Selling photos in the stock photo industry in 2024 has 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!
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.
Want to know how long ago? Here is some insight into the history of stock photography.
And to sell stock photos online, there is no better way than to submit them to a stock photo agency. These are middlemen companies that offer large catalogs of images sourced from contributors on their own websites. Sometimes they also sell through distribution partners, which can be other microstock sites or companies in related fields. 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.
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 native tools to assist contributors.
And finally, any serious stock photography website will provide you with clear guidelines and forms to handle all tax and payment information from your sales to make sure everything is clear and properly managed.
The benefits are unbeatable.
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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, content that is in high demand, etc.
Another important aspect to consider is that, while you are not required to be a professional photographer or content creator, nor graphic designer or illustrator, to sell photos online if you want to be approved into the best stock photo sites, and to have real chances of selling and make the most money for your work, you need to produce professional-level images –this applies for videos as well–. This means you will need to invest both time and money into training, improving your skills, and getting the necessary tools –software and hardware– to make sure your pictures are on par with what agencies look for and buyers want to buy.
Spawning.ai, for example, has a web-based tool to help you search and find your images in training datasets.
For more info, check our full report on AI-generated 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.
A quick tip: Most of these are great options to sell stock video clips, as well.
Shutterstock is one of the leading companies in the stock photo industry, as you can learn in our Shutterstock Contributor 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. 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.
This agency uses a combination of proprietary AI technology and a team of expert reviewers to process all content submissions, often within 24 hours of being submitted, you can already have them approved and available online. Image and footage submissions require a descriptive title and up to 50 keywords, but they provide a lot of assistance through the aforementioned automatic keywording tool. Not only that, but they also use computer vision to analyze and report content trends, so contributors can plan what to shoot and submit to maximize their selling potential.
According to Shutterstock's reporting, they had 2 million contributors across all media types (photos, illustrations, video, music, etc.) from all over the world at the end of 2021. And they range from part-time enthusiasts to full-time professionals. An interesting point: they reported that their 5 highest-earning contributors were responsible for only 6% of total downloads in 2021, which speaks about just how diverse the contributor base is, and what kind of selling opportunities you have here. You can find more about it in our article here.
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 minimum payout threshold is $35.
Shutterstock has paid over $1 Billion in royalties to contributors already, so it’s a good place to start.
You can sell editorial content here, too, as they have their dedicated editorial stock library with editorial subscription plans available.
Adobe Stock is Adobe’s native stock imagery service (built on the base of the old Fotolia agency), and it’s very popular amongst graphic designers and 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.
There is free access to the contributor portal with your Adobe ID, where you can submit your initial pictures to get approved to sell for commercial use. The added benefit is that if you use photo editing software on the Creative Cloud platform (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.
Just imagine: you can use Adobe's flagship photo editor to remove noise or other objects and perfect your images before submitting them. You can use Illustrator to create beautiful vector art and then sell it as stock. You can manage your files with Lightroom or Adobe Bridge. You can sort out your model and property release documents easily. All done with products from the Adobe suite.
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.
Shutterstock is a good start if you have very commercial-styled images. They have a very large customer base of companies and marketers. But you start with low commissions and need to sell constantly to reach a higher take.
Adobe Stock puts your images in front of millions of creatives through Adobe Creative Cloud, so it's ideal if you have more artistic and, most of all, trendy photos. The commission rate is okay –not great– but it's flat, so you earn the same no matter how much you sell.
Both sites are potentially good for earning money from your images.
iStock and Getty Images
iStock –formerly iStockphoto– is a renowned stock photo agency, famous for being one of the few 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.
Selling your photos on iStock is a good idea. 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).
We told you how to sign up and what are the best sites to consider. But, what does it take to sell images on a stock agency? How to increase Shutterstock earnings? Let’s see.
First, 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 to be competitive.
Regarding gear, while years ago a good DSLR camera was a must to shoot photos for stock, 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 parred). Just keep in mind that stock photo libraries are full of technically perfect images shot by dedicated pros, so you need to bring it on if you want your iPhone photos 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 are paid, and you can get them with a monthly subscription or longer-term options.
However, other more user-friendly photo editors might do the job well enough if that's what you prefer. All in all, digital images need to be of professional quality to sell as stock photography.
Here you can see the best photo editing free trials to test out how well a professional editing tool works for you before you commit to a paid plan with them!
You may want to check our list of 13 pro image editing tips, too!
If you are interested in selling images online, we have a list of tools and resources that will come in handy to optimize your workflow and your images' quality. Take a look:
–Best AI-powered photo tools for editing and post-processing images
–Top 10+ image upscalers to enhance photo quality
–19+ paid and free background removers to get photo cutouts and transparent backgrounds
–How to change the resolution of a photo using software tools
–How to get a higher resolution of an image you already have
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. You must include a model release every time your image includes recognizable people, as well as property releases if your photo shows an identifiable private property. 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 custom license and you must verify both the usage rights they grant to buyers, as well 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 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.
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 creative 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 at other agencies 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 have more photos online. But you cannot just submit photos at random and gloss over the strategic aspect. Even if you’re not a pro, succeeding as a contributor requires carefully planning what to add to your portfolio in each agency, to upload content while keeping quality and style consistent. More images mean potentially more sales, and that's what you must aim for.
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% make considerably less.
Back in the early 2000s when microstock sites –selling images online with a minimum payment threshold– became a thing, it was a get-rich-quick scheme both for the companies and the stock 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.
Finally, and before we go, let’s answer all the common questions most of you have about selling photos online.
Can I make money selling photos online? Can I make money selling my photos?
Yes, you can. All it takes is for one person to download one of your images from an agency, and you’re already earning. And you absolutely can sell your photos online: as long as you pass the submission review and your images are accepted, you will be in. No credentials of any kind are required, anyone can sell their photos on the stock photo sites.
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 money can you make selling photos online? How much can I earn from my photos? Is it worth it?
With the top agencies' royalty rates, a stock photographer makes on average between $0.05 and $0.25 per image sold via Standard License, and between $40 and $250 or so per Extended License (though these are fairly rarer, especially for beginners).
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 year, overall (if you sign up to multiple agencies). If you are serious and dedicated to it, this number can potentially grow.
Whether it’s worth it 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 bestseller, and the realistic, honest, authentic style has been the hottest for several years, with no sign of declining.
Can you make money on Shutterstock?
Yes, Shutterstock is one of the best-selling photo banks on the web and very popular in the global community of creatives. So it is possible to make sales and earn money on Shutterstock.
How much do you earn from Shutterstock?
Depends on how much you sell. Shutterstock counts your lifetime earnings to rank you as a contributor and gives you a royalty percentage based on that ranking. New contributors earn 15% of every sale, but that can go up to 40% at the highest selling level.
However, given Shutterstock's characteristically low prices for photo selling, it is a passive income stream for most contributors, not a means to earn a living.
How many pictures do I need to make money on Shutterstock?
Shutterstock is a game of numbers. You are ranked –and earn more– the more downloads your content gets. And you need more than 100 customer downloads just to move to level 2. You can upload just a few photos if you wish, but that means your chances of earning a substantial amount are slim. If you upload images constantly and build a large portfolio, you improve your odds of making more money. Most photographers who succeed on the Shutterstock platform have thousands of photos in their Shutterstock contributor account.
Is it worth becoming a Shutterstock contributor?
If you have the photography skills, the free time, and the patience it takes to build a sizable portfolio and accumulate enough sales, then yes.
The Shutterstock contributor program is one of the best, it makes the process of uploading photos very simple, gives you multiple tools to track and improve your sales, and you have more chances of selling here than at other sites.
Just keep in mind that other contributors –often professional photographers– are already uploading photos of the highest quality, so there is a lot of competition.
How much can you make selling photos on iStock?
iStock is a microstock site, so it pays low royalty rates and has low prices for photo selling. You start with a 15% share of every sale, and you can reach between 25% and 40% royalties if you become an exclusive contributor. How much you earn per sale depends on whether the sale comes from subscription customers or on-demand buyers, but in every case, it's not a lot. You can sell photos on iStock to get some side money, in most cases.
How much does Getty Images pay for photos?
Unlike microstock agencies, Getty Images is a stock photography site selling pictures at the high-end of the market spectrum. They work with exclusive contributors only. A Getty Images contributor earns 20% of the sale price for every photo sold. But keeping in mind that a single picture can sell for anything from $150 up to thousands of dollars (if it includes exclusive rights of use, for example), here you can make a lot more than just a few dollars.
Can you sell photos to Getty Images?
You can sell photos on Getty Images. The agency doesn't buy your photographs, but they put them up for sale in their catalog and split the profits with you if and when they sell.
Are Getty Images profitable?
If you make it into the contributor base, Getty can be a very profitable marketplace. Their premium rates to license imagery, exclusive contracts for selling your artwork, and overall high quality of the service, mean you have slightly less competition and potentially earn more from one sale here than you would for 100 sales on a microstock agency.
Some Getty-hired artists do this as their full-time job.
How much can you make selling photos on Adobe Stock?
When you sell photos on Adobe Stock you earn 33% of the sale price for yourself. Considering the Adobe Stock website sells images under subscriptions and for very low prices, you can roughly make from 33 to 70 cents per image sold. A regular Adobe Stock contributor can make from hundreds and up to thousands a year, though, in accumulated sales.
Can you sell photos on Adobe Portfolio?
Adobe Portfolio is a user-friendly website-building tool to create a webpage where you can showcase your creative work, including photos. However, it is not an e-commerce platform. If you want to sell the photos on your Adobe portfolio directly, you need to combine your page with an e-commerce solution.
It's much easier to link to your Adobe Stock contributor account.
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!