Getting Started With Stock Photography – a Beginner’s Guide

As a keen amateur photographer, the thought of earning a living from my lifetime hobby has always intrigued and excited me and a short while ago, and in need of some additional income, I decided to investigate whether it was indeed a viable proposition. Having reached my 60s’ I had no illusions about breaking into the world of high-fashion photography or the like, but I had heard a lot about stock photography and so I decided to check it out.

What I discovered was that getting started with stock photography is easy to do and relatively inexpensive.

In the end, and because I needed more income than I felt I could generate from stock photography, I decided to go in a different direction and for more on this see later in this post. However, having spent a great deal of time and effort researching stock photography, I wanted to share the results of that research with you in this article.

What is Stock Photography?

two hands holding a modern dslr cameraWikipedia describes stock photography as “the supply of photographs, which are often licensed for specific uses”.

In its simplest terms, you submit your digital photographs to a stock photography agency website where they can be viewed by millions of people who are looking for a particular type of image. If they choose your photograph they purchase it (or the right to use it) from the agency who then pays you a commission.

Theoretically, anyone can submit their photographs this way although most of the bigger, and better known, agencies have an approval process that only permits good quality images to be displayed on their website. There are thousands of stock photography websites to choose from, ranging from small to very, very big. For instance, Shutterstock, one of the bigger ones, if not the biggest, currently has over 233,000,000 images to choose from.

The commission you earn varies from agency to agency and, depending on the purchase plans they offer their customers, can be as little as $0.15 per image. At the other end of the scale, an exclusive rights license (i.e. the purchaser has exclusive use of the image) can net the photographer hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

How to Choose a Stock Photography Agency

There are so many stock photography websites out there that it would be impossible to even list them within this article. I give some brief details on several of the bigger agencies below and then list a few more of the better-known ones. You may want to start by looking at these and then widen your search if they don’t meet your needs.

As part of the selection process you should take account of the following;

  • Is it an exclusive or non-exclusive site? An exclusive site will not allow you to post your images to other agencies whereas with a non-exclusive site you can post to as many other agencies as you wish, albeit exercising that right may reduce your commission rate. As you get started you will likely want to try out a few different agencies, just to get the maximum exposure for your images, so look for non-exclusive sites.
  • red "approved" stampWhat is their approval process? Almost all agencies have some kind of system for approving images but this varies from agency to agency, as does the time this takes and which can vary from a day to several weeks. Some agencies approve, or disapprove, images individually while others view the images in batches and if more than a prescribed number is disapproved then the whole batch is rejected.
  • The commission rate. You will need to look at this carefully because there are usually many variables depending on the sales programs the agency has created for its purchasers. For example, with Shutterstock, your commission is going to be much higher if someone purchases a batch of five images for $49.00 (nearly $10.00 per image), up against 750 images per month for $199.00 ($0.26 per image). Also, if the agency offers images on restricted or exclusive licenses, which are more expensive, then this should mean more for the photographer.
  • How do you get paid? Direct deposit, check, and PayPal are just a few of the possibilities. Also, is there a minimum amount of commission required to trigger a payment? There almost always is.
  • Their rules as to file types (JPEG, TIFF, etc.) and size, image uploads, and content generally. Also, what do they require from you by way of metadata, such as a title or description of each photo, keywords (i.e. the typical words potential purchasers will be using when searching for photos), and the ‘category’ the image falls within.
  • What do they require in terms of model releases (for any person in the photo who can be identified) and written permissions for recognizable structures in photos

How Stock Photography Works – the Process

So, you have decided you want to give stock photography a try. I recommend you proceed as follows;

Select your agency or agencies.

This really needs to be your first step because if you don’t know the agency you are going to be working with you don’t know what requirements, such as file types and sizes, you will need to comply with before you can begin to upload your photographs. See above for my recommendations as to factors you should take into account in making that selection.

Get your photographs organized into categories.

This is just common sense. Get properly organized at the beginning and life will be a lot easier further down the road. As an amateur photographer, you likely have a fairly wide range of photographic interests so group your images together. Although not always required, you will likely be submitting your images in batches and it can be a good idea to have a common theme for each batch. Some agencies may even require this.

Select your images for submission.

First make sure your chosen images comply with the requirements of the particular agency, or agencies you are planning to use and which you will have established when selecting your agency.

As part of the selection process, and if required by the agency (as it most likely will be), make sure you have model releases and/or written consents for any recognizable people and/or structures in your photographs. Failure to comply with any such requirement will inevitably result in the image being rejected.

Some agencies have special rules that apply for your very first submission. For instance, Shutterstock requires that your first submission is of exactly 10 images. Of these they will need to approve at least 7, failing which the entire batch is rejected. You can make a further submission but only after 30 days. Make sure you identify and comply with, any such special rules.

Otherwise, just try to ensure that your selected images are of the highest quality you can produce. Many of the larger agencies offer lots of helpful advice on how to improve your image quality and avoid common pitfalls.

Make any final edits to your images.

example of photo imaging softwareNow and then we take such a perfect photograph that, so far as we can see, it can be submitted as-is. But, alas, for most of us, that is the exception and not the rule and the majority of our images will require some ‘tweaking’.

As a side note, before you condemn other photographs to the trash can consider whether some careful, maybe even drastic, editing could produce an interesting and saleable image. In other words, don’t simply view your image as a whole but look at its component parts. You might be surprised by what you find.

Assign metadata to each image.

This includes the title, or description, of the image plus relevant keywords. These are critically important because this is how anyone searching for an image on the agency website will find yours. Most of the bigger players now offer assistance (automated) in this area, particularly if you have not embedded the information in the image file before uploading it. This occurs after you have uploaded the file but before it goes through the approval process. However, even where this is available it is still a very good idea to come up with your own words.

Upload your images.

Uploading your image files, through the agency’s upload platform, is pretty straightforward in most cases and can be achieved with a few mouse clicks.

Wait for approval of your images (where required).

This is where there is a great deal of disparity between the different agencies. Some will notify you of their approval (or otherwise) within a day or two while others can take weeks. Two to four days is likely the best you can hope for.

Wait for the money to come (pouring) in.

But seriously, how quickly you start to see some commissions will depend upon a number of factors, including the quality of your images, the number of images you have posted, and how much demand there is for that type of image.

After you have been first approved for submission you will be assigned an account which you can then access to see what kind of activity there has been with the images you have posted on the website, including, of course, sales. The quality of these account portals varies considerably from agency to agency. Some are very slick and user-friendly while others are very clunky.

All the agencies have preset amounts that your account must accumulate before they payout.

Some agencies have only one method of payment, e.g. PayPal, while others will give you a choice.

The Big Players

Please note that in the following brief descriptions of some of the largest/ better-known stock photography websites I have intentionally not included (with one exception) the commission rates that the contributing photographer receives. This is because the rate structure is typically very complex and dependent on a number of varying factors. You will find this information on each agency’s website.

As a very rough guide, most commission rates are in the 15%-35% range.

Getty Images/iStock

I group these two together because iStock is now owned by Getty Images and they share the same upload portal.

Getty is generally considered to be the ‘Rolls Royce’ of stock photography both in terms of the quality of the images displayed there and the price charged for them. With large (8256 x 5504 px) photos selling for $500.00, even with their low commission rate of 20%, you are making $125.00 per sale. This means you can potentially earn more per image here than nearly everywhere else although they also offer high volume deals to their customers which can reduce the commissions you receive to well under $1.00.

Getty has a really strict approval process, and only accepts images of the highest quality with the result that most first time submissions are either rejected completely or switched to the iStock platform where the photographer has the opportunity to make a name for themselves and then later switch back to Getty.

Getty only offers its contributors ‘exclusive’ contracts which means you cannot display the same photograph on any other stock photography website.

iStock, on the other hand, offers both exclusive and non-exclusive contracts with the former attracting a noticeably higher commission rate. Photographs on the iStock website are cheaper than on Getty Images and so the earning potential is less.

iStock offers its purchasers three purchase options, instant download of a single image, buy a package of credits (which are then used to purchase individual photos) or buy a monthly subscription and which then allows them to download up to a preset maximum number of photos each month. From the perspective of the photo contributor, the instant download and the credits purchase are far more lucrative because the resultant cost of each photo, and hence the commission to the contributor, is much higher than with the monthly subscription.


shutterstock logoShutterstock likely has the largest inventory of all the stock photography websites and a huge customer base to go with it. This means your photographs have a greater chance of being seen here than anywhere else. It is one that I personally use when looking for images (principally for my websites) and I find it very user-friendly, albeit I am looking at it from the point of view of a purchaser and not a contributor.

Shutterstock’s upload portal is easy to use, as is its account management system which allows you to easily track what is happening with your uploaded images. It also seems to have a relatively quick approval time for newly uploaded photos.

Shutterstock offers its purchasers two purchase options, prepaid image packs (5 or 10 images) and monthly subscriptions. It does not offer an instant download of a single image.

Without going into the details, Shutterstock offers its photo contributors a sliding commission scale, which goes up with your accrued lifetime sales.

It offers non-exclusive contacts to its contributors.

Adobe Stock

Adobe stock has only been going for a few years but, because it is part of Adobe (as in Photoshop), you can expect it to grow rapidly.

Technologically, Adobe Stock is one of the most advanced Stock photography websites available and it seems almost all aspects of its operation, from initial upload, through photo approval (under two days on average), account management, and ultimate payment to the contributor, work smoothly. Although I have not tested it, I understand their customer support is also excellent.

Once approved, your images are automatically shown on the Fotolia website, which is owned by Adobe Stock.

Adobe Stock offers non-exclusive contracts.

Customers purchase images either with prepaid credits or through a monthly subscription.


This is another website that I use for purchasing photographs. It has an extensive inventory and it is easy to use.

From the contributor’s perspective, image uploads are easy and the approval time for your images is relatively fast, ranging from under a day to up to three days. Commission rates are around the average.

Purchasers have a single image option as well as various credits packages and monthly subscriptions to choose from.

Canstockphoto offers non-exclusive contracts to its contributors.

Although Canstockphoto does not currently have the sophistication, or the popularity, of some of the really big names out there, it certainly bears consideration if you are thinking of submitting to multiple non-exclusive websites.

The following are also notable players;

  • Fotolia
  • Alamy
  • Dreamstime
  • Stocksy
  • Crestock
  • 123RF
  • Corbis Images
  • Stockxpert
  • Big Stock Photo

Essential Tools

  1. A camera. Kind of obvious but it bears mentioning in regard to the use of smartphones. Though they have come a long way, and are seemingly breaking through new barriers every day, it is still difficult, at least for most of us, to take a really high-quality photograph with our mobile phone. That’s not to say they should be discounted entirely but your work-horse should be a decent quality digital camera, with a range of lenses appropriate for the types of images you plan to shoot.
  2. photography lighting equipmentLighting equipment. What you need here will depend on the types of photographs you plan to take but, even if you work mainly with natural light, you are going to need some lighting equipment at some point.
  3. A computer. For editing your images and uploading them to the stock photography websites.
  4. Photo editing software. No matter how good a photographer you are, almost any image can be enhanced with some careful editing. Don’t skimp here, get the best editing software you can afford. Adobe Photoshop remains the industry leader but if that’s a little rich for your blood (it’s now only available by monthly subscription) there are some other excellent programs available for a lot less.

Stock Photography Tips

  • Don’t try to be a ‘jack of all trades’, decide what type, or types, of photography you are best at and stick with that.
  • Do your research and find out what is currently in demand.
  • Don’t forget your model releases and get them early. Likewise your consents for recognizable buildings.
  • Many images are purchased with the intent of overlaying text, or even another image, on them so bear this in mind when composing or editing your images.
  • Make sure your images do not contain brands, trademarks or logos. They will be rejected if they do.
  • Be thorough in your selection of keywords for your images and thoughtful in your image title or description.
  • Avoid clutter in your images, this will make the main subject stand out.
  • Go large and shoot at the highest resolution available.
  • Once you have found a suitable subject shoot it from multiple angles and submit a selection for approval.
  • Forget your own personal preferences and try to imagine what the potential purchaser of your image might be looking for.

Final Thoughts

The majority of stock photography images are purchased through monthly subscription programs which only produce a commission to the photographer of 15-30 cents per download. This being the case you will have to have many photographs approved and downloaded multiple times before you will see any real income start to come in. To be successful you will need to find a niche that is in demand and then take excellent quality photographs.

On the other hand, this is your hobby, right? And you will presumably continue to take photographs regardless. So why not try stock photography out and see where it goes? Once you have taken and uploaded your photographs, if and when income does start to come in you have nothing else to do and no further expense to incur. This is the classic example of ‘passive’ income!

What We Do

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, having looked into it thoroughly, I ultimately decided that stock photography was not the best option for me.  Despite being a pretty good photographer, I realized that it was likely going to be at least three or four years before I could expect to see any kind of regular income coming in and, because of my financial situation at the time, I simply couldn’t wait that long.

So, Colette and I had to keep looking and, after further research, we came across affiliate marketing.  It had an extremely low startup cost and, while it was clearly not going to make us millionaires overnight, there was a very real prospect of seeing some income coming in within 6-12 months.  That was good enough for us and so we got started and haven’t looked back since.  If you are interested to read more about it you can do so here.

I hope you have found this article helpful in deciding whether stock photography is something that might work for you. If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the box below and I will answer them as quickly as possible.

Thank you for reading.


If the concept of working from home in your own business appeals to you but you think that stock photography may not quite be what you are looking for, consider doing what I do. Click here to find out more.

Since we are all about giving you options on how to make some online income from home, you may want to check out our post on Money Making Ideas for Retirees.







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