In this post I explain how you can make money selling your pictures on microstock websites. You can also find the list of the best microstock agencies updated to July 2020.
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. After all, who wouldn’t like to travel, take pictures and even make money with them? So the question is: can you REALLY make money with your photos?
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 selling pictures. Only some years later I realized that I should have started earlier! After all selling micro-stock 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.
What is the best place to sell your photos online?
Selling your photos basically means to allow someone to use your pictures (where he can use them and for how long is written in a contract) 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.
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 using an agency. The main difference is the fact 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: sell pictures directly or use an agency? Well most of the time you’ll sell them through some agencies and in this post I’ll mainly talk about them but I’ll also mention a new website that allows you to sell pictures directly to your customers.
One thing to keep in mind is that all agencies keep some of the money you’ll make as commissions. If you wonder why they keep some money the answer is simple: running a website it’s very expensive if you store millions of files and they also find the customers and many other things for you. How much those agencies keep varies a lot and while some keep ‘only’ 50% of the commissions others keep 85% of your earnings!
There are basically two main categories of agencies: microstock and macrostock.
What is microstock?
Microstock agencies accept photos, stock footage, 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. – Wikipedia
You can decide if you prefer to be an exclusive contributor for one agency (and keep more money for you) or not. If you prefer you can even decide to give the exclusivity only to some pictures and sell the others to several agencies. Microstock agencies have two main characteristics: the price per sale is usually very low. I’m talking here about 0,25$ per sale. On the other hand, since the photo is so cheap, you can sell the same image tens, if not hundreds, of times and this means that even if the price per file is low you can make some good money anyway.
The most important Microstock agencies are:
What is macrostock?
The other big players are the Macro stock 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, in photography and the stock photo industry, refers to a copyright license which, if purchased by a user, allows the one-time use of the photo as specified by the license. If the user wants to use the photo for other uses an additional license needs to be purchased. – Wikipedia
In other words 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 this year, Getty images won’t sell RM licenses anymore.
Selling your photographs: Micro vs Macro
So what about you? Where should you start to sell your pictures and make money even while traveling?
Obviously, if you look at things from the photographer’s point of view you should definitely go for Macrostock: you can make some big money! However you have to look at things from a buyer perspective: if you have to buy a picture from your blog of Facebook AD campaign will you be willing to spend hundreds of dollars? Very unlikely. That’s why today most of the people who need pictures buy them from Microstock websites such as Shutterstock. Anyway, I usually suggest using both of them: even if you are not going to sell many pictures through Macrostock sites, only a few sales can equal hundreds of sales on Microstock sites.
After several years of experience, I advise you to sell your pictures on Alamy. It is not an agency that allows you to sell dozens of photos as soon as you upload them but it will sell them at a much higher price than the classic microstock agencies and gives a generous 40% commission to the photographers.
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 post.
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 to 10 Mb.
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 not what I’m talking about here.
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). How does it work? These sorts of platforms allow you to create an online portfolio with integrated e-commerce so that you don’t have to think about the technical stuff. As I said this has a cost and for this reason, these websites usually keep a percentage of your earnings for themselves.
What are some of the pros and cons of this system?
- photographers have control about pricing and licensing
- direct contact with customers (photographers may setup registration , clients can comment and like on photographs )
- photographers have to pay fees to the platform used
- photographers have to market their website. Without marketing, there will be no sales.
To me the last point is the biggest disadvantage but I guess if you work quite hard you can get very good results.
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 efforts 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 that is you can make money even while sleeping or diving in Thailand (literally!). This can happen even after years that you uploaded that picture. 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 (and secret) algorithms to rank the pictures when a buyer search for an image on their website. One of the very important ranking factors is the history of the contributor (the photographer that sells pictures). 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 long (depending on your portfolio) before you rank higher. The only exception is Shutterstock, it happened to me that I sold the first pictures right after it was on their site.
You need a big portfolio
If you make few cents per sale (with Microstock) it’s evident that to make some decent money you need many pictures. On the other end, 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 noisy 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, as long as the quality is good. You definitely want to get a camera with at least an APS-C sensor. This because smaller sensors will produce images with a low quality. 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, it will give you more options for taking much cooler and interesting pictures. Don’t forget though to check if you can use it when traveling abroad and if you need special permits.
About the software there are mainly two options: Lightroom vs 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 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 round.
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 2020?
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 to become exclusive contributors of 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 of 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 time of crisis were those who diversified their investments (gold, art, stock market, houses, etc…). The same concept can be applied to photography. So the question is which are the best MICROSTOCK agencies of 2020?
This is my personal Top 3:
- Adobestock: This year could to 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: When I said that some agencies had some problems I was thinking about iStock. iStock was the Big agency. The Agency with the capital A, but this simply because it was the only player in the market. When other agencies came up iStock started it’s decline. So the first photographers made a lot of money (especially the exclusive contributors) but now iStock looks more like the Titanic: it’s sinking. It’s like a giant that couldn’t keep pace with the new agencies. I’m listing iStock as the second-best performing agency simply because they allow you to sell your pictures also through their partner websites (it’s called PP or partner program) and in this way you can still make some decent money. I don’t know how long they will stay in the business. Not to mention that they keep 85% of the commissions!
- Eyeem: Eyeem it’s in third place. The income’s not as steady as some other agencies but this agency can still help you to make some money. In this article you can find my review of EyeEm.
- Pond5: If you are interested in selling Stock Footage, Pond 5 is definitely the best agency. Keep in mind that time-lapse videos sell way better than real-time videos. Here my review of LRTimelapse, the best software to create time lapses videos.
What about Shutterstock?
Up until May 31st, 2020 Shutterstock was, without 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 commissions by a good 70%.
Here you can find the updated list of the best Microstock and Macrostock Agencies.
Maybe after this post, you think that selling pictures it’s too difficult. Well, it’s true that it requires some knowledge but there are no ways to make money out of nowhere. 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 post if you want to learn how to digital blend your images and here you can read how to take better travel photos. Here my review of Microstock Academy, a new video series that will teach to become a successful microstocker.