How to Start a Stock Photography Business
And Be Successful With It
When I was shooting film, back in the 1980s, I tried stock photography. But it didn’t take much research, which was also more difficult then, to discover that the time and cost involved made it a non-starter for me. You had to print and label hundreds of slides, mail them to various agencies, and then hope.
So, when I moved to digital photography in 2004, it was easier to find information on, and get started with stock photography. A simple search on the Internet, a few minutes signing up with agencies and I was off and running.
But times have changed again. Digital cameras continue to come down in price and up in quality. Cellphone cameras outperform my first DSLR camera.
And today, everyone’s a photographer. Not long after I started, the major stock agencies began running ads on social media claiming, “Make Money From the Pictures on Your Hard Drive.” And while that’s not necessarily true, it brought photographers from all over the world into the market.
And that kind of thinking still permeates the industry today. Shutterstock, the largest of the agencies gets 1.5 million images a week. That’s a lot of competition for me, much less someone just trying to start out. And from the questions I see on the forums, there are still a lot of newies trying to break into stock photography.
So how do you get started today?
I succeeded back in 2004, making my first sale on day one, and I’m still successful today. Other than the tiniest blip in 2008, my earnings have thrived over the years and I had two of my best months ever in the middle of a global pandemic.
So, I will share with you how to get started in stock photography today. Spoiler alert: It will not be from pictures of your cat you have on your hard drive. You will need to do some work. It will not be easy or fast. But you can succeed at it if you follow this advice.
The following are the things you will have to do to succeed in today’s stock photography market. You can do the first two in either order, but it is critical that you do both before you move on.
Photography is a skill, an art, and a science. When you become a stock photographer, you are going from a hobby to a job. You don’t go buy a set of tools at Home Depot, slap a sign on your truck, and call yourself a plumber. And you aren’t a photographer just because you have a nice camera.
Fortunately, with today’s learning tools online, you don’t have to invest years or go to college to learn the craft of photography. But you still have to learn it. It will take time, but the effort will pay off. It will be the difference between success and failure. Trust me. I have seen hundreds of people post an image on a forum that an agency didn’t accept and ask what’s wrong with it.
That’s what’s wrong with it. It’s poorly lit. With no composition. It’s out of focus. And even if you got beyond that, it was a picture of something nobody would want to buy. And that’s saying something.
The first thing you need to do is to study your camera manual. And I mean to study it. Read it cover to cover and try out everything it shows you. Then practice with your camera and read it again.
Get on YouTube and watch videos. There are a lot of excellent ones. Search for photography tutorials and sort by popular. It wouldn’t hurt to sign up for some dedicated courses. They cost little and will more than pay for themselves. Kelby One, Phlearn, Lynda, and Skillshare are just a few that are available.
Stock Photography is a business. You need to run it like one. Talk to a lawyer familiar with intellectual property, and an accountant knowledgeable with your local laws and tax codes. Learn what you need to run a business in your jurisdiction.
More on this in the next section, but you will need some documentation to get started with stock agencies. Or at least to get paid by them. You want to get paid, don’t you? Many require an ID, so you may as well scan in your driver’s license or passport. For most, you will need some sort of tax identification. In the US, this will be a W9; it will vary by country. If you make any decent money, the agencies will give you a 1099 at the end of the tax year.
Yes, you will need to report your income and pay taxes on it.
You need some way of keeping track of your investment, time spent, and income. This is not only for income tax purposes but for your own information. Many startups fail because the owner doesn’t have the business sense to know if they are actually making money. One of the highest-grossing stock photographers in the world quit because it turned out, he was spending more on equipment, staff, and photoshoots than the business was worth.
Keep your overhead low. I assume you already have a camera and a lens or two. Buy nothing else until you understand how you will make money at this.
I repeat, don’t buy anything else.
It’s easy to think, if you only had this or that piece of equipment, your images would sell better. They won’t. As the person breaking up with you said, it’s not them, it’s you. If your pictures aren’t good enough, it’s because you skipped step one.
Go back and learn photography.
Learn Stock Photography Business
Now that you have mastered basic business practices, you need to learn the specifics of stock photography. The lawyer and accounting you consulted in the last step can help. What? You didn’t hire one? Go back to step two and come back here when you’re ready.
You need to learn about model and property releases. Understand all the various rights that agencies sell and your rights in retaining ownership. Learn copyright laws in your country.
Create some mechanism for tracking all of your images. You want to know which pictures you uploaded to where, which got accepted and be able to track sales. The images you think will sell probably won’t. You need to be able to understand where you’re making a profit and replicate those efforts. Below is my best-selling image of all time. It’s not an exotic travel location or a beautiful model. It’s a plate of fried chicken.
Again, you want to get paid, right? Stock photo agencies need to be able to pay you. Each agency is different in how they will get your money to you. Paypal is universal. Other methods vary by agency. I highly recommend you set up a Paypal account before you start. Nothing would be more frustrating than making some sales and then not being able to get your money.
Speaking of which, there is a major caveat you need to be aware of. This may be the single most important thing in this article. 99% of the agencies and I’ve worked with dozens, have a minimum payout.
That’s right. If you sell $40 dollars worth of images and their minimum is $50, you wait. Maybe forever.
Therefore tracking your money is important. You need to be able to tell which agencies are worth the effort. I have money scattered all over the globe that I can’t get to because I never reached their minimum and never will.
The plus and minus of working with stock agencies is they are handling all the marketing. This is great if they do an outstanding job, but if they don’t, you’re screwed. You won’t sell anything and are wasting your time. One indispensable source of information is the forum at MicrostockGroup.com. They not only list which agencies are doing well, but there are always people to help answer questions.
Researching Markets for stock photography is two-pronged. You need to research the market and decide what to shoot, and you need to research the agencies and decide where to spend your time and effort.
First the market itself. This is both easy and difficult. Easy, because stock images are everywhere you look. Most images used in print magazines, on websites, and on outdoor media such as billboards and posters are stock images. This makes it easy to see what is out there. Unfortunately, everything is out there, so you will have to tighten your focus.
Rather than trying to figure out what is selling to decide what you will shoot for stock agencies, I suggest you look in the following three areas.
- Where you live. What is unique about the area you live in? What types of places do you have access to? Access and locale are important because it means you can choose when and how to shoot. You get to pick the season and time of day. This gives you an advantage over someone coming in on vacation who will only be there for a few hours.
- What you have access to. This isn’t about the location, but access. Where can you shoot that most people can’t? Where does your job take you that gives you unique images? I used to work in the computer industry, so I shot images of cables, servers, and other equipment that not everyone can shoot. A good image is a good image. A good, unique image is a great image.
- What do you enjoy photographing? This is big. I know I have said that stock photography is a job and you have to treat it like one. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it. If you enjoy what you are shooting, you are likely to do more of it. And even though quality is king, quantity is a very important part of success in stock photography.
“Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for it.” — Katharine Whitehorn
The other side of market research is where you will submit your images. Again, the Microstock group is an excellent resource. They pin a chart of which agencies are selling at the top of their forum. I suggest you at least join the top three.
Having said that, the site they list as third place is way down my list. I’ve never succeeded there. Part of it is content, part of it is timing. And part of it is luck. Like it or not, luck plays an enormous part in this business. But you can’t control or time luck, so it’s not worth worrying about. Get into the top three and play the odds.
A lot of the lower-tier sites, several of which I contribute to, add little to my bottom line, But I reverse the old saying, “More trouble than it’s worth.” Some of these sites are no trouble at all. As I will cover in the rest of the sections, when you upload your images, you have finished that part of the job. Then it’s out of your hands.
So, if the top three agencies require twenty seconds per image to upload, it’s probably worth it. If you have to do the same amount of work for an agency that doesn’t produce, you need to drop them. But there are several low-to-middle tier agencies that require one or two clicks per batch. Not per image, per batch. So even if they earn little, it’s a simple decision to stay there.
Most of the larger agencies all have the same or similar images. But many others specialize. Alamy, in the UK, does editorial images. But even this is a broad genre. Once you decide on your niche, see if there are agencies that specialize in that. There are smaller agencies that only take travel or animals; even one that specializes in spooky images for book covers.
Another emerging market is videos, including those shot with drones. I won’t speak to those as they have never interested me. You do you.
Do your research. Besides the top three, and the middle and low tier sites you find on Microstock group, there are hundreds of small, specialty agencies out there. All it takes is one image to hit a home run. I’ve shown you my best-selling image, but this is my highest grossing from a single sale. It’s a simple baseball on a wood background, but it sold to a company that specialized in textbooks for a lot of money.
Take Pictures. Lots of Pictures
Finally, we get to the fun part. Or not. It isn’t a case of uploading a hundred images and wait for the money to come in. You have to feed the beast. Constantly. There have been no weeks and very few days in the last fifteen years when I didn’t upload. Currently, I am uploading 30 images a day. Seven days a week.
Wow, that’s a lot of photos, you say. But do the math. At Shutterstock, that’s 210 images out of 1.5 million. I’ll do the math for you. I am submitting .014% of their images. That’s not a needle in a haystack, that’s a piece of hay in a haystack.
But you have to do it. Constantly. When people search for images, they are either looking at categories or search by keyword, which we will get to in a minute. Within that search, the images come up either in terms of most sales or the newest images. If you have an old picture that hasn’t sold, no one will see it unless it is unique. Which is why I made the point above about unique access.
You need to remember this part. It’s a long road. Scratch that. It’s an endless road. If you stop contributing your income won’t stop. But it will fade. Over time, your sales will fall. Even though I still sell copies of it every day, my fried chicken was the #1 image in that keyword for months. Now, it’s not even on the first page.
Prepare Your Images for Stock
Okay, you studied, practiced, and perfected the art of photography. You’ve learned how to run a business. You’ve researched the stock agencies and decided what you want to focus on. You’ve taken a ton of photographs.
Now, the real work starts.
Sorry, I told you this wasn’t easy.
One thing you would have learned in photography is, “get it right in camera.” This is even more important in terms of stock photography. Yeah, you can fix almost anything these days in post-processing. But remember the numbers I quoted above. If I’m uploading 30 images a day, I can’t afford to spend an hour on each one.
I can’t afford to spend a minute on each one.
The better the photograph is in the camera, the less time you will spend processing it. This article will not address post-processing, but the image needs to look good and be technically perfect. Whether you shot it perfectly in the camera or did all the work in post-processing, every image must be:
Perfectly in focus. Selective focus is okay, but not to excess.
Perfectly lit. There should be little or no areas that are black or blown out. Learn to use the histogram.
Well composed. Composition is subjective, but there are guidelines, if not rules. Learn them. Use them. Besides things like the rule of thirds and leading lines, remember what you are selling. If they will use your image for an ad, there needs to be space for copy somewhere. If it’s for a book or magazine cover, it should be in portrait mode with space above or below the image for text.
But that’s still about the photography end of it. You have more work to do. For the image to sell, the buyer needs to find it. The way they find it is looking through categories on the site, or more often using keywords. Your images must contain all the correct and relevant data before you upload it. This data is called metadata.
The filename, title, and caption are important. For the name of the image, some sites use your filename, some use the title, and a few use both. I make these the same for simplicity. And don’t get cute. You aren’t selling art. Don’t call it American Gothic. Call it Man and Woman on Farm. Simple and descriptive.
The description. Some software calls it a caption. This is where you give a bit more information. Describe the scene and elements in detail. But not too much detail. Most sites have a limit for the description. 200 characters should be your maximum.
Keywords. A suitable name for it, because this is the key. This is where the game is won or lost. You will sell your images based on quality and relevance. But they will find it based on keywords. There is a lot of advice out there about keywords. Some people say to keep the list short and specific. Others say cram everything in there that you can.
My fifteen years’ experience says somewhere in between is best. You need a minimum of 10 keywords. Most places max out at 50, but 30 is more than enough. Some people say include things about the mood of the image. Or to include every color represented. I’ve heard you should include every element visible in the image. I’ve heard lots of things.
I say, think like a buyer. If you were searching for an image, and yours was the perfect fit, what would you have typed? Use that. Look back at my picture of fried chicken. What would you use? Fried chicken, fried, and chicken are obvious choices. (yes, you need to include variations like that).
Plate is a good keyword. Someone wouldn’t want the image if they were searching for plates, but what if they want a plate of fried chicken? There is blue in the placemat. Should you include blue? Many people say yes, I say no. If you were searching for something blue, is that the image you would buy? Don’t overthink it, but cover your bases. Several of the sites, including Shutterstock, have keyword tools that can help.
Trust me, a lot of this is luck, but much of it is practice, trial, and error. You’re just going to have to work some of this out. There is nothing to stop you from doing market research. Go to Shutterstock and do some searches. See what comes up.
And just as important, see what comes up that shouldn’t. Many unscrupulous photographers use a tactic known as keyword spamming. They try to cram in a bunch of popular keywords, knowing their image will come up in searches more often. And they will, but no one will buy them.
Few people searching for sex will buy a plate of fried chicken.
Best case, you irritate potential customers. Worst case, you get booted from the agency.
Don’t do it.
Upload to Stock Agencies
Okay, most of the work is done. You know which agencies you want to use. You have gone through their sign-up process and supplied any required forms. You have an account set up to receive your money and your images are ready to go.
Now you just have to upload them.
This is an easy step, but it varies from agency to agency. There are two basic ways to upload, using a web-based uploader and using an FTP client. If you don’t know what FTP is, I suggest you ignore that one for now. It can be easier in the long run, but you will learn a lot from using the web form. All agencies have one, while only some have FTP access.
If you have ever uploaded a file anywhere, the process will be familiar. You need to read and follow the on-screen instructions because they are all different. Most sites have their own forums where you can ask questions. Or use the Microstock forum.
Another way sites differ is the minimum and maximum file size. Minimums used to be a problem, but with today’s cameras, it would be hard to fall below the minimum. I’ve never come close to the maximum.
One way, they are almost all the same is categories. Besides the metadata you have included, most sites want you to pick the category your image belongs in. Sometimes this will be obvious and other times, not. Often, it is a judgment call.
Is this nature, architecture, or transportation? It’s a judgment call, but you can only choose one.
Once you upload, they have to approve your images. This can take minutes, days, or weeks. Agencies have varying degrees of difficulty and rigidity to standards. You should have already studied their guidelines so there’s no excuse for uploading something they don’t take. You will hear a lot of complaining about how long approvals take. Don’t worry about it. Upload every day and eventually, you will get approvals every day.
But reviewers are human and a lot of the review process is subjective. One thing is universal. You will get rejected. A lot. Part of this is the learning process. Part of it is the nature of the beast. After 50,000 uploads, I get rejects every day.
On the forums, you will see a lot of discussions about rejections, arguing about rejections, and resubmitting images.
Don’t waste your time. This is a numbers game. If they take it, great. If not, move on. In the time you take to argue about one image and maybe getting it on the site, you could have uploaded a dozen others.
I can tell you one fact that took me a long time to learn. You will not want to hear this but hear it anyway. And remember it.
No single image of yours will make a bit of difference. When I first started, I remember pictures I couldn’t wait to get uploaded. I just knew they would sell like crazy.
Another image I shot early on was a tile floor. The only reason I took it was to test the light in the room I was in. What the hell, I uploaded it anyway. It was my best seller for several months. Numbers. It’s all about quantity and quality and more quantity.
Rinse and Repeat
And that last bit brings us to the closing. You can’t rest on your laurels. You don’t have any laurels. The beginning will be rough because there is a lot to learn. Most of it I can’t teach you as there is so much trial and error. Remember, they don’t call it trial and success.
You will fail and it will take a lot of time. Remember, I said I sold an image on my first day? Yep, I earned a quarter. But you have to keep at it. Those quarters and dollars add up. I’ve been making a full-time living at it for over a decade. The primary thing to remember is never to quit. The more you do it, the less time it will take.
Besides time spent shooting, I spend a half-hour in the mornings uploading and an hour in the evening processing. Your results will vary.
I have given you almost everything you need to know to compete with me in stock photography.
Almost. I’m not an idiot.
But I can guarantee that if you follow the steps above; all of them, you will make money in stock photography. And over time, that money can grow to be quite substantial.