Can I make money selling stock photos?

Pink common heath flower illustration selling stock photos blog at Excitations Photo Adventures. Photo workshops and tours.

Can I make money selling stock photos? I believe you can make stock photography work for you. As always, there are some qualifications.

Stock photography is a little like having an Amway business. The vast majority of people who take on the Amway challenge… Fail, drop-out or give up. I believe this happens because they don’t fully understand the potential of that business. Sure it isn’t for everyone. But for those who get it. And are prepared to work at it. The rewards are limited mostly by imagination.

The commonality of running an Amway business and selling stock photos? Most people becoming stock photographers will fail. Some will make a few dollars and be happy to be able to call themselves stock photographers while a tiny proportion will be very successful. Maybe they will not attain owning a private jet kind of success but earning a comfortable living doing what they love. Running both businesses requires an investment of time and energy. The rewards are directly proportional to the effort you put in.

To be a stock photographer requires vision on two fronts — both equally important. You need photographic vision to convert your ideas into storytelling or concept selling images. Plus you need insight as to where and how your stock photography enterprise will mature and grow.

Dead European Carp in a waterway Murray Darling Basin region of Australia. Used to illustrate selling stock photos by Excitations photo workshops and tours.
It has sold today to an editorial client in Europe. Illustrating the plight of the Darling river system. Used in full knowledge that the image was taken beside the Murray River, not the Darling. Payment about 1/10th of an hours work tossing burgers at a fast food outlet.

The stock photography myth. You will earn approximately $1 for every image you have for sale. Honestly, you can safely file that one in the drawer marked BS. I know photographers are making ten times that per photo per year. Others, many others make less than ten cents per image year. You will read a lot of stuff online, advising you on how to run your stock business. Please remember, most of these people make their money giving free online advice. NOT making stock photos.

Advice from people who make their living shooting stock. These people are few and far between. My information is if you find one ask a whole lot of questions. More likely you will see interviews published online. Pure gold, read them when you’ve finished reread them.
Also read between the lines of these stories. They are often presented by people with a vested interest in getting you to become stock photographers. After all, stock agencies can’t exist without stock photographers.

The headline tells you he is in the $100k club. You assume that it is $100,000 per anum. It is, in fact, his total earnings with that library. What wasn’t addressed was that he supplies multiple agencies. The big takeaway for me from that interview was “keep your costs down”. We have a photographer who never works further from home than he can walk or ride a bike. While that isn’t sexy, it sure as hell works for him.

Blue race boat illustrating an blog post on selling stock photos by Excitations Photo Adventures and tours.
Also sold today. This image licensed for a small run garment illustration. Payment, when combined with other photos from this shoot. About two days of wages for 4 hours of work

What should I photograph? That is the million dollar question. If you find the formula for that one it is easy street for you. It is often suggested you shoot subjects which interest you. Photographing subject matter that you understand gives you an advantage over the casual shooter. Often you will, without thinking about it have unique opportunities to create exciting stock images. You live on an outback station. There are your first ten thousand stock images right there. Your commute to work in a big city using public transport kill two birds with one stone. Make your journey something you look forward to every day and shoot heaps of stock images.

Weather images sell well. Especially if the weather recorded is near a populous city. This storm was not near a major population centre. However, the photo series sold well and continues to do so. On the downside, there was a significant expense in repairing a vehicle and camera.

There are three primary stock business models. Royalty Free, Rights Managed and editorial. It is up to you to understand the modelling and how it works — not knowing and selling images which you have no right to sell. Can get you into deep water. Take for example pictures of people, property or trademarks. There are restrictions on what you can do with these images.

When you join an agency, they should offer advice on releases and what you can and can’t sell. If they don’t provide that help and advice on rights management, look for another agency.

Should I join one online agency or several? Only you can decide that. Most stock photographers I talk to have the answer, and they know their solution is right. Funnily though each one has a different “right approach”.

Most libraries or agencies are easy to join. Just sign up and start sending pictures. For what it is worth. I find that agencies with harder acceptance criteria. Work better for me. They may be inflexible, have high standards; some check every submission for quality. Look at it this way. They are like an exclusive club. They choose who can be members. However, once you are in, you become family. And they look out for the family.

This shot of Comet McNaught taken in 2007 has been a great stock image. It just keeps selling. Why does it do that. Well back in 2007 not every man, woman and their dog were doing astrophotography. Which means there are not more than a handful of viable stock images of this event. This one is original and not manipulated adding to its value for scientific and educational publications.

Can I make a full-time living selling stock photos? The answer is I believe you can. However, you need to hold the Pixel Gods Bible in your left hand, place your right hand over your heart and promise me that you will:-
Create good stock images every day, regardless of all other distractions.
Keyword and caption every stock image you create.
Devote at least 20% of your working day to social media promotion and marketing.

Is social media worth it? It is, only if you have followers who are right for your business. Friends and families may boost your numbers. But if they are the only social contacts you have. You need to get quality social media contacts quickly. Or, leave it alone and spend your time creating content.