The Honest Guide to Selling Photos Online in 2021

When you look at how popular stock images are as a creative resource,  it’s only a matter of time until you start wondering about selling photos online yourself. And you can, even if you are not a pro photographer. If you have the skills and the gear to shoot nice, high-quality photos, this is a good chance to make some extra cash.

Selling photos in the stock photo industry in 2021 has its own methods and possibilities that are different from those from a few years ago. 

So today, we are bringing up our expertise and insider knowledge in this honest guide to becoming a stock photo contributor. 

From outlets to workflow to managing expectations, it’s all in here!

Stock Photo Sites: The Easiest Way to Sell Photos Online

When it comes to making money from your photos or illustrations online, selling them as stock images under a royalty-free license is the best way to maximize earnings: you can make more from licensing one photo over and over, than from selling it, copyright included, once. People discovered how profitable this was long ago.

And to sell stock photos online, there is no better way than submitting them to a stock photo agency. These are middlemen companies that offer large catalogs of images sourced from contributors, on their own websites. They license the images and cut a commission from the sale price. This reduces your workload and costs by a significant amount, as you don’t have to worry about website hosting services, setting up an online store, legalities, and all the tasks of daily operating in e-commerce. They handle everything. Not to mention, these sites have state-of-the-art search engines, dedicated curation, and bonus user-friendly features that attract customers in a way a small e-shop can’t. 

You don’t have to worry about the integrity of your work, either. Serious stock agencies protect your images with strong watermarks, iron-clad licensing contracts, and thorough policing.

Furthermore, you can automate and speed up the submission process with classic and state-of-the-art software tools and plugins (things like FTPs or AI-powered auto-keywording). Some agencies, like Shutterstock, offer their own native tools to assist contributors. 

The benefits are unbeatable. 

How to Sell Stock Photography Online

So, how do you go about selling your work on a stock photo website? It’s relatively simple. You need to sign up as a contributor on the agency’s website and submit an initial batch of images for their consideration. All serious agencies have very clear instructions regarding the sign-up process and detailed submission guidelines that include things like desired file formats, maximum and minimum file sizes, technical quality requirements, etc. 

A very important factor to keep in mind when submitting photos to a stock photography website is that you must be the copyright owner for all the content you upload and include model releases and property releases for all images depicting recognizable people and/or private property. Agencies are very serious in their policing of legal matters, so this is critical to know and abide by. 

The Best Stock Photography Sites to Sell Images

There are many, many stock photo agencies out there –just have a look at how big the stock photo market is–, but there is a handful that is decidedly the best to sell your images online. 

Shutterstock homepage

Shutterstock is one of the leading companies in the stock photo industry, as you can learn in our Shutterstock review. The Shutterstock Contributor program is one of the best to join because the huge customer base ensures your images will be exposed to millions of potential buyers all over the world, and thus you have a higher earning potential. Plus, this agency takes care of easing the contributor side with great functionality: automatic keyword suggestion, real-time tracking of sales and earnings, and even a Shutterstock Contributor app to manage your account and even submit files directly on your iPhone or Android smartphone. 


In Shutterstock, how much you can earn from your images depends on your overall performance. They have a ranking system where your overall sales number places you in levels from 1 (start point) to 6, where each higher level means a higher royalty rate. Depending on where you are level-wise, you can earn between 15% and 40% from each sale’s price. The payout threshold is $35. 

Shutterstock has paid over $1 Billion in royalties to contributors already, so it’s clearly a good place to start.

Sign up as a Shutterstock contributor here. 

Adobe Stock homepage

Adobe Stock is Adobe’s native stock imagery service (built on the base of the old Fotolia agency), and it’s very popular amongst visual creatives, just look at our Adobe Stock review for more info. The main appeal for buyers and contributors alike is that it’s fully integrated into Adobe Creative Cloud, accessible from within applications. If you use Adobe’s photo editing software (Photoshop, etc.) to edit your images, you may also use their technology to sell your work on Adobe Stock. AI-fueled keywording, direct import of albums from Adobe Lightroom, and access to Adobe Portfolio are some of the perks of being an Adobe Stock contributor


Here you get 33% royalties for every image you sell, and considering how well-known and favored Adobe Stock is in the creative community, there is a good chance you will make some money. 

Sign up as an Adobe Stock contributor here.

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iStock and Getty Images homepage

iStock –formerly iStockphoto– is a renowned stock photo agency, famous for being one of the few in offering exclusive images (that can only be found on their site) and because for many years, they’ve been owned by Getty Images, one of the most prestigious stock photography powerhouses in the world. more on this, in our iStock review and our Getty Images review.

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Selling your photos on iStock is a good idea. And all you have to do is download their Contributor by Getty Images app, register, and submit 3 to 6 sample images. The agency will review them and notify you if you’ve made it in. They may invite you to contribute to iStock, or even to the parent site Getty Images. 

iStock contributors all begin as non-exclusive, earning 15% royalties per image sold, but once you are accepted you can apply to become exclusive, and if approved, you will earn between 25% and 40% per sale. Getty Images’ contributors are all exclusive and get paid 20% of every sale (keep in mind Getty’s prices are considerably higher, so you will likely earn more per sale anyway). 

Sign up as an iStock/Getty Images contributor here.

How To Increase Earnings as Stock Photo Contributor (Exclusive Discounts)

We told you how to sign up and what are the best sites to consider. But, what does it take to actually sell images on a stock agency? How to increase Shutterstock earnings? Let’s see. 

1. Quality

First of all, you don’t have to be a professional photographer. But you do need to upload high quality images! This means technical –high-resolution, large photo files so buyers can adapt them to all standard photo sizes— and also composition, as the best-selling images are those with real commercial value and skill shot. Today, the market is full of professionals and very high-value digital photos, so your work has to be top-notch in order to be competitive.

2. Gear

Regarding gear, while before a good DSLR camera was a must, mobile photography is very popular today, so you may be okay with a high-end smartphone camera capable of shooting in high resolution (as long as your shooting and editing skills are par). Just keep in mind that stock photo libraries are full of technically perfect images shot by dedicated pros, so you need to really bring it on if you are to level up to them.

3. Image Editing

Finally, post-processing. All images must be edited to get rid of imperfections such as noise and sharpness, plus the edits that can help enhance a photograph’s appeal (color correction, for example). Image editing can make all the difference in your sales!

The best way to go about this is with professional image editors such as the ones included in Adobe Creative Cloud: Adobe Photoshop which is the industry standard for pro editing, Adobe Illustrator if you work with digital illustrations, and Adobe Lightroom which offers some workflow advantages, such as editing presets that help to achieve a professional finish and also do batch editing of multiple images at once.

These tools can be costly, but we have great deals for you to seize:

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Keep in mind, these are professional-grade tools, and they have a steep learning curve in order to produce great results. But, now there are AI-powered photo tools that come in handy to edit images like a pro even if you don't have the skills.

All in all, digital images need to be professional-quality to sell as stock photography. 

4 Must-Know Facts for Stock Photo Contributors

Selling images through stock photo sites is relatively easy, but there are still important aspects to know, consider, and always keep in mind:

Royalty Rates – All serious and reliable agencies set up a royalty rate for the artist (thus cutting a commission for themselves). And in the best-selling agencies, said rates are usually low. If you were outraged at reading that the above-listed companies cut as much as 85% of the sales profits, don’t be… because that’s pretty standard in the industry. There are a few outlets splitting profits 50/50, and even some that go a bit higher. The catch? They don’t sell that much, and 50% of nothing is still nothing. Your best bet is to sell on the most popular agencies, where you earn less per sale but have higher chances of selling more. 

Copyright and Releases – Stock photography websites sell licenses for digital downloads of your work. They do not transfer copyright to buyers, and you also don’t transfer the copyright of your work to the agency. You remain the owner of all your work. 

Equally important, you must be the legal copyright holder of all files you submit to agencies. And you must include a model release every time it’s pertinent. Agencies take legalese very seriously. 

License Terms – While most of these providers work with royalty-free licenses which are pretty standard, each agency has its own custom license and you must verify both the usage rights they grant to buyers, as all the legal requirements and guarantees you must provide. Not doing so can result in more than one headache. 

Potential Earnings – Royalty-free images are sold for anything between $0.20 and $20 apiece (each agency sets up its own prices, but there are market standards). Keeping in mind only as much as 40% of that will go to your pocket, and that the best agencies have millions of images available, as a beginner you will not earn a lot overnight. It’ll take some time to build your portfolio and make enough sales to reach a payout. And in general, it’ll always be more of a side hustle than anything else.

Insider Tips for Stock Photo Contributors

Now you know how to sell images on stock photo sites and what to expect from it, we have a few special tips, from our industry experts, to help you boost up your stock photo game as a contributor. 

Stay In Touch with Visual Trends

Stock photography websites normally have lists of in-demand content for contributors to get inspired. But besides this, you need to be on top of all visual trends. Guides like our annual Photography Trends report are great, but you must also keep an eye on the happenings around the world. Seeing what is selling lately is also a huge help, and our list of the most downloaded images can assist with that.

For example, 2021 visual content is being considerably affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as by social movements like Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, climate change activism, and feminist initiatives, among others. 

Overall, the authentic style is still the dominant trend that permeates all the others. 

Build a Portfolio

Stock photography is a business based on volume. To sell more, you need to upload more images to the agencies. And not just any images. Even if you’re not a pro, succeeding as a contributor requires carefully planning what to add to your portfolio in each agency, keeping quality and style consistent. 

80/20 Rule

The stock photography business is also all in the numbers, following a classic 80/20 scheme: 20% of contributors are top earners making good money from stock photo sites, and the remaining 80% makes considerably less.

Manage Expectations 

Back in the early 2000s when microstock –selling images online with a minimum payment threshold– became a thing, it was a get-rich-quick scheme both for the companies, and the photographers. Those who entered the game back then, are typically among the top earners even today. 

But a lot has changed in the past 20 years. The industry is still healthily blossoming, mind you, but with so many billions (yes, billions) of images available to download all over the web, and so many contributors trying to make a sale, the market is oversaturated. 

Does it mean it’s too late for beginners? No, certainly not. But it does mean your expectations cannot be those of making a living out of stock photos. At best, you can aspire to make a nice passive income, a supplementary income to fund your other creative endeavors, or to add to your overall earnings from other sources. 

A lot of artists combine revenue sources to make more from their images, such as photo prints, for example, you can link your portfolio to print on demand services and sell prints of your pictures.

Stock Photo Contributor FAQ

Finally, and before we go, let’s answer all the common questions most of you have about selling photos online. 

Can I actually make money selling photos online?

Yes, you can. All it takes is for one person to download one of your images from an agency, and you’re already earning. 

Just remember to have realistic expectations. This is a way to get extra money, not a living. 

How much does it cost to be a stock photo contributor? 

Nothing. Most reliable stock photo sites don’t charge anything for you to sign up as a contributor and submit your work. 

How do I become a stock photo contributor?

You register in a stock photo website’s contributor area and submit sample images. Once approved, you can start uploading images to their catalog right away. 

How much can I earn from my photos? Is it worth it?

There is no real ceiling for how much you can earn, but in the current market conditions –lots of images, lots of contributors– you can optimistically make maybe a couple of hundred dollars in your first few months, overall. If you are serious and dedicated to it, this number can potentially grow. 

Whether it’s worthy or not is up to you, depending on what your expectations and possibilities are. 

How much does the stock photo agency take?

Stock photo agencies cut between 60% and 80% from every sale, on average. 

What photos sell better? 

The answer to this question varies from day to day, as the visual world is constantly evolving. In general terms, photos of people are an all-time best-seller, and the realistic, honest, authentic style is has been the hottest for several years, with no sign of declining. 

And that's our tell-all guide to selling images online! Do you have questions we haven't addressed here? Drop us a comment, we'll be happy to respond!

Avatar of Ivanna Attié

Ivanna Attié

I am Content Manager, Researcher, and Author in and Stock Photo Press and its many stock media-oriented publications. I am a passionate communicator with a love for visual imagery and an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. Lucky enough to enter the wonderful world of stock photography working side-by-side with experienced experts, I am happy to share my research, insights, and advice about image licensing, stock photography offers, and the stock media industry with everyone in the creative community. My background is in Communication and Journalism, and I also love literature and performing arts.

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