Selling original photos to microstock agencies like Shutterstock and iStock is one of the many side gigs you can start while working a full-time job. The more relevant question for aspiring stock photographers is: Does it pay enough to justify the effort?
The short answer, unfortunately, is that it often doesn’t. But the longer answer is a bit more hopeful. It asks you to consider:
- How much time and money you’re willing to expend to establish or improve your photography kit
- How much time you can devote to shooting, editing, and uploading stock photos
- How much you need to earn per month to cover your costs or otherwise justify the effort
- How long you’re willing to wait to begin earning a meaningful income
- Your talent and patience for photography and stock photo marketing
Most photographers don’t live on income from stock photography alone, though many combine stock photography with other paid work — for example, freelance photojournalism, event photography, and modeling shoots — to produce sustainable income streams. Stock photographers earn income every time a client buys their work, and quality stock photos continue to sell for years on end.
So stock photography income can provide sorely needed financial stability for freelance shooters accustomed to feast-or-famine workloads. Over time scales usually measured in years, that income can come to comprise a sizable portion of a talented, hardworking photographer’s take-home pay.
If that sounds appealing, stock photography could be a viable side hustle for you.
Stock Photography Pay Structure & Factors That Affect Earnings
Stock photography is not a quick ticket to fame and fortune. After a few years of toil and some luck, serious hobbyists might clear $1,000 per month in residual income. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, it’s enough only for the most frugal, self-sufficient folks to live on without other sources of income. And most casual stock photographers never get there.
That’s your reality check. But if you’re still interested in giving it a go, the next step is looking into the compensation for stock photographers and the variables that can affect total earnings.
Stock Photography Compensation: Commissions & Tiers
Stock photographers earn a commission every time someone buys one of their photos. It’s known as “buying a license” in industry parlance. The photographer (seller) transfers the photo copyright to the microstock website, which then licenses that copyright to the buyer and makes the work available for download — allowing them to use it more or less as they see fit.
Stock photography commissions vary widely by website, total annual download volume, and whether you license the work exclusively to one website or preserve your right to sell through multiple websites (known as a nonexclusive license).
As an example, Shutterstock has six volume-based tiers with commissions ranging from 15% of the total sale price for sellers with total annual download volumes under 100 to 40% for sellers with annual licensing volumes above 25,000. iStock also has six tiers with commissions ranging from 15% for all nonexclusive licenses (regardless of volume) to 45% for exclusive licenses for sellers with at least 515,000 in total annual downloads. Pond5 has a much simpler commission structure: a 50% cut for every photo.
Total download volumes are crucial, as they always affect absolute earnings (every download earns commission) and usually affect commission tier. Other variables that can affect stock photographers’ take-home earnings include:
- Pricing Method. Some microstock websites, such as Pond5, allow sellers to choose between setting their own photo prices or allowing an automated program to set pricing based on supply and demand. Others, including Shutterstock, don’t offer this flexibility. In either case, photos are more likely to sell when the platform sets the price, but sellers can earn more on each sale when they set their own rates.
- Payout Minimums. Most microstock platforms require contributors to reach a minimum commission threshold before requesting or receiving payouts. These thresholds aren’t high in the absolute sense — $25 is typical. Nevertheless, new sellers can take months to reach them.
- Subject Matter. While any subject is capable of breaking out, photos that feature human subjects or clearly convey broad concepts (such as “teamwork” or “frustration”) tend to sell better than things like generic landscape photos.
- Durability. “Evergreen” photos tend to earn more over time than photos likely to become outdated in a matter of weeks or months. Generic photos of people and places are more durable than photos of specific events or consumer products.
Tips to Maximize Your Earnings as a Stock Photographer
Although there’s no tried-and-true path to stock photography success, prosperous stock photographers tend to fit a certain mold.
They’re willing and able to invest in and become familiar with quality camera equipment and accessories. They learn from photographers more experienced than they are. They have a keen sense of the subjects, content, and keywords most likely to sell. They cultivate profitable niches. They treat stock photography like a business. And they seek out other sources of photography and videography income if and when stock photography proves inadequate.
Want to be like them? Follow these tips in roughly chronological order.
1. Invest in Decent (if Not Professional-Grade) Equipment
You can’t take excellent stock photos with your smartphone, no matter how powerful its camera purports to be. Bite the bullet and invest in a decent digital camera — the Canon EOS 4000D DSLR is a solid choice and a relative bargain at under $400 with key accessories and an all-important SD card included. Pick up a shoulder strap and some sort of portable external lighting source as well — the Lume Cube 2 is a must for shooting human subjects and illuminating low-light indoor spaces.
2. Get to Know Your Equipment
Poring over a technical manual is no one’s idea of a fun evening, but your passive income-earning future self will thank you. The two hours I spent reading my current camera’s manual paid off in the form of countless landscape photos I’m not embarrassed to post publicly.
3. Learn Sound Shooting Techniques & Review Microstock Websites’ Submission Guidelines
It’s your call whether you need to enroll in a photography certificate program at an online college or university. If you decide to forgo professional instruction, spend a few hours reading up on basic shooting techniques. Buying a book isn’t overkill — I got more than my money’s worth out of “The Beginner’s Photography Guide: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Manual for Getting the Most from Your Digital Camera” by Chris Gatcum. Whatever you read, you’ll learn how to put your camera’s various settings and features to good use and generate some creative ideas for your first shoots.
4. Study Successful Photographers & Photos
Stock photography is inherently derivative, so don’t feel bad about mimicking successful photographers’ work. Study the most downloaded photos at major microstock websites to get a feel for what sells — for example, take a look at Shutterstock’s most-downloaded collection.
Note any common themes that pique your interest or seem like an obvious fit for your skills and resources. Shutterstock’s most-downloaded trove contains plenty of photos of cute dogs, stunning landscapes, tasty-looking food, and human subjects conveying relatable emotions or concepts.
5. Focus on Durable Conceptual Content
Shutterstock’s most-downloaded trove is eclectic, but one common theme links most of its photos: durability. Typically, electronic devices, public events, or current events references that can be dated to a particular point in time are completely absent. Brand names are quite rare as well, and those that do appear — Facebook, Tesla — are very well-known.
That’s no accident. The most successful stock photos sell for years after upload, which means successful stock photographers need to think about what’s likely to be in demand three, five, even 10 years out. Chances are people won’t be talking about the current iPhone model or this year’s Comic-Con by then.
Anonymous, even boring photos are often the most profitable in the long run. A close-up shot of scattered dollar bills against a solid white background conveys frugality. A simple picture of a woman frowning over a stack of papers, pen in hand, communicates concentration (or money woes). A multitude of hands touching in a huddle shouts “teamwork.” While they must be technically sound, these photos don’t have to be pretty if they evoke relatable themes or emotions.
That said, superficially timely content can sometimes work to your advantage. The news of any given week is peppered with familiar themes and events, even when names, places, and contexts vary. Natural disasters’ aftermath, political protests, people lined up to vote — quality photos of these and similar themes remain in demand year after year.
6. Research & Choose Subjects With Marketable Keywords
Stock photo buyers use keywords to search microstock websites for relevant content just as they use key phrases to search for text and visual content on the wider Web.
If you’ve chosen to shoot relatable subjects, you’ll have a general idea of the keywords associated with your content: “teamwork” or “collaboration” for your hands-in shot, “mountains” or “snow” for your panoramic shot of high peaks in winter. But buyers often search for more specific phrases, like “glacial lake with snowy peaks,” or even “glacial lake in the Rocky Mountains.” Look at similar photos’ titles and metadata for inspiration and consider microstock websites’ suggestions (if offered) when relevant.
7. Take Copious Photos While Traveling
In an ideal world, you’d travel with the sole purpose of shooting world-class landscapes, historical sites, and slices of human life. But this isn’t an ideal world. Unless you’re a relatively unencumbered soul with a decent-paying remote job that allows you to work from anywhere, you probably lack the time or budget (or both) to support frequent international travel.
Your next best strategy is to carry your camera and essential accessories whenever you hit the road. Approach every day trip, weekend getaway, or longer vacation to create residual income through stock photography. Never stop looking for interesting subjects, be they oddly arranged clouds, statues brooding in a city square, a larger-than-life ruin in the jungle — or sunlight playing off your breakfast plate just so.
8. Cultivate a Niche
Advice to shoot frequently while traveling (or otherwise going about your day) notwithstanding, you’re likely to earn more in the long run if you focus on cultivating a thematic niche that plays to your interests, skills, and routine. Popular niches include:
- Nature scenes and landscapes, a good fit for active, outdoorsy photographers and frequent travelers
- Conceptual scenes, like the woman frowning over a stack of paper, photos of payment cards and cash, and so forth
- Business and commerce, which can include everything from generic interior photos of white-collar workspaces and warehouses to human subjects engaging in work
- Fitness and lifestyle, another good fit for active photographers
- Social photography, which are generic photos of human subjects raising glasses in a toast, laughing at a picnic, or celebrating life events
As you refine your niche and accumulate a bigger body of work within it, you’ll get better at choosing subjects and composing shots. Hopefully, your newfound confidence and competence translate to higher earnings over time.
9. Always Get Permission From Human Subjects
Photos with human and animal subjects often, though not always, sell better than photos of landscapes or inanimate objects. However, when a clearly identifiable person or group of people is the main focus of the photo, you must engage in a bit of legal cover and ask the subjects to sign releases waiving any claim to income or future use from the photos. Carrying around paper release forms is unwieldy, so use a smartphone app that your subjects can sign quickly in the field. Easy Release ($10 in the App Store) works well for iPhone and iPad, but there are plenty of others.
10. Submit to Libraries With Favorable Pay Structures
Early on, before you’ve fully formed your niche or even figured out which types of photos sell well, submit to multiple microstock websites. You stand a much better chance of earning measurable income within months this way.
Over time, focus more on the websites that meet two criteria: decent download volumes for your photos and higher net commissions. Dreamstime, a lesser-known (but very popular) microstock website, offers commissions up to 60% on exclusive photos — a full 20% higher than Shutterstock’s top tier.
11. Use a Bulk Submission Tool to Submit Photos Faster
If you’re serious about earning real income from stock photography, you must submit thousands of original photos over time. Unfortunately, the process of submitting stock photos is time-consuming enough to constrain your shooting schedule. Streamline your submission sessions with a tool like Dropstock ($5 per month to start), which simultaneously organizes and submit dozens of photos to multiple microstock websites.
12. Treat Your Operation Like a Business (& Make Sure You Pay Taxes)
You can earn more income from photo downloads if you buckle down and treat your photography operation as a true side business rather than a catch-as-catch-can hobby. For starters, that means devoting a significant amount of your free time to shooting, editing, and submitting quality stock photos — if you can spare them, several hours per week on average.
There’s another reason to treat your photography operation as a business, even if you choose not to incorporate formally (though you can set up a legal business entity pretty quickly with LegalZoom). Between startup costs and travel, a photography hobby can be quite expensive. You stand to substantially reduce your federal income tax burden by preserving potential business tax deductions associated with the work. While you should always consult with a tax professional before claiming sweeping business deductions a side gig that the IRS could argue is actually a hobby, you might be eligible to claim as business expenses such outlays as:
- Travel expenses when the primary purpose of travel (or activity on certain days of your trip) is photography
- Expenses related to a home office or studio used exclusively for your stock photography business
- Costs for equipment and supplies related to your business, such as your camera, external lighting, and storage media
13. Set Up a Personal Website Showcasing Your Work
A website isn’t necessary if you plan to limit your submissions to relatively low-paying microstock websites like iStock and Shutterstock, which are fairly easy for competent photographers to break into. However, if you plan to target higher-paying agencies like Getty Images (which owns iStock but operates a separate premium platform for established photographers), you need a photography-focused Web presence outside the microstock websites to which you contribute regularly. Many agencies are invite-only, and the only way to get in is to get noticed.
Use a low-cost Web publishing platform like Wix to set up a basic website that showcases a selection of your best work (with copyright watermarks to prevent illegal downloads). If you want a little more control over the website you can purchase a domain and hosting from Bluehost and then use a content management system like WordPress. Follow up with a portfolio page on a high-visibility site like Adobe Portfolio to attract attention from agencies and buyers who can’t find your personal website. If you’re interested in branching out beyond stock photography into more lucrative work, such as wedding photography and videography, use these platforms to advertise your availability.
Selling your photos to microstock websites won’t make you rich. It probably won’t even supply a full-time income that allows you to quit your day job and live the good life abroad. But over time, it can certainly provide a reliable infusion that helps you build an emergency fund on an irregular income, pads your discretionary budget, or makes it a bit more realistic to max out your retirement account contributions.
Plus, stock photography is fun. Whether you treat it as a legitimate side business or a modestly profitable hobby, that could be more than you can say for your full-time job.
Are you contemplating a side gig as a stock photographer?