Passive income, the Holy Grail of personal finances. Who wouldn’t want to make money from all those old photos without having to lift a finger? With that in mind, I’m going to share with you my own experiences as a casual photographer selling my existing back catalog of digital photos online. It’s been an interesting experience to say the least and I even made a little money.
Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself — Eleanor Roosevelt
We’ve all thought at some point that some of those photos that we quite like might be worth something to someone? I bet a lot of people would love that vacation photo you took last year hanging on their wall, you know the one that got all those likes on Facebook.
Like most photographers I have annoyed my friends and family while on a trip or vacation by spending more time than they will happily tolerate waiting for a shot. As a result of irritating my nearest and dearest for over a decade, I have a whole lot of images that I like but can’t do much with once I’ve posted them on social media and enjoyed the dopamine hit of double-digit likes.
Over the past year, with all the changes to how we can and can’t work, I got to seriously thinking about how to make some money out of this archive of photos which are “not too bad”. I know there’s a market for selling high quality prints online but that would require some continued effort on my part. I’d have to print, frame, and send the prints out to customers. For the sake of this article I’m looking at passive income where the process is automated, customers make a purchase, they get digital files and I get money. This experiment is really the yard sale of e-commerce.
Where To Start?
First I had to find a selection of images that people might like to buy. I’m trying to make money from photos I already have so I started by going through my archive. This was a little time-consuming as I like to back up everything that is on the card when I get home. Fortunately, I was able to be quite ruthless in recognizing that some of those old photos definitely weren’t as good as I thought they were when I took them.
While looking for potential images to sell it’s worth considering that you may not have release forms for every person or location if they weren’t originally taken for commercial reasons. This was the case for most of the images in my archive that featured people. I didn’t want to start harassing my friends with release forms for historic shoots. Introducing money to friendships, in my experience, can be a bad idea so I stayed away from anything with people in.
Throughout my life I have been lucky enough to travel a lot with work, I always have a camera with me but I’m really not a landscape photographer, so the options from my archive might be somewhat limited. I chose a few images from a road trip along old Route 66, New York street photography, as well as a selection of sunsets and unused food photography from an old project that never went anywhere.
Where Can I Sell My Photos?
With my photos selected now, I had to choose a platform to sell them on and there’s a lot of choices when it comes to microstock libraries. Some are more strict than others with the types of image they’ll accept. I decided to try two quite different platforms to sell images on: EyeEm and Etsy.
For those who haven’t heard of it, EyeEm is a cross between Instagram and a stock library; you can share images, follow other creators, like and comment on images, as well as choose which of your images you’d like to list for sale. EyeEm also lists a selection of images on other stock libraries such as Getty Images. The process with EyeEm was as simple as uploading the images, adding some tags and leaving the site to do the rest.
Etsy is a little different as it’s more commonly used for crafters to sell hand made trinkets. You’ve probably seen the girl from your class in school posting on social media trying to sell her wax melts on Etsy for the past year. Etsy is useful to this test as it also allows you to sell digital files, these files can be uploaded then automatically sent to your buyer with money sent to you via Paypal on a weekly basis.
Setting up an Etsy store took a lot longer than simply uploading my images to EyeEm. I had to create a store listing for each image with not only a (watermarked) copy of the image but also mock-ups of how the image will look in a frame. It was very important to include in the description that this was a digital download as well as information on where the customer might get prints made. As an additional selling point, I set the store up so that each purchase sent the customer 3 high-resolution files cropped to common aspect ratios — 3:4, 4:5 & ISO paper size — so there’s no technical requirement from them at all. Creating all these files and populating the store took quite a lot of time but the pay-off is that I can set my own prices.
It’s no secret that the prices being paid for stock photos has dropped significantly over the past few years so I don’t expect to retire on the income from my old images, but I definitely won’t turn down real money for images that are just gathering virtual dust on my archive drive. I have no control over the prices paid for my images on EyeEm but I set the downloads on Etsy to $5 per purchase. In the interest of fairness, I posted the same images to both sites with the same keywords. Etsy allows more keywords as you can choose categories, themes, and even what the primary color of your image is.
Show Me the Money!
This is probably the most important part, how much money did I make? I made a grand total of $42 from EyeEm with the first sale in week one for $30 and a slow stream of sales after that for as little as 10 cents. Despite Etsy taking a little more effort to get set up, I made $4 in week one with no further sales to date. I’m actually super happy with this result as that’s $46 that I didn’t have before from digital copies of images I had taken over the past decade. Hopefully, the money will continue to trickle in indefinitely!
Now for the Really Interesting Part: Which Photos Sold Best?
Included in the photos for sale were two of my favorite photographs, one image of the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari at sunset and another of a New York street. The Blue Swallow at sunset is my all-time favorite photograph. It was taken in 2016, we were driving the entirety of Historic Route 66 and I had always planned to get a shot of this motel. We’d gone for a cookout at the motel while waiting for the sun to set, while eating smores around the campfire I planned my shot, deciding where to stand to see the sunset behind the motel. By sheer chance, a huge storm rolled in as the sun was setting, I only managed to get a few shots before quickly packing up my gear and sprinting to the car as rain of biblical proportions came pouring from the sky. It was a truly exciting moment on a real adventure of a trip. I love this photograph so much that I have a large canvass print on my bedroom wall.
The biggest seller and highest-grossing image to date is a photograph of a carrot on a white background. I took this photo as a lighting test before a product shoot for a food company, I have no emotional attachment to this image and almost didn’t include it. I hadn’t considered that potential customers don’t have the same emotional attachment to the images as I do. The carrot is a better stock image by far as easy to cut out and use with a great number of design possibilities.
The New York street shot was the first image to sell on Etsy. The Blue Swallow image, my personal favourite shot ever, is yet to sell a single copy.
You can definitely make some money with your old vacation images or some of those shots of household objects we take when testing out a new piece of kit. It's not likely going to be enough to retire on but you might get a few cups of coffee out of them.
As with all things, if you want to make money at selling stock images then you're going to have to take it seriously consider your audience, plan your images and market them on an appropriate stock image library. Despite the prices going down, there are still photographers making a decent income from stock libraries.
Now all that’s left for me to do is decide how to spend my $46 in lockdown!