How to Earn $500/Month with Stock Photography

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If you're now considering jumping into the crowded and competitive stock photography industry with the intention to earn passive income you'll need extraordinary determination to succeed!

Before you can even contemplate earning anywhere close to $500 every month, you should be aware that it should take you least three years of hard, smart and consistent work. This is since you'll need to build up a strong Microstock portfolio consisting of 1,000s of marketable images spread out over many Microstock Agencies, starting with your likeliest highest earner, Shutterstock.

Many Contributors will Quit Within 6 Months

The truth is that many new contributors eventually quit (usually within six months), blaming everybody but themselves for their failure. The main reasons vary, but they usually come down to them setting unrealistic expectations of earning royalties from images that just aren't good enough from a technical level and have low commercial value, usually both.  

This business model is riddled with sharp curves

Microstock Darwinism – only the strong survive

If you stick with it, despite pot-noodle priced earnings with the willingness to learn from your technical mistakes and be curious about researching which types of images are/will be trending, then read on! If you're already an ‘established' Microstock contributor, you may also benefit from the tips on increasing your revenue, so also read on!

Dasht-e-Lut, a large salt desert located in the provinces of Kerman, Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran – Are you ready to take a long, lonely and arduous journey into Microstock-land?

Not a ‘Get Rich Quick Scheme'

The good ol' days of earning ‘easy money' from uploading to Microstock Agencies are long gone. Since it's emergence about 15 years ago, the industry has matured with supply vastly outpacing demand (Shutterstock now boasts 225million+ images with over 1 million images added every week, for instance). This ultimately means that all contributors must work both harder and smarter to achieve their goals, particularly new entrants that have a lot of catching up to do! To earn a living from Microstock alone is the privilege of increasingly fewer and fewer contributors in late-2018, especially for those that live in developed economies where the cost of living can be high.

The good news

The good news is that even a modest monthly revenue of just a few hundred dollars can make a significant  difference at the end of the year should you be looking to make guilt-free upgrades to your gear and/or put towards photography excursions, for instance.

Even though the easy money is gone, there's still light at the end of the Microstock tunnel

Which Agencies to Focus on?

A quick Google search on Microstock agencies indicates that there are literally dozens of non-exclusive Microstock agencies where you may license your images as Royalty-Free. To be honest, most of them aren't worth your time due to low returns, unless you're able to optimise your workflow by using a mass-submission software such as StockSubmitter (See screenshot below). If you think about uploading manually, forget about it unless you plan to work for 5 cents an hour!

StockSubmitter Control Panel

Shutterstock will likely be your largest earner

Most veteran Microstockers would advise new contributors to focus their efforts on uploading high-quality images first to Shutterstock and Adobe Stock / Fotolia next, followed by iStockphoto / Getty and Alamy (great for editorials) so on.

Generalist vs Specialist

If you're just starting out, you'll probably be shooting the usual pets, flags, beaches and flowers, which is fine but you're unlikely to earn much (if at all) from those concepts. Although it might be more enjoyable to remain a generalist, eventually, you'll want to specialise an start focusing on certain niches closely related to your interest and skill-set. Ideally, these should be both in-demand (trending) by buyers and there shouldn't be much competition.

Since Lisbon will be hosting the international Web Summit in early November 2018, I took advantage to capture a traditional tuk-tuk used by tourists in Lisbon next to the sign with the background of traditional Portuguese architecture, which will be licensed under an editorial license

Shutterstock regularly publishes themes which are in-demand in their blog and it may be worth taking a look while brainstorming. But it's still a mine-field…what should you focus on to shoot that should sell?

People, Things, Places

When you get the show on the road, you're most likely to be shooting images (both commercial and editorial) within one or more of the following three main categories:

  • People

    Smiling young woman (25-30) wearing a Brazilian national team jersey and eating a Brazilian “coxinha” chicken appetizer while waving a Brazilian flag with a pool reflection – soccer/football fan (model-released commercial)

Images which include people (more valuable if model-released and licensed as commercial) are the bread and butter of the stock industry. Top lifestyle photographers, working with models with controlled lighting, are some of the highest earning contributors – take Yuri Arcus, the world's top selling microstock photographer as an example. Advertisers know the value of such images (when done at a high technical level) and may use such image to entice potential buyers who may identify themselves / aspire towards the person(s) in the image.

Images of unreleased people, as well as logos/trademarks/artwork fall under the category of editorial licenses, which are generally used to support text within newspapers, magazines and textbooks for non-commercial purposes. If you lean towards shooting people, you're probably extroverted and get a buzz from interacting with others.

Protesters wearing a Guy Fawkes mask light gas canisters to express their anger against French President Macro's government, among other issues, on the streets of Paris (editorial)

  • Things

This is the most self-explanatory as it depicts non-human subjects such as abstract concepts, animals, objects (still-life), food, nature, transport, etc. Perhaps you enjoy cooking and take advantage to have set up a home studio to capture your delicious creations. If you lean towards this category you're probably generally introverted and generally don't enjoy contact with other people outside your close circle.

Spanish tapas called pintxos of the Basque country served on a bar counter in a restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain (commercial)

  • Places

This is the natural category of the travel photographer (such as myself), but can also be of the architectural and even news photographer depending on the situation. If you learn towards this category you're probably an explorer and naturally curious of different cultures!

Pink Mosque, Iran (editorial)

Brainstorming Exercise

Which type of category are you naturally drawn to? Pull out a notepad and let's try out a fun brainstorming exercise.

On your own, can you think of three sub-headers from one of those categories that interest you? So within ‘Things', perhaps you like shooting food, pets and cars. Keep going…within those sub-headers, can you think of a further three sub-sub-headers that interest you from food, pets and cars?

Be realistic

Be realistic…you may enjoy scuba diving, for example, but don't have the equipment or know-how to shoot underwater! Or you love capturing airplanes but after being interrogated a few times by police you figure it's probably a good idea to try something else lol

Alex, the guinea pig

Let's use my own interests as an example:

  1. As a travel photographer, I'm naturally drawn to places.

I'm currently focusing on shooting the following places:

  • A. Portugal (where I'm currently based);
  • B. Rio de Janeiro;
  • C. Italy.

Still quite broad, right?! So I've narrowed it down further.

In Portugal, I'm focusing on capturing:

  1. Lisbon
  2. UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Portugal
  3. Jewish legacy in Portugal

Next time I'm in Rio de Janeiro, I'll be focused on capturing:

  1. Editorials about the new President Bolsonario;
  2. Street Carnival in February
  3. New Years Party on Copacabana Beach

When time I'm in Italy, I'll be focused on capturing:

  1. Tuscany
  2. Protests about economic/political situation
  3. UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy

Man dresses up as former Brazilian President Lula who is now in jail following corruption charges. Brazilian politics is hot news as 56% of the population recently voted for right-wing Bolsonario in a contentious election campaign

Finding Your Niche(s)

Continuing on with the brainstorming exercise, I'll go even further and break down A(1-3), B(1-3) and C(1-3) into three further categories. These ‘niches' will get pretty specific and perhaps not so well-covered by competitors. Those are the themes that I may focus on for my next shoots, but will also depends on hours of research and market analysis well before pressing the shutter. See a tutorial on using the Google Trends tool to find profitable stock subjects.

One example, is that in Lisbon and I'm looking to trace the history of Ian Fleming (author of Casino Royale – James Bond), who was a secret agent in Estoril, near Lisbon and stayed at the Hotel Palacio during WWII when Portugal was neutral. See a fascinating article entitled “The Seaside Town That Inspired James Bond“.

Inspiration for Ian Fleming's Casino Royale in Estoril, near Lisbon, Portugal

Hopefully you now see what I mean about being specific. If you go to Lisbon and shoot the usual 99% of other contributors shoot (such as April 25 Bridge and some of the Miradouros), you're unlikely to make any money unless you can do it extraordinary. Being specific and having the time/willingness to dig further, as I have to find an interesting story, you'll likely be way ahead of the competition. That's just one niche, I still have to think of many others but I prefer not to give away all my secrets!

My other niche – Airports

As a travel photographer, I naturally spend a lot of time at airports. One of my niches has been to capture the hustle and bustle at these fascinating hubs where different cultures clash. Amsterdam Schiphol, Netherlands – Jan 13, 2018: Passengers at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, which services 63.5 million passengers a year

Cream Rises to the Top

It almost goes without saying that images of such specific niches, when captured at a high technical level (composition, lighting, focus, low noise) and captioned/keyworded at an equally high technical level so buyers can find your images among the masses, should sell regularly.

Useful > Pretty

In addition, such high-quality content should be potentially USEFUL to buyers to help promote their products and/or services or illustrate newsworthy articles. Pretty shots by themselves, of sunsets, pets, flowers, etc. may look good on someone's living room wall but may make for useless commercial stock since they may be difficult to convey specific concepts that buyers may use to promote products and/or services.

Next time you visit the Eiffel Tower, instead of capturing just the Tower, which has been captured to death, look around and capture the tourists snapping selfies, security on watch, Senegalese men selling junk and even petty criminals engaging in pickpockets. Chances are those types of images will far outsell any other image you take of just the tower.

Useful and delicious, how all your stock images should be

How much can you earn?

Assuming that you shoot at a high-technical level and have identified your niche(s), which is closely related to your interests and skill-set, then onto the fundamental question of: how much can you earn?

Leave your ego at the door

If you're the type that gets upset if an image is licensed for 25 cents, or even as low as 2cents in the case of iStock, then this game isn't for you. This is a high-volume numbers game and most sales will be via subscriptions at a quarter at a time, at the very least, with the occasional higher-earner at a few dollars.

Buddhism teaches that once one “lets go of the ego”, suffering will diminish

To overcome any potential frustration just requires a paradigm shift. If you're getting many 100s of downloads a month at the average of 74cents/download as I am, just do the math! Throw in a few more (lower-earning) Microstock agencies into the mix and those lowly downloads sure add up to just over $1 per download. Enough to regularly upgrade your gear and pay off some of your holiday costs.

My return per download at Shutterstock – see link to my portfolio here. To calculate yours, simply take your total download $ and divide by the number of downloads for the month

Return Per Image 

Next, we look at an interesting metric to benchmark your images against the competition. The way experienced contributors value their images is by their respective Return per Image (RPI). This is usually calculated as RPI/monthly or RPI/yearly.

The rule of thumb is that a good commercial image spread out at various Agencies should yield approximately $1 per year/per image. However, most contributors will earn considerably less (those shooting ‘duck on pond' crowd) and a small percentage of top contributors, shooting specific/in-demand niches, particularly with models, would earn considerably more. You'll probably fall in between somewhere, but the goal is to earn much more than RPI $1/year.

Return Per Download + Return Per Image/Year

Working backwards, assuming you have good commercial images of a variety of subjects within your niche, captured at a high technical level and keyworded accurately, then you'll need approximately 6,000 images to earn $500 a month (RPI of $1/year x 6,000 images = $500/month). A specific port may achieve the same result with as little as 500-1000 images.

Images of one person doing one activity + great lighting + great symmetry and keyworded to a high degree should be profitable over and above RPI $1/year – Man water plants at balcony with Cascais Town Hall, Portugal with religious azulejo tiles in background

Time-frame

Working backwards again, how long is it going to take you to upload 6,000 quality non-similar images? For someone who works full-time and with a family, 200 is probably pushing it but 100 is doable and 50 is piece of cake. If you can't manage to upload 25 images a month you just don't have what it takes!

This means that 6,000 images can be reached in approximately five years. Although 6,000 will probably be the minimum you'll aim for to earn those $500/month, you can probably cut this in half to have the same amount of earnings if you push your niche and combine it with model-released images. I know I keep repeating myself but quality is paramount!

Keep building that portfolio, one day at a time

Is $500/month a realistic goal?

Yes, I believe so, despite the contrary belief of many veteran contributors in the depressingly named ‘Doom & Gloom' threads at stock photography forums. But you have to give yourself at least three years and probably at least 6,000 images. It's a marathon for sure!

To supplement your stock photo income, consider uploading your images that you feel would make for beautiful wall-prints to some of the Print on Demand agencies. In addition, if you're not already doing so, consider capturing stock footage, including time-lapses (example below), since your gear is probably well-suited for this logical transition anyway and you just need a tripod and ND filter. Most Microstock agencies accept footage but you'll be wise to stick with Adobe Stock / Fotolia, Shutterstock, Storyblocks and Pond5.

Ironically, your first goal at Shutterstock is to get to $500 all-time-earnings as soon as possible, as this is when there's a significant pay bump in earnings, especially sub sales from 25cents to 33cents (24% increase). There will be another pay bump (smaller) at $3,000 and an even smaller one at $10,000.

Steve Heap's BackyardSilver Earnings Blog

For a concrete look at a current contributor who has published his earnings for the past seven years, check out Steve Heap's BackyardSilver blog. Most interestingly is to see some of his earnings reports from early days when he was ‘only' earning $595 in October 2011 to currently over $3,200 a month as reported in his September 2018 post. Obviously a lot of work went in there during those 7 years and supplemental income from stock footage and print on demand.

Once you reach your goal, then you'll (probably) be on cruise control

Supposing that after three years and a lot of hard work you reach your goal of $500/month – congratulations! But, then what? Well, you can keep going of course, but also let's suppose you decide to take a year break, what will happen to your monthly income? It depends on your port, as some images with a strong commercial interest may have a long-shelf life, with the potential to be licensed at multiple Agencies for a number of years. Others, have a much shorter life, such as breaking news, fashion and technology, and may lose interest and keyword rankings relatively quickly.

One such commercial image (person is unidentifiable) with a strong shelf life, which although is now four years' old, still has ski legs to run for a number of more years

Time Decay

Supposing you have an average portfolio of high-quality travel images, then chances are your portfolio would probably keep earning you close to those $500/month for the subsequent few months with no major adverse impact on earnings. A few months later you should experience the accumulated drop in earnings (depreciation) measured at about 3% a month.

After a year of no new uploads, depending on a million factors, such as market trends, you'll still probably be earning about a cool $320/month…all while playing keepy-uppy on Ipanema Beach like a true Carioca!

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Jan 1st, 2018: Young men play Keepy-Uppy (in Portuguese “altinho”) on the beach in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at sunset

Conclusion

The Microstock licensing model provides the means for serious amateurs to earn some extra money from images that would otherwise be gathering digital dust on your hard-drives.

Success in all walks of life, including Microstock, is largely down to patience and perseverance. If you feel you have the willingness to work hard/market, learn to be a strong technical photographer all the while targeting a clearly identifiable niche(s), then you should be able to reach $500/month at Microstock within a few years. After that, there's nothing stopping you from earning $1,000+ a month.

Wishing you the best of luck on capturing fascinating stories! Looking forward to your comments below and please let me know if you have any questions!

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About Author

Alexandre Rotenberg is an eccentric guy on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images and increasingly footage. He's determined not to waste my life away as a corporate drone and he has devoted six years to 'making it' both as a travel photographer and photojournalist. He's based near Lisbon, Portugal and regularly travels around Europe and Brazil. In 2017, he published the Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography which is available on his Brutally Honest Microstock Blog, as well as on Amazon Kindle (rated 4.6/5).

11 Comments

  1. I agree with what is said here. I followed the same path and reached the 500$ level within the timeframe mentioned here. But you do have to work your butt off, for it was a pretty natural choice – if I do photography anyway, why not to make an extra buck, but it does require dedication and tons of persistence.

  2. Hey, i started one year and a half ago, your book help me a lot. I started from scratch with 100 pics, now after, 17 months, i have 1500 pics, (40% editorial, 60% rf) and 100 x 4k videos (footage and timelapse)… I have an average of $ 92 / month since the very beginning (I only had 100 photos when I started and I add some each month, which affects the total average). I think I have a nice fluctuation. The year 2019 will tell! But for now, it has paid off my camera and one lens 😉

    • Glad to hear Chriso! You’ve done well to get your port up to 1500 with $92/month. Smart thinking about the videos, many more gaps in market there than in photos and at 4K you can ask for some big prices on Pond5 ($100+). Best of luck and thanks for your comment and nice words.

      Wish you luck in 2019

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