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In today’s current climate, interest in starting your own business has never been higher. For many of you, the dream is to be able to own and operate a company that’s based on your hobbies or interests. For others amongst you, the ability to work from anywhere in the world is the draw.

Regardless of your underlying reason, starting your own business – or even just making some extra money on the side – is something that is in reach more now than ever in this day and age of worldwide connectivity and online commerce.

Whatever your own reason is for starting a business, launching a stock photography business is a great way to both make money from an interest you love and work anywhere in the world. But what do we mean precisely when we say stock photography as opposed to regular photography?  

What, exactly, is stock photography? 

Digital Photography-Stock Photography

It might surprise you to find out that stock photography is everywhere. You just might not have noticed it. 

You may not be aware, but the concept of stock photography wasn’t born in the internet age – even though it did help to popularize the idea and allow for increasingly intuitive ways to keep track of photography copyrights and artist remuneration methods. The idea that having stock photos would be useful first came up in the 1880s, with the invention of the halftone and its use in the printing press industry. 

Retrofile one of the first major stock photography libraries  was founded in the 1920s, primarily because photography production started to ramp up after the First World War. The availability of cameras had become more widespread, and they were no longer viewed as exotic or luxurious apparatus.

Stock photography was born out of the desire to gain access to the beautiful, universally useful photos without the need to hire photographers for expensive photoshoots. Further down the road, it also started to help businesses of all kinds not to have to keep track of some pressing copyright issues. Nowadays, you can use a stock photo without restrictions by merely paying a one-time fee to a royalty-free stock image licensor such as Dreamstime.

Stock photos are photographs for which the artist has licensed their photo’s use to another party for commercial purposes. Publishers and advertisers began to consider using them during the 1920s, and now they represent an essential part of most businesses. Whether it’s journalists, advertisers, marketers, web designers, bloggers, influencers, or TV anchors, they all crave stock photographs for the low cost and how easy they are to acquire.

Why? Because stock photography is the art of taking high-quality shots that will endure the passing of time – as in, their innate value for all kinds of companies won’t diminish. Using them is also convenient and cost-effective for the businesses and individuals that need them. If that sounds like something you could produce in return for payment, then you’re probably wondering how or where to get started. 

How to Start a Stock Photography Business? 

Start Your Journey-Stock Photography

Whether you’re a person with a greater or lesser level of photographic experience, if you call yourself a photographer, you undoubtedly have the passion for capturing what you see around you.

You’re continually striving to increase the quality of your shots – whether by using a better camera, learning advanced shooting techniques or by learning how to better post-produce the photos you’ve already taken. You’re posting them on all kinds of online social platforms, hundreds of people start to like them – and what’s not to like? You already know your photos are fantastic! 

Furthermore, a great deal of online content nowadays is strictly visual. It’s what catches your eye and makes you want to delve into more of the same. Perhaps you’ve even made some friends with the same passion already, and you’re all constantly evolving and adapting to new photography trends. So, is that all there is to the life of a photographer?

In short, no. If the above description sounds a lot like you, it’s time to take your passion for photography to a whole new, and profitable, level by launching your own career as a stock photographer.

By working diligently to produce jaw-dropping photos, you can net a consistent, and in some cases, considerable income by becoming a contributor to a stock photography platform. Those photos you’ve already sold to your friends, family, and customers? Suddenly you can open them up to literally millions of potential customers who can access and purchase them with just a few clicks. Better yet, there’s no more underhanded theft of your hard work, with stringent copyright laws in place to protect what is rightfully yours. 

All you have to do is put in the necessary work to make sure that your photos reflect the high-quality standards of the thousands of stock photographers who’ve gone before you. The more images you produce, the better you will become, and the larger your catalogue of images – your income potential – will become as well.

What’s more, you have the flexibility to change the licensing rights for each photo, giving you better deals on what you feel is your best work. Lastly, you can continue to use or edit your photos since what you are selling is the license for their use, not the images themselves.  

How Does the Stock Photography Business Model Work?

Analyzing-Stock Photography

While there is a multitude of different ways of running stock photography businesses, there are two primary models that dominate the market  macro stock and microstock. 

Macro stock photography is often referred to as the more traditional of the two models. Sites and agencies using this method will sell high-priced and exclusive images. These agencies license the individual images directly to the end customer, and prices range from as low as $30 to as high as $3,000 per year. Photographers choosing to work in this manner receive remuneration in the form of royalty payments. 

Microstock, on the other hand, focuses on selling images for as little as 20¢ per photo on a royalty-free basis. Instead of the photographer receiving royalties, they receive a direct share of the revenue of each image download. With this revenue-sharing model, photographers working with microstock sites usually receive one payment every month, which is based on the number of downloads their images have received. 

Although there are still several companies that focus exclusively on one model or the other, the vast majority of leading stock photography websites and agencies now use a mix of both.   

What About Photos of Other People? 

Glacier and Iceberg

Most stock photos are meant to feel alive – and that goes beyond merely choosing the right colour palette for your capture. For many of your stock photographs, you will be working with real people in real situations. This involves getting your head wrapped around some legal aspects of stock photography, namely Mrs, or “Model Releases.”

A model release (also known as a liability waiver) is a form of legal release that has to be signed by the human subject(s) of your photographs. It permits you to both use and publishes those photos. A model release is not necessary for most of the photographs due to the legal protections under freedom of speech rights.

However, it is required to publish photos whereby personal or privacy rights could risk being infringed upon. In most instances, this is where someone is recognizable, and, therefore, you need their permission to use their appearance in your photo. 

No model release is required to publish a photo of an identifiable person if they are in a public space unless the intended image use is for trade or commercial purposes. In this case, without a signed model release, you can risk being held civilly liable. A model release is not necessary for the act of taking a photo itself. Instead, it’s required for when you’re thinking about using it to make yourself some money.

Every stock photography company has slight variations in their requirements, so you’ll have to look that up in the terms and conditions at each site. 

Here at Dreamstime, we usually require just one model release for each model, with the number of uploaded shooting sessions being irrelevant. The only time you need to pay attention is when the model you used for your shoot moves into a different age group. For example, our advanced search engine has an in-built age parameter.

If your model moves from the 21-30 years old category to the 31-45 years old category through the natural process of ageing, you’ll be notified that you need to include a new model release to continue to earn money from that image legally.

Stock Photography Requires You to Understand E-commerce 

Digital Commerce-Stock Photography

As a potential stock photographer, you’ll be well aware of what photography is. After all, you’re probably taking pictures every day. But how is your understanding of e-commerce? It’s something you’ll need to spend time studying up on because it’s what you’ll be relying on to earn revenue from your collection of photographs. 

Simply put, e-commerce is selling something (such as the right to sell your picture) through an online medium. Since the first-ever online sale that took place on August 11, 1994, companies have been offering a growing number of products and services online. The events of 2020 related to the COVID-19 pandemic have only accelerated that trend with more and more people having to endure restrictions and limitations on where they can physically go, and even traditional physical businesses such as gyms have had to offer their services online.    

As an increasing number of products and services start to shift towards online payment methods, the more your products and services need to stand out from the others. It’s imperative to find ways to attract and retain customers.

Since most of the online content nowadays is sustained by imagery, stock photography is the perfect solution for many businesses that need to stir emotion in people. Some even refer to it as generating micro-content, small individual pieces of content that can be consumed by users and monetized by those who produce it.

With that in mind, you need to be thinking about how you can tweak your photographic offering to meet the needs of growing businesses. Furthermore, you’ll need to decide if you want to set up your own e-commerce website, work with several stock photography websites, or if you’re going to dedicate yourself exclusively to one specific platform. The choice is yours, but the method you choose can have a significant impact on the earning potential of your new stock photography business.  

Professional Photographer

If you’re still sitting on the fence and don’t know whether launching a stock photography business is going to be for you or not, it can be helpful to read about the experiences of others. For example, reading this story about stock photographer Edi Swinford which details how she went from making just 25¢ to over $100,000 from stock photography, is sure to get you fired up and inspired.

Or Dreamstime user Wisconsinart’s similar tale of reaching a $60,000 milestone might encourage you to get started.  Better still, those stories aren’t anomalies. Plenty of stock photographers make more than $700 per month in predominantly passive income.    

Of course, there’s a ton of upfront work that goes into these success stories. You need to gradually build a portfolio of thousands of photos before you can even think about earning that kind of money, particularly if you opt for the microstock business model. Moreover, you need to continually evolve your technique and your subject matter to keep up with the ever-shifting demands of the industry. But while it may be challenging, it’s certainly rewarding when you start to see that money trickling in.

Quote Time for Success-Stock Photography

So, what are you waiting for?

Start going through the hundreds or thousands of photos you probably already have on your hard drive to see which ones might just be able to make you some money, grab your camera and start shooting, and start earning your slice of the stock photography pie!   


Written By
Clif Haley has been practicing SEO and photography since 2007 and is currently SEO Director and a contributing photographer at Dreamstime since 2012, one of the leading stock photography agencies worldwide. When he is not exercising his expertise in SEO, he is often hiking in the great outdoors of Texas, traveling, or writing and recording music.

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