Tech & Work

How to start selling stock photographs

One way to become a published photographer is to sell stock photography. Here's what you need to know to get started.

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Image: iStock/ipopba

Ever thought you could be a photographer with your work published online? Better yet, see a photograph of yours displayed on a city billboard? I know I have! Getting your shots published comes with a great deal of practice, work, networking—and also some luck. This field is ultra competitive on a professional level. Fortunately, you can play better odds of getting your photos published by going the way of stock photography.

What is stock photography?

Stock photography services allow virtually anyone to have their photos viewed by customers looking for images to use in projects. These projects might be websites, online ads, books, or other media. This field is ultra competitive as well, but it's a good way to have photos published and kick start your career, rather than walking into a well-known publication and asking, "Will you publish my photo and pay me?"

With stock photography, you're offering a royalty-free license to anyone wanting to use your photographs. This means the customer pays a one-time fee (in most cases) for your photograph to use to their liking. If the customer uses your photography more than once, there's no other payment due to you, as it's a royalty-free license.

SEE: Getting started with drone photography (free TechRepublic PDF)

What stock service providers are available?

Several stock photography services are available, ranging from the world-renowned Getty Images to services such as Foap. I got my start with Foap several years ago, as each sale paid a commission of $5 apiece. That's not a bad commission, but in my experience, the recognition wasn't there. This led me to look into submitting my images to Getty, Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, and a few others. Typing a query in your favorite search engine for "stock photography" will return several providers for you to research. Take a look at the terms of service offered by the providers before deciding who you'll work with. Most of my stock photography has been sold via Adobe Stock or Fine Art America. Both services offer royalty-free licensing, but they're not the same type of service provider. Adobe Stock deals with stock images, graphics, and video on a royalty-free basis. Fine Art America deals with photos and other digital art but aims to sell prints and merchandise from the artist before pushing royalty-free images. Research what works best for you.

Reasonable expectations

Once you dip your toe into the deep waters of stock photography, you have to temper your expectations. Some people assume that just because they're a good photographer, they will sell a lot of images and make tons of money. This isn't always true.

Commissions on royalty-free stock images vary between service providers. Commissions could be as little as 25 cents or just a few dollars. Don't let this disappoint you. Understand that stock photography is just another way of getting your name out there and recognized as an awesome photographer. Depending on the stock photography service you use, you may be able to sell images in bulk to a customer by meeting certain parameters, such as requiring 1,000 units to license your image. Again, you'll have to research what service will work best for you.

In addition to dismissing the likelihood of your images selling for large amounts of money initially, you have to face the fact that YOUR images may not be what customers are looking for. Fortunately, you can fix this. More research. Take a gander at the images you see online during your daily web browsing. Look at images you see in magazine ads or local publications. Use that research to craft what you submit for licensing. You may be an awesome landscape photographer, but landscape photography may not be what customers are looking for. In my experience, stock photography is all about scenes or themes that lend a story.

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Image: Ant Pruitt


In some instances, your landscape photo may be what the customer is looking for. If you're not sure, check out recent images sold by other users of your stock service. You research can also include the top-rated news stories of the world. For example, the Equifax data breach was a bombshell of a story. The perfect image to complement this debacle would have to relate to security. Something like a broken padlock or a keyboard with gloved hands typing on it. Both are images anyone can shoot, but the composition of the photo has to fit the customer's needs.

SEE: The Complete Guide to Photography Bundle (TechRepublic Academy)

Avoid brands and logos in your stock photography

Using a stock photography service can help you become a better photographer. You can't just upload photos to a service and expect them to sell. First, your image has to be approved for sale by the service. These approval processes tend to look at the technical aspects of your photograph, such as exposure, focus, and noise. But composition and intellectual property are also reviewed for approval. Getting rejected several times will force you to start checking your exposure and other technical aspects of your images. With regard to intellectual property (IP), rejections will teach you to compose your shot without showing IP (or to jump into Photoshop and brush away IP, such as logos and symbols). With stock images, it's important to keep IP and branded symbols out. You can't attempt to profit from an image with a Nike logo visible because Nike owns the rights to using the iconic swoosh. Be mindful of IP. In a future article, I'll share how to get hide or remove logos from your stock photographs.

Also, be mindful of people appearing in your stock images. Granted, if people are in a public space, it's okay for you to snap their photograph. The problem comes if these people attempt to sue customers who bought your photograph, because their likeness is visible. If possible, get a model release signed by the person(s) in your image. The release allows you to use the image with their likeness and permission and not owe the person any royalties. Stock photography sites will generally deny your uploaded image if people are visible within it and there's no accompanying model release. The services usually offer a model release you can download and keep in your camera bag for such scenarios.

SEE: Supercharging your image: Machine learning for photography applications (ZDNet)

Final tip

Getting started in stock photography begins with uploading images to a service provider. As competitive as the stock photography world is, the way to make a name for yourself there is to upload as many images as possible. The successful stock photographers shoot and upload images every day. The more you upload, the more visible your work becomes.

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Image: Ant Pruitt


Whenever you have a moment to snap a photo, snap it. Even if it's your smartphone's camera. Stock services tend to allow images with a minimum size of 4 megapixels, which encompasses more smartphones every day. Just make sure you've taken care of your composition and technical aspects. I've sold images shot by my smartphone on several occasions, so don't feel limited to only your trusty mirrorless or DSLR camera. When there's a down moment in your day, shoot. Shoot some more. Then upload. Even if it's just a shot of your lunch. Food makes great stock photography, if properly composed.

More photography how-to's

Other tips?

Are you ready to dive into stock photography and make yourself a published photographer? Go for it! Getting your name out there via stock can be really cool and might open doors for other opportunities. You'll never know until you try. Share your favorite stock photograph with me on Twitter and Instagram.

About Ant Pruitt

Ant Pruitt is an IT Support Professional with a passion for showing the non-geek how great technology can be. He writes for a variety of tech publications and hosts his own podcast. Ant is also an avid photographer and weight lifter.

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