Many travel photographers dream of making money with their photos. But how? It always looks so easy when Instagrammers share about the six figures they make while chilling on a beach in Zanzibar, but is it as simple as that? One way to make a living through travel photography is by selling stock footage. In this blog, I’ll tell you all I learned during my first year of selling travel content through stock platforms. Is it still worth it in 2024? Let’s find out below!
In This Post
What is stock photography?
If you’re into photography, you’ve probably heard about stock photography. You’re licensing your content to companies or individuals and get a fee for that. This can be any kind of art, as long as it’s usable by the potential buyers. In this blog I’ll focus on selling photos and videos, as that’s where I’ve got experience in.
Is stock photography something for me?
I recently visited a barber shop and when I told my barber about my profession of being a photographer, he said: I really want to buy a camera, take photos and sell them on Shutterstock. The first thing I said was: don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people pursue their dreams and want to make a living with something you love. But if the purpose of buying a camera is to make sales through stock photography, you’re not driven by your passion but by money.
It will take ages to earn the investment of your camera back, as your skill level is probably not there yet and you still have to get started creating your content.
I would say, it’s only worth it if you have tons of files (1.000 to 10.000 files) you don’t use, or when you’re already a skilled photographer and passionate to make a living out of it.
Microstock or macrostock?
If you decide to give it a go, it’s very important to understand the difference between microstock and macrostock. Microstock basically means that you’re selling your files for a low price and for virtually all purposes. This could lead to many sales, but you will need a lot of them to make a consistent income.
In microstock, it’s all about how many times your photos sell, not the amount of money you get for each. You still keep ownership of your shots, so you can decide to stop selling a photo or sell it exclusively to someone else. It might not make you rich overnight, but it’s a great way to get your photos out there. Some good options for microstock agencies are Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, iStock, and Envato.
Selling your files through macrostock usually means you’re exclusively selling a photo through one platform. This could lead to more substantial sales but fewer transactions overall. A big con of macrostock is that you may lose ownership of your photos. As a travel photographer, I highly recommend retaining ownership of your files. If a company is interested in acquiring full ownership, you can negotiate a proper licensing fee with them instead of going through a macrostock website. Examples of agencies offering macrostock files include Getty Images and Unsplash+.
I’ve written an article about why you shouldn’t contribute to Unsplash+ as a travel photographer, and the same reasoning applies to platforms like Getty Images—they share the same owner! You can read the article here.
For myself, I’ve chosen to offer my photos only through microstock platforms. This is mainly because I want to maintain the freedom to take a file offline whenever I decide to sell exclusivity to a client.
Can you really make a living through stock photography?
One of the most commonly heard things in the photography world is: “it’s not worth it.” And I do agree. Our content is worth much more money than the potential earnings through stock photography. But I had to change my mindset. How much money will I earn with a photo that’s stuck on my hard drive? Nothing. Nada. Niente. How much money will I earn with a photo that’s on a stock website? $0.05 a month! I know that sounds crazily low, but it’s the reality I learned during my first year of stock photography. Yet still, I’m excited about it.
That being said, if you don’t have thousands of files that you are willing to sell through stock platforms, it might not be worth it. But if you’re content with just $50 in cash every month, why not give it a try and upload 1000 of the files you own? It’s really not that hard.
What kind of files should I sell?
If a photo is interesting enough for you to take, it’s interesting enough for others to buy. The same goes for videos! Essentially, all travel content could be marketable, and some platforms even accept phone footage. The key to success lies in using the right keywords and other metadata. As you go through your files, reflect on the emotions that each photo evokes. Use these words to market your file.
In my experience of selling travel content, it’s the drone footage that sells best. Aerials give a great new perspective to any place and there are not as many good photos from a sky perspective, as there are from land perspective.
I aim to keep my edits as natural as possible. In my experience the natural edits sell better than the dramatic edits I would post on my Instagram. Keep in mind that buyers are often not photographers themselves. Even if you don’t personally like a photo, a potential buyer may see it through different eyes. My best-selling whale sharks photo is having some terrible reflections in the water, but that doesn’t seem to bother my clients.
Model and property releases
Let’s be clear: You need a license to sell files with recognisable people or objects.
If there’s a recognizable person in the frame, you can’t sell it unless you have a model release. In general, getting one is not worth it, except when you repeatedly take photos of the same person.
You also can’t sell footage of private buildings or properties without a property release. Yome footage I haven’t been able to sell includes Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany and Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro.
If you want to offer your files without having the release, upload them as an editorial file. This means that your files can’t be used for commercial projects but can be used for any other project that doesn’t require a model or property release. The demand is lower, so it isn’t something I would suggest focusing on.
What platform sells best?
If I take a look at the agencies where I sold my files in 2023, the earnings are divided as followed:
- Adobe Stock: 31,3%
- Envato Elements: 29%
- Shutterstock 21,2%
- iStock 8,5%
- Blackbox 2,2%
- Pond5 1,72%
- Depositphotos 1,65%
- 123RF 1,54%
- Alamy 1,39%
- Dreamstime 1,17%
- Freepik 0,35%
How to upload your files to the agencies?
As soon as you have your photos edited and you’re ready to upload, it’s time to find a way to efficiently upload all the files to the agencies. One option I highly recommend is using a distribution platform. There are multiple websites that offer to upload one file to multiple agencies. I heard about this strategy through one of my Instagram friends @worldpitou. He wrote a guide on how to get started and how to avoid mistakes that he made in his first year. This is not a guide that promises you great results, but a guide that shows a clear and proven strategy to make sales through stock photography. It’s a $150 USD investment, and I easily earned it back in my first year of selling stock content. Find the guide here!
This is my personal experience and I don’t get compensation for promoting his product.
Consistency is key
Giving up is easy, I know. Stock photography is no quick-rich method. After my first 5 months on Shutterstock, I made a whopping total of $13 USD—very discouraging and a moment when I could have easily given up. However, I knew that uploading more would lead to more sales. In the 6th month, I made $13 on Shutterstock in one month. Right now, 14 months after getting started, I make about $100 a month from Shutterstock alone.
This proves that your sales will go up eventually, as long as you put effort in it. Keep adding photos to your portfolio and keep your account alive.
All in all, I hope this gave you some insights in getting started in stock photography in 2024. It’s not for everyone and surely not a quick-rich method. But if you really want it and you’re happy with maybe a couple of hundreds of dollars per month, go for it!