In this article, 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 a bit about selling photos online, you’ll come across very different opinions: some say it’s not possible 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 REALLY 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 traveling 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? Selling them directly to the final customers or using an agency and letting 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?
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 or not. 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 with an exclusive license only some pictures and upload the others to many agencies.
Microstock agencies have two main characteristics: the price per sale is usually very 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 tens, if not hundreds, of times, which means that you can potentially make some good money. The most important Microstock agencies are:
What is Macrostock?
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? Well, 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:
Starting from the end of 2020, Getty Images stopped selling RM licenses.
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. If you are already familiar with the NFT world but are looking for a good marketplace to sell your images as NFT, check out my complete review of Sloika.
If you want, you can check out my first NFT series.
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.
A suggestion I give is to sell your pictures on Alamy. It’s not an agency with a high sales volume, but the prices are much higher than its competitors, and you keep 40% of the final price.
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 (apparently 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?
- photographers have control over pricing and licensing
- direct contact with customers
- photographers have to pay fees to the platform used
- photographers have to market their websites. Without marketing, there will be no sales.
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?
Nope. 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:
Selling pictures can grant you a passive income: you can make money even while sleeping or diving in Thailand! How many jobs can give you the same opportunity? There are some challenges to face, so the important thing is that you don’t give up after the first difficulties.
It can take some time before you sell the first photo
Stock agencies use very sophisticated algorithms to rank the pictures on their websites. One of the very important ranking factors is the history of the contributor. In other words, if you joined the agency long ago and have sold many pictures, your images will show up most probably before similar images of new contributors. So, it can take a long (depending on your portfolio) before you rank higher.
You need a big portfolio
If you only earn a few cents per sale (with Microstock), it’s evident that to make some decent money, you need to sell many pictures. On the other hand, if it’s true that with Macrostock agencies, the price per sale is much higher, the number of sales is lower, so you need to upload many pictures to maximize the chances of being found by new buyers.
High-quality and interesting pictures
If you want people to buy your pictures, you must communicate something with your images, and they must also be technically perfect. If you don’t know if your pictures are good enough, don’t worry: after you upload them, an inspector will check all your images and decide whether they are ok. If you want to reduce the number of images rejected, remember that it’s fundamental to use a sturdy tripod to avoid blurred images or noisy pictures (it happens when you shoot with high ISO). But after all, I think this is a positive aspect: rejections will help you improve and become more professional.
It takes some time to upload your images
Stock agencies accept only high-resolution photos (usually jpegs but sometimes Tiffs). It takes time to upload many pictures; after that, you must manually keywords and caption them if you want people to find your images.
Pareto states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, most probably 80% of the money you will make will come roughly from your best 20% pictures. So don’t worry if many pictures will remain unsold. It happens to a lot of people.
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 mainly two options: Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom is the best tool to edit tons of pictures quickly, but Photoshop is far more powerful. I use Photoshop. 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.
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 2023?
The landscape of stock agencies changes quickly, and the best agency today can be the worst tomorrow. I learned this the hard way, which is why 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.
If, on the other hand, you become a contributor to several agencies, you will certainly make less money, and it will take longer to upload your images (compared to exclusive contributors). However, even if something happens to one of the agencies you contribute to, you can still rely on the income coming from the others. This principle is not a secret: the only people who kept their riches in times of crisis were those who diversified their investments (gold, art, stock market, real estate, etc…). The same concept can be applied to photography.
So the question is: which are the best MICROSTOCK agencies of 2023? This is my personal top 3:
- Adobestock: This year could be the year of Adobestock, mainly thanks to Shutterstock, which has decided to cut the commissions by as much as 70%. The main problem of Adobestock is that it currently does not accept editorial files. Adobestock has previously bought Fotolia, another agency extremely hated by contributors.
- iStock: iStock was THE agency for quite a long time. The Agency with the capital A, but this was simply because it was the only real player in the market. When other agencies came around, iStock started its decline. The first contributors made a lot of money (especially the exclusive ones), but now iStock looks more like the Titanic: it’s sinking. It’s like a giant that couldn’t keep pace with new agencies. I’m listing iStock as the second-best performing agency simply because they have a lot of high-paying old customers, which means that you can still make some decent money, but I don’t know for how long. Not to mention that they keep 85% of the commissions!
- Eightstock: Eightstock is a newish agency based in Hong Kong. I only recently became a contributor, but I already have a good impression. For once, I had some questions and got to talk to real people working there, not a chatbot. They also have a pretty good affiliate program that anyone can join. You’ll get paid 10% of any sales made by anyone you refer to. Most importantly, you earn at least 0.23$ per download, but it can be more depending on how many pictures you sold in the previous 12 months.
- 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.
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!
In this article, I talk about a new trend: AI-generated images. Find out if you can make money selling this type of content. Here is my top list of AI tools for every photographer.