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 the topic of selling photos online you’ll come across very different opinions: some say it’s not possible to earn much while others say that they made a bunch of money. This is an interesting topic because, after all, who wouldn’t like to travel, take pictures, and even make money at the same time? Can you actually 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 back in that year, I wasn’t really 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 basically means allowing someone to use your pictures in exchange for money. Keep in mind though that even if you allow someone to use your pictures, you are still the owner of 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 either 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 anymore: only web servers with millions of digital files.
Most Profitable Places to Sell Your Photos Online
So if you are interested in making money with your pictures what should you do? Selling them directly to the final customers or using an agency and letting them do all the marketing for you? Well, most of the time you’ll sell them through agencies, and in this guide, I’ll mainly talk about them. In the real world, it doesn’t really happen often that a customer actually contacts you asking you to sell him your images.
One thing to remember is that all agencies keep a commission. They have to maintain servers that store millions of digital files and also 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 basically two main categories of agencies: microstock and macrostock.
What is Microstock?
Microstock agencies accept different types of files including photos, stock footage (short videos), audio files, and vectorial. Most of the time these files are sold with a Royalty-Free (RF) license.
- Royalty-free, or RF, refers to the right to use copyright material or intellectual property without the need to pay royalties or license fees for each use or per volume sold, or some time period of use or sales.
You can decide if you prefer to be an exclusive contributor to one agency or not. In that case, you’ll earn more but you won’t be allowed to sell the same (or very 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 cheap, you can sell the same image tens, if not hundreds, of times and this means that potentially you can 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 sell pictures for, usually, 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 has to 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, it’s true that the price per sale is usually high but most of the time the picture is 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 familiar already 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 here 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 have to 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 of the people who need pictures buy them from Microstock websites such as Shutterstock.
Anyway, this is your decision, but you have to think carefully about it because it’s difficult to revert things once you start selling.
A suggestion I give is to sell your pictures on Alamy. It’s not an agency with a high volume of sales, but the prices are much higher than its competitors and you keep a generous 40% of the final price.
If you want to learn quickly how to become a successful microstocker you might want to consider purchasing a video course. On my blog, I reviewed the Microstock Academy video series. Don’t miss the article.
How about selling your pictures independently?
Another option is selling your pictures directly through your website. This presents some challenges though: first, you need a lot of space in your hosting given the fact that every picture can take up a lot of space.
Then you have to set up an e-commerce or some kind of system to actually allow people to find and buy your images and that’s not easy. Of course, there will be times when some customers will actually 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 out there, one of them was the platform Bluemelon.com (apparently now closed). These platforms allow you to create an online portfolio with integrated e-commerce so that you don’t have to think about the technical stuff.
These websites usually keep a percentage of your earnings as a commission as well.
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 biggest disadvantage. In the real world, it’s very hard to compete with agencies such as Shutterstock, which has huge financial marketing resources.
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, if you are resolute and methodical you can definitely make money and travel! It takes some time though. How long? It depends on the time end effort that 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? Obviously, 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 a long time ago and sold already 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 obvious 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 it’s much higher, the number of sales is lower so you need to upload many pictures if you want 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 be technically perfect as well. 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 if they are ok or not. If you want to reduce the number of images rejected remember that it’s fundamental to use a sturdy tripod to avoid micro-shakes and grainy pictures (it happens when you shoot with high ISO). But after all, I think that this is a positive aspect: rejections will definitely help you to improve and become more professional.
It takes some time to upload your images
Stock agencies accept only high resolutions photos (usually jpegs but sometimes also Tiffs) so the file size per image it’s high. It takes time to upload many pictures and after that, you have to manually add appropriate keywords and descriptions 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 that 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?
Actually, the best camera is the one you can afford. You definitely 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 DLSR will work just fine. I actually don’t recommend any brand. I use Canon because my first camera was a Canon, not for any other particular 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 if you need special permits.
About the post-processing software, there are mainly two options: Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom is the best tool to edit tons of pictures in a short time but Photoshop is far more powerful. I use Photoshop. If you often digital blend your multi-exposure images I recommend you to get the RayaPro panel for Photoshop. It will save you a lot of time. It’s actually my favorite Photoshop Panel.
Selling your photos online: is it worth it?
Sadly I can’t tell you what you are supposed to do and if you should jump into this adventure or not. But I can tell you that if you are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme this is not the right business for you. If you think that Microstock is bad 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 the change and benefit from it, like many people have done for many years now, or just 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 very quickly and the best agency today can be the worst tomorrow. I learned this the hard way and that is why I usually suggest people not be exclusive contributors to one agency.
Suppose you upload thousands of images to one agency and you make hundreds of dollars per month. After some time you decide to 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 the agency closes down? You’ll find yourself without income in a few hours.
If, on the other hand, you become contributors to several agencies you will certainly make less money and it will take longer to upload your images (compared to exclusive contributors) BUT 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 at the moment it does not accept editorial files. Adobestock has in the past 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 and this 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 pretty good impression. For once I had some questions and got to talk to some real people working there and 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 are interested in selling 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 lapses videos.
What about Shutterstock?
Up until May 31st, 2020, Shutterstock WAS, without a doubt, the best microstock agency. In an unexpected move, however, Shutterstock decided to change the commission model. You can read the announcement here. Without going into details, you only need to know that they decided to cut the commissions by a good 70%. On top of that pretty, much all sales have stopped and new uploads are almost all rejected without any reason. Avoid it at all costs.
Here you can find the complete list of the best Microstock and Macrostock Agencies.
Maybe after this article, you think that selling pictures it’s too difficult. Well, it’s true that it requires some knowledge but there are no legal ways to make money easily. If you spend a little bit of time trying to improve your pictures you’ll definitely be able to make money while traveling!
Don’t miss this article if you want to learn how to digitally blend your images and here you can read how to take better travel photos. Here is my review of Microstock Academy, a new video series that will teach me to become a successful microstocker.
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.
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.
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?
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!!
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!
Hi thank you for the article. Helps a bunch.
Love your content, Fabio!
And super cool that you’re one of the first people who Timestamps their content :).
Keep up the great work!
Thanks Seb! Keep up the good work, I love your plugin.
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
Thanks for your feedback Arava.