Selling Your Digital Photos

It seems that there's something glamorous about being a professional photographer. For me, National Geographic's wildlife photographers were like rock stars; I was a camera groupie even before I was a teenager.

If you, too, have been seduced by the idea of getting paid for your photos, I have some good news for you: Thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier to sell your work. In the old days, photographers had to negotiate with stock photo agencies and send negatives through the mail. These days, you can just upload your digital files to online agencies, many of which are friendly to casual photographers who aren't experts at the stock photo sales game. You don't have to be a pro to sell your photos online.

What Is Stock Photography?

That's a good question. Stock photography includes images of landscapes, buildings, landmarks, people, animals, and events that can be sold to and used by a wide variety of media outlets. It's the meat and potatoes of many working photographers. Stock photos are routinely used in websites, magazines, newspapers, corporate publications, and more. The same image can be sold over and over again, because the organizations that buy stock photos don't get exclusive rights. So if you have a great photo of a windsurfer, it could theoretically be sold to a sports magazine, an inspirational poster company, and a Web site--and the stock photo agency does all the work.

Online Stock Photo Agencies

Ready to try your hand at the world of online photo sales? Why not? After all, all it takes is one or two sales and you can call yourself a professional photographer--and it doesn't take a lot of effort, either. Just sign up for an account at an online stock photo agency, upload some photos, and wait.

Two of the best stock photo agencies that I've found are iStockphoto and Shutterstock. Shutterstock has a superb FAQ page. Unfortunately, you need to sign up with iStockphoto to get the same sort of information.

Both iStockphoto and Shutterstock pay photographers for their sales, but the two sites have very different pay structures.

iStockphoto for example, offers royalty rates of 20 percent for most photos--on sales that range from $1 to $40, depending upon print size.

Shutterstock, in contrast, pays 25 cents per sale. That doesn't sound like much--and let's be honest, it's not--but Shutterstock boasts that at 2000 downloads per month, you can rack up $500 per month. In real life, you'll probably see a fraction of that, unless you have a lot of really great photos and can consistently upload new stuff to freshen up your portfolio. A friend of mine claims to have made $300 with Shutterstock in the last three months. That's not bad, especially since he doesn't think of himself as a professional photographer.

What Is a Photo Really Worth?

You might be curious about the going rate for a photo. Should you get $5, $50, or $500 for your work? Are you being ripped off with each quarter that rolls in? Well, the truth is that you're not going to get rich from selling your work online, although print publications often pay a bit better.

If you ever get a note from a magazine or a corporate publication asking to use one of your photos, what's a reasonable amount of money to agree on?

Believe it or not, my 14-year-old daughter was recently contacted by the editors of a small, regional trade magazine in the energy industry. They wanted to use a photo she had taken of a lake and posted, of all places, on imeem.

Off we went to the Stock Photo Price Calculator. Here you can get ballpark numbers for various kinds of publications and photo sizes. If a local magazine offered you $100 to publish one of your photos, for example, I'd take it.

The Old-Fashioned Way

Also, keep in mind that you can still sell your work the old-fashioned way.

I know plenty of folks that print, matte, and frame a slew of their best photos and offer them for sale at local craft fairs and art shows. If you're sufficiently motivated, this can be a really fun way to sell your work. You get to meet real people, chat with them about your photos, and get the satisfaction of physically handing them your work and knowing that it'll probably be displayed in their homes. Also, you're likely to make more on each sale than you would by selling through a Web-based stock photo service. And it gets you outside in the fresh air. What could be better than that?

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