This article is about earning money via internet. I want to make it very clear upfront that it is not about getting rich quickly; neither
it is about "earn $xxx a day working from home" neither it is about online casinos, online marketing or any other such thing.
The aim of this article is to provide the guidance for photographers (and other digital artists) about possibilities to get income from their photographs (or other digital works) using internet. More specifically - I will explain the ways of selling digital artwork via Internet.
Part 1 (this page) - Introduction. How to start selling stock photos (microstock)
Part 2 - Stock photography business
Part 3 - Taking your stock photography to the next level
Part 4 - Selling fine-art prints, self-published books
Part 5 - How to grow your photo business
I am photographer myself so for convenince I will use the words "photography" and "photographs" most of the time. However everything
said below about photography is equally applicable to drawings, paintings, vector illustrations and 3D renders.
If you are a photography enthusiast you might wonder what to do with your photographs. Suppose you are at the proficiency level when your relatives and your friends appreciate your work. Probably you have framed a few pictures and placed on the walls, perhaps participated in your photoclub exhibitions... However sooner or later you will ask yourself a question 'what's next?'
Here is the answer: you could make income from your hobby without becoming a full-time professional.
You can start selling pictures via internet.
Many amateurs are happy when they are able to offset the cost of their equipment (and their significant others become happier too).
Once you started selling your artwork via internet, there is possiblity to take it a level further and to become a photo professional.
If you are already photo professional doing for example wedding or event photography you could also benefit from
selling some of your work online.
This is not a recipe of becoming rich quickly; as with any other business the result will depend on your efforts. If you think about earning a living from that you need to treat this as your full-time job.
There are several significantly different possibilities for selling artwork via internet. Each has it's own Pro's and Con's. Stock photography is the biggest market; and these days it is one of the easiest ways to start making money from your pictures (particularly speaking about microstock). Thus it's logical that the biggest part of this article is devoted to photo stock. However stock photography is not the only possibility, there are other options (perhaps more creative). Some are described in part 4 of this article.
If you simply want to start making money with your photos today you can just continue reading below. However, in order to understand how the business of stock photography and microstock works I would recommend you to read an introduction to stock photography: Part 2 - Stock photography business.
First of all you have to have a few decent pictures (I would say 15-20 as a very minimum) and you need to be able to produce the pictures that will not be considered a "snapshot". "Snapshots" are typical family pictures, party or touristic ones made with automatic cameras without any thinking behind (about composition, lighting, background, etc). If you only made snapshots so far it's better to go and learn a bit more about photography before submitting anything to photo stock.
Technical quality of your pictures must be good. Most stocks don't require very high resolution (typically the minimum is 3-4 megapixels) but your pictures must be clean, sharp, correctly exposed, not having much noise etc. If you use digital camera always shoot in RAW format and never in JPEG.
Stock pictures must be clear of any trade marks i.e. there must be no logos, company names, etc. on the stock picture. That includes clothes and electronics such as mobile phones (it's ok to have phone in the picture, but there should be no visible logos). Sometimes you can remove the logos digitally, sometimes the picture is simply not suitable for stock. For example you can't make a stock picture of Time Square in New York - there is too much advertising around. Also, copyrighted objects can not be a primary subject of the picture without a property release (such as Sydney Opera) but they can freely be included in a cityscape pictures. Photos of art work (paintings, sculptures, etc) are unacceptable.
Photographs of naked children/babies are generally not accepted by stocks (because of paedophilia fears).
You can learn more about the technical requirements and about copyright issues on the microstock websites, for example at istock web page http://www.istockphoto.com/training_manuals.php
You must understand that most of the time stock pictures are used as illustrations. Thus the picture with a clear message will sell better than a generic one. For example a fine-art portrait of a pretty girl will not sell as good as a portrait of a smiling girl talking on her mobile phone. Positive messages sells better than negative. People and objects isolated on white background sell very good. Industrial pictures sell good too.
In general it's a good idea to shoot specially for stock. However some people don't like that. There are people who like walking in a park and making nature pictures and not photographing anything else. This is understandable and acceptable and such people can still make some money on stock but they will earn less.
The photographs of your cat, your dog or flowers in your garden are likely to be rejected unless they are of extremely good artistic and technical quality. Landscapes work better although it is not the best selling subject - on one hand there are very many landscapes in photo stocks already, on the other hand the demand for other picture categories is much higher. However if you have good quality picturesque landscapes just use them. Nature details can also be accepted and will sell if they look nice and/or if they have a message or illustrate a concept.
I started my stock experience with nature and landscape pictures and several of my best sellers are nature/landscapes. An example of a well selling nature picture is a misty forest above. This photo together with a few other taken at the day in the same place remain my best selling picture since 2005 at several microstock sites.
When you have recognizable people in your pictures you must supply a signed model release, otherwise stocks will not accept it. You can find a generic model release form at the end of the article.
First of all, your name will be your brand. I would recommend you to register as a contribitor with all major agencies, using the same username (preferrably simple and memorable).
Please note that I suggest only to register, not to submit any pictures yet!
It's harder and harder to get accepted by the leading agencies. They generate best sales so missing them would be a valuable loss for you. Thus it's a good idea to get prepared with "second rank" agenices first before applying to the "top league". After you registered with all major agencies I would suggest you to start uploading first to Fotolia, Bigstockphoto and possibly YayMicro. After getting initial experience I would go to 123rf and Stockxpert followed by Dreamstime. iStock and Shutterstock are better to be entered after having a decent stock experience elsewhere.
Below I will provide additional details about the leading microstock agencies. The links to the agencies contain my referral number. While it is up to you to use it or not during registration I will appreciate you using it in return for my efforts of writing this article and answering your questions. You will not loose a penny if you register with my referral number, but I will get a little commission from the stock if you do so.
Every time you upload a picture to a stock site you have to provide the title, the description, the keywords and category. To save time submitting the same picture to several sites it's better to put that information into EXIF/IPTC fields while editing your picture(menu File, File Information in Adobe Photoshop, or Ctrl+Shift+Alt+I). It's crucial to provide as many as possible correct keywords. That's your only (really useful) marketing tool on the stock sites, so learn to use it effectively. Don't use keyword spamming (adding popular but irrelevant keywords) but do your best to provide as many as possible really accurate keywords. http://thesaurus.com can help you finding words. Searching for similar photos of other authors and checking their keywords helps too (but don't copy all their keywords blatantly). A good help could be the free service by http://arcurs.com/keywording/index.php - you need to enter a few keywords, then the site fill find stock pictures matching these words; then you select pictures most similar to yours and then you can see the summary of all keywords used to describe these pictures - and you can select most appropriate for you. It is hard to overestimate how imporant the keywords are for the commercial success of your pictures. However it is a subject for a separate discussion to be covered elsewhere.
[UPDATE] iStock has became a part of Getty Images and doesn't exist anymore on it's own. The paragraph below describes legacy iStock.
iStock used to be an emblem of the micro payment business and is often used as a synonym of the word "microstock". Canadian based it's basically the first microstock agency in the world. It has grown from a designers picture exchange site and is several years old. Powered by Getty Images these days, iStock remains one of the microstock business leaders both financially and technologically. It needs to be noted however that Getty has forced a number of controversal changes in iStock in 2010-2011 which resulted decline in income for most photographers. It is unclear whether istock business is declining too or it only affects the contributors.
The downside of iStock being so famous is very tough competition among photographers. Therefore average amateurs are getting less and less income from iStock now comparing with a couple years ago. However good photographers are always able to succeed. iStock favors exclusive photographers who get a better commission and better search engine placement (exclusive istock contributors can't sell their pictures in other microstcoks).
iStock is a community-based agency that uses "crowdsourcing" in it's business model more than other agencies. Image inspection, forum administration are done by selected agency contributors who get a little comission for that (unlike other agencies having paid employees); regular international photographers gatherings are organized and sponsored by iStock. The number of sales of every picture and every contributor is transparent for other community members so you can easily see the leaders and their best sellers and learn from them.
Technical requirements for submitted pictures are hardest at iStock comparing to other agencies.
After becoming an iStock image contributor, and after making 500 sales you will get an option to become exclusive to iStock. This will give you higher comission and better promotion but you will be unable to contribute to other Royalty Free stocks. Financially this might be not as good as staying with several agencies (for most photographers) but many people prefer to save time and efforts by working with a single agency. Almost all top iStock contributors (having more than 100,000 sales) are exclusive to iStock with a very few exceptions.
Typically the pictures you submit to iStock are not starting giving you the income immediately, but good pictures will sell again and again even if you stop uploading new ones.
iStock is definitely a site I advise you to be in, but I would advise you to apply to iStock after having initial stock experience with the other agencies. You need to supply 3 photos for the exam and you can get a couple more attempts if you fail.
Shutterstock is a private American company. It used to be 100% subscription based but it has added per-image sales in 2008. Later it stared to sell video stock futage in addition to pictures.
It is comparable with iStock on the market in the number of images and sales. For very many contributors Shutterstock is number one in terms of income -
but only if you constantly feed it with your new pictures.
Shutterstock sales used to have a strong dependency on new uploads. If you had good pictures in your portfolio but didn't upload new ones, the sales were becoming lower and lower. Keeping constantly uploading new pictures was necessary get your sales growing. Nit only the newly uploaded pictures were selling but the old ones too. However that rule seems to have changed lately - if your portfolio is large enough and has s significant number of good sellers it would continue to sell well even without new uploads.
Shutterstock has a basic ranking system - after you sold a certain number of pictures you start getting higher commission. Unlike Fotolia, higher commission levels at Shutterstock are much easier to reach.
The image inspectors of Shutterstock are company employees. The judgement varies from one inspector to another. Pictures not accepted one day could be accepted another time (but you need to be careful with re-upload - if you keep re-apploading bad pictures you will get punished). Shutterstock is very cautious about image noise - they prefer more noise reduction even if it harms some image details (but it still shouldn't go to a ridiculous extend).
Shutterstock doesn't welcome creative lighting. Evenly lit pictures with soft shadows are accepted well, but deep shadows, side light, high contrast typically gets rejected (even if used appropriately for a particular photo).
The entry exam on Shutterstock is one of the most difficult. You must submit 10 pictures, and at least 7 of them must be accepted. If you fail you can only retry after one month.
Shutterstock doesn't have exclusivity in any form. While Shutterstock business isn't community-based, the contributors forum is as active as the one on iStock (probably even more active and definitely more open).
Shutterstock is definitely a site I advise you to be in, but I would advise you to apply to Shutterstock after having initial stock experience with the other agencies. Today it is simple the best selling microstock thus you need to be prepared to enter otherwise you can loose your chance.
Fotolia is one of the leading microstocks. Fotolia has been moved into Adobe Stock, however legacy Fotolia site is still accessible for contributirs.
Doesn't have an entry exam; but their rejection rate is quite high. Their rejection criteria aren't always clear (I have the impression that sometimes rejections are random). Rejections depend significantly on the subject. For example, clean studio pictures of people are accepted much better than landscape or architecture pictures.
The sales usually start slow at Fotolia but advanced photographers (having large portfolios) report good and growing sales (comparable with iStock and Shutterstock). My own sales at Fotolia are lower comparing with iStock and Shutterstock.
Fotolia suggests optional image exclusivity (you will get higher commission if your image will be exclusive to Fotolia, but you can still submit your other images to other microstocks).
Fotolia has a ranking system - the more pictures you sell the better your rank and commission gets higher. However it doesn't work for an average contributor - you need to have really many sales to get to a higher rank.
Your sales at Fotolia have certain dependency on new uploads. I.e. you need to keep feeding Fotolia with new pictures to keep constant or increasing sales. It seems that constant upload of new pictures helps to promote your entire portfolio when buyers search for pictures.
While Fotolia is open for microstock beginners it does not provide a really good learning. Still it would be a good starting point to "try the water".
Dreamstime is Romanian-American company. Typically it generates less sales than the top leaders, but it isn't too far behind.
There is no entry exam; and the image review criterias are similar to iStock. This combination makes Dreamstime a good place to start learning stock photography.
Dreamstime suggests optional image exclusivity (you will get higher commission if your image will be exclusive to Dreamstime but you can still submit your other images to other microstocks) and photographer exclusivity (similar to iStock when you can't be a contributor to other agencies if you become an exclusive Dreamstime photographer). Taking into account the lower sales at Dreamstime comparing with the market leaders photographer exclusivity doesn't make sense from financial point of view.
It seems that active feeding of Dreamstime with new pictures helps to keep/increase sales. However the dependency is not always linear. Indirectly high acceptance ratio of submitted pictures would also help to increase sales (via placing your images higher in search results for buyers).
Image acceptance criteria in Dreamstime is similar to those in iStock. Not having any entry exam, this makes Dreamstime a good starting/learning place for a microstock beginner.
123rf is one of slow and quiet sites that however generates stable income. It used to be a low earner site,
but through 2911 the level of sales increased significantly. It is still behind the top 4, but not too far.
123rf has one of the easiest image acceptance criteria among microstocks. It has very convenient system of attaching model releases to images.
Bigstock is a smaller stock that haven't achieved the same pace of growth as the ones described above. Still a nice site that is able to generate a decent profit for some contributors. No entry exam that makes it easy for beginners.
The performance of BigStock remains far behind the leading agencies.
In 2009 BigStock was purchased by Shutterstock with the idea to extend subscription-only service of Shuterstock with pay-per-download platform and userbase. So far it didn't result any visible changes.
Alamy is not a microstock site. Alamy is a traditional stock but
operating via Internet and open to amateurs unlike the other traditional
agencies. Being a traditional stock it generates higher per-picture
income from one sale, but the sales are much much less frequent than at
microstocks and you have to have at least several hundred pictures in
your portfolio in order to get regular sales. Until recently Alamy only accepted
TIF files on CD/DVD, however they moved to JPEG recently and enabled upload via internet.
Contributors can select themselves which license should be sold - RF or RM, and various limitations can be set by contributors for RM images.
Depositphotos started in microstock business much later than the top players. Their start was very aggressive and it seems to be stabke now. The level of sales varies greatly from one contributor to another. In my own experience the level of sales is stable but very low; and mainly comes from low-cost subscription downloads (with the number of them being much fewer than shutterstock).
Canstockphoto, Crestock, Yaymicro, Mostphotos and other make very low sales
and in my opinion are not worth the effort/time to
upload pictures, attach model releases, select categories - only if you have a lot of spare time.
Remark: mostphotos might be an exception. Despite having very low sales it could serve as a backup for your entire portfolio. It doesn't have any image inspection at all (i.e. 100% of pictures you upload will show up); it doesn't require to apply categories or model releases (you just need to mark that you have one); and it allows you to download your own pictures at any time.
The next part of the article will explain the business of stock photography and different kinds of photo stock. Reading part 2 is essential for understanding how this busuness work and how to find your own way there.
Last update: September, 2012 (some corrections made in 2018)