the usual licensing model, enjoying the potential to promote their work while retaining the rights to their images at the very same time!Check Out PhotoMoolah Here
How much money can you make selling pictures online?
So, now that you've seen some of the best stock photo websites for getting your photos out there, I'm sure the next question on your mind is: how much money can you actually make by selling pictures online?
It varies a lot, but for someone starting out, a good goal is to generate between $100 and $500/month passively from your stock photography.
Just keep in mind that stock photography is largely a numbers game. The more images you have uploaded, the greater the chance that one or more of them gets exposure (no pun intended) – and with more exposure, you have better odds of getting sales!
Understanding the industries/niches that do well and WHY is also key. You need to put yourself in the buying party’s shoes. Why would they buy your image? What would they use it for?
Typically, generic images that can be used in a variety of situations and contexts will perform better than HIGHLY specific images that limit use to specific scenarios. On the other hand, you may be able to specialize – if you know your target audience and what they need, you can be very successful.
Do you have to be a photographer/designer?
If you’re going to be selling your own digital photos, then technically, yes, you need to have the skill.
However, it’s not as tough as you might think it is. The industry isn't monopolized by just professional photographers with the fanciest equipment and decades of experience. If you're looking to break in and start making money with photography, there are some excellent tutorials/courses out there that can really help you out.
Photography Masterclass: The Complete Guide to Photography
If you're looking to become a professional photographer, this Udemy course is a fantastic overview of photography. You'll actually learn how to use a “real” camera like a DSLR or mirrorless camera, along with principles of photography.
Phone Camera Photography Class
Are you looking to get good at photography using the phone that's already in your pocket? Upgrade your smartphone photography skills.
Sell Pictures Online Without Taking Photos Yourself
What if you want to make money with photos, but you don't know your aperture from your Adam's apple?
One option is to hire photographers for your stock photo needs, buy the full rights to their photos, and then resell those photos as your own. The problem with this approach is that you may need a bit of a budget to hire photographers at first. Also, you have no guarantees that these photos will actually sell, so you may never recoup your investment.
Another approach is to actually buy rights for existing photos from individual photographers, agencies, etc. and then resell on stock photography websites or anywhere else. You'll need to make sure your license covers resale and not just use.
A third method is to become a marketing partner with photographers. They take the photos and you sell them online – and you can either give them a percentage or a flat fee for their effort. Just make sure you have some way to add value to the process, like working with many different channels – otherwise, they can easily just list their work on the stock websites themselves and cut out the middleman.
One last approach is print-on-demand. We actually look at this later on, but print-on-demand is basically printing designs/photos on physical merchandise like T-shirts, mugs, and pillows. You can buy a ready-made design/photo (or hire someone to create one for you), use a print-on-demand service to create a mockup, and list it for sale online.
More on how this works later, but you get the idea, right?
Well, then let’s get into the nitty-gritty of getting this whole thing going.
How to Start Selling Photos Online: Step-by-Step
Now that we’ve answered the most common questions, let’s actually get the ball rolling on this and arm ourselves with what we need to get that first sale.
We’ll go through an overview of what the most popular markets/industries for stock photography are so that you’ll get some inspiration. Then, we'll explore prerequisites you’ll need before you start your journey, as well as some general best practices you should follow when taking the photos.
Finally, we’ll cover tips on where and how to sell your photos to maximize potential return. At that point, if you decide that stock photography is not for you, we’ll lay out some alternative ways you can sell pictures online.
Understanding What Sells
As I’ve mentioned earlier, you’ll find that most stock photos are broad/generic in nature, and usually fall into broad categories as well. This helps make the images multipurpose, increasing the chances of finding a buyer with a suitable use for it.
As for categories, these types of photos usually have a high-selling potential: nature, animals, objects (tools, electronics, bags, cables, etc.), cities, work situations (programmer, construction worker, carpenter, etc), travel, and people. All kinds of businesses may find these images helpful, but they’re especially useful to bloggers and website owners.
Every blog post or social media post needs one or more attractive images that grabs attention and reels in the reader. Even with many businesses posting several times weekly or even daily, the overhead of hiring a full-time photographer may not be worth it. This is when stock photography comes to the rescue.
Understanding the general buyer mindset and keeping it in the back of your mind will help you create content that resonates and sells. Remember, your job is not to take incredible photos that show off your amazing talent – your purpose is to sell.
A lot of photographers can get tunnel vision and are don't differentiate between these sometimes conflicting goals. This is why it’s very useful to have the right mindset.
Alexandre Rotenberg, a seasoned stock photographer, wrote a blog post on his top stock photos and WHY they did well. This post on his 5 best selling stock photos shares some very valuable insights. You should give it a read!
So, what do you need to get started? Here’s a quick checklist:
- A camera or smartphone with a camera. If you have the budget, get yourself an entry-level DSLR or better. Check out TechRadar’s beginner DSLR roundup.
- If you’re not a seasoned photographer, you’ll need to sharpen your skills with some tutorials/courses. Use these mobile photography tips or take a professional photography course, as mentioned earlier.
- A tripod, light tent, reflector, softbox, and other supporting equipment may be needed, depending on your shooting situations and industries/niches. The courses referred to above should be able to provide guidance on the equipment you'll use the most.
Aside from equipment and skills, you’ll need a way to get ideas for photos. Hopefully, the “understanding what sells” section will helps you with that.
And that’s it! That should be enough to get your feet wet.
Taking Great Stock Photos
Now that we have a basic understanding of what we need to get started and what kind of photos sell, it’s time to explore some tips that help you take some high-quality photos.
At the end of the day, you could upload a TON of photos in the hottest niche ever, but if your stock photo sucks, it won’t sell no matter how hot the niche is.
While in-depth photography tips are beyond the scope of this blog post, there are still some general tips that may help you take significantly better photos:
- Use RAW and JPEG formats: The RAW file format allows much more flexibility during the editing phase, as it’s an uncompressed file type. The disadvantage is that RAW files are much larger than JPEG. A good rule of thumb is to shoot in RAW – but if your camera allows you to shoot in both formats, you might be able to delete the RAW version of the file if the image is already good in JPEG without much editing.
- “Golden hour” is your best friend: The “golden hour” is a one-hour window before sunrise and sunset. The reason it’s deemed “golden” is that the natural lighting conditions in that period help you take some unique, often dramatic shots that instantly make an impression.
- Adjust your settings carefully before framing: Before you actually frame your shot, make sure to adjust exposure and focus first, then frame your shot. This minimizes the risk of shooting underexposed, overexposed, or blurry photos.
- Pay attention to composition rules: Apply the “rule of thirds” when relevant. Also, pay attention to the depth of field, and finally, don’t forget to rotate your camera for vertical shots! It’s easy to forget the camera is in landscape mode, since that’s the “natural” position to hold it.
The tips above should help you get out there and take some great photos.
For a more in-depth/hands-on photography tutorials, check out the recommended courses mentioned in the prerequisites section above.
Creating Your Basic Online Presence
While creating your own professional photography website might sound intriguing, this option comes with a bit of overhead, since you need to secure a domain name, web hosting, and regular website content.
It’s not as expensive as you might think, though, with the whole package running you less than 100 bucks per year to start including a nice photography website template from ThemeForest.
If you’re just starting out, a website might not be necessary at first, but a social media presence is practically a no-brainer. It’s free, super easy to create, and impactful.
Which social platforms are best? My first recommendation would undoubtedly be Instagram!
Simply posting high-quality images consistently combined with the right hashtags could yield you some great exposure, but don’t take my word for it. Daniel Arnold, a street photographer, made $15K in one day selling prints on his Instagram feed.
Convinced yet? Well, go out there and create your social media profiles then!
Pro Tip: Use a website such as Hashtagify to find the most relevant hashtags that are currently receiving a lot of interest and then use them when posting your photos. It’s like your hashtag cheat sheet!
Getting the Momentum Going
Again, it’s important to have the right mindset when getting into this: you won’t get rich overnight.
However, it’s very possible to make a nice supplemental income doing this. There are a few general guidelines that would help you jump from making a few bucks every month to actually bringing in a few hundred or even thousands in passive income.
Upload to different websites (or not?): This is trickier than it sounds because stock photo libraries try to lure you in with significantly better payouts if you sign exclusivity contracts with them. It might be a tough choice, but here’s the approach I recommend.
Start out by uploading to as many websites as you can without signing any exclusivity contracts. Then, over the course of a few months and a few dozen images, see if specific websites stand out in terms of sales and revenue. Maybe you’ve uploaded the images on 10 websites, but only one of them is netting you 90% of your sales.
You may then consider signing exclusivity contracts with that one website when uploading future photos. Be careful of “anomalies” here, though. Don’t assume just because a single stock photo sold well on one website but not the others, that you should ditch the rest.
Run this experiment with dozens of photos over a six-month period to ensure that you make an informed decision.
Upload many images: This may seem obvious, but I can’t stress enough the importance of volume when selling pictures online. A lot of photographers make the mistake of “testing” with a single photo and then abandon the platform when it doesn’t sell. This is a BIG mistake!
Commit to uploading a few dozen photos first (at least) before deciding to quit.
In addition, you have to remember that this is all a numbers game. If you only upload one image, not only do you significantly decrease your chances of the image being seen and sold, but you’re also limiting yourself to making money only when you sell licenses of this particular image.
Adding multiple images acts as a very nice potential income multiplier. Here’s a simple example:
1 image x 3 licenses sold at $1 = $3
10 images x 3 licenses sold of each at $1 = $30
This example is highly flawed, though. What usually happens is, you’d find a few images that you upload bring you all the sales, while others bring you very few or possibly zero sales.
Uploading many images increases your chances of finding that “winning” image. So, a more realistic example could be something like:
With 1 image uploaded:
1 image x 0 licenses sold at $1 = $0
With 10 images uploaded:
6 images sell nothing = $0
3 sell 3 licenses = $3
1 sells 6 licenses = $6
Total = $9
This is obviously a VERY rough example, but it gets the point across. The reality is, most of your images may not even sell at all, BUT when you get one “winner,” all the effort will be worth it and it’ll compensate for all the other images that didn’t do as well.
Keep in mind that the “winning” image increases your awareness and reach as a photographer, which may help you sell some of those photos that didn't sell at first, or help you to sell future photos that you upload… so keep shooting and uploading!
Consistency: Consistency is key here. Try to commit yourself to uploading a specific number of images every month. Set aside time for it and don’t expect any returns. Consider it a charity project. Think of anything that comes out of it as a bonus. Made $10 this month? Cool, free fast food meal. Going in with this mindset will allow you to stick to it for a while, giving you much better chances to get the ball rolling.
Promote through social media: Promote your work through Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Use relevant hashtags. If you have the budget, run ads. Even a $1/per day Facebook ad is better than nothing. You never know, maybe this little sponsored “push” to a particular image can trigger a viral response and get you massive exposure.
The advantage of social media is that it helps you build a recognizable brand. If you’re able to land an “influencer” status, you can leverage it to get some interesting opportunities. You’ll find people reaching out to you offering freelance opportunities, sponsorship opportunities, and more.
Be part of the community: A lot of the stock photo websites will have dedicated forums for contributors to share experience, knowledge, and resources. This could be an invaluable resource not just to learn, but also to network with people in your same shoes. You can directly connect with people at your level or better, motivating each other and learning from the more experienced contributors.
It's also possible to join communities in your specific niche. For instance, if you take a lot of photos for the tech industry, join LinkedIn groups or forums and engage with those potential customers. To maximize your exposure, you might even look at trade shows and business networking groups.
Explore Other Venues
While the focus of this post has been to show you how to sell pictures online with the help of microstock agencies, this is by no means the only way to make money from selling pictures.
If you feel like stock photos aren't your cup of tea, here are some of the other alternatives for making money for the photos you take.
Selling on Your Own Website
There are obvious advantages to start selling photos directly on your website.
The biggest advantage is that you get to keep all the revenue (minus some processing and subscription fees). Another is that you’re the only one selling on your website, so there's no competition there. The audience that visits your website is only yours.
The major disadvantage, however, is that you're responsible for all the marketing for your photos. So while stock photography websites have a few million buyers already surfing and searching for your images with their wallets out, selling through your own website just doesn't have the same reach.
But if you're interested in selling pictures directly to buyers, it's much simpler than you think. There are websites out there that offer you a “website-in-a-box” service that is almost completely plug-and-play.
First of all, there are services specifically designed for photographers. A few of the better choices are BlueMelon and PhotoShelter.
BlueMelon is a simple website that lets you upload, share, and sell images as a photographer. Think of it is a way to host your photos in a portfolio, rather than listing them in an online stock photo marketplace. You do the marketing and they handle payment processing for you. Depending on your goals, BlueMelon may be a good option in tandem with selling on stock photo sites.
PhotoShelter is a specialized platform made for photographers to sell their photos. Their plans start at just $10 a month. Unlike stock photography websites, they do not eat half of your profits or more because they’re simply a platform that allows you to host and sell your photos to customers directly.
Similar to PhotoShelter, SmugMug is a specialized e-commerce platform that allows you to sell your pictures online. Their plans start at $4/mo if you pay yearly, and $6/mo if you pay monthly.
There are also many e-commerce platforms that you can use as the basis for your photography website.
Let’s take a look at a few of those:
Shopify is a general purpose e-commerce platform that allows you to start your own online store as easy as opening a new Facebook account. Simply fill in a few forms and you’re done. That easy. You can also fully customize your store and add products, pages, pricing…etc without touching a line of code. Over 200,000 stores worldwide run Shopify. Its base pricing is $29/month.
WooCommerce is another general purpose e-commerce platform that comes in the form of a WordPress plugin. WooCommerce is completely free. However, you will need your own web hosting and you’ll need to be familiar with WordPress. You’re still almost never going to need to touch any code, but the platform isn’t as “hands-free” as Shopify. If you’re a slightly technical person or have no issues doing a little bit of learning on the technical side, WooCommerce may be a viable option.
If you’d rather work for a client directly rather, freelance gigs may be the way to go. The best thing about freelance gigs is that you’re guaranteed to get paid once your work is delivered to the client’s satisfaction (provided the client isn’t a scammer, of course!).
The catch is that you can’t simply pick up your digital camera and go shoot whatever you like – you’re bound by the project requirements. In addition, the client usually owns all rights to the content, so you can’t resell it again and again or expect any residual income.
If you're new to photography, one benefit of freelancing is that you can get a solid portfolio under your belt and valuable experience. Then, you can start spending some of your time doing photography for stock photo sites or your own website – or even branch out into
If you wish to explore the freelance photographer path, FreshBooks wrote an excellent post breaking down 36 online venues where you can find freelance photography gigs!
Print-on-demand is an interesting concept. It’s mainly popular with digital designs, but it can also be used with photos.
How it works is pretty simple: Say you have a photo that would look great on a T-shirt, mug, hoodie, pillow, etc. You don’t have the resources or the infrastructure to actually print that design or photo on something physical, sell it, and ship it to customers yourself.
So, what do you do? You sign up for a print-on-demand platform!
All you need to do is have your design/photo ready for upload. The platform helps you automatically generate a mockup of the item after your design or photo is printed on it. Then, they list it on their website and handle all payment processing. When someone orders the item, the website prints the design on it “on demand” and ships it to the customer. No inventory or stock to keep track of!
This is a simple but ingenious concept that enables any designer or photographer to print and sell their work on physical products without dealing with any of the hassles. The platform keeps track of all your earnings through a simple dashboard and pays you periodically (how and how often depends on the individual platform). Let’s take a look at some of the most popular print-on-demand platforms:
Printful: Printful concentrates on serving website owners. So if you have a photography website, say, powered by Shopify, Printful would integrate directly with your website so you can offer on-demand printing for customers on clothes, wall art, phone cases, towels, pillow covers and more. The functionality is offered right on your website and then fulfillment and processing are done by Printful.
RedBubble: RedBubble is a huge marketplace that features contributions from a wide array of artists. Unlike Printful, you don’t need your own website to sell print-on-demand items on RedBubble. On RedBubble you can print on clothes, notebooks, stickers, home decoration items among other things. The platform has a very easy to use interface and the ability to set your own margins and prices easily.
Zazzle: Zazzle’s main selling point is its customization feature. You can add and edit ready-made designs or design your own from scratch, all within their interface. They’re also remarkably popular, receiving over 30 million unique visitors every single month.
Social Media Sponsorships and Paid Shoutouts
Sponsors on social media are viable if you manage to accumulate a high number of social media followers. You can then use sites like ShoutCart to sell Instagram shoutouts. If you go that route, make sure you also outline in your bio that people can contact you directly to advertise.
As your account grows, expect people to reach out and ask you for paid shoutouts, sponsorships, or freelance opportunities.
This is an option for people who aren’t photographers and don’t want to learn the skill. The approach is simple: Hire freelance photographers to shoot for you and then sell the content on stock photography sites or use any of the alternative approaches mentioned above. This way, you don’t do any of the work but still get to reap the benefits.
One thing to note though is that, as mentioned earlier in this post, this approach carries quite a bit of risk, since you have to invest in hiring a freelancer to take the photos for you and then you may not be able to make any money off them. For finding and hiring freelancers, simply refer to the “Going Freelance” section above and use the suggested sites.
The Wrap Up
Whether you’re currently a photographer or not, this post should help you get your feet wet using several different methods that help you make money off your photos. Stock photography isn’t the only way to go – we’ve also discussed several other methods above.
If you already have the skillset and perhaps a portfolio, then you’re ready to dive right in! If not, spend some time learning the ropes or hire someone to do the work for you. Once you have your photos ready, go out there and try everything in this post. Make a document or a spreadsheet detailing what you tried and how much it earned you. Month after month, cut out everything that isn’t making you money, and just do more of what is!
If you have any experience selling pictures online, please share it in the comments section below. We're always happy to answer any questions you might have!
If interested, we also have an entire article on how to start a stock photo website.