How to Make Money with Stock Photography

Mangesh Supe

by Mangesh Supe· Updated July 01 2022

How to Make Money with Stock Photography

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If you are a photographer who wants to make more money, then at least at some point, you may be interested in stock photography.

Maybe you want the hundreds of photos on your hard drive to work, maybe the idea of selling them is appealing, or maybe you've studied many of the photos on the gallery sites and said to yourself, I can do better than that! Or maybe this method of making money is relatively simple.

The first thing we want to tell you: it is possible to make money, but it is not easy. The internet is filled with tons of discussions about things like: Don't give up your day job! I can make $1,000 a month, and so can you!

Can you make money with a stock photo site? The answer is yes. But can you make money just by uploading all the photos on your hard drive? Not necessarily -- unless the photos are very subtle and meet the real needs of today's stock photography buyers.

What is stock photography

Shutterstock is one of the oldest and largest stock photo sites

Stock photography is simply a term for generic images that buyers use for visual content in news stories, blogs, websites, advertisements, promotional materials, and everything else they design. It's much cheaper than hiring a photographer and is often sold on large stock photography sites so that buyers have a variety of options to choose from.

Custom photos, as opposed to stock photography, are licensed directly to a specific client and are original works created just for them. For example, if you need a high quality image of a happy family dining together, it is very expensive to have to hire a photographer, find all the models, and put together the food, props, and lighting. But if you look on stock photography sites, it's cheap and easy to pay a few dollars at most.

Types of stock photography

There are three types of stock photography, but most people focus only on traditional stock and microstock.

  1. Traditional Stock (Macro Stock)
    Agencies that sell high-priced and exclusive images. These agencies license individual images directly to specific clients for prices ranging from $30 to $3,000 per year, and then pay royalties to the photographer. Currently, the most well-known traditional stock agency is Getty Images, but any company that sells rights-managed images qualifies.
  2. Micro Stock (Micro Stock)
    These are images that are much less expensive and tax free. Photographers are not paid a fee for use, but are usually paid at the end of each month for the number of images downloaded. Companies such as Shutterstock, Depositphotos, iStock, Adobe Stock, and others are established microstock agencies.

In this article, we will focus on microstock, which is the easiest entry-level stock photography.

Why Join Gallery Photography

There are many attractive reasons why you should enter this field.

  1. Anyone who uploads a high quality photo can access
  2. You don't need a strong portfolio
  3. You can decide how much time to devote to it - part-time or full-time
  4. You are in full control of your work
  5. Once you reach a certain level, all the images you upload will bring in a good amount of passive income
  6. A portfolio produced during the stock photography process helps to allow you to pursue a more traditional freelance career

Basically, if you are creative and really want to make money from photography, stock photography would be a great way to add extra income.

Can you really make money with stock photography?

Depositphotos is one of the most affordable microstock sites

The answer is yes, but it's definitely not easy, and while there are many stock photographers who lead a glamorous and decent life, many more are not. After more than a decade of development of gallery websites, the situation has changed dramatically.

In the early days, it was much easier to earn enough to make a living, when there were fewer images, competition was relatively easy, and photographers were not saturated. But in recent years, the industry has matured and the supply of images far outstrips demand - Shutterstock alone has more than 225 million images and is adding more than 1 million new ones every week - meaning that to succeed, you have to put in an extraordinary amount of time and effort.

The good news is that while it is not possible to make huge profits, it is not difficult to find places to earn a few hundred dollars a month. It will take a while (unless you are very lucky), and you will also have to upload a lot of images, maintain some perseverance and dedication, and persevere, $200-$500 a month is definitely feasible.

How much money can be made from stock photography

Adobe Stock -- suitable for use with the Adobe family bucket

On top of the photographer's blog My Stock Photo, Alexandre Rotenberg writes that to earn $500 a month in passive income, you need to upload at least 6,000 images.

How long does it take to upload 6,000 different high quality images? If you work full time and have a family, 200 per month may be stressful. In your spare time focusing on stock photography, you might process 100 images per month, 50 is doable, but if the number is lower, you should find another job.

At 100 images per month, for example, it would take you five years to reach the minimum requirement of 6,000 images. Of course, you can add value to your images in other ways, or aggressively drive niche markets that may be achieved in less than three years - after all, some photographers have earned $200 to $300 in passive income in just two years.

Either way, it's not a get-rich-quick scheme, and it takes most photographers at least three years to get to that level, and if you have very limited free time, it will take a full five years. On the other hand, some photographers are lucky because their niche is in high demand, or they travel all the time and get to shoot amazing work that hasn't been lost to the market yet. But generally speaking, you'll need to wait a long time before earning a significant income.

The challenges of becoming a stock photographer

Image source Depositphotos

What's true is that many people give up within the first six months. There are many reasons for this, but it usually boils down to the fact that they don't see enough return in the first few months.

In most cases this is caused by image quality, but not always. There is also the issue that you are competing with thousands of other contributors and that much of the stock footage has been around for over a decade.

Uploading 100 images per month does take some effort and the images should all be entered correctly with keywords. In addition, providing unique content in any oversaturated market requires a lot of creativity and your content has to be marketable, all of which doesn't seem easy.

You may never make money if you just upload unused photos to the web and hope that someone will buy them. Like any other way to make money online, stock photography is a business and you need to produce unique content that buyers are looking for, not just clichés that can be found everywhere.

How to carry out effective stock photography

Google Trends

Using Google Trends to keep up with current trends will help you take profitable photos, and to succeed in the stock photography industry, you must first keep one thing in mind: you should love the work from the bottom of your heart. This may sound redundant, but many people don't know what that means.

Stock photography does not simply mean uploading a photo to a stock site and leaving it for sale. This is far from the truth, and sure, maverick shots occasionally reach their goal, but it's very rare. In order to make this business a success, you need to understand the goal and move forward with precision.

In other words, you need to operate as a business. Producing saleable images means researching markets and trends, and you need to take the time to look at what's currently hot, or what's coming up for the holidays, and then target your production/shoot.

The highest-paid photographers usually plan their shoots carefully and will also use models and props, or go specifically to events where there is a high demand. They pay attention to forums and websites for photo requests, spend time browsing stock footage to see what's missing, and take photos accordingly.

3 practical tips

Image SourceDepositphotos Aerial photos are often in high demand

Research and planning are important, but they are only part of the success of a microstock, along with several practical tips.

  • Keywords
    Keywords are the main way potential buyers find images, to get better search result rankings, make the keywords as descriptive as possible, it is important to list them in order of importance depending on the gallery agent you are using. For example, you need to put the more specific keyword cat in front of the more generic ANIMAL, basically, the more specific the better. In addition, you have to indicate whether the shot contains one or more topics (i.e., cat vs. cats) that cover all objects, and list concepts such as running, jumping, and other actions, or teamwork, hope, etc.
  • Platforms like Adobe Stock offer automated keyword tools that work well, but we don't recommend you rely on it. It's best to do your due diligence and make sure you haven't missed any keywords and that they are in a relevant order.
  • Always know the end user
    To sell photos, you need to provide what users want. Bloggers, businesses, magazines, marketing agencies are your target customers. What are they looking for? It may be images that help explain their concepts and content, which will involve many aspects. For example, businesses often need to use images to illustrate concepts such as family, trust, teamwork, etc. You can put together more images that put these concepts into practice to lead to more sales. People creating websites or ads often need images with lots of negative space in which to place text. Simply put, this translates into three key issues.
  1. Who is planning to buy this?
  2. What do they use for?
  3. How will they use it?
  4. If you consider these in your composition, it will likely lead to better sales opportunities.
  5. Regular uploads
    Regular uploading is important for a number of reasons. First, the more photos you have, the better your chances of making a sale; second, it helps get you to the top of the search results on most platforms; and finally, trends are always changing and images that are popular now may be unavailable in a few years.
  6. And as for passive income? It does exist. For example, once you reach $500 per month, it's the equivalent of moving up to a new plateau, but if you stop uploading new content, your income will drop over time, possibly to about $300 per month if you don't upload for an entire year.
  7. So, in general, if you want to avoid decay over time, you need to consistently upload high-quality content that will make your images easier to find in search results and that can respond to changing trends.

What to shoot

Image source Depositphotos

Now that you are planning to enter this field and have registered with one or more stock agencies and are ready to start taking photos, where should you start?

If you go to the various gallery sites and check out the promotions, you'll find that not only one type of photo sells, which is lucky for us! Nevertheless, all these photos still have a lot in common and the trends are always changing, it's not easy to figure out the current and future trends, fortunately almost all the big gallery sites blog about this topic, for example

  1. According to Canva, trends for 2018 include minimalist combinations, pastel colors, neat patterns, cultural diversity and more.
  2. Stock Photo predicts that trends for 2021 include vibrant colors, social activism, retro nostalgia, minimalism, monochromatic layouts and more.
  3. Most agencies such as Alamy, Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, etc. will provide monthly updates on the photos users are looking for.

Does this mean you need to shoot these subjects? Not necessarily. But knowing the trends and making choices that will spark your interest and align your niche will go a long way in driving sales.

The most popular microstock categories

As mentioned earlier, if you look at the trends for any given year, there is usually a wide variety of themes and styles, but nonetheless, there are still some categories that sell a little better.

1. Lifestyle

Image source Depositphotos

There is always a market for good quality lifestyle photos, whether it's a family sitting down to dinner, two parties signing a contract, kids with a dog, parents playing with their kids, or a couple strolling along the boardwalk, these types of images sell well.

The most troublesome part is that you need to find the right model and then take infectious life photos, but the payoff is worth it.

2. Nature and Landscape

Image source Depositphotos

This type of photo is very popular among the photographer community, but it is more difficult to make money. Because too many people like to shoot this category, the market is over-saturated and in order to stand out in the niche, you have to be absolutely brilliant.

3. Industry and Commerce

Image source Depositphotos

In fact, the photos you find boring are likely to be in extremely high demand for businesses. Commercial, industrial, and technology niches sell well in all areas, and people in meetings, working with computers, and working together as employees are all constantly in demand for material.

This is a relatively easy niche topic where almost all of us work in some capacity and can have contact with similar people.

4. Travel

Image source Depositphotos

If you travel a lot for business or pleasure and take quality photos that are scarce in the market, there is a good chance that you will generate sales. Some people can earn $200-$300 per month from stock photography and don't need many images. If you're passionate about travel, why not check out the list of requests on the gallery site and plan accordingly?

Or, you can tour your hometown or the area where you live and shoot from different angles, and many photographers get good sales with this strategy. The only caveat is that you will need to pay some costs for this.

5. News

Image source Depositphotos

Up-to-date news coverage can be very lucrative, and in fact, demand is so high on Alamy that they have created a whole separate section for news coverage with a less rigorous acceptance process.

You don't have to go for the scoop, just cover things in your area, and if an event like the Women's March is within driving distance (or you're already in the line), then grab some great shots.

6. Holidays

Image source Depositphotos

To participate in the holiday niche, you need to start months in advance. Holiday photos are almost always a top-selling segment, and the trick is to think ahead, usually six months in advance, and then upload them one after another a few months before the holidays begin.

Photographers who specialize in this niche usually shoot Thanksgiving-themed images early in the year and then sell them in the summer. Likewise, as Christmas approaches, they will start preparing in early summer and upload one after another in August.

Pro Tip: Take a lot of photos over a period of time and then upload 10-20 per week so that you can easily stay in the latest category until the end of your vacation.

The best stock photography sites

Today, there are dozens of microstock agencies on the market, but only a small percentage of them are really worth the time.

Most experienced photographers tend to focus first on Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, iStock (Getty Images' microstock platform) and Alamy, with Depositphotos and Dreamstime the next to consider.

1. Shutterstock

Shutterstock is by far the most popular microstock company for all types of customers. The platform appeals to users in part because they have a huge collection of images and video footage, serve over 150 countries/regions, and are one of the most affordable sources for image purchases.

However, being one of the cheaper options is a drawback for photographers, who rarely earn more than $0.25 per photo. nonetheless, with so many potential customers, it is not particularly difficult to generate sales.

2. iStock

iStock, owned by Getty Images, also pays little commission (only 15% of the price of an image download), but slightly more than Shutterstock at $0.25 to $0.50 per sale.

However, they are now part of Getty's vast system, which means that it is possible for your photos to be licensed in both galleries.

3. Alamy

Alamy is one of our favorite stock photo sites and although not as huge as Shutterstock or iStock, they pay a 50% commission on each sale. Sometimes each image can contribute more than $50 to your profits, but in most cases this value is between $5 and $10.

They have a better submission platform than iStock, but also have stricter image submission standards, so if you're a hot news photographer, then Alamy is probably one of the best choices. In addition, they are great for selling editorial images.

4. Dreamstime

Many photographers like Dreamstime, which gets paid between $0.34 and $2.38 per image, and an unusual feature is that it's one of the few platforms that allows you to submit photos from your phone.

However, their submission tool is very slow and can be very painful if you are not using an automated submission process.

5. Adobe Stock

Fotolia has been around for many years, and after being acquired by Adobe, many photographers have noticed an uptick in their sales.

The commission is similar to Shutterstock, but slightly higher. One thing worth noting about Adobe Stock is that you can easily submit photos through Lightroom, and not only that, but Adobe software users can purchase photos directly through any Adobe platform.

6. Depositphotos

If you've studied stock photography seriously, then you probably already know something about Depositphotos, they have an aggressive marketing team and the photographers who contribute to it seem to be doing well.

But it can be frustrating about how it works: the royalties are structured in tiers and you have to sell a lot of photos to move up to higher tiers, and of course, the higher your tier, the more revenue you can earn, and to reach the highest tier, you need to upload over 150,000 images!

The base usage fee of 34% or $0.30 per subscription download is better than Shutterstock or iStock, so while you may be at the bottom for a long time, the future revenue potential is huge.

Write at the end

Overall, if you are a serious amateur and want to make more money, microstock will be a good investment. But as with any business, you'll need a lot of patience, hard work, and tenacity to reap the rewards, and once you stick with it, the passive income can be quite good.

You can choose to work part time or full time, and this advantage should be very useful, especially for people who are working on many other projects. Take beautiful photos, research alone and upload often, achieve $500/month first, then move on to higher goals!