If you happen to be someone with a creative background like me, I bet there were occasional moments of when you were thinking: “How can I sell my photos online and make money without actually dealing with clients?”
Turns out where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Can you really make money on stock sites?
Most of you guys are likely aware of the existence of stock sites like Shutterstock or Pond5. These two are the major players but there are myriads of others these days.
The principle is the same. Creators upload their artwork to a stock site marketplace and if someone buys, the artist gets a commission.
Or do they?
For many years as a photo and video creator, I had my doubts and mostly ignored the existence of most stock sites.
But to cut to the chase:
This was my balance when I logged into my Shutterstock Contributor account sometimes in February 2016:
And these are my Shutterstock earnings three years later in 2019:
Certainly, $394/month* might be still quite a far cry from a financial independence kind of lifestyle and I’d probably not plaster my social media with motivational quotes about the importance of “hustle” or pose next to rented Lamborghini while trying to sell a scammy course on ‘How To Make Money’ for a ‘bargain’ price of $2,000 – just yet.
But for me personally, it is a reason to celebrate. Especially given the fact that I did absolutely nothing on that month in order to make it.
Which, my dear creative folks, is what certainly classifies as a legit (and honest) form of passive income.
In this case by selling images and videos on Shutterstock and other stock sites.
And in this post, I’ll share my personal observations learnt over the course of 5 years I’ve been doing it.
*Please, note that $394 was for the month November, which was actually my record earning month so far. The numbers vary month from month based on actual sales.
1. Drop Your Artist Ego & Use It To Your Advantage Instead
I remember that first time I found out about the concept of selling photos on stock sites was as early as 2010 when sites like Shutterstock were still new kids on the block.
Did I join back then?
Of course not.
Because my ego inflated by the fact I was studying a film school at the time. Which made me think of myself as of being a sort of ‘an artist’. And true artists are not sell-outs, right?
Besides that, even back then sites like Shutterstock were associated with mostly disastrous stock galleries with random concepts, amateur photography and really terrible actors.
Like this one:
The truth is, while my ego may have been unscathed at the time, at the end of the day it was all those even less technically capable but persistent and somewhat reasonable photographers who eventually build big enough portfolios to make a decent passive income stream years later. While I was still chasing for new clients and dealing with their late invoice payments on a regular basis.
Whose position is better now?
The point is, if I used my technical – well, and artistic (of course) – knowledge and skills back then in 2010, when the competition was close to nothing, by now my earnings would easily be 10x of what I’m making now.
And who would say NO to extra $3,940/month while sipping on a cup of sencha?
So my next suggestion is:
2. Start Selling Photo Stock Now
Selling stock content has a close resemblance to stock investing – sooner you enter, bigger returns compound over the years.
I became more conscious of creating stock video & photo content only in 2017, which is relatively recent. And I pull my hair out every time I think about potential earnings I missed because of stalling with making any proactive steps earlier.
Always using excuses like:
“It’s already too late, the market is way too saturated”
“There’s no way I can make money by selling stock photos and it’s just no worth of my time.”
And while it is undeniably true that stock photo market is much more saturated than it was 10 years ago, the truth is that the demand for stock photography AND stock video (more about that later) increased exponentially too.
And this trend won’t go anywhere but up.
It’s simply much cheaper for any small-to-midsized company to use sites like Shutterstock to produce a 45second Facebook ad instead of hiring a filming crew for a day and then pay for postproduction. Besides, it comes with uncertain results if they are on a tight budget. Plus, you won’t likely get the very specific imagery from distant lands or top of the mountain you always wanted to climb.
So don’t overthink things and just get started by putting up all the unpublished content. Unless there’s a specific reason why it collects dust in the darkness of your drawer.
3. You Don’t Have To Be a Full-Time Contributor to Make Money With Stock Photography
You don’t have to be a full-time stock content creator.
I’m not one either! Even though I’ve been certainly playing with a thought of having a 6-months content creation sabbatical for a while now.
I mean, it goes without saying that more focus and time you dedicate to shoot specifically for stock sites, the likelihood of making money with it logarithmically increases.
However, it’s well enough for the starter to just get into the habit of always creating something with the intention of selling it on stock sites whenever you are out and about with your gear.
For example, I’m obsessed with shooting aerial photography and I’m carrying my Mavic Pro whenever I go outdoors. It is a passion for me. But at the same time, I do realize earning potential in it, especially if the shots are done right.
And so one of the first things I do anytime I come back from my travels is to dedicate one weekend to just sit down, sort through all recent footage and upload the most relevant ones to stocks sites.
Yes, it can get draggy at times. Especially the uploading part, where you have to come up with an optimal title and tags for each content piece.
But you do that once, while the earning potential is (potentially) recurring – keep that in mind.
Which brings me to another crucial step when it comes to selling photos online and making money out of it.
4. Optimize Your Stock Site Content to Make it Searchable
A lot of creatives who are new to selling photos online get quickly discouraged. They spend a lot of time preparing and uploading their best pieces…only to not get a single sale.
When it comes to selling photos and videos on stock sites, being a great content creator is just not enough.
Because in order to make a sale, people have to be able to find your artwork first.
And to do that, you gotta put as much effort into optimizing your content for Shutterstock search engine as you put into creating it. If not more.
There are 3 main aspects that decide how and if your content is searchable on Shutterstock:
Most stock sites have a 200 characters limit for the title for a reason.
I know that our inner aesthetics tells us to keep it short, neat and tidy. But the search engine doesn’t care. And neither potential buyers.
There’s no one in the entire world who’d be searching stock sites for a very specific clip and then when they finally find it, say:
“Damn, that’s the footage I’m looking for. But the title is a tad bit too long and spammy. So I will go on and waste another 20mins browsing for another one.”
In reality, nobody on stock sites really reads the titles – except for the stock site’s search engine itself.
So when coming up with titles, always try to get the most out of 200 character limit. Your search-ability significantly depends on it.
Similarly to what was said about Titles applies also to Tags that you attach to your content.
Shutterstock and most of the other stock sites have a 50 tags limit per each uploaded piece.
Try using all of them, even though it’s one of the most tedious parts.
To make the process of generating tags a bit less dreary, Shutterstock has a pretty nifty Keyword Research tool accessible from your Contributor account.
You simply select three existing images from the site that are similar to yours and Shutterstock suggests tags you could use as well.
It’s definitely a huge time saver and helps you get the ball rolling.
But my tip is not to over-depend on suggested tags completely for 2 main reasons:
- The Shutterstock Keyword Suggestion tool partially uses machine learning, that ‘scans’ selected images and then automatically evaluates the content of the photo. It does its job well, but not perfect or 100% accurate. Which means sometimes suggested keywords are irrelevant to your actual stock content (more about the importance of relevancy in the next point).
- I believe that Shutterstock Keyword Tool partially ‘extracts’ tags used in the existing images. And if you use only tags used thousands of times before for similar-looking photos, chances of beating their search ranking is just way too slim. That’s why it’s important to sprinkle your content with a few original or less frequent tags whenever possible. But obviously, not too obscure or irrelevant. Basically, you want to use only keywords that potential buyer would actually type into Shutterstock search in order to find your photo or clip.
And this one is absolutely critical.
The headline and tags you use must be closely relevant to what your content really represents.
A lot of beginners think that all that’s needed is to stuff their photo with the most trending tags and then just wait for the money to rolling in.
Like, uploading a photo of someone reading a book, but sneaking in tags and headlines ‘coronavirus’ or ‘pandemic’ – as these are hot topics at the time of writing this article.
Not only that’s an equivalent of a low-level ‘Instagram babe’ thirst trap glorifying her butt-selfie with a quote from Gandhi.
In fact, like any other search engine out there, Shutterstock will likely punish you for stuffing your content with random or irrelevant tags by not ranking your content at all.
You have to keep in mind how pretty much any modern search engine really works:
- Search engine reads all keywords used in any given content
- Then it tests the relevancy by showing content to a few people who used those keywords in their search
- If these people buy, content is evaluated as relevant and your stock footage climbs in the search rank. Next time it will be even easier to find it. If your content is ignored by buyers, it’s evaluated as irrelevant to given search queries. And your content gradually drops into the abyss of non-searchability. You don’t want that.
5. Sell Stock Content People Want
It’s arguably important to fill anything you do with joy in order to stick to it.
But when it comes to selling photos online, you have to keep in mind that it’s a business transaction and you should treat it that way.
So even though I personally approve anyone’s passion for a backyard landscape photography, there might be a certain limitation in the actual demand.
Shoot for TRENDS
Some trends are unique and short-lived. But these are also probably the quickest way to get a sale in stock photography. If you act fast and ride the wave when it lasts. Like for example pretty much any content related to coronavirus or work from home at the time of writing this article (May 2020).
Then there are recurring seasonal trends. Example being Christmas, Mother’s Day or even more niche (and thus much better) Ramadan or Chinese New Year.
To figure out what’s currently trending, you don’t have to go far. Shutterstock regularly updates their Shot List with topics in demand. And similarly, Pond5 (another stock site I use) provides Shoot Briefs & Data & Trends on their Contributor Portal.
Given that all these information come directly from stock sites who hold the keys to all search analytics from their sites, it’s safe to say that following these will set your photos and clips off to the races while eliminating any guesswork out of quotation.
Shoot for the specific NICHE
That’s why it’s important to get in the skin of potential video editor in a specific niche and think of what would make his work easier. Based on that create a potential shot list.
For example, as a video editor, I did a lot of editing for the personal growth industry which greatly depends on stock footage in every video narrative.
And there’s always a clearly recurring pattern in stock footage used and needed based on who the end video is intended for.
I could summarize into these keywords:
- People in their mid-age, mostly females age of 35-60 (target audience)
- Daily stress situations at home or work (a problem audience can identify with)
- Happy & Content life representing freedom, typically associated with outdoor activities such climbing mountain during sunrise or dream vacation (promised result or feeling after buying client’s product)
- Bonus: Meditation, Breathwork, Yoga and other trending alternative wellbeing activities
A list like that can be created for any other niche – startup world, digital nomadism, fintech, cryptocurrencies…
Creating context like that creates much more clarity of what kind of stock photo or footage are needed and will likely result in a sale.
6. Sell both Photo & Video Footage
While the majority of my clips for sale uploaded to stock sites are video since the profit per sale is much higher comparing to photos, I know a Shutterstock contributor who swears by the profitability of photography itself.
The main argument was that while earnings per photo may be lower (about $0.35/photo on Shutterstock), the volume of searches is much higher compared to the video.
It would make sense to me that the lower cost of an image can in general lead to more spontaneous purchases, while most of the people likely think twice before paying $65-300/clip.
So while nobody will ever convince me to switch exclusively to stock photography instead of video, my personal conclusion is that the best thing you can to do is to try cover both for each subject – if you have time and resources. While always prioritising video.
It’s overwhelmingly clear that from a marketing point of view video converts better. And with better internet accessibility even on mobile devices, the demand will grow.
Here’s the contributor earnings overview per type take from Shutterstock page. But please note that in reality, it’s significantly less clear since the actual profit varies depending on whether a customer buys from Shutterstock site, an affiliated website (like for example Freepik) or mobile apps using Shutterstock API.
UPDATE: On the day of publishing this post (27th May 2020) I received an email from Shutterstock about planned changes in Shutterstock Earning Structure. Basically, your earnings percentage goes up with the number of total sales of videos or photos. However, that number will reset every 1st January and you have to start over again to climb the earning ladder. That seems to be quite unfair to loyal Contributors. Because that way they’ll have to start with 15% tier over again every single year. Also, up until now earning percentage for the footage was 30% by default. But with new Shutterstock earning structure, each contributor will have to sell at least 500 clips first to get there every single year. This seems to be clearly Shutterstock’s way of cutting costs at the expense of Contributors. Let’s see how this will turn out.
Here’s the Shutterstock Earnings breakdown for reference.
7. Diversify – Sell Your Photos & Footage on Multiple Stock Sites
A lot of stock sites tries to rope contributors into an exclusive partnership. What it means is that you can’t sell your content anywhere else. A typical benefit is a promise of better profit share and more promotion.
I personally think it’s a pretty bad idea. Contributor is put into disadvantage while getting only a little back out of it. If anything at all.
Instead, don’t limit your stock content to only one site. There’s nothing like contributor’s loyalty. Go wild and put up your content into as many sites as you’re willing to spend your time on.
Again, it’s dreary work, but since you already spent time coming up with title and tags for your clip, you may as well just re-use it on multiple other sites.
My current stock sites in focus are three:
- Shutterstock (you can sign up & start selling here)
- Pond5 (sign up & start selling here)
- Adobe Stock | relatively new kid on the block, which means less saturated market (sign up & start selling here)
All right guys, there you have it. I hope you found this post somewhat useful. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below or just connect with me on Instagram!
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