Can You Make Passive Income Selling Your Existing Photographs Online?

Passive income, the Holy Grail of personal finances. Who wouldn’t want to make money from all those old photos without having to lift a finger? With that in mind, I’m going to share with you my own experiences as a casual photographer selling my existing back catalog of digital photos online. It’s been an interesting experience to say the least and I even made a little money.

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself — Eleanor Roosevelt 


We’ve all thought at some point that some of those photos that we quite like might be worth something to someone? I bet a lot of people would love that vacation photo you took last year hanging on their wall, you know the one that got all those likes on Facebook.
Like most photographers I have annoyed my friends and family while on a trip or vacation by spending more time than they will happily tolerate waiting for a shot. As a result of irritating my nearest and dearest for over a decade, I have a whole lot of images that I like but can’t do much with once I’ve posted them on social media and enjoyed the dopamine hit of double-digit likes.

Over the past year, with all the changes to how we can and can’t work, I got to seriously thinking about how to make some money out of this archive of photos which are “not too bad”. I know there’s a market for selling high quality prints online but that would require some continued effort on my part. I’d have to print, frame, and send the prints out to customers. For the sake of this article I’m looking at passive income where the process is automated, customers make a purchase, they get digital files and I get money. This experiment is really the yard sale of e-commerce.

Where To Start?

First I had to find a selection of images that people might like to buy. I’m trying to make money from photos I already have so I started by going through my archive. This was a little time-consuming as I like to back up everything that is on the card when I get home. Fortunately, I was able to be quite ruthless in recognizing that some of those old photos definitely weren’t as good as I thought they were when I took them.


While looking for potential images to sell it’s worth considering that you may not have release forms for every person or location if they weren’t originally taken for commercial reasons. This was the case for most of the images in my archive that featured people. I didn’t want to start harassing my friends with release forms for historic shoots. Introducing money to friendships, in my experience, can be a bad idea so I stayed away from anything with people in.


Throughout my life I have been lucky enough to travel a lot with work, I always have a camera with me but I’m really not a landscape photographer, so the options from my archive might be somewhat limited. I chose a few images from a road trip along old Route 66, New York street photography, as well as a selection of sunsets and unused food photography from an old project that never went anywhere.

Where Can I Sell My Photos?

With my photos selected now, I had to choose a platform to sell them on and there’s a lot of choices when it comes to microstock libraries. Some are more strict than others with the types of image they’ll accept. I decided to try two quite different platforms to sell images on: EyeEm and Etsy

For those who haven’t heard of it, EyeEm is a cross between Instagram and a stock library; you can share images, follow other creators, like and comment on images, as well as choose which of your images you’d like to list for sale. EyeEm also lists a selection of images on other stock libraries such as Getty Images. The process with EyeEm was as simple as uploading the images, adding some tags and leaving the site to do the rest. 

Etsy is a little different as it’s more commonly used for crafters to sell hand made trinkets. You’ve probably seen the girl from your class in school posting on social media trying to sell her wax melts on Etsy for the past year. Etsy is useful to this test as it also allows you to sell digital files, these files can be uploaded then automatically sent to your buyer with money sent to you via Paypal on a weekly basis.


Setting up an Etsy store took a lot longer than simply uploading my images to EyeEm. I had to create a store listing for each image with not only a (watermarked) copy of the image but also mock-ups of how the image will look in a frame. It was very important to include in the description that this was a digital download as well as information on where the customer might get prints made. As an additional selling point, I set the store up so that each purchase sent the customer 3 high-resolution files cropped to common aspect ratios — 3:4, 4:5 & ISO paper size — so there’s no technical requirement from them at all. Creating all these files and populating the store took quite a lot of time but the pay-off is that I can set my own prices.

It’s no secret that the prices being paid for stock photos has dropped significantly over the past few years so I don’t expect to retire on the income from my old images, but I definitely won’t turn down real money for images that are just gathering virtual dust on my archive drive. I have no control over the prices paid for my images on EyeEm but I set the downloads on Etsy to $5 per purchase. In the interest of fairness, I posted the same images to both sites with the same keywords. Etsy allows more keywords as you can choose categories, themes, and even what the primary color of your image is.

Show Me the Money!

This is probably the most important part, how much money did I make? I made a grand total of $42 from EyeEm with the first sale in week one for $30 and a slow stream of sales after that for as little as 10 cents. Despite Etsy taking a little more effort to get set up, I made $4 in week one with no further sales to date. I’m actually super happy with this result as that’s $46 that I didn’t have before from digital copies of images I had taken over the past decade. Hopefully, the money will continue to trickle in indefinitely!

Now for the Really Interesting Part: Which Photos Sold Best?

Included in the photos for sale were two of my favorite photographs, one image of the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari at sunset and another of a New York street. The Blue Swallow at sunset is my all-time favorite photograph. It was taken in 2016, we were driving the entirety of Historic Route 66 and I had always planned to get a shot of this motel. We’d gone for a cookout at the motel while waiting for the sun to set, while eating smores around the campfire I planned my shot, deciding where to stand to see the sunset behind the motel. By sheer chance, a huge storm rolled in as the sun was setting, I only managed to get a few shots before quickly packing up my gear and sprinting to the car as rain of biblical proportions came pouring from the sky. It was a truly exciting moment on a real adventure of a trip. I love this photograph so much that I have a large canvass print on my bedroom wall.

The biggest seller and highest-grossing image to date is a photograph of a carrot on a white background. I took this photo as a lighting test before a product shoot for a food company, I have no emotional attachment to this image and almost didn’t include it. I hadn’t considered that potential customers don’t have the same emotional attachment to the images as I do. The carrot is a better stock image by far as easy to cut out and use with a great number of design possibilities.

The New York street shot was the first image to sell on Etsy. The Blue Swallow image, my personal favourite shot ever, is yet to sell a single copy.

Conclusion

You can definitely make some money with your old vacation images or some of those shots of household objects we take when testing out a new piece of kit. It's not likely going to be enough to retire on but you might get a few cups of coffee out of them.

As with all things, if you want to make money at selling stock images then you're going to have to take it seriously consider your audience, plan your images and market them on an appropriate stock image library. Despite the prices going down, there are still photographers making a decent income from stock libraries.

Now all that’s left for me to do is decide how to spend my $46 in lockdown!

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46 Comments

Bill Irwin's picture

Getting a "nose" for what sells is important if you want to do Stock Photography. A late friend of mine was one of the top 5 stock photographers in the pre-digital days. He always knew what sold well and worked to get those kinds of images. Its important to know what is trending and work to get unique an salable images.

I like the idea of taking images that you have in your catalog from over the years. There are plenty of "Historical" images that people have taken that 30 years later will have far more value now than they did then.

Brad Wendes's picture

That’s a great point! I definitely found a new appreciation for stock photographers, there’s a skill involved in following the trends, planning your shots and marketing them appropriately.

It was fun to have a digital yard sale of my old photos but I wouldn’t ever say I really tried my hand at stock photography.
The earnings will buy some coffee and cake, so that’s a big win in my books

Jeff McCollough's picture

I cover my rent with stock photo sales. Yes, it's hard to get your numbers up there but it isn't impossible.

EyeEM made some recent changes to pay us contributors less money like ShutterStock did last year so I wouldn't really recommend them anymore.

Brad Wendes's picture

Stock photo prices really have taken a tumble over the past few years. It’s great that you’re making it work, you must appreciate that it’s a lot harder than it used to be.
I’d agree about EyeEm, the income has dropped and the minimum withdrawal amount has gone up. I still have $4 in my account which I can’t get yet

Charles Mercier's picture

Then who would you recommend?

Brad Wendes's picture

Personally, I think there’s potential in Etsy. It requires a little more work to maintain and set up but you have complete control over how it’s marketed and the price.

Jeff McCollough's picture

There are tons of stock sites out there. If you can get in, Stocksy is a good option. AdobeStock earns me a lot of money each month and they give me CC for free each year.

Charles Mercier's picture

Thanks.

Brad Wendes's picture

How did you get on initially with Adobe Stock? It’s definitely on my mind to give it a whirl

Jeff McCollough's picture

Adobe is probably the best microstock agency out there right now. $0.33 per image is the minimum sale price there which is better than most other stock sites. Most of my sales are for about $1 each and sometimes more. I get a TON of sales on Adobe but stock is stock and well to make money you need to upload a lot of images and keep up with current trends. I do know that there are people who will keyword and upload for you for a fee per image which is good if you are going to do it on a professional level.

They say the real way to make money shooting stock photos is to shoot people (i.e. lifestyle photography) but I don't shoot people and I do pretty good as I mentioned above.

Once you hit 150 sales in a year you get a free year of CC which is a sweet bonus.

Brad Wendes's picture

Sounds great! With stock photos being so cheap these days, Adobe sounds like a good option!

Tom Reichner's picture

Jeff,

I sell thru Adobe Stock, too, and they also give me the CC for free. But even though I have a lot of sales there, the sales are never big. I mean, I never get a commission over $5.00.

On Shutterstock, every month I get several commissions that are over $20.00, and sometimes even an $80 or $100 commission. But never anything like that at all with Adobe Stock.

What is your experience with Adobe - do you get only small commissions, or do you sometimes get single commissions that are over $20 or over $50 or over $100?

Jeff McCollough's picture

Nothing ever over $100. If you want sales like that you'll have to look to something like Stocksy. I do get sales for about $40-50 on Adobe. This week I sold a 20 sec crappy video clip for $14 which was the first video clip I ever sold and it has motivated me to produce more video content. Pond5 is a much better place to sell videos though as you can make more money.

Tom Reichner's picture

Ok, but I am talking only about still images, NOT video footage.

On Shutterstock, I get sales (commissions) over $20 every week. On Adobe, I have yet to get a single sale (commission) over $5.

I like Adobe and the user interface the best, but Shutterstock is still making me significantly more money, on a per-image basis. I want it to be the other way around, but Adobe just isn't getting me as much income as Shutterstock.

Tom Reichner's picture

Jeff McCollough said,

"Stocksy is a good option."

Thank you for the recommendation, Jeff.

Got 'er done.

Charalampos Kiakotos's picture

Actually I have made an article in my own almost a week ago regarding the subject. (https://www.photokiakotos.com/the-photographers-blog/living) covering not only photography but also videography. Sorry if I violate any rule. In case I do it pls remove my post. Thank you.

Rhonald Rose's picture

I made more money with my pictures by directly marketing and selling than using these platforms.

Brad Wendes's picture

That’s really interesting to hear. Where do you sell them? Do you find digital images or prints fare better?

Rhonald Rose's picture

I use Facebook marketplace to sell pictures locally. I reach people though referrals, Instagram posts, nextdoor app posts and my website. Then I give away promotional prints to dental office with QR code till the store printed on it.

It's a hard work, but paying off right now. The hardest part is finding a printer who prints 40x30 in a good quality and cheaper. I sell 40x30 for the price of others selling their 24x16 (or equivalent) because of this. I don't discount and rather wait for the right customer.

I know a marketing guy directly license good images and makes good money instead of using these platforms.

Brad Wendes's picture

Sounds like you have a really effective setup there. You’re right, it sounds like hard work but it’s great to hear it’s paying off for you. The internet really has allowed creatives to take charge of their own work if they’re willing to put some effort in.
No agents needed any more, we’re living in the future!

Tom Reichner's picture

Yes, Rhonald, I know that more money can be made that way, but for me it takes a lot more work, and never gets to the place where it could be considered "passive" income.

At least with selling through agencies, you do the work once, when you first submit the images, and then you don't have to do any more marketing or emailing people or sending images to people. It is all "gravy" after the initial work.

I submitted a crapton of images to Shutterstock 9 years ago, and I am still getting a few hundred dollars every month from the couple weeks of work that I did way back in 2012.

I wouldn't recommend direct marketing of images to someone who is interested in passive photography income.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Yep, what you said is true. It is a hard work. Generally, the marketing guys can make direct licensing work easily since they know the nuances of marketing to attract the right people.

But as for my print photographs, it is a passive job for me and I don't spend that much of time (perhaps one hour per week in terms of planning).

Nevertheless, it does require some dedication.

jim hughes's picture

I'd like to sell on Etsy, but from what I've read from photographers that do, it's a major undertaking. Besides all the hoop-jumping to list, and the monthly fee for every 'product' listed, and the need to handle all the fulfillment, customer complaints and returns, there's the small matter of shipping. If you don't offer "free" shipping you basically don't show up in their search results. So you have to somehow fold shipping into your price. And how do you know the shipping cost in advance, for a big framed print, to wherever the buyer might be?

Brad Wendes's picture

You’re right about the fees, but at 0.20¢ per 999 items of digital inventory I felt it worthwhile for selling digital images.
Etsy might not be so appealing for selling prints or framed prints for the shipping issues you mentioned.
Setting up the account and the storefront was simple, the whole thing took an afternoon at most.
Etsy is definitely more work than regular stock libraries but you have the advantage of more control over marketing and price

jim hughes's picture

I'd heard 20 cents per item, didn't realize it was different for digital images. The platform might make sense for selling downloads, but what about licensing? Can you add a license agreement as a condition of sale?

Brad Wendes's picture

I was also surprised at the listing costs. It’s twenty cents per listing with as much stock as you like (up to 999 items in stock). This makes is a really reasonable proposition for digital sales as there isn’t any physical stock.
It would be different if you had real items to sell and had to manage stock and re-list each time.

Unfortunately you can’t enforce a license for each image but you can add written terms. I’ve listed all my images as “personal, non-commercial use only”. Occasional reverse Google searches of your own images can weed out infringement.

Tom Reichner's picture

It is interesting that you are trying to make money by selling your images for personal use only, and forbidding publication.

I make a fair percentage of my annual income by passively selling my existing images online, and at least 90% of my sales are licenses for use in publication. I can't imagine making enough sales to even survive if I limited it to personal use.

Are you concerned that your target market and intended usage is so limited that it is costing you a lot of potential income? Do you think that you could earn 5x or 10x more with the same images, if you were selling usage licenses for publication in advertisements and other similar uses?

Brad Wendes's picture

You’re absolutely right, I didn’t think that Etsy was the right platform for publication use though. If I sold on a more business facing platform the costs and license would be very different

flexible fotography's picture

good article but it's missing how much each of the websites costed for you.

Brad Wendes's picture

Glad you asked about the cost. EyeEm costs nothing but you get no say over sale price, they sell at whatever they think the rate is for the photo and use case. This resulted in some sales for $30 and some selling for 10cents.

Etsy is twenty cents per listing, up to 999 sales per listing. That’s pretty reasonable for the potential income

Frederic Hore's picture

"Who wouldn’t want to make money from all those old photos without having to lift a finger?"
Nice statement, but unfortunately, entirely untrue - as you have to put in hours and hours of work to list your images on too many of these ripoff "stock" companies, most of which are royalty free, for very poor remuneration.

What Brad has not mentioned, is how many images he has uploaded, the hours he put into listing the photos, the total he has had to payout for listing photos on sites like Etsy vs the income those photos have generated. As he pointed out, one site is holding onto his $4.00 in revenue. Honestly, some will not payout until you have earned a minimum of $50. Frankly, "The earnings will buy some coffee and cake, so that’s a big win in my books" as he wrote, is not good enough for me!

What most pro photographers do, myself included, is sell workshops and lead field trips for amateurs who want to learn how to improve their photography. I can make $1,000 on a day long workshop for 10 people, vs spending hundreds of hours uploading and keywording images on sites to make what... 33 cents per image, if you sell any?

Another way to make money, is to write and pitch stories with photos as a package to magazine editors. Of course, you have to be a good writer, however magazines and journals are always looking for new material. Many of them ask for pitches and solicitations on Twitter. On line magazines have become big and popular, and one can easily make $100 to $500 or more depending upon the topic and story.

Develop a niche and style that sells, and go after it.

Take care.
Frederic in Montréal.

Brad Wendes's picture

Thanks for such a detailed and considered reply. I agree completely with your first statement, that’s basically the same as the conclusion at the end of the article. We all know there’s no magic way to make money for nothing and as photographers we all appreciate the hours that go into actually producing images.
This article was a slightly lighthearted look at making some income from existing photos. As a one-off experiment I was happy to make any profit at all.
I absolutely have huge respect for anyone making a living from stock images, that’s a hard game.

Workshops are another great income stream although more limited in many places at present.

As for writing material for photographic publications, well I think that’s a great way to earn a few beans 😁

Tom Reichner's picture

Frederic Hore said,

"On line magazines have become big and popular, and one can easily make $100 to $500 or more depending upon the topic and story."

Hmmmmm. If Fstoppers is paying at least $100 USD, and up to $500 USD, for each and every article that these guys write, then I think I should have applied a couple weeks ago when they advertised an opening for a staff writer.

I assumed it would be very low pay, like $50 or $60 per article, and therefore I didn't take it seriously. Now I'm kinda kicking myself for not pursuing that opportunity.

Brad Wendes's picture

I couldn’t possibly comment on the pay scale for staff writers. But I don’t think any online publications are paying anywhere near $500 per article for regular news these days.

Tom Reichner's picture

I suspected that may be the case. What Frederic Hore said is something that sounded too good to be true ...... so perhaps it is too good to be true. Bummer. It'd be pretty sweet to crank out a couple articles each week and haul in a few hundred dollars per!

Frederic Hore's picture

Brad and Tom, online magazines usually pay a rate per word, anywhere from 10 cents to $1.00 per word. Or a flat rate, like $100 for an 800 word story. The more stories you have published, the more you make! Plus you can recycle stories to different publications, so an article I wrote to one outdoor travel mag, was rewitten with a different angle, and published again.

The bigger mags that have a print circulation as well as being online, pay the best. Is there competition for the work? Of course! However once you have established yourself as a good writer with good to excellent photos, and additionally can offer a complete package, you can make more money.

There are online courses that teach you how to write and pitch to magazines. If you have a particular interest, hobby, or activity you pursue, keep a journal and document it. Be a keen observer, talk to people, then turn it into words. Add relevant photos, and now you have a story to pitch, much as Brad did with his article here.

I worked as a photojournalist for eight years in Montreal by first sending in free photos from activities and news stories in the Montreal region to the Montreal Gazette. I kept pitching them, talking to the editor, and eventually after a couple of years, they took me on as a freelancer. With my foot now in the front door of the media world, I was then able to use my work with the Montreal Gazette to pitch to other mags. Its called building your cred (credibility).

All of this takes work. If you're in school, stay there and finish. If you are working, take online courses and learn as much as you can. Learn to write and pitch, as Brad has done here. And don't be shy to write on forums like f-toppers as I am now doing, as this gives you practice.

Above all, be kind, positive, and smile. It's infections - clients like to deal with people who are enthusiastic and friendly.

As Ben Franklin said, "nothing ventured, nothing gained!"

Cheers from Montréal.

Brad Wendes's picture

Thanks for such a detailed reply Frederic. I’m really glad that this article has prompted so much discussion, and the amount of useful advice given in the comments. This will be very helpful for anyone looking to make an income from photography in areas other than taking photos directly for clients.
I hope my next original article is received so well, most of my articles are written on my own experiences and mistakes I have made along the way.

Jeff McCollough's picture

"I can make $1,000 on a day long workshop for 10 people"

That's not really good. :/

Joe Bodego's picture

Any photographer who thinks he or she can make a living selling photos is living in a "Fool's Paradise". Reason being is the "Phone Camera" and how good they are. If you (Mr. Photographer) thinks with your $5,000 camera and fancy lights you have an advantage to the person with an Iphone or an android, you're again living in a Bigger "Fool's Paradise". I look at my 50 thousand dollars worth of camera gear gathering dust and realize that their time has passed and thank heavens. I am inundated with the myriad of cameras out there, the mirror less, the frame rate, the lenses, all of that nonsense that i fell for 5 years ago only to be replaced by an android phone is reality. The so called professional photographer was always a myth, and in this pandemic its even more pronounced. I know because i saw the wedding photos of my fried who just got married in the domonican republic, all shot on an Iphone and they look amazing,

Brad Wendes's picture

That's an interesting point. The saying that "the best camera is the one in your hand" has never been more true. Mobile devices and computational photography play a big part in modern photography.
I don't think there's any replacement for experience though, a wedding photographer with an iPhone still needs to be in the right place at the right time and know what to shoot.
Perhaps we're seeing the death of readily available $5000 camera bodies for consumers, I very much doubt we'll see sports photographers with iPhones any time soon though.
It's probably also worth noting that the latest iPhone costs twice what my first DSLR cost.

Tom Reichner's picture

I have several friends who make their living solely by selling their stock photos of wild animals and birds. They make a good living, too - more income than most people have. They are financially and professionally successful. They make 100% of their income from selling stock photos, and do not do workshops, tours, assignments, etc.

So you are saying this is a "fool's paradise", yet it seems that there are parts of the photographic industry that you are completely unfamiliar with, because your "fool's paradise" is a pretty nice reality for some folks.

Before you make blanket statements, you should learn more about which you speak of.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I pay my rent with stock photos so you're mistaken :)

Joe Bodego's picture

You are a lucky and fortunate man, you should buy a lottery ticket. I am glad for you

Jeff McCollough's picture

If it were luck I would only sell a few images here and there. I make an income from stock sales. It's like any job, you need to do market research, put in the hours and then you will see it grow.

Adam Taylor's picture

I shoot interiors and architecture and have developed systems to make my sales very efficient... For example, I can sell a photo of a kitchen I shot for an architect to the cabinet company, faucet company, appliance company, tile company, etc. There's work involved, but it's making me a lot of money when I'm not out shooting! If you get creative, there are definitely people willing to pay for the images you have!

Brad Wendes's picture

Great advice! Considered photography with planning and forethought seems to be especially important when looking to sell your images. Thanks for sharing your experience