A Five-Step Guide to Your First Photo Sale

Selling images should be easy. Stock agencies now look at the photographs, not the photographers. Buyers have multiplied as millions of Web pages have spread across the Internet. The gap between collectors and creators has broken down as sellers can use their own marketing skills to create their brands, build a reputation and promote their art. But it isn’t easy. Moving from talented enthusiast with hard drive full of pictures to a semi-professional shooter with a portfolio of sales and a steady revenue stream can take time, hard work and plenty of frustration. This is what you need to do get started.

1. Sort Your Images

You might take thousands of images before you start thinking about making sales. Some of them you’ll delete but many you’ll just transfer to your hard drive, categorize and leave. When storage space costs so little, there’s no reason to be selective about the photographs you keep.

But you will need to be selective about the images you offer for sale. Buyers don’t want to wade through a dozen mediocre shots to find the one excellent image that they might want to buy. They only want to look at the very best photographs you’ve managed to create. Professional sports photographer Philip Brown says that he’ll take “thousands of images” over the course of a five-day cricket match, many of which he won’t even look at and only a handful of which he’ll sell. You too have to assume that you’ll only be able to offer a tiny fraction of the images you create.

2. Join Flickr

Choosing that small fraction of your best images though won’t be easy – and you’re not the best judge. Your choice of favorite images might be influenced by the experience involved in winning the shot or some other personal factor that’s not visible in the composition alone. You need an objective opinion.

Start then by choosing your best images, upload them to a Flickr account then network to win views, favorites and comments. Remove the images that are ignored or which receive criticism and look for the features that characterize your most popular shots. The result might be a collection that’s smaller than you’d like and which contains images you might not have expected but trust the objective opinion of other photographers.

Once you’ve built a very select portfolio on Twitter, add a sentence to each image description pointing out that your images are available for licensing and inviting buyers to contact you.

3. Upload Images to Microstock Sites

Although some microstock photographers have managed to turn the low-cost, high-volume platform into a high-paying, full-time job, most contributors haven’t been so successful. In part, that’s often because they’re not prepared to put in the same kind of effort that top photographers like Yuri Arcurs and Andres Rodriguez are prepared to commit.

But when you’re starting out. microstock doesn’t have to be a serious revenue stream. It doesn’t even have to be a mediocre revenue stream and it might not be the best place to offer particularly rare images that could fetch more from a conventional rights managed license. But it does provide open access to commercial photography. It can show enthusiasts what stock buyers are looking for (which is not the kind of pretty images that enthusiasts most like to shoot) and, most importantly of all, it can give them their first sale. The money might be tiny and. once the cost of shooting the picture is taken into consideration, it might not even be profitable but it should be encouraging — and that’s invaluable.

4. Build Your Own Site

While you’re sorting your images, putting together your Flickr portfolio and uploading microstock images, you should also be building your own website. There’s no shortage now of portfolio sites that make it easy to show off your work, provide contact information and even manage your own stock sales, allowing you to charge commercial prices without giving up commissions. Bringing traffic into that site might require a lot more work but you only need a few regular buyers checking into your latest additions to keep the revenue flowing.

And the best way to generate those regular sales is to give your site its own niche. When buyers know that they can come to you not just for great images but for a particular kind of image – whether it’s shots of your city or photographs of bands – you’ll be able to conquer one small part of the market.

5. Browse Galleries, Apply to Art Fairs, Pitch for Commissions and Make Submissions

The process of careful selection, online portfolios and winning your first license sales are just the very first steps towards selling your photography. They’re the foundations that underlie the main structure of your career as a semi-pro photography. Once you’ve understood that buyers only want the best images and you’ve created a way to deliver them, you can start branching out into the fields of photography you most want to conquer.

If you want to sell art, that means making appointments at local galleries with a portfolio of images that match the gallery’s buyers. If you want to win commissions it means showing your work to editors and buyers – and getting to know who they are and what they want. If you’re want to sell to magazines, it means reading submission requirements and drawing up pitches. None of those things will be simple and all will involve handling rejection. Some, such as showing at art fairs might even involve some some initial expenses, the kind of thing you can expect to happen in any growing business. But the more you do it, the more sales you’ll make, the more confident you’ll feel about your photography, the more you’ll understand the market, the easier it will become and the further you’ll be able to push your photography.

10 comments for this post.

  1. Jody Apap Said:

    Great list for the beginner, but you forgot to mention that they need to keyword their images.

    They don't need to keyword all their images, just the ones that they hope to sell. If they aren't keyworded, they can't be found in searched by buyers, and if they can't be found, they can't be bought.

  2. Tyler Olson - MicrostockGroup Said:

    Nice list.

    In regards to microstock, you are correct in saying you may be waiting a long time for a sale with your holiday snaps. If you have a niche and the niche is somewhat useful, you might get a few sales. also, if you are only uploading a handful of sub-par images, don't bother with the low-earning sites. Stick to the top 6 sites and forget the rest.

  3. Jack Said:

    As an aspiring photographer hoping to reach pro status one day I get really disappointed when I see some real pro shots out there like on 500px or Getty Images... how can I even attempt to compete or be noticeable?

    I do appreciate this write up it gives me some insight on possibly narrowing down to a niché market to capture an audience 😉

  4. Bruce Said:

    Getting the opinion of other photographers regarding your images is helpful, but not always the best source for determining what will sell. Get the opinion of others (non-photographers) too. This may surprise you, it sure did for me. I have one image in particular that didn't get very good reviews from other photographers, heck, I don't even like the image much, but the general public likes it, and it has sold multiple times!

    Thanks for the write up - definitely good advise!

  5. Bryan Said:

    very good piece and it all sounds so simple and straight forward when you put it like that, one to bookmark and come back to a few times i think.



  6. squishfoto Said:

    I have to say I agree with Bruce!
    I some years ago as a hobbyist put a few pix up on fotolia microstock site. They were not some images I thight were particularly great i just wanted to test the waters. In the end the pic I like didnt sell , but one I took at work in the recycling room of a load of old computers has sold the most!!
    I have only <20 pics up there but I made a good few sales on this pic. So I now have an eye out when treavelling doing photos for anything that I think might be sellable on these sights. Think outside the box!

  7. Steve Heap Said:

    A great list! I think I agree with some of the other comments that a great artistic image that is loved by other photographers may rarely sell, and the most mundane shot can be picked up. I tend to focus more on travel, location and some still life stock images, and have eventually got my images on almost 20 stock sites. While I agree with Tyler that the top 6 generate the most consistent income, it is surprising how the small sales on the small sites add up over the months. At the end of the day, it is effort versus reward and so I tend to focus on small sites that are easy to upload to, but services like Lightburner are definitely a help in simplifying the upload process.

    I keep my blog updated with my workflow, process, best selling images and monthly income if anyone wants to follow in my footsteps!


  8. Liz B. Said:

    Pertaining to what Tyler said, What do you consider to be the top 6 microstock sites? I have been considering to cover more areas of photography and looking into stock photos, but don't know which microstock sites to start on. Thanks!

  9. Matthew Said:

    I don't think this is a good advice, because it mixes two strategies, which will lead to a rather inefficient self-marketing.

    Although Flickr is nice and encouraging to use for the enthusiast, it will not provide you with valuable feedback on the real quality of the photos. Flickr users are very often amateurs and enthusiasts, too - so they will rather like the sunset picture or the cute kitten photo than any image that would sell on a microstock site. Furthermore, Flickr users tend to restrict their comments to "Nice one" or "Beautiful" - but that won't help much. Additionally, typically somebody comments on your stream after you posted a comment on his stream. Being objective here isn't very likely. When commenting back, the best photo out of the last five or something will be selected.

    So to sum up: Either skip the Flickr part or the Microstock part, but doing both with the same pictures will probably result in a failure.

  10. phil aucott Said:

    I agree with Matthew, skip Flickr. The rest is sound advice though and should see you on the way to earning a small sum from your images, but be warned it's a tough slog if you want to earn a living from it.

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