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Can You Make Money Selling Stock Photography? – Pros & Cons

Are you weighing the pros and cons of starting a side gig to augment your income from full-time employment or business activity?

Do you enjoy taking photos and fancy yourself a natural?

If you’ve answered “yes” to all these questions, a side gig as a stock photographer could be in the cards. Although stock photography doesn’t make our list of the top side gigs, it’s a viable pursuit for hardworking photographers with some combination of innate talent and willingness to learn what it takes to make money with stock photography.

To be clear, stock photography is not for everyone. It’s a time-consuming side gig that’s difficult to break into and provides no income guarantees. Many would-be stock photographers lose patience with the gig before amassing a stock library large enough to generate significant monthly income.

Stock photography won’t make you rich either. Many stock photographers do earn thousands of dollars per year from stock photography, with a lucky few clearing tens of thousands. But relatively few earn enough to quit their day jobs — although, for many, those “day jobs” are other photography gigs.

Torn between the appeal of earning money for the photos you take and the often less-than-glamorous reality of stock photography? Read on for a more detailed overview of the major upsides and downsides of pursuing stock photography as a side gig.

Benefits of Stock Photography As a Side Gig

For successful stock photographers — which includes those with a nonmonetary conception of “success” — stock photography has a number of potential benefits. The big ones include the potential to earn serious income and advance one’s photography career over time, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that photography is fun — and, with careful planning, could have tax benefits.

1. You Could Earn Significant Residual Income Over Time

Stock photography cannot credibly be described as a source of passive income —that is, income that requires little to no labor to produce. Indeed, stock photography is quite labor-intensive.

However, for talented and prolific photographers at least, stock photography is absolutely a legitimate source of residual income: income that continues to roll in for months or even years after the initial income-producing activity. Stock photographers earn money every time one of their photos sells, and because demand never wanes for photos of durable, popular subjects — think abstractions like a coffee mug next to a notebook and pen — a sizable inventory of such photos can produce hundreds of dollars in income every month.

2. It’s a Fun, Potentially Lifelong Hobby

Set aside the direct financial benefits of stock photography for a moment. Even if you don’t make enough from your stock photography hobby to cover your equipment and travel costs, the activity itself has inherent value. You probably wouldn’t consider a labor-intensive side gig like stock photography if you didn’t enjoy taking photos in the first place. And because photography isn’t especially demanding in a physical sense — exotic, on-location nature shoots and adventure-sports photography notwithstanding — it can be a true lifelong pursuit.

3. It Could Lead to Higher-Paying or More Prestigious Gigs

“Microstock” websites like Shutterstock and iStock are fairly accessible for newer photographers looking to break into stock photography. If you know basically how to operate a digital camera and compose a quality shot, and if you can follow these websites’ reasonable submission guidelines, you should have no trouble getting your photos approved.

The higher echelons of the photography industry are much more competitive. That includes “macrostock” websites like Getty Images and Alamy, whose contributors tend to be professionals or serious hobbyists with expensive equipment and talent to match; as well as contract gigs like magazine shoots, photojournalism, and wedding and event photography. Photographers rarely break into these niches without prior experience.

Often, that prior experience is relatively low-paying stock photography work for microstock sites. Build up an attractive body of work that sells, promote yourself through a personal website, and photographer-friendly freelance websites like Upwork, and relentlessly apply for gigs — that’s how you move up in this business.

4. It Could Turn Into a Full-Time Business

Many stock photographers prefer to keep things casual — shooting and submitting occasionally without quitting their day jobs. This approach caps income potential and limits visibility in the marketplace, but that’s fine by photographers uninterested in taking the next step.

However, if you do aspire to work full-time as a photographer, stock photography is a good entry point, not least because it validates your talent — assuming your photos sell.

5. It Could Reduce Your Income Tax Bill

A side gig can impact your taxes in multiple ways, not all of them positive. In temporarily eliminating a key tax deduction for folks with financially draining spare-time pursuits, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 compels hobbyists to treat their hobbies as businesses. This means accounting for revenues and expenses, including costs related to qualifying business use of the home and depreciation for equipment, to preserve potential business tax deductions.

The silver lining here is that, if you treat stock photography as a legitimate side business, you could reap substantial tax benefits. Common business deductions for stock photographers include:

  • Housing payments, utilities, and other overhead costs related to a qualifying home office or studio used exclusively for business purposes
  • Equipment costs, either depreciated over time (more likely for expensive equipment like cameras and computers) or deducted in the tax year incurred (more likely for less expensive accessories and software)
  • Travel expenses incurred for trips or excursions devoted to photography, including airfare, vehicle mileage or car rental expenses, lodging, and certain incidental expenses

Talk to a tax professional about how to claim these and other potential business deductions without running afoul of current tax law.

Downsides of Stock Photography As a Side Gig

Making a living or even earning significant income as a stock photographer takes real work — like “hundreds and hundreds of hours over several years” work. Unless you have a nice camera and accessories already, it’s also fairly expensive to get started, and you won’t see real income for months unless you’re extremely lucky. Get ready for intense competition, even at the industry’s lower rungs, and difficulty breaking into higher-paying gigs.

1. Getting Started Is Expensive

Unless you have a high-quality camera already, launching a stock photography side gig is not cheap, notwithstanding potential tax deductibility. Expect to pay several hundred dollars for a decent digital camera and significantly more than that for recommended-but-not-required equipment and accessories like external lighting and a tripod. You’re not guaranteed to make back this initial investment, and even if you eventually do, the hit to your budget or cash reserves could be painful in the meantime.

2. The Stock Photography Business Is Extremely Competitive

Although it’s not difficult for photographers with decent skills and equipment to get microstock websites to approve at least some of their photo submissions, mere approval does not guarantee income. Microstock (and some macrostock) websites often have millions of photos in their archives — a big selling point for buyers but clearly a disadvantage for new photographers struggling to get noticed.

3. You’re Unlikely to Earn Much Early On

New stock photographers don’t earn much early on due to the stock photography business’s intense competitive landscape, often low microstock commissions — anywhere from 15% to more than 50% of the sale price — and the time required to build a library of hundreds or thousands of stock photos available for sale. Unless you’re lucky, your gross income from stock photography is unlikely to pick up until your personal library numbers in the hundreds of images.

4. Earning Significant Income From Microstock Requires a Major Time Commitment

It bears repeating that earning significant income as a stock photographer requires a major time commitment in the early going — a period measured in years for most aspiring photographers. If your aim is to build a library featuring at least 1,000 unique photos within two to four years — what you’ll likely need to earn at least $500 per month in residual income from microstock sales alone — you should expect to devote several hours per week shooting, editing, and submitting photos.

5. Most Successful Stock Photographers Work With Human Subjects and/or Travel Regularly

Your earnings as a stock photographer depend to a great degree on how much you’re willing and able to devote to the enterprise. Stock photographers who travel to exotic locations, wait days or weeks for unusual weather events, or feature human subjects in their work tend to do better than those content not to go too far out of their way. Regular travel requires financial resources beyond the capacity of many aspiring photographers; patience demands a time commitment that many can’t meet; and human subjects need to be paid or convinced to waive their legal rights to their likenesses.

Final Word

Stock photography is not the ideal side gig for everyone. It has a number of drawbacks that shouldn’t be minimized: relatively high startup costs, intense competition, slow initial earnings, and onerous demands on serious stock photographers’ time. Given these and other barriers to entry, no one would blame you for passing on stock photography.

Yet stock photography’s very competitiveness makes abundantly clear that stock photography is a viable, even lucrative side gig for countless hobbyists. For a lucky few, it holds the promise of consistent, full-time income without the 40-hour (or longer) workweek.

One thing is beyond dispute: No matter how talented or lucky you are, creating a self-sustaining stock photography business takes time — years — and hundreds of hours of work. Whether that’s fine by you will probably determine whether you’re willing to give it a go.

Are you considering a gig as a stock photographer? Does it seem worth your time?

Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.
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