It can seem hard to make it when anyone with the newest iPhone can call themselves a “photographer.” But success, for most creators who turn to entrepreneurship, comes down to three things:
- Finding your niche.
- Building an audience.
- Creating several streams of income.
This guide will explore some of the things you should know about selling photos online with resources to help you make your photography-based business a reality.
How to sell photos online: two essential steps
1. Define your niche
Every successful photographer has a consistent style or theme that runs through their work. Whether your thing is travel, fashion, cityscapes, nature, food, etc., consistency is key.
People follow other people online to see more of whatever it is that interested them in the first place. People unfollow other people when those expectations aren’t met.
Finding your niche if you want to sell pictures online is typically something you feel your way into as you see which styles and photos resonate with your audience. But you can also evaluate the demand for certain topics using keyword research to analyze the search volume for terms related to your photographs.
Keywords Everywhere is a browser extension that shows you the search volume right below your Google search, making it easy to find and experiment with in-demand subjects and angles to see what you can cater to with your photographs.
As a suggestion, anything above 1,000 average monthly searches is significant volume to consider capitalizing on.
Photographers, just like bloggers, YouTubers, and artists of any kind, should also invest in building their audiences because that’s ultimately what helps them build their business and sell photography online.
Whether you’re freelancing or selling photography online as prints, you’ll need to build and leverage your network to expand your reach and credibility.
Visual social platforms like Instagram and Tumblr with built-in audiences can help you reach a wide audience, but there are also photo-sharing sites that can connect you with other photographers where you can build a following and, depending on the platform, sell licenses to use your photos (more on that later).
Linking your various accounts makes it easier to manage your photo-sharing across several platforms, which is good for visibility of your photographs, especially important when you’re trying to figure out how to sell your photography. On Instagram, for example, you can go to Options > Settings > Linked Accounts to connect Tumblr, Facebook, and more to publish in more than one place with a single post.
IFTTT is a free tool that can help you create other useful integrations between apps that don’t usually integrate, like Instagram and Dropbox.
On Instagram, you can also use Hashtagify to discover relevant, active hashtags to increase the visibility of your photographs on the platform to get more likes, comments, and engagement.
2. Integrate ecommerce into your portfolio
Most photographers have a main portfolio site to showcase their work and let clients hire them. But by adding ecommerce to it, including the ability to accept payments, you can open several more doors to monetization, like selling courses, physical products, and services.
Matt Suess (below), for example, has a store that showcases his work, lets others purchase digital and print version of his shots, and buy his courses.
Source: Matt Suess
You can build your portfolio or store on Shopify, install the relevant apps to customize it to your needs and monetization strategies, and start sharing and selling your photography in different forms: online or even offline through POS.
There are a lot of reasons your own ecommerce site can be a best place to sell photos online, many of which we’ll explore below.
Best place to sell photos online: 20 stock photography sites to license your photography
Here are 20 stock photography sites to sell photos online:
- Getty Images
- Can Stock Photo
- Adobe Stock
- GL Stock Images
- Image Vortex
Licensing is one of the most popular ways to “sell” your photos online to brands, publishers and anyone who might have an interest in using your photos for their own purposes.
And that’s the key here. You need to work backwards and think about how your photos can used by a brand or a publisher — versatile photos that express ideas tend to be popular, especially when they feature human subjects.
There are a lot of stock photo sites to choose from, including:
1. Getty Images
On the higher end of stock photography sites, Getty Images attracts brands and publishers looking for high-quality or hard-to-find exclusive images to license. The standards for becoming a contributor are predictably higher than many other stock photo sites. For photos licensed via GettyImages.com, rates start at 20%.
Shutterstock is a micro-stock site where photos are cheaper and non-exclusive, and the way to increase downloads is by contributing a large quantity of images that can be used as visual metaphors. Don’t expect to earn as much here, but it’s a good place if you’re just starting out. Payouts are based on your earnings over time and range from 20% to 30%. There’s also an affiliate program where you can earn additional money if you refer new photographers or customers.
iStock is the micro-stock offshoot owned by Getty Images. Commission ranges from 25% to 45% depending on whether the photos are exclusive or non-exclusive.
500px isn’t just a stock photo site; it’s a community-based platform for photographers. You can follow other photographers, list your photos in their marketplace, and participate in Photo Quest competitions for prizes. The community is full of stunning, creative shots with a 30% commission payout for non-exclusive photos and 60% for exclusive ones.
Stocksy is a popular mid-range stock photography site, especially among publishers. The standards to be accepted are higher, and Stocksy requires exclusive images, but it also pays out a generous 50–75% commission.
More than 70,000 photographers sell photos on Can Stock Photo. There are various payout structures ranging from percentages to fixed amounts, and they’ll also give you $5 for every 50 photos your referral sells. When you sell photos on Can Stock Photo, they also list your photos for sale on Fotosearch, a stock photography agency.
FreeDigitalPhotos.net offers free photo downloads as well as images for users to purchase. When the small version of your photo is downloaded for free, attribution is required. While you won’t earn a cent, you will get credit. When their target market (professionals who need images for business use) purchase images, photographers earn 70% commission.
8. Adobe Stock
Adobe Stock is a best place to sell photos online because when you list photos for sale here, they’re also available on stock site Fotolia. You’ll earn 33% commission on the photos you sell through Adobe Stock.
Fotolia, which has been purchased by Adobe Stock, has two pricing models for users: Pay-As-You-Go and Subscription. Photos sold to Pay-As-You-Go customers earn 20–63% commission, while Subscription generates 33% commission but has a minimum guarantee.
PhotoDune, part of Envato Market, is another best place to sell photos online. Payout structures vary. PhotoDune also has a referral program:Receive a 30% commission from your referral’s first cash deposit.
Alamy pays contributors monthly and has a varied payment structure. Sales through www.alamy.com earn photographers 50%, Distributors earn 70%, Novel Use earns 50%. Payments are deposited monthly, as long as your Cleared Funds are $50 or more.
Twenty20 started as a tool for Instagram photographers to sell their images to brands. Now, it’s a robust stock photography site where you can sell photos online and connect with potential clients. You can earn money three ways: selling a photo, for you earn $2 per photo licensed, 100% cash prizes from photo challenges, and 100% commission from whatever brands hire you for scheduled shoots.
Depositphotos has its commissions based on the contributor’s experience and status on the platform, as well as the resolution and license type. Commissions range are 34–42%.
Dreamstime is a stock photo site with a generous payout for contributors. However, they require more commitment: You must have at least 70% of your portfolio on their site for at least six months. But, non-exclusive contributors earn 25–50%, and exclusive photos generate a 27.5–55% commission. There are also lots of ways to earn money for referrals, both on the contributor and the purchaser side.
15. GL Stock Images
On GL Stock Images, you have the choice of setting your own prices. And you’ll earn 40% commission on all sales.
EyeEm focuses more on advertising stock photography, making it a best place to sell photos online if you’re looking to be in the commercial photography space. They advertise a 50% commission on their site.
17. Image Vortex
Image Vortex doesn’t require exclusivity, so you can sell your photos on other sites as well. Commission rates are 70%, and you establish your own prices.
Crestock pays contributors 20–40% commission rates based on the total number of downloads. They also have several affiliate programs through which you can earn money.
This is another stock photo platform that pays contributors based on the number of downloads and purchases. Commissions range from 30% to 60%.
Foap offers contributors five ways to earn money from selling photos online: $5 for every photo sold, $100–$2,500 for Missions, $0.25/photo for album-specific photo sales, submitting photos to Getty Mission (payouts vary), and selling photos online via partner platforms, such as Adobe and Alamy.
How to sell photography prints, products, and photo books
It’s not just brands and publishers who might want your work. Your fans might too.
And there are plenty of ways that they can potentially own it, whether it’s as a simple framed print or a pillow. Luckily, selling your own physical products is a lot simpler than you think.
How to sell photography prints and products
There are many sites and tools where you can upload your photographs and sell your pictures as photo prints on paper or physical products, such as mugs, T-shirts, and calendars.
You can work with a local photo lab that ships prints or use a print-on-demand service like Printful to dropship a wide range of products (prints, phone cases, pillows, and more) featuring your photos.
Be sure to order samples first to ensure that the quality of the products match the quality of your photos.
Image via Burst
There are many other sites and tools you can use to print photos and products to sell.
How to sell pictures as photo books
You can also learn how to sell pictures by creating photo books with your photographs and selling those online.
Photo books are another physical photography-based product that can complement any coffee table. The more niche and consistent your photography is, the more likely you’ll be able to put together a stellar photo book based around a compelling theme.
While you won’t get the best margins with print-on-demand services, it’s a great risk-free way to test demand for your products before you decide to invest upfront.
How to sell your photography as a service
Whether you’re covering events, doing fashion shoots, or taking product photos, there’s ample opportunity to take advantage of the demand for professional photography. Here’s how to sell your photography as a service:
While you can list your services in freelance directories like Fiverr and Upwork, or apply to be a Shopify Expert, selling your photography as a service for decent pay usually involves networking locally since you need to be able to travel to meet clients in-person.
Here are some tips to build your network:
- Always have business cards handy — you never know when you might meet a potential client (use our free business card generator to create your own).
- Tidy up your LinkedIn profile, showcase your work, and optimize it for the main photography service you provide (“Event Photographer”, for example).
- Attend networking events where entrepreneurs and event organizers go — these folks will inevitably have need for a professional photographer in the future.
- Build a personal brand as a photographer so you’re top-of-mind when anyone in your network needs your camera and skills.
Since photographers, unlike other freelancers, must operate in strict time slots, it’s good to have a booking platform you can use to let prospective clients see your schedule and book you when you're available.
Now, let’s talk about usage rights and protecting your work.
A photographer’s legal primer to selling photos online
Figuring out how to sell your photography online can be overwhelming enough. And while rights and licenses related to selling photography may seem a foreign language, there are some terms and concepts you should know to help protect yourself from theft and infringing upon others’ rights when selling photos.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, or a substitute for actual legal advice (I’m not a lawyer), but it should offer you broad definitions that will help you navigate the world of usage rights.
Glossary of legal terms for selling photos online
- Editorial use
- Commercial use
- Retail use
- Public domain
- Creative Commons
- Right of publicity
Editorial use: Permission to use in blogs, newspapers, magazines and other publications.
Commercial use: Permission to use in marketing and advertising to promote a product or service.
Retail use: Permission to use in the creation of a physical product to be sold. This includes prints, posters, and products that feature the photo (pillows, mugs, etc.). Sometimes talked about in the same context as commercial use, but it should be considered separately.
Exclusive: Exclusive use means that the one who purchases the license from you is the only one who can use the photo.
Non-exclusive: Non-exclusive photo licenses can be purchased and used by anyone and usually cost less than exclusive ones.
Public domain: Holds no restrictions or copyright claim and can be used for commercial, editorial, and personal purposes. Works created by U.S federal government agencies (such as NASA) generally fall into this category unless otherwise stated.
Creative Commons: Conditional usage of your work is allowed as long as it’s in compliance with the stated restrictions. Attribution to credit the creator is sometimes required. Visit Creative Commons to generate a badge for this license for free.
Royalty-free: Others can buy a license and use the photo for an unlimited duration and unlimited number of times. This is the most common type of license purchased and on the cheaper end of the spectrum since these photos are usually non-exclusive.
Rights-managed: A one-time license can be purchased to use the photo with restrictions regarding distribution. Additional licenses must be purchases for additional use.
Right of publicity: The subjects in your photos are entitled to certain rights when it comes to their inclusion in your photography, especially when it comes to commercial use when you sell photos online. This is a separate concern from the copyright considerations above and you should seek a subject's explicit permission first in order to be safe.
For more in-depth information about copyright laws and licensing in the U.S., check out Photo Secrets to understand the copyright laws that protect your work, or look at any major stock photo site to see how they define different types of licenses.
What to do if someone steals your photos
Theft is common when it comes to content, and many people do it unknowingly.
It’s common practice for photographers to watermark their images before selling them online to offer them at least some layer of protection against theft. If you’re going to sell or share your own photos, you can apply your own identifying mark in Photoshop or use a Watermark Generator.
A smaller watermark, often in the corner, still lets others enjoy your photo, while a larger tiled watermark with reduced opacity offers the most protection against theft.
But what do you do if someone decides to steal and use your photos anyway?
A cease and desist request will usually work. Or you can send the culprit an invoice for using your photo. A combination of the two will likely be the most effective at persuading the perpetrator by offering them the choice to either pay you or take the photo down.
At the very least, you should always try to get others to credit you whenever they borrow your work, even if it’s just for editorial purposes. Remember that links back to your portfolio site are not only good for driving traffic back to your other work, but also good for search engine optimization and helping your standing in Google search results.
Turning your passion into profit
Whether photography is your hobby, your side gig, or full-time hustle, there are more avenues than ever before when it comes to how you sell photos online.
Your talent and your determination ultimately decide your earning potential, but the income you get from doing what you love and what you’re good at is some of the best cash you’ll ever earn.