Photos For Profit

You’ve made a ton of great photos. Why not turn your passion into profit? There are quite a few options for making money with your image library—more than ever before. Ten years ago you might have made prints at a local lab or in your home darkroom before soliciting local businesses and galleries for print sales. You might have sent duplicate slides to stock photo agencies in hopes that they would represent you, or to book publishers who might (in the rarest of instances) print your work. But today you’re not limited to local businesses, mega-publishers or selective agencies. Selling your photographs is easier than ever, as long as you don’t expect to get rich quick.


Like so many industries, stock photography has been democratized by the Internet. Sellers realized that there’s a large market of buyers interested in nice work that isn’t necessarily outstanding. These photographs sell for much less—often only a few dollars—but they’re sold in much greater volumes than in the past. Instead of selling one photograph for $1,000, agencies sell 100 photos for $10 a pop.

The good news for photographers, especially those simply looking to earn a little extra income, is that literally anyone can license work as stock. The advent of “microstock” (a service that sells stock for tiny fees of only a few dollars per picture) means that many agencies are in need of vast quantities of pictures to keep their inventories fresh.

Dreamstime’s map view helps buyers choose photos by location.

iStockphoto is the most prominent microstock agency. Started just a decade ago, it has revolutionized the industry by making it easy for literally anyone to license photographs. iStockphoto licenses royalty-free images, meaning a buyer pays a one-time flat fee to use an image however they see fit.

As a newbie, you’ll only get a small portion of the licensing fee while iStockphoto retains the majority. But the better your work—determined by the popularity of your downloads—the bigger your take can be. You can even make iStockphoto your exclusive distributer and garner a 45% cut of every sale.

Lest you think iStockphoto is the only game in town, there are plenty of rivals in the microstock arena. Consider Dreamstime, Fotolia and Shutterstock, each of which works much the same way to offer affordable, royalty-free downloads worldwide. Even Flickr now offers the opportunity to license your photographs via Getty Images simply by clicking a check box.

The key with any of these services is not only quality (the better your work, the more it will sell), but also quantity. If you’re going to augment your income a dollar at a time, the more images you have to sell, the more opportunities you’ll have. The business benefit is the more you upload, the more you’ll sell and the more you’ll make. But the real benefit is personal: You’ll have a new incentive to take more pictures more often.

Fotolia’s seller dashboard gives you an overview of your images, sales and other stats to help you evaluate your strategy.

If you’re not interested in the microstock approach, there are still outlets for rights-managed stock. Getty Images, the parent company of iStockphoto, has long been dominant in the rights-managed industry where licensors pay a higher per-image fee for select images and specific uses. These agencies have higher standards and are more difficult to break into, but the rewards are also greater.

Some photographers have taken to licensing stock on their own with help from web services that simplify the transaction. PhotoShelter, for instance, integrates the ability to license stock images for every image on your website. The large network of PhotoShelter members also serves to pool the talents of many into a one-stop shop for buyers.


PhotoShelter does more than stock licensing; it’s also a great way to sell individual prints of your work by turning your site into an online photo store. More than just selling prints to the select group of buyers you personally send to your site, the benefit of being a part of PhotoShelter’s network is that buyers know the service as a place to go for high-quality photographs. Whether they want to license stock or buy prints, shoppers visit PhotoShelter on a daily basis. If their search term matches keywords in your photographs, your work will be presented to the customer. You can choose to make it a fully automatic transaction that only appears to you as dollars deposited into your bank account, or you may want to hand-print and deliver the products to your customer directly in order to personalize the process.

One of the nicest things about selling your prints with the help of PhotoShelter is the company’s commitment to improving business for photographers. This extends to workshops, tools and articles designed to improve your website’s search engine optimization, the caliber of your online presence and the quality of your photographic products themselves.

SmugMug’s product configuration tools let you choose what photo products you’d like to offer, choose finishes and set pricing with an interface that’s clean and easy to understand

PhotoShelter isn’t the only option for selling prints to a worldwide audience, though. Zenfolio works much the same way, as do services like DropShots and SmugMug. Free photo-sharing sites such as 500px and Flickr also make print sales easier by allowing you to promote your work to an inherently interested audience. Much as it does in the stock arena, Flickr makes it possible to sell prints of your photographs by delivering an adoring audience. Though print sales aren’t seamlessly integrated (at least not yet), many Flickr photographers find that their fans ask about ordering. You can make it clear in your profile and caption information that prints are for sale, plus offer links to your own website or other services online where users can purchase those prints.

Etsy might be the most popular place online for artists and craftspeople of all sorts to sell their handmade wares. Many photographers sell prints through the site, along with other products featuring their photography—there’s no reason you can’t sell everything from T-shirts to coffee cups and coasters adorned with your photographs. Etsy doesn’t fulfill orders, but it puts interested buyers in touch directly with sellers, and handles the financial transaction. It has a built-in audience that appreciates wonderful work, but to make the most of it, a network of interested fans is very helpful—like the kind garnered through Flickr and other social-media sites.


?If you’re fortunate enough to be a superstar photographer with a big book publisher’s backing, you’re able to sell your books through a variety of powerful online sources—the publisher’s outlets, your own website, even But the vast majority of us don’t have such highly financed backers, so we need a more democratic book-publishing system. Enter Blurb is a book publisher that harnesses digital printing efficiencies to keep costs down and make it possible to print small runs—even a single beautifully bound hardback book—without breaking the bank.

Bay Photo provides a variety of specialty printed items, including a range of book options.

Blurb’s online book design tool and beautiful templates allow you to paginate your book as if you had hired a professional. Upload the design and original high-res image files, and you can choose from a variety of book sizes, paper types and formats. In a couple of weeks, you’ll have a professionally printed book at your door. The best part, though, is that, as the largest micropublisher online, Blurb also has become a resource for buying and selling books. The home page includes staff picks for great new books, which anyone visiting the site can purchase, and a bookstore makes it easy for buyers to browse interesting subjects, as well as newly published and popular titles. In that way, Blurb is as much a bookseller as a publisher.

And as we’re living in this brave new world, Blurb also makes it possible to easily turn your book designs into downloadable ebooks for tablets like the iPad. Then you can sell your book to an even broader audience.

AdoramaPix and others offer a lay-flat binding that beautifully presents photo spreads.

There are a number of other options for photographers who don’t mind a more hands-on approach to sales. If you’re simply hoping to market your book through your own website, Facebook page or social networking, you have the option of going to a number of online publishers to make your book. Large photo labs such as AdoramaPix, Bay Photo and Mpix offer high-quality press-printed books that are as easy to order as a traditional 8×10 print, and services such as AsukaBook, PhotoBook Press and Pikto also cater to photographers, whether they’re ordering prints or bound books.

However you choose to print your book, you’ll find that sales are tied as much to marketing as they are to the quality of your work. Don’t be shy—use every Internet advantage you have, and make it known that your work is for sale, be it books, prints or stock photography.

Full-Service Vs. Self-Fulfillment
Should you print and deliver your own products or let a lab do it for you?

If you’re selling physical prints to customers, you have a fundamental choice to make when setting up shop: Do you want to print and ship your products yourself, or would you rather let a lab handle everything for you?

Partnering with a professional photo lab can do more than help you turn out high-quality prints. It also can take some of the business burden off your back. Working with a full-service lab like Bay Photo or Mpix, or using a service like PhotoShelter that offers its own full-service lab partners, not only can you order prints, but you can allow the lab to label, package and drop-ship products directly to customers. It’s faster and more cost-effective, saving the time and expense of another shipping step.

Most services offer the option of removing lab-specific information from the order, and some even allow you to upscale the packaging with custom wrappings, papers and boxes that ensure your high-quality presentation comes through even in delivery.

The downside, though, is that you’re not hands-on with your prints every step of the way. You’re trusting that the print quality is up to par (since you’re not seeing it for yourself prior to delivery) and that the packaging and overall product meets your expectations. Working with a reliable partner, this isn’t as great a risk. Still, photographers are known for being perfectionists when it comes to their work, so it’s understandable if you’d rather print your products and deliver them yourself.

On the other hand, an additional benefit of working with a professional lab is that you’ll be able to offer a wider variety of products than you’d likely be able to offer from your own studio.

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