How to Make Money Selling Stock Photos

“Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow” an old (and I mean OLD) friend once told me”.  His nickname was Yoda, since he was short, fat, had a little stubby ponytail thingy on the back of his head and did in fact have a face that resembled Yoda.  I loved the idea that I could just work hard at something enjoyable and make money, but I only half-assed believed it could be true.  I’ve since discovered that it is most definitely true, but that it does require focus and dedication, which were pretty absent in my younger years.

Top 4 Microstock Sites for Earnings:

1.  iStockphoto

2.  Shutterstock

3.  Dreamstime

4.  Texturevault

When I made my first few dollars selling stock photos, I can’t even adequately describe to you how elated I was.  I was never interested in commercial photography per say, since it generally involved a lot of contact with people.  Introverts just don’t like that kind of thing really.  I am interested interested in photographing random interesting people on the street which might seem contradictory, but really it isn’t.  Taking a quick shot of somebody who isn’t paying you for your work just for the sheer pleasure of it, who in fact may never even see the photo, is far different than trying to please a client.  While there are certain standards that must be met when shooting stock, as well as inspectors to please, there is still so much freedom to get the shots that matter to me personally and make some money doing it.

While not all of my microstock income comes from straight-up photography, a good chunk of it does.  I also submit textures that I design in Photoshop which often have one or more of my photos incorporated into the design.  Sometimes, I scan things like hand-made paper or fabric and use these images to make new and different texture designs as well.  So, if you are good with Photoshop, this might be an option for you too.

Brick Ornate

Rachael Towne 2010

Stock Images Must be “Useful”

In essence, a stock photo needs to be useful to somebody.  I’ve had images rejected a number of times with the reason “not commercially viable”.  This means that the image had no technical or compositional issues.  It might have even been a great photo to some, but it simply wasn’t going to sell.  Lots of amazing “art” photography seen in magazines and published books would be rejected for this reason as well.

So what does get accepted and sell?  Mostly, well-lit and sharply focused shots of attractive people doing…whatever it is that attractive people do, food and drink, architecture and interiors, some nature stuff if it is especially unique and exceptional and textures/backgrounds.  What doesn’t do well is the aforementioned art photography, run-of-the-mill photos of flowers, most landscapes unless it is truly exceptional or features a popular tourist destination.

Learn the Basics of Photography

Now that you have the basic gist of what subject matter will generally get accepted and sell, there are a number of technical things to know.  First and foremost you must know your stuff as a photographer.  Now, I’m not suggesting that you have to be a total pro with years of paid work under your belt.  More, you should have a basic grasp of how to properly expose an image as well as some knowledge of composition.  If you aren’t entirely clear on the relationship between aperture and shutter speed, or the difference between a prime lens and zoom lens, it is time to get a little bit of education.  Once you have the basics down, and you have acquired a DSLR camera, you are pretty much ready to proceed.

View Each Image at 100%

One important thing to keep in mind when shooting stock, is that many images when viewed at a small resolution on your screen will look just fine when they are not.  Each image is inspected at 100% resolution before being accepted for stock, and a photo that doesn’t pass muster at this size will not be accepted.  Always view every image at 100% to be sure that it is sharply in focus and free of noise, debris and compression artifacts.

Use a Tripod

To ensure sharp focus, a tripod is almost always a must.  This is especially true when shooting in a very wide aperture such as f/1.2.  Due to a very shallow depth of field, getting the focus even slightly wrong with a wide aperture can make the entire image soft.

Getting things right in-camera as much as is possible should be a goal.  Yes, so many flaws can be “fixed” in Photoshop, but this process will always reduce image quality even if only slightly.  To prevent or minimize noise before it happens there are several steps you can take.

Vines and Mountain

Rachael Towne 2010

Shoot at a Low ISO, Keep Your Camera Cool and Slightly Overexpose

First, shoot at the lowest ISO you possibly can.  Personally I shoot between 100 and 400 ISO for stock depending on conditions.  Even in this range there can still be a bit of noise in your images, but it will be so minimal that it can be easily removed with Photoshop or Lightroom.  Secondly, try to keep your camera from getting too hot.  When your image sensor heats up your images will usually get noisier.  Finally, you can slightly overexpose your image which will prevent the noise that can occur when trying to make an underexposed image brighter.

When In-Camera Methods Fail, Use Noise Reduction Software

If you do end up with some noise that is visible at 100%, try running the photo through a noise reduction program.  I’ve tried several and so far my favorite is Topaz DeNoise, since it removes the noise without sacrificing much detail.  Lightroom is also good at removing noise and preserving image quality.  Strangely, Photoshop isn’t great for noise removal.  However, I am using CS5.  CS6, which I don’t actually have any plans to upgrade to yet, might be better.

Convert to TIFF During Post-Processing to Prevent Artifacts

To prevent compression artifacts, which are caused by loss of data when saving a JPEG, convert your photo to a TIFF until you are done editing.  What I do is immediately convert each image that I am keen on saving to TIFFs, do all of my post-processing, and then and ONLY then convert them to JPEGs.  Saving a JPEG multiple times during the editing process will cause a loss of image quality each time and lead to visible “artifacts” in the image.  These will get your photo rejected every time.

Choose Your Microstock Sites Wisely

Now that we have the basics of image quality for stock laid out, I want to say a few things about the image uploading process.  In the beginning (why does that sound familiar?) I was uploading to every single microstock site that I came across.  This turned out to be a mistake.  Some sites simply don’t have enough traffic to make sales and the time spent uploading, describing and keywording each image can be quite extensive.  So, I only upload my photographs to iStockphoto, Shutterstock, Dreamstime and Texturevault right now.  This works for me as I have other things I do with my time besides shoot and upload stock images , and these sites do make sales.

Don’t Keyword Stuff

Write succinct and accurate image descriptions and keywords.  It may be tempting to add non-relevant keywords in an attempt to get more image views, but never do this.  First, it doesn’t actually work.  When somebody is looking for a photo of an apple for example, and your architectural photo pops up in the results, they are simply not going to click on it.  Also, stock sites are now very wise to this practice and don’t like it one bit.  They will likely warn you or even ban you outright if they catch you.

Finally, be sure to have fun!  Remember, you are supposed to be making money doing something that you love.  If you find that you don’t love it, then ask yourself what it is that you DO love and then JUST DO IT. So there 🙂

Nature Texture

Rachael Towne 2012

4 Responses to How to Make Money Selling Stock Photos

  1. Céline says:

    Very informative post. Many thanks for taking the time to explain the process.

  2. Usama says:

    Great post . looking forward to learning from you in long term

  3. Josse Sepulveda says:

    Gracias! Thank you, great articles.

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