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Microstock photography is not passive income

This might come as a surprise to you but photography isn’t exactly the cheapest of hobbies out there. Out of all the things I do it has certainly been the priciest by a long shot. My camera alone cost about three times as much as my electric guitar did. And a camera alone isn’t even all you need to get going.

You will also want a tripod, of course. And a decent laptop to edit your photos. And an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription for Lightroom Classic. And won’t you look at that, all the images have filled up your hard drive. Better buy an external hard drive or maybe even a NAS! And how will you take your camera to locations you want to shoot? You are going to need a camera bag for that, obviously. I think you get the picture.

I fell for it

Many moons ago a young and naïve Liam read about how he could use his photography skills and expensive mirrorless camera to earn money by selling photos through microstock agencies. At the time many even claimed that once you had uploaded enough decent looking photos you could turn it into… passive income. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, to put it bluntly, it is too good to be true. Let me tell you about my experience trying to sell microstock photography.

There is no such thing as passive income

First of all, let us dispel the myth that is passive income. There is no such thing as passive income! Even if you are still selling a photo you shot years ago today you had to put in at least some work at the time. The photo didn’t just magically appear on your desktop and was then uploaded and tagged without you having to ever touch the keyboard.

At best you can hope for a good ratio between the time spent working and the money you’re making. But you are always going to have to put some amount of work into such an undertaking. You will never earn a thing by doing nothing. That’s not how this world works.

Be wary of the snake oil salesman

I’m convinced that people telling you there is such a thing as passive income make all of their money by selling guides which apparently tell you how to do it. They don’t actually do the things mentioned in their guides. At least, that is the impression I get. Don’t fall for it.

Buying a microstock photography course
These courses on how to earn passive income from microstock photography don’t come cheap

It’s the same with all of these gurus selling you guides on how to become an entrepreneur yet the only thing they’ve ever done is sell guides and courses to gullible or naïve customers. And not even what they’re doing is passive income. They still have to write (or invent) the guides and take care of a website and SEO and on and on.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck,…

…and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Every time someone in an ad promises that what they’re selling might look like a scam but isn’t. It most likely is a scam. In all likelihood, they are classic snake oil salesmen. And I say men because I’ve actually only ever seen men selling courses and guides on passive income.

What would you do?

If you still don’t believe me, put yourself into the shoes of one of these “experts” selling courses on how to get rich quickly. Let’s say you’ve devised a system which is generating $250k a year. Why would you ever sell the secrets to your system for $1000 or even less? Why wouldn’t you invest in your system and scale up the business? Wouldn’t that make you a lot more money than selling a couple of guides and courses every month? Take a moment to think about it.

What is microstock photography?

Let’s put all other forms of “passive income” to one side and focus solely on microstock photography. Microstock photography is a type of stock photography which is very easy for the amateur photographer to get into.

You might have heard of platforms such as Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, Depositphotos, or iStockphoto. These platforms allow you to upload your photos to them. Those photos are then sold to anyone willing to pay very little money for them.

Most sites nowadays also have some form of subscription model which gives the photographer even less money for their work. For example, Shutterstock will sell your images for anything between $0.25 and about $25.00 (if you’re lucky). But you will mostly find that you are making towards the lower end per sale.

It’s a numbers game

Microstock is purely a numbers game. The more photos you have uploaded to each platform the more likely customers are to see and buy them. And you will need loads of photos to reach any worthwhile income. Guess what you will have to do to reach any respectable number of photos: absolutely work your behind off. Doesn’t sound much like passive income any more, does it?

A microstock photographer with thousands of upload
For any success in microstock photography you need thousands of high-quality uploads

Microstock photography is saturated

And because for some time now just about anyone can buy a decent camera, every single niche of microstock photography you can think of is highly saturated. You’ve got next to no chances of making any meaningful impact.

If you’re thinking you can travel the world by selling the photos you take on your adventures please think again. Were you to search for microstock photos of palm trees on one of the many platforms they wouldn’t show the newest photos first (which is where yours would be). That wouldn’t make any sense at all, would it? No. Instead, they will show the most popular photos. Those will more likely than not have been on that platform for many years and downloaded many times. You don’t change a winning formula.

Searching for palm trees on a microstock photography agency

While I can’t deny that a few lucky photographers might have and still are making a living out of microstock, they’ve been in it for a number of years. And building up your portfolio will require you to be able to live off your savings for quite some time because it will take you some time to do so. You will most likely also have to invest in equipment such as flashes and pay for shoots with models and buy props. It would be a very risky thing to do.

Companies don’t value Photography

Even if you think it might be worth the gamble in the long-run you need to take the direction in which the market is heading into consideration. I recently wrote about how Reddit (the company, not the platform) wanted to use a user-submitted photo of a dog for advertising purposes.

You might think that a company valuated at $3 billion would pay good money for photos used in their campaigns. Well, they don’t. In fact, they weren’t offering any compensation to the photographer besides Reddit Gold. And Reddit Gold is absolutely useless in the real world. It won’t buy you any new photography gear or pay for a trip. They didn’t even want to credit the photographer. So no free exposure either.

And I’ll let you know that other photographers praised Reddit for the way they handled this situation. Any other social media site might have just used the photo without ever asking for permission. And they can do that without any repercussions. By uploading your photos to their site you agree to their terms of service and somewhere in there, it will state that you have signed away any rights to the photo.

The truth is that companies don’t value photography enough to pay for it. That’s why microstock websites exist. They sell photos for less than a dollar. There are now even sites, such as the controversial Unsplash, which will give away photos for free. And people will upload really good photos to those sites in the hopes of gaining any kind of recognition.

My experience selling stock photography

I started off this article by mentioning that I once tried to sell my photos on microstock sites so it’s only fair I tell you how well I did. I’ll take Shutterstock as an example. In about five years on that site, my photos were downloaded 164 times. Not bad, right? Well, I earned just over $50. That’s right, my photos are, on average, valued at just about $0.50.

A camera won’t make you rich

All I’ve done so far is complain about snake oil salesmen and microstock sites. You might be asking yourself what I’m trying to get at with this article. There are two points I have at the very least attempted to make in these paragraphs:

First of all, if something sounds too good to be true it probably is just that. Too good to be true. There is no such thing as passive income and even if there were, microstock photography wouldn’t be part of it.

The second point is that you should just enjoy your photography. Don’t buy a camera in the hopes of it making you some money. It’s not likely that that will ever happen unless you have your plan really thought out. Buy a camera because you enjoy photography for your own sake.

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