Photography is a fantastic hobby for so many people around the world. It’s fun, creative, and viable no matter where you live.
It’s also very accessible at this point, with a half-decent smartphone being capable of taking high-quality shots in most lighting conditions. The days of needing a dedicated and expensive camera are gone. But what if you want to make it more than just a hobby? Well, there’s an easy route to take: you can sell photos online.
In this guide, we’re going to cover what you need to know about this money-making avenue, explaining how you can go from a new photographer to a competent professional in less time than you might think. Is it the right path for you to take? This should help you decide!
Why should you sell photos online?
Firstly, we need to cover the central question of why you should try to sell photos online. Money is a simple answer (though perfectly legitimate), but there are plenty of ways to make money. Why might you choose this? If photography is a key ingredient, couldn’t you just sell photos offline? Here are some of the key reasons why you should monetise your photos online:
- The market for digital media is bigger. There are still people who like to buy printed media, but not that many — and when they do get printed media, they can use print-on-demand services to print the digital images of their choice.
- You don’t need to travel for it. There’s already enough travel involved in top-level photography, with photographers always on the hunt for great locations and strong lighting. Needing to travel to sell printed photos can be a bit much.
- The distribution costs are minimal. Paying to get your photos printed in great quality can be expensive. You can lower costs by buying in bulk, but then you might have too much stock. Putting your photos online, however, doesn’t cost much.
- It’s great for growing your brand. You don’t actually need to sell many photos to make the whole thing worthwhile. Simply having a site (or page) with photos for sale can bolster your credentials as a professional photographer.
If it doesn’t work, then, you don’t really lose anything — and if it does work, you can make some extra sales. If you have photos you think people might like, why not give it a shot?
How much money can you make from photos?
This question is important if you’re hoping to make selling photos online your primary generator of income. If you can’t make enough for that to be workable, you’ll need to look at it as a side hustle at best. Now, while there isn’t a definitive answer (after all, you get to decide what you charge), you can get an idea of how much you can make by looking at what others are charging for images similar to the ones you intend to offer.
On iStock photo, for instance, the “Signature” photos (which are considered to be “on-trend”) are available for £20 each without a subscription. That’s around the top that someone will pay for something generic, so if you’re not targeting a niche then you can’t expect more. And that’s just the amount charged, not what you’ll make as the creator: when you use such a site, you get royalties that start at 15% for photos and top out at 45% in rare cases.
If you partnered exclusively with a stock photography site and earned a 25% rate, you could earn £1-£5 each time someone licensed one of your photos. Keep in mind that royalty-free schemes mean you don’t profit from subsequent uses. To earn money at a sufficient rate to achieve a minimal full-time income (depending on your location, of course), you might need to sell at least 15-20 licenses on an average day. That’s daunting — but not impossible.
And then there’s the option of cutting out the middleman by licensing your images through your personal website. The main obstacle isn’t complexity, since it’s a simple arrangement: you charge a certain amount to allow someone to use your photo without legal action. Instead, it’s a matter of visibility. Companies like Getty Images have massive reach, and someone who wants a stock visual is more likely to use a mainstream service than look for individual photographers.
Getting started: how to sell your photos online
So, let’s say you’ve decided to go ahead and start selling photos online. Good call! Let’s get into how selling your photos online actually works: how you can choose your photos, how you can find the best places to sell photos, how you can work on your brand, and (very importantly) how you can handle photography copyright (even though it’s actually quite simple). Here we go:
How to create good stock photography
If you want to sell stock photography, the first thing to do is decide what topics you want to cover. Do you want to take photos of people typing at their desks, knowing that such images are extremely popular but unlikely to make a lot of money?
Or do you want to target specific niches using more artistic creativity, reducing interest but allowing you to charge more (and market your services more effectively) if you sell your photos independently or use relevant niche-specific stock image sites?
Whatever you decide, there are two things in particular to focus on: quality and framing. The former requires you to use the best camera you can get (even if it’s a smartphone, of course) and max-out the image size: an HD image might be enough for a basic blog post, but screen resolutions keep rising and it’s best to go future-proof.
The latter tasks you with lighting your scenes well, picking nice backdrops, using photogenic models if they’re needed, and putting scene elements in sensible places to avoid interfering with title overlays. Remember: even if you’re going creative to target a niche, stock images need to be fairly straightforward to be worth using as illustrations.
How to find buyers for your photos
If you decide to upload your photos to an existing stock photography website (e.g. Adobe Stock, Getty Images, iStock photo), all the prospective buyers will be there waiting, meaning that your job will be to attract them to your photos.
This will need you to use SEO, tagging your images with the right terms. A hit stock photo shows up for top search terms: every stock photo quest starts with a search along the lines of “Professional smiling while holding an iPad”, after all.
If you opt to make money selling photos through your own website instead of stock photo sites, you’ll need to engage in much broader SEO for your website in general instead of your images. You can’t earn any income if no one ever finds your site in the first place. Flesh out your site with block content about choosing the right stock photos. Look for requests for stock photos on forums to see what people are missing, and use that information to guide you.
Google Trends will be a huge help here, but you’ll also need to turn to a further place to sell: namely the social media world, one of the keys to making decent profits these days. Any photography business should take full advantage of the reach of services like Instagram and Pinterest — but that’s a slightly different matter, so let’s get to it.
How to market yourself as a photographer
There are two ways to make money by selling photography: you can sell your images, or you can offer your photography online as a paid service. If someone needs a photographer for their wedding, a sporting event, or something else entirely, they can bring you in. If you can carve out a decent reputation, you needn’t become a contributor to a stock website to build a brand.
This approach is significantly harder, of course. You need to get active on social media, taking full control of every facet of your online presence instead of sitting back and waiting for people to find you. Being a freelancer isn’t easy in the slightest. You could start a fully-fledged photography business, but that would incur further expenses and complications.
The best thing you can do if you want to operate a successful photography business is impress your clients enough to send you referrals. Having your website rank for relevant terms is a reasonable long-term goal, but that won’t help you in the immediate future. Focus on offering a reliable service and target a niche if you can. That’ll help you get started.
How to handle photography copyright
Lastly, you need to know how to handle photography copyright — but it’s thankfully fairly easy.
Copyright law tends to be automatic: once you’ve taken a photograph, you own exclusive rights to copy it, display it, print it, distribute it, or (and this is key) create derivatives of it. There’s no need to submit a request of any kind. There are two copyright issues you may face:
- People using your photos without permission. Because anyone can just copy photos off other websites, this is a problem you’ll encounter if your images start to get popular. If so, you need to be proactive, contacting those who use your photos without permission and asking them to stop (making it clear that you’ll take legal action if they don’t).
- People creating derivatives of your photos without permission. In an effort to get away with copyright infringement, people will sometimes take photos and edit them to make them look slightly different. If your photo is still definitely there, it’s still copyright infringement, and you need to address it in the same way.
In this piece, then, we’ve covered the basics of how you can start to make money from your photos through the online world. Give it a try. It might be to your liking!