How Much Money Can You Earn In Stock Photography?

istock photo of a baseball field

How much money did this image earn in 3 months? Not a penny.

A couple months ago, I tried to upload about 8 stock photos to all the different stock photo agencies: istockphoto, fotolia, shutterstock, bigstock, canstock, etc.  I was going to write a blogpost explaining which stock photo agency was best to sell with, but my experience changed the nature of the article.

The real question is how much money a photographer can earn by selling with istockphoto or another stock photo agency.  I became interested in stock photography when I heard from an istock exclusive photographer that she was earning about $1 per month, per photo.  I thought that was pretty good, since it could bring in $1,000 per month if I uploaded a portfolio of 1,000 images.

For me, however, that was not the case.  I sold about 8-10 photos on many agencies for two or three months.  Guess how many sales I made?  ONE!  Yes, one lonely sale.  Certainly not worth the effort to pursue any further.

I know what you’re thinking… “Wow, your pictures must have been pretty bad!”  I’ll let you be the judge of that.  I included a few of them on this page.  I specifically took these pictures because I was told that food photography and sports photography were two hot areas for stock photography.

I am not saying that it is impossible to earn money with stock photography.  There are many photographers who shoot exclusively stock and earn a decent living doing it; however, I am beginning to doubt whether it could be a viable career for someone just starting out with stock photography.  Older contributors to stock agencies such as istockphoto receive a larger percentage of the sale, and their photos rank higher in search rankings because of their downloads.

My point in writing this article is actually somewhat of a warning to other photographers who are interested in starting out in stock photography.  Maybe you’ll hit it big, but you will most likely be able to earn more money with photography by shooting weddings or advertising.  As for me, my journey into stock photography was over before it ever started.

stock photography shoot doesn't earn much money

Stock photo

stock photo of a football sitting on a green grass field

It took me a couple weeks to get a foggy morning to shoot this shot.


  1. Elnur

    man, you’re too late to the market. Your 8 photos compete with my 30000 photos. I’m not a full-timer, by the way.

  2. Fred

    For all the effort its not worth the time, the people examining and judgeing your photos are also contributors so the bias is getting pretty bad on shutter stock, lots of complaints on their forum recently regarding failed submissions. I have sold a dozen or so in a year, at 25 cents per sale forget it. I heard istock had a scam played on them and contributors lost allot of money, enough some pulled out all together. I recall reading your post and thinking, I hope it works for you. For me its not near worth it.

  3. Ellen Finch

    I am a complete amateur who has working hard at getting better with my photos in the hopes of making a living at it…somehow, someday. I can tell you that I’ve sold several photos and I’ve never uploaded anything to stock sites. Instead, people have found my photos through apparently random web searches–some that I’ve posted in my blog, couple from my smugmug site, and several that I’ve uploaded to wikipedia. I had never intended any photos there to be anything but illustrative of the article I was working on, and on my blog many were never intended to be anything but snapshots from my day. The main thing seems to be that they searched for a phrase or keywords and found what they wanted. So–keywords & descriptions seem to be very important, no matter where you post your photos. And sheer luck, for example, that the particular angle on a particular flower happened to be the one that the purchaser wanted.

  4. v

    your photos look very good actually for stock photography. i know someone who sells her photogs through a stock agency and has sells several times a WEEK..her most popular being a photo of apples.

    i tried it once and thought about trying it again because i could not believe my images were rejected. hurt my ego, haha, but maybe i won’t. i don’t want to specifically take photos i think people/agencies may want. i want to take photos i enjoy taking (i feel i can be more creative and natural instead of being forced into going for a look) and if someone wants to buy it, even better.

  5. 'Mas

    My late wife gave stock photos a good try, both with a variety of agencies and through our own site. The sum total of several years would just about pay for a meal for two at a trendy restaurant. Either we didn’t have what the buyers wanted or we were too late in the game, but it never proved a viable income source.

  6. Asea scam

    Me and my girlfriend are getting married in the end on the calendar year, so this was just the data we desired, thank you extremely much

  7. Brian

    I have 1 image in one stock agency. I have made $50 off it in one year. If I had not put the image in the stock agency it would have made me a big “0”. I am now in the process of going through over 300,000 images I have taken in the last 7 years. If I can get 1% (hopefully more) into stock I will have 3,000 images working for me. Lets say I make 10 dollars a year off those images I will make 30,000 dollars. I have already started to organized and edit my images so we will see what happens. Wish me luck!

  8. KNorway

    Good luck Brian! :)

    I have been in the game since January 2011. I bought a camera in 2010 and tried to get my first photos approved late 2010. I sell about 320 photos a month now. It’s still actually possible!

    1. Author
      Jim Harmer

      I’m glad to discuss photography with people on our Facebook fan page, and I constantly work with students one-on-one who take my online classes, but I regrettably don’t have the time to be able to answer every reader question via email. That’s why I took the contact page off. I was getting over 100 questions per day!

  9. clive

    Stock libraries are VERY exploitative, they pay a FRACTION to a photographer or artist that would ordinarily be commissioned to create an image.

    Example: a photographer could be commissioned for an editorial assignment in, say, publishing for $800-2000, in iStock or others they would pay an artist around $8-12.
    All the while iStock or Shutterstock grow ever bigger and are eating this market.

    I would think VERY carefully before submitting ANYTHING to a stock library. Chances are, if you are good enough to have your work accepted by a stock library you are probably good enough to get commissioned in the media.

    If you have any aspirations in the creative world selling images to stock libraries is like a turkey voting for Christmas.

  10. Eva

    I am researching on stock image sites and just stumbled over this conversation :)
    Only recently did I start with Shutterstock. I was accepted at the end of December. I had about 10 or more vector images and still keeping up with the hopes for sales, I started adding more and had even more sales. So for now I have about 15 sales only on Shutterstock! For the last few days I researched for more stock sites and registered there too.
    So far I realised that the more you spread your work over the web, the more you keep it fresh and updated, you verify your keywords often to make sure they acurately spot the idea of the image, you should gradually build a stable and full portfolio, experience and soon your images would sell even more and would bring you higher income (which happens after some conditions, like 500 downloads, etc).
    No one says that you should actually provide enough income for the first several years, but if you’re consistent and persistant, also creative (and most of all – work something else, and the income from the stock images would be like a bonus :) ), you would be pretty happy in the end. :)
    I may be in this for the last almost 2 months, but I see the progress, because I add more and more. If you have only 8 images or photos waiting for them to do miracles, that’s wrong!
    So, you lose when you admit to yourself that you lost. :)
    And besides, every old stock photographer and image maker started from scratch! :)

  11. Florin

    Hi guys!

    The article is pretty good… but it shows just one side: the one of someone that didn’t make money with it, right?
    Are there any success stories out there? If someone that made more then $100/month with stock photography is out there, share your story please.

    I am trying to start in this and the only reason is because I want to leverage my time and have a passive income stream… plus, it would be a great way to retire in about 15 years… Hmmmm… I’ll keep you posted! :)

  12. Usama

    Working in stock is difficult but you have to upload a number of quality photos in order to make your mark there. Although the competition is high but that doesn’t mean one should upload 8-10 photos and then wait for those to be sold!

  13. 3biq

    and of course, as Usama mentioned, shoot shoot shoot and upload as much. You will get better through practice and from time to time, have your friends, family, girlfriend take a look at your photos and ask for their opinions.

    And sorry if my previous comment was too rough, but you know, to improve, you have to know what you’re doing wrong. I’m amateur photographer, but I do a lot of marketing, purchasing everything I cant shoot from fotolia and istockphoto and I see which photos sell and that it’s nothing really hard, just get what is the purpose and how it’s done.

    My uncle used to upload tons of photos of swans, because they lived on a stream near the appartment house he lived in and it was convenient target, but swans and dull buildings on a dirty stream, really it wasnt good even for a grunge. Then he went to a historic city, took some pictures with funny statues and people around – and he’s good with skills, with angles and theory, he was just shooting wrong things – and he sold enough of them to buy quite expensive pro-grade (in my words heavy as hell :)- as I’m more a CSC guy) – dslr.

    So just keep on shooting, but spend some time going through most wanted photos, mind their technique, mind the targets most importantly, mind the composition and backgrounds (ie women doing exercise- should you have used less depth of field, the background would be blurred and the women would stand out, put here more into view, overexpose a little and use more light, let the flash bump from a wall or ceiling and shoot shoot shoot, hundreds and thousands of photos, experiment angles, overexposing, then pick the best.

    Good luck!

    1. Author
      Jim Harmer

      @Marco – Say what you want, but someone just bought an extended license for one of these photos to use on a book cover.

      As I mentioned in the article, I am NOT an experienced stock photographer. Just someone who has done a little test with it and wanted to share that information–which is probably something you’d like to see since you Googled how much stock photos make :-)

      1. Jim

        @Jim: I used to work as an image researcher. I believe that Macro has a point. Your photos (except for the woman on treadmill) are actually more of an artistic value and is better suited for a site like Getty or the now dysfunct Photolibrary.

        As an image researcher, I seldom came across a client that is looking for something creative. They always want a blank, perfectly exposed photo that shows everything in the frame ‘clearly’ (no shadows or whatsoever).

        Stock photo sites only work for people that are comfortable generating images than creating them. This is why they don’t make any sense for an artist.

        Thank You for sharing your experience.

        1. Fruit Cocktail

          I agree with Jim, to sell stock you have to think with a advertiser’s or designer’s mind. What will work for them as they are designing in their agency. What appeals to a large audience. I think different people have different luck selling stock. I’m new to selling stock. A month or so in. i have 8 images on one site and so far have made 14 sales. Subject matter, lighting and usability are key. Most of my images are on a simple white background. I think I will continue. I had an advantage, several years with advertising agencies and a degrees in both media advertising and graphic design. Rather than buying books on stock photography I think new micro stockers should invest in a couple of good advertising and design books.

  14. Seth

    I’m am starting a new boutique stock photography site. What I’m wondering is what is the ratio of inventory to sales? How many images do you have up to sell one per month, and at what price?
    Do you find that lower price sites work better, making it up in volume? Or is it better to get a bigger lump?
    Thanks in advance

  15. Dadzoola

    This is a really helpful article and I am grateful to everyone for being so generous with their knowledge and opinions. I’d like to ask though, whether there is a measurable advantage in being broad ranging in the narrative or tags used to describe an image, rather than allowing oneself to think that an image stands on its own merits and those merits alone?

  16. Nora

    I started doing microstock last year Jan 2013, on the first 5 months after my initial submission i hardly have sale at all, my first month is only $0.50, i’m very frustrated over it, it made me giving up submit photos to the stock site in my first 5 month..if i remember correctly, i have less than 40 photos in my portfolio in the first 5 months an earned only $12.76. I started to get serious submitting again in the middle of May 2013, the more i submitted the more sales/downloads i got and it boost up my motivation so i keep submitting, at the time i commenting here i have 433 photos in my port. I finally got my first payment $124.00 on the month of August 2013 (threshold payment is $100). My sales is doing good ever since except for December 2013 since i didn’t reach threshold payment. My experience is based on one microstock website only, and if anyone interested to know, my portfolio is mostly landscape/nature/travel photos.

  17. how to sell photos online

    That’s a great tutorial.

    Very helpful info. It’s nice to learn from someone who learned the hard way 😉

    [links removed per comment policy]

  18. tyler

    I’m a beginner to photography and I was wondering what type of pictures sell the best?( nature, people, buildings) any replies will be appreciated. thanks

  19. David Urmann

    I think a lot of the websites base your rank in photo search based on your portfolio sales so its going to take some time to build a reputation. A lot of the expected gain comes at the end of the curve once you build a library and a name.

  20. Sam

    Thanks for a good post, first I would like to point out you cant make any statistic by uploading only 8 pictures, some stocksites will not even take you serious and put you in their search engine with that small portfolio, sorry to say. I am also new to stock photography I have 95 pictures, it took me arround 50 pic. to be avalible in Bigstocks search engine, Depositphoto, 123rf and Fotolia I got sales after uploading 20 pic. or so. but you have to “Feed The Beat” means you have to continuarly uploading pic. otherwise you will loose your search ranking with your whole portfolio, I am now selling 2-3 pic. a week with my tiny portfolio I am uploading to 5 stock sites. I am in the stock business not for the money, but for the chanlenge the requierments to get your pic. approved are high, when I started I had an acception rate at 50% and now I am up on 95% on most sites, stock photography is in my opinion the best way for a newbee to improve, because you have messureable result, instead of uploading to photo sites where everybody is telling how awesome your work is, even you know it cant be true, with stock photography you know people like your picture when they find their credit card and pay for your pic. Just my opinion on stock photography. I dont really earn money, but it push me to perform my best.

  21. Martin lee

    I have been a professional stock photographer for a number of years. One thing you need to remember is that it’s a numbers game. The more images, providing they have the quality and content, the more you will sell. I’m with 10 agencies, with approximately 15,000 images on each. I found sales proved dramatically at around the 3,000 image mark, less than that was quite painful! I do know photographers with 1,000/2,000 image portfolios that make money – but not a living!

  22. jillsaab

    I think that you have lots of shadows and flash glare in your pictures. It does not look professional quality. No wonder you did not sell anything. Also, just eight images and no updates to your portfolio means you are not in business. I upload almost 250 images in a week and earn okay

  23. Tabitha

    Go on, pet. Pop your photos up and let’s have a good finger point at some of your trash.

Leave a Comment