I made a living as a photographer when you still needed to develop your film and print black and whites in a darkroom.
Intellectual property is one of the best assets that you can have to make passive income.
Intellectual property comes in many forms: books or screenplays you have written, painting or graphic arts, photography and filming.
Ideally, you work to produce the intellectual property asset up front so that you can reap the benefits later, making money year after year as the intellectual property is being used and enjoyed by others.
One very popular way of getting passive income from intellectual property is by taking photographs and selling them online as stock images. You do not even need to have a DSLR camera to get started. There are more and more mobile phones out there that are sufficiently equipped to do a good job making stock photos using their built-in camera. The great thing about using a mobile phone as your camera is that you always have it on you and you will never miss an opportunity to take a beautiful picture when you see it.
Making a Passive Income With Photography
Photographers sometimes make pictures by commission. A client will ask a photographer to take pictures at a wedding or on some other occasion, or maybe make a portrait. Stock photography started when photographers were still printing images on paper. After doing commissioned work they were left with some prints that were not used by the client because they were not relevant.
For example, if a client didn't appreciate a picture of a beautiful tree, taken at a wedding, instead of discarding the photo the photographer might sell these pictures to agencies that would re-sell them to newspapers magazines or other printed media.
Today many online agents allow you to sell your images. As the photographer, you will always hold the copyright. But through these agents, you can sell to other people the right to use the images.
Stock photography started as a side business for regular photographers. but nowadays stock photography is a business on its own. Many photographers travel the world taking beautiful pictures and living off the money they make selling these pictures online through online stock image agencies.
So can anyone be a stock photographer?
Anyone can be a stock image photographer or anyone can at least become a really good stock photographer.
However, there are some minimum requirements that stock photos need to meet. Besides being pleasing to look at aesthetically, the photograph needs to be of perfect technical quality.
Modern cameras can do many things on autopilot to make the best pictures possible. Still, you need to understand how photography works in order to make the best possible technical quality pictures. This may not be important when you take pictures for yourself or a direct client, who might be most interested in the artistic quality of your work, but it is very important for stock photography images.
Clients that buy stock images need to be able to work with the images the way they see fit. Therefore stock image agencies have guidelines for the quality of the work.
Minimum Requirements for Stock Photos
Here are most agents' minimum requirements for good quality stock images, that will have your work be accepted by most agents:
- Minimum of 6.3 Megapixels images, delivered as high res RGB jpeg files.
- A pleasing photo composition. You can achieve this almost always by applying the rule of the thirds (see tips section) to your compositions while framing the pictures as you shoot them or as you process and crop them afterward.
- Maintain sharp focus, unless out-of-focus is intentionally used, for instance for texture or background images. Always check the sharpness of the image in 100% zoom.
- Do not use too many filters. Clients that buy the stock image need to be able to apply their own filters to the image as they see fit. Using filters for corrections is fine, but do not overdo it.
- Ensure that white balance and color are correct.
- Noise-free and grain-free
- Make sure that the images you submit are copyright-free. This means that there cannot be any brand names or logos on the image. Also, avoid shooting landmarks (like for instance the Empire State Building) or singling out modern architecture buildings. When photographing identifiable people or locations you need to have a release form signed by the people in the picture or the owner of the location.
10 Tips for Taking Stock Photos That Sell
Here are a few tips that will help you get the best results with your smartphone camera.
1. Use the "rule of thirds" for pleasing compositions
The rule of thirds is there to help you make better compositions.
We humans have a certain preference for how things should look. The rule of thirds is one of the main rules everyone instinctively looks for.
Do the following to work with the rule of thirds: draw two horizontal and two vertical lines over your image like in the game of tic tac toe. Some camera applications will allow you to do this while you are shooting. Now the rule of thirds dictates that the most prominent item in your picture must be located at one of the four points where the lines cross. This generally results in a nicely balanced image.
2. Clean the lens
You carry your phone around everywhere, and mostly in your pocket, right? As you use the phone throughout the day all kinds of dirt, grease, or smudges might get onto the lens of the camera.
So always clean the lens before you start taking pictures to make sure that amazing picture does not end up with unintended cloudiness from grease stains.
3. Use manual focus whenever possible
Most or all phone cameras come with autofocus. Some are really good. Still, if you want to be sure that your image is in focus where it should be, use manual focus, because it is always more accurate.
4. Steady yourself
Mobile phones are much smaller and lighter than DSLR cameras and are therefore more susceptible to a shaky hand. And especially when there is not too much light, it will improve the image quality to steady the camera. Just lean on or against something. Or if you have it, use a (mini) tripod.
5. Use natural light as much as possible: Do not use flash
Built-in flash usually makes images look flat and without much detail. This can be used as an artistic effect, but in general, images look better with natural lighting. Of course, if there is no light at all, by all means, try to use the flash.
The best natural light is at the "golden hours": one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. At these times of the day, there is usually enough light, while the light is never too hard. Remember even a not-so-good camera can perform well in an optimal lighting situation.
6. Always use manual settings
Take control. See if your camera comes with a "professional" mode that will allow you to set all the settings individually.
The three basic settings that matter the most:
- Shutter Speed
ISO. ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor that captures the light. Always start by setting the lowest ISO possible. The lower the setting of the ISO, the more light you need to capture an image, but also the less noise will be in the image. And this is what we want. We want as little noise as possible. So start with the lowest ISO setting and see if you can take the picture. If there is not enough light, switch to one setting higher. Once you have decided on the ISO, you can start playing with the aperture and shutter speed combinations.
Aperture. Aperture defines the amount of light that is led in through the lens. A low aperture allows more light through the lens then a high aperture.
Shutter speed. You can compensate for the aperture setting with an appropriate shutter speed. So a lower aperture would require a higher shutter speed to achieve balanced lighting. However, sometimes you want to either choose a specific aperture or a specific shutter speed.
For instance, you want to use a low aperture if you want to have little depth of field. In other words, if you want your main object to be in focus while having a blurry background. If, on the other hand, you want everything in your picture to be in focus, you would need to choose a high aperture setting.
The shutter speed can be a leading setting as well, for instance when you are taking action shots. If you are moving your camera around while snapping away, you need to keep the shutter speed at least 1/20.
A note on aperture and depth of field with mobile phone cameras: Almost all mobile phone camera lenses come with fixed aperture. This can be a limitation. But with some of these phone cameras you can still achieve effects like shallow depth of field to get a blurry background, aka bokeh effect. Usually, this is done with software and/or the use of two lenses, where one lens is focussing on the forefront while the other remains focused to infinity. The camera software then merges the two images into one in order to create the desired effect.
9. Use more megapixels
Get a camera with the highest possible MegaPixel sensor you can get and with the best possible lens your money can buy. Of course, you need creativity and a good eye to make good pictures, but the better your hardware, the more room it gives you to maneuver when you make mistakes.
10. Save in RAW format if you can
Save your images in raw format. Most non-professional cameras save your images in a compressed format like JPG. When you do this, the image information is interpreted by your camera's software and a lot of information is discarded and not stored in the image file. This makes it hard to make adjustments to the image later.
If you save your images in a raw format like DNG, then you will have all the information of the image available when you later want to re-adjust the color or white balance for instance. So if your camera has the ability to store the raw image data, then use it.
Avoiding Copyright Issues
Avoid taking pictures of landmarks, modern architecture, people and identifiable locations if possible. This will avoid copyright issues. If you do want to work with a model in your pictures ask for a friend or family member and have them fill out a model release form before you start shooting pictures.
Mobile Phone Specs for Stock Photography
Let's look at what you need in terms of specifications of your phone in order for it to work well as a stock photo camera.
- Your phone will need to have enough memory to store many large image files on your phone. If your phone does not have a lot of internal storage, consider buying the largest possible SD-CARD as external storage.
- The camera will need a minimum of ten MegaPixel (10MP) sensor. Basically, the more megapixels and the more memory you have, the better of you are.
- Also, try to get a phone with a raw image capture capability. Raw image capture on the iPhone is officially supported from IOS 10. This feature has been released by Google for Android phones as of Lollipop 5.0 in the form of the camera2 API. However, many phone manufacturers have not immediately implemented this API. So check if your Android phone supports raw image capture. The easiest way to do this is to install the open source app OpenCamera. This app will not only provide you with a professional mode, but if the camera2 API has been implemented on your phone you will have the option to hook into it and capture your images in raw format.
Free Software for Processing Stock Images
The de facto standard for image processing is arguably Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. And although these products are very good, there are also very capable free and open source alternatives that will get you started.
As an alternative to Lightroom there are:
And as an alternative to Photoshop you can consider:
Stock Image Agencies
Now all you need is an agency to where you can start uploading your images. Here are a few agencies that are reasonably accessible for mobile photography when it comes to quality standard. Use these to upload your images and receive feedback and learn:
- Dreamstime You can upload via web or FTP. They also have an app that allows you to upload directly from your phone, edit your image descriptions and tags, check your sales and share your images.
This agency offers more or less the same as Dreamstime.
Shutterstock has slightly higher quality standards, so only upload your best work here. They also have an app to upload from your phone and check your account.
This is another mobile photography accessible agency, which is owned by Shutterstock. Unfortunately, they have no mobile app to upload and monitor your sales.
- Adobe Stock
Adobe took over Fotolia and made it part of its suite of offerings for photographers and graphic artists. You can log in with your Adobe ID.
On whatever site you land, you will almost always have to scroll to the bottom and find a link to “becoming a contributor”. Sometimes you simply need to make an account before you will find a similar link the dashboard of your account.
Crowd-Sourced Photography and Sponsored Contests
There are so many wonderful images to be found on social media. Images taken for social media are usually more natural and more relatable than pictures taken for other purposes. Marketing agencies have recognized this and they have a demand for these kinds of images that they can legally use for advertising.
Below are two apps that work like social media apps, like Instagram for instance, but they allow you to sell and others to buy your images. Also, brands can use these platforms to offer contests. With these contest you can earn money if your image is chosen as the best image to match a specific topic, usually a marketing campaign topic of the brand that sponsors the contest.
The idea is that images used in marketing campaigns, that are crowd-sourced, are perceived to be more genuine and will have a positive influence on the brand and sales.
Two similar crowd-sourcing platforms are:
Although these platforms can be really profitable if you have this social media style of photography, it is a slightly less passive income stream as the content you are providing will be less evergreen and more in tune with current trends, hypes and sometimes even directly linked to marketing campaigns.
Once you have a portfolio built up on the web, you could also start doing commissioned work directly for clients. Although this is not passive income, it can be a pretty good side income.
You will probably be approached by friends and family to take pictures at an event. If this happens and you decide to go for it, it is best to bring a DSLR camera along as well as your phone even if it is just for show.
Another way to get commissioned work is to offer your skills in the form of a gig on Fiverr. Just go there and check out the gigs other photographers are offering and be creative. One idea is to do product photography, in which case the client could send you the product and you would take amazing pictures. Or let's say you live in Amsterdam, then you could offer to shoot and send ten unique pictures of the city.
Sharing in the Public Domain
If you are not in it for the money, or if you have pictures that have not been accepted by commercial stock agencies but that you feel are worth sharing, you may consider uploading images to one of the many free stock image sites, like for example Pixabay. Also, sites like Dreamstime and 123RF have the option to offer your work for free in the public domain if your work is not accepted for commercial purposes.
Favorite Stock Image Agency
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Dave Tromp (author) from Amsterdam on August 07, 2018:
Great to hear you liked the article and thank you.
Shernae Miller from Bahamas on August 07, 2018:
I have never considered stock photos for extra cash. This has definitely peaked my interest.
Excellent article. Thank you!