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Selling Pictures Online? What are the Possibilities and Problems?

Selling Pictures Online? What are the Possibilities and Problems?

One of the ideas in 20 Ideas on how to make money after retirement is to sell your digital pictures. Can you start selling pictures online just like that? What are the options you have? And equally important, what are possible problems you can encounter? I’ll elaborate on these in this article.

You don’t have to be a professional photographer nowadays to sell your pictures. Although it helps if you know what you are doing and if you maintain a quality standard in composition, use of color and format.

In my working life I was a graphic designer and I hired photographers all the time for my clients’ products. Before it was easy and accessible to buy stock photos on the internet, I bought CD’s with theme based pictures. In both cases the issue of copyright had to be dealt with.

Copyright, author’s right, personality right? 

What I hear all the time is that copyright exists everywhere except in China. To be honest, I only know the Dutch law very well on this subject. So the rules might be different in your country, although I very much doubt it. 

Everything you make, write, design, photograph, draw, paint, etcetera, etcetera, as an original is your own. You have the copyright of it. And officially someone else has to ask permission first before he or she uses your work. Nowadays this poses sometimes a problem, because copying has never been this easy.

You can grant the permission of use for free or you can ask to be paid for it. You can give the copyright to as many users as you want, or you can keep it exclusive for just one user.

Copyright and author’s right is in essence the same. Personality right means that someone else has no right to use your portrait if you have very good reasons for it. To give some examples: if you are photographed in a busy street as one of many passers-by, you can’t claim personality rights. If you are a well-known person and use your own face as a brand, someone else is not permitted to use your face as well.

What is the meaning of licensing your pictures?

Selling Pictures Online

Licensing an image means that you allow someone to use your image to make a certain number of products for a certain period of time and compensate you accordingly. It was common practice when I asked one of the photographers for a photograph to say what it was for. 

If I used it on a poster and needed the same image for a book cover later on, I had to go back to the photographer and ask for an extension of the license, and pay again. 

That’s why royalty free was a better option if I knew on forehand that I would need the picture on more than one product.

What does Royalty free mean?

Royalty free means you have the right to use the image as much as you want and on as many products as you need for a fixed amount. Royalty free is about the copyright and does not mean you don’t have to pay the maker of the image. 

To emphasize the meaning of copyright: it is not allowed to use just any picture you find on the internet. Only when you have the permission of the maker. The pictures in this article are mine, so if you are interested in using them, email me! They are available without the colored band and in several sizes and formats. 🙂

The perspective of the maker


For you as a photographer being hired by someone who wants the exclusive rights on your images, is the best option. It’s lucrative and fulfilling, because you can be sure that your client will value your work the most. 

It can also limit your creativity. A client usually knows what he is looking for and will want to have a say in how you carry out the assignment.

You can also make your pictures for the stock agencies. Some agencies are stricter in terms of quality and method of delivery than others. When you browse stock agencies you will have to look for their FAQ or information page to discover what their requirements are.

Shutterstock is one of the biggest agencies, but they are very strict and won’t include every picture in their presentation. Dreamstime is smaller, has fewer demands on the subjects, but will look more at the technical qualities of the pictures. (List below)

The perspective of the buyer

Seen from the buyer’s or user’s perspective, it’s obvious they want to pay as little as possible for the broadest rights. I suppose a lot of us have used pictures from Pixabay or Pexels. You are free to use these pictures, preferably with attributing the maker. And when you are really satisfied you can ‘buy them a coffee’, in other words, donate a small amount.

There are hardly any restrictions on these sites for the provided pictures and for a beginner it can be a great starting place to get used to the process of uploading, formats, giving a title, adding keywords and description.

Hipstamatic - Orchid

A buyer that wants a higher quality or more exclusivity will go to one of the selling stock agencies or browse for a specific photographer. 

It’s a good idea to keep the buyer’s perspective in the back of your head. Buyers won’t magically turn up on your doorstep, so you will have to work on your marketing as well.

Choose your channels

It’s better not to start on all the stock agencies at the same time. Try 1 or 2 to feel the waters. Not only of the agencies, but try to find out as well on what keywords prospective buyers are browsing and what kind of pictures are in high demand.

Choose 1 or 2 social media as well, as part of your marketing. Instagram and Pinterest are more visual oriented than Facebook.

You can also sell on your own website. It’s true, you can ask for higher prices or at least earn more per photo than through the agencies, but you probably can’t beat their amount of traffic. You might consider doing both; have an own website and sell at an agency.

A (not complete) list of stock agencies

My personal experience has only been with a few of these agencies, both as a buyer and a seller, so I’ll limit myself to just listing them.


A (not complete) list of free stock websites

Do you know of more possibilities?

If you know of other websites or other possibilities to sell pictures, will you put it in the comment box? Both I as the readers of this article will highly appreciate it.

15 thoughts on “Selling Pictures Online? What are the Possibilities and Problems?”

  1. Some great information on a topic that can have so many different angles and can be as diverse in its simplicity, depending on how you view things. Its also a niche that can be very lucrative as all it takes is one great picture and everyone wants it and are willing to use it and pay the price. Great stuff

    • Thanks so much, David, and you are so right, just one picture. 🙂
      Although several of them will do as well, ROFLOL.
      Take care.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to provide so much information in your post. Understanding copyright and free material, where you can find such material, how to use them, the need to actually be carefull using them is so important especially if we want to do our online business responsibly. Thank you!

  3. This is great information. I use free images from Unsplash and sometimes Pixabay. I did not know that royalty free did not mean that you don’t have to pay for them … that was news to me, and it’s good to know.
    That is why some royalty free sites such as Adobe and Shutterstock require payment to use their photos, right? It hadn’t even occurred to me, lol. I will check out the other free sites. I tried Wiki commons, but there were not many options for what I was looking for at the time, but I will check it again.

    • Exactly, Christine, that is why royalty free at times still require payment.
      I have the same experience with Wiki commons. It depends so much on what your subject is you are looking for, isn’t it?

  4. Hey Hannie, thanks for posting a list of the different stock agencies. I’ve been trying to find a list online and it’s proven to be difficult. This really helped me out!

    • Hi James, I am really glad you found it useful. I hope you will come back to the article if you need to have a look at that list again. 🙂

  5. A great and informative article Hannie. Yes, I’ve come to learn that free doesn’t really mean free with the likes of Shutterstock and others. That’s why as a starter I stick to WA “library of images” at least for now as I get what I’m looking for in most instances.

    • Hi Maggie, yes, Wealthy Affiliate uses Pixabay and Pexels etc as a source and those pictures are both royalty free as free. I use those as well, and I make a lot of pictures myself, which is also a great source. 🙂

  6. Royalty free is not free at all at the end-this came as a surprise to me, as well, and I see I’m not alone. However, it’s only fair for everyone to be paid for the work done, so this too.
    I do find it pretty difficult to hunt down the images I need, for free. The last time I found what I needed on pickpick.com.
    I do know a young photographer, son of friends of mine, who had enough of shooting weddings, he said and decided to become a freelancer. It happened only a few month ago, so I don’t think he is established seller yet, although I know he has a pretty big collection on Getty Images and iStock, I think. Unfortunately, he doesn’t shoot the kind of photos I need ;(
    I think he will be quite pleased with a list like this, when I pass it to him. Who knows, he might thank it with a photo or two in my niche 😉
    Thank you 😉

    • Royalty free is terminology that is bound for confusion, Kerryanne. The word free misleads everyone, so they should have made a new word for it. 🙂
      Don’t you make pictures of yourself for your articles? I do it quite often, as I too think there are not enough images that suit our niche (aging people). It kills 2 birds with 1 stone: I have the picture I was looking for and it makes the article more personal because I or Tom are in it ourselves.
      Your young friend should also visit ad agencies and graphic designers with his portfolio! Working on assignment pays well.

  7. Thanks for educating me on stock photos. I have only been blogging for a little while and it is good to know where I can find some good sources for photos. I have been using Pixabay, but can not always find exactly what I am looking for. As I become more profitable as an affiliate marketer, I will need to consider upgrading my game.

    Many Blessings, Brian

    • Great to be of help, Brian. You might also consider taking pictures yourself. That way you can have the exact subject you are looking for and nobody can bug you about their copyright. 🙂

  8. This is very informative and now I know more about copyright laws and so forth. Thank you for sharing the lists where one can get free images to use. I had not heard of some of the site’s you mentioned. I can’t wait to have a look at them. I like to create my own images using canva this way I can create them to fit into my articles.

    • You’re weldome, Kay. I like lists myself as well, so it’s also useful for myself as a reference. 🙂
      Canva is great to make pictures fit your own design. Good thinking of you!


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