How to Sell Stock Photos Online - Guide for Photographers

Amrish Mudgal
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Businesses around the world are communicating across mediums and need images to buttress their messages. Not all business can afford to commission a photographer to shoot pictures exclusively for them. That’s where selling stock photos online is becoming popular as it enables businesses to access generic stock images at a fraction of the cost.

With stock photography booming and stock photo websites become popular, more and more professional photographers are now considering this question - How to sell stock photos?

Selling stock photos can become a decent stream of passive income for you as a photographer. However, becoming successful at selling photos online needs discipline and strategy. That’s why we have put together this comprehensive guide that explores all facets of how to sell stock photos online.

How to sell stock photos - Guide for Photographers:

What is Stock Photography?

Stock photos are simply photographs that a photographer has made available for sale for commercial purposes and are subject to usage license. In most cases, stock images are sold through Stock photo websites that are massive databases of images that clients can look through when they need a picture for a blog post, a social media post, a magazine article, a pamphlet, book cover or anything else.

Photographers can set different price points for each image they upload to the site, depending on how it will be used, the medium it will be published in, the commercial purpose of the image and other factors. In most cases, the images aren’t technically being sold. Instead, they are being licensed for particular uses, and the photographer retains the copyrights.

Stock photo licenses can be worth hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars depending on the photographer, the usage license and where it is sold (Gettyimages.com sells expensive stock photo licenses).

On the other hand, there are microstock websites (such as shutterstock.com and istockphoto.com), where royalty free stock images are sold between $5-$10 and even lesser with image subscriptions.

With stock photo websites taking up to 50-85% commission and photographers getting only 15-50% payouts, making big money by selling stock photos is indeed a tough proposition.

The brighter side is that since stock images can be licensed multiple times to multiple buyers, so there is indeed great potential for photographers selling stock photos to earn residual income over time. The more high-quality images you have on stock photo sites, the more potential income you can make as the months and years go by.

Getting started with stock photography:

Since there are literally millions of different buyers out there around the world who are looking for different types of images, there is a vast variety of subject matter and image styles that buyers are looking for. So there are countless possibilities for the types of images that you can create for these clients.

That being said, you can’t expect every image to sell. If you are serious about selling stock images, then you will want to study specific markets and create images that are likely to be in demand by those particular clients.

There are millions of great photos out there on stock photo websites. The key is to stand out from the crowd in some way so that your images will attract the attention of buyers. You might think that the way to sell stock photos, then, is to have a unique, radical, artistic style that makes your images stand out. While this can help in some cases, the secret to making a lot of sales usually has nothing to do with the images themselves.

There are tons of stock photo sites out there where you can upload your images. Some of them charge you a fee just to upload your images, while others might let you upload for free.

These stock websites then try to help you attract photo buyers. The more photos you have on the site, the better your chances of making sales. Some of these stock photography websites get a lot of traffic and make thousands of sales per day so the volume of quality work that you produce and upload will be a critical factor in your success.

Don’t just upload a few hundred images and sit back, waiting for the cash to roll in. You will need to be prolific if you expect to make a living at this.

Here are some of the different factors you need to consider when determining how to sell stock photos.

What Are the Different Kinds of Licensing?

Stock photos aren’t typically sold in the traditional sense. As intellectual property, they are generally licensed to customers for particular, limited uses. But the photographer keeps the copyrights to themselves. This allows photographers to reuse the stock images and make multiple sales of the same image, generating recurring income over time.

While there might be some exceptions, this is how it usually works. Generally speaking, the more exclusive the terms of the license, the more money you can charge the customer.

So if a client wants to be the only company on the planet that can use the image, then they will have to pay extra for that. If the client wants to be able to use the image over and over across multiple websites and social platforms and even in print media without any limitations, then they will have to pay extra for that.

Remember, as the creator of the image, you get to call the shots. If a stock agency requires that you give up all rights to the client for a price that you think is unfair, then you have the freedom to take your work elsewhere and sell it on terms that you feel are more reasonable.

Stock photo licensing can be extremely complicated, and in some cases, different stock agencies might use the same terminology but with different restrictions. Always read the fine print before agreeing to terms of use, and be sure to ask questions when you are unsure about what limitations each license is offering.

There are two main categories of photo license: royalty-free and rights-managed. Both of them have limitations and exceptions, but there is no one-size-fits-all description one can give. Check each photo agency for what restrictions they provide on all their licenses.

Here are some simple definitions of these licenses, along with some other common licensing terminology you will come across when selling stock photography.

Royalty-Free Images

This license is very common with microstock agencies that connect small-time photographers with small-time clients. The prices are usually very low, making them a popular choice for blogs, magazines with small print runs, indie publishers, and small businesses.

This license allows the clients to use images however they want and as many times as they want with only a few exceptions. Most clients will want to buy this license since it gives them so much freedom at a low price.

However, royalty-free images are not exclusive, meaning that multiple clients can purchase and use the image. This explains why you will often see the same pictures showing up all over the place, on various articles, blog posts, and ebooks across multiple websites.

Rights-Managed License

Rights-managed content is usually more expensive and has more limitations in place. Larger commercial clients are more likely to purchase licensing rights that fall into this category, as they will want to have more exclusive use of the images and might want to use them on commercial products and advertising campaigns.

Standard License Vs. Extended License

Most stock websites offer clients a standard license agreement or an extended license agreement. This is like when you go to the car wash and can get either the basic wash or the premium service that includes waxing and tire polish and everything else.

As mentioned, the specifics might vary from one agency to another, but most standard agreements allow clients to use the content however they want as long as they aren’t using them for pornography, political campaigns, ads for tobacco and alcohol and things like that. They also cannot put the images on products for resale. And they cannot use them for massive distribution campaigns that involve more than 500,000 copies or page views.

When clients want more rights than those offered in the standard agreement, they will have to purchase the extended agreement, which will typically give them nearly unlimited use.

Editorial Use Vs. Commercial Use

There is often a lot of confusion as to what constitutes editorial and commercial use. Images used for informational purposes in newspapers, magazines, books, and blogs are generally considered editorial use. The fact that there are commercial advertisements on the pages of these publications and websites does not mean that the images are being used commercially. That is a huge myth that has been perpetuated for decades and refuses to die. These images do not legally require model releases or property releases.

Commercial use, on the other hand, involves profit-seeking ventures such as advertisements, products, and product packaging. Images used on products and for advertising purposes are commercial in nature and will require releases from models and property owners. And they will have to be sold under licensing agreements that allow for commercial use -- which usually means more profit for you as the photographer.

The confusion arises because many photo agencies and clients require their contributors to provide model and property releases for all images they submit, even those that are being sold for editorial use only. So while the law might not require releases, these businesses choose to require releases anyway merely because they are scared to death of litigation and want to cover themselves as much as possible. It can be frustrating for photographers, but it is what it is.

Exclusive vs. non-exclusive stock images

You can decide to exclusively sell your stock images through only one stock photo agency. Exclusive contracts typically will pay you more as the stock photo agency will share a more significant percentage of the revenue with you.

However, using the non-exclusive method lets you sell your stock images through multiple agencies and websites. While you will earn less per image sold, but there would be higher chances of selling more images.

Take Model Releases

So whenever you are shooting images that have faces of an individual(s) or when shooting private property that might be recognizable, you have to get model releases from the concerned individuals and property owners. Most stock photo agencies will not let you distribute images through their platforms without a model release wherever required.

Tip: Use Releases, a photography app that includes nearly every industry standard template that you may need, including Snapwire, ASMP, Getty Images, and Shutterstock. Releases makes creating, saving and organizing model releases simple on-the-go.

Check out more helpful photo apps for photographers.

What kinds of stock photos should you shoot?

There is an old argument that has been going on for centuries -- long before the advent of photography. Some artists insist that you should only create art for yourself and let the right clients come to you.

Others, however, believe that you can create art specifically for paying clients and maintain your artistic integrity at the same time.

With a focus on selling as many stock photos as you can, you need to study the demand of the various genres of stock photography and then create images like those that clients will want to purchase for their commercial projects.

To sell stock photos with high commercial value, you might want to start with your end client in mind. Pick up some magazines at the bookstore or spend the day looking at popular blogs online. What kind of photos do you see on every page or on every blog post? Those are the kinds of pictures that sell. So those are the types of images you want to create when producing new stock photos to sell online.

Look for the overlap between your interests as a photographer and your clients’ needs as photo buyers. That common ground is your sweet spot. That is where you want to focus your efforts. That is where you will make your money.

Use a good camera and lens

Quality matters in stock photography. Make sure that you use a good DSLR camera and lens that gives you high-quality, sharp results. Since you get paid for the size of images that get sold, it pays to shoot high-resolution photos.

A Quick Word About Image Edits

You generally shouldn’t use a lot of post-processing techniques on your stock photos, because most clients don’t want images that are over-saturated, cropped to weird proportions or photoshopped to death.

They want bright, clean, full-color images that are well-lit, in sharp focus and that have mass appeal. If they want to crop or edit the image in some way, they can do that themselves. So keep your images neutral so that you don’t turn away buyers who don’t share your particular artistic quirks.

Using keywords to make your stock photos searchable

There are a bunch of strategies you will need to use to get more sales on stock agency sites. You should create images with high commercial value. You should upload tons of pictures in general. And you should focus on a specific niche or niches in terms of the subject matter.

But even with those elements in place, none of it will matter if you don’t optimize those images to make them highly searchable.

To get your images in front of more buyers at photo agencies, you need to know how to describe the photos using keywords, titles, and tags that represent your pictures in such a way that your target buyers will be able to find them. This is the primary way that your photos will be seen. This is similar to search engine optimization (SEO) strategies that bloggers and content marketers use to make their website content rise to the top of the search rankings in Google and Bing. Learn to apply these same techniques to your photo uploads, and your sales can improve significantly.

What Are Keywords?

Keywords are words and phrases that people search for to find what they are looking for online.

When an affiliate marketing client searches a stock photo site for a specific image for her business blog, she might use keywords like “executives, men in suits, grey suit, and red tie, negotiation, manager, handshake, interview, ambition” etc. The site will then display photos that are tagged with these keywords for the buyer to look through.

Use conceptual tags as well

For example, for an image of a kid playing, you can add happy, joy, childhood, playtime and similar tags that describe the character, emotions, and activity being depicted in the photo.

So you might have the perfect image for this client -- one that is better than everything else that comes up in that search. But if your photo doesn’t have any of those keyword tags on it, then that client will never see it. This is why keyword research and effective tagging is very important for making your stock images highly searchable.

Do Not Spam

You need to avoid being spammy when it comes to keywords and tags on these photo sites. Do not use tags unnecessarily, if your photo does not fit in well with them. Stock photo agencies are very particular about showing only the relevant images in the searches and our account might actually be penalized if you abuse the tag feature when uploading images.

What does that mean?

Here is an example of tag spamming. Let's say you upload an image of two business executives shaking hands at a desk in an office, but then you use a bunch of tags that have nothing at all to do with that image - such as “manufacturing, warehouse, weight loss, online dating, love, hate, money” etc. This is annoying, it’s not honest, and it is considered spam. Abusing the system like this will likely get you kicked out and banned permanently.

Where Can You Sell Stock Photos?

There are dozens of stock photo sites out there where you can upload your images for sale. Some of them are amazing, and some of them are not. Some get tons of traffic, and others don’t. All of them have pros and cons -- all of them. So do your due diligence when deciding where to sell your photos.

Here are the top 6 most popular stock websites for photographers:

1. Getty Images

Getty Images has been around forever, as they were one of the first stock photo websites to hit the web back in 1995. If you have a love for photojournalism and think you have what it takes to join the photography elite, then you need to keep Getty on your radar.

They divide their contributor opportunities into three categories:
  1. Creative/advertising
  2. News, sports, and entertainment
  3. Historical/archival

Getty doesn’t just accept every photographer who comes its way. If you don’t get accepted the first time, then improve your craft and try again.

2. Shutterstock


Shutterstock is one of the most popular stock photo agencies today. You will see their images all over the place. They offer a lot of exposure and sales potential for photographers due to the massive traffic they receive online. Sign up is free. New contributors earn anywhere from $0.25 to $80 per download, depending on the client type and license type. The top earners there can make up to $120 per download.

3. iStock


Owned by Getty, iStock is a great start for many new photographers. You still need to apply and submit high-quality images to get accepted, though. Commissions range from 15 percent to 45 percent, and iStock is arguably the most well-known agency on this list. So getting accepted here is a big deal. Here is their sign-up page for new contributors.

4. Veer

Veer pays you depending on the size of the image sold, and your payout can vary from $0.35 for an XXsmall image download to as much as $7 for an XXLarge download.

5.  Dreamstime


You can choose to submit images to Dreamstime either as a non-exclusive contributor or as an exclusive contributor. You can also mix-and-match the two depending on images that you are submitted. For non-exclusive images, Dreamstime pays 25-50% of the net sales of an image’s downloads. However, for exclusive images, your share is much higher at 60% of the net sales of an image’s downloads, plus a $0.20 commission per accepted image.

6. Pixabay

If you are just starting out and are having a hard time getting accepted at the other photography sites, you might want to give Pixabay a try. Now technically, Pixabay is different because all of the images there are available for free download and unlimited use without attribution -- even for commercial use! So why would a working photographer even consider uploading images there? And can you even make money on Pixabay?

Yes, you actually can make some money on Pixabay through the donate -- or “coffee money” -- button on your account. Visitors or users who download your images can donate a tip to you through the site, so there is some potential for income and exposure.

One thing is for sure -- those images won’t make a single penny if they’re just sitting on your hard drive. So if you have a lot of good images that are being rejected at the other sites, then you might consider placing them on Pixabay for a chance at some extra income.

Conclusion:

Making a full time living as a stock photographer isn’t easy as its a very crowded, competitive market. To be successful as a stock photographer, you need both quality and quantity.

However, you can definitely build up a steady stream of extra income over time. You can also look at stock photography as an outlet for images that you have shot without any specific purpose, or images shot for client assignments that were not used and you have the rights for. In some cases, you might even gain a direct client through your stock photography work.

To get your start in this business and make some money, sign up at some of these stock agencies and start submitting your best work - and only your best work. Follow the tips above and work on improving your skills. Always be patient and never give up on your dreams!

 

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