If you are a photographer, whether you are a professional or an amateur, you have probably thought of earning extra money on top of the direct income from photo shoots. In any profession, there is such a thing as passive income, and this is also possible here, thanks to stock photography. Today we are going to talk about how to and how much you can earn in this business and also discuss the basic concepts and what you can expect from it.

What is stock photography?

So, what is stock photography? The name is pretty much self-explanatory, it is a marketplace for photos to buy and sell unique images. There are a lot of different photo stocks, but they all work by the same principle. The only difference is the popularity and the number of images they have. To understand it in an easier way, we look at it from a photo buyer’s perspective. Let us say that you are a marketer, and you want to buy a photo of a cat dressed like a policeman or a nurse for your t-shirt photo print. You can scour the internet trying to find the perfect photo, then you can waste time dealing with a photo shooter who may or may not be willing to sell that photograph. Or instead, you can just go onto a stock website, search with certain keywords and find a photo to make your T-shirt print. Stock photography is a way of stockpiling the world’s photos to make it easier for people to find what they need. The most known photo stocks are Shutterstock, Pixabay, and Adobe Stock. Today we are going to talk about how to make money selling stock photography.

How much money do stock photographers make?

In order to understand how to make money with stock photography and estimate possible incomes, we need to understand how the sales work between seller-agency-consumer, and what is the purpose behind different types of image stocks. Yet this would not be easy but also not impossible to do. But do not expect it to be a free walk is your first mental set to thrive in stock photography. Let us break it down step by step.

Types of images on stocks

There are two types of stock photography: rights managed and Micro-stocks. And they are very different ways of selling images.

Rights Managed – this is what you would think selling photos is like when you start off as a photographer. They are big sales for lots of money and exclusive usage. Basically, a rights-managed stock site like tandem stock stills in motion, for example. They have a stockpile of images and then photo buyers say that they want to buy this image, and then they negotiate a price for you on the rights for that image. So whether their usage is exclusive or not, how long it is going to last, what type of usage it is: for a magazine, cover, mid-page, or a full spread. They do all the negotiating for you, and they take a pretty handy cut. Most of the rights-managed stock agencies take a cut of 50% - 75% for the image. Those agencies are useful, and you would probably not make something big without them. They sell for websites, newspapers, magazines, billboards, and basically for everything with a huge distribution potential.

For instance, Bing.com sells for $500-$750 each for magazines, that way rights managed stocks are for one and done to get the big chunk: low volume - high reward.

Micro-Stock is quite opposite in terms of profits, it is massive volume and a small reward.

In fact, when you start off selling microstock images, you are making around 20-25 cents per image, which is a tough pill to swallow for photographers. Let us say that you are a marketer or a PR agent that just needs a bunch of small images without a huge distribution, then you buy a subscription to a micro-stock site like Shutterstock. You may pay $500, and you will get to select as many as a hundred or two hundred images a month. And the photographer gets his cut of that, the cut is around 20%-35% of the image price, depending on the photographer's level. That way it is going to be 20-30 cents per image, however, the profits can be big, because one image might sell a thousand times.

When we talk about stock photography, it is important to mention that there is editorial and commercial use.

‘Editorial’ are the photos that you have taken that are news related. It does not mean that they have a person in the photo, but if it does have a person, it can legally be run as news. For example, imagine taking an image of some person on the streets. In order to sell it for news, you do not have to have permission that way. And you can upload this with an editorial checkmark on a stock site as well.

Commercial side is different from the editorial in the photo stocks. To sell an image of commercial nature, you need to make sure that there are no people in the photo in the first place. And the second issue is that there should be no brands in the photo. For instance, you can not shoot brands like coca-cola, or even Eiffel Tower for commercial purposes, because it is also branded.

Exclusive content

When dealing with micro-stocks, you need to be aware of exclusive content. If you sell an image that is set as an exclusive, you will not be able to place it elsewhere outside that stock. That way it becomes their property, which has pros and cons. The pro is that image will get you a bigger value selling. On the other hand, you will not be able to sell it to someone bigger anymore. That way you may have a disappointing case when someone wants to buy your image for let us say $2000 and you can not do that because it is set as exclusive on some micro-stock for just 20 cents. The advice here is to not set for the exclusive image on micro-stocks because you never know which one can provide you all of a sudden.

The numbers

To resume mentioned above about how much money you actually get from stock photography, you need to take into consideration countless variables. Profits are down to what they used to be because there are so many images there, but there is still value depending on how many images you get in. For example, over at Shutterstock, if you can get a thousand images into your portfolio, you are probably looking at about two to three hundred dollars a month. At the rights-managed agent, if your images are good, and you can get two thousand images into your portfolio, you could be looking at about four to five hundred dollars a month. And looking at these numbers, they might look terrible, but the beauty of stock photography is the residual and passive income side of it. What you need to think about is accumulating photos in your portfolio, that way if your photos are selling well, you do not have to do anything more about them besides adding new ones from time to time.

Depending on your portfolio volume, you may spend about a year or two to get to that 1000-2000 photos on it and establish your passive income up to $400-500 a month. Therefore, It is essential to look at it on a big scale if you want to make money on stock photos.

Why should you stock?

Why should you upload your images to stock? If you are a professional in the photography field, it may be less important to upload to stock. Stock photography is very time-consuming, and you may have no time if you are shooting professionally already. That way, you can get your own assistant that will do the research and upload it to stock to get a share of your passive income.

Different people are good at different things. Things could be that you are good at doing research and place selling photos if you just have the source, then maybe you can assist somebody with it. But if you are just starting in photography, then you should be definitely uploading to stock. It is a way of starting to build your own value. It is a productive way to spend your time in your early years of photography. You may upload to stock for years, but that way you will learn things about photography and there would be a positive side effect combining with passive income. You will learn what sells and what does not. The stock gives you an idea of what to shoot and the reason for it, which is a good incentive to practice your skill, both in terms of photography and knowing your competitive environment. If you are new to photography and do not want to work for free, you are refusing to do internships and apprenticeships, stock photography at least gives you something for your time spent. Stock photography will make you a good technical photographer because it is a free source of learning experience out there. People call stock photography cutthroat. Because if your images are not 100% sharp, are not 100% noise-free, the light is not perfect, everything is not perfect with that image – it will get denied. Stock photography forces you to become a real professional when it comes to the technical side of things.

How to sell photos on Adobe Stock?

Let us look at how to sell stock photos online using adobe stock as an example.

If you are new to Adobe stock or have not even signed up yet, here is a step-by-step guide.

If you are already a subscriber to the Creative Cloud, you can use the same Adobe ID for creative stuff.

  1. Once you have an Adobe ID, you are going to need to sign up to be a contributor at stock.adobe.com. You can do that by clicking the Sell button in the top right-hand bar. Accept the terms and conditions here. After you have your contributor account set up, you can start uploading photos by clicking the upload button in the top navigation bar. You can either drag and drop photos here or browse to choose photos.
  2. The next step is to add metadata to your photos and then submit them to Adobe Stock for review. After choosing the image file type, we get to the category. Adobe’s image recognition software is going to look at the photo and make the best guess of the category, and it is working pretty well, but if it chooses wrong you can manually update it.
  3. The next step is to add keywords and choose the language, which we are going to break down further.
  4.  The next is the model release option. You need to have a model release for each person you have in the photo. It is the same as the editorial section on Shutterstock. So if you do not have releases, you can still submit them to the editorial section on Shutterstock, because that is not an option for Adobe.

If you have not got a model release template yet, you can download it from adobe in the section ‘Download template’, but Adobe stock would also accept model releases from other agencies as well as apps. You can see the list of those agencies in the Model release and protection section that Adobe kind of guarantees that they will accept the model releases.

  1. The next section is very important because it is the title. This is the way your buyers are going to find your photographs. What you want to do in this title section is to put as many keywords as possible. For instance, you have a photo of a woman walking down a beach during a golden sunset in Maui, Hawaii. So if somebody searches for a beach photo or Hawaii, they might get this photo. Also, if somebody was searching for a golden sunset, the photo will pop up for them too.
  2. There is also a specific section for keywords below. If you are working with Adobe software like Lightroom, you can set these keywords in the software, and they will be automatically imported in this section read from metadata. It is worth mentioning that Adobe unlike the other sites takes into consideration the order of keywords. So you want to put your most relevant keywords at the top and the least relevant ones below. Adobe allows you to do up to 50 keywords, but you really need to have at least 5 to be able to submit it to review. It is recommended to have 20 to 30 keywords per stock photo. There are two ways to enter keywords. You can enter them line by line, or you can hit the ‘Paste Keywords’ toggle option right next to the section itself, and it will make a separate list for you.
  3. As you got your metadata set, you can go ahead and submit a photo. Adobe will review it and let you know whether it fits their criteria. Once they reviewed the photo, they will email you to let you know whether it was accepted or rejected. This normally takes a couple of days.

How to take and sell stock photos

So, we have chosen a photo stock, whether it's Shutterstock, Fotolia, or Adobe Stock. And what is next? Now we need to get ready for the long journey called building our stock. On average, it takes about two years to fill a stock for a professional photographer, which can bring from $300 to $500 income. If you are a beginner photographer, you can spend a lot more time for lack of experience. But that is the point. Over the course of building your personal portfolio, you'll understand the value of photography and get a better understanding of your profession. In the beginning, the income will be about $100, provided that you will place at least 50 photos a month in your portfolio. Being at a low start, the main thing is not to stop and learn from mistakes. If your photos do not sell, then perhaps you have not fully studied the market supply and demand. The primary reason people can make money on Shutterstock, as an example, is because business owners go there and find what they need. The only thing left to do is to figure out what they need and give them exactly that.

Market-research your stock

If you type in ‘the shot list’ on Shutterstock, you will get their monthly guide to the most requested content.

It is important to remember that people go to Shutterstock to go ahead and literally buy things for their business so that they could get a return on their investment. So there you can see the most requested for the following month. Here you will see the description of the demands. And by that people say ‘we need these’ - this is the best guidance so far. Now you are allowed to focus on a specific area that you choose from the shot list and organize the photoshoots that will make you money.

To have a more clear look at what you need to photograph, you can use these article tags and search for these specific photos on Shutterstock to see what exactly you need to photograph and what your rivals have done already.


After the market research is done, the 2nd important thing to understand is that money is made in keywords. Keywords are guiding the business owners to your and your rivals’ photos to choose from. So first it is important to get on the keyword list and then compare the quality of your photos with others to find an improvement. For instance, if you type ‘Wedding’ in the Shutterstock search bar, you will see there are dozens of offers like ‘wedding invitation’ ‘wedding card’ ‘wedding couple’, and so on. If you focus on these, your chances to make a sale are a lot higher.

Affiliate programs

If the previous course was your first level, you may think about making around $100 a day instead of a month. The second level is instead of you selling directly to the business owner, you sell to as many business owners as possible in a form of contact and then recommend Shutterstock as a business to go ahead and deliver the content. There is an Affiliate Program. That way, you can recommend people to Shutterstock and earn upwards of $ 300 per customer. For example, if we google search for ‘Where can I get royalty-free images’ there would be articles where people are referring themselves to the photo stocks they are probably partnered with or affiliated with. If someone goes from that referring link and ends up buying, the referrer will get $ 300.

Now we have 2 different ways of income, both from our photographs and affiliate program.

Competitive concerns

If you have concerns about the competitive environment, you may look for your niche, implementing some new trends. For instance, men’s boudoir ideas are not as common as women's boudoir. Or maybe you will implement some group photo ideas that stood untouched yet. On the other hand, following more popular trends gives you some chance to get hit by a business owner looking specifically for a male portrait pose that is not on Shutterstock yet, and you have done it. Those are examples of contrast in the photography industry when you can do your own business or just follow the flow of trends. Try them both ways and find out which one works best for you.

Hopefully, this article helped you to get an idea about what stock photography is, and allow you to start your own path to professional photography and not allow concerns to mislead you.