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Column: Your pictures could make money as stock photos

A person uses a smartphone to take a photo of the Olympic rings
Snapping pictures with a smartphone or digital camera and uploading them to stock-photo sites is one way to try to make money with photography.
(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

Do you love to take photos with a digital camera or smartphone? You may be able to make money with photography. There are dozens of online platforms that could help you sell your photos online, ranging from stock photo sites to print-on-demand shops that pay royalties to sell mugs and iPhone cases decorated with your snapshots.

Although you normally won’t earn a lot on any given sale, you can sell the same photo many times and in many different ways. Regardless of whether you’re a professional photographer or a relative amateur, that could turn your popular shots into moneymakers that pay royalties year after year.

Stock photo sites

Stock photo sites are where many newspapers, magazines, web developers and bloggers go to find art to illustrate millions of pages of content every year. These can be shots of anything — sunsets, hands on keyboards, animals, a couple having a fight.

By and large, stock photo sites sell contributors’ photos on a nonexclusive basis. This means you can sell your images multiple times on multiple online platforms. You keep your copyright and the ability to sell those images anywhere and in any form. Beware of the rare sites that demand exclusivity. The right to sell your images widely is a right you shouldn’t give up unless you’re paid handsomely for it.

The more photos you upload to these sites, the better your chance of making a decent amount of money. That’s because each image sale is likely to bring in a few bucks — maybe even pennies. But popular photos can sell hundreds of times.

Selling stock photos is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Seasoned photographers say you can make a nice living, but it takes time, skill and strategy.

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Transcription work can be done at home. Some jobs pay handsomely. Others end up far below minimum wage.

Some of the best stock-photo sites:

Adobe Stock is a division of software giant Adobe Inc., which is one of the biggest names in multimedia and creativity software. The site promises to pay photographers 33% to 35% of the amount it collects for your photos. However, Adobe Stock makes its photos available to buyers largely through discounted subscription plans that give users the ability to use between three and hundreds of images a month. Photographers who sell through the site are likely to earn between 33 cents and $3.30 on any individual sale. Adobe Stock does not limit your rights to sell your photos elsewhere.

Shutterstock is one of the largest stock photo operations in the world. Like Adobe Stock, it encourages photographers and videographers to upload their images and pays royalties when those images sell. The royalties range from a low of 10 cents per photo to a high of $120. (The $120 payment is for an “enhanced” license that gives the buyer the right to use your image often and into perpetuity.) You also can earn money by referring other photographers or clients to the site.

By and large, Shutterstock pays a lower royalty rate than Adobe Stock. It also sells photos via package plans that are likely to keep royalty rates low except in unusual circumstances.

IStock, owned by Getty Images, is another major international stock photo site that shares your images with its sister companies. You apply to be a contributor by sending information about you and sample photos. Most IStock applicants are accepted or rejected within 30 days. If accepted, you can earn between 15% and 45% of the revenue from any sale of your work.

The percentage you earn depends on the number of photos you sell and whether you’re an “exclusive” or a “non-exclusive” contributor. If you’re invited to be an exclusive contributor, you can potentially earn more because you get a bigger cut of the sales price and your work is sold for premium prices. But you give up the right to sell photos — any photos, not just the ones uploaded to iStock/Getty — on other sites. That’s a huge concession.

Alamy differentiates itself from its stock photo competition by paying higher royalty rates to its contributors. The catch: Alamy is smaller and sells fewer photos. So even though its terms are better, you should also list your photos with the big guys.

Foap enlists photographers — amateur and professional — to submit smartphone photos for potential purchase by brands that want to illustrate advertising campaigns. Most photos are purchased for $10. Foap takes a 50% commission, so you get $5 from each sale.

The site also offers “missions” where you can earn more by following directions and being chosen as the “winner.” Mission photos are typically sold for $60 or more. The catch: All the photos sold here are sold for commercial use, which is a type of use that normally generates better prices. It’s worth signing up here if you’re an amateur. But traditional stock photo sites are likely to perform better for professionals.

Goods decorated with your photos

A number of companies will sell your photos on canvas and as prints and use them as the art on puzzles, aprons, pillows — you name it. As with the stock photo sites, individual sales are not likely to make you rich. But if your photos become a viral sensation, the royalties add up and can continue rolling in for years. You may need to market yourself to get the sales started. Here are some of the best options.

When your money makes money, that’s called passive income. This can mean investing in dividend-paying stocks, licensing your art or renting out your belongings.

Etsy is one of the oldest and best-established sites to sell art, crafts, jewelry, handmade clothing and other items. It offers good opportunities for photographers too. Photographers on Etsy sell everything from artistic prints to digital downloads to provide backdrops for Photoshopped images. It’s cheap to list on the site: 20 cents per listing. You normally pay 8% in fees when your product sells. You set the prices.

Print-on-demand shops FineArtAmerica, RedBubble and Society6 invite you to upload your art and pick the products you want it to decorate. For instance, you might want to turn your favorite cityscape into a puzzle. Or see it on a coffee mug, T-shirt, shower curtain, baseball cap or iPhone case. Print-on-demand sites like these make, market and ship the products. You simply provide your art and get a royalty payment when a product that includes your art is sold. Each of these companies has a slightly different approach to paying royalties.

Kristof is the editor of SideHusl.com, an independent site that reviews hundreds of money-making opportunities in the gig economy.


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