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How to sell your photography online

Selling your photos online is an attractive idea, but where do you start? It’s not as simple as uploading them to a website somewhere and sitting back while the royalties pour in. This article gives an overview of the main methods and some of the websites for selling your photography online, but also important information and guidance on preparing your submissions. This includes vital subjects like how your work is going to be found by potential customers and fitting the right images to the right market. Image licensing is also covered.

MAIN SUBJECTS

Stock photography

Print-on-demand (P.O.D.)

Your own website

Keywords, descriptions, SEO and how to get your photos seen

Pay per view

Licensing and copyright

Tax and international transactions

Useful links



STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY

Introduction

The term “stock photography” relates to placing your images with a stock library or agency to make them available for others to use. The library acts as your agent, and when a customer pays to use your image, they take out a commission and pay you the balance. There is a section on the various photo libraries I am personally familiar with further on, but let’s talk generally about the business of stock photography first.

Licensing and copyright

With all the sites listed here, you retain the copyright to your images. You just make your images available for customers to use. With stock photography, you are offering a license to use your pictures in a particular way with restrictions that vary according to the license offered. With print-on-demand, you receive royalties for the use of your images on physical products.

Guide to image licensing

The licenses most commonly found offered in stock image libraries are “Rights Managed” and “Royalty Free”. There is normally an Editorial License too. Here is a useful explanation from Alamy’s instructions for contributors: “RM stands for Rights Managed. With this license, the customer only pays for what they’re using the image for. Rights Managed licenses can define how, where, when or for how long an image is being used. RF stands for Royalty Free. Customers pay a one–off fee to use the image with no restrictions on how they use it, or how long they use it for. RF images can be used across multiple projects, forever.”

Sometimes an Extended License (EL) is offered. This is used where the standard Rights Managed agreement doesn’t cover the usage required. The other form of image licensing you will come across is an Editorial License. This term is not always used the same way. At its narrowest definition, it relates to news. Newsworthy images can be submitted under the editorial license, but the correct format must be used. Exact requirements vary from site to site, but the essential part is the standard ‘who, what, where and when’ information a newspaper editor would ask for. The wider application of the term Editorial License relates to images used to illustrate a book, a magazine article, a blog, or other written material, but not advertising material or branding. Where an editorial agreement is used in this way it is referred to as illustrative editorial.

You will be asked at some point whether your submission is for commercial use or editorial use. Commercial use relates to anything to do with advertising, branding (e.g. a logo) or selling. Editorial is explained above.

This brings us very nicely to the subject of releases. There are two types of releases which may be required, model releases and property releases. The first is probably self-explanatory. If a recognisable person appears in the picture it can only be offered for commercial use if a properly drawn-up model release form is produced for each person. Requirements vary between agencies and countries, but it must be dated and signed by the person who appears in the photograph. Without that it can usually still be used for editorial.

Property releases can be a bit of a minefield and there can be grey areas between acceptance or rejection without a release. Basically, they work in similar fashion to model releases, only the release has to be signed by the owner of the property. Property releases are needed for some buildings because they are the intellectual property of the architect. Photos taken on privately owned land often need a release. In the UK, the National Trust, for instance, is very protective of its rights and will require offending images to be taken down, so generally they will not be accepted by an agency anyway. This does not apply to general landscapes which just happen to include somewhere a building or landmark owned by the Trust but photographed at a distance from well outside their property.

Urban photography is normally okay if it is a general cityscape, although more and more copyright issues are being encountered. Wherever you are in a city, the land is owned by someone, and many city developments insist on no commercial photography without permission, and usually a fee, which can be quite steep.

Photo by Johnell Pannell on Unsplash

Logos and brands are intellectual property. Pictures which contain them cannot be offered for commercial use. Sometimes it is possible to remove them. However, if the product is famous enough to be recognised the image may be refused.

Agencies differ from one another in what they will list under a commercial license. It depends on how likely they think it is that anyone will object to the usage. A “take down” order is no big deal, but a lawsuit for infringement of rights can be very expensive.

Most agencies pay higher royalties for images placed with them on an exclusive basis. In other words placed solely with themselves and no other photo agency. You still retain the copyright and can use the image yourself. However, if a buyer purchases an exclusive license, that image must not be used elsewhere for the same purpose. I personally place images on multiple sites on a non-exclusive license to gain the extra exposure.

Tax and international transactions

When you upload your work to a website, whether it be a stock agency, print-on-demand site or even a website of your own, the laws and financial arrangements are those of the host nation. However, you are responsible for paying tax on your income in your own country. If you are registered for VAT, the same applies. However, transactions are deemed to have taken place in the host country and are therefore liable to taxation there too.

You may find withholding tax taken out of your earnings. Many countries have entered into agreements with other countries to limit the tax liability in these circumstances. For instance, I am in the United Kingdom. I have just earned royalties from Envato. Now Envato is an Australian company and the UK withholding tax agreement with Australia is currently 5%. So 5% is withheld by Envato to pay tax in Australia. We have a 0% agreement with the United States, so I am not charged tax by the IRS for US transactions.

Stock photography agencies

I have been shooting stock images for many years and I have direct experience of selling through all the stock agencies listed here, as well as Getty images via sub-licensing. This is how stock photography works: the photo agency enters into a contract with you, the photographer, to market your images under agreed licenses. When an image sells, they take a fee from the proceeds and pay the photographer a royalty fee. The percentages vary considerably between agencies, as does the amount of marketing effort they put in.

The most generally used format is jpeg and RGB colour space is the norm. If you are using a mobile phone, that is what you will be producing unless you alter it yourself. Size restrictions are listed in different ways from site to site. Some refer to the image size in Megapixels while others use actual file size in Megabytes.

Alamy

Paying very good royalty percentages, Alamy Is definitely one of my favourites. It existed as a photo library before the advent of digital photography. Because its curated images are regularly used by advertisers and publishers the images often need to be reproduced quite large. They therefore have a restriction on image sizes accepted. However, with the rising popularity and quality of phone photography, they created a vehicle for mobile pictures with its own identity called Stockimo. Download the Stockimo app to discover how easy it is to submit your pictures. They are seen by a small panel who vote on your image and it is accepted or rejected on that basis. It’s a great place to start because you can begin to get a feel for what is required in a stock photo.

Alamy offers both rights managed and royalty free licenses (and news images are handled under an editorial license). Commission is a nice 40% (50% for exclusive). Minimum file size is 17MB uncompressed (the size when open). Images go through Quality Control (QC) before acceptance. Information entered in Adobe Lightroom is picked up at upload, saving time later, but you are requested to pick your main ten keywords.

Adobe Stock

Creative Cloud users have easy access to imagery from Adobe Stock, making a nice large group of potential customers!


Dreamstime

A well-established photo library, offering Royalty Free (RF), Editorial and Extended (EL) Licenses. EL licenses are used where the standard RF license is not adequate for the usage required. As with Alamy, keyword and description data is picked up at upload. Commission rates are a little more difficult to follow, but exclusive images earn an extra 10% and exclusive contributors earn an extra 60%! Minimum image size accepted is 3MP. Larger file formats such as TIFF, RAW, .dng or .png can be added afterwards to increase sales potential by as much as 25 x 59% according to their website.


Shutterstock

Shutterstock is a micro stock agency, selling huge numbers of pictures at low prices. This is popular with web developers and publishers as well as the general population. Shutterstock market their image collection very well and I make many more sales with them than other agencies, but because the royalties are low it balances out with my fewer, but more lucrative, Alamy sales.

Minimum image size is 4MP and keywords and descriptions are picked up at upload.


123RF

As its name suggests, 123RF is part of the Royalty Free scene, operating the same type of license as Shutterstock.

Twenty20

Envato is at the helm of Twenty20, which is a modern, youthful agency appealing to a younger clientele. Contributors can upload via their app or their website. Submitting is easy, but they do not pick up descriptions and keywords from Lightroom, so those fields have to be filled in after upload. They only take 10 keywords (phrases accepted too), so they need to be carefully chosen. Images bigger than 2800x2100px are preferred but it doesn’t appear to be an essential requirement.

EyeEm

Another modern site, but with a totally different feel from Twenty20. EyeEm is a German company which offers a very attractive 50% commission at the time of writing. It picks up your tags and description too, so upload is quick and easy.

Picfair

Picfair has a different pricing structure. You set the amount you want to receive for your images and they price them accordingly. The free account has a limit of 500 images but you can upgrade to a paid membership to remove that restriction. Keywords are picked up okay. They describe their minimum size as 800px wide and their maximum as 30MB.

500px

This started as a peer to peer site with the facility to sell on their marketplace via their distribution partners, Getty Images and VCG (Visual China Group). Minimum size is 3MP and maximum 200MP. Data is picked up at upload. They offer 60% for exclusivity, but I haven’t clear info on standard commission rates.


PRINT ON DEMAND

Print-on-demand (P.O.D.) sites

These are certainly worth considering. A print-on-demand site is one where images are uploaded to the site and applied in virtual mock-ups to a huge range of products which will only be created when ordered. Different sites have different focus and different customer bases. RedBubble is well known for its T shirts but it sells much, much more. Zazzle started with personalised paper products, and that is still its main pillar, but its inventory is now exciting and varied. Personalised products still sell best on Zazzle though. Cafepress is similar, but of the three I find its upload section more time-consuming and awkward.

Fine Art America began with prints and wall art, but now offers other products similar to the sites already mentioned. In the United Kingdom, I prefer Photo4Me. This is purely a wall art site, with canvas prints centre stage. Locations people have an emotional connection to work well on here. People look for pictures of places they have been or their home area to hang in their homes.

Click on the notebook or jigsaw pictures below. They will take you to my designs on Zazzle where you can replace the image with your own or browse all the products available for you to adorn with your own photographs.

Not many photographers think of uploading their work to print-on-demand sites. That is probably because most of the material used on them is artwork, but they do accept photography. Photos are not suitable for every product.

Here is a list of suggested products to get started with:

Wall art, canvas or prints, posters

Jigsaws

Cushions or pillows

Mugs

Mouse mats

Coasters

Journals and notebooks

Phone cases and covers

Stationery, especially greetings cards

If personalisation is available invitations, business cards, wedding stationery


T Shirts with photography on them don’t sell well at the moment, but it’s worth a go. Generally, you stand the best chance of success if your image is not just a square or rectangle. Changing the outline and creating a PNG will improve your customer appeal.



YOUR OWN WEBSITE

This is the route most popular initially with photographers. If you are a professional photographer you will already have a ready client base visiting your site. If you are just starting out, or an enthusiastic amateur, it’s best to use a website builder or host geared up to presenting galleries of images. Photographers use websites to showcase their portfolio, as an interface with customers where they can view, purchase and download photos and often as a blog. When I started to build my SmugMug site the images were the focus, but I chose a plan that included the ability to sell physical items and downloads. Now I use my website as an image showcase and blog only, but SmugMug currently allows unlimited space for photographs so I have many images stored on the site which are not accessible to the general public. This unlimited space makes SmugMug a very attractive choice for a photo website! In 2018 SmugMug, which is primarily designed as a professional hosting service, acquired Flickr, a site popular with hobbyists and the general photography-loving public. If you don’t want to pay for a SmugMug site, you could use Flickr to point people to a photo agency or elsewhere.


Things to consider when setting up a photography website:

Cost - is often the first consideration, but a web presence needn’t be expensive. Even a free Wordpress site can display images, and a plethora of available plugins make customisation relatively simple. You will have to pay for hosting, but there are many affordable yet reliable and secure hosting sites. See the list of suggestions under "Useful links" below.

Domain names - can be readily affordable and hosting sites often include an offer of a domain free for the first year, but check the price it will be after that. You may find you can get a domain cheaper elsewhere.

Security - an SSL certificate is a must if you don’t want bowsers to mark your site as “insecure”. This will normally be available from whatever website/hosting package you are using.

Legal Compliance and Disclosure Considerations - You will be guided through this by your package provider. Websites active in Europe and the UK have to comply with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Also, is you have affiliate links on your site, place a disclosure paragraph to comply with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the United States.


See the links at the end for further information.



Other options

If you don’t want to go down the route of setting up your own website, you may find it preferable to use one of the excellent facilities for displaying your work on a portfolio page of your own such as that provided by Fine Art America, where excellent selling tools are available, or Adobe Portfolio. Many of the sites listed in this article provide a showcase URL where you can promote your own work.


The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook is a useful resource for photographers as well as artists. It lists the markets you can approach with your work and how to submit to them. The benefit of the direct route to the customer is obvious - no commission to an agency. You receive the full price for your images.


KEYWORDS, DESCRIPTIONS, SEO AND HOW TO GET YOUR PHOTOS SEEN

There is no point spending hours making your images look their best if no-one is going to see them. Even if they are on a site which markets well for you, your photos won’t be found among all the others if you don’t get keywords and descriptions right. This is an essential step, and well worth spending time on to get the best chance of your images being seen by potential buyers.

Keywords (tags)

Sometimes keywords appear in alphabetical order and sometimes in order of importance. Although it is true that a sophisticated search engine like Google will find keywords entered way down a list, internal search within individual sites varies, and it’s important to consider what is actually going to appear on a SERP (search engine results page). If a potential customer searches for “mountains'', it is likely that those images with “mountains” as the first keyword listed will appear higher on the page than those with “mountains” 20 words down their tags list. So choose your words carefully and if you have the option to put the most important keywords first then do it!

Make sure your keywords describe what is actually in your photo. Spamming with irrelevant words will get your picture demoted down to the bottom of the search results or ignored altogether.



A quick guide to choosing keywords:

Cover the questions “Who? What? Where?”

      and, especially for editorial images, “Why?”

      and “When?”

List what you see in the photo, thinking all the

      time how someone searching for a picture of

      that item might describe it.

.  Where you can use keyword phrases as well as

      single words, use them! Something like

      “black dog in garden” would be found by

      modern search engines if someone searched

      for “black dog” or “dog in garden”. But if you

      have the exact phrase the customer entered,

      your photo will appear higher in the results.

Remember things like colour, camera technique

      and where the viewpoint is (buyers often

      search specifically with phrases like 

      “viewed from above” or “viewed from below”.

. What concepts or abstract ideas could your

      photograph be used to convey? Peace?

      Celebration? Competition? Loneliness?



Example of description and keywords


Carrots and sage,


Title: Carrots and sage

Caption/description: Carrots fresh from the garden on the soil by a sage plant

Keywords/tags: carrots; cooking ingredients; food; fresh; fresh from the garden; freshpicked; freshpulled; garden; healthy; image; ingredients; kitchen; kitchen garden; photo; photograph; photography; picture; veg; vegetables


Description

Your description goes hand in hand with your keywords to identify comprehensively what is in your picture. It’s especially important where only single word tags are allowed. It will be visible to the public, so consider what reads well as well as what search phrases need emphasising. When you are shopping online, the product descriptions are often optimised for SEO, but not a good customer experience. Try to get the best of both worlds. As with keywords, it is worth the effort.



PAY PER VIEW

I have left this until last because it will not make you rich, but can’t be ignored in an article about earning money from photography. I use a site called Clickasnap, where you earn money as people are viewing, and hopefully enjoying, your photos. Originally, the site was set up purely in this way, with revenue coming from ads. It has now enlarged its scope to include a paid membership where you can offer your images for sale, but the free “pay per view” option is still there.



CONCLUSION

There are many ways to earn money from your photography. When you decide what you are going to try, look into what is already selling well in that area. Consider who your customer might be and what websites they might be drawn to. Who might be interested in your particular images? Head for where you think you will find that customer.

When you get the feel of things, go out and shoot purposefully to meet the demand that is out there, and may your creativity be happy and productive.



USEFUL LINKS

Website Creation, Domains and Hosting

SmugMug

DreamHost

Go Daddy

BlueHost

Namecheap

Wordpress

Wix


Print-on-demand and wall art

Photo4Me

Fine Art America

Zazzle

RedBubble

Cafepress



Money Matters and Legal Info

W-8 BEN forms (United States tax forms for non-US citizens)

GDPR

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Guidelines




Where there are affiliate links on this page, I may receive a small commission if someone makes a purchase through them, but there is no extra cost to the buyer.


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