12 tips for making money from stock photography

In the last year, as commercial photographers from around the world diversified their incomes, many started side-hustles by licensing their pictures via a stock photo agency or distributor. It’s a competitive market, but if you stick with it, it’s often a rewarding one.

Cameron Whitman is a lifestyle, food and beverage photographer for leading magazines, brands, and restaurants, but when he’s not on assignment, you’ll likely find him licensing his work as commercial stock photography, to be used by clients around the world.

Photo by Cameron Whitman (@kammerun on Instagram). Cameron licenses his work through Stocksy United.

“As the father of two beautiful boys, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to license my personal photos of them growing up,” he tells us. “In one instance, a company creating a photo app used a series of photos and videos of my oldest boy for a commercial to promote their product. It was a beautiful spot that used images and video spanning his entire life up to that point. The payout was spectacular, and my boy got to be ‘famous’ for a bit, which he delighted in.”

If you’re thinking about licensing your pictures via a stock photo agency, check out these top tips from successful photographers, including Cameron, for making the most of your stock photography portfolio.

1. Think like a business person

“There are lots of different paths in stock photography,” the Los Angeles-based commercial and editorial photographer Jayme Burrows tells us. “Maybe you love shooting landscapes and just want to make a couple of extra bucks by putting up your images for licensing, and that’s great. You get a bit of bonus income shooting what you’re into.

“But, if you’d like to be a shooter that earns a living from stock, then you’ll need to treat it like a business. That means finding great talent and locations, researching the needs of the market, staying on top of trends, creating regular content, and putting the work into the production to create images that will shine in a saturated market.”

Photo by Jayme Burrows (@jaymeburrows on Instagram). Jayme licenses her work through Stocksy United.

Set realistic, attainable goals for yourself, and once you hit those, set new ones. Don’t forget to market yourself too; link to your stock portfolio on your website and social media channels, and let people know when you have new photos available.

2. Study the market

Many stock photography websites send newsletters, shot lists, or blog posts on a regular basis to inspire their contributors, so sign up for those to get started. Treat these reports like creative briefs you might get from a client. It’s also good practice to look at what’s selling and ask yourself why. Many stock photography websites will curate collections of top images for inspiration.

Look at how your favourite brands use images on social media, in brochures, and beyond. Do you notice any patterns in terms of content, theme, or style? If you can imagine your photos in these types of commercial contexts, you’re onto something.

3. Find your niche

“The key to succeeding in stock photography is to develop your style,” the British Columbia-based photographer and filmmaker Christian Tisdale explains. “My stock portfolio has been a testing ground for a lot of different types of work in the past, but time and time again, it’s my outdoor and adventure lifestyle stuff that sells. That’s what I’m good at, and my stock sales numbers agree.

“Many stock agencies release reports on what kinds of assets they want to see uploaded in the coming months, and these are super helpful. But these are also general trends; if you can apply the themes from their ‘wish lists’ to your personal style, then you’re on the right track. Stick to your strengths, and your stock portfolio will pay off.”

“A crazy landscape on the edge of an erupting volcano at Mount Bromo, Indonesia. This is one of my best-performing images.”

Christian Tisdale
Image by Christian Tisdale (@christiantisdale on Instagram). Christian licenses his work through Stocksy United.

4. Shoot consistently

“This tip is probably the most common I hear in the industry,” the New York City-based portrait photographer Lauren Naefe says. “Shoot and upload as frequently as possible. You need to constantly add to your portfolio with a variety of images per shoot. If your passion is shooting your family, shoot grandma from as many different angles and perspectives as possible. Simultaneously, try to keep things fresh and avoid diluting your portfolio.”

Stock photography is a long-term game, and you’re unlikely to make much money right from the jump, so schedule time for personal shoots and test shoots to build out your collection. It takes time to create a profitable portfolio. Seasonal content also sells well, so plan your holiday-themed shoots in advance.

5. Capture authentic moments

“When people think of ‘stock,’ they often think of generic scenes devoid of personality or, worse, embarrassing fake emotion,” Lauren says. “But in reality, the standout, memorable images—the ones that sell well and are curated—are more often the ones that reflect sincere emotion, real perspective, and something true, even if the protagonist is a cup of coffee.” Look for candid, relatable moments and genuine emotion on set, whether you’re shooting at home or in a studio.

Photo by Lauren Naefe (@itislaurenlee on Instagram). Lauren licenses her work through Stocksy United.

6. Optimise your metadata

For your images to surface in buyer searches, remember to include relevant and specific keywords in your metadata. Describe the “who,” “what,” and “where,” and tag any trending concepts that might apply to your photos. You can use a tool like Xpiks to organise your keywords, and you can also search for photos like yours to find new ones you might have missed. Your first few keywords are likely to be the most important, so prioritise those.

7. Avoid heavy edits

This tip comes to us from both Lauren and Jayme, who caution against trendy filters. “One mistake that I was definitely guilty of when I first started was over-processing my images,” Jayme explains. “I loved a faded black and creating images that were super warm. When the images were created, that may have been a cool style, but over time, that look becomes dated, and those images become obsolete. A neutral, clean edit on the images will give you much more mileage, without having to go back and re-edit every three years or so.”

8. Keep it sharp

Most stock agencies and websites have high technical standards you’ll have to meet in order to get accepted into their collections. “Seek technical perfection,” the Brazilian photographer Sarah Saratonina urges.

“I’m personally a big fan of blur and bokeh, but in stock photography, I’ve learned that your subject has to be tack-sharp. For that reason, I still use blur in my personal photos, but I use higher apertures and a wider depth of field with most of my stock photography. It’s always best to get everything right in-camera, rather than trying to fix sharpness or your exposure in post-processing. Keep your ISO low to minimise noise.”

Photo by Sarah Saratonina (@saratonina_fotografia on Instagram). Sarah licenses her work via 500px.

9. Steer clear of branded elements

“One of the most common mistakes beginning stock photographers make is taking photos with brand names or logos,” the British Columbia-based photographer Marvin Herrera explains. “You can find them on shirts, street/shop signs, or even technology. These are all trademarked, so you can’t license your photo for commercial use if they’re visible. I suggest practising shooting at creative angles or being great at post-processing to remove these issues.”

10. Get those releases

“Release forms are so important,” Marvin tells us. “Over the years, I’ve shot with many models, and I regret not having release forms on hand during those shoots. There are plenty of mobile release apps that allow you to have them on hand when you need them.” Model releases allow you to license your work for commercial use; without them, you limit your sales potential considerably.

When approaching a model, even if it’s a friend or family member, explain exactly what the release means and where the photos could end up. With stock photography, you often won’t know who the client is, so make sure they understand that their images could end up online, on a billboard, in a magazine, or elsewhere. Don’t forget to answer any questions they might have about the process.

Photo by Marvin Herrera (@mrvnhrrr on Instagram). Marvin licenses his work through 500px.

11. Ask questions

“My suggestion is to get in touch with the contributor support team at the stock site you’re contributing to and ask for assistance on what to shoot,” Cameron Whitman, who is a founding contributing member at the agency Stocksy United, explains. “If you are with a reputable agency, it’s very likely that they will look at your particular set of talents and skills and make suggestions that will be worthwhile and tailored to your style and skill level.”

12. Do your research

Speaking of agencies, it’s also worth doing some research on the ones you want to join. Follow photographers you admire, and take note of where they license their images. Familiarise yourself with their requirements and application process, and read the fine print. Different platforms will also offer different payout percentages to photographers. Some specialise in inexpensive “microstock,” whereas others offer highly curated collections.

Some agencies offer exclusive licensing (usually with more money going to the photographer), whereas other websites will accept images that have been licensed elsewhere. The most common license type is royalty-free, where the client pays once to use the image, but some still offer rights-managed image licenses. Look into every agency and website, and select the one (or several) that make(s) the most sense for you financially.


About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.