If you’ve been trying to sell photos online but feel like you’re not having much success, or you’re just starting to pursue a passive income online, this article should help you to unlock the income potential of selling photographs online. We look at how to position yourself, where to sell photos online, the tools you may need and some best practices. You’ll also find links to other relevant resources. Now, where to start?

Defining A Niche For Your Photography

As a photographer, you probably have a particular passion – for photographing people, nature, architecture, or something else. It’s a good idea to build your reputation as a photographer specialising in one area, because people who buy your work once will know to come back to you for similar work in the future, and it’s a good way to stand out from other, more generic photographers.

find a niche if you want to sell photos online
Nature Photography as a Niche

Another strategy is to align your passion with what the market wants to buy at a particular time, and that’s changeable – for example, have you noticed how many images have been popping up in 2022 featuring the national colours of Ukraine? During the COVID-19 pandemic, people wearing facemasks were in demand. You can use tools like Keywords Everywhere or SEMrush to research what people are looking for online.

By contrast, there are some photographic themes that seem to endure forever. To identify what kinds of images people are buying, browse the top sellers on the stock photography sites (here are Shutterstock’s top-selling photos).  You may be surprised by how unremarkable a lot of these images are, but there is clearly a common need for brands to visually articulate everyday activities like buying a car, buying a house or shopping online. Here’s a list of 20+ common photography niches – do any of them suit you?

If you can manage to align your niche passion with market demand, you’ll be off to a good start.

Choosing The Right Online Platform To Sell Photos

There are three ways most photographers choose to sell photos online: via the most popular stock photography sites; from their own Shopify, WordPress or other website, and via platforms that translate photographs onto physical prints or products. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to all these routes. For example, when selling via the stock sites, you get to benefit from their wide market reach and marketing efforts – but when you sell, you pay commission. Different stock sites have different commission rates and structures, so do a bit of research on them. Getty used to be the go-to site for photographers, but it has a lot of competitors now, many with reasonable commission rates. Some photographers also put a few images on free stock sites, like Pixabay or Unsplash. The extra exposure doesn’t hurt and may lure users to your website.

sell photos using stock photography sites or your own website

Setting up and running your own photography website takes a bit of time and money, but it’s a great way to build your personal brand, visitors to your site will only ever be seeing your work, and when you sell photos – oh joy – all the revenue will be yours. By putting a bit of effort into both SEO and social media, you should be able to pull decent traffic to your site (many photographers report having success on Instagram, the most image-driven social platform). Here are some guidelines for creating a professional photography website on Shopify and WordPress

Finally there are sites like Printify, CafePress, Fine Art America and Instaproofs, on which you can license your photos for use on anything from coffee mugs to tote bags. Many of these kinds of sites can be linked directly to your website. 

Every photographer finds their own preferred online mix, but our advice would probably be to choose several of the stock photography sites to sell through, get your photos onto them, then focus on building a photography website and growing its traffic and sales. The print-on-demand side of the business is something you can always get stuck into once your site is established. 

This blog lists its top 20 places to sell photos online (number one: your own website).

Installing The Right Tools To Sell Photos Online

Once you’ve built a functional website – let’s focus on Shopify and WordPress as two of the most used website builders – you will find that you may need some additional digital tools – called “plugins” – to both display and sell your photos more effectively. First, you’ll need a digital gallery, today’s version of when photographers had bricks-and-mortar galleries, in the old days. A website gallery lets you display your images in their best light, makes images scrollable and mobile-friendly and lets you add supporting information to all of your images. Here is a list of some decent gallery apps for Shopify, and a selection of top-rated plugins for WordPress – including our own FooGallery, more about which here

Then you would benefit from installing a lightbox, which will give you the functionality to display your gallery photos (as well as other important website elements, like capture forms or important announcements) without other website content distracting the viewer.

Below is an example of a gallery which uses a lightbox – built with FooGallery and FooBox. If you click on one of the images, you’ll see how the lightbox works!

We covered lightboxes for WordPress in a recent blog, including our FooBox plugin, which is designed specifically for photographers. It looks like some Shopify themes (templates that give your website a particular look and feel) come with lightbox functionality integrated into them, so you’d need to browse some of these if you’re selling photos on Shopify. 

Finally, you want your customers, wherever they are in the world, to be able to buy your digital photos effortlessly, which means having proper ecommerce functionality on your site. Shopify is designed with ecommerce as its core priority, so you should not have too much trouble setting it up for effective online selling. For WordPress, WooCommerce is a free plugin and the world’s most popular open-source ecommerce solution. If you also install something like our FooGallery PRO Commerce plugin (to meet your gallery needs), you will be able to sell images directly from your gallery using WooCommerce. 

There may be a couple more plugins you’d benefit from adding, for example payment gateway plugins to give your customers more payment options in WooCommerce, or plugins to help you with SEO performance, file caching or other important aspects of your site

There are thousands of plugins available for WordPress and the other main website builders, so we recommend you focus on the three biggest assets for selling photos online: a gallery, a lightbox and full ecommerce functionality.

Note: If you plan on doing a lot of photo editing before uploading photos to your website, consider installing an editing tool like Adobe Lightroom on your desktop. You can upload images directly from Lightroom to WordPress. 

Protecting (And Respecting) Legal Rights Online

Allow us to state upfront that the following is by no means official legal advice; we’re techies, not barristers. This section simply provides a general overview of legal factors you will need to consider if you want to sell photos online. It’s important to do your own research or consult a legal practitioner to ensure you have clarity on your rights, as well as on how the rights of others might affect your work.

The most important thing to know, whether you are selling photos from your website or from stock libraries, is that you should license your photos for different purposes, so that you are not taken advantage of. Even when you put your photos on free stock sites like Pixabay, they need to indicate licensing. Some common types of image licenses:

  • Commercial use This allows users to use your photos in their marketing and advertising efforts. 
  • Retail use This allows users to use your photos in the production of physical retail items – like coffee mugs and tote bags.
  • Editorial use This gives users permission to use your photo in newspapers, blogs, magazines and similar publications – but not in any form of advertising. 
  • Exclusive rights This will give an individual who purchases the photo exclusive access, meaning they’ll be the only person allowed to use it. Naturally, you would charge more for such a photo, since you will only sell it once.
  • Rights managed Customers can buy one-time licenses to use a photo, with restrictions on how they distribute the image (e.g., digital only, no print). Further use requires additional licenses.
  • Creative Commons This license means your photo can used for free, but with provisos. For example, you might require users to credit you as the photographer.
  • Royalty free Users can use the photo for any purpose they want to. 
  • Public domain If your photo sits in the “public domain,” it will have no copyright claim and can be used for any purpose, by anyone. You are unlikely to use this one.

When you caption your photos in your website galleries, you can add the relevant license type in the caption field. You could also create galleries specifically housing differently licensed photos, or add a gallery search filter for commercial, editorial or other kinds of licensed images.

The different licenses you denote will affect how much you can reasonably charge for your photos, so do a bit of research on pricing strategies – here’s a good read to start with.

Of course, there are legal aspects for you to follow, too …

For example, right of publicity. This means that, when you take photos of people, they will have the right to determine how those images are used. You’ll need to get their “right of publicity” before selling these photos. They need to know that you intend to sell their image, and for what purpose, and they need to sign agreement. Otherwise, a subject who thought they were only going to be featured in editorial work may be displeased to see their face on a billboard one day!

If you are unsure of how to draw up the relevant paperwork, ask a seasoned portrait photographer what they use.

In a similar way, if you photograph identifiable property – establishments, homes, restaurants or even privately-owned plots of land – you need to get a property release form – even when they are considered public spaces, like parks or shopping malls.

Be careful if your photos contain work that might be protected by copyright themselves. For example, if you take a picture of a painting or sculpture in a gallery (best to check with the gallery owner, as to who owns the rights to the artwork).

If third parties commission you to take photographs – weddings, conferences et al.- you cannot use them for commercial purposes, and you should make sure the third party is happy for you to display those photos on your website or social media platforms. 

Make sure you clearly understand all the legal implications before you sell photos online. If you are ever in doubt, please ask a legal practitioner. 

Marketing Your Photos Online

There are several ways to market your photos and stimulate online sales. A simple one is to run limited duration sales for customers, to create a bit of urgency. There are many plugins that will allow you to add sale or special offer announcements, banners, countdown clocks and CTAs to your website galleries (you might like to try FooBar, our notification bar plugin). 

Social media can play a central role in your marketing, and you should consider how best to use the different platforms. Instagram is a great place to post your most visually striking images, Facebook could be the most suitable for things like family portraits or wedding photos (just remember right of publicity) and LinkedIn would be a good place to promote your more commercial images (a couple buying a car) or formal portraits (company boards in mind, as possible customers). Twitter is great for humorous images. All of these platforms allow you to boost or sponsor posts and set them to target a relevant target market.

use social media to help sell photos online

LinkedIn’s targeting metrics for sponsored posts are particularly strong – you can set them to target LinkedIn users by country or city; job title (e.g., “creative director”); industry; interests, and more. You can even set posts to target only employees of specifically named companies – useful if you want your work to catch the eye of the CD at an Ogilvy or Publicis Groupe …

LinkedIn, whose InMail functionality lets you send a personal email directly to anyone in your network, is a great way to market your work more directly to prospects. Consider, for instance, if you put a few months into Connecting with creative directors, marketing directors, magazine editors and other commercial prospects – and then start reaching out to them with links to relevant gallery photos.

Blogging is a way you can give the market insight on how you approach the craft of photography, instilling your photos with more value. True photography connoisseurs will appreciate insights on the way you work and what sets you apart from other photographers. You can also articulate why you might have a passion for a certain subject theme or style of photography.

If you add Commenting functionality to your blog posts, you can encourage feedback from readers, which could give you valuable insight on what they like about your work. Your blog posts can be adapted into both LinkedIn articles and emailers to your growing email database. Email is a great way to build a captive audience and remind them about your work on a regular basis. 

Finally, testimonials from previous happy customers are a great way to build respect for your work – never be afraid to ask a satisfied buyer for a quick line or two for a testimonial, which you can put on your website and social media platforms. 

This article goes into a bit more detail about the different marketing strategies you can take.

Final Thoughts

It’s not easy to sell photos online, as there is a lot of competition and distraction – but we hope this article will help to put you on the path to success. Please leave a comment below, especially if you have helpful tips for other photographers who stop by. As always, we wish you every success.