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What does it take to sell stock photos and make a passive income by doing it?

Ok, to preface this article, it is just based on my own experiences and therefore the sales I make are a result of the subjects I tend to shoot and the quality of images I can produce and upload. I am not going to drill down into figures, but I will say that for me stock photography is not my main income and is more of a sideline that crosses over occasionally into my everyday work. I sell stock photos to provide a small additional income that I use to buy additional camera gear and fund passion projects.  

Are my photos good enough for stock photography?

Now, this is really the biggest stumbling block for a lot of people, they believe their images aren’t good enough. To sell stock images you don’t need to be the best photographer or have the best gear. You just need to create visually interesting imagery that people will want to use in their work. You can submit images with anything from a smartphone to a high-end mirrorless camera. 

I personally find its a brilliant way to improve my photographic skills, the submission process can be brutal, but you will learn a lot from it. You just need to keep pushing on and creating content you think will work. Some sites like EyeEM and 500px are great because they are photography communities and people can like and comment on your work. It’s a great place to appreciate other peoples work and to get some inspiration. 

Here are some simple rules to uploading images

  • Focus must be sharp on at least one subject
  • Image need to be relatively free of noise, so a low iso is preferred
  • Images generally need to be above 4 megapixels
  • Image generally need to be less than 30mb in file size
  • Do not over saturate or over-process images 
  • Images are usually submitted in .jpg format

Is it easy to sell stock images?

Signing up to stock photography sites can be a little tedious, it generally requires you to fill out a profile, add payment information and in some cases submit proof of identification and fill out a tax form. Don’t be put off by this, the proof of ID can be as simple as uploading a photo of a driving licence. Tax forms are generally handled online with just a few personal details, electronic signature and occasionally some self-assessment tax details. 

Then once you are all setup most stock sites will have you submit some sample images to be verified as good enough for sale. This is where you want to submit your absolute best photos. This can take a few days to be processed, so don’t expect to be selling images on day 1.  

Once you are set up on the websites you want to sell with then its simply a case of uploading, keyword tagging and submitting your images. This can be really time-consuming if you are doing it non-exclusively across multiple websites, but it really just makes you pick your best work. Then once you have an idea of what sells, you can upload more of that type of content. 

What type of images sells well on stock photography sites?

This is no secret, almost all stock photo sites will let you sort images by ‘top selling’ or ‘most popular’ in any category. The thing to keep in mind is who comes to purchase the images, this is generally a lot of online businesses and agencies. So anything that serves business, be that creative or more literal will have a lot more chance of making sales. 

Think from the buyers perspective and what they are likely to search for. From my experience, nature photography is not a great seller, so if that is all you have to submit then don’t expect to see huge sales. You really have to detach your personal feelings towards the photos you are taking and think commercially, which can be hard at times. 

Typically stock photo websites are becoming overcrowded with images on particular searches. So if you want your images to show in peoples searches then you need to be thorough with your keyword tagging. It can also be advantageous to find yourself a niche so that you can have a large presence there. Shooting things for new technologies, for example, can be quite unique, so you have a better chance of selling those images.

This is currently one of my best sellers across the websites I use.

Sell stock photos for passive income

How much will I make selling photography?

This question is asked everywhere online and truthfully no one can answer it for you. Certain types of photo will sell better than others and different stock photography sites have different audiences. The actual amount you receive for image usage can vary dramatically from a few pence or cents to hundreds of pounds or dollars per image. 

Why are the payments per image so different in stock photography?

This is all dependant on how the end user acquires the photo and how they intend to use it. Someone using an annual subscription to a stock website that decides to use your image for editorial use will bring you the lowest yield. If the user purchases the image as a one-off then you will get a slightly better return. If the user decides to buy it at the largest available size and to purchase a commercial licence then you are going receive the highest possible amount. 

Editorial stock images vs Commercial stock images

Editorial stock images can be used in magazines, blogs etc for editorial use, but the minute you want to use a stock image to directly promote a product or service, your usage requirements change. To do this the buyer needs to purchase a commercial licence for that image. Now for you as a stock image contributor, you need to know that to sell images commercially you must meet strict sale requirements. This is a simple overview of some of the rules of commercial photography. 

  • Images cannot contain any recognisable people or landmarks
  • Images cannot contain any brand names or trademarks
  • Images need accompanying release forms for people in the photos

You need to be careful when uploading commercial stock images to make sure they do comply with the site’s terms. For example, not having the correct supporting releases can lead to legal issues.

Commercial images command a much higher price tag than editorial images, so if you can make your images comply to commercial usage then you open yourself up to make higher sales figures per image. 

What is the commission split on stock photos

This can vary dramatically across websites and depends on a few factors. The quality of the image, the exclusivity of the image and whether the image can be sold commercially. Typically your share of the sale can range anywhere from 20% to 50%. The stock image site will always take a very large percentage of each sale for the use of its platform to promote your work.

Is there any point for such low stock photo payments?

It depends if the photos you have are actually going to be used for anything else. Do you have loads of great photos just sat on old hard drives? If so, then why not put them to work on stock sites, they are not making any money on old drives collecting dust. Even if you only make a small amount of money, it’s more than they will yield not being used. 

Exclusive Vs Non-Exclusive in stock photography

This essentially is whether you want to sell your images with one stock agency exclusively or through many different ones. You will make more per sale selling exclusively, but you will reach a wider audience selling through multiple sites. Some stock sites will also give your content improved search rankings if you sell exclusively through them.   

You can mix and match, so long as you make sure any exclusive images you upload to sites remain only on that website and are not sold on any others. Otherwise, you are breaching your contributor contract and that can lead to legal issues.  

Does selling stock images harm the photographic industry?

For me personally, the people who complain online about the industry being ruined just need to adapt. There was a time when you could make hundreds or even thousands of pounds/dollars per image, but those days are mostly gone. Technology has given everyone the ability to take amazing photos anywhere at any time. The rules and fundamentals of photography will make your photos more aesthetically pleasing, but these can be learnt along the way. Essentially, you don’t need to be a ‘pro’ to be paid for photography, but you need to put in the effort and learn your craft to make good money. The people that succeed in the creative fields are the people that work hard, adapt and learn from past mistakes.  

I am not saying that anyone can do commercial or wedding photoshoots without knowing how to use a camera, but this is a completely different process. You take the shots, submit them for approval and then its a ‘yes or no’ as to whether they go on sale. Its a really good way to build some skills and learn why certain photos do and don’t work creatively, technically or aesthetically. 

Do you have to pay to submit photos to stock websites?

Almost none of the big photo stock sites charge to upload images, the payment to the service generally always comes out of the image sales. There are services out there that will charge a small monthly fee to automate your distribution to multiple stock sites. This saves you having to upload them to each platform individually. 

Can I set my own prices for stock photography

You actually can do this on certain sites, at the time of writing this article Pond5 offer it. The other way to do this is to make your own website so you can price and sell them yourself to people directly. This sounds like a huge undertaking, but its actually quite easy to do if you catalogue your images well and can create a pricing structure you are happy with. 

What stock image sites are worth using?

For me, ShutterStock provides the most income, but I do sell my images non-exclusively across the following sites (in no particular order) –   

Wrap up

As a wrap-up, I would say that selling stock photography can be a really interesting way to learn a lot about photography and also start to make a little money as a photographer. 

I personally held off on putting my photos on stock websites for years and had no real reason to be so resistant. The way I sell my photography through stock sites still allows me to sell directly to clients if I wish. I now regret not just putting them on stock sites years ago and I could have started making a little extra income on the side. I think a lot of it was thinking that my images are not good enough and the fear of the rejection. 

Be prepared for some long hours uploading and tagging content, some rejections and push backs along the way and know that it is not going to make you any money overnight. It’s a long game and you do it for the love of the craft. If you need a quick money fix then look elsewhere as this is certainly not it.  

Stock photography can build a solid portfolio and even lead on to paid jobs. Which is great to progress your career and start to try to make photography your main source of income.

Good luck in your venture into stock photography! Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions and I will do my best to answer. Or if you have some insights into other revenue streams or sites for selling stock images then please do share them here in the comments.