Make Money with your Photos | Microstock

Make money with your photos

Stock Image of Burmese Temple – Tachileik, Myanmar

Do you enjoy photography as a hobby? If so, why not make money with your photos, too? You can upload photos to microstock photo stock agencies, and, if your photos are acceptable, the agency will add them to their library of images and make them available for download. The fee paid by someone wanting to download the photo is shared between you and the photo agency. Best of all, you’re not limited to submitting photos to one particular agency. There are many microstock photo agencies and you can submit the same photos to as many as you like. Alternatively, you can choose to submit exclusively to a single agency in return for a higher percentage of the download fee.

Some microstock photo agencies will accept you as a photographer-contributor without question but will accept or reject your photos individually as they see fit. Others want to see some samples of your work before accepting you, and if they accept you, they’ll still accept or reject each photo on its merits.

Who pays to download photos?

Thousands of commercial media companies worldwide including TV stations, magazines, webmasters, book publishers, etc., anyone, in fact, who wants a photo of a specific subject that they can use commercially and legally. It’s a huge industry and has been  going for many decades. In the last decade or so, however, it has expanded enormously and changed radically because of the marriage of two rapidly emerging technologies: digital photography and the World Wide Web. These, in combination, now enable searchers to choose from literally millions of digital images from anywhere in the world and legally download the ones they want immediately – for a fee, of course.

Who are the Photo Libraries?

make money with your photos | Market produce shot

Rambutan – Market stalls are a popular stockworthy subject

 They are basically, the middlemen between you, as the photographer, and the buyer. They hold millions of images submitted by photographers, both professional and amateur. Whereas the pre-digital traditional photo libraries represent mostly professional photographers and promote their work personally, the new breed of microstock photo agencies only care about the photos, not the photographer. They don’t care if you’re a complete novice or if you’ve been doing it most of your life. It’s the photos they’re interested in – not you. If you can supply good stockworthy photos, they’ll take them. If any photo isn’t acceptable, they’ll reject it – simple as that. Don’t be discouraged by rejections. It’s very common for one agency to reject a photo while another accepts it. Each agency has its particular marketing preferences and that affects their decision on whether to accept or reject an image.

The leading microstock photo agencies include: iStockphoto, Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime, DepositPhotos, Clashot (mobile pics), 123RF and Alamy, but there are many more. The big agencies have more buyers but also more photographers, so the competition is greater. The smaller companies have fewer photographers, which means less competition, but they also have fewer buyers, so it can work out the same over the long run. However, many of the smaller ones come and go, being unable to compete with the larger ones, so the ones mentioned here are a safer bet as they’re well-established and successful.

How does the payment work?

Companies or individuals register with photo libraries as clients. When they need an image, they use the site’s search function to find the image they want, select the pixel size they need, then pay and download – or more likely, they pay in advance by subscription. The payment per download to you is typically small; It can be less than a dollar if the client wants just a small thumbnail size copy of your picture – or a few dollars for a larger size – and that’s why they’re called ‘micro’stock photo libraries. – It’s a micropayment business model. The upside is that downloads, being cheap, are more frequent. And remember, they’re just copies of your image. The client doesn’t own the image; you do. They’re just paying to use it under a so-called Royalty Free Licence.

Royalty Free licence

This is the licence, issued by microstock agencies, that allows buyers to use your image legally. It’s actually a confusing term as many people think that Royalty Free means free to use or ‘Public Domain’. What it means is that on payment of a fee, a buyer can use the image as often as they like without paying further royalties each time they use the image. It’s not free; it’s ‘royalty’ free. The traditional photo libraries mostly offer ‘rights managed’ licences to their client and royalties may be payable for every use. This is worth more money, but downloads are far fewer because of the much higher price involved, and it’s mostly professional photographers that they work with anyway. Microstock is open to anyone.

What kind of images are acceptable?

make money with your photos | Mobile phone mast images sell

Mobile phone masts can be used to illustrate communications or technology

Microstock libraries don’t want pictures of your house or pet dog or the flowers in your garden. They want stockworthy images as that’s what their customers are looking for and are willing to pay for. You need to put yourself in the mind of the buyer when deciding which photos to upload. What use could an image have? Who would use it? To make money with your photos, these are the questions you need to ask yourself when deciding if an image is stockworthy.

Stockworthy photos can be either conceptual or factual, with conceptual photos being more commercially valuable.

Conceptual photos

Conceptual photos sell an idea or concept. Look at any leisure or business magazines, and you’ll see typical stock photos indirectly illustrating the text of the article. An article about the economy might have a photo with dozens of banknotes neatly and attractively arranged. An article about good parenting might have a smiling dad pushing a happy child on a swing. A health magazine or medical advice leaflet might show a dirty, overflowing ashtray to convey the negative effects of smoking. The mobile phone mast on the right has conceptual value rather than factual value. Nobody wants a picture of a mobile phone mast to hang on their wall, and it’s not exactly the kind of photo you’d want to see on a postcard or calendar. Conceptually, it does have value, however, as it can be used in website or magazine articles to symbolise communications, technology, spoiling of the environment, etc.

Factual photos

make money with your photos | White-handed gibbon

Factual image – White-handed Gibbon (Hylobates lar)

These are photos that simply show the subject for what it is. For example, a travel book publisher may want a picture of the Taj Mahal in India. (The Taj Mahal can be used conceptually, too, of course, as an iconic symbol of love). What they don’t want are generic landscapes. Even if it’s a stunningly beautiful photo that would look great in someone’s living room, it can be rejected for not being stockworthy. If it’s not of a specific place or region but just a pretty picture that could have been taken anywhere, who would want it? The travel book publisher or magazine editor is unlikely to need it – and it doesn’t suggest any concept or have a selling point, so it has no value there either. In short, it’s not stockworthy. Make a print, frame it and sell it privately. The zoo photo of the gibbon on the right has factual value and could be used if a nature magazine or zoology publication needs a photo of a gibbon, or even, more specifically, a white-handed gibbon. The Latin name is included, too, where possible, as that’s what potential buyers might enter into the search box when looking for a picture of that exact species.


make money with your photos | Shots of kids need model release

Photos of identifiable persons need a model release

There are some content restrictions. If your photo includes any identifiable persons, you need to get them to sign a ‘model release’ form or else the photo library will reject it. A parent or legal guardian would need to sign on behalf of any minors. The photo will also be rejected if it shows any protected brands or logos, e.g., Coke, Chrysler, and many modern buildings are also off limits. With many famous modern public buildings, you’re allowed to take as many photos as you like, but not for commercial gain, meaning that you can’t legally sell them as that would be classed as infringement of the architects’ or owners’ intellectual property rights. Those require a property release form signed by the owner – so you can forget that as you’ve got no chance of getting it. The photo on the right of kids swimming has conceptual value (parenting or swimming tuition articles), but would be unacceptable without a model release signed by the kids’ parent or guardian, because they can be identified in the shot.

Editorial Licence

make money with your photos | Flooding in Bangkok

Flooding – Newsworthy shots don’t require model or property releases.

For some photo libraries, an exception to virtually all of those restrictions is made in the case of newsworthy events, such as the London Marathon, a road accident, a bank robbery or a local fete for example. Anything goes in that case, but a buyer can only legally use photos downloaded as editorial images in certain ways, such as broadcasting a factual news report. It can’t be put to any commercial use, such as making and selling posters of the event. As its purpose is to depict a newsworthy event accurately and truthfully, you mustn’t have made any changes to the image apart from cropping and sprucing it up a little with a photo-editing program. The photo on the right contains identifiable people and protected brands and logos but can be used editorially as flooding is a newsworthy event.

Technical requirements

To make money with your photos that you’ve uploaded to microstock picture libraries, the photos have to be of an acceptable technical quality. They want pictures to be sharp, of a minimum size, (as specified on their websites) and in JPG file (RGB colour) form. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry as your camera probably does all that by default anyway, and most cameras produce images larger than the minimum sizes required. Modern DSLR cameras are easily good enough for the job, but, surprisingly, many compact cameras can also produce images of acceptable quality – but not always, so expect a higher rejection rate if you use a compact. Even mobiles are starting to get in on the act with some sites such as Clashot specialising in mobile photos, but, so far, only for editorial shots, where the content is far more important than technical quality.


When you upload a photo, you also need to include keywords that describe the image in detail both factually and conceptually. The keywords are important because that’s how buyers find your photo among literally millions. Both factual and conceptual keywords should be added. So, in the case of a photo of the Taj Mahal as mentioned earlier, the keywords would include: Taj Mahal, Agra, India, mausoleum, tourist attraction, love, monument, romance, marriage, etc. etc. If a searcher enters a phrase, such as “tourist attractions in Agra, India”, yours will be somewhere in the results page, available for the buyer to see and choose if it suits their needs. If they enter “monument to love”, it will still be somewhere in the results pages.

Make Money with your Photos (or not).

You can certainly make money with your photos, but making a living from it is a different matter. Some people make a full-time living from it; most don’t. To make a full-time living requires complete dedication to making and taking pictures that are stockworthy. I, personally, will never make a living from it because I only take the type of photos that I want – not what they want. If a photo that I take also happens to be stockworthy, then I’ll submit it to a few agencies that I’ve already joined. If you want to make money with your photos that amounts to a full time wage, you need to go out every day taking pictures of anything that you think would be stockworthy. You also need to spend an hour or two every day categorising and keywording your images before uploading them to your chosen microstock photo agencies. To get an idea of the current trends, simply check out the sites mentioned earlier and see what’s on their front pages.

All images by chasmac


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