What is Stock Photography?
If you have heard the term "stock photography", you may know it applies to the majority of generic photos you see every day. You may not know that the average photographer can earn money from selling stock photos. There are many stock photo agencies, each hosting literally millions of photos. While many of these photos are taken by professional photographers, even more are taken by inspired amateurs. For some individuals, selling stock photos can be a way to quit the day job and become a professional photographer. The general process for selling stock photos is as follows:
- Find an agency
- Sign up with the agency
- Upload photos
How do I Find an Agency?
If you want to sell your photos, you have two methods – become famous enough to justify your own web site, or use an agency. Most of us will use the second option, presumably because we are not famous yet. I have no idea how many agencies exist, but an internet search for stock photography agency turned up over half a million results. Some of these agencies are general-purpose, while others focus on one aspect of photography, such as wildlife, landscapes, or people. I signed up several years ago with Shutterstock, so I'll use them as an example.
This process will entail some paperwork. First off, you'll have an agreement between you and the agency. The agency will provide this agreement, and you will generally agree online without needing to sign an actual piece of paper. This agreement will spell out the rights and obligations each party has, and you should read it carefully before you agree. In particular, you will want to know how they handle exclusivity and payments. Exclusivity may prevent you from sending your photo to other agencies, or even signing on with another agency, so read carefully.
One important piece of paperwork is called the Model Release, and all agencies should be able to supply you with a generic form. You will want to print out a supply and keep them in your camera bag. You will need to have one of these forms signed by every recognizable person in your photos. There are exceptions to this rule, primarily for photos that will be used for news or educational purposes, but you will need to investigate this further with your chosen agency. There may also be a Property Release form for use with certain properties that require releases. I have no idea which properties may require releases, but you should assume that any photos taken on private property may need a signed release.
Payments will vary by agency. Some pay more for higher resolution photos, or videos. Some pay more based on how many you've previously sold. Some may pay via PayPal, while others may cut you a check when you pass a threshold amount. Make sure you know the details before agreeing to anything. Rates will, of course, vary for any number of reasons, but you could expect to make maybe 20 cents every time your photo is purchased. It's not much, but a popular photo will continue to sell every month, so it could add up.
If you just upload any photo, you may be disappointed when it is rejected. The photos they accept have to be good photos, otherwise no one would buy them. Before you upload your first batch of photos, take a look at what they offer for sale, in whatever category your photos belong. That will give you a good idea of the quality level they are looking for. Search for similar photos – they may have too many pictures of the Neuschwanstein castle, particularly since there are only two really good photo vantage points. Most agencies have discussion forums, allowing you to post a photo for critique before ever uploading the full-size one. You may think anyone could make a decent flower photo, for instance, but since some of mine were rejected, I now know enough about the subject to know it's not one of my strong points.
Many agencies have rules governing rejections. For instance, if too high a percentage of your photos are being rejected, you may be blocked from sending more photos for a certain time, or a similar penalty. They really do want you to only send them the very best. In most cases, they are looking at the photo's subject matter, but in some cases they might be looking for more artistic works such as high dynamic-range (HDR) photos, or tilt-shift miniatures, or panoramas. One area I focus on is mountain panoramas, which doesn't get as many submissions as other areas.
Well, the ultimate aim of many photographers is to submit a boatload of photos, then live off the residual sales. This can happen, but don't bet the farm on it. I have made less than $10 on the photos I have posted at Shutterstock, but then again I don't have hundreds or thousands of photos posted there. If you are a prolific photographer, and know what kind of photos will sell, and diligently strive to get perfect photos, then you might earn enough to buy another camera gadget. Only the very best, however, make enough to live on, and most of them probably sell their photos through their own sites and cut out the middleman.