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. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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]

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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

  12. Tabitha

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

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