How to make $3200 per month by selling stock images

When you have a website like mine, you have the privilege of knowing the best part of the internet. But you also get in touch with a lot of dreamers who ask questions like:

How can I make money with my photos?

As if the only way to get rich is to find a magic formula.

When I say “the best part of the internet”, I mean those stock image and stock footage producers:

  • photographers
  • video makers
  • CG artists

who understand that, in order to stand out from the competition of thousands of contributors and actually sell their stuff, they have to:

  • study the market
  • create an efficient workflow.

Most of them saw their efforts pay off and achieved a better life.

The contributor I interviewed below has one of the many success stories I can tell thanks to my project (website, course and YouTube channel).

Stock image of a designer desktop published on Shutterstock

Discovering the microstock

How did you start uploading stock images?

After graduating in architecture, as someone passionate about 3D graphics, I dedicated myself to small works of design and worked in the field of 3D graphics as a CG artist. My work consisted, and still partly consists, of making three-dimensional images with photorealistic rendering of other people's projects.

  1. The design studio sends the project to the graphic designer.
  2. The graphic designer creates a "photograph" of the project for the client.

My adventure into the world of microstock was born by chance; a friend who worked as a photographer knew the business and tried to upload some of his shots. He advised me to try with some of my work.

At first, I was extremely skeptical:

Who would ever want to buy an image of my kitchen?

But I wanted to try, just for a bit of fun, and doing so took zero effort as I used images from the archive I made to promote my work as CG artist.

Stock image of a designer studio published on Shutterstock

In the early days, through the Shutterstock app, I enjoyed watching how many images I sold. I must say that the first results were immediate, on the day of my first upload. Obviously, I made just a few dollars, but I asked myself the question:

If I uploaded more images, would my earnings go up?

The earnings with stock images

How much do you make with microstock?

In the first few months, before I dedicated myself full time to the microstock business, my average was about:

$200 a month, from a total of 100-200 images.

At that time, I worked fewer hours at my main job and so, finding myself with some free time, I started to learn a little more about microstock (that's when I found your website!!!) and I made some new content to upload.

In the first year as a full-time producer, I created a portfolio of 3000-6000 stock images, making an average of $1800 per month. In this last year, my average income has risen by about $1000 more per month.

The growth was constant and exponential, especially in the first year, but once I reached $2000 per month, the oscillations started (some months there were small drops).

Lately, the fluctuations are more consistent, but so far the overall trend is still growth. After two years, my sales record is around $3200 in a single month.

No more customers who do not pay

The thing that triggered the desire to dedicate myself to the microstock business was the money. I was tired of chasing:

  • customers who do not pay, and
  • customers who want to take advantage of your work and expect to pay you €50 for an image that has taken a week of your time to create.

The microstock, despite the royalty share you have to leave for the agencies, gives me the perception of a profit commensurate with my efforts, or at least not being at the mercy of the moods of unfair customers.

At the end of the month, your commissions are always paid (be they low or high), always on time, without delay and without ridiculous apologies as happens with other businesses (at least in Italy).

More than $1200 with a single stock image

My best seller is this image:

Stock image of a bathroom published on Shutterstock

I uploaded it a year and a half ago. I made $1229.46 on Shutterstock alone, with 1670 downloads.

The agency where I earn the most by far is Shutterstock, which gives me almost two-thirds of my total income, followed by Adobe Stock, which has been rising a lot lately.

Favorite microstocks

I am also on:

Each of them earns me between $30 and $50 a month; on these microstocks, I don't constantly update my portfolio. I still upload there because I read (even on your website) of agencies that, thanks to:

  • new commercial policies
  • large investments

suddenly multiplied their sales. So, keeping a consistent portfolio even where it isn't profitable (for now) seems like a good choice. Maybe tomorrow I will change my mind.

The commitment you need to earn

How much time do you spend on producing?

All of my working day, except the time I still spend with individual customers or making 3D graphics for other studios. But I only take those kinds of jobs if I've been contacted (I don't care about self-promotion anymore).

Stock image of a designer studio published on Shutterstock

The sources of inspiration

I find inspiration in the images I see on websites and in magazines, especially those focused on:

  • architecture
  • interior design

or even in the advertisements of companies that create digital environments to sell their designs.

Or maybe I am inspired by an image on TV, in a music video, or in a movie I saw at the cinema. Everything makes a soup.

How to create this type of stock images

If an interior hits me, I use it as a general idea to create my settings, which are all virtual. They are not photographs reworked on the PC; they are 3D models that don't exist in the real world:

  1. projected and designed by my computer
  2. textured (applying different materials) and illuminated (to create the type of lighting I prefer)
  3. processed by the software that exports the final image.

Stock image of a living room published on Shutterstock

I don't have a monthly average of the quantity of images I produce. There are periods in which I am particularly inspired and periods in which I get stuck, but if you divide 11000 images by the 27 months I've been working in the microstock business you get an average of about 425 images per month, which is not a small amount considering that my stock images are complicated to create.

The equipment to produce

What equipment do you use?

I've always thought I'm not a great photographer. I bought a reflex camera that I never actually used. I don't know why, but it is a device that I never found easy to use, even though I knew the basics of photography:

  • ISO
  • aperture
  • shutter speed

It is essential knowledge in my job, because 3D graphics software uses those settings and you need to know what to do.

With the virtual camera, I feel much more comfortable, and finding the right frames is certainly more natural for me. I have always considered doing a course on interior photography, but it is one of the things I, unfortunately, continue to postpone.

The software: Cinema 4d

The software I use is called Cinema 4d, which is also excellent for architecture and interior design. (For those who do not know, Cinema 4d was used on Jurassic Park to create the virtual dinosaurs, as well as many other movies)

It's very complex. I don't know all the features, but I'm a self-taught enthusiast and I learned by myself what I needed. With Cinema 4d, I do everything from modeling to final renderings, with all the intermediate steps required.

Then, the image must be post-produced much more than a standard camera shot: it's essential if you want to stand out.

For this reason, you have to know about the most common photo editing software available, from Photoshop to the excellent Gimp, which is free.

How to beat the competition

In microstock, even for digital graphics, there is fierce competition, and I believe that it is necessary to know how to produce high quality content – in terms of photorealism and salability of the subjects – to emerge from the collections. Graduating in architecture made it a lot easier for me than if I were a producer who only knew how to use the software without being able to build quality interiors as a designer.

Currently, three of my works appear on the front page (first of more than 9000 hits) searching Shutterstock for the word:

  • bathroom

Screenshot of Shutterstock SERP for the query "bathroom"

For a long time, my top seller was the very first image.

Adding an element in the foreground to the interior design background

In many of your photos there is the subject, basically a room with minimal furniture, and in front of that is a second element, like hands holding a tablet or a smartphone. What strategy do you use to create your stock images with that system?

Stock image of a Tablet PC framing a kitchen

Those images are created in post-production; the background is all virtual, while the hands and any objects (tablets, smartphones etc.) are photographs positioned to achieve a realistic perspective. Then, the different levels are edited using photo editing software.

Generally, I upload both the background image and the various versions generated from it.

From a single image, create the variants

Other images are created by editing the same subject rendered several times, using the different types of render Cinema 4d allows you to make. For example, a "sketch mode" render, which simulates a hand-made design, side by side with a photorealistic render, to simulate the transition from the idea to the final work.

Let's say that, in the end, I get a little bored with the usual renderings of interiors and, regardless of salability, I look for different ways to represent the same subject. These are also excellent tests that show whether or not a certain type of image is convenient to produce.

In addition to my personal need to diversify myself, I often search basic keywords (like “interior design”) on Shutterstock, try to understand which images sell the most and ask myself why. I happened to find great ideas even so.

The fact is that, after 11,000 images, the imagination begins to fade!!!

Producing more photos allows me to reuse a model that I have already created, saving time and sometimes creating good sales opportunities. It may happen that a "standard" image sells little or nothing, while the "reworked" version is more successful, but "clean" images, on average, have more success than those that are reworked, perhaps because they are less characterized in terms of meaning and therefore more appropriate in different situations.

The absence of people in the photos

Stock image of a kitchen published on Shutterstock

In your more than 11 thousand stock images, there are no people. Why?

It is not a choice; it is my fault.

I've been thinking about adding human figures to my renderings for a long time, which is technically very simple for me in terms of production. My problem is that, to get a credible result, the inserted person would need to be taken from a very similar perspective and be illuminated just like the background, and since I am not confident with the camera, many of my images would take multiple attempts and a great deal of time to get right.

I haven't tried it yet, that's all. Maybe, sooner or later, I'll do it. However, I believe it could be worthwhile in terms of earnings.

The typical mistakes of microstock newbies

What are the mistakes you made at the beginning, and what mistakes are made by those that start their careers as contributors today?

I don't know what the most common mistakes are. You are certainly more qualified than me to answer that question.

I can tell you though that, at the beginning, I also fell into the mistake that you talk about the most: focusing on quality rather than quantity.

I used to seek perfection in all the work I did until I discovered microstock. So, at the beginning,

I didn't upload the stock images that I didn't like.

I had to change my mind when I realized that the images which sold were not only the images I thought were good. Sometimes it has happened that I’ve sold more an image that I considered mediocre compared to images I would have used for my work portfolio.

My best seller is not at all one of my favorite creations, and for a thousand reasons I would not have bet a dollar on its success.

Once I understood this, it took very little effort to adapt my workflow. I started to upload all of my work, and also to create versions (in terms of design, colors and styles) far from what I would consider professional as an architect, because the world is big, and not everyone appreciates clean, ultra-white and minimal design as I do.

Stock image of a room during a restoration published on Shutterstock

I have noticed that countries like India and those in the Middle East appreciate saturated color and “heavy” design (on the Shutterstock homepage, there's a map where you can see where buyers are located). So, I learned to also create interior renders that make me horrified, and that I would be ashamed to propose to a client who asks me for an interior design consultancy.

As for the need to find your own niche, it is certainly fundamental, but I have nothing to teach from this point of view because I already had mine (from my work and my education) before I started to sell on microstocks.

The importance of keywording

Your keywording and titles are perfect, both in the quality of English (you're a non-native speaker, like I am) and the terms you used. In your opinion, how important is that aspect in order to sell?

I believe that it is fundamental. An image with great sales potential can easily disappear amongst the millions in collections, and when this happens, it does not produce profits.

I use keyword suggestions, but I also studied a lot to speak good English. I use a good translator for the few terms that I don't remember.

Then I use software that embeds the title and the keywords in the image metadata in order to speed up the insertion in all the stocks. Furthermore, in my opinion, it’s an excellent idea to observe which keywords are used by Shutterstock’s top sellers with subjects similar to mine, because the choice of the right keywords increases sales.

How to deal with licenses

Most of your photos are sold with a commercial license. Can you explain what's the policy in terms of licensing with the kinds of images you produce?

Not all the microstocks require the release for 3D rendered images. For example, Adobe Stock does not require it.

For those agencies that ask, like Shuttertsock, uploading the document is not time consuming because it is not required for each image. You need just a single release for any batch (on it you have to report the license number of the software you are using to avoid piracy). So, it takes very little time.

Licenses for furniture

Stock image of a bathroom published on Shutterstock

As for the furnishing elements, yes, there are problems with licenses because you cannot use 3D models acquired by third parties, even if they have been regularly purchased. So, all the models I use are created by me.

Over time, I have created a stock library that allows me to vary my images enough. What has recently been happening is that particularly well-known design objects, such as a lamp or a sofa created by great designers (regardless of who made the 3D model), are rejected by the agencies for copyright issues. When this happens, you have 3 options:

  • stop using them
  • change the 3d model a little
  • replace them with something less well known

The thousand job opportunities of the new world

You are an example that those who say it is impossible to live with the microstock business today do not know what they are talking about.

You work as freelancer, from a small country like Italy, and produce only stock images (not stock footage), but you get a salary every month and, I think, do a job you like.

What do you suggest to a person who discovers the microstock business today and wants to work hard to reach your level of profits?

With microstock (as with all the work I've done, and also when I was a student) I have always been very strict and uncompromising. My advice is just this: think about it, and then decide if you really want to try.

Of course, you can decide to do something else with your life, but if you decide to try your hand at the microstock business, it is impossible to earn certain figures with little effort.

This is a job, like so many, and you have to:

  • wake up early in the morning
  • work 8-10 hours a day
  • study, update, improve

If there is still a chance of success, I think this is the only way to understand it. The bad thing is that it is not guaranteed, but that's how all businesses work.

The future of microstock

What will happen to microstock is one of my greatest concerns because I am focusing a lot of my energy on this business. The evolution of all industries based on technology is too fast to foresee.

Obviously, it's easy to double your profits when you have 100 images and you upload 100 new ones. But when you have 10,000, selling another 100 does not make any difference because the increase in earnings starts to become imperceptible in the short term.

After paying your expenses and taxes, the net earnings do not allow you to live a rich life, especially if you think of all the hours dedicated to this business. But it is a job that I like, and I am optimistic.

Associated producers

There are contributor accounts who have:

  1. an impressive number of images
  2. portfolios that contains discrete photorealistic renderings along with excellent shots taken outdoors or indoors with models

I doubt those accounts are only contributed to by single freelancers. I believe they are companies that have made microstock their business. Perhaps this could be an idea for me: associating with other producers who are good at subjects that I'm not able to produce, or hiring them, or buying the rights to their stock images.

I don't know. But this strategy could be an interesting way to gain a better ranking in the results shown to buyers, as the most "active" producers are preferred, and so being part of an "associated producers account” would, in theory, increase the number of average sales.

Unfortunately, I don't know anyone to partner with. I tried several times to involve friends, photographers, even unemployed ones, and simply recommended becoming a microstock contributor, but despite having seen the profits I am reaching, people are always a bit skeptical. I don't understand the reason.

Stock image of a bathroom published on Shutterstock

Final suggestions

I believe that:

  1. understanding the market’s needs
  1. keeping up to date on new technologies

will be necessary to remain competitive.

Finally, I suggest that those who want to seriously try to make money with microstock keep track of their uploads and their sales month by month. I do it with a simple spreadsheet where it is also possible to create graphs that immediately represent the figures. It is a very useful tool to help to understand:

  • how things are going
  • which agencies are the best
  • what the relationship is between the number of images uploaded and sales

 

An interview by Daniele Carrer, originally published in Italian on this page.

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