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How to Sell Photos and Make Money (Updated for 2022)

Illustration: a camera and lens

Want to sell photos online? The demand for high quality stock photography on the web is huge. It’s a good way to generate passive income as a side hustle or small business. 

In this guide we’ll show you how to easily sell photographs with WordPress.

We’ll also take an honest look at the challenges and opportunities in the current digital photography landscape. We hope that will help you develop your business plan.

Here’s what we’ll show you today:

Selling Photos: the Good and the Bad

Photo: A Red Panda
A photo of a cute red panda by the author

Creating and selling photographs is fun! Whether you’re a growing enthusiast or high-end pro snapping pics full-time, it’s a great way to continually hone your craft.

When you sell photographs you also help others. Tons of people need your photos; bloggers, content creators, web designers, social media coordinators, graphic designers and publishers.

You can also pay for new gear. I’ve never met a professional photographer who thinks they own too many lenses and accessories. Have you!? I could always use more glass!

Selling photos can bring in cash for more gear!

The Good News

The good news is that it’s easy to get started. Selling photographs on the web just requires your creativity, a camera (or really nice smart phone) and a computer.

There are many ways to get started today! (Skip down to get started with WordPress).

The Bad News

The bad news is…it’s really easy to get started. 😉😕

Since selling photographs is really fun and since it’s easy to get started, lots of people have got started.

Add to that smartphones, especially the iPhone, have become powerful cameras. A professional DSLR camera may not even be required.

Over the years the technology in smartphone cameras make them capable of capturing professional quality images, even for beginners. So there is more competition.

The market for photographs is really really crowded. When a market gets really crowded, some businesses “race to the bottom”. They sell photos for cheaper and cheaper as a way to stay competitive. Customer tastes change fast, it’s hard to keep track of what’s trending.

The Challenges

If you’re just starting out you might find yourself stuck between two challenges:

  1. You want to get traffic to your own website where you can sell your photos at the highest possible price. This way you can build a profitable business.
  2. You want to sell your photos on other websites (marketplaces) that already have lots of traffic. However, there is pressure to price your photos low. This is not a good way to build a profitable business.

The Solution

The best way to build a profitable business is to sell your photos on your own website. With your own website you keep as much revenue as possible. You also have full control of the brand and customer experience.

Building your own website is hard, but there are ways to make it easier.

The best way to build your own website is WordPress. With WordPress you can make a website without knowing how to code. You’ll have full control. With WordPress you can control costs and add functionality you need as you grow and only as needed.

Stock Photo Sites and Disruption

Notable in the early 2000s was iStock Photo. They were a big deal. I worked at a marketing and advertising agency back then and used iStock a lot. They were disruptive because they were the first to sell pretty good photos starting at one dollar each. 

Screenshot: iStock Photo a website for selling photographs

iStock Photo had industry-leading search functionality and the site was easy to use, unlike many of their competitors. Getty images has since acquired them, and their prices have greatly increased.

Now, there are websites that let users download images for free, like Unsplash and Pexels. These have disrupted the world of stock photos as well. It’s interesting to note that Getty Images purchased Unsplash in March 2021. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Consolidation and Disruption on Marketplaces

iStock and Unsplah illustrate the fast-changing nature of the stock photography business. There is a lot of consolidation (big companies buying smaller companies). And there is a lot of disruption. 

Another large marketplace for stock photos is Adobe Stock. Adobe purchased many other companies, including Fotolia, and recently Frame.io to beef up their platform.

If you are or had been selling stock images on one of these marketplaces or platforms your terms of use and opportunities to make money changed overnight.

This is why we recommend owning your own website to sell photos on. You can even consider a hybrid approach where you sell photos on certain marketplaces that help you grow, while trying to leverage that traffic to increase sales on your own site.

Selling Photos on Other Sites: Pros and Cons

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of selling your photos on other sites or marketplaces.

🟢 PROS🔴 CONS
It’s easier to upload and sell your photographs on a stock photo website or marketplaceNo control over anything; the terms of use, the fees and percentages charged, even the owner of the site or name of the brand could change at any moment
You can be up and running faster“Your customers” are not really your customers, they are customers of the stock photo website or marketplaces.
There is less risk, because you spend less time and effort getting set upNo direct communication with customers, it’s hard or impossible to follow up with these customers and build a following or profitable business of your own.
Stock photos websites and marketplaces already get traffic (visitors)You’ll have to pay high fees, both credit card transaction fees and the percentage they take away from every sale you make
Stock photo sites might already rank high on search engines (good SEO)Some sites and marketplaces require you to exclusively sell on their platform only
You don’t have to maintain your own website (technical stuff and upgrades)Some marketplaces and sites don’t let you set your own prices. This restricts how much revenue you can earn.
You cannot control what other photos they see on your website (competitors, or cultural sensitivities)
You have to take 30, 60, 90 days or more before they pay you. Many platforms have unfavorable payout terms. (Read terms of use carefully)
You may not get paid until or unless you reach a threshold, so you could wait weeks, months or years for payment. (Read terms of use carefully)

If you want to sell stock photos on other people’s websites and marketplaces, below are links to popular platforms.

Some of these sites are called ‘microstock sites’ in the photography business, meaning they have low prices and open submissions to any photographer.

Stock Photography Sites / Stock Agencies

These links take you to the partner/photographer page where you can look at their terms and sign up.

Selling Photos On Your Own Site: Pros and Cons

There are advantages and disadvantages to selling photos on your own site as well.

🟢 PROS🔴 CONS
You have full control of brand, customer experience, pricing, and profitsYou do have to build and maintain your own website (WordPress can make this as easy as possible)
You can manage overhead expenses, start with free and low-cost tools and upgrade as you growIt will take more time to get up and running
Direct communication with customers and potential customers.There is more risk because of upfront work you have to put in
You keep all your revenue, except for unavoidable credit card transaction feesGetting visitors to your site will require marketing work (although those selling on marketplaces often find they have to do marketing as well)
Get paid right away, if you use Stripe, PayPal, or other commonly used gateways you get paid on all sales usually within 24 hours (or faster)
You can still experiment with selling on other sites and marketplaces, on the ones that don’t require exclusivity, if it helps you grow your business
Option to sell other photographer’s work on your site (build your own marketplace)
Set your own prices to maximize profits
Sell other related services (photo packages, photo shoots, photo editing, Photoshop actions, brushes, templates, etc).

Which Way Do You Go?

Selling photos and making a profit is going to be challenging no matter how you do it.

Most smart entrepreneurs know that it’s best to own your own platform. If you have to do a lot of work to get people to buy your photos, don’t you want to keep more of the money you earn?

If you like the idea of maximizing profits, and you’re not scared to put in a little extra upfront work, you can get started selling photos today with WordPress.

How To Get Started Right Now

First, if you don’t have a WordPress site, you need to get one. It will likely be the best business decision you ever make. Click here for a guide to get started with WordPress.

Next, you need to use the Easy Digital Downloads plugin.

EDD Logo Graphic

Easy Digital Downloads (EDD) allows you to set up a full eCommerce store. You can get started for FREE! You’ll get:

  • Full product management for your photos (upload photos, categorize products)
  • Protected product files (prevent non-customers from downloading files)
  • Shopping cart
  • Flexible checkout options
  • Customer management
  • eCommerce reports
  • Discount codes

Pro Tips: Watermarking

One thing you need to keep in mind when selling digital photos is watermarking. Watermarking is when you stamp your logo and words like ‘copyright or ‘preview’ on your photo to prevent unauthorized use.

Photo: Kangaroo with watermark

When selling your photos (or images) with EDD, you should put watermarks on your preview images, but not your high quality download images. The download images are what your customer purchases.

You can do this with WordPress or with your photo editing software. Here are some links to help you watermark your photos:

Also, check out this article on ways to prevent photo theft on your WordPress website.

Once you have your EDD site set up you may want to read this Doc with additional details on configuring your website to sell images.

Pro Tips: Pricing Considerations

There are many factors that go into how you price your photos. Here are some of the most important factors.

Licensing

Do you want your photos to be Restricted License or Royalty-free?

  • Royalty-free means the purchaser of the photo can use it however they want and how much they want.
  • Restricted license means you charge based on usage. The purchaser pays per thousand of prints, or per social media channels used. Enforcing a license has become much harder with the advent of the internet. In the days of print and broadcast, it was easier to organize and enforce licenses.

Subject Matter

If you have people in your photos, you likely need to consider a Model Release. You’ll need this whether they are beautifully dressed models posing or normally dressed folks enacting daily aspects of life and business . Any person in a photo, even a passerby on the street, is a “model”. A model release is a form or contract you’ll need to have people in your photos sign (for free, or for money) giving you permission to reprint their likeness.

This is not likely to be a concern for animal, landscape, and other types of photos not involving individuals.

Exclusive images

You may be able to charge more for your photos if you have them available exclusively on your website or one one marketplace. This has advantages and disadvantages. 

  • You may be able to make more money per photo
  • You may shrink the size of your market
  • The exclusivity might drive your potential customers to shop elsewhere, perhaps in search of a lower price

Pro Tips: Build your own marketplace

EDD has a Frontend submissions extension. This allows you to build your own marketplace. You can develop your own stock photography website. You can allow others sell their high quality photos alongside your own.

Conclusion

Ok! Grab your camera and a laptop and start selling photos. You’ll love the feeling of helping others with your creative skills. Use EDD to help you start a small business or side hustle.

You can make extra cash or even grow it into a full-time income.

EDD is free to use. But you’ll likely want a Pass to add specialized functionality as grow. Sell subscriptions, add product bundles, or integrate with Amazon S3 or DropBox with an Extended Pass. Click here for 50%-off introductory pricing

We have tons of resources for digital creators like you. What do you want to learn about next?

Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more WordPress and digital creator tips.

Joe Wells

About Joe Wells

Joe is a Marketing Specialist at Awesome Motive. For years he’s been helping people and organizations succeed with WordPress. He is also the founder of an alternative accounting solution for your side hustle called HustleBooks (powered by Easy Digital Downloads). He and his family live and play just outside Detroit. A busy dad, he enjoys running, watching and creating films.

@thisisjoewells

3 comments

  1. Joe Wells

    I need to improve my photography skills. I’ve been shooting images for several years for pleasure, but none of them have been approved by Shutterstock. I suppose it will depend on the criteria and the site, so I’ll have to dig and study my way out of this one. Let’s get this party started! Thank you for writing this article. This is an excellent source.

  2. Joe Wells
  3. Joe Wells

    Great ways to make extra money! Very often people in difficult times do not know how to make extra money. I have acquaintances who have made selling photos their main income. Selling photos often involves risk, so it’s imperative to find the best and most responsible platforms to place them on.
    But even if there is a need for money, you can use a small loan or borrow money from friends.

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