Stock photography 101

Written on March 11, 2015

I have spoken with many of my photographer friends about how to make a living in such a saturated market. Whilst this blog might not teach anything new to people already in the know, it may hopefully inspire someone to start selling their own photos too.

I’m relatively new to selling my own photos but having worked as a photography editor for other professional photographers I’m starting to apply my knowledge to my own business too.

Some photographers do it as a hobby or to compliment their day job whilst others run a full time successful studio. But how else can you make an income from your images without the responsibilities and start up costs?

I love being hired for photoshoots but what I really enjoy is the freedom to travel somewhere with my camera and capture images of things that I am passionate about, which I can then sell online as stock.

Stock photography covers every subject imaginable. You can sell a photo of virtually anything as long as there is a market for it and it is of a certain quality and size.

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With the amount of stories and articles being printed and uploaded every single day it would be impractical and expensive to hire a photographer for each and every story. I was lucky enough to spend time in South Africa where I came back with a portfolio of shark and marine life photos. If you think about how many times a year there is a shark attack story in the papers you can start to see how having such images available for sale can be quite profitable.

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When you have your stock photo business down to a tee you can bring in enough money to support further travel or to buy new kit. It’s tough work to make a living but for inspiration check out Yuri Arcurs who is the worlds leading stock photographer.

Method to the madness

After a photo shoot I make a selection of the best photos from the shoot and then start preparing them. To start with I edit the image in Adobe Lightroom and adjust the white balance. Not all computer monitors are the same so it is up to you to learn how to read the histogram correctly. Then I keyword and add a title and description. I then export the image making sure it is of a size compliant to the guidelines of the image gallery.

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Cat on a canvas roof – abstract, africa, animal, canvas, cat, feline, green, light, material, mesh, nobody, predator, roof, shadow, silhouette, south africa

Not everything gets accepted and some sites are more strict than others. What you might think is amazing image might not have any commercial value on that website and so it will be declined.

Why would you want to become a stock photographer?

If like me you take your camera everywhere you go, enjoy travelling and seeing new sights then why not make a little to a lot of money out of your efforts. As soon as you make your first few dollars on a stock website you become hooked.

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Types of stock photo websites

Stock photos can basically be classed as royalty-free and rights-managed images. You will also have to keep in mind if you want your images to be exclusive or none exclusive. Here are a few terms that will be thrown around:

Royalty free (RF) images have a single download fee per customer which then grants them the permission to use the image as many times as they want (according to their agreement). They are a lot more affordable than RM but will be downloaded a lot more frequently and may be seen all over the internet.

Rights managed (RM) images are sold for variable amounts based on how they are intended to be used, the size of the image and how long they are intended to be used for. They sell less often but for a larger amount of money. It’s a benefit for the client to have an image that not many other people have used.

Exclusive – Uploaded to one stock website only and cannot be sold elsewhere unless you request to remove it from the site. Your images can still be sold as art prints and through your own website, just not on other stock websites.

None Exclusive – Upload to any number of microstock websites. Variable commissions per photo per stock site but these are explained to you when you sign up. A lot of sites increase your rate when you have hit a certain amount of downloads. Your cut from Shutterstock, for example, will start at $0.25 and then increase to $0.33 after $500 worth of images has been sold. You can eventually earn up to $0.38. This might not sound a lot but when you’ve reached that amount you will be selling a lot of photos each day. These prices apply to subscription based sales. One off or enhanced photo sales can earn you up to $28 a time.

Microstock – Some professional photographers may look down their noses at microstock photographers as they feel like they are being priced out of the market. Why hire a professional for £500 when you have so much choice online for just $1 an image? Obviously there is a huge benefit to hiring a professional for a custom job, But as microstock websites are growing at such a rate you just need to adapt and grow with them. None exclusive images can earn you as low as $0.15 a download but the point of microstock is to have a large portfolio and sell a lot of images every day.

Macrostock – The traditional way of selling stock photos. Generally aimed at professional level photographers with professional kit. You can earn between $30 – $3000 per image depending on the usage and exclusivity of the image and website. Less regular sales than microstock.

Midstock – Typically microstock websites that offer premium rates

To become a stock photographer you have to get over the fact that you may only receive about $0.25 (or less!) for the download of a high resolution image. The person buying your photo may have spent several hundred dollars on a subscription to the stock website letting them download a large amount of images per month.

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When you first start out make sure you keep your really special photos to one side, possibly for an exclusive stock library or for print sales, as you will find it really hard to see it being used on the cover of a magazine when you have only earned around $0.25 for it.

To start with you will need to choose about 20 of your visually and technically best photos to submit as a test submission in order to be accepted as a contributor. Have a look at what is already popular on stock websites to see an idea of what will get accepted. If you have to upload your best images to get in you can always remove them after.

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Keywords are how the image will be searched for on the website so make sure you have everything covered from “where”, “what”, “who”, “when”, “why” to colours, emotions, seasons etc.

I’ve done a lot of research into stock photography and came across an interesting article about how it will take approximately 200 photos before you start noticing regular sales and about 1000 photos before you start bringing in a decent amount of money per month. I’m currently at 216 on Shutterstock and although I’m selling about $0.50 a day I have high hopes that this theory will hold out. If you need to give yourself a kick up the bum at any point just google Yuri Arcurs again.

Microstock websites

I currently sell photos through the following websites (in the order of the most sales):







Deposit Photos



I was also contacted by Getty Images to become a contributor with them and this was a huge deal to me as they are an exclusive stock site. So far I only have a very small portfolio on there but plan to upload more soon.

My top selling images and Interesting places where I've seen them online

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Farm animals eating. Farm animals doing anything that typical farm animals would do.

Piggies in the news

Chinese pork consumption destroying the world

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Penmon Lighhouse, Anglesey. Tourist destinations sell! Think of how many brochures and websites need images of popular tourist spots. I realised through this blog that despite me having a huge portfolio of images of Wales I have only uploaded a few photos of this lighthouse and it is selling really well. So, time for a huge Wales upload and weekend away to shoot more stock I think!

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Shark diving – the most exciting places in the world

Yes, sharks sell! But, there are a lot of shark photos online, a lot better than this one.

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The striking gold statues of Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and William Murdoch by William Bloye in Birmingham. Strangely enough this is my second most downloaded image.

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I have sold more photos of the poppy display at the Tower of London than anything else in my portfolio. My poppy photos get downloaded worldwide several times a week. Just goes to show that it is still relevant news and probably will be for a while.

Seeing the poppies was definitely worth the trip down to London for both photography and also to witness history in the making. I’ve recently read that the artist who worked on these is going to be doing another installation this year so I will definitely go to photograph that too.

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These bluebells sold for $28 as a single download and although you cannot see who has downloaded your image you can do a reverse Google search  to find out where your image has been used online. I found this one on a gardening website.

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Big cat week on Nat Geo tv

Last but not least, my strangest achievement. Inspiration on an Islamic Caliphate blog! I’ve got a feeling they didn’t download it legally.


A few tips to get you started

Choose your top 20 photos for your initial submission and don’t be put off if you don’t get accepted first time. Learn from the rejections.

When keywording, copy keywords from a number of similar/popular photos already on the stock website to ensure that you will be found in searches.

The more active you are on stock websites the higher you will be in search results on that site.

Plan your stock photos around holidays and festivities. Shoot for Christmas in September as they will sell months earlier when the Christmas marketing begins. Also, photograph throughout the festive season and prepare these images in time for the following year.

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Easter’s coming up, plan a shoot and submit your photos weeks in advance. You still have plenty of time. I find it’s good to brainstorm ideas for a shoot and have a look at the popular images already online. Try to add a twist or improve on what’s already online.

Keyword before uploading so that you have minimal work to do once you have uploaded your photos to a stock site. You’ll thank me when you want to submit the same images to every other stock site as well. I do this in Adobe Lightroom so that the keywords are added as metadata to the image.

Test the water with microstock and understand what you are agreeing to before you upload to macrostock.Screen Shot 31

You could shoot specifically for micro and macrostock websites and upload images that you wouldn’t usually include in your portfolio. This way you wont feel like you’re cheating yourself or your clients when you are personally selling prints for more than what your images sell for on stock sites. Just remember to value your work according to the expense and effort it took to make.

Work with a time frame and a goal. My next goal is to have 500 photos online on Shutterstock by the end of April. My ultimate goal is to have more than 1000. When you have met a target take a break from and upload the photos to another stock site. You should know at this point which photos are popular and you will have already done the hard work of keywording. So just upload and submit!

I hope this helps someone, I would have loved to know this when I was starting out 🙂