Do You Have a $4,000 Travel Photo Sitting on Your Hard Drive?

Have you ever wondered what your travel photos are worth? Most people take travel photos for themselves to remember the experience or share on social media. To each of us, these photos are priceless, but what are they worth to others? This is the question I asked myself back in 2012, and I have been pleasantly surprised with the answer.

When I started to get serious about learning photography, money was tight and it was a stretch to purchase even an entry-level DSLR. However, it didn’t take long for me to understand that I wanted to experiment with more than the kit lens.

I wanted to invest in better gear and training but needed this hobby to pay for itself. At the time, I would get excited if I received more than a couple dozen views on Flickr or 500px, but also started posting my better photos to Microstock sites. I did Web research and found numerous articles about how Microstock was “killing” photography and how hard it was to make a living doing Microstock, but in my mind I didn’t need to make a living, I just needed to make enough for a fast 50mm lens… it was worth a try.

So in 2012 I uploaded around 300 of my best photos to 5 microstock sites. It was a tedious process of keywording, uploading, categorizing, and submitting but I was able to get them all uploaded in my spare time within a month. Some of the sites rejected about half the photos as not being high enough quality but enough got accepted for me to to start making about $100 month in sales across the sites.

This monthly bonus kept me motivated enough to keep uploading photos as I continued to improve my photography skills. One photo, though, stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a photo of Moraine lake in Alberta, Canada, and over the past 5 years it has made over $4000 across the various microstock and print-on-demand sites.

This photo was taken during a family camping trip with my wife and our one year old daughter. The entire three week family vacation cost around $3,500, and it’s still hard for me to believe that this one photo ended up getting more revenue than the cost of the entire trip.

As an amateur, I have never sold a photo license for anywhere near $4,000. Instead, this photo has sold over 6,000 licenses for less than a dollar each. Over the years, these Microstock license sales paid to upgrade my DSLR to a full-frame system, purchase a new a micro 4/3s system, and cover all my photography software costs.

In other words: I achieved my goal of having my photography hobby break even.

To be clear, I don’t take stock photos; meaning, when I am out taking photos, it never crosses my mind if it will sell on Microstock or not. I take the photos I want to take and then post to stock sites to see if they sell. Photography is still a hobby the pleasure it gives me comes first making any money is secondary.

Most of the photos I have uploaded have only made a couple of bucks or nothing at all in the past 5 years, but there are enough like my Moraine lake photo that have taken off and get more sales month after month.

This is due to the way search engine’s on Microstock sites work. If someone buys your photo when searching a specific term, then your photo will rank higher for that term on future searches. As more people buy, the photo can move up to the first page. Once a photo is on the first page for a popular keyword then it will often stay there for a while as more sales come in.

My Moraine lake photo is on the first page of the most popular Microstock site for the keyword “Canada.” It has managed to keep this high ranking for multiple years, so the sales have just continued to add up.

There is a lot of negative information on the Web about Microstock, but I’m glad I didn’t rely on others experiences in my decision to start posting to Microstock sites.

So if you’re an amateur who just loves photography, it doesn’t mean you have rely solely on your current income to finance your photography learning and gear. If you spend a bit of extra time posting your photos on Microstock sites, you may be pleasantly surprised when the monthly commission checks pay for that next lens on the list.

About the author: James Wheeler is an amateur photographer and co-founder of Photerloo, a website for photographers that simplifies posting and managing their photos across photography, social media, and microstock sites.