If you’ve ever searched for stock photos, you know they can be, well, disappointing. Too many stock photos are unrealistic, unnatural, and ineffective. Even still, there’s a big need for good stock photography, and the industry is growing quickly—globally, the market is expected to reach $7 billion by 2027

Clearly, there’s a gap in the market that’s just waiting to be filled. So if you’ve ever considered becoming a stock photographer, now is the time. What can you expect from this type of career, and how can you make sure your images stand out from what’s already available? Our guide covers it all. 

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What Is a Stock Photographer and What Do They Do? 

A stock photographer shoots and sells images that can be purchased and licensed for a variety of creative uses. For example, businesses often buy stock images to use on their websites or in marketing materials. Stock photos can include a variety of different subjects, including landscapes and other elements of nature, people, food and beverages, objects, and more. The photos are usually fairly general so that they can appeal to a wide range of potential purchasers. 

Photographers generally sell their images through stock photography websites, such as Shutterstock or iStock. These websites compile photos from many photographers, resulting in a large, varied library of potential images. Generally, users pay a fee to buy the rights to a photo, and then the fee is split between the website and the photographer. Depending on the website you work with, you may earn royalties or get paid per download. 

Selling stock photography can be a career in and of itself, or it can be a way to earn income on the side while you grow your experience and reputation as a custom photographer.  

lady photographing donuts
Source: unsplash
Stock photographers take photos of a variety of subjects, from people to food. 

How to Become a Stock Photographer

There’s no set path to becoming a stock photographer. Because the profession is generally freelance-based, there are no formal education or experience requirements—you’re completely in charge of your own success! However, the following resources can give you a head start on your journey. 

Art or Photography Degree Programs

You don’t need a photography or fine art degree to become a stock photographer; however, taking college classes can help you learn the basics of photography—and generally, taking better photos will lead to more success as a stock photographer. College and university courses cover fundamentals including composition, lighting, camera settings, posing models, and more. Plus, art and photography degree programs give you the opportunity to practice and expand your portfolio, which is essential to becoming a successful photographer. 


If you don’t want to pursue a formal fine art degree, you can use experience as an alternative. The more photos you take, the more you will improve—and the more stock photos you will be able to sell. Keep in mind that your experience should include both taking and editing photos

Online and In-Person Courses

You can also learn the fundamentals of taking and editing photos through on-site and online courses. If you prefer to learn from someone in person, check with local photographers and see if they offer any kind of hands-on workshops. Or, browse online classes, which cover everything from understanding your camera’s settings and lenses to editing your photos in programs like Photoshop and Lightroom. 

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Stock Photographer Salary: What to Expect

Stock photographers generally work on a freelance basis, so salary can vary widely based on how many photos you take and sell. As a general benchmark, however, ZipRecruiter reports that stock photographers make an average of almost $37,000 per year, although top earnings bring in about $81,000 per year. 

Stock Photographer Jobs

When considering stock photographer jobs, you’ll generally have the option of working with macrostock or microstock agencies. Here’s the difference: 


Macrostock agencies typically sell exclusive rights to a stock photo. This means that a business can purchase a photo with the confidence that they won’t see it on other companies’ websites or marketing materials. Because of this exclusivity, macrostock images come at a higher price than other stock photos, ranging from $30 to more than $3,000 per image. 

Macrostock agencies, such as Getty Images, require high-quality photos that meet strict standards. They work primarily with established professional photographers, so it can be more difficult to get your foot in the door with this type of agency. However, macrostock does offer a higher earning potential. 


Microstock agencies, on the other hand, sell stock photos online without providing exclusive rights to the images. This enables users to purchase the photos for much lower prices; however, there is a high chance the images will be used on multiple companies’ websites or marketing materials. 

For stock photographers, microstock agencies are generally easier to work with. Anyone can submit photos to these sites, and as soon as the photo is accepted, you will begin to earn income each time it’s downloaded. 

Freelance Stock Photography

Building your freelance stock photography business will take time, but to boost your chances of success, make sure to consider the following:

What to Specialize In

Businesses and individuals want all kinds of stock photos, from people in office settings to medical equipment to landscapes. However, shooting very general subjects—like “people in an office”—will make it difficult to compete with the millions of existing stock photos on the market. Instead, try to think of subjects that aren’t widely covered, like a lesser-known foreign location or sport. While you’ll serve a smaller customer base, you will also face less competition. 

photographing nature
Source: unsplash
Specializing in a specific niche of photography, like wildlife or landscapes, will allow you to face less competition. 

Where to Host Your Photos

You have the option of uploading your photos to a variety of stock photography websites, including industry giants like Shutterstock, iStock, Stocksy, and BigStock. While the sites may vary in how much they pay per download, they all make it easy to become a contributor and begin earning income. 

Alternatively, you could choose to host your stock photos on your own website, which would give you more freedom over the prices you charge. However, you’ll typically find your photos receive much less exposure. Businesses are more likely to go to a well-known stock photography website than browse individual photographers’ collections. 

What to Charge

If you work with established stock photo sites, they will determine how much you get paid per image. However, if you create your own stock photo site or sell your photos through a marketplace like Etsy, you have the freedom to set your own prices. You can also determine whether to sell only individual photos or sets of photos, which may include a variety of angles, poses, or similar subjects. 

How to Sell Stock Photos Online

There is no shortage of stock photos available today. Shutterstock alone boasts a collection of over 300 million images. So what can you do to make your photos stand out from the crowd? Consider these tips. 

Prioritize Authenticity 

Stock photos—particularly the ones that feature people—often get a bad reputation for being overly posed or unrealistic. Instead, strive to make your images look natural and authentic, like actual candid photos. 

people at computers
Source: unsplash
Strive to capture authentic photos that look candid, rather than staged. 

Carefully Consider Keywords

A big part of your success depends on users’ ability to find your photos; if your images don’t show up in searches, people won’t be able to buy them. So, carefully consider the keywords you use to describe them. Think like a user—don’t only describe what’s going on in the photo (e.g., “two soccer players on a field”); also use keywords that relate to the emotions or traits depicted (e.g., competitive, determined, rivals, etc.). 

Don’t Limit Yourself

One of the benefits of stock photography is that the user decides what is valuable. That means you don’t have to go through the agony of selecting only the very best photos from a shoot. You can upload your favorites and least favorites, and simply see what sells. What you consider a less-than-ideal photo may be perfect for someone else. 

Add Space

Often, users will overlay text or headlines on top of an image, especially if they’re using it for a magazine, marketing collateral, or social media post. Shoot and edit your images with that in mind. It’s better for the image to have excess space, which can be cropped or edited, than not enough space for the purchaser’s intended use. 

cup of coffee
Source: unsplash
Strategically adding space in your photos will give users the flexibility to add text overlays. 

Grow Your Stock Photography Career

Whether you want to solely focus on stock images or earn a little extra income on the side while you grow your main business, stock photography is a great option. And while you may think the stock photography market is saturated, there is plenty of room for authentic, unique photos. So grab your camera, and give it a shot!

Ready to Dive Into Stock Photos? 

How to Turn Your Photography Hobby Into a Career

Written by:

Katie Wolf