How to make a living selling photos on microstock sites?

How make a living selling photos on microstock sites?

Microstock agencies have opened the doors for amateur photographers to become part of photography business, to grow, to earn some side income, and to eventually become professionals and start making a living with online image sales. However the number of people who are really able to make a living selling photos online is not that big. And most people who are just in the beginning of this journey are wondering – is it really possible?

When I decided to try selling photos online, I was just an amateur, I didn’t own any professional equipment and never took any commercial photos, but I liked photography and was looking for a way to make some money working from home, so I thought I’d give it a try. It took me a couple of years to start making a living with online images sales.

So what is the difference between a person who only gets some side income from online image sales and the person who is able to make a living with it (working only 3-4 days a week)? Why some people succeed and others don’t?

I guess every photographer would answer this question differently. Here is my advice, based on my personal experience.

The quick answer

You should develop a mindset of a professional and treat stock photography not as a hobby but as a business in which you believe.

The long answer

    • Invest in a good DSLR camera (you can also use a smartphone as a second camera and add some additional income selling mobile photos);
    • Invest in flash equipment. I remember my earnings doubled immediately when I started using flash lights in my home studio. It helped improve image quality, and now there are basically no limits to what I can do in my studio with 4 flash lights.
    • Use the camera stand with you shoot in natural light. It seems like a simple trick but it’s really important. It is so frustrating to see that a beautiful photo has been ruined because it turned out to be blurry. “Our of focus” is one of the most frequent rejection reasons on microstock sites. “Noise” is another one, and excessive noise can appear on a photo when you increase ISO to get sharp photos in low light conditions. If you use a stand, you can always keep ISO setting at the lowest. Newer and more expensive cameras handle noise pretty well, but it is especially important if you are using a budget DSLR camera or an older model.
    • Study what’s popular and what sells well. You might be a very good photographer with your tastes and style, but success in commercial photography depends on fulfilling customers’ needs. So it is important to know what the current trends are and what kind of images are likely to sell best.
    • Find your niche and shoot what you like. Trying to shoot what sells best doesn’t mean you should force yourself to do photos that you don’t like or that seem boring to you. If you find that images of businessmen on white background are boring, don’t do it! It should be possible to find a popular subject that you are passionate about. There is nothing worse than shooting “out of style” and doing things that you don’t like just because they are popular. You will get bored pretty quickly, and you won’t be able to be productive. Find a theme that you feel enthusiastic about. Something that you know well, or something that you would like to know better. If you are passionate about your subject, you will be able to work more and to create more of beautiful images without getting bored or tired.In my case, I really wanted to learn how to shoot beautiful photos of interiors. For some reason a piece of stylish furniture made me feel more enthusiastic than a human being in front of the camera. I did work with models for a while, but I felt bored and could barely finish editing these series, while I could spend hours and hours non stop editing photos of interiors, because these images were giving me a nice cozy feeling.The secret is to find a subject that’s in demand and that makes you feel enthusiastic, and to specialize on it.
    • Write good keywords and descriptions. Give your potential customers all the chances to discover your photos. And remember to embed IPTC data (titles, descriptions and keywords) into your images. It will save you lots of time.
    • Develop a high quality standard for yourself. Maybe in the beginning your photos will be far from perfect, but as you learn and improve, they will become better and better. Keep learning, and do the best you can right now.
    • Join Shutterstock. If your target is microstock sites, this is a big component of success. According to statistics, Shutterstock provides almost half of the income from online images sales.




    • Be patient. If you are only starting out in photography, and you don’t have yet a solid portfolio of commercial images, it will take time until you are able to generate enough income. It’s hard to give exact numbers, but according to my personal experience, you will need to have at least 2000 images in your portfolio to start making a decent living from online image sales. This number also depends on a country you live in and on quality and popularity of your images.Unfortunately there is a limit of what one person can do in one day, so unless you are working with assistants, your portfolio will be growing slowly. It took me at least 2 years to start making a living with online image sales. And it was not luxurious living in the beginning! But I had zero experience in photography, I didn’t have any images suitable for stock photo sites, and I didn’t own professional equipment. So if you are making the right choices from the start (like investing in quality equipment and flash lights) it won’t be necessarily that long in your case.
    • Do statistics. If you keep track of your earnings, the very fact of seeing your income grow, even if slowly, can be very encouraging.
    • Add new images regularly. This will keep your portfolio alive. The more you add, the more you earn.
    • Stay determined and believe it will work! No matter what someone else is saying.

Summing up

Let’s sum up. To be able to make a living selling photos online, you need to do the following:

  1. create a big portfolio of professional-quality images (at least 2000 photos taken with a DLSR camera, using flash lights when appropriate);
  2. develop a niche (find a subject that is in demand and that you are passionate about).
  3. write good keywords and descriptions and submit these images to all the best stock photo agencies (Shutterstock is a must!).
  4. keep your portfolio alive by adding new photos regularly.

Wishing you best of luck! 🙂