Learn about the nitty-gritty of stock photography—and how it can yield big profits even for beginners.
Stock photography, the practice of capturing images that anyone can license for a fee, can be a lucrative side hustle or even a full-time job. For photographers, it can be a steady source of income using both previous works and new shoots in which they call the shots from the subject to the post-processing treatment. For clients, it can be faster and more affordable than organizing their own shoots for commercial, editorial, or personal purposes. In short, it’s a win-win situation for both parties.
Working for the $$$
By anticipating clients’ needs and putting in the hard work, photographers can earn a lot through stock photography. Diana Mironenko, who contributes travel and fashion photos to Canva and other websites, earns about USD 20 to USD 700 per photo. The sales vary depending on different website rates, number of downloads, and a host of other factors. But what she has learned from her past five years in the industry is that you have to invest time, effort, and capital to make your stock photos stand out.
“I studied the market for a long time. You have to know what would make a photo sell, from the light to the background to the people to the retouching. My favorite photos to shoot are travel and fashion, and when you put them together, they create an incredible tandem,” says Mironenko, who is also a TV host and Miss Ukraine Earth 2017.
She says, “I usually allocate about USD 1,000 per month for shooting. This covers studio rent, additional equipment, payment for the makeup artist, stylist, and models, and so on. There are a lot of things to think about, but if you want your photos to sell, you have to give it your best shot. Hire good models and even photo retouchers if you have to—go the extra mile whenever possible, with your budget and resources permitting, of course.”
Strategizing based on unique learnings
Each photographer has his or her own strategy, and you will develop your own as you go along. Anastasy Yarmolovich, who has been selling stock photos to Canva and other websites since 2011, specializes in travel, food, and still life. Her all-time bestseller is a photo of gadgets (over 6,000 downloads), followed by a photo of everlasting flowers (over 3,000 downloads) and a photo of Santorini, Greece (over 2,000 downloads).
Yarmolovich says, “I don’t count earnings per photo; instead, I calculate how profitable each photo session is, considering the money and time invested to shoot and post-process.” She notes that her exact sales information is covered by confidentiality agreements with some stock photography websites and that statistics for her approximately 20,000-photo collection are estimates at best.
To give you an idea of exactly what goes into different types of shoots, Yarmolovich breaks down her typical expenses and time allotted for photo sessions: “Travel photo shoots need more time to be paid off, say, one to two years. Normally, one photo tour per location costs about USD 1,000, including flights, accommodations, transportation, food for the crew, etc. Travel shoots are more expensive, but you can make more money from them than studio shoots.” She adds, “One voyage usually takes five days, which makes 500 to 1,000 stock photos. Each photo has to be post-processed for as long as 30 minutes, which I do myself because it’s too complicated to explain to someone else what I want. Post-processing takes a lot of creativity, technical skill, and imagination.”
As for food and still life, Yarmolovich says it takes considerably less time and effort: “They are paid off much faster (about a couple of months), cost less (flowers, school supplies, and ingredients don’t cost much), take less shooting time (two to four hours), and require minimal post-processing (one to two minutes per photo). However, these images don’t sell as well as travel photos. Bear in mind that these are solely my statistics and that other photographers may have other results.”
Aside from working on the photos, Yarmolovich keeps in mind many other factors like “brainstorming, buying props, adding keywords for maximum searchability, submitting to stock agencies, conversing with clients, analyzing expenses and profits, keeping up with current trends, and self-learning. Of course, equipment costs are part of the expenses: cameras (I renew every five years), lenses (expensive but I don’t use a wide range; normally just one universal lens, one wide-angle lens for travel, and macro for food and stationery). Plus a set of flashes for food and stationery, which are simple and inexpensive.”
The numbers, both expenses and earnings, vary for her travel, food, and still life photos. But when you take into consideration everything that goes into each category, Yarmolovich says that the resulting income from each is almost equal.
Beginning at the starting line
Juggling all these factors can be intimidating, especially for beginners, but remember that everyone starts somewhere. These systems and learnings come from trial and error, which is different for every photographer.
Yarmolovich started selling stock photos in 2011, when she migrated from Russia to Spain. “I had no regular work and a lot of free time, so I decided to organize my travel archives and try to make a profit from my photos. Almost at once I reaped a reward, which made me realize that earning money from my photos is better than accumulating likes on social media. I was excited—I wanted to understand how the stock photo industry works, what images are in demand, and how they are used. I practiced and developed my style, learning about the industry along the way. Soon, stock photography became my main source of income.”
Yarmolovich, who is now based in Poland, adds, “Normally I get paid when rights for the photos are bought. Sometimes I receive offers to get pre-paid a fixed amount so that an image can be resold or reused by the buyer with no further payment for me, but these are generally less profitable than earning money from each direct sale.”
For Mironenko, it was a work trip to Thailand five years ago that inspired her to get into stock photography: “I was surrounded by diverse people from different cultures, beautiful wildlife, and powerful forces of nature. The quiet moments of dawn, the wild ocean—you could feel the planet breathe and it took my breath away. It was there that I realized that I wanted to share my perspective with the world through photography.”
Developing the right mindset
Thinking of getting into stock photography?
Yarmolovich has some advice for both amateur and professional photographers: “take it [stock photography] seriously like a full-time job with its own specifics and requirements, not as a passive income source.”
Meanwhile, Mironenko says, “It doesn’t matter where you are from, what you studied in university, or how long you have been a photographer. Make your ideas come to life. Take a camera with you everywhere, plan every photo shoot, and develop your own style. Most importantly, believe in your vision.”
When it comes to stock photography, you can go a long way with hard work and smart investments in terms of money, time, and skill-building.