Turn your photography skills into a side hustle
It’s not easy, so here’s what you’ll need to know before getting started.
Photography is not the easiest way to make money, but it can help you grab a couple of bucks on the side. If you’ve started shooting photos you think might do the trick (whether with your iPhone or a dedicated camera) there are a few ways for you to get started and sell them online—though you probably shouldn’t give up your day job just yet.
Sell your photos to magazines, newspapers, and websites
For an amateur with nothing but a smartphone and a good eye for photography, the easiest way to make money off your photos is to sell them directly to magazines, newspapers, and websites. These publications are always in the market for images, especially of something newsworthy, like a car crash or a protest that springs up out of nowhere. Don’t get it wrong though—I say easiest, but it’s still difficult.
Magazines and newspapers often need photos of a specific thing, and if you have them, they may be prepared to buy them off you. I was at the Mixed Ability Rugby World Cup in Spain in 2017 and took the photo above. Two newspapers in Ireland bought it because it featured the Irish team (and it’s a great shot).
If you’re the only one who captures a good photo of something newsworthy, there’s the potential to make some cash—though you do have to work out who to send it to. If it’s something that’s straight-up news, go with the news editor or news tip line. Make sure you say you’re looking to license the image to them, not that you’re submitting it for publication, or you might not get paid. It’s also a good idea to reach out to the editor you think will be most interested. If they like it, even if they aren’t quite the right person, they’ll know who is. With the photo above, I reached out to the sports editors but one ended up forwarding it to another editor who had it placed in the main section of the paper.
Similarly, some magazines accept unsolicited photo submissions and may detail their submission guidelines online. Check out Backcountry’s, for example. The ski and snowboard magazine pays $35 for a small spot photo, and $400 for a cover shot. It’s a decent price for something that you’re already doing as a hobby, but it certainly won’t pay your mortgage.
Shoot stock photos
If you don’t want to do the leg work required to pitch publications, you can sell your photos through online stock photo marketplaces. These are where many publications go to purchase photos when they need images to fit an article such as this one.
The big stock photo sites (like Getty Images, Shutterstock, and Alamy), have pretty strict image quality guidelines—shaky, out-of-focus, or low-resolution shots won’t cut it. But both Getty and Shutterstock will accept smartphone photos as long as they meet their standards. Alamy has a separate service called Stockimo that allows users to upload stock photos taken with an iPhone directly from their phones. Sadly, there’s no Android version yet.
Bear in mind, stock photography is a numbers game. Every service boasts about how many images it has—the bigger the service, the larger the competition will be for your photos. And even if someone licenses one of your images, your commission will only be between 10 and 50 percent of the fee. Successful stock photographers upload thousands of images, so if you’re interested in going this route, you should definitely adhere to the maxim of: “The more, the better.”
Work with clients
A lot of the time in photography, the money isn’t so much in how well you shoot, but what you shoot. Once you get to the level where you can produce decent, technically competent work, you can start working directly with clients, who will tell you what they need and what they want the images to convey (though not always clearly).
At the top level, you have sought-after advertising photographers, like Erik Almås, who charge hundreds of thousands of dollars per image. If you’re reading this article, odds are you’re not at that level yet, but the market is big and there are plenty of other opportunities lower down the ladder.
Instagram influencers are some of the best examples of successful client-focused photographers—they’re paid to take photos promoting a particular brand or product. If you develop a reputation in a certain niche, there’s a good chance brands looking to market to it will want to work with you.
I’ve done some simple client work—things like taking photos of food for a menu, shooting headshots for someone’s website, and even taking photos for someone’s online dating profile. It’s not glamorous work, but because the photos serve more of a purpose than just looking pretty, it’s a lot easier to charge money for your work.
The hard part of client work can be, well, the client—finding people prepared to pay you to take photos is tricky. If your shots are really good, friends, acquaintances, and businesses might start to approach you. Otherwise, you’ll need to start putting serious work into building a portfolio and marketing yourself. Think about ways you can promote yourself to potential clients, whether it’s through online ads, cold pitches, or personal presentations, and get doing it.
At some point, somebody will ask you to shoot a wedding. If you don’t have experience photographing any kind of event, don’t do it. While event photography might seem superficially similar to client photography, it is not the same, at all, and it requires a completely different skillset to shooting photos as a hobby. In a wedding, you don’t have the same level of control over the images you’re taking and there are so many ways things can go wrong. Every few weeks, the photography press runs yet another story of a photographer being sued for messing up someone’s wedding pictures because they got in over their head.
Save yourself the trouble and start small. A good starting point might be taking photos at a low-stakes event involving someone you know, like a party in a nightclub or a quiet charity event. Help set realistic expectations by being transparent and telling them you’ve never done it before but that you’re happy to give it a try. Documenting this kind of event is pretty easy, technically, and since it’s nobody’s big, once-in-a-lifetime day, there are way less opportunities to miss a crucial photo or otherwise screw up.
If you find you’ve got a knack for it, you can start to work on your event photography skills and go from there. There’s not much creative work you can do here, especially when you’re starting out—you are really just there to bash the button on top of the camera, which makes it a decent enough way to get an hourly wage if you own a camera.
Sell prints or a photo book
If you’re a truly gifted amateur photographer—someone who takes photos that people (other than your mom) want to display—selling prints is one of the best ways to make money. You’ll need to set up an online store or convince a local gallery to carry your work, but both are possible to do in a weekend.
You’ll also need to find some way to print your work. I’d recommend you go with a local, high-quality printshop, which will allow you to work with someone to get your photos ready for their printer and deal with quality control afterward. If you don’t want to handle orders yourself, you can use a print-on-demand service like Fine Art America, but you won’t have as much control over quality.
Just enjoy it
I’ve considered going full-time as a professional photographer, but for me it’s just not worth it—I make far more money writing about photography than I would selling prints of my work, and wedding photography is a grind I’m not prepared to do. By keeping it as half-a-hobby, half-a-part-of-my-job, I’m able to keep enjoying it. So unless you really stand to make a lot of money, if you love photography, you’re probably better-off doing the same.