Making money with stock photography

Stock photography is maybe the easiest way of selling your photos online for money…

Admittedly not just anyone can submit their holiday snaps, sit around waiting for a juicy cheque to arrive and start making money from stock photography. You do need some level of skill behind a camera.

But you also don’t need to be a National Geographic photography guru to start make some extra cash.

All you really need to know are these three things:

  1. How to take a technically sound photo
  2. What kinds of images sell well, both commercial and editorial
  3. How to properly put in the effort to make sure your photos can be found by the people looking for them

Before we dive into these three things let’s talk about how you can get set up with a micro stock agency.

Getting started with a stock photography website

The first thing you’ll need to do is open a sellers account with one of the big, reputable stock sites. I suggest either iStock or Shutterstock but there are plenty of other options available from big players like Adobe and Fotolia.

The reason why I suggest iStock or Shutterstock is because they are considered to be two of the biggest players in the micro stock industry and I personally use them so I can talk you through the exact process. Although the process will be more or less the same for any stock site.

TIP: You might have heard of Getty Images and be thinking that they are the biggest stock website out there (and you’d be right) but they are also the most stringent when it comes to what they accept. Getty Images own iStock but iStock is easier to get approved for, so start there until you feel ready to step up to Getty itself.

Firstly you’ll need to find the contributor login page and sign up for a contributor account. You can do this by simply Googling “Shutterstock contributor” for example.

Make sure you fill out your profile with as much info as you can and upload a profile picture. Having a complete profile makes you look more credible and less amateurish.

Then you’ll be asked to upload 1-3 images for review to make sure you will be a good fit for selling stock photos.

Make sure you upload your best images as you will still need to get your account approved before you can start selling anything. The images you upload will be manually reviewed by a real person so be sure to give each image a good title, description and plenty of relevant keywords.

Once your account is approved you’re in! Now the real work starts…

Taking a technically sound photo

The biggest reason why photos get rejected is that it’s technically a bad photo. What I mean by that is it may contain digital noise, be under/overexposed, have a horizon that isn’t level etc…

Luckily, these are easy things to either correct in camera at the time or in post production afterwards.

Let’s be honest though, if you’re thinking about making money with stock photography then these are things that you should be on top of by now anyway.

The kinds of images that sell well on stock websites

You have two main categories in stock photography: editorial & commercial.


Editorial images are photos that will be used in publications both online and offline typically to accompany a piece of news or blog post. An image that has been accepted under a “editorial use only” license CAN include people, buildings and logos that HAVEN’T signed a release form.

Editorial Image Example
This is a great example of a good editorial photo. It’s of a famous skate spot in Barcelona that plenty of publications write about on a regular basis.

The kinds of photos that work well under an editorial only license tell a story or help to visually build up a picture of a place. Imagine the story and think, what image would I like to go along with this if I wrote about it?

The good thing about editorial images is that you have more freedom because you don’t have to worry about getting anyone who is in the photo to sign a model release or liability waiver. The same goes for buildings and other privately owned property.

The bad thing about editorial is that it limits the amount of potential buyers of that image because it can only be used under certain circumstances.


Commercial images can be used to help directly sell a product or service (in a TV or internet advert for example) as well as for editorial purposes. For an image to be accepted under a commercial license you need to have a model release form signed by any person, as well as by the owner of any building, that is in the photo.

If you don’t want to, or can’t, get a model release signed then you either need to compose your photo so that nobody or any building is in it or submit it as editorial.

Commercial images are much more likely to sell though as they can be used in a much wider range of circumstances.

As with any stock image you need to think outside the box. Most things have already been done so you need to get creative and think niche. Don’t bother with the cliche office worker getting angry in front of a white backdrop, it’s already been done. The competition is too high and you’ll never end up making any money.

Cliche Stock Photo
Seriously, just forget about it.

Making sure people can find your photos

Titles, descriptions and keywords. These things need to be on point, and oh boy is it possibly the most boring thing ever.

Especially when you have a ton of photos to do in one go.

This is the hardest part of selling stock photography but is probably the most important. Without good titles, descriptions and keywords your photos are never going to show up when somebody searches for them.

If you have a backlog of a couple hundred photos it will take you hours, no scratch that, it will take you days of bashing away at your keyboard to get them all ready to be submitted.

But you can’t do it half heartedly.

If you do you are only cheating yourself and will ultimately end up loosing out on potential sales. The positive part though is that once it’s done you never ever have to do it again. If you upload enough photos (and we are talking hundreds or even thousands) that include all of the necessary keywords, you will get a nice little pay check at the end of the month, every month without having to put in any more work.

Stock photography is maybe one of the best forms of passive income.

When you are thinking of keywords, just like when taking the photos, you need to get creative. Some sites like Shutterstock will give you a list of suggested keywords which is great, it certainly helps to reduce the workload. But don’t just stick to them.

Every element of the photo should have it’s own keyword, the more the better. Is it summer? Is it raining? What country was it taken in? Does the photo portray a certain mood or emotion?

Below is one of my own images, surprisingly it’s actually my best selling stock photo ever. I say surprisingly because it’s for sure not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but that’s what stock photography is all about. It’s a picture of a mountain called La Concha in Marbella, Spain.

Before I uploaded this image (and a few other similar ones from slightly different angles) there were only about 2-3 other images that came up when you searched for “La Concha Marbella”.

Now when you search for it the first two images that come up are mine. It’s niche, and probably not many people are searching for it, but I would rather come up at the top for a search term that 100 people per month make than come up on page 10 for a search term 10,000 people per month make.

Back to keywords though. This is the exact list of keywords I used for the image above so you can get an idea of how to go about keywording your own images.

  • La
  • Concha
  • Mountain
  • Spain
  • Andalusia
  • Puerto
  • Banus
  • Beach
  • Blue
  • Costa
  • Del
  • Sol
  • Europe
  • Harbour
  • Landscape
  • Malaga
  • Marbella
  • Med
  • Mediterranean
  • Ocean
  • Province
  • Resort
  • Rocks
  • Sandy
  • Sea
  • Seaside
  • Sky
  • Summer
  • Sun
  • Sunlit
  • Sunny
  • Travel
  • Water
  • Waterfront
  • Western

Use as many keywords as you can, but just remember to keep them relevant. If you use too many irrelevant keywords your image won’t get approved when you submit it.

Final thoughts on making money with stock photography

One final thing to think about is whether you are going to submit your images to just one stock site or a variety. If you are only going to use one site then when you sign up you will have an option to make your account “exclusive”. It means you won’t upload your images anywhere else and for that you’ll get a bigger percentage cut of the sales.

I recommend signing up for at least 2-3 sites under a non-exclusive account and seeing which performs best. Then when you know where you’re selling most of your images you can concentrate on only that site. Most stock sites let you switch your account from non-exclusive to exclusive pretty easily, so do that and start earning an even bigger percentage.

As long as you realise making money with stock photography actually takes a lot of work (at least until you have built up a big portfolio) and is anything but a get-rich-quick scheme, then go for it.

It takes time and many hours to build up a big enough portfolio that you actually end up getting paid at the end of every month, but once you’re there it becomes passive income.

All you have to do is maintain it and upload new photos that you think are suitable as and when you take them. If you keep on top of it there’s no reason why you can’t keep growing your income from stock photography month on month.

If you’re still up for the challenge and want to begin making money with stock photography, then I recommend also reading this article about getting into travel photography.

Good luck!



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