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Stock Photography Business

written by: Annette Pope•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/18/2011

With the relatively inexpensive nature of photography equipment, it seems only natural that photography buffs would consider using their interest to bring in a little extra money. A stock photography business can do just that, but there's more to it than snapping away and putting the images online.

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    Money is tight these days and everyone's looking for ways to increase their income to make ends meet, have a little extra pocket money or just to allow their hobby to pay for itself. For photography enthusiasts, the choice generally comes down to venturing into the realm of professional photography—such as shooting weddings and portraits and the like—or selling individual images as stock. While the second option may seem easier than the first, running a stock photography business demands more attention and focus than one may expect.

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    What is Stock Photography?

    Stock photography is essentially selling your existing images for use in ads, marketing materials, books, catalogs and any host of other needs. The images are “in stock" and available for anyone who needs them at any time, and prices per photo can range from a few dollars to a few hundred, based on the demand, the licensing rights and the subject.

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    How to Sell Stock Photographs

    There are two schools of thought for selling stock images: selling them yourself on a website you set up and market on your own, or joining a microstock website such as iStockphoto or Shutterstock, which places your images for sale along with hundreds or thousands of others. There are pros and cons to each option, and the decision of whether to venture out on your own or join an established, well-known microstock site is a personal choice.

    Running Your Own Stock Photography Business


    • No limits on what types of images you can sell
    • No limits on number of images available
    • No cuts to your profit for “agency fees" or the like
    • No sudden contract and agency agreement changes
    • No direct competition with who-knows-how-many other photographs similar to yours


    • You are responsible for all marketing, delivery and sales necessary
    • You must maintain the photo database, which can be confusing, time-consuming and complex
    • You must research the market and provide photos that are in demand to sell
    • You must set and negotiate prices
    • You must get your clients to pay their invoices

    Joining a Microstock Website


    • Larger companies have name recognition and high numbers of visitors every month
    • Preset prices guarantee specific earnings
    • You can concentrate on just taking the images and uploading them for sale
    • No personal out-of-pocket expenses
    • They deal with any disgruntled customers


    • Because they have larger stock catalogs, your images may get lost in the crowd
    • Some have very strict image quality requirements
    • Rules and regulations can change at any time
    • They can delete any number of your images for any reason they deem fit

    Neither option is perfect and right for every stock photographer, so careful consideration of all the pros, cons and sacrifices should be made before making a final decision.

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    Shooting the Right Images

    Regardless of whether you've decided to join a microstock website or start your own stock photography business, you need to have a catalog of images to offer for sale. Contrary to what many people think of stock photography, you can't just “shoot what you want and make money"--the images must be in demand in order to sell. In other words, you can't just snap a hundred photos of your dog sleeping on the couch, stick them online and expect the money to start rolling in. Pets, flowers and pretty sunsets are overpopulated categories on stock photo sites, and, let's face it, they can all end up looking pretty much the same after a while. The trick is to identify what images are selling and in demand and shoot those.

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    Types of Usage Licenses

    Most stock images are sold as “Royalty Free" which means that once the customer purchases the rights to use the photo, it's theirs to use as they wish and the photographer has no legal rights to any profit made from its use. Some sites also offer additional license options, such as a “Standard" or “Limited" license, which limits the distribution of the purchased image to a certain number. An “Extended" or “Unlimited" license means that there is either a higher limit on the use of the photo, or no limit at all imposed. The purchase prices for these types of licenses are usually higher than the simple “Royalty Free" images.

    When running your own stock photography business, you should conduct your own research into the different copyright and licensing terms available to you and choose the best option for your images.

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    Equipment Necessary

    The most basic equipment necessary to run a stock photography business is a good quality digital camera, a few lenses, a computer and processing software. Some people focus on specific niches for their stock photography, and these may require additional equipment to produce good quality images such as a light table or macro lenses. The specific brands of the equipment is unimportant, so long as the quality of the images produced remains high—very little digital noise, sharp focus, good colors, etc. Your images may be purchased for reproduction on a much larger scale than you originally anticipated, and a tiny 2 megapixel point-and-shoot camera won't provide the type of image quality necessary to print very large.

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    Making Money

    In terms of a stock photography business, you need both quantity and quality to make money. Unless you've somehow discovered the Midas Touch and can turn every single image you take into a high earner, you'll need a lot of images in your catalog in order to turn a decent profit. Regularly add new images to your portfolio, website or catalog and optimize them with keywords and easily searchable terms. Advertise the link to your stock images in your email signature, message board and forum signatures and Facebook page info section. Start a blog and provide informative information while advertising any new images you've uploaded. Market, advertise and never let people forget what you do, and proudly show the work you've done.

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    A stock photography business is far from an “easy way to make money", as there are a lot of other people with the same idea as you, many with a head start and dozens or even hundreds of photos available already. You must have the desire to take good quality images, the tenacity to advertise your images to everyone who may be in need of them, and the drive to keep going even if the payback isn't all that promising at the moment. Build your portfolio, position yourself as a high quality provider and keep uploading even if nothing's selling right now. The more images you have uploaded, the more options you have to earn a nice side income doing what you love.

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    Dan Heller Photography: The Stock Photography Business -

    Photoshelter: Building a Monumental Photo Business -

    Mikhail Lavrenov Photography: How to Sell Your Pictures Online -