The Truth About Making Money Online From Stock Photography

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Posted by The Savvy Retiree on May 27, 2020 in Make Money

Online stock agencies seem like the perfect solution for photographers seeking to find buyers for their images. They allow you to get your photos in front of magazine editors, bloggers, and advertisers from across the world…all without having to pay a fee or leave the house.

But to be successful (i.e. make real money), you need to recognize that stock photography is a serious business. And as such, you have to understand how this industry works and what sells.

With stock agency rates today, you often get paid pennies or small dollar amounts when an image sells, not big commissions. The upside is that once you upload an image to a stock website, it remains there indefinitely. The way to build an income in stock, then, is to upload images that will sell again and again, turning small dollar amounts into bigger earnings.

All it takes to get started as a stock photographer is a decent camera, a good eye, and an understanding of what makes a good stock photo. That last part is the hardest. I shoot a lot of landscapes. They don’t sell well on stock. A friend took a shot in her kitchen of a spoon with a dollop of whipped cream and a blueberry on top. It sells like crazy. With stock, you’re not shooting fine art. You’re shooting commercial art. This means that you can easily get started in stock by shooting things around your house or neighborhood. The key question you need to consider is whether an image could work with an ad or on a magazine layout.

There is also an “editorial” category of stock. Think newsy, topical, current event pictures. These images usually pay a better commission rate, but have a shorter lifespan. They are news one day, history the next. If you shoot for editorial, try to think of topics that have a longer horizon. I took a series of pictures of new home construction. They continue to sell more than a year after they were posted. Some photographers specialize in the editorial niche.

To get started with stock, pick three stock agencies and submit a number of photos for appraisal. Make sure your pictures are technically correct, have the right exposure, and everything is in focus.

Each stock site has its own submission requirements. Read them, follow them. Don’t sweat it if you get some rejections. Listen to the feedback and try again. It’s all subjective, you will eventually get accepted. 

I work with three stock agencies: Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, and Dreamstime. Shutterstock pays the best and I get more sales there. I submit the same images to all three. 

When you submit an image, you’ll be asked for a title and keywords. This is extremely important. Try to think like a photo editor who is searching through thousands of images on the stock site. What title speaks for your image, and what keywords will make it discoverable in a search? This process is time-consuming, but vital to the success of your image. 

Stock is a numbers game. The more pictures you upload, the more sales you get. To build a decent passive income, you need to think in terms of hundreds of images. 

But that doesn’t mean you should upload everything you shoot. Be selective. Say you go to the beach and shoot 100 pictures of beach activity. Pick the best few that say “beach” and tell a story. Yes, you want to get a lot of images uploaded to your stock gallery, but make them good images that will stand out to an editor. I know one photographer who takes a lot of pictures of palm trees. They are great pictures, and he does wonders in Photoshop. Editors know when they need a palm tree picture, he’s the guy.

You don’t have to be an accomplished photographer or have an expensive camera to be a success in stock photography. Most point-and-shoot, DSLR or mirrorless cameras will do. Stock agencies even accept pictures taken with smartphone cameras. 

Process your pictures in photo software. Make the colors pop, then crop and sharpen the image. And straighten the horizon. This will help when an editor is deciding between your picture and another one. There’s a lot of photo software out there. Not everyone needs Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. I get by fine with Camera Raw and Photoshop Elements. 

In summary, stock photography has a low barrier to entry. So instead of just letting your images sit on your hard drive, you can put them to work earning for you. If you like to take and process photographs, stock can be fun and rewarding. But go into it with your eyes open. Stock isn’t going to pay your mortgage right out of the gate, but with the right strategies, it could cover some of the bills. And with a little time and commitment, who knows…

Written by Fred Mays