Can I earn some money with my hobby?

Author: Pieter De Pauw


Yes, for sure you can.  Though, you won’t get rich overnight either.


There are many different ways to sell your pictures on-line, and many articles and blog posts have been written on this topic.  In this article, I will talk about stock photography and focus on a couple of must do’s.


In the first year when I started selling my pictures, I earned around $500 with selling existing pictures via stock photography sites; enough to buy some nice filters, but for sure not enough to feed my family J…  Let me explain what I did and learned over the past years.  I never needed the money (I have a well-paid job), but participating challenged me over and over again to go for the best –technical perfect- picture and get to know my camera better.  And, I must say, that it did (and still does) give me a kick when I sell one of my pictures!


First, always go for technical perfection.

I had a decent set of qualitative pictures from the past 8 years (around 100 approx), and started to carefully inspect them and did some limited image processing.  Some of those images got accepted and started to sell, others got rejected for obvious or less obvious reasons…


Soon I learned that every single picture would need be checked and processed as follows: 

- Disregard too light or too dark pictures (check histogram!)

- Ensure 100% sharp picture, inspect sharpness at 100% zoom, don’t even spend time to process an un-sharp picture.

Inspect noise-levels at 100% zoom.  You can easily remove some level of noise  coming from higher ISO alues, or related to post-processing without making the picture look artificial.

Inspect high-contrast areas at 100% zoom (e.g. the contours of an object against the bright sky), check for lens aberration (e.g. purple contours on blacks), and de-fringe where needed.

Inspect the white-balance; whites need to be white!  You can correct easily if you shoot in RAW.

Remove any noise and small imperfections (e.g. lens dust, midges passing by)

Enhance without overdoing:

  • Increase/decrease contrast
  • Increase/decrease vibrance
  • Increase/decrease saturation


Note that most of those corrections impacts the technical quality, so never over-do them

When I shoot, I always try to shoot at ISO 100 (or max up to ISO 400 for moving animals).  I select AV on my camera so I can decide the depth of field in my image.  For wildlife, I go for limited depth of field (typically f/1.8 – f/5.6, depending on which lens I use) so I have fast shutter speed, whilst for landscapes I go in most cases for smaller apertures (typically f/11) and use a tripod and cable release.


Try, try, try, and learn, learn, learn! Try to duplicate some images you’ve seen from others, and experiment.  This is the best way to get to know your camera.


Secondly, go for shots visualizing ideal situations.

Agencies using visuals or images do this primarily to sell… (sell products, services, ideas,...), hence the pictures they want to use need to create –in most of the instances- a positive reaction or emotions.  For this, ideal situations usually score better.


Now, thinking about ideal situations: the sky will be blue (might have some white clouds), the grass will be green and flowers are flowering without having withered.  Even better if there is a setting sun, and a turquoise beach… !  Think you get the point.    Have a look at the best-selling images of some of the key stock agencies, and you will understand what scores best.


Thirdly, composition counts.

Yes, composition is key since better compositions have stronger appeal (and thus more commercial value).  Use the rule of thirds, and try to add lines to your shot.  Go for contrasts that highlight the subject (e.g. colored flower on a black background).


Next, leave enough space for text on the image.  Don’t crop too much!   That space will be used by agencies to put some text (e.g. the name of a hotel).


Last but not least, spend time on key-wording

Key-wording is important.  The factual elements are easy, but spend some time on words related to conceptual ideas like e.g. meditation, perfection, or emotions like e.g. anger, fear, happiness.   Have a look at the keywords of some of the better selling images; in most of the cases, you will see that the number of keywords is limited, though the range of the used words is wide.


When I started, I first submitted my images to Fotolia and Bigstockphoto. I sold one image within a day at Fotolia, but didn’t sell anything for a month at Bigstockphoto. I submitted to other agencies as well, like Shutterstock, Istockphoto, Canstockphoto, Dreamstime, Depositphotos,…


The funniest thing, is that my image of the Great White Shark Attack which makes approx half of my sales, got approved by Fotolia and Istockphoto, but never got approved by Shutterstock or Bigstockphoto.  The approval pattern is not very consistent across agencies, but this is one of downsides of stock photography one needs to live with.


Good luck - Pieter