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How to Become a Stock Photographer and Make Money

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popular websites for stock photographers.

Putting stock photography and making money in the same sentence sounds like a contradiction of terms. The industry takes some heat from photographers who disdain stock photos, saying the stock sites don’t pay and they’re picky.

To a certain extent that’s true. Stock photography sites pay a percentage of their net, and they demand quality images, both technically and aesthetically. So dismissing the industry is easy.

However, stock photos create a revenue stream, and if done consistently with an eye on the market, it can be substantial.

In this article, we’ll look at how to get started in stock photography and make money with it. Specifically, we dive into the following:

  • How stock photography sites operate
  • How you can generate extra income
  • Finding a specialty
  • What stock buyers look for
  • Model releases and property compliance
  • Descriptions and keywords
  • Stock photography future

Many stock sites also offer video, audio, illustrations, and templates; however, we will limit our discussion to still photography.

What is Stock Photography?

Stock photography sites provide content to anyone in the market for quality images. Advertising, online and print publishing, and corporate communications rank at the top of stock photo buyers.

Types of Stock Photography

Traditional stock photography, also known as macrostock photography, dates back to the 1920s. Primarily, it supplied images to newspapers and magazines at prices lower than the cost of hiring a photographer.

chicago 1930s unemployment line.
This photo of unemployed men in 1930s Chicago is representative of early stock photography.

Microstock photography businesses offer photographs at low prices but in high volume. Today’s stock photography client base runs the gamut from blogs and newspapers to web developers and global marketing agencies. We focus this article on the microstock industry.

What are Royalty Free Images?

Customers purchase a royalty free license to use images, meaning they can utilize that image numerous times for a single payment. Then, the photographer receives a commission for the image sold. Plus, the photographer still owns that image and can sell the same photo multiple times.

model sitting in chair with gold blouse, purse and shoes.
A stock image of a fashion model reclining in a chair.

How to Become a Stock Photographer

Most stock photo sites require a contributor to be at least 18 years old and own the copyright of the images in his or her portfolio. Also, the work must be original.

Stock photography sites vary in the submission process. But you’ll be required to fill out an application and upload photos that showcase your work in order to be accepted.

To work as a stock photographer, you may want to establish a regular schedule for shooting images and uploading them. In addition, if you’re doing business as a wedding photographer, fashion photographer, or selling photo prints on your own website, you may be able to use images from that work to build a stock photo portfolio. Some of this requires model or property releases, which we’ll get into later.

wedding ceremony with bride and groom.
Photograph of wedding ceremony from a stock website.

Most sites accept images for commercial and editorial use. And each site establishes its own guidelines to submit photos online for these purposes.

As you begin making money selling stock photos, you want to have a tax form on file. For example, if you are a U.S. citizen and operating as an individual, you upload IRS Form W-9.

Although additional paperwork is required for businesses, the stock site can guide you through the process. At the end of the year, you’ll receive the appropriate tax information from the stock company.

Where to Sell Stock Photos?

Stock photo sites boast huge portfolios. Presently, Shutterstock retains more than 400 million images, iStock/Getty Images lists a half-billion, and Alamy has over 300 million. Adobe Stock, which is relatively new to the industry, holds more than 380 million.

About a dozen agencies dominate the stock photo industry. The four listed in the preceding paragraph are some of the more familiar. Others include Vecteezy, Dreamstime, 123rf, and Yay Images.

An online search for stock photography returns a wealth of options. If you choose to pursue this business, research it to find the best places to sell your work.

Buyers of stock photos online choose images from a wide selection of relevant and up-to-date content. As a result, stock photographers looking to make more money vie for attention and downloads in a highly competitive market.

Making Money Selling Stock Photos Online

The question is: how much? A number of variables enter this conversation. How large is your portfolio? Do your images meet a need? Can buyers find them? How many stock photography sites are you working with?

Other factors include the type of plan the client purchased and your status as an exclusive or non-exclusive contributor.

mountains with snow.
Landscape image of a snow-covered mountain range.

How Much Do Stock Photographers Earn?

An exclusive contract means you supply content to only one stock photo agency. By comparison, an agreement for non-exclusive images allows you to sell your work on as many platforms as you choose.

Alamy offers one of the more generous commission rates. You can earn up to 50 percent of the sale price; however, you’ll start at a lower rate, probably 20 percent. For details, check the Alamy Commission Table.

Uploading a certain amount of photos does not yield a definite amount of earnings.

How to Increase Earnings as a Stock Photo Contributor?

Selling stock photography is a numbers game, but it’s also about the quality of your content. If your portfolio is a few dozen photos, you won’t make money unless you have some wildly popular images. With thousands of images on multiple stock websites, your prospects improve. If you feature thousands of high quality images with market value, you’re in business.

image of beachfront vacation rentals.
Photograph of beachfront vacation rental property uploaded to Shutterstock.

I started selling stock photos in 2014 and have slowly built my portfolio. One of my first stock images is pictured above. For the first couple of years, I made a pocket change. I started with Shutterstock, then added iStock/Getty Images and Adobe Stock. As of this writing, I have about 3,500 images available on three stock platforms.

Stock Photos as Passive Income

If I made sufficient money from print-on-demand sites, I might be disdainful of the stock photography business. It’s a small revenue stream. It requires consistent work. And it pays a confusing range of prices for digital downloads – from a few cents to as much as $40 per download, in my experience. Generally, my images bring in between 25 cents to a few dollars per download.

red arrow sign points to voting location.
Photo of a sign pointing to a voting location has logged 250+ downloads on iStock/Getty.

Still, it’s a revenue stream. I own all my content, and I can sell my images multiple times. Once I shoot, process the images through my photo editing software, and upload them to the stock photography websites, I have more assets in my portfolio. From that point, whatever money is generated from photo selling is passive income.

Finding a Niche as a Stock Photographer

When you start at stock imagery, you may start with the obvious – sunsets, flowers, the beach, person in an office. But first, visit other websites and see what the competition is doing.

Search results for sunsets on Shutterstock show more than 12 million images. You can browse through 6.5 million photos of the beach on iStock/Getty Images and 10 million shots of flowers on Alamy.

close-up image of pink frangipani flower.
Photograph of a pink frangipani, one of the millions of flower images available on stock websites.

I love wildlife photography, and I live in an area that is a habitat for egrets, herons, pelicans, and other birds. But I search bird photos online, and the search returns tens of millions. Therefore, selling my bird images as stock photos is a heavy lift. However, selling my egret in flight photos through a print-on-demand company like Fine Art America is even more competitive.

I also live near a harbor – an international port of call. Cargo ships come and go regularly. If I search “cargo ship” or “container vessel” on iStock/Getty Images, I see about 90,000 photos. And nearly 1,000 of those are my own images. Likewise, other sites return similar results. That may be my niche.

Refining the Niche

Photos of cargo ships are boring – not something you frame and hang on the wall. But there is a global market for them. And recently, supply chain issues that led to shortages made headlines, creating additional demand for photos that illustrate those issues.

stock photo of cargo ship at port terminal.
Stock image of a cargo ship moored at a port terminal.

This niche has some advantages. My subjects are nearby. I don’t maintain an office or pay models. And I stay interested by looking for different locations and angles and expanding the niche. From my start with cargo ships, I added cruise ships, tankers, bulk carriers, tug boats, dredging platforms, and a NOAA research vessel.

Of my images sold on Shutterstock in the past year, eight of the top 10 are in this shipping category.

Tips for Delivering Hi-Demand Stock Images

Designers, marketing managers, and editors maintain a pipeline of high-quality photos. The demand for relevant stock images continues to grow and diversify. In an expanding creative world, professionals find it imperative to produce one-of-a-kind content that cuts through the clutter.

This dynamic creates opportunities for professional photographers. But there’s more to it than just uploading random images and hoping they sell. Discover what’s in demand and become a supplier.

Streamline your processes. Develop a strategy. And find a sweet spot between quality and quantity.

business man pointing to arrow graph indicating growth.
Stock image of businessman pointing to graph arrow.

If you understand your buyers and what makes the light come on, you operate at an advantage. As a professional photographer who’s in business, you look for advantages.

What are the trends in your particular niche? What’s in the news? What kinds of images appear in advertisements? Find what’s meaningful to your potential clients and be ready to meet that demand with more images that resonate with buyers. Those photos sell.

1. Get Inside a Stock Content Buyer’s Head

Stock photography websites continually look for content that is original, genuine, and appealing – images that advance a narrative and build a brand. Instead of just selling photos, try to think like a stock photo buyer.

holiday tree and decorations.
Stock photos with holiday themes have high seasonal demand.

Keep an eye on trends. Stay ahead of seasonal shifts. Be aware of the continuing demand for compelling images, deliver that content, and you will sell your photos. And over time, you may discover that some photos sell repeatedly.

2. Create Images that Appeal to Stock Companies

How will your photo look on a website banner? Is it suitable for a print ad? How about a billboard? As a matter of fact, the commercial work you see daily tells you what the stock photography business seeks. So, plan and execute your shoots and post production with an eye for high quality stock photos that fit in with the commercial and media marketplace.

woman sitting mountain top at sunrise.
The image of a woman sitting on a mountain evokes a peaceful feeling.

To succeed as a stock photographer and make money requires realistic images with genuine feelings that meet the industry’s demand. Basically, real people in real-life expressing human emotions and engaging in everyday activities find a place in magazines, newspapers, and websites. So, make sure the professionals who work in these fields can find your photos online with just a few clicks.

3. Strive for Diversity to Sell Stock Photos

Be mindful and accurate in your portrayal of ethnic groups. Include both genders, a range of ages, and body types that live in our world. Stock photography of multi-generational families and mixed racial groups is marketable, and those images sell.

mixed race parents with children.
Images of mixed race families are in demand on stock photography sites.

Also, a photographer who can capture images of the disabled in a manner that is natural as well as sensitive occupies a unique place on any stock photo site.

male athlete with prosthesis at track.
Photographing people with disabilities in a manner that is compelling and authentic is challenging.

And keep this in mind: a survey by Adobe Stock found that the industry is “risk-averse” in its visual content. That is, 67 percent of those surveyed said finding “honest and relatable” stock images is a major challenge. Therefore, we assume that the market is not saturated. If you fill a need, you can sell your photos.

Working with Models in Stock Photography

Creating images with a model challenges the best photographers. And it’s beyond the scope of this article; however, I’ll point out again that images that capture people in “honest and relatable” situations set you on the path to making money with stock.

Several articles on PhotographyCourse.net address working with models. Our interview with Walid Azami and a series of pieces on posing offer a few tips on getting great results with models.

Tips on Model and Property Releases

For content featuring people or property to be used for commercial purposes, you need written permission. The stock photography website you contract with will have a model release form and instructions available for you to download.

photograph of female model from a stock website.
Posting stock images of models – or any person – requires written permission.

This is also true for locations, especially for buildings and private property. Some locations demand that you get permission to shoot. And asking for permission is always a good idea. If you intend to sell photos of privately owned structures for commercial purposes, you need a signed property release.

How About Selling Photos of Public Property?

This is a bit of a gray area. Some stock sites will accept a picture of a bridge, a public building such as a courthouse, or a monument without a property release. Others are more strict and require a written release for any recognizable structure.

I’ve had some of these types of images rejected for commercial use. Then, I resubmitted them as editorial content and had them accepted.

How to Sell Editorial Content?

If a photograph is intended for news purposes – and not to promote a business or brand – stock photography sites may accept them as editorial content.

Media organizations, such as newspapers and television networks, make frequent use of stock photos. Primarily, these are used to develop and illustrate an event or breaking news, not for promotion.

editorial photograph of 5k run starting line.
Stock photography sites accept images of public events as editorial content.

In this case, a release is not required. However, stock sites lay out specific guidelines like date, location, and description for submitting editorial content.

Tips for Creating Titles and Keywords in Stock Photography

For a stock photographer to make money, he or she must sell photos online. In order for site visitors to evaluate your images and possibly make a purchase, they must first be able to find them. So titles and keywords take on an essential role in the process.

Keep the titles short, descriptive, and easy to understand. Some stock sites cap the title at 200 characters. But a stock image that delivers excellent search results maybe 100 characters or less.

Avoid using names of people, products, or brands in titles.

How to Write Accurate Descriptions to Sell Images

Some stock photography sites require a description along with an image title. This is an opportunity to create a narrative. Describe the image. Who or what is in the photo? What is happening? Where is it? When?

food image showing stack of brownies on white background.
The description of this stock photo includes “stack of brownies” and “white background”.

Be specific and add detail. If the photo includes the sky, add descriptive details like blue or cloudy. A bird in a photo is also a robin or maybe a heron, large or small. That person is male or female. In addition, include the ethnic group, information about hair color, what they’re wearing, and any props they may be using.

Your Top 10 Keywords are Critical to Selling Photos Online

The 10 keywords listed first exert the greatest effect on search results. So in those first 10 keywords, include the most significant words in your title. Keep it simple. Stock photography platforms allow up to 50 keywords. However, quality beats quantity. Be accurate and concise.

close-up image of border collie dog in park.
Keywords for this stock image: dog, border, collie, puppy, nature, park, autumn.

Break phrases into single words. For example, golden sunset works better as two keywords rather than as a single keyphrase. Exceptions to this include well-known phrases, such as Great Lakes or Caesar salad.

Be Sure to Avoid Keyword Spam

Keep it relevant to the image. Adding keywords for something that is not actually in the photo is keyword spam. Avoid this practice. It will damage your credibility and limit the usefulness of your image. Also, it frustrates the person conducting the search. In the end, spam hinders your ability to make money with stock.

The major players in stock photography now employ artificial intelligence and machine learning technology. On these websites, the upload process generates a list of keywords for your image. While this is convenient and suggests keywords you may not have foreseen, some may not be relevant. So, delete the keywords that don’t quite fit and add your own to optimize your search results.

Adobe Stock published a guide to titles and keywords that’s helpful for the stock photographer looking to make photos more searchable. Also, Alamy and Shutterstock provide guidelines for selecting keywords.

photographer with camera composing image of lake and mountains.
Photographer composing an image.

Is Becoming a Stock Photographer Worth It?

Being able to work as a stock photographer and make money is difficult. It’s a competitive business. But the fragmentation of the media landscape opens new possibilities.

The industry is projected to grow at a 5.2 percent annual rate over the next seven years. The value of the international stock photography market stood at $3.3 billion (US) in 2020, according to a report by Coherent Market Insights. The report expects that value to reach $4.8 billion by 2028.

Stock photography is a solid industry. As long as pictures communicate compelling ideas and profound feelings in a direct manner, that will continue.


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Daniel Wright<span class="bp-verified-badge"></span>
Daniel Wright
Daniel has been providing photographic and written content to websites since 1995. He maintains a photo gallery on Pictorem.com, showcasing his most recent work. In addition, Daniel is active in stock photography, with portfolios on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock.
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