How to Sell Stock Photos?

By Matic Broz, editor-in-chief of Photutorial covering stock media, Adobe, and design. He founded Photutorial while finishing his PhD in computational biosciences.
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Selling stock photos is simple and profitable if you know what you’re doing.

However, rushing in without first learning the fundamentals will yield poor results. I recommend that you learn everything, from the basics to expected earnings and advanced strategies. Finally, finding the best stock photo sites will make your life easier.

And that’s what I’ll show you here.

Let’s get started.

What is stock photography?

Stock photography refers to the distribution of stock photos to third parties who pay to use them. Stock photo sites distribute the images on behalf of the photographers. If customers want to use an image, they need to get a license. The licenses cost between a couple of cents up to several hundred dollars. The stock photo site and the photographer split the profit from the buy.

What are stock photos?

Stock photo is any photograph licensed to a 3rd party to use. Photographers upload their photos to stock photo sites, where customers can browse them. When they find a great photo, they get the right to use it with a stock photo license.

In the past, stock photos were by-products of photoshoots. For example, a pro photographer took photos for their client. But the client picked only a couple, so the photographer sold the rest.

Nowadays, stock photographers take photos with one purpose—to sell them via stock agencies. While you can make money, the competition makes it difficult to see good results.

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How do you sell stock photos?

Every stock photo site runs a contributor program. These allow photographers, called contributors, to upload and sell their photos. If a customer wants a photo, they buy a license that permits them to use the photo. And you earn a commission every time you sell a photo.

So, the easiest way to sell stock photos is by following these 7 steps:

  1. Join one or several contributor programs.
  2. Upload several photos.
  3. Pass an initial test. You need to upload 3 to 10 of your best photos. A review team checks it for quality and value.
  4. After you pass the test, you can upload more photos and start earning money.

How to make money with stock photos?

When you upload pictures to a stock photo site, they appear in their library. When potential customers browse it, they see your content too. If they want to use a photo, they must buy a license. Then, you and the stock photo site split the profit.

The ratio at which you split the profit varies among stock photo agencies. It depends on the number of images you sold and the license type. You can expect to earn between 10% and 60%.

That’s a huge variance in earnings. Thus, to maximise your earnings, find stock photo sites with the most earnings and traffic.

How much can you make selling stock photos?

For a royalty-free (RF) licence, stock photo agencies pay contributors an average of $0.32 per sale. Subscription purchases generate between $0.10 and $2.24 per sale. Simultaneously, on-demand purchases can earn you up to $99.50 per sale.

Based on my research, stock photographers make $0.05-$0.25 per month per uploaded photo. A rights-managed (RM) license earns you several hundred dollars, but they seldom sell.

So how do you control which license you sell? You can’t. But you can improve your chances of selling an RM license by taking great photos. So if you want to sell more, upload excellent images worth buying.

But how do you get better? Let’s take a look.

How to take stock photos?

You can approach making stock photos in two ways. One yields better results, and the other is more fun. Which one you choose depends on your goals. Try both and decide for yourself.

Planned. Stock photographers take photos to sell them. They plan their photoshoots based on what images sell the best. They frequently hire actors or models to pose for the shots. Overall, the planned approach yields better results in terms of photo quality, but it’s less enjoyable.

Spontaneous. Taking photos spontaneously and selling them is for many who more fun. For example, let’s say you’re a hobby photographer. You don’t shoot to make money, but to have fun or to fulfil your soul. But even if you don’t plan your shoots, you can make extra money.

How to take stock photos that sell?

Learn how to take better stock photos to raise your sales. Here are the top 5 tips:

1 Learn the basics

To learn the basics first appears obvious, but many beginners skip this step. In fact, image quality is the decisive factor for success in this industry since it’s to what review teams pay the most attention.

Start by mastering exposure, composition, and how to give your photos meaning. The latter is often overlooked, so improving storytelling helps you stand out.

The best way to sell more stock photos is by giving them a unique spin—good advice for everything in life.

Sell stock photos with better composition
Perfect composition is necessary to sell stock photos.

2 Get a decent camera

I don’t mean that you need a $2k camera. Sometimes, even a high-quality mobile phone camera is enough. But I recommend you get at least an SLR camera for $500.

A DSLR camera will help you get well-exposed and high-resolution shots, a must if you wish to sell more photos. Also, the stock photo sites won’t accept blurry or noisy images.

3 Use a post-processing tool

Every raw photo requires editing; at the very least, you should fix exposure, contrast, and saturation.

To help with that, every post-processing tool performs the basic edits. So which you choose depends on your requirements, budget, and experience.

I’ve tried and recommend these four:

Lightroom (from $9.99/month) is a gold standard among photo editing apps. It’s capable of basic and advanced edits, as well as batch editing. In addition, Lightroom can merge panoramas, HDR, and HDR panoramas. Most pro photographers love the app for exceptional photo management and metadata editing. The best of all are presets—saved edits that speed up your workflow.

But since Lightroom is only available with subscriptions, you pay each month to use it. For some customers, finding the right option is difficult, but I simplified the process in this guide.

Luminar AI ($67 one time) is a beginner-friendly Lightroom alternative, thanks to its simplicity. While I use both, the artistic tools give Luminar AI a clear edge over Lightroom. But despite many updates, photo management is still lacking.

Overall, the intuitive tools make Luminar ideal for beginners. For instance, instead of tweaking several exposure sliders, you can achieve the same by moving one slider. A tool called Templates analyses photos first, then recommends the best edits. You can think of Templates as automated presets. Many artists prefer a one-time buy (Luminar AI) to subscriptions (Lightroom). If you’d wish to learn more, read my Luminar AI review.

Photoshop (from $9.99/month) does everything Lightroom can and more. But Photoshop has no file management module but is instead meant for single image edits and manipulations. I recommend you get Photoshop together with Lightroom because you save money. You can get both for $9.99/month with 20GB of cloud storage. Here’s the best way to buy Lightroom and Photoshop.

Luminar Neo (from $44 one time) is a simpler version of Photoshop. In other words, Luminar Neo is dedicated to photo manipulation, such as removing backgrounds and spots or blending several images into one. But compared to Photoshop, Luminar Neo is easier to use. For instance, you select every object yourself in Photoshop, but Luminar Neo does it with AI. Read more on Luminar Neo in my review.

GIMP (free) is a free, open-source alternative to the other apps. But beginners might have trouble using GIMP. First, the interface could use an update. Second, to access features similar to those in Photoshop, you need to download user-generated, often-bugged scripts.

4 Follow the trends

To find success in stock photography, learn what to shoot. With hundreds of millions of photos available online, discovering trends is crucial for success. So I recommend shooting emerging topics.

Let me give you an example. When the global pandemic started in March 2020, there was a shortage of coronavirus and medical staff photos. As you can guess, innovative stock photographers rushed to take these photos. And they earned a fortune.

To find emerging topics, check social media, news, Reddit, and Quora at least once a week. You can also use a freemium tool able to predict trends called Exploding topics.

Exploding topics
An example graph you get from Exploding topics

5 Include people

As a part of our social dynamic, people love seeing other people. Thus, stock photos containing people sell best. To maximise your earnings with stock photography, consider photographing people in offices or people eating, socialising, having fun, or doing sports.

Stock photo of a jogger

So, how can you do the same? You can either hire a model or take candid shots. Either way, you need a signed model release for images of recognisable people. Otherwise, stock photo sites won’t accept your photos, and you risk copyright strikes.

How to sell mobile stock photos?

A few contributor programs have developed mobile apps that simplify sharing photos. For example, Shutterstock, Getty Images (and iStock), Dreamstime, Depositphotos support mobile stock photos.

But if an app doesn’t exist, you can transfer mobile photos to your PC for uploading.

These Lightroom presets work on the mobile version of Lightroom too.
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6 best sites to sell stock photos 2021

One of the best ways to increase the earnings of your stock photos is by uploading them to several stock agencies. One thing though; make sure their policy doesn’t forbid it.

But uploading, adding keywords, writing descriptions and titles is time-consuming. So, it’s nearly impossible to upload to every site. While depending on your preference, I recommend you choose 1 to 3 sites.

To sum up, uploading more photos to fewer sites is better than vice versa. As per my research, a photographer uploaded to 23 different stock photo sites. And 50% of his earnings came from Shutterstock.

These are the 6 best stock photo sites to sell stock photos:

1. Shutterstock

Shutterstock is, with 360+ million images, the largest and most popular stock photo site. Likewise, it’s one of the best stock photo sites for customers, making it ideal for you because more customers mean more sales. In fact, Shutterstock is the most profitable place to sell stock photos.

The Shutterstock contributor program pays between 15% and 40%. Earnings are categorised into 6 levels, and you start on level 1. You level up as you sell image licenses—payments for the Enhanced license range from 20% to 30%.

Shutterstock pays at the end of each month if you’ve reached at least $35.

How to sell stock photos on Shutterstock?

  1. Sign up and add your information.
  2. Submit your photos.
  3. Add keywords and a description.
  4. Submit them for a review.
  5. After the review team accepts them, you can upload more.
  6. You’re an official Shutterstock contributor.

2. Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock is Adobe’s stock photo site. Its collection of images is half the size of Shutterstock’s. And it has fewer customers. But its customers are loyal and desire high-quality photos. Becoming an Adobe Stock contributor is challenging but rewarding.

You can expect to make $0.33-$1.65 per subscription download and $3.30 per on-demand download. Extended licenses can earn you up to $26.40.

Besides selling stock photos, you can take part in Adobe’s Bonus program. With 150-4,999 downloads, you get access to one Creative Cloud app. And with 5,000+ downloads, you get one-year access to all apps.

How to sell stock photos on Adobe Stock?

  1. Sign up for an Adobe Stock contributor account with Adobe ID.
  2. Submit a tax form.
  3. Upload your best content.
  4. Add metadata.
  5. Submit to the review team and wait to get accepted.
  6. You’re an official Adobe Stock contributor.

3. Getty Images

Getty Images contributor has one of the lowest commission rates in this business. However, you might still earn more with it than any other stock photo site. Why? Because Getty Images sells content at high prices.

Royalty-free images receive 20% commissions. And the lowest price per image is $150, meaning you will earn at least $30 per sale. Sweet.

But you realise that Getty Images sells significantly fewer images than Shutterstock.

How to sell stock photos on Getty Images?

  1. Download Contributor by Getty Images app from App Store or GooglePlay. You cannot apply on a computer, but you can sign in.
  2. Upload 3 to 6 sample photos.
  3. Their team will review your content and decide whether they want you aboard.
  4. Once your application is accepted, you’ll receive an invitation.
  5. You’re an official Getty Images contributor.

4. iStock

iStock is owned by Getty Images, so the application process is the same. However, the earnings differ substantially. In short, you earn between 15% and 45% off every sale. But I recommend you read more about it in my iStock and Getty Images contributor review.

The review team checks every photo you upload. Then, it decides for which platform the images are the most suitable. Specific photos might show up on both Getty Images and iStock. In short, they want to maximise theirs and your earnings.

How to sell stock photos on iStock?

  1. Download Contributor by Getty Images app from App Store or GooglePlay. You cannot apply on a computer, but you can sign in. The app for iStock and Getty Images is the same.
  2. Upload 3 to 6 sample photos.
  3. Their team will review your content and decide whether they want you aboard.
  4. Once your application is accepted, you’ll receive an invitation.
  5. You’re an official Getty Images contributor.

5. Dreamstime

Dreamstime contributor offers high commissions, ranging from 25% to 60%. It is a good stock photo site to include in your repertoire, as it’s one of the cheapest, thus attracting many customers.

The actual commissions depend on the content level, something you cannot control. As a regular contributor, your maximum commissions don’t exceed 50%. You need to become an exclusive contributor to get 60%.

How to sell stock photos on Dreamstime?

  1. Create a free account.
  2. Upload photos. You don’t need to pass any tests.
  3. You’re a Dreamstime contributor.

6. Depositphotos

Depositphotos contributor ranks somewhere in the middle. It’s not the best, but it’s not the worst either. Your commissions depend on your contributor level. They range from $0.30 to $0.35 for subscriptions and 34% to 42% for on-demand.

In addition, Depositphotos runs a Revenue Share Special Program. Some photos are added to their collection of 700,000 photos. The subscription costs around $5 a month for customers, and they can download unlimited images. At the end of the year, 40% of net earnings are split among contributors.

How to sell stock photos on Depositphotos?

  1. Sign up for a contributor account.
  2. Upload a few of your best photos.
  3. Wait to pass the test.
  4. Upload even more photos.
  5. Now you can sell stock photos at Depositphotos.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best stock photo selling site?

Shutterstock is the main source of income for many stock photographers. Having the largest stock photo library, it has the most customers. You can expect 50% of your earnings to come from Shutterstock alone.

Is selling stock photos profitable?

Selling stock photos is still highly profitable. Although the competition is increasing, many photographers still make a full time living with stock photography. But there’s a lot you need to learn before selling stock photos becomes profitable.

Is it worth selling stock photos?

Selling stock photos is either a full-time job or a hobby. To make a full-time living, you upload hundreds of photos every month. Alternatively, as a hobby photographer, you can upload your photos to earn some pocket money.

Can you still make money with stock photography?

Many photographers earn thousands of dollars each month by selling stock photos. How much money you make with stock photography depends on what are your goals. You can live off your earnings if you become a stock photographer, or you can make some side money as a hobbyist.

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Final thoughts on how to sell stock photos

You can still make good money by selling stock photos, but it takes time and dedication. You cannot expect to upload 10 photos and make a full-time living. It will require months and thousands of photos.

Give it time, try to learn what photos sell best, and have fun!


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