Selling your photographs to make a little extra side money is an appealing idea. But how realistic is it? As it turns out, quite realistic, provided that you are not hoping to get rich doing it.
Let me say right off the bat that if you are hoping to get into photography and live off the proceeds of your image licensing royalties, that’s a whole NFTs different ball game. Like every other artist in the world, you will need an extraordinary game plan and the requisite talent to bring it off. I cannot help you with that.
But if you are already taking pictures on a regular basis, and at least a fraction of them are very good, then it makes sense to consider licensing them. Like I said, you are unlikely to get rich doing this, but you might earn enough money each year to outfit with a new high-end camera body, or that lens you fantasize about but which you otherwise would never go so far as to buy.
So why is it not possible to get rich selling your photos?
It is simply a matter of numbers. Most of the popular online image exchanges – the ones that will allow anyone capable of creating quality photos to upload their material and license it out – sell images for about a dollar a piece, and of that they will pay you perhaps 25 cents (maybe 50 cents if you are really lucky). If you are thinking that this is a pretty poor deal for the photographer, you are right. But this does seem to be par for the course, so there may be some operational expenses to running an image exchange that are not immediately obvious. Either way, that’s the current reality of the business.
So let’s consider the numbers again. The reason that images typically sell for a dollar is that the buyers are webmasters looking for low resolution filler images for their web properties. They will happily fork over one or two dollars for an image, but would frown at paying five dollars. You may get hundreds of people willing to pay you a dollar for an image before you can find a couple willing to pay five dollars for a high resolution version that could be printed on a coffee mug. You will find even fewer buyers – magazine and book picture editors, and the like – who are prepared to pay twenty dollars for the highest available resolution version.
So you will make your money from the masses, and at 25 cents a pop you will need 4000 licensed instances of your images before the image exchange will cut your first check for $1000. You might manage this by uploading 100 images that average 40 downloads, or you might upload just 4 mind-blowing images that average 1000 downloads a piece. It will come as no surprise that most people make their money by creating as many good photographs as they can. They do not rely on their ability to generate that rare master photo that everybody must have.
Most of the online image exchanges will reject your images if they do not meet the high standards that the exchange has set for itself. So be smart and peruse the exchanges to get an idea of the quality that is required. Your images, in addition to being captivating enough to make people want to download them, also need to be technically perfect. High resolution images with imperceptible noise levels and perfect color balancing are the minimum technical requirements. Get used to shooting at ISO 100, even for low-light shots that require a tripod, mirror lock up and cable release.
The editors of each exchange will have their own standards, of course, and what gets rejected at one site may be accepted elsewhere. So don’t give up immediately if you have a door slammed in your face. Van Gogh could not convince anyone to buy even one of his paintings in the course of his own lifetime. That did not mean his pictures were worthless. But picture editors might not see where you are coming from if they do not recognize the market that you are targeting. For this reason, it pays to figure out beforehand what is selling well before you submit your first portfolio. After that you are likely to meet less resistance if you veer off in a slightly different direction.
It is also a good idea to specialize the themes of your photography. If you take particularly good landscape shots, and build a body of landscape images, your clients will be impressed by your body of work when they are selecting that first image of yours, and they will likely seek you out again when they require a similar image.
Other online image exchanges that operate in a fashion similar to iStockPhoto include Fotolia, ShutterStock, and DreamsTime. All are worth checking out. They are free to join and take a commission on your licensed images.
Another tack you can take, if you don’t like the idea of licensing your images so cheaply, is to go with an online photographic service that allows you to set your own pricing. These are a little harder to find. One such site is PhotoStockPlus which targets event photographers. If you photograph weddings, parties, special occasions, then you are their primary demographic.
PhotoStockPlus offers a subscription service and gives you your own little e-commerce store where you can sell plain photographic prints, as well as have them emblazoned across, for example, a T-shirt, a coffee mug, or a mouse pad. The idea is that you add a markup on top of the wholesale price that PhotoStockPlus charges for supplying these items with your images on them, and that markup is passed onto your clients. All you do is upload the photos, set the markups, and then point people toward the site. The rest is hands-off. The cost of the service to you is reasonable, with rates that start at less than $30/month.