10 dos and don’ts for selling photography online

10 dos and don’ts for selling photography online

First published:
June 20, 2022
July 28, 2023

Cover photo by Paul Bate

There have never been more opportunities to sell your photography online, follow our dos and don’ts to maximise your income from online sales

Selling your photos online is one of the quickest and easiest ways to start trying to make money from your photos. But to do so requires patience and some knowhow. So to help you, here are 10 dos and don’ts for selling your photography online.

1 Shoot to sell

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to sell their photos online is to shoot subjects or destinations that they want to shoot. While that might feel great for you professionally, and the photos might look wonderful on your website, it may not lead to much in the way of hard-earned cash. If you really want to maximise your sales online, you need to shoot subjects that are in demand.

For example gritty documentary photos of a city might get you lots of plaudits, but when was the last time you a saw a travel magazine show one on its front cover? On the other hand how often do you see a beautiful sunny beach shot with blue skies on covers of magazines?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t shoot what you want to shoot, but also make sure you shoot the types of photos that are likely to sell as well.

If you're looking to sell photos - make sure your including shots in your offering that are popular and likely to sell. Photo by Jan Claus

2 Think about copy placement

Being an editor of a travel magazine, I have lost count of the number of times that I have asked a photographer if they have any other crops of a photo that has space for copy to be placed.

Unless you are going to be selling your photos exclusively as prints, most of your online photo sales are going to be for editorial purposes. That means that designers are going to look to place headlines, copy or even the magazine title on your photo. If there isn’t any space to do so, they probably won’t use your image.

So get into the habit of shooting lots of different crops of the same subject in both horizontal and vertical format. You can still showcase your best version of the photo in you portfolio, but at least you’ll have other crops in case a client needs it.

This is a good example of an image that will work on a front cover. Note the clear space at the top that allows for a magazine title placement. Photo by Richard Whitley

3 Keep up to date with what’s going on

Whatever your genre of photography is, you should make it one of your main priorities to keep up with what’s going on in your industry. This not only means making sure that you are keeping up with trends and styles in photography, but also keeping up to date with the news and what new things are happening.

For example if you are a wildlife photographer, is there a big news story coming up on a particular species or region? Or if you are a lifestyle photographer what type of photography is going to be the next hot trend? Having an insight into these things can allow you to plan your shoots accordingly which will hopefully mean more sales.

4 Showcase your best work

It might seem like an obvious thing to say, but you should always try to only upload your best work online. Unfortunately, these days there is lots of competition and unless your photos of a subject are as good or if not better than the competition, then it’s unlikely that they will sell. This also includes trying to find new angles or creative ways to show things which are photographed many times.

So before any shoot, you should spend time researching the subject and creating a shot list of the different photos that you wish to cover. You can even go as far as sketching out what you want the photo to look like. This is called a “scamp” and is widespread in the advertising industry where the art director might provide a drawing to the photographer for the shoot.

You want to show off only your very best and most striking shots in any online environment. Photo by Luke

5 Promote your work

You won’t get very far in your online sales if you just upload some photos and hope for the best. To make the most of your photos, you need to actively try to sell them to clients.

"You won’t get very far in your online sales if you just upload some photos and hope for the best. To make the most of your photos, you need to actively try to sell them to clients."

You should start to build up a database of art directors and photo editors. Then send an email to introduce yourself and point them to your portfolio. Don’t try and go in for the hard sell straight away, it’s better to build up a connection first before you start trying to sell your work to them.

6 Don’t rely solely on stock sales

There is no way of sugar coating this, but I don’t know of any photographer who can rely solely on selling photos online and earn enough from that to sustain them. There is just not enough demand and far too much competition. So, if you want to be a successful photographer you need to have multiple revenue streams that can all earn you money. See our dedicated guide on the many ways you can make more money from your photography.

As for your online sales, you need to be patient as you may not see sales for photos for months or even years.

7 Avoid over-processing your shots

Every photo will benefit from some level of editing. For some photos that might just be to adjust the white balance or straightening it. While other photos may require much more extensive editing that includes retouching. There is also personal taste and style as well which will have an impact on how you edit your photos.

The one thing that you should be very careful about is not to over edit your photos. This includes too much vibrancy or saturation which can make a photo look fake and might even lead to artifacts showing up in the image (like banding in the sky). Try to keep your editing subtle to enhance the image.

Over-editing your photos can significantly hinder their selling potential. Make sure any edits you make are true-to-life and compliment the image, rather than transform it into something unrecognisable as a photo. Image by ikostudio

8 Don’t neglect keywords and captions

It might be tedious and something that no photographer enjoys in their workflow, but ensuring that your images are keyworded (tagged) well and captioned accurately are imperative to making sales. Without the right keywords your images will not even been seen by potential clients. Even if you are selling photos on your own website only, it is still important to make sure that you include captions and locations of the photos. The more information you have the more likely the image is to find the right buyer. See our guide to keywording (tagging) photos here.

Author Tip:

When photographing people, if possible, make a note of their name. There might be a time when an editor wants this information.

9 Never undervalue your work

There is no doubt about it that at some point someone will contact you about using one of your photos for free with the phrase, “you’ll be credited for it”. Whether you decide to go ahead with that or not, is up to you. But my advice would always be to try to avoid undervaluing your work in this way without at least trying to earn some money from it. If even the client says they have no budget, and you ultimately decide it’s a punt worth taking, at least you tried first.

10 Never sign-up without research

If you do decide to sign-up to a stock site, it’s incredibly important to make sure that you are fully aware of what you are getting into. Many stock sites will only pay you a very small commission on every sale and might also require exclusivity on the images you supply to them. This means you can’t sell those images to anyone else directly yourself. And you may even have to give months or years of notice before you can remove your images from their site. So make sure you do your research before submitting images.

Always make sure you've read the fine print for any agency or hosting site you've signed up to for selling your images. Photo by Jun Pinzon
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