It can seem hard to make it when anyone with the newest iPhone can call themselves a “photographer”. But success, for most creators who turn to entrepreneurship, comes down to 3 things:
- Finding your niche.
- Building an audience.
- Creating several streams of income.
This guide will explore some of the things you should know about selling photos online with resources to help you make your photography-based business a reality.
But first, let’s talk about usage rights and protecting your work.
A Legal Primer For Photographers
Photography rights and licenses can be a complicated topic, but there are some terms and concepts you should know to help protect yourself from theft and infringing upon others’ rights.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, or a substitute for actual legal advice (I’m not a lawyer), but it should offer you broad definitions that will help you navigate the world of usage rights.
Glossary of Legal Terms for Photographers
Editorial Use: Permission to use in blogs, newspapers, magazines and other publications.
Commercial Use: Permission to use in marketing and advertising to promote a product or service.
Retail Use: Permission to use in the creation of a physical product to be sold. This includes prints, posters, and products that feature the photo (pillows, mugs, etc.). Sometimes talked about in the same context as commercial use, but it should be considered separately.
Exclusive and Non-Exclusive: Exclusive use means that the one who purchases the license from you is the only one who can use the photo. Non-exclusive photo licenses can be purchased and used by anyone and usually cost less.
Public Domain: Holds no restrictions or copyright claim and can be used for commercial, editorial, and personal purposes. Works created by U.S federal government agencies (such as NASA) generally fall into this category unless otherwise sated.
Creative Commons: Conditional usage of your work is allowed as long as it is in compliance with the stated restrictions. As a bare minimum, attribution to credit the creator is required. Visit Creative Commons to generate a badge for this license for free.
Royalty-Free: Others can buy a license and use the photo for an unlimited duration and unlimited number of times. This is the most common type of license purchased and on the cheaper end of the spectrum since these photos are usually non-exclusive.
Rights-Managed: A one-time license can be purchased to use the photo with restrictions regarding distribution. Additional licenses must be purchases for additional use.
Right of Publicity: The subjects in your photos are entitled to certain rights when it comes to their inclusion in your photography, especially when it comes to commercial use. This is a separate concern from the copyright considerations above and you should seek a subject's explicit permission first in order to be safe.
For more in-depth information about copyright laws and licensing in the U.S, check out Photo Secrets to understand the copyright laws that protect your work, or look at any major stock photo site to see how they define different types of licenses.
What to Do If Someone Steals Your Photos
Theft is common when it comes to content, and many people do it unknowingly.
It’s common practice for photographers to watermark their images before posting them online to offer them at least some layer of protection against theft. If you’re going to sell or share your own photos, you can apply your own identifying mark in Photoshop or use a Watermark Generator.
A smaller watermark, often in the corner, still lets others enjoy your photo, while a larger tiled watermark with reduced opacity offers the most protection against theft.
But what do you do if someone decides to steal and use your photos anyway?
A "cease and desist" request will usually work in most cases. Or you can send the culprit an invoice for using your photo. A combination of the two will likely be the most effective at persuading the perpetrator by offering them the choice to either pay you or take the photo down.
At the very least, you should always try to get others to credit you whenever they borrow your work, even if it's just for editorial purposes. Remember that links back to your portfolio site are not only good for driving traffic back to your other work, but also good for search engine optimization and helping your standing in Google search results.
How to Sell Photos Online: Two Essential Steps
Before we get into licensing your photos on stock photography sites, offering services, prints, and other ways to sell your photos online, you need to ensure you've found an active niche that you can build an audience around.
Defining Your Niche
Every successful photographer has a consistent style or theme that runs through their works. Whether your thing is travel, fashion, cityscapes, nature, food, etc. consistency is key.
People follow other people online to see more of whatever it is that got them interested in the first place. People unfollow other people when that promise isn’t kept.
Finding your niche is typically something you feel your way into as you see what styles and photos resonate with your audience. But you can also evaluate the demand for certain topics using keyword research to analyze the search volume.
Keywords Everywhere is a browser extension that shows you the search volume right below your Google search, making it easy to find and experiment with in-demand subjects and angles to see what you can cater to.
As a suggestion, anything above 1000 searches a month is significant volume to consider capitalizing on.
Building Your Audience
Photographers, just like bloggers, YouTubers, and artists of any kind, should also invest in building their audiences because that’s ultimately what helps them build their business.
Whether you’re freelancing or selling prints, you’ll need to build and leverage your network to expand your reach and credibility.
Visual social platforms like Instagram and Tumblr with built-in audiences can help you reach a wide audience, but there are also photo-sharing sites that can connect you with other photographers where you can build a following and, depending on the platform, sell licenses to use your photos (more on that later).
Linking your various accounts makes it easier to manage your photo-sharing across several platforms. On Instagram, for example, you can go to Options > Settings > Linked Accounts to connect Tumblr, Flickr, and more to publish in more than one place with a single post.
IFTTT is a free tool that can help you create other useful integrations between apps that don't usually integrate like Instagram and Dropbox.
On Instagram, you can also use Hashtagify to discover relevant, active hashtags to increase the visibility of your photos on the platform to get more likes, comments, and engagement.
Integrate Ecommerce Into Your Portfolio
Most photographers have a main portfolio site where they can showcase their work and let clients hire them But by adding ecommerce to it, and the ability to accept payments, you can open several more doors to monetization, including selling courses, physical products, and services.
Matt Suess below, for example, has a store that showcases his work, lets others purchase digital and print version of his shots, as well as buy courses from him.
You can build your portfolio or store on Shopify, install the relevant apps to customize it to your needs and monetization strategies, and get to sharing and selling your photography in different forms: online or even offline through POS.
Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify—no credit card required!
There are a lot of reasons to have your own ecommerce site, many of which we’ll explore below.
5 Stock Photography Sites to License Your Photography
Licensing is one of the most popular ways to “sell” your photos online to brands, publishers and anyone who might have an interest in using your photos for their own purposes.
And that’s the key here. You need to work backwards and think about how your photos can used by a brand or a publisher—versatile photos that express ideas tend to be popular, especially when they feature human subjects.
There are a lot of stock photo sites to choose from, but some of the more well-known options include:
1. Getty Images
On the higher-end of stock photography sites, Getty Images attracts brands and publishers looking for high quality or hard-to-find exclusive images to license. The photos here net higher prices, but royalties vary (20% for many) depending on your standing as a photographer. The standards for becoming a contributor are also higher.
A micro-stock site where photos are cheaper, non-exclusive and where the way to get more downloads is by contributing a large quantity of images that can be used as visual metaphors. Don't expect to earn as much here, but it's a good place if you're just starting out. Payouts are based on your earnings over time, but there is also an affiliate program where you can also earn money if you refer new photographers or customers.
iStock is the micro-stock offshoot owned by Getty Images. Commission ranges from 15% to 40% depending on whether the photos are exclusive or non-exclusive.
500px isn't just a stock photo site, but a community-based platform for photographers. You can follow other photographers, list your photos in their marketplace, and participate in Photo Quest competitions for prizes. The community is full of stunning, creative shots with a 30% commission payout.
Stocksy is a popular mid-range stock photography site, especially among publishers (it's where I bought a license for the photo in the header of this post). The standards to be accepted are higher, but it also generally pays out a 50% commission.
Sell Prints, Photo Books, Calendars, and More
It's not just brands and publishers who might want your work. Your fans might too.
And there are plenty of ways that they can potentially own it, whether it's as a simple framed print or as a pillow. Luckily, selling your own physical products is a lot simpler than you think.
Prints and Physical Products
You can work with a local photo lab that ships prints or use a print-on-demand service like Printful to dropship a wide range of products (prints, phone cases, pillows, and more) featuring your photos.
Be sure to order samples first to ensure that the quality of the products match the quality of your photos.
Photo books are another physical photography-based product that can complement any coffee table. The more niche and consistent your photography is, the more likely you'll be able to put together a stellar photo book based around a compelling theme.
While you won't get the best margins with print-on-demand services, it's a great risk-free way to test demand for your products before you decide to invest up front.
Sell Photography as a Service
Whether you’re covering events, doing fashion shoots, or taking product photos, there’s ample opportunity to take advantage of the demand for professional photography.
While you can list your services in freelance directories like Fiverr, Upwork, or apply to be a Shopify Expert, selling your photography as a service for decent pay usually involves networking locally since you need to be able to travel to meet clients in-person.
Here are some tips to build your network:
- Always have business cards handy—you never know when you might meet a potential client (use our free business card generator to create your own).
- Tidy up your LinkedIn profile, showcase your work, and optimize it for the main photography service you provide ("Event Photographer", for example.)
- Attend networking events where entrepreneurs and event organizers go—these folks will inevitably have need for a professional photographer in the future.
- Build a personal brand as a photographer so you're top of mind when anyone in your network needs your camera and your skills.
Since photographers, unlike other freelancers, must operate in strict time slots, it's good to have a booking platform you can use to let prospective clients see your schedule and book you when you're available.
Turning Your Passion Into Profit
Whether photography is your hobby, your side gig or full-time hustle, there are more avenues than ever before when it comes to how you sell your photos online.
Your talent and your determination ultimately decide your earning potential, but the income you get from doing what you love and what you're good at is some of the best cash you'll ever earn.