Stock photography—or microstock, in its modern age—has made it as easy for photographers to upload images for sale as it has for consumers to download and purchase them for use. But can stock photography actually be a lucrative sales channel for photographers? The answer, as you may have deduced from your own research, is yes and no. And in many ways, it’s about more than the volume or quality of the images you upload (not to say these aren’t critical elements—they’re just more like the price of entry). 

Here’s a quick breakdown of what you can expect from the world of stock photography, including some tips and tricks to help you maximize the use of these popular platforms.

“New York City Subway” – by Gokce Erenmemisoglu

How Does Stock Photography Work?

While exact processes and pricing models vary from site to site, generally speaking, you upload your photos, the agency watermarks them, and you get paid once they sell—minus the agency’s cut. Shutterstock, for example, has a tiered system in which the more you sell, the more you make per image. The rates are higher for images that are downloaded on demand—i.e., bought outright by someone who does not hold a monthly subscription.

“Morning Routine on Miami Beach” – by Abe Sultanik

Which Stock Photography Sites Are Best?

The answer to this question is subjective, but if you’re thinking about exploring stock photography, start by looking into the big four, so to speak—Getty Images, iStock, Shutterstock, and Adobe Stock—to get an idea of the different audiences, revenue potential and particulars of each platform. You could start by dipping a toe into each, but one photo blogger did the legwork for us all—check out his expansive list of pros and cons here.

“Slappy’s Revenge” – by Grace McNally

Stock Photography Rates (as of March 2020)

Photographer royalty rates for the abovementioned sites are summarized as follows:

  • Getty Images. 15% of the minimum customer price per file for non-exclusive contributors; 20% for exclusive.
  • iStock. 15% for non-exclusive; starting at 25% for exclusive, then increasing based on number of download targets—30% at 800, 35% at 8,500, 40% at 34,500 and 45% at 515,000.
  • Shutterstock. Starting at 25 cents per subscription download, then 33 cents at $500 in lifetime earnings, 36 cents at $3,000, and 38 cents at $10,000. On-demand downloads range from 81 cents to $2.85 depending on the customer’s plan.
  • Adobe Stock. 33% of the amount paid by the customer, varying by license method. Extended license images earn $26.40.

How to Get the Highest Return per Image (RPI)

With visual content at an all-time high, the stock photography market is inherently saturated. It also has a reputation for being generic by design (we’ve all seen “woman lacing up sneakers” or “man adjusting tie” more times than we can count). There are certain photos that perform better than others, but these also tend to be the areas where you’ll have the most competition (food photography is one example).

So, how can you set your photos apart from the rest? For starters, keep a pulse on the market, including B2B and consumer marketing trends, social and environmental issues, and current events. (Although we don’t have the exact statistics to prove it, we’re willing to bet image searches for hand washing are through the roof amid the COVID-19 crisis.)

As with any medium, it’s important to shoot with the platform and end-user in mind. While this is admittedly a bit tough in the seemingly vast universe that is stock photography, thinking like a marketer and looking through the lens of those most likely to use the image can help you frame your shots to resonate with the intended audience. In other words, be strategic—stock photography isn’t really the place for putting out a lot of mediocre content and hoping something sticks. 

“Walking The Dog” – by Chris Lord

Is Stock Photography Worth It?

The world around us is rapidly changing, and there will always be a demand for high-quality images that reflect the characteristics of the times. Rarely will stock photography in itself earn you a viable living, but it can definitely serve as a strong source of income. In the creative realm, we often find ourselves creating multiple streams of income, which, in our opinion, is really part of the fun.