Here’s How You Can Make Extra Cash from Those Photos on Your Hard Drive

smiling photographer checking photos on a camera
Getty Images

Looking for some extra cash? Look no further than the thousands of digital photos taking up space on your hard drive.  Pick your best photos and turn them into money by selling them on microstock websites.

The term “microstock” refers to the micropayments the sites charge customers for those images — payments passed on to the photographers who took them. Most sites start their image pricing at just $1 for the smallest size, with costs increasing with image sizes.

Microstock sites, such as iStockPhoto or Shutterstock, make it easy for amateurs with a passion for photography to get started selling their photos online.

Once approved as a contributor, most microstock sites do not charge photographers to upload photos to their portfolios. Instead, the sites take a percentage of each sale. 

In the beginning you may make just 15% from each photo sold, but often that number can reach as much as 50%, especially if you’re willing to offer your photos exclusively to one site.

It’s all about quantity,” says stock photographer Eliza Snow. “It takes a different mindset to be able to say ‘I will sell this image 100 times for a $1’ versus one time at a gallery for $100.”

How These Photographers Make Money – and Careers – Selling Microstock

Company photo editor and photographer working together in office
Getty Images

Snow has been an iStock contributor since 2005. She was able to quit her corporate job three years later and now works as a photographer in San Francisco. 

She is also co-founder of Everything Microstock, a site dedicated to helping beginners start taking and selling photos. The site includes a list of resources and impressive chart of microstock agencies worth checking out.

Photographer Rich Legg had an experience similar to Snow’s. He joined iStock in 2005 and by January 2008, selling stock photos was his main source of income. He started by setting small incremental financial goals — pay for his monthly Internet fees, pay for his domain and website — until he made it his goal to be able to pay his monthly mortgage payment from his stock photo sales by the end of 2007. 

But, he’s quick to add, times have changed and someone entering the industry now may not be able to increase their income quite that quickly.

How to Start Selling Microstock Photos

To get started, it’s important to make sure you have the proper equipment. Your stock photography portfolio is not a place for iPhone photos. 

Instead, invest in a good-quality digital camera. Snow recommends a camera where you control the settings, like a digital SLR, over a point-and-shoot camera. “Your camera must be able to shoot sharp images,” she says.

All images submitted to iStock are inspected by human eyes before being approved and posted online. 

Legg also works as an image inspector for Getty Images (owner of iStock) and stresses the importance of learning the ins and outs of your camera so you can take technically-correct images.

While the application process for the bigger microstock photography sites like iStock or Shutterstock can be more difficult, Snow suggests getting started with one of the hundreds of other microstock sites. “Don’t feel dejected if you are rejected by the first site you apply to.”

How to Build Your Portfolio

photographer editing photos
Getty Images

Developing a diverse and robust portfolio is essential, since selling microstock is a numbers game. Legg recommends setting a goal of how many photos you will upload on a weekly, monthly or annual basis. His goal is 50 to 100 images a month, which is scaled back from the 200 images a month he uploaded when he was getting started.

Both photographers recommend considering the many potential commercial uses for your images and taking advantage of any connections you have to different industries. 

“Breaking into landscape and nature is hard,” said Snow. “But if you have a brother-in-law who owns a dry cleaner and you can get behind-the-scenes photos, that is an excellent opportunity.”

“Look in your sphere of influence and see what you have access to,” suggests Legg.

Remember that in stock photography, generic is best. “There can’t be any recognizable brands in your photos,” said Legg. And photos with people or properties will require a model or property release be signed before selling the photo.

Improve the chances of your images selling by using the correct keywords, suggests Snow. “Think of it like a Google search and all the ways people might search for your image.” 

“Don’t forget that often in addition to photos, microstock sites typically also sell audio and video clips and illustrations,” added Snow.

Is Microstock the Only Way to Go?

It all depends on how hard you want to work. While Snow and Legg sell exclusively on iStockPhoto, photographer David Seaver prefers to have more control of his images and income.

Seaver sells stock photos directly from his website, but is quick to admit that stock photography is not a huge part of his business. He has also approached publications directly in the past about providing photos and suggests reviewing their websites for photography guidelines before contacting the editors.

His advice for beginners is to shoot something you enjoy. “There can be a market for images of anything,” he said.

Ally Piper is a writer and marketing strategist who lives and works on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.