How Much Can You Make Selling Stock Photos? (Personal Experience)

with No Comments

This site is part of various affiliate programs. Links may give us a small compensation for any purchases you make, at no additional cost to you. Please read the disclaimer policy for full details.

I’ve been selling stock photos online since 2010, and have built up a mass of personal data that I’m going to share with you for the first time on the best selling stock photos and how much money you get paid for selling stock photos.

Plus, I’ve collected data from other stock photographers to help you get a firm idea of what sells and how to make the most money with the smallest amount of photos.

How Much Can You Make Selling Stock Photos?

  • The median average stock photographer earns between $500 – $700 per month from their portfolios.
  • Microstock contributors typically earn between $0.002 and $0.07 per royalty-free image, per month, or $2.00 – $70 per month for a 1,000 image portfolio.
  • Specialist stock contributors such as book cover photographers can earn between $0.10 and $0.23 per rights-managed image, per month, or $100 – $230 per month for a 1,000 image portfolio.
  • Highest commissions come from rights-managed sales, between $40 – $2000 photographer commission, while royalty-free commissions are generally $1.00 – $100.
  • You need at least 1,000 images in your portfolio to see regular sales, at least 20,000 to make a living as a rights-managed stock photographer and 150,000 to make a living in royalty-free microstock.

by Tim Daniels /

How Much Money Have I Made Selling Stock Photos?

In my personal experience, it’s possible to make anywhere from $50 a month right up to $2500 per month with under 1,000 photos in your portfolio, provided you sell rights-managed images, while the average stock photographer makes $500 – $700 per month.

I’ll go into the differences and pros and cons of rights-managed and royalty-free images below, but first, here’s a graph of my earnings for the last few years and the numbers of images at one agency only.

How much did I make from stock photo sales 2017 – 2022?

stock photo sales graph

My total income was $21,985.

For the entire period, I had 2,095 images uploaded, as I’ve been building this portfolio since 2010, but honestly have only made one upload since 2017.

That works out at between $0.10 – $0.23 per image, per month, depending on the year, or an overall average of $0.15 per image, per month.

How many sales were there?

stock photo sales

There were only 110 sales.

Most sales were in the hundreds of dollars, with a handful in the tens of dollars and some in thousands of dollars.

You can see that I haven’t added images in forever, yet I’m still earning passive income of several thousand dollars per year, with no work on my part.

You can see there’s a spike in 2018 from the 2017 uploads, and this declines over time, but I’m still selling images ten years after upload.

On average, I made $199.86 per image sale. The earnings per sale, per year are in the table below.

Year Stock Photo Commission (US$) Number of Sales Earnings per Sale (US$)
2017 4,251 21 202.43
2018 5,889 25 235.56
2019 3,261 21 155.29
2020 3,027 12 252.25
2021 2,994 20 149.70
2022 2,563 11 233.00

How does this compare to the average earnings of a stock photographer?

The median average stock photographer makes $500 – $700 per month on average, as per this poll from the Microstock Group forum, but most have a very large portfolio of images.

So, let’s have a look at how the average earnings from rights-managed sales compare to royalty-free sales, so you can see which is right for you.

microstock photo average sale price

Ordered from highest earning to lowest in the table below, it’s pretty clear that rights-managed photos sell for far more than royalty-free on a per sale basis.

AgencyAverage Earning per Sale (US$)
Creative Market4.25
Adobe Stock1.81

So, how can I make orders of magnitude greater income from my images when most photographers seem to make peanuts from their similar-sized portfolio, and put in far more work than me?

Rights-Managed vs Royalty-Free Photo Licensing

The two routes that you can take to license your images are rights-managed, or macrostock, and royalty-free, or microstock (although most microstock agencies also offer “extended license” options which are essentially rights-managed).

Microstock royalty-free sales are really the bottom of the barrel, and are the typical stock images you think of.

You sell images for cents or dollars, with the expectation that you get thousands of sales to make up for the low earnings per sale.

The problem with this is supply and demand, with so many new photographers crowding out the traditional microstock agencies like iStock, Shutterstock and the like, that you will nowadays struggle to make thousands of sales of each image.

Royalty-free images are also highly vulnerable to be replaced by AI over the next few years.

ai stock image
Typical stock image generated by AI (Adobe Firefly)

Rights-managed macrostock is a far more viable option as licensing rights to each of your images are sold for a period of time for specific territories and uses.

To take an example from the book cover realm, no publisher wants to publish a book only to find that the same photo is used on a competing novel released a week later. Consumers might get confused and that could hurt sales.

Therefore, the publisher is willing to pay extra not just for your photo, but to prevent another publisher using the same image for a book published in the same territory for a period of 3 years.

This means that you usually get several hundred dollars per sale, if not thousands.

As a reference, here’s one of my recent sales statements showing about $1000 of commission from only two image sales.

arcangel stock statement

In the example above, the cover for the novel “Peach Blossom Spring” earned me £470 for a single image licensed to North America for the next three years. This means it cannot be used on any other books in that territory over the next 3 years, but in compensation I get a higher fee than I would were this a microstock sale.

stock book cover

As an example, selling this same image on Shutterstock, I would expect to make between £0.02 and £1.43 depending on which credits system the purchaser uses.

In terms of timescales though, you shouldn’t expect miracles with book cover photography. This image was taken in 2014, but didn’t sell until 2023!

If you want to get into book cover photography, I would recommend Arcangel Images as a first stop. I’ve been very happy with them over the years, but you will need to take images specifically aimed at book covers.

arcangel portfolio
My portfolio at Arcangel Images

That means primarily vertical photos which tell something of a story. Dark and moody shots always seem to sell well, unlike the bright, saturated shots you tend to see selling on microstock sites.

book cover photos
Some of my photos used as book covers

How Much Can You Make Selling Microstock Photos?

Although in my experience rights-managed specialist sales are a better focus than royalty free microstock, some photographers do very well out of agencies like Shutterstock, Dreamstime and 123RF.

Let’s take a look at some of them below.

Jarmo Piironen ($0.067 per image, per month in 2021)

Piironen had 4,968 downloads from 8,171 images in 2021, generating a total income of about $6,600, all from microstock, with winter months making almost $1,000 dollars per month.

This works out at $0.067 per image, per month, or $1.33 per image, per sale.

He uses Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, Alamy, Pond5, Dreamstime, iStockPhoto, Mostphotos, and Depositphotos, with most recent growth in his Adobe Stock portfolio, which currently pay much more than Shutterstock after their 2020 contributor pay cut.

Piironen also has yearly contributor reports from 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 which are essential reading if you want to get into microstock and want to see just how long it takes to build up an income.

Alexandre Rotenberg ($0.001 per image, per month in June 2023)

With net revenue from stock photos of $1,003 in June 2023, plus $123 for video clips from 68,337 photos, Rotenberg makes on average 1/10th of a cent per image, per month.

Note that a significant portion of his income is now coming from book covers via Archangel, which is by the far the highest income per sale by at least one order of magnitude.

Steven Heap ($4,433 in June 2023)

Heap has pulled in a massive $4,433 in June 2023, with about $900 of that from a yearly sale to Adobe Stock’s free service, which is not repeated month-on-month.

He has about 143,000 images across all agencies, which accounts for his high earnings, with Adobe Stock making up the bulk of income, and means he earns about $0.002 per image, per month.

I highly recommend reading his detailed income reports for microstock going back years.

Bernd Schmidt (€4480.02 in 2021)

Schmidt doesn’t state how many images he has across his stock agencies, but did make the bulk of his income from Adobe Stock and Shutterstock back in 2021.

Interestingly, this was about the same as he made in 2013.

How Much Can You Make Selling Photos On Shutterstock?

Shutterstock pays between $0.02 and $1.40 per image sale, which is among the lowest of any stock agency.

Earnings are tiered based on number of downloads of your images in a year.

Level Number of image licenses this calendar year You earn
1 Up to 100 15%
2 101 to 250 20%
3 251 to 500 25%
4 501 to 2,500 30%
5 2,501 to 25,000 35%
6 Over 25,000 40%

How Much Does Adobe Stock Pay?

Adobe Stock pays between $0.33 and $3.30 for a standard royalty free download and $21.12 to $26.40 for an extended license.

This gives you 33% of sale price for images, and 35% of sale price for video.

adobe stock contributor earnings

Can You Make Money Selling Stock Photos?

I make several thousand dollars a year selling stock photos, so it definitely is possible to make at least a part-time income.

If you want to sell stock photos, then don’t copy what everyone else is doing, but try to create something unique that only you could create.

In my experience, photos of more off the radar travel destinations sell well, as do action shots of people.

For some inspiration, take a look at this poll from the Microstock Group forum in November 2022.

microstock contributor earnings

Read More:

Photography Statistics

Photography Pricing Calculator

Shutterstock vs Adobe Stock

iStock vs Shutterstock

Adobe Stock vs Getty

Follow Tim Daniels:

Hi, I'm Tim Daniels, photographer and photo trainer, founder of Lapse of the Shutter and creator of the totally free Lightroom Develop System. I've travelled to (probably) 30 countries over the last few years, taking photos and licensing them around the world, and creating lots of free photography learning resources. Read More ...

Leave a Reply