The First Steps to Making Money with Photography

The road from first camera to first commission from National Geographic is long, difficult and unlikely to be travelled by any but the most talented and dedicated of photographers. But the path from photography passion to photography profit, even if it’s just a little extra income to help subsidize an expensive hobby, is much shorter and much easier to walk. You can complete it in just three steps:

Open a Flickr Account

Sharing your images for free might not sound like the most obvious way to start making money from photography but the site’s giant collection of creative images has made it a rich shopping ground for photo editors looking for the kinds of unusual pictures they just can’t find on stock sites.

There are no figures that track the number of direct sales made between Flickr members and photo editors but the exchanges have been frequent enough for Getty to team up with the Yahoo property to handle the sales. Within months of launching its partnership, the stock company had made “thousands” of sales on behalf of Flickr members.

For buyers, Getty’s Flickr Collection provides a useful source of original photography and a familiar, trusted sales method. It ensures a fast response from a company that understands copyright restrictions and model releases. For sellers though, it’s an expensive way of delivering their images. Getty takes a 70 percent cut of rights managed images and 80 percent of royalty free photos. Sell the pictures yourself directly, and you could grab 100 percent of the sales price.

To make those sales though, you’ll need to make sure that your Flickr account only hosts your best images, carefully chosen and tagged, and arranged in collections that are easy to browse. Flickr might have a free option but it shouldn’t be used as a dumping ground. You’ll need to indicate in the description that your photos are available for sale, declare whether you have a model release for any recognizable people that appear in the picture, and promise to respond promptly. (One frequent complaint among buyers is that purchasing from enthusiasts can be slow, difficult and unreliable; you want to look like a professional.)

You’ll also need to generate traffic. That comes from networking on Flickr, linking from a blog, joining groups and leaving useful comments on other people’s images. Not only will that give you return views and — if your pictures are good enough — create a buzz about your photography, it will also give you something much more valuable: feedback that will make you a better photographer.

Sell Microstock

Microstock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The low prices and high volumes have led to accusations that sites like iStock are lowering the value of photography (although not everyone agrees). But it does offer a couple of benefits to enthusiasts hoping to earn a little cash: it’s open to anyone who wants to submit; and it can deliver sales instantly.

The second of those advantages is particularly important. Even if a sale only brings in a few bucks for an image that’s going to be used as the background for a website, the feeling that someone is willing to pay for one of your photos can deliver a huge boost in confidence. It tells you that you’re on the right track and that with more practice, better market awareness and more creative photography, you can continue to sell images and for higher prices.

Microstock is unlikely to make you rich. The highest-earning microstock photographers like Andres Rodriguez and Yuri Arcurs treat their shoots as a full-time job. They look for images that sell, analyze the markets and keep their portfolios fresh with hundreds of weekly uploads. Shoot occasionally, and you’ll struggle to build the critical mass needed to produce regular, high-volume sales.

There are alternatives though. FotoLibra is also open source but charges for storage. It also hands over 50–60 percent of the sales fee to the photographer, and allows anyone to sell rights managed images. PhotographersDirect gives as much as 80 percent but doesn’t accept microstock sellers.

You can regard microstock as a useful confidence boost and an easy way to earn occasional income — or at least have the opportunity to earn occasional income. You can treat it as a full-time job if you have the time and the dedication. Or you can just skip it altogether and focus on one of the stock alternatives.

Win Commissions

Selling usage rights for images is a good place to start because the buyer knows exactly what he’s getting. It doesn’t matter how little experience you might have or how many mistakes you’ve made in the past as long as that one picture turned out right; image buyers are less interested in consistency than composition. That isn’t true when it comes to commissioning photographers. It’s rare, although not impossible, for a magazine to commission to  a non-professional photographer so editorial photography shouldn’t be a prime focus. It’s a field that was always competitive and now even more so. Instead, you can look at winning commission for events and portraits.

Portraits should be the easier of the two. You can build a portfolio with the help of friends, family and even actors and models looking for free headshots. Have them sign model releases and you could even use the shoot to build your stock portfolio. More importantly, you’ll have a collection of photos that show hesitant leads how their images will turn out.

The usual route for professional event photographers begins with an assistantship, something that may be harder to win for an enthusiast with a full-time job. Alternatives that photographers have used include shooting friends’ weddings as a gift, and even pitching for low-budget gigs on Craigslist.

Although some event photographers are willing to outsource their work talented part-timers, they’re relatively rare. And because event photography means shooting when the client needs the pictures taken rather than when you have the time and inclination to pull out your camera, it may not be the best move for many non-professionals.

5 comments for this post.

  1. Tyler Olson - MicrostockGroup Said:

    I'm glad you didn't over glorify microstock. It is certainly a valid revenue generator and a good number of people are earning their full time wage from it, but it is by no means a 'get rich quick' scheme. It is a job that pays OK if you work hard - like most other jobs.

  2. Steve Heap Said:

    Thanks for a great introduction to a topic that interests a lot of people who have invested (if that is the right word!) in expensive digital camera gear. I started with stock photography almost 4 years ago and have grown it to an annual income of around $10,000. I agree 100% with Tyler - it isn't easy, but it is definitely still possible for someone to start now with enthusiasm and follow in my footsteps.

    I chose the microstock route. At the start, I didn't really know much about the other options and I was enthused by the energy of some of the people on Tyler's forum, and so I got started with the main sites, expanding into the smaller ones as I got my workflow under control and working efficiently. I now have an average of around 1500 images on line at 12-14 sites. Some never sell anything, but others surprise me from time to time with reasonable sales!

    I recently published an eBook Getting Started in Stock Photography, to help people navigate through the early stages of getting started in the business, and it is full of tips about how to improve your workflow and get more images on sale.


  3. tim p Said:

    It's sad to see the race to the bottom in the stock photo industry. Back in the 90's when I started shooting stock in a 4 year period of time you could easily be making a healthy 6 figures. Now people think that $10,000/ year is somehow good money. Tragic. Ten years ago if you had 1,500 images in a collection you would be expecting to make over $150,000 / year guys are thrilled with "reasonable sales." In 1996, my average sale per image was over $1, it has dropped to below $60. The only people that argue the viability of microstock are the agencies that are making money at the expense of doe eyed photographers that seem more than willing to give away everything just to get published. At the time I'm writing this there are fewer than 5 people in the world making 6 figures from micro stock. It has canabilized our entire industry, lowering the perceived value of imagery at an alarming and ever growing rate. The golden goose is close to dead.

  4. Bill Said:

    The only people making money from micro stock are the micro stock site owners. I have also had photos rejected by micro stock sites that have been sold in different markets, directly.

  5. George Said:

    Can you openly offer images for sale on Flickr?

    According to Flickr, a member cannot use their website to promote your business or photo sales and you risk having your account terminated if you do as is suggested in this article. The site is for social use only.

    I'd love to use Flickr to drive sales of my images but openly touting them as being for sale with model releases may well get my thrown off their site.

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