Skip to content

How to sell your photos online: the complete guide

In this guide, I explain how you can make money selling your pictures on microstock websites. You can also find the list of the best microstock agencies.

If you search for info about selling photos online, you’ll come across very different opinions: some say it’s impossible to earn much, while others say they make a lot of money. This is an interesting topic because who wouldn’t like to travel, take pictures, and even make money simultaneously? Can you leave everything behind and become a digital nomad?

The big question is: can you make money with your pictures?

I first became interested in this topic in 2010, but I wasn’t sure if it was worth spending a lot of time editing and uploading thousands of pictures on different microstock agencies. Years later, I realized that I should have started earlier! After all, selling microstock pictures is a great way to become a digital nomad and keep travelling the world. But don’t worry: it’s never too late, and you can start selling your pictures even today. The important thing is that you have clear in mind the pros and cons of this type of business. That’s why I’m writing this in-depth article.

Selling your pictures: what does it mean?

Selling your photos means allowing someone to use your pictures in exchange for money. Remember that even if you allow someone to use your pictures, you still own the images. Where the pictures can be used and how is established by the type of license under which the images were sold.

Not long ago, if you were a photographer and wanted to sell your pictures, you could do it in person or ask an agency to do it for you. Those agencies had physical archives with millions of pictures. Today, things are pretty much the same: you can sell pictures directly or use an agency. The main difference is that there are no physical archives, only web servers with millions of digital files.

Most Profitable Places to Sell Your Photos Online

So what should you do if you want to make money with your pictures? Should you sell them directly to the final customers or use an agency and let them do all the marketing for you? Well, you’ll sell them through agencies most of the time, and in this guide, I’ll mainly talk about them. In the real world, it doesn’t happen often that a customer contacts you, asking to buy your images.

One thing to remember is that all agencies keep a commission. They must maintain servers that store millions of digital files and spend money on marketing to find customers. How much those agencies keep varies a lot, though. While some keep ‘only’ 50% of the sale price as a commission, others keep 85% of your earnings!

There are two main categories of agencies: microstock and macrostock.

What is Microstock?

what is a microstock agency

Microstock agencies accept different files, including photos, stock footage (short videos), audio, and vector files. These files are usually sold with a Royalty-Free (RF) license.

Royalty-free, or RF, refers to the right to use copyright material or intellectual property without paying royalties or license fees for each use.

You can decide whether to be an exclusive contributor to one agency. In that case, you’ll earn more but won’t be allowed to sell the same (or similar) images to other agencies. You can also decide to sell only some pictures with an exclusive license and upload the others to many agencies.

Microstock agencies have two main characteristics: the price per sale is usually low. I’m talking here about 0,25$ per sale or lower. On the other hand, since the price is so low, you can sell the same image many times.

The most important Microstock agencies are:

What is Macrostock?

what is a macrostock agency

The other big players are the Macrostock agencies. As you can imagine, these agencies usually sell pictures for high prices, and most of the time, the sale is made with a Royalty Managed (RM) license.

  • Rights-Managed or RM refers to a copyright license that, if purchased by a user, allows the one-time use of the photo as specified by the license.

This means that the pictures sold can be used only once. If the buyer wants to use the same picture in the future, he must buy it a second time. Now I’m sure you wonder: who would buy from a Macrostock agency if you have to spend more than you would on a Microstock site? The price per sale is usually high, but the picture is usually only available on that particular agency.

There are few Macrostock sites left, and the big players are mainly two:

What about NFT?

NFTs are a relatively new technology that allows you to monetize digital art. It’s a complex topic that deserves a separate article. I’ve discussed it here if you’re interested.

Selling your photographs: Microstock vs Macrostock

So what about you? Where should you start to sell your pictures and make money even while traveling?

If you only look at things from a photographer’s perspective, you would probably opt for macrostock. However, you have to look at things from a buyer’s perspective: if you buy a picture for a blog article or a Facebook AD campaign, will you be willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a single image? Definitely not. That’s why today, most people who need pictures buy them from Microstock websites such as Shutterstock.

This is your decision, but you must think carefully about it because it’s difficult to change things once you start selling.

If you specialize in a particular niche, consider uploading only to Macrostock agencies.

How about selling your pictures independently?

Another option is selling your pictures directly through your website. This presents some challenges: first, you need a lot of space in your hosting, given that every picture can take up a lot of space.

Then, you have to set up an e-commerce or some system to allow people to find and buy your images, and that’s not easy. Of course, there will be times when some customers will contact you to purchase some of your images even if you don’t have an e-commerce, but that’s very unusual.

So, what’s the best solution to sell your pictures through your website? There are several options; one was the platform Bluemelon.com (now closed). These platforms allow you to create an online portfolio with integrated e-commerce, so you don’t have to think about the technical stuff.

These websites usually also keep a percentage of your earnings as a commission.

What are some of the pros and cons of this system?

Pros

  • Control over pricing and licensing
  • Direct contact with customers

Con

  • Annual fees to use the platform
  • You will have to invest a lot in marketing otherwise no buyer will find your photos.

To me, the last point is the most significant disadvantage. In the real world, competing with agencies such as Shutterstock, which has substantial financial marketing resources, is very hard.

Can you make lots of money quickly selling your photos online?

The simple answer is: no, it’s not possible. Sorry about it, but there are no legal ways to get rich quickly, and photography is no exception. However, you can make money and travel if you are resolute and methodical! It takes some time, though. How long does it take? It depends on the time and effort you’ll put into this business.

This is a list of some of the main pros and cons of selling photos on the internet:

Pros

  • Passive income: Once you upload your pictures, you can earn even while sleeping or at the beach. And this can continue for years after uploading.
  • Professional growth: Your shots should communicate a concept or an idea and they must have a very high quality. This is a positive aspect because this will help you improve and grow.
  • Diverse Market: Agencies cater to a diverse market, with buyers ranging from bloggers and small businesses to large corporations and advertisers.

Cons

  • Non-immediate results: The more a photo is sold, the more likely it is to appear at the top of the results. This means it may take some time to start selling if there is a lot of competition in your niche.
  • Big portfolio needed: Whether you decide to focus on microstock or macrostock agencies, you will need to upload many photos before seeing decent sales volumes, and it will take a lot of time and effort.
  • 80/20: As Pareto discovered, 80% of the effects come from the 20% of the causes. In other words, 80% of your earnings will come only from about 20% of your pictures.
  • AI: The advent of text-generated images (which I discuss here) means that anyone can generate professional photos in a few clicks, reducing the need to purchase images online.

Which camera should you get and which is the best software?

The best camera is the one you can afford. You want to get a camera with at least an APS-C sensor. This is because smaller sensors will produce images with too much digital noise. This being said any entry-level mirrorless will work just fine. I don’t recommend any specific brand. I use Canon because my first camera was a Canon, not for any other reason.

If you can afford it, you might consider getting a drone. Don’t forget to check if you can use it when traveling abroad and need special permits.

Regarding the post-processing software, there are two main options: Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom is the best tool for editing tons of pictures quickly, but Photoshop is far more powerful.

If you often digitally blend your multi-exposure images, I recommend getting RayaPro panel for Photoshop. It will save you a lot of time. It’s my favorite Photoshop Panel. I also use Luminar Neo, a new, more advanced software that I recommend.

Selling your photos online: is it worth it?

Sadly, I can’t tell you what to do and whether you should jump into this adventure. But I can tell you that this is not the right business for you if you are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme. If you think that Microstock is terrible because it’s ruining the market, maybe you are right, but I learned that you cannot expect the market to adapt to you. It’s the other way around.

You can either accept and benefit from the change, as many people have done for years or sit down and think about the good old days of analogic photography.  I can personally say that it’s possible to sell photos online and make money while traveling, but you need patience, humility, and perseverance!

Which are the best MICROSTOCK websites to sell your photos in?

fisherman cormorant

The landscape of stock agencies changes quickly, and the best agency today can be the worst tomorrow. I learned this the hard way, so I usually suggest people not be exclusive contributors to one agency.

Suppose you upload thousands of images to one agency and make hundreds of dollars monthly. After some time, you leave your job and become a digital nomad. Awesome. But what if that agency has some problems (it happened!!!), and you stop making money because it closes down? You’ll find yourself without income in a few hours.

I have decided to focus on several sites, aware that this means more work and perhaps lower earnings, but a better long-term investment in case things go wrong with one or more agencies.

Which are the best MICROSTOCK agencies? This is my top 3:

  • Adobestock: thanks to Shutterstock, which decided to cut the commissions by as much as 70%,Adobestock has attracted a lot of contributors. The main problem of Adobestock is that it currently does not accept editorial files.
  • iStock: iStock was THE agency for quite a long time because it was the only real player in the market. I’m listing iStock as the second-best performing agency because they have a lot of high-paying old customers, which means you can still make some decent money.
  • Motionarray: I don’t see this agency mentioned often, it has been a nice surprise. The price per file is quite low, but the sales are constant. You can sell pictures, videos, vectors, Premier Pro effects, and anything related to the videography and photography world.
  • Pond5: If you want to sell Stock Footage, Pond 5 is one of the best agencies. Keep in mind that time-lapse videos sell way better than real-time videos. Here is my review of LRTimelapse, the best software to create time-lapse videos.

What about Shutterstock?

Until May 31st, 2020, Shutterstock WAS, without a doubt, the best microstock agency. However, Shutterstock decided to change the commission model in an unexpected move. You can read the announcement here. Without going into details, you only need to know they decided to cut the commissions by 70%.

You can find the complete list of the best Microstock and Macrostock Agencies here.

Final thoughts

Maybe after this article, you think that selling pictures is too tricky. It requires some knowledge, but there are no legal ways to make money quickly. If you spend a little time improving your pictures, you can make money while traveling!

Here you can learn how to take better travel photos. Here is my top list of AI tools for every photographer.

10 thoughts on “How to sell your photos online: the complete guide”

  1. Casper

    Appreciate your article Fabio: well structured, honest and time-bound. Thanks.
    I’d be interested to further understand in the process flows between (digital) content being created all the way up to where it is displayed after being sold and purchased. Many articles either take a buyer or seller viewpoint and do not mention the chain of possibilities between them.

    1. Fabio Nodari

      Hi Casper,
      Thanks a lot for your feedback. So you are looking for something more like a tutorial on how to go from taking a picture to uploading it to an agency?

  2. Nicholas

    Hi Fabio,

    Interesting article. Seems that the market is already over-saturated, with too much competition and every years rates goes down. Shutterstock crossed the limit but unluckily I’m sure that there will be always some contributors that will accept it and work for nothing. Just think about the free stock market.

    I see that you do not mention Picfair. Have you tried this agency?

    Congratulations for the website and your photography work. Regards from Buenos Aires!!

    1. You are probably right Nichola. The market is quite saturated, especially in some niches. However, there will always be a need for new content. Regarding Picfair I have no personal experience. I’ll do some research and upload the article. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Sebolelo

    Hi thank you for the article. Helps a bunch.

  4. Sebastiaan

    Love your content, Fabio!

    And super cool that you’re one of the first people who Timestamps their content :).
    Keep up the great work!

    Seb
    WordProof.io

  5. arava

    Great article
    I tried all kinds of ways to make money online.
    What works best for me is Koocam.
    I teach my hobbies, and sells my knowledge in any field that I’m good at
    It’s great

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *