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How to Make Money from Your Digital Photography

Especially since digital cameras have become so easy to use, it seems everyone daydreams about selling their digital photography. But what are the ways to actually start selling? There are a variety of outlets, and they vary in both work involved, setup costs and chances for profit.


Below is a table showing my subjective opinion of various approaches, based on over 40 years in stock film photography and 10 years in microstock digital photography. I’ve also maintained my own website in various incarnations since the mid 1990s. I’ve ignored the costs of equipment, travel, etc, since it’s similar for all solutions. I’ve also ignored detailed techie debate on what camera to use. If your camera can produce sharp, noise free images in the 6-10MP range, it’s good enough. Bottom level would be the better point and shoot cameras.

More Photography resources

solution setup outlay  ongoing    volume  
Symbiostock –
open source
basic website 0 moderate moderate low – high
open source
some programming 0 moderate moderate moderate – high
host outsourced little
$100-200 low
moderate low
microstock moderate
0 moderate
high moderate-high
specialty little
0 low
low low
eBay moderate $50-100 moderate low low
free sites low
0 low
high nil

I’ve rated each approach by several criteria:

    • Setup and Outlay are the initial work and cash to get a reasonable portfolio active and noticed.
    • Ongoing is the amount of work you need to do after the initial phase.
    • Volume is the minimum number of quality images you need to achieve the Potential income indicated in the last column.

Of these possible sources, several can be ignored by most photographers. The free sites like Picasa & Flickr will not generate any income. eBay was possible at one time, but they now prohibit digital downloads, so you’ll need to invest some effort in producing prints of CDs for sale, and the market is saturated.  Open source photography websites require a knowledge of website programming. The best I’ve found is the GALLERY project, which has excellent online support.
That leaves microstock and specialty sites, and running your own site. Many photographers choose to use several of these options.

Specialty sites include:

      • Zazzle
      • FineArtAmerica
      • Threadless T-shirts
      • GreetingCardUniverse

You upload your images and buyers can order printed cards, clothing, mugs, posters, etc of your work. Easy to set up, not much potential. Running your own site can include setting up a presence on sites like Snapixel or Red Bubble where you present your portfolio and again orders will likely only trickle in.

Creating a site through Smugmug or other service may give better sales, but it’s going to depend on your ability to drive traffic to your site. GALLERY2 is open source software to host your own site, has excellent tech support, but does require some php programming knowledge. That leaves only microstock agencies as a place for most photographers to try to create an income.

Microstock Photography lets you, the photographer, outsource the business of selling your photos online through a Microstock agency. MS agencies are similar to traditional stock photography – they offer images for sale at a low cost to buyers (typically $.50-$10). Many microstock users are graphic designers who use microstock to keep their overhead costs down.

There are many microstock agencies which will accept and post your images. The bigger question is whether they can sell them. However not all agencies have enough traffic to generate decent sales. Among the
best performing agencies are:

      • · iStock
      • · Shutterstock
      • · Fotolia
      • · Dreamstime

I’d suggest submitting to Dreamstime and Fotolia first since they have the easiest admission rules. But at the same time, try Shutterstock. It may take several tries to succeed, but SS produces the best sales overall for many photographers. iStock is one of the oldest and most demanding technically, but all agencies require a technical level that can surprise even many professional photographers. You’ll learn a lot just by going thru the submission process and each agency has forums full of helpful guidance and critiques. Leave your ego behind if you start submitting to microstock agencies. Images must be sharp, but not overly sharpened in post processing. Colors should pop, but not oversaturated. And finally ( and the main rejection reason for most newcomers ), images must have a low noise level. Remember too that stock is about generic images that can be used commercially. Artistic evocations, blurred treatments, etc won’t make it here. Each agency differs in how it accepts new artists, so it’s best to look at several sites. .

So what’s the answer to my earlier question? — a highly qualified “Yes, you can make money from your photography”.  It’s still possible, but it gets more competitive all the time.  You must have excellent images to start with, but then also a ego-less approach to criticism, and willingness to do the work involved, and to keep providing fresh images.  It’s also a lot of fun, and for many people, earning a little extra cash to pursue their hobby is incentive enough.