Selling stock photos through your personal website

Many people try to sell stock images from their own personal portfolio and website, but with very mixed results for a couple of reasons – the first is that there are few options for hosting such a site (there are a few paid packages around). The second, and most problematic, is that no-one know that you are there! Unless you can get your images in the first few rows of Google’s image search, then the chance of a buyer finding you among all the other potential images is pretty remote.

Then along came Symbiostock – a wordpress theme created by illustrator Leo Blanchette – and eagerly picked up, tested, modified and enhanced by an active group of stock photographers and illustrators. We are now on release 2.5.5 – so many improvements along the way, and we are at a build that is both stable and feature rich. The basic theme is free of charge, so that you can create a fully functional website for virtually nothing – all you pay for is hosting, which can be obtained for about $4.99 a month. But all of that would be interesting, but not particularly useful, if it was not for the hidden gem in the Symbiostock approach – networking.

Remember the basic issue about creating your own stock site – no-one knows you are there… The Symbiostock approach tackles that in two distinct ways. First, the theme is very search engine friendly. Each image uploaded to the site automatically populates the standard title, description and keywords, but from there, you can add detailed specifics about that particular image without any worries about hitting the 200 character limit for descriptions (Shutterstock) or the problems with compound keywords (like “New York”) on other sites. We all hate descriptions and keywords, but this is your personal site, you get 100% of the sale price and it is worth doing it right! As a result, I add more detail to every description, I “bold” important words in the text and add, in proper sentences, other words or concepts that the buyer may have in their mind when searching for that image. When the image is finally published onto the web, all the correct search engine metadata is properly assigned – image tags, “alt-tags” – the lot. After doing this bit, your images already have a much better chance of appearing in the search results above the same photo on a regular stock site because it is just more complete and comprehensive. But that is only part of the story….

Symbiostock stock agency network

Symbiostock Network – courtesy of

Gerlachsheim Church

The individual sites in the Symbiostock network are networked together! Each person is in complete control of their own site – design, look, pricing, licensing, shopping cart etc. – but any search that takes place on one site automatically displays the results from that site, but also adds in matching images from up to 10 other sites in the network. The buyer can see your results, but if an image that better meets their need appears on a networked site, just clicking on the thumbnail takes them straight there. This gives us two benefits – more chance that the buyer is satisfied and comes back, and a heavily networked set of websites with “authoritative links” forming a complex web of interactions – just the thing that Google finds interesting in a website. Good content and good incoming links from sites that are themselves well respected. As the network grows, this network effect grows exponentially.

But wait, there is more….

With that underlying structure in place, and the sites freely talking to each other and sharing what image data they have, it became possible and simple to set up a network search engine that can be used to search the entire network from one place. None of the artists is having to pay for this search engine, no share of the commissions – just a group effort to maximize our individual income. The landing page shows the scale of the network already – 55 individual artist websites with 60K images now available for sale. Clicking on the number of images by a site in the network gives a nice overview of the sort of images they have on that site. A search – for “New York” say – immediately shows all the matching images, using a best match algorithm, with a zoom feature when you mouse over the thumbnail, and the link goes straight back to the image purchase page on the right site. Even there, you get to see similar images that match the chosen photo, so the buyer is given the maximum choice to pick the right image for their need. Purchase is then quick and easy – Paypal integration, the file they choose is stored in their personal area on the site for download then, or later.

How can you use this?

Obviously, you could put all your non-exclusive images on your own site, choose your own sizing, license restrictions, pricing and sell them direct from the artist. That is a natural start, and as your images start to rise in the Google rankings, you will start to see visitors to your site arriving with relatively common search terms – and some of those will find what they need and buy or license one of your images! As a simple example, one search today on Google Images for “beer poolside” showed this photo in the third row of images:
Beer poolside – Google Images Search

What is interesting about this is that the particular image has been on 20+ stock agencies for a couple of years, but the site that appeared at the top of Google Images was my very own personal stock site – that is what Search Engine Optimization is all about!

Then you could start thinking about this as the sole source of some of your images, especially the editorial images where the demand may be low, but the pricing for a specific image that meets that very unique need could be higher. For instance, I have a number of beautiful images of some churches in Germany – taken on a tripod, with HDR (to get a good dynamic range, not to make it garish!) and perspective control. I’ve decided to sell them for editorial use exclusively on my own site. They are probably “long tail” images that are not in big demand, but when someone wants them, they know just what they are looking for. My images, an example of which is the image of Gerlachsheim church in this post, are already in in pole position in Google search after just three days. Similar shots on the Getty and Alamy stock agencies are nowhere to be seen in the search results.

Interested in finding out more? There is a never ending stream of discussion on the Microstock group forum, but that is a very hard way to start! Instead, have a look at the introductory guide site some volunteers have put together at

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10 Responses

  1. Kevin Hellon says:

    Very interesting Steve but I still wonder whether people use google to search for an image or go directly to a favourite microstock site and search there.

    Also have you made any sales yet and will you be reporting these each month as with the microstock sites.

    I have been following your blog for several months now and find it both interesting and instructive.


  2. Christine says:

    Nice description of Symbiostock you have written here Steve, this was in three months, wonder what we will be after a year, my site is doing better this month so far than the agencies

  3. admin says:

    Thanks Kevin. I think there are two types of buyer – one that has a subscription with one of the stock agencies – I am sure they will go there and buy the image they want. Then there is the more occasional buyer that doesn’t buy enough images to justify a subscription, or they have a particular need (more likely editorial) and they are not finding what they want on their agency. Then Google, or Google images is the way to go and if I come out at the top, then my chances increase! Two things make me think that has some truth – one is that the traffic to many of the mid-tier stock agencies dropped significantly when Google changed its Image search earlier this year – showing that a lot of incoming searches were coming to them that way. The second is that a number of the other Symbio sites have sold images already.

    For me – I will report sales in coming months. I have sold two images, but someone found me through another route and we agreed to use my new site as a test for the sale process – it worked very well!


  4. David W. says:

    Really nice article and overview of the benefits of Symbiostock. I referred to this article today in a LinkedIn group about Photoshop. The timing was perfect for the question being asked.

    Hopefully your article will generate more interest in Symbiostock.

    • admin says:

      Thanks David – it will be great if we get a big influx of very competent stock photographers to the network and start to really compete with some of the smaller agencies!


  5. Cathy says:

    Nice write-up of the Symbiostock experience, Steve. I have already reported a sale from my site, but I am looking forward to seeing many more. I, too, am impressed with placement of our images in the Google search. There are so many new Symbiostock sites cropping up!

  6. Convinced Me says:

    Game changer this, than you! Yep, your beer comes up as you said. But I note that “robot blue illustration” tells a different story, most of the agencies are first, not Leo’s own site. Still, my eyes are opened and once again I’m excited about being in this industry. Symbio and the Alamy plugin will be my start, high value RM images on my own site, well represented on Google. Wonderful stuff, thanks again!

  7. Monica says:

    I’ve read your article about symbiostock and your faith that “direct selling to buyer” which is make me happy.
    I’ve been enough for microstock agencies that cut to many, expecially for illustrator like me. $0.25 it just insult.
    Now, i must try the symbiostock based on this article, i hope it would end good. Thank you for share this.

    Note: sorry for my bad english, im come from somewhere in asia which use 4 language in daily basis.

    • admin says:

      I have found that the sales via your own site can be very few and far between. I think illustrators do better than photographers, but even so, it is not an easy path to riches!

I'm always interested in what you think - please let me know!