Real Rights or Royalty Free Photography? How to Make Money With Stock Agencies

Me knows, not the best featured image below, tasteless choice, but got your attention — or do you know a rich photographer? How to monetize one’s photography, that’s the big question. It goes without saying, if you have a really good portfolio try submitting it to one of the real rights managed stock houses that pay well, as opposed to royalty free sites. Some malicious tongues might say royalty free purveyors are the bottom feeders of the photo imaging world, they are down there right next to the paparazzi… That’s the bourgeois view.

Easy money? Think again... |
The world’s not black and white. Every shot you take has value. Not only emotional value. It’s real hard currency. Point is, how to sell if you’re not a pro or paid photographer with a distribution network. If you’re sure you have what it takes to join one of the real rights managed stock photography agencies, then proceed right to the end of this post. Most of us, let’s be honest, aren’t pro photographer material.

That’s where the beauty of the booming business of stock photography comes in. Hey even large publishing houses and newspapers have become clients of stock photography agencies. Pros are ever more expensive — and good photography is known by a good picture itself, not by the pile of lenses and camera gear some professionals have to be paid for.

Thanks to the Internet age it has become easier — and at the same time more difficult — to make money with your own images.

Easier, because those stock photography agencies want your work. More difficult, because you’re not the only one who wants to monetize a hobby, to at least recover some of the money spent on gear.

It’s a trial and error business. Most importantly, produce consistently and produce a lot of work.

I have some photos uploaded at iStockphoto showing construction work on a high-rise in Macau. A non-event, one would think. Over time those photos generate money, without me having to do anything. Now multiply this approach.

Still, there are hundreds of photographers that have made “microstock” their day job and earn enough to live by selling their images through multiple stock image agencies.

What all successful stock photographers have in common is this one thing: they are prolific. They consistently produce a lot of stock imagery.

Try to set yourself a goal, say an image a day.

Some do compositing work creating sophisticated concept photos. Others shoot primarily in the studio, others make extensive use of their surrounding area for location lifestyle shoots.

Think in broad, general terms. A photograph that has value as an illustration or as a concept will sell easier. Nicely composed shots of famous buildings and locations can outshine the rest.

But then again, competition is fierce, otherwise every photographer could make a living as a stock photographer. With so many images available one has to wonder how to shoot something new.

And you only get paid once your photos have sold for a certain amount of money. This fixed amount is usually $100.

As a rule of thumb: good pictures + good keywords = best ratings and maximum downloads.

Use at least a dozen keywords, nouns mostly, but also adjectives.

Good keywords give good exposure — remember, you are competing against millions and millions of pictures. It’s not like you’ll hit the jackpot instantly.

Remember as well, the more photographers stock photography agencies can count on the better your work has to be. Yes, that’s what the so-called microstock agencies are here for.

As the name implies they deal with low (micro) prices — about a dollar for a photograph. It’s a quick way to bring your work into the market if you shoot lots and lots of photos.

Microstock agencies usually have a quantity favored policy. The more you supply, the more you get.

Microstock photography is an offshoot of traditional stock photography. What defines a company as a microstock photography company is that they source their images almost exclusively via the Internet, do so from a wider range of photographers than the traditional stock agencies and sell their images at more accessible rates.

The pioneer of microstock photography was iStockphoto, originally a free stock photo site that quickly became an industry phenomenon. iStockphoto was sold to Getty Images in February 2006 for $50 million. Many other sites sprang up in the years after iStockphoto’s inception.

But beware, you can’t just sell a stock photography agency about anything. Quality, a.k.a. noise and granularity, are checked meticulously by the guys behind the agencies’ screens. And there’s the submission process.

For newbies, here’s what Microstock Posts recommends:

For those just starting I would recommend 123RF, Can Stock Photo and Bigstock. Give it a few months before you move on to Shutterstock and Dreamstime, as it’s harder to get work accepted by these two sites. Start off by sending small batches of images, maybe three to five and then wait to get the results before you send another batch. Don’t get mad by the rejections, learn from them. When starting out pretty much everyone gets a high percentage of rejections. It gets better though after time.

Here the basic dos and don’ts: a photograph must not show any copyright material or trade marks — such as labels and logos.

Any picture showing a person that can be identified must enclose a model release form — here is Shutterstock‘s, here iStockphoto‘s.

But which agency to go for? Use several in parallel. Diversify. Fine-tune your distribution. Understand what the market wants, then consistently produce those images.

Here are the major players:

  • Bigstock: Easy submission process, easy uploads with auto categories, but reportedly not the best sales. One of the older microstock photography websites, Bigstock has been bought by Shutterstock in 2009.
  • Dreamstime: One of the best agencies availible for both photographers and designers. Their system of image pricing makes images with fewer downloads cheaper to designers. This means if you have old and successfull images, they can cost a lot more (even for blog-sized images). New photographers can succeed at Dreamstime by shooting high quality photos to compete with their expensive older version. Submission process is easy, although a little more tedious than at other sites.
  • Fotalia: Many photographers report decent earnings at Fotalia, but it’s hardly anyone’s top earner. They have several languages available, this might explain why some sell quite well. Submission process is not easy, but worth it.
  • PhotoStockPlus: That’s thee event photographer’s microstock website. You get up to 70% of sales and they not only sell your photos but put them on mugs, shirts and more. Yes, they’re promoting your work and you can choose your own website and gallery. Also, PhotoStockPlus members maintain all rights to their photos, the agency is merely a facilitator.
  • Shutterstock: The largest subscription-based stock photo agency in the world. It’s today’s leading micro stock agency good for instant sales. The subscription model encourages downloads, and indeed you might get a lot of downloads. Still, they have so many images, users who earned quite well in the past wonder if it’s worth submitting anymore. It’s not easy to get accepted and to make consistent money. As with other sites, earnings can drop off quickly if you don’t keep uploading.

There are many smaller agencies, do an online search.

And if you’re worried by basically giving away your images for little compensation or losing your own rights to them, then have a look at Smugmug. They have SmugMug Pro.

Doesn’t seem to cost too much to join and you control what you do with the images and how much they sell for. They’ll handle the billing, printing, delivery.

Here are some of the well-know, real rights managed stock agencies — but getting them to accept you is not easy:

Blend Images
Magnum Photos

Shoot lots and lots for the microstock agencies. Or concentrate on the few perfect shots that will open doors.

The sky’s the limit.