Getting Started in Stock Photography

What is stock photography?

Stock photography is the business of selling photography to the public.  Most of it is made up of collections uploaded to agencies by free-lance photographers.  Most of the customers are business people looking for images for advertising, journalism, blogs, newsletters, websites, publications, products, etc.

Many designers have subscriptions with a stock agency and can download a certain number of images per month. Different licenses allow users to utilize the images in different ways. If you just want to put an image on a company website or a blog, the cost (and profit for the photographer) is low.  Other uses, such as reproductions on tee shirts, calendars, book covers, etc., will cost more, and, thus, pay more.

What can you expect?

If you are a photographer interested in selling stock photography, you should realize that it is not a get rich quick scheme.  Millions of pictures are uploaded for sale on the different agencies.  You will have a lot of competition, and you generally will not make much per image sold.  Some agencies sell images as low as in the single digits, but the average price is a little better than that.

You need to learn what sells and keep enlarging your portfolios to make any money at all.  After a year in the game, my average sale is about $.80 per image.  I occasionally make $50.00 or $20.00 or $2.78 on an image, but I also sell a lot of pictures for 33¢ or 36¢. It’s a numbers game.  Strive for quantity as well as quality.

Some photographers make thousands of dollars per month. I have not hit $500.00 per month yet.  Some do worse than that. For myself, I want to supplement my retirement money, and I am hoping to be making $1000 a month by the time I’ve been doing this for two years. It takes time for some pictures to get into collections and start selling. Currently, I have one picture that sells 4-5 times most days. I need more of those!

What do you need?

Some photographers achieve some measure of success with a good cell-phone camera. Some take pictures, process and upload from a phone.  But most successful photographers own a decent SLR camera. 

You may think you are a superior photographer now, but you will be challenged to up your game when you start submitting to some of the stock sites. Images will be reviewed, and often rejected for focus, exposure, grain and composition.  Sometimes they look pretty good in your camera window or as thumbnails, but when you blow them up to 100%, you see that they are not technically up to par.

In time, you will learn tricks of the trade to minimize these problems, but still you are dealing with not only AIs that cannot recognized the quality of a picture although it might not be technically perfect, and human reviewers with better eyes than you have and firm prejudices about technical and artistic quality.  You almost have to submit to multiple sites to keep your sanity and keep your anger and depression at bay over rejections some days, especially when you start out.

Some photographers only submit the best of the best and prevent a lot of rejections, but I have some questionable quality images that sell like hot cakes, so I get a little edgy with what I submit sometimes.  But I could never do this job without strong Photoshop skills.  Some contributors do not use Photoshop, but my style requires it. I never submit a photo that I have not viewed at 100% on a large, high quality monitor and have not checked carefully for quality using Photoshop’s tools.

You will also probably want to start out with a tripod, and a couple of lenses for your camera. You will add additional equipment as you learn and make a little money.
In Photoshop you can also remove logos and addresses and other things that are not allowed. Shoes can be a real pain, but you also have to look at logos on cars, and anything you photograph.  You get better at finding them and getting rid of them with practice. 
When you start photographing for stock, you’ll also realize how dirty everything is. When you blow up pictures of items, you will see dust and watermarks, etc. that you’d never notice with the naked eye.

What kind of thing sells? 

The kinds of picture that do not sell well include flowers and landscapes, unfortunately, although I sell some of each…. occasionally. I have found that any image that has something man-made sells better than those that don’t-even if that something is a road or a telephone pole, or a cleaning sponge or a pencil.  Remember that you are mostly selling to business people – designers and marketers, for instance. What kind of images will they be looking for?

Travel pictures sell well. Who uses them? Travel agents, and any business who cater to travel and tourism. My current best seller in an antiquity from Greece. Images should not be too complex or crowded. Keep them clean.  These are the best-selling images right now for “purse” on Shutterstock:

Overall, however, the best selling images have people in them.  If I had started this twenty years ago, with my cute little son and younger (at that time) friends who would have modeled for me, I would have done quite well. I still have some friends who are willing to pose for me, and I am very thankful for that. 

You will need signed releases from them.  Any recognizable person in an image must be released for commercial images. Finding people who will sign those out of friendship or just for fun is a skill that comes in handy.   If you’re making thousands a month, you can afford to even pay them. I am not there yet.  

An option for images containing un-released people or property is to sell them as editorial images. Only commercial images can be used to advertise or sell an item, but for news stories, blogs, and any non-advertising purposes, editorial images can be used.  Commercial images with no people or released people can be used in more instances, but some of my best-selling images are editorial. However, every agency approaches editorial differently.

These agencies also accept videos and vectors and I have sold a few of both of these and need to spend more time creating more.

How do you get started?

Most agencies give you an opportunity to submit a number of images for review, and if you pass the review, you can become a contributor. Then you start building your portfolio. When you reach a certain level of sales, they pay you. I choose to be paid through PayPal, but they have other options too.

Here are some of the more popular stock sites:

Shutterstock: Most people start out on Shutterstock. It isn’t the easiest or the hardest to pass reviews. Right now, it is where I make the most money, because of how many I sell there. Some other agencies average higher profits per image. Anyone using Microsoft products can easily access Shutterstock images directly from PowerPoint, for example, if they have the add-in.
You can sign up to be a Shutterstock contributor here:

Adobe: This agency is closing in fast on my profits from Shutterstock. Their reviewers are much meaner and they do not take editorial images, and as a result, I have fewer than half the images in my Adobe portfolio as I do in Shutterstock, but the average price is better.  Anyone who uses Adobe products, has direct access to their stock photography.  They can choose an image and drop it into a webpage to see how it looks, for instance, before they decide to buy it.
You can sign up on Adobe by clicking this link.  Click the “Sell” link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. If you are new to Adobe, in the middle of the screen, click the blue button that reads “Create an Adobe ID”.  If you are already an Adobe subscriber, click the button “Continue with my Adobe ID, ” where you will be prompted to log in with your Adobe user ID and Password. 

Dreamstime:  This agency is pretty easy with reviews. They also accept your work really quickly. They do accept editorial. They pay fairly well per image, but they don’t sell a lot.  Last month, they were great, but since the first of Oct, they have just quit selling. It’s quite easy to submit there, and it’s almost worth it to me to know images I think are good but that are rejected by Shutterstock and/or Adobe, have a chance to sell somewhere. It keeps my blood pressure down.  But I have received my first payout from them.

Here’s where you sign up for Dreamstime:

Istock:  This agency used to be the biggest and the best.  Now some images and even videos sometimes sell for as low as 3¢.  Quite a few people have just quit contributing to them, but their AVERAGE payout per image is quite a bit higher than Shutterstock, and last month, I actually made more on Istock than on Shutterstock or Adobe, so I keep submitting. They do take editorial, but are very picky and strange about it.  Their review process on commerical photography isn’t as picky as some.

These are my four main agencies, although I am beginning to play around with a few more.
Becoming a stock photographer is a journey and a challenge. It’s a lifestyle. There’s always more to learn, and plenty to do! But knowing other people are valuing your photography enough to pay for it is a reward in itself. If you decide to pursue this endeavor, this article just outlines the first steps.  But it is a start. Welcome aboard!

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