Photos are in greater demand than ever. Businesses, designers and publications everywhere are in constant need of high quality imagery and, when they don’t have the time or budget to commission a photographer directly, they turn to stock photography.

Once synonymous with cheesily posed subjects on bland backgrounds, stock photography has evolved alongside consumer appetite for unique, authentic and design-forward imagery. Long established stock agencies like Getty and Shutterstock are now joined by the likes of Adobe Stock, Dreamstime, Canva, Stocksy and Australia’s own Austockphoto, together connecting photographers’ work with millions of potential customers.

Competition for said customers is also incredibly high, and it can take months to see even small returns. So stock photography is unlikely to replace your day job. But it can be an effective way to reach lots more potential clients and generate some extra income, without too much extra effort.

Read on to find out how.

How Do You Sell Stock Photography? 

Online libraries or agencies such as Shutterstock ‘stock’ digital photos that users can license for a fee. The photographer retains copyright of the image but the buyer gets permission to use it for commercial or editorial purposes.

Each time someone pays to download a photo from a stock library, the photographer earns either a flat payment or a percentage of the licence fee. This amount varies from a few cents to hundreds of dollars, depending on the agency and other factors. (Images supplied exclusively to one agency tend to earn higher rates. So can photographers who reach certain sales figures.) Some agencies also pay royalties in addition to the licence.

Some (generally higher paying) agencies operate on an invitation-only basis. In most cases, though, photographers submit work to an agency for approval. Rules and agreements vary between agencies so check out their websites for full details.

Photo by Avi Richards

1. Choose the Right Agency

Before submitting photos to anyone it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the various stock photo agencies, how they work and what kind of images they’re after. 

Find out what sort of clients they attract, what their submission guidelines are and how long the approval process takes. Does your style suit theirs? Do they demand exclusive rights to sell your images or do they let you sell your images on multiple platforms? If you submit to them exclusively, would you need to serve a notice period before changing to another agency?

Of course, it’s also important to understand exactly how each site’s payment system works, including how much you’ll earn and what commission they’ll take for each sale. Some agencies only allow you to withdraw payment after you sell a certain amount, so that’s worth knowing in advance.


Photo by Jessica Ruscello

2. Think Quality and Quantity

A successful stock photography portfolio contains high quality images, and lots of them.

To become a contributor to an agency, your work will need to be both visually and technically very good. (Agencies that pay the highest royalties generally have the highest submission standards.) Submitted photos may be rejected for all kinds of technical reasons such as excessive noise, under-exposure, missed focus, and over-editing. So it pays to use a large-sensor DSLR or mirrorless camera that you can manually control, as well as a quality lens and adequate lighting – and to submit only your best work. 

Once you’re an approved contributor you can increase your visibility and, therefore, chance of sales with a diverse and healthily sized portfolio. The more successful stock photographers have thousands of images online and play to their strengths rather than dabbling in genres or styles they’re less familiar with. It’s also advisable to update your portfolio regularly to remain visible within stock libraries’ constantly updating search results.


Photo by Nick Fewings

3. Know Your Market 

Shooting for a private or individual client (who can tell you exactly what they want) is very different from shooting for multiple, unknown commercial or editorial clients. With stock photography, you need to appeal to as many people as possible yet somehow stand out from the crowd (see Tip 4).

Look at the images that your potential buyers are using. Before you take or submit a stock image, ask yourself who would likely want to use it. Images that appeal to multiple kinds of buyer and lend themselves to multiple applications, from news articles to commercial packaging, are much more likely to be downloaded than strong artistic statements. 

To make your work as versatile as possible, consider photographing the same subject using different angles, compositions and orientations. Include high res files in case buyers want to print your images.

Avoid photographing logos or trademarks, which can really limit your market and may not be approved by agencies. Also, go easy on the cropping and processing as buyers normally edit images according to their needs; they’ll pass up anything too restrictive.


Photo by Anshu A

4. Keep on Top of Current Trends

Taking stock photos that sell relies on staying ahead of the curve. While broadly appealing, images that are too common or generic aren’t as likely to be downloaded, let alone be accepted for submission.

Find out what kind of subjects, themes, styles and colours are in demand. (Agencies often provide photographers with this info.) Take cues from what’s sold successfully on your chosen platform but don’t submit anything too similar. Oversupply leads to lower demand – so try to find a gap in the market.


Photo by Markus Winkler

5. Get Model Releases

A photo release form (a.k.a. a model release) is a contract between a photographer and the subject or owner of the subject being photographed. Release forms give photographers legal permission to publish or distribute images of people and property such as a buildings, products or works of art.

Stock photo agencies may reject a picture if they suspect you don’t have permission to include recognisable people, buildings or intellectual property featured in them. Getting a model release is smart practice for any photographer, stock or otherwise.


Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski

6. Make Your Images Easy for the Right People to Find

The best photo in the world might as well be invisible if no one can find it. That said, the first image that people see won’t sell if it’s not what they’re looking for. Effectively titling and keywording your stock images will help them to reach the people most likely to buy them.

When titling and tagging stock images, keep it relevant, specific and succinct. Consider also how the image might be used, and for what purpose. A photo of an old man dancing could convey anything from ‘dance’ or ‘grandpa’ to ‘celebrate’ or ‘young at heart’, so it’s helpful to use both literal and conceptual keywords.


Photo by Anastase Maragos

7. Plan and Shoot with Purpose 

As with anything, the more effort you put into stock photography, the more you’ll get out of it. If you happen to take some amazing photos in your downtime and have them accepted by a stock agency, great! But generating passive income from stock photography is often easier when you take an active approach. 

Many successful stock photographers treat stock photography as seriously as any paying job. They study the market, come up with interesting ideas, source great locations or props, hire professional models, and shoot with a definite end goal in mind.

That may not be a strictly viable option for everyone. But if you seek and create opportunities when you can—e.g. take some extra shots on an unrelated shoot or get up an hour earlier to catch the best light—you’ll be better positioned to reap the rewards.  

Final Word

It doesn’t matter whether you photograph new images or curate and share ones you’ve already taken. Stock photography can be a great way to make your photos work for you. Build yourself a solid portfolio, understand the agencies and the market, spend time on your keywords and don’t forget your release forms.


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