How to Fail at Stock Photography

Old Wooden Grain Elevator with Blue Sky and Clouds
Old Wooden Grain Elevator with Blue Sky and Clouds

I tried my hand at stock very recently, and I want to share my experience and show you how to fail at stock photography.

Then I hope to show you how to succeed at it!


Why Stock Photography?

I believe it is important to diversify your income online. You never know when one income stream will dry up, and some things sell better at certain times of the year. One obvious income stream for your photography side hustle is stock photography. You’re taking photos anyway, so why not sell some of them?

The big appeal of stock photography is that it is passive income. Once you’ve uploaded the photos to the stock agency, all you have to do is sit back, the images will sell, and the money will roll in! How easy is that?

Of course, things are never that easy.

Strictly speaking, I am talking about microstock, where you offer a large number of images for sale at low prices. Traditional stock photography involves selling unique images at a relatively high cost per image, whereas microstock is volume-based and the images are “ready to use” for blogs or other online use. This article gives a great overview of the style differences between stock and microstock.


Getting Started in Stock

I knew next to nothing about stock photography, but a little research pointed me to this fantastic guide. “Get Started in Stock” (3rd Edition at the time of this post) is an excellent e-book and delivers what the title says. It is full of valuable tips and is well worth the modest price. Go buy it if you’re at all interested in stock photography. Those are affiliate links but I’d recommend it regardless. It’s a great value.

Vienna's Rathaus / City Hall By Night
Vienna’s Rathaus / City Hall By Night

The basic steps for getting started in stock photography are these:

  1. Register at one or more stock agencies
  2. Select images from your library to sell
  3. Edit the images
  4. Title and keyword the images
  5. Upload
  6. Profit!

Simple, right?

It is… but you’ll see that step 6 is the hard one.


The First Batch

“Get Started in Stock” recommends that you start with CanStock and then move on to Shutterstock (affiliate links). I followed that advice. I selected 10 photos, uploaded them to CanStock, and they were all accepted! Awesome. Great start.

I moved on to Shutterstock and uploaded the same 10 the next day. 9 were accepted and I was in. Sweet. I registered for Dreamstime (affiliate link) and uploaded there too. I decided to hold off on iStockPhoto for a week or two and just concentrate on these three.

I was really on a roll.


The Second Round

Key Example of How to Fail at Stock Photography
Key Example of How to Fail at Stock Photography – rejected at three sites

I selected a bunch of other photos from my library, edited them and uploaded them to those three again. This time I used FTP for efficiency (it’s all in the e-book).

It takes time for the stock agencies to review your photos to decide if they wish to accept them. I had close to 30 in the queues at CanStock and Shutterstock and Dreamstime… when it all came crashing down.

First up was CanStock, which rejected about 25 of the images. Ouch.

The big blow was Shutterstock, which rejected all 29 images.

Epic. Fail.


Picking Up the Pieces

I was devastated. After such a promising start, I got a hard lesson on how to fail at stock photography.

I stopped uploading for a day, just to take a breather and assess why so many were rejected.

Another triple reject - focus issues
Another triple reject – focus issues

The agencies give one or more reasons per photo, but I can distill them down to three main reasons:

  • Unacceptable image quality (focus being the biggest problem);
  • Too common / similar to others in their database;
  • Image was boring / didn’t “pop”; and
  • Image wasn’t saleable / didn’t tell a story.

They were right to reject them.


Back At It

I went back into my library with a far more critical eye. I was pixel peeping with a vengeance, looking for images that really grabbed the eye and could communicate a message or a feeling.

I also slowed down my upload rate. I aimed for uploading 5-10 images/day to get some quality in and improve my success ratio.

I had better success after that. My approval ratio is still not great but it has improved. In my experience, Shutterstock is the pickiest, followed by CanStock and then Dreamstime.


First Success

My first sale came four days ago, and it was Hebrew Clock on Old Town Hall. 35 cents!

I was so excited. When I noticed I had a balance in my Dreamstime account, I ran and told my wife. She was a bit… underwhelmed. She did see that it was progress, but she knows, as do I, that stock photography is a numbers game and one sale means more will come.

My second sale happened yesterday, and it was Boardwalk Up To Tourist Outlook Under Blue Sky. 25 cents!


Where I’m At Now

I am still very early in the game. My first upload to CanStock was on November 25, so I’ve only been doing this for three weeks.

At the time of writing, I have:

I have a net income of $0.60 after investing probably 30-35 hours of effort.

You might say that is a terrible hourly rate. You’re correct. I see it as an investment. Now that these images are out there, they will bring income, bit by bit, and as I increase my portfolio the income will increase. I don’t expect it to ever be huge but those images are now generating passive income.


Next Steps

Here is where I am going with my stock photography:

  1. Upload more photos
  2. Expand to more stock agencies (now on 5)
  3. Start shooting specifically for stock
  4. Publicize my galleries

My goal for December is to have 100 images online. For January I want to double that, and then we’ll see for February. My secret plan is to have 1,000 online by the end of 2016.

Wish me luck!


Producing and Selling Calendars (Income Idea)

CalendarOne way to generate income for your photography side hustle is by producing and selling calendars. Many people enjoy having a beautiful calendar on their wall or desk, and your fans might appreciate the opportunity to purchase your artwork in this way.

I’ll talk about some options for producing calendars and finish with my own experience selling calendars.

Print Your Own

You could print your own calendars using a local print service, either through a local camera store or print shop, through a service such as Vistaprint, or even through a big box store like Wal-Mart or Costco.

There are advantages and disadvantages. The main advantages I see are a somewhat lower cost to produce each calendar, and the ability to have calendars on hand to sell, either directly to friends and family, or to give as gifts or samples when meeting with prospective clients.

The principal disadvantage is you must buy them first, so you have to invest your own money up front and hope to recoup it. Calendars are obviously time sensitive, so if you haven’t sold them by Christmas you likely are not going to sell them at all.

That leads me to…

Print on Demand Calendars

There are many services that allow you to design your calendar(s) and then they take care of the printing and shipping for you. All you have to do is upload your photos, design the calendar, and set what markup you want on the calendar. In theory they do the rest, although in practice you must do the marketing.

The big advantage to print-on-demand is that you pay no money up front. You must expend the effort to design the calendar, and market it, but the financial risk to you is zero.

The disadvantage is that the calendars are somewhat expensive. On, for example, the basic calendar has a minimum cost of $11.99, with no profit to you, so you must charge more than that to make any money at all. I must say I haven’t found them to be much more expensive than printing your own calendars, unless you print hundreds of calendars.

The Cost Question

You will get challenged by people who see the calendars in retail stores or calendar kiosks that sell for $5.99 or so. There’s no way you can compete with those prices, because you won’t be printing in the volume they do. Your best explanation is to say that the photos are hand picked and of high quality. For print on demand calendars, you could even customize a calendar for one client, if you want to spend the time!

My Own Experience

Lightroom Calendar Collections
Lightroom Calendar Collections

I’ve been selling print-on-demand calendars through Lulu for three years now. I’ve found that they are not a huge money maker by any means, but my readers keep asking for them, so I keep making them.

On you can sell basic or premium calendars. The premium calendars use heavier paper and are larger and don’t fold, whereas the basic calendars are folding calendars that you are likely more familiar with.

Here are my sales figures for the three years I’ve been selling calendars:

Year Types # Sold Premium Sold Revenue (USD) Average / Calendar
2013 1 10 0 $19.62 $1.96
2014 2 11 7 $44.98 $4.09
2015 5 7 13 (to date) 2 $34.00



I’ll note that the majority of calendar sales come in December, so I’m hopeful 2015 will be a good year. UPDATE: 2015 was indeed a good year.

The revenue is my cut of the sales, above what Lulu takes.

My Sales Strategies

I’ve evolved my sales strategies over the past few years. In 2013 I didn’t have much of a margin, so the average income per calendar was low. I was only selling one calendar, a Canadian trains calendar.

In 2014 I decided to increase my margins, and offered premium calendars which had a larger margin. That helped my revenue despite the fact that I did some discounting at different times through the season. I was selling two calendars, a Manitoba grain elevator calendar and a Canadian train calendar, in both regular and premium form.

In 2015 I decided to offer four different calendars – a Manitoba grain elevator calendar in both regular and premium form, and three different train calendars. I ran some Facebook ads to promote them – I’ll write about that separately. I also set up a sales-funnel type of page to sell them, with A/B testing using the Landing Pages WordPress plugin.

My Recommendations

Here are my recommendations for producing and selling photo calendars:

  • Start with print-on-demand calendars until you are sure you have enough volume to print your own;
  • Use your social media feedback (likes) to help you select the photos you will use;
  • Promote the heck out of your calendars – they won’t sell themselves;
  • Use a sales funnel/landing page to help people decide to buy.
  • Don’t expect a huge income from calendars. It’s seasonal and a lot of people don’t use calendars any more.

EDIT: Updated 2016/1/12 with updated sales figures for 2015.