A quick note before going further: being mainly a photography contributor on stock websites, in this article I mostly refer to pictures instead of the more general term “content”, but everything I talk about is equally valid for illustrations (including vector images), videos, motion graphics, character animations, audio (music and sound effects) and pretty much any other kind of creative work (templates, brushes, editable Photoshop files, 3D models and textures, etc..).
Let’s be clear from the start: selling stock is not a get-rich-quick method and while it is a good way to build a passive income stream, just like anything it requires some work and dedication, a lot of it in the beginning. It does get much easier with time and experience, though, and it does work.
In this article, I share some thoughts, based on my own experience. Hopefully it’ll give you a better understanding of what to expect when you start selling stock photography.
The name of the game: numbers
A few years ago, I heard an interview of a successful photographer in which he said roughly “Back in the ’80s, I could sell a single print for 100,000 $. Nowadays, I sell stock photos for 1 $ apiece to 100,000 people.” I might be somewhat off regarding the numbers he cited, but you get the idea.
Let’s face it, unless you are one of the very few who are famous artists, successful celebrity photographers or YouTube mini-celebrities, odds are you will never sell prints for many thousands of dollars each. That is of course true for me, as well.
In an era where most people can afford to buy a DSLR camera, many photographers struggle to make ends meet. Stock photography is easy to get into and is therefore an good option to complement your income or even, in some cases, make really good money.
One of the most common criticisms of stock photography is, rightly, that for every single sale you will earn very little, usually between just a few cents and a few dollars per picture* (more for videos), so you need to sell many pictures, many times, for those earnings to add up. More on that below.
Additionally, it is so easy to contribute stock content that many people do it, with varying degrees of success. Depending on an image’s subject and quality, the market for it can be very large with fierce competition, or very small with little competition.
The most popular stock photo websites (Adobe Stock, Shutterstock and Getty Images/iStock) have catalogues of hundreds of millions of images. Even though each of those sites has millions of customers searching for a wide range of content, it’s obviously impossible for a few photos to stand out.
The rule #1 in stock photography is thus to work on building a large portfolio (ideally thousands of images), which is the best way to ensure a relatively steady amount of sales. You don’t have to start with a huge collection, though, far from it, but it should be your end goal.
* The earning per picture varies wildly depending on the stock agency, selling price, image license and sometimes number of sales in a given period. I talk numbers in details in the related article about Adobe Stock vs Shutterstock, but to sum up, since I’ve started selling pictures on those websites, my average earnings per sale is 0.73 US$.
Few pictures will be successful and that’s ok
Don’t expect to sell every single picture in your stock photo portfolio. Even if a few images in a series (same subject but slightly different setup), other will most likely not sell. Each contributor’s experience is different and I can’t speak for other people, but in my case, over the past couple of years, about 1 in 18 images has been purchased.
Pictures that have been uploaded more than one year ago will most likely never be sold, that’s just the way it is. It’s fine with me, as I realize that not all are equally good or relevant to search trends, and luck also plays its part. Indeed, an image that is sold is more likely to appear again in similar searches, and thus is more likely to be sold again. Conversely, pictures than no one buys will be shown less often and thus have a lower likelihood of being purchased in the future.
Two very similar images with the same description and keywords, uploaded at the same time, initially have the same probability of being sold. However, as soon as one is purchased by a customer, the probability is heavily skewed towards that one. I have experienced a few of those cases, in which one picture is bought dozens of times, while a similar one is purchased just by a handful of customers, or not at all.
In the long run, maybe you’ll sell 1 in 5 images, or 1 in 50, no one knows. Just don’t be discouraged because you’ve uploaded your first 20 or 30 images without selling a single one (yet). It’s not abnormal at all and shouldn’t be seen a sign of future lack of success.
I should add that my most recent uploads have a higher sales rate than earlier submissions, simply because I’ve gotten better at identifying images that are more likely to sell, writing better descriptions and adding more relevant keywords. And so will you.
Let’s talk a bit more about the main issue that people tend to have with stock photography: how little you make for each sale.
As mentioned earlier, earnings per sale can vary a lot, usually from a few cents to a few dollars (but it can reach 25+ US$ with some licenses). For the sake of argument, let’s assume the average is 0.73 US$/sale over a long period with many sales (at the time of writing, that’s my average earning/sale over the past couple of years).
So should you submit a picture to a stock photo agency, expecting to earn 73 cents per sale? Is that a lot or completely insignificant? Most people would say it’s not worth it, but the truth is you can’t really tell unless you dig a bit deeper.
How much time did you spend to take and prepare that picture for your stock portfolio (including editing/keywording/uploading)? Did you have to rent a photo studio, buy props and/or hire a model? Most importantly, how many times will you sell that picture (and others from that series)?
If you do rent a studio and hire a model for an afternoon, then spend hours editing the pictures, and earn just 50 cents over a year, it’s definitely not a good business. But let’s say you sell images from that series hundreds or even thousands of times, then that’s totally different.
Now consider the following picture, which I took while walking around. I spent maybe 15 seconds correcting the exposure and contrast, then probably a minute or so adding a description and keywords, and a few seconds more to upload and submit it. Let’s round it up to 2 minutes of work from the moment I grabbed my camera to stock submission. Based on my 73-cent average commission, just one sale would translate into 21.6 US$/hour, which is a very decent (or even high) rate in most countries.
This is obviously simplified, but this is basically how you should really think about stock photography. In my opinion, the right approach consists in not only considering the ridiculously low amount paid per sale, but also the actual work behind it, and this critically important factor is often overlooked.
Only when you’re able to make that calculation, based on (at the very least) a few dozen pictures over a few months, will you be able to decide if stock photography is profitable or not. The more pictures you have and the longer the period you take into account, the better your profitability calculation will be. Of course, don’t forget to take into account the time spent on pictures that do not sell, to get an accurate representation of you whole portfolio’s profitability.
I would actually go a step further and argue that if you’re considering publishing your existing content, the time (and maybe money) spent on it is already lost anyway. So while the calculation would be different for new content created specifically for stock agencies, the potential income of your existing content should be compared to only the time needed to prepare it for stock submission. Is the expected return worth spending a few more minutes to submit your content to stock agencies? You tell me.
FYI, I’ve sold that picture above many times and it has earned 9.67 US$ so far. It’s not a lot of money by any stretch of the imagination, but it took so little work that for me it was quite profitable, even if it never sells again (and taking into account the extra time spent to edit and copy/paste keywords to a few other pictures that never sold from the same series). Remember, stock photography is not about any single picture, but about quantity.
And if you are scratching your head, wondering how someone could pay for that, take a look at my post on the subject: You didn’t know you could actually sell this as stock photography
Don’t be discouraged by naysayers
One of the reasons I thought a long time (I’m talking years) about contributing stock content before actually doing it was that I had read many articles and comments in forums talking about how difficult it is to make more than a few dollars a month selling stock photography.
If I have any regret, it is only to have waited so long before I started contributing stock photos.
I will not pretend that anyone can expect to earn a good living after uploading just a few dozens of pictures, but it has now become obvious to me that the people who complain tend to be unsuccessful for good reason (i.e. they offer content of poor quality). It seems that instead of trying to improve their work, they are convinced that they already produce top-notch content and spend their time complaining about the whole system.
However flawed it is, stock photography does allow you to earn decent money, provided your work is of good quality and meets a need from prospective buyers. Just like in any other area, you can’t expect to make money if you don’t do a good job or, as a matter of fact, if your work is fantastic but there is absolutely zero market for it.
To sum up, to earn good money, you ideally need a portfolio with thousands of varied pictures, but don’t wait until you have that many images to start submitting content. Even if you currently have only a couple of dozen pictures, that’s not a problem at all! Start now with the content you already have and then keep adding more as you create it.
As soon as you publish your first pictures, you might sell them. Hopefully, this income, as small as it may be, will show you that at least there is some potential. That’s certainly how I viewed it when I first started selling stock photography.
Don’t forget: the more pictures you publish, the more money you can earn.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that it is clearly possible to make money, maybe a lot of it, and it depends only on the quality and quantity of your work. But like everything, stock photography has pros and cons. Maybe it’s not for you, just like weddings are not for me, thank you very much, but if you’ve been entertaining the idea of submitting your images/videos, then don’t wait any longer and give it a try. That’s the only way to know for sure!
There are many stock photography websites, but I recommend you begin with at least one of these (the first three of them largely corner the market):
It may take some time, but if you submit varied and good quality content, you WILL eventually get sales.