Reckon you could make a living from selling your photos online? In these cash-strapped times there's nothing to be lost – and much to be gained – from turning your hobby into a source of income.
It’s easy, as we’ll show you here, with three surefire ways to get started with your own website, through stock image agencies, and on everyone’s favourite snap-sharing super-site, Flickr.
See also: how to fix your photos for free
Sell photos online: through your own website
You'll have the best chance of success if you research your market before you begin. Spend some time doing searches through images.google.com and see which turn up the fewest relevant results. If you're setting out to take pictures with the specific intention of making a sale, these will be the most appropriate – and profitable – areas on which to focus your attention (not to mention your camera).
Always do your research. Use Google Images to find subjects that are currently under-represented and concentrate on plugging the gap with your own work.
Watermark your images
Bear in mind that just as you can find other peoples’ images this way, they’ll be able to do the same with yours, and less scrupulous users might go further by downloading them without payment and killing your business before it’s even got off the ground. With that in mind, always watermark your work before putting it up for sale through your own site.
Do this by creating a new file in your image editor of choice and designing your graphic or text mark in white, with a transparent background. Now open your photo and copy the watermark graphic onto a new layer above the photo itself and set the blending mode to Soft Light so that you can still see the photo through it. Adjust the opacity to suit.
If you don't have Photoshop, see our guide to using the free uMark Lite utility.
How much to charge for your photos
Think carefully about how you want to price your photos. It’s often easier and a lot less work to attract a lot of sales at lower prices than fewer sales at higher ones, and thus make the same amount of money over time. Many entry-level stock libraries sell images for web use for as little $1 (60p) and from that subtract their commission, leaving you with mere pence. Remaining competitive with them won't earn you a great deal, but at least you'll not lose any takings to the library owner, and you’ll probably see your work used more widely than you would if it cost several hundred pounds a shot.
If that sounds like small fry, consider bundling several related images in a zip file, such as a road trip through Europe, a record of a particular event or pictures of people in generic poses that can be used to illustrate human interest stories. These can be sold at higher prices, with the inducement of a discount on the price of buying each image solo.
However you decide to package your pictures, you'll still need to deal with taking payment and shipping the actual goods. You can automate much of this by signing up to a service like e-junkie.com, which puts a personalised shopping basket on your own website, processes your customers' payments through PayPal or Google Checkout, and then serves your images from its own servers to your buyers.
Not only does this make the whole process automatic – so you can just sit back and watch the money coming in – but as it hosts the goods itself you also won't incur any extra bandwidth fees from your internet service provider (ISP).
e-junkie operates a tiered membership structure, but you can start out from as little as $5 a month (around £3.20) for up to 10 products and 50MB of storage. Once your photography business takes off, you can increase both the range and space available up to a maximum of 7999 products on 7999MB of server space.
e-junkie will host your photos and take care of accepting payment using PayPal or Google Checkout before processing the download for your customers.
Integrating the e-junkie shopping cart is a simple matter of copying and pasting a couple of lines of code from your personalised e-junkie dashboard into your own web pages, but you still need to design the pages yourself to start with. If that's beyond your level of expertise, consider selling through a self-hosted photography blog instead.
The WordPress blog engine is free, easy to set up, and well supported should you run into problems. It can also be extended through the use of plug-ins, of which iSell Photo is of most interest to the photographic entrepreneur.
Installing this plugin (click Plugins | Add New, from the WordPress dashboard, then type iSell Photo into the search box) lets you add standard galleries of your images using the WordPress media uploader. You can then tweak the shortcode in the posts to which they're attached to add prices and PayPal links. Shortcodes are a bit like macros, which are used to create entire web pages on WordPress.
It's deceptively simple. Once you add a gallery to a post, switching to the HTML view in the post editor will reveal that WordPress has inserted the required code itself (look for the line that reads ‘[gallery]’).
To put the gallery images up for sale, simply edit this code to specify a price. For example, if you want to sell them for £2.50, and you've already set Pounds Sterling as the active currency in the iSell Photo options page (if you haven't, click Settings | WP iSell Photo from the Dashboard), you'd edit the code to read:
All of the images in that particular gallery will then go on sale at the same price, so if you want to price up some particularly special or popular options at a higher or lower rate you'll need to create a second or third gallery to accommodate them. Payments are sent straight to your PayPal account.
Using plug-ins on your blog lets you transform it from a simple gallery to a photography business.
Sell photos online: sell images through an image library
Selling through an image library means you can cut out much of the admin involved in selling images through your own site. However, going down this road does mean you need to fulfil various strict requirements.
For example, in much the same way that we recommended using Google Images to search for areas that are currently underrepresented in the realm of high-quality photography, you will need to check out what the various photo libraries are particularly looking for at the moment.
Pictures of your cat are unlikely to be accepted, and neither are well-lit, plain images of fruit on a white background, whatever their artistic integrity.
However, images with editorial or journalistic merit will always be in high demand, and so will those of new and emerging technologies. iStockPhoto, for example, maintains an extensive list of both what it wants and what it doesn't on its website, and Shutterstock outlines the categories for which you can submit images at submit.shutterstock.com/guidelines.mhtml
If you want to submit images to a stock photography library, first check what subjects are of interest to them at the present time.
Stock agencies: contributor guidelines
When submitting to other libraries, look for links to their contributor guidelines to see which images they'll take, and which will be turned away.
You'll also have to exceed a set quality threshold, with at least your initial submissions checked for suitability by in-house editors. If you don't meet the library's standards you may be asked to submit a further batch of images for approval.
Always submit as wide a range of images as possible to demonstrate the breadth of your photographic skills, but don't overwhelm the scrutineers. Unless they specifically request more, restrict your work to just five or six samples, and only ever include your very best images.
Don't watermark your images, but do check that they meet the minimum size requirements. You don't necessarily need a digital SLR camera, as iStockPhoto, for example, accepts images of 1600 x 1200 (1.9 megapixels) or higher, while ShutterStock will take pictures of 2.5 megapixels from existing contributors and 4 megapixels from new members.
These can easily be achieved using a smartphone, but unless your phone has a good enough sensor and lens to perfectly focus and expose your subject it's advisable to invest in a dedicated camera, even if it's just a simple point-and-shoot.
Photo libraries charge different prices for images of different sizes on the basis that higher resolution photos are likely to be used by professionals, often in print or as the basis of artwork, while lower resolution shots are more commonly bought by amateurs for use online. Don't be tempted to resize your images by more than 5% in an image editor before submitting them, though, as you'll usually be found out in the vetting process and risk having your membership suspended, terminated or refused.
Sell photos online: selling images through Flickr
If either of the options on the previous two pages sounds like too much work, then try the third option: passive selling.
Flickr has teamed up with Getty, one of the world's biggest photo libraries, to allow photographers to sell images direct from their Flickr libraries. You'll still need to achieve a certain standard but, in fairness, if you don't then it's unlikely you'd make any sales anyhow, so you have nothing to lose by trying.
The easiest way to sell your photos is to upload them to Flickr and wait for the Getty Images editors to find your work.
The key to successfully selling your images this way is to make sure that they are accurately tagged and captioned so that the Getty editors can find the kind of work that would bolster their existing library. They don't explicitly point you towards their list of current requirements but it nonetheless makes sense to check out Getty's general contributor guidelines for non-Flickr contributions and apply as much of the advice you'll find there as possible to your Flickr upload, paying particular attention to the points on writing captions and the minimum required image size, which stands at 3 megapixels.
With this in mind, sign up for Flickr (a free account will be fine to get you started) and upload your first batch of images. They aren't automatically eligible for consideration by Getty's editors, so open an image from your library and click 'Want to license your photos through Getty Images?' beneath Owner settings in the right-hand margin. Select either 'Allow Getty Images editors to invite my photos and display a "Request to License" link on my photos' or 'Allow Getty Images editors to invite my photos (but please no link)' on the following page and then click Save. Repeat the process for the other images you'd like to license from you library.
Uploaded images aren’t automatically included in the Getty editors’ consideration lists, so make sure you enable this option after adding them to your Flickr Photostream.
There's no guarantee that you'll make a sale, but if you're happy to sit back and wait, and in the interim continue populating your Photostream every time you've taken a new batch of photos with which you're particularly proud, your chances will only ever increase.
Good luck, and happy snapping!