You don't need to be a pro to sell your photos online

Earn a little cash from stock photography websites.

A camera next to a computer and film
Put your pictures in front of an audience.Felix Russell-Saw via Unsplash

If you have a passion for photography, you don't have to wait for your big break. While you work on your craft, you can earn money by selling your pictures on stock photo sites.

This is a great way to get cash from a hobby you already enjoy, but don't quit your day job just yet—you probably won't make big bucks through this method. Instead, think of it as a way to practice your photo skills, and perhaps earn a little extra change as you do so.

How it works

The basics of stock photography are simple: You offer your pictures to stock sites, they license them on to anyone who needs imagery, and you receive a cut of the sale price. Through this arrangement, stock sites get huge libraries of photos, photographers put their work in front of massive online audiences, and everyone walks away happy. It's also ideal for amateurs or hobbyists, as it's an extremely easy way to turn your images into cash—you needn't handle commissions and sales yourself.

In fact, numerous stock photography sites will compete for your business, giving you lots of potential customers. Take time to weigh each one's terms and conditions: They offer different royalties, and some will lock you into exclusivity agreements, where they pay you more if you promise not to sell your pictures anywhere else. If you avoid those contracts, then you'll earn less money, but you can submit pictures to several sites at once. In addition, check to see who gets to retain a photo's copyright. On most sites, you still own your photo—buyers purchase a license to use it under set parameters, rather than buying the copyright itself.

Once you've selected a site or several, you can submit your imagery, then upload it through a straightforward process. Some sites have stricter application procedures, but in general, your images will have to meet a certain quality threshold, which will vary from site to site. Similarly, payment arrangements can differ on each site, depending on how much a service charges for photos, how well your photos are selling, and whether you've agreed to an exclusive deal or not.

For more information on specific stock photography websites, read on.

Sign up for a site

The biggest and most well-known stock photography websites include Shutterstock, iStock, and Dreamstime, all of which we'll cover in this section. We recommend that beginners start working with one or more of these big three. Once you start feeling comfortable with the world of stock photography, you can check out more of these services, such as Adobe Stock, 123RF, and 500px.

Shutterstock, one of the oldest players in the stock-photo game, has amassed an audience of a million users in 150 countries. The site itself is responsive and easy to navigate. To upload your images, you must first complete a contributor application form. If the site accepts you, which it should do within 24 hours, you can earn a flat fee of $0.25 to $2.85 each time someone buys one of your photos. That price depends on the buyer's subscription plan, the size of the photo, and the number of photos you've already sold—as your total Shutterstock earnings go up, so does the cash you receive per image.

The other major name you'll encounter is iStock, run by Getty Images. Its reach is even bigger than Shutterstock, with 1.5 million users in 200 countries. However, it can take longer to approve new applications, processing them within 30 days. In another difference, payments are a percentage rather than a flat fee. Royalty rates start at 15 percent, and they can go up to a maximum of 45 percent, based on the existence of an exclusivity agreement and the number of people who have bought the picture (to reach that coveted 45 percent, you'll need at least 330,000 purchases). Your earnings will also depend on the price of the photo: Because iStock offers its buyers different subscription packages (purchasing multiple photos over a long-term period versus buying just one image), a picture can cost anywhere from $0.44 to $12, so your take-home fee will be somewhere between $0.07 and $5.40.

The reach of another well-known stock photo portal, Dreamstime, dwarfs the other options we've mentioned: It claims 20 million registered users. However, it's unclear how many of those users are actually active on the site. The service doesn't screen new contributors, so you can get started right away, but individual photos must undergo a review, so they will take a couple of days to show up after you upload them. Like iStock, Dreamstime pays in percentages: It will give you between 25 percent and 60 percent of everything you sell, depending on many factors, including whether your photos are exclusive, how much the buyer pays, how long you've been with Dreamstime, the size of the picture, and so on. To clear things up, you earn $0.34 to $12.24 for each shot you sell.

Know your market

Choosing a stock photo site and registering to sell photos is just the first step. If you want to make money, you need to take pictures that people actually want to buy. It's not a question of throwing up some hastily-snapped shots and then waiting for cash to roll in. Instead, consider what potential buyers are looking for.

At the most basic level, your photos need to look technically sharp and polished. Take them with a professional camera (or at least a very good smartphone camera), and make sure the shots are in focus, correctly exposed, and properly framed. Unappealing or amateurish shots won't sell. In fact, they may not make it past a stock photography site's screening process.

These high-quality shots also need to have commercial or editorial value. Start by asking yourself whether someone could use them as illustrations for an article, advertisement, poster, or brochure? If you're unsure, then pay attention to the images that pop up as you read news stories or scroll through social media. This article, for example, opens with a picture of a camera and a laptop sitting on a table. When sites like Popular Science post articles about technology, we need to include an image of the gear being discussed—and we often turn to stock photo sites to find it. Similarly, cooking sites need images of food and kitchen utensils, lifestyle sites show off smiling models participating in healthy activities, and so on.

In addition to emulating the type of photos you see online, follow some of the guidelines that Shutterstock has put together for its contributors: producing honest images that have broad appeal, different layers of meaning, and an aspirational look. The formatting can also help draw in potential purchasers—the service recommends that your pictures include room for text, in case a website wants to format an article by placing the headline on top of the image. In another tip, Shutterstock suggests that you take several variations of the same shot in order to appeal to as many buyers as possible. For example, you might have a model pose smiling in one image and, with the rest of the scene the same, looking serious in another. Speaking of models, images that show cultural diversity and local culture tend to do well on this particular stock photo site.

Avoid potential pitfalls

Before you fully commit to stock photography, look into the potential pitfalls. You don't want to set your expectations too high or waste your time on a hobby that ends up disappointing you.

First, be aware that creating piles of photos for stock sites can require a lot of hard work—for an uncertain, and perhaps tiny, reward. If your pictures don't find buyers, you simply won't make money, no matter how much time you spend on them. You may also have to invest in expensive gear, like a quality camera, lenses, lights, or tripods, to get your work up to the required standard. So don't treat this as a full time job or a get-rich-quick scheme, because you don't have any guarantee that you'll make enough money to support yourself. In the end, you should be practicing a hobby you enjoy and having fun, with the money as a secondary concern.

In addition, a lot of contributors will be submitting their own photos to these sites. Just search any stock service to see how many flowers and rivers and trees pop up. To stand out, avoid generic images and instead brainstorm compositions that are unique to where you live or what you're interested in. Selecting a niche can prevent you from disappearing into the crowd.

You also need to make sure your work follows the law. People featured in your shots need model release forms (more information here). Non-human items can't feature labels, logos, or any other trademarks. In general, check the guidelines of any stock site you plan to work with, and follow their advice on what to avoid.

If you succeed in earning a little money, congratulations! Now you get to do a little more admin work when you're filling out your taxes: You'll have to declare any income that you make through stock photography sales. To prepare, track your earnings as they roll in and resign yourself to doing extra paperwork when tax season rolls around.

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