Can you just focus on travel stock photos?

I had a really good discussion with a budding stock photographer yesterday who offered $75 for an hour’s one on one tuition/advice from me. We discussed his portfolio, talked about improvements and had a good debate on how to come up with ideas for new shoots. He asked me if you could “make it” with just travel photography or whether you needed the second of my three main subject areas (places, things, people) to get a reasonable income. Of course, having all three is perfect, but not everyone is comfortable with outdoor shots, or people images, so you do the best you can! But it made me think – how well do my travel shots sell versus my studio “things” shots?

Well here is part of the answer!


One of the major issues I faced in looking at this question is – how can I analyse my portfolio into different categories? I don’t track the sales of each image, I don’t have “secret” keywords in files that allow me to categorize images? So even getting a feeling for the question is quite difficult. I decided to try by thinking of subjects that I could search for and create collections in Microstockr Pro of the earnings of all images around that subject. I decided on two locations that I have a pretty reasonably number of images online – Hawaii and Washington DC as my example travel shots. For things, it was much harder as I have all sorts of different subjects that I have taken in my studio. I do have quite a number of USA Tax shots and I have struck lucky this year with Bitcoins, and finally, I started quite early with some cat shots (sort of “things”) and stopped uploading new images in 2012 when the cats went to a new home. So that might help answer another question – how long do images continue to earn money?

What does this tell us? Firstly, my travel photography in Washington DC was by far my best location. I was lucky to live reasonably close and so was able to get in for dawn and sunset and so got some really nicely lit images. My best seller for a single image was this one:

This has earned $1300 out of the total of $15240 from DC related images. Most of my images were uploaded in 2011 through 2014 and I have sporadically added new images from time to time since then. The majority were in place by 2014 though. What is interesting here is that the income definitely peaked with the peak upload period and kept that through 2015, but fell off pretty quickly in 2017. Cherry Blossom time is a nice seller for Washington DC and so perhaps it will show some signs of life this spring. Microstockr can’t tell me how many Washington DC images I have on the agencies (it only knows about a file after a sale) and it does match images between agencies but that still doesn’t get at how many total images are for sale. I can say that there are 336 images and videos on Shutterstock. Here is a snapshot of how the different agencies have performed with Washington DC shots. Just for the record, most of the sales on Pond5 have been fireworks videos that I took one Independence Day overlooking the various monuments and the Mall.

This shows pretty clearly the importance of spreading images across the various sites. If I had just gone with Shutterstock, then I’ve lost more than 50% of the potential income. iStock, much maligned for recent low priced sales, comes in with over $3000. Even Canstock and 123RF contribute their bit!

How about Hawaii? Lots of beaches, lots of sun, surely an opportunity for travel photographers? I’ve got images from three of the main islands there – Oahu, Kauai and Maui and I started uploading those shots in 2008 and have continued pretty much every year (yes, it is a hard life as a stock photographer!!). Here my income has actually continued to grow over the years with 2017 being the best year so far with $1200 out of a total of $6530. So already, it is clear that a place in the news (like Washington DC) is much more profitable than a place where the users of images are more likely to be in the travel industry. My best selling image from Hawaii is actually a composite:

The base image of just the surfboards was actually taken in Hawaii, but I didn’t include that in the title or description and so that image, which has sold for $1675, is not included in my Hawaii numbers, but even so, these composites with various Hawaii backgrounds do count for $1120 of my total. It just goes to show that capturing an image that catches the buyers attention on your travel trips is really important to making it a profitable venture. So never forget to look for details as well as the normal place shots. There aren’t any really outstanding sellers in my Hawaii collection. This is the best at $111, but then there are 430 other images that have sold at least once on Shutterstock. Again, there is a reasonable spread across the agencies:

In this case, Shutterstock is again the clear winner, although 123RF has made a very creditable showing. It just goes to show – you never know which agency will sell which images!

Those were my travel examples. So what about “Things”. I’ve written about Bitcoins before and that has been a real winner for me. It just shows if you can catch a trend with some good images, you can really earn some nice money. Here is the Bitcoin earnings story – uploaded in April 2017, it has taken off much like the price:

Not all agencies accepted these, I realized quite late on that iStock required them to be editorial and so I only uploaded some of my more recent ones to them in late December and even so, I don’t know what the December sales are yet on that site. I’m banking on plunging prices now, and so here is my latest shot:

You need to have images both for rising and falling prices!

But how about topics that are in the news but never going to be earth shattering – like the annual tax season in the US and many other countries. I focus on the US, because I know that “market”, but this is potentially an opportunity in every country where the population has to fill in annual tax returns. There is no superstar here – just regular sales across a variety of shots and steady earnings year by year, although last year was quite a jump for some reason. I tend to upload new images each year with the latest tax return to try to keep my portfolio fresh and they sell across all agencies:

So a boring “things” subject like taxes can still generate a steady income in its own right although I’ve failed to find the super seller in this area!

So now to cats. There are millions of cat pictures, but my daughter had two very pretty bengal kittens that were happy to pose. I uploaded images between 2009 and 2012 with my best shots going up in 2011 and 2012. The best seller is this image:

It’s actually my best seller of all my photos, having earned $3000 in its own right. My cat pictures have earned a total of almost $7400 but the agency split is very interesting:

Here the bulk of the sales are from Shutterstock, which I think shows the importance of getting a good position in the “popular” search. Other sites have been OK, some have been terrible, but again, you just don’t know. Because I stopped uploading cats in 2012, the ongoing sales give me at least an idea of the longevity of a general set of images – and it looks pretty good so far. Although the income is falling (presumably there are better pictures out there now!), I have had 5 good years of earnings from these images and they still earned almost $700 last year. I suspect they will continue to drop down over the years, but I think I will get maybe 2 or 3 more years out of them. That plays to one of the big advantages of this way of earning money – it continues even though you may no longer be supplying new images to the agencies. Now, of course, I’m still submitting other images. I have no idea if a “dormant” account falls in the search order.

So, what are the lessons? Good travel shots, especially of interesting (to the media in general) places sell best. Detail shots can make a big difference so always be on the look out for those. Studio shots (at least the sort of thing that I come up with) can be nicely profitable but you either need to catch a trend, or be really good at a particular genre (say the current interest in “from above” desk shots that can be used as the header of a webpage). I found Microstockr Pro to be really helpful in understanding what was going on with my sales – both the matching of images across different agencies to get the best sellers and the collections to track sales across a theme of images. It is worth checking out if you want to understand your earnings better.

Finally, if you can think of ways that I could analyse this differently, please let me know in the comments!

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6 Responses

  1. Vlad Savin says:

    Hello, Steve!

    You have done a good portfolio analysis. I like reading your site.

    I believe that creating neutral stories that describe the main news is always beneficial. Such topics are easy to find and they always repeat.

    Yesterday I received my “Chinese” bitcoin by mail. I will take photos. I think that the story with these coins is not over yet and we will all be able to make money on them.

    Best regards, Vlad.

  2. Hi, I have been receiving your stock photography newsletters for a while and I find them really informative, the last two, where you have been going into more detail about individual subjects and earning longevity have been incredibly useful to me, thank you for being so open and informative, I don’t think there is anyone else out there sharing this information in such an honest and in-depth way, Thank you.
    Also I wanted to join Canva through your link on your newsletter website but I can’t find it, can you send me your link so I can join via you as the recommendation.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Gill! Glad you find the articles useful! I don’t believe Canva has a referral program – not many of the agencies do these days. Perhaps they have enough contributors!

  3. Thanks for the great analysis! “Being able to make it” or “live from it” is always a difficult question, which is asked a lot. And the most difficult part in answering that question, is that it depends a lot on each specific situation. For instance, life in Belgium is expensive, and besides high prices, you have to pay a lot of taxes too. So to be able to make it here, you need to earn nearly double of for instance in Zimbabwe.
    But the way you analyse your data in this post, gives people an idea of how it works for you. Which isn’t a blueprint, but it is an incredibly piece of information, and a tremendous motivator! 😉

    • admin says:

      Hi Bjorn – In retrospect, I think the title might be misleading. I was thinking more about could you be a stock photographer and only do travel. The question of whether you can make this your sole income stream in a developed country is far more complex. I couldn’t live in the USA on $33K a year (although I know many people do) and I certainly couldn’t travel as much as I do. Thanks for your kind comments!

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