How to Make Money in Photography Business: Micro Stock Photography Tips

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how to make money in photography business

People frequently keep asking about how to make money in the photography business. Hence, I thought of writing an article on microstock photography tips. It will not only give you an idea of shooting photographs as per the demand of stock photography websites but also direct you about the general mistakes that can be avoided.

I always get some newbies asking questions through my Facebook page or email as well who are just curious about making money from selling their images through Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, or 123RF. I will be sharing one of my friend’s experience with you regarding how to gain a hefty amount from these stock photography websites.

How to Make Money in Photography Business?

When one of my friends started submitting images to microstock in 2009, the rule of thumb was: You will see regular downloads when you have more than 100 images in your portfolio. Back then, this was more or less true in my case: It took about 200 images in my portfolio to get returns of $100 a month which was a milestone for me. The payout limit at iStockphoto was and is $100, and getting over that level meant I could get an additional payment to my regular salary every month.

Mistakes That Should be Avoided?

When he started in 2009, he applied with iStockphoto and Shutterstock, got accepted at iStock in his second try and rejected from Shutterstock at first. He focused on iStock at that time, and there were strict inspections and very low upload limits of 15 images per week at that time.

how to make money in photography business

So it took him seven months to get 100 images online and about 11 months to get from $0 to $100 a month. It was not “quick and easy”, neither will it be today. Stock photography takes patience, probably, even more, today than in 2009.

How he Made $200 Out of These Websites?

He started out like most others with images like the one above. Whatever he found on the streets to look interesting, snap it, upload it, keyword it. But he noticed quickly that this is not going to be the best way to make a hefty amount of money he wanted to. The image above has never sold – in total, he uploaded four images from that place, one of them actually sold. Twice. For a total of $1.28 in royalties.

Those images might look interesting to you but they are not what many people are going to pay for to use in their advertising, on their websites or to illustrate a magazine article or a blog post.

While I believe the “100 images in your portfolio” is aiming too short these days, you could probably even upload 1,000 images into your portfolios and still not get a decent return each month.

How He Made the Whole Process Work Faster?

He not only wanted to make $100 a month, he wanted a bit more. And he wanted it quicker. So he decided that he will have to find out what kind of images sells more often, more regularly to get me better returns. While today he is shooting far more “what he finds”. He now does this with a trained eye for what actually looks interesting to potential buyers than rather just him. More of those images he uploads today are selling but they are still not making big money. And to get there, he had to go through a process of specifically shooting images for the stock – or microstock in particular.

Microstock Photography Tips

Microstock – as we mostly speak about when we discuss the most popular sites like Shutterstock, iStockphoto, Fotolia, Dreamstime – is a specific subset of the market for licensing images. The images are being sold at very low prices, so they are being used a lot by people who just want a quick solution for a common problem. Find an image that can be used to illustrate a certain topic without drawing the full attention to the image.

Viewers and readers have to quickly understand what an article or ad is about without noticing the image as the “key content”. While there are also examples of images being used as the key visual or even as part of a product (be it a coffee mug or an art print), the masses of downloads are for images that you are likely to never find in use because they are just used in a tiny place as an eye catcher for something else.

So the key to make money from microstock is to aim at that market: Images that can be used quickly, without much expertise of photoshop or design software, that also work in a small version and illustrate a topic that people are talking about, reading about or want to know more about. These are the images people click on and lead users to our customer’s article or website.

What Kind of Photography is to be shot?

The image above shows how my friend made these thoughts work for him: These days technological industries and internet markets are on boom and many magazines, newspapers and web sites were talking about. I wanted to make a concept image that illustrates “Technology”, so people could use it to illustrate all those articles.

how to make money in photography business

It was a short-lived theme, and the three images I shot are not among my all-time bestsellers but they netted me about $200 from about 100 downloads. Not much planning or organizing required not much work to follow up on those images. And it made $200 from a total effort of $15 and two or three hours: Buying the piggy bank, setting it up, shooting, not much post processing, uploading, keywording.

Which Websites Should You Follow?

While there are many stock photography websites to start with, but I would personally suggest Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime or 123RF. You will certainly read stories to “avoid agency X” about most of them. And I’m not the biggest fan of some of these agencies for several reasons but in the end, selling images through microstock sites is a business even if you just do it on the side of a real-life job. None of them are out there to make you happy, you are just one of the suppliers they need to have a product to sell.

Technical Specifications:

Photograph size: The photograph has to be at least 4meg in size. Most modern cameras will be able to produce photographs at this size. Further below you will find my equipment list.

Photograph type: Shutterstock requires the photograph to be a JPEG.

Focus: If your photo isn’t in focus it will be rejected. Whenever possible submit the highest resolution possible. To check focus, zoom to your image 100% and check details, people shots often need good focus on the eyes, architecture needs a good depth of field. It’s ok for elements of the image to be out of focus as long as the things that should be in focus are.

Noise: Ensure your image has no noise or artifacts. The best way to avoid this is to shoot at the lowest ISO you can (around ISO 100-400). You should also shoot raw. You can then reduce noise in software such as Lightroom.

Equipment Recommendation

If you are submitting to agencies it’s worth ensuring you have good equipment. This is to help you capture images in the highest quality possible. Better equipment will often mean you have a higher acceptance ratio when submitting your images due to the quality of the images.

1. Canon 6D Camera
2. Canon 24-105mm Lens
3. Canon 85mm Lens
4. Canon 40mm Lens
5. Me Foto Tripod
6. Gloxy Flash
7. Lowepro 200AW Bag
8. Reflectors
9. Lightroom 5 (for editing/image management)


And here is another thing to consider: Photography is a really nice hobby as well. Making money from images is a completely different game than making money by other means. If you are bothered by administration tasks, lacking a long term view, getting impatient, it might have an impact on how you judge photography as a whole. So you might reconsider if trying to make a few bucks out of your images really is worth ruining the positive attitude you have towards photography

Today, you are facing a competition of 30 million images on Shutterstock and other sites, with 100 images you will hardly get noticed. Newbies on iStock are struggling for years to even get to the 250 downloads required to make the decision to go exclusive or not. And my friend just said, it took him “less than two years” which was quite good at the time but already far longer than the average microstock beginner is willing to invest time.

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Gaurab Singha Roy

Gaurab Singha Roy

Gaurab Singha Roy is a web content writer and blogger at Technology and Investment are the major areas of his expertise. Apart from this he is a Chemical Engineering graduate. Follow him on Quora.

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