How to Earn Money From Photography and Feel Great About it
It was weird.
Naked. Immersed in healthy spring water from deep within the earth’s crust.
Snow howling down like a sandstorm.
The heated water slowly boiling me alive.
It was my first time and I was WAY out of my comfort zone.
So I grab the thing they call a towel and make my way out of the hot pool.
And as I stood in the locker room it dawned on me.
I'd just spent all this time in these majestic hot pools and not taken one snap!
In fact I was kind of glad I didn't take my iPhone in.
A bunch of furious ninjas would have pummelled me if I had.
There's a lesson there, somewhere.
While I was hanging out in a weird Japanese onsen, taking cautious steps into steaming rock pools.
You don't need to photograph every experience!
In fact, many experiences happen without a camera in sight...
I mean, to be able to travel, jump on trains, planes and ferries, bath in natural hot water while it's snowing outside - you’ve got to LOVE this crazy, amazing world!
I guess that particular moment I was feeling grateful. Although I couldn't tell what the other Japanese men were thinking because they had little towels covering their faces.
That might have been something to do with the way I looked...
This particular Japanese trip I definitely drank from the well of humility and toasted the Gods of efficiency.
I got to hang out with amazing people and did it all without having to stay in dodgy backpacker dormitories.
I ventured into one of them in Manly, Sydney once and it was total debauchery! (Note to self: never stay in dodgy backpacker dormitories!)
Snow trekking in Japan?
The morning after (pic above) we snow-trekked for about 20km to get to the summit of Katsuragi Mountain ( 葛城山 ). We half collapsed at the door of a ryokan ( 旅館 ) at the very top.
But the Japanese onsen was only a small taste of some of the somewhat bizarre experiences I've had.
A sight to behold. Had just started arguing with myself!
Thermometer hovering around the -4 degrees mark.
Of course, you need money to flirt around the world at a moment's notice.
And what if you're not rolling in the green or a recognised photographer?
What if you just want to travel all the time? (Like, ahem, someone I know).
Well this here is sort of what I do. It doesn't always work perfect, but it mostly kind of runs along without me nursing it too much.
How to earn money from photography
In a good way...
So here's how I make money from my photos, my travel and photo inspired blog, the odd photo products and other bits and pieces.
We'll call it "The Hurley Boy Green List" and it looks something like this...
- Stock photography (as affiliate and contributor)
- Photo T-Shirts (Amazon’s Merch and e-commerce store)
- Amazon (Affiliate for photographic products)
- Website hosting (Promote photo websites)
- Shopify (Help people create online store)
- Print On Demand Products (P.O.D)
- Youtube videos and blog posts
- Photo books, calendars, aerial photos
- Photography royalties and designs
- Travel recommendations
Yeah there's a lot of stuff there. You might be wondering which one works best.
Or maybe your boy Hurley just smoked way too much crack! *
Do the creative work once
But why not strive to be an independent free spirit roaming the world doing creative work once and getting paid for it forever? (Ie stock photos, designs, books etc).
Because right now it's never been easier to be a photographer or creative. With high resolution mobile phones, Mavic Pro drones, Go-Pros, whatever-me-bobs (etc) - you don't need to get someone's permission, go to a special school or need certificates or diplomas.
Just got to go out and do it!
As long as you're not paralysed by the "Credentials Myth" then you'll be OK!
How I do it
So here’s the different ways I promote this stuff:
1. Write blog posts for my PhotoLife blog
2. Create Youtube videos as often as possible
3. A consistency on Instagram (especially when in travel mode)
4. Facebook page and Facebook ads etc
5. Cross promoting using Google and others
6. Interviews with other photographers and travellers
7. Consistently upload images to stock photo sites
8. Network and talk to people (friend them up on social media)
The good news is a lot of these work really well if you do them right.
Sometimes you just go all rogue and throw things out there to see if they'll stick.
Take my creative Youtube videos for example.
Out of my 215,000 views on the Youtubes I've had...
A shag load of 'Nuthin' videos!
Put heaps of time into those (editing, creation, sound, theme, concept) and they've pretty much got zero views. Hence my 'do nothing' videos.
You can spend hours planning, filming, editing and mapping out a Youtube video for it to be dominated by a one take, random Apple Photos video I made just so I could remember how to do something!
Boggles the mind.
My Youtube story is that you can put a lot in and get a little out.
But when you win, you can win really big.
What about Etsy and Youtube?
Some of my Youtube videos I put lots of time into and they get very few views. The others do well.
As for Etsy, I've squandered much prized time there and heard mostly crickets.
The Etsy posse keep "liking" my stuff but only one in a thousand seems to buy. Likes don't pay for the Tesla, man!
Even though I ran paid advertising through the Etsy marketplace and through Google Ads.
Boggles the mind.
You could look at Etsy and Youtube thing in two ways:
- It sucks. Better to give up. No donut.
- It still sucks but you refine the approach, make better videos and fine tune the Etsy audience and your product. You could also explore new platforms...
But anyways... I'd suggest finding a process that resonates with you with the highest return for your time.
So with that said let’s get into this.
1 - Stock Photography (as affiliate and contributor)
Stock photo agencies will tell you exactly what they need. It says it right here, clear as day. See?
You can go out there right now and create a body of work on a "needed" subject theme and totally make that your focus.
And if you know that every good picture can potentially earn you an income for the next 10+ years then what's not to like?
Let me say that again. Stock agencies will actually tell you what images sell best and what type of images their clients ask for.
Do a search on the stock photo websites for photo requests.
When I travel I take note what the stock photo agencies need and keep it in mind. Then I might focus on getting a bunch of images around the themes they need.
I just looked and it turns out Alamy has stock photo requests for the theme of ‘architecture and interiors.’ You can probably get some of these images without leaving the comfort of your own home!
The other way I’ve earned income from stock photography is by promoting stock photography as an affiliate. People need stock photos for their websites, designs, advertising etc. Be the person that brings the two together.
Being an affiliate means the stock photo agencies will pay you a small commission for each person that signs up through your unique reference link and purchases stock photos from them or contributes images as a photographer or film maker.
My earnings as an affiliate for stock photography are not huge but if you do it right, and you’re consistent you can make some good coin from it.
Alternatively I'll promote the stock photo website on my blog, usually as a recommendation inside a blog post.
You can sign up to be an affiliate (or photo contributor / both free) on these stock photos websites:
3. Getty / iStockphoto
5. Fotolia (Now Adobe Stock)
Might seem like a lot of work but...
If you're not ready to actually start selling or contributing sellable images then you can still promote these stock photo sites and earn income from it.
Most of these stock photo sites understand photographers are contributing images from smart phones. You can use apps on your phone to instantly upload images to them, check your stats and earnings, and so on.
2 - Photo T-shirts and merchandise
Like many good things Amazon Merch will steal your precious time away faster than you can say freakin' hotel. But if you’ve ever thought your photography would look good on a t-shirt or hoodie then by all means give it a go.
Sometimes life is about risking everything for a dream no one can see but you.
Kind of re-discovered Merch after a chunk of money landed in my bank account. Traced it back to good ol' Amazon paying me for t-shirt sales!
Many moons ago, I cranked out a few photo designs, uploaded to Merch and a whole bunch of people bought them. Who knew?
With Amazon Merch you potentially have thousands of people seeing your work...
Since then, Merch has been another income stream for me. It's sweet considering I have only about 15 t-shirt designs uploaded. Heard there's a bit of a waiting period to join though.
Keep in mind to get where I am now, something like 5000 of my own different photo designs got rejected by Amazon or didn’t sell (if they don’t sell Amazon removes them).
But you know what's real weird?
People buy t-shirts that you’d think would never sell!
You can create t-shirt designs for children and specifically for male / females too. So keep your eyes peeled when you’re out shopping or travelling for interesting designs that people are wearing. You can emulate that type of thing, in your own style.
All the photo t-shirt designs I have on Amazon Merch at the moment came from pretty much three things: my iPhone to capture the image, Adobe Photoshop Elements (you can use Adobe Photoshop or any free design tool), and Canva to help with the design.
Basically with Merch it really pays if you have some design creating skills that'll look good as photo t-shirts. I’m not the greatest designer but I just take some of my images and play around with text, design and filters.
Once you upload the image you need to do some hard core intellectual copyright and trademark checks to check the description / words / text you’re using is NOT trademarked by any other living soul on this planet.
Once you’re signed into Merch, you upload the image onto the shirt template, add descriptions, details, t-shirt name etc.
Amazon pretty much does everything else for you, like the promotion, packing and shipping, etc. And hopefully sells massive amounts of your funky photo t-shirt designs!
My profit per t-shirt currently hovers around US$5.38 (it'll depend on how much you sell your photo t-shirt for). I like to keep my photo t-shirts priced at US$19.97.
The things you need for Merch:
1. Your photo design, illustration concept
2. Canva for adding text and designs
3. Photoshop Elements (or use Adobe Creative Cloud or Affinity Photo)
4. Patience for the long haul (and the odd sleepless night)
5. Amazon Merch!
There’s a lot more fine tune details that go into using the Amazon Merch program. Just touched on it to give you an idea how it works and the cupcakes I’ve been earning.
And on the subject of Amazon...
3 - Promoting Amazon products
You can also become an affiliate for photographic products... like a groovy $9,999.00 Oskar Barnak Gold Leica R3.
US$399.00 would be roughly your commission if you were to promote high ticket items like that sweet Leica.
As long as it duly sold of course!
When I write blog posts many of the links point to Amazon products. High ticket items are the go. You can earn a small (approx 4%) commission on any product someone purchases through your links.
My Amazon earnings have been a slow trickle. But still, people often buy more than one thing on Amazon when they’re shopping which means you get a commission for the other things they purchase too.
If you want to mail that Leica to anyone I've heard the guy at this postal address is cool: P.O. Box 1111, Castlemaine, Victoria Australia 3450!
4 - Website hosting services
You can also promote photo websites and related services.
This is another way of starting out to earn money from photography (except you're not really using your own photography). That said, you could focus on helping photographers / creatives to create websites for their own needs.
Most photographers and creatives need a website. So you could become an affiliate for a web host (the 'home' where your website lives) and earn a commission every time someone purchases through your link.
You could also talk about how cool Shopify is as well as webhosts that are specifically for Wordpress websites (example WP Engine).
The affiliate earning per sale tend to hover around US$60 to US$200.00.
Ask yourself how can you help other photographers, designers, creatives? (Get them on your email list and help them to create their own websites, using your link as you do it).
Apart from caffeine, here's other things these photographers might need.
1. An email client (like ConvertKit)
2. A funnel or landing page like DropFunnels so they can sign up customers
3. A domain name (Namecheap)
4. A website theme like ThriveThemes or Shopify
You really need to go about it with good intentions and good ethics. You'd do that anyway, right?
If you truly have skillsets and the ability to help others then it should be your obligation to get out there and start doing so.
You want to help people out so they can move forward. You don’t want to just bombard them with all your affiliate links!
5 - Helping people create online e-commerce stores
One way to do this is by using Shopify. That's an online ecommerce store that helps you sell your products. I haven’t pushed Shopify really hard but earnings have dribbled in over the year.
Most of the promotion I’ve done have been from a few Youtube videos and consistently mentioning Shopify in my blog.
I like Shopify because it’s a recurring commission which means you get paid every month (as long as the person stays signed up). And oh yeah it’s a great product too.
Shopify allows you to create your own e-commerce or online store where you can sell anything you want, including print on demand photo products (see below).
They do the hosting for you and provide great themes to use. There are probably other ecommerce stores that do a similar thing. Shopify is the big daddy of them all.
6 - Print on demand products (P.O.D)
Did you know you could create and outsource your own photo products?
Imagine if you could put your photo designs on surfboards, bedding, fabric, wallpaper, pillows, cushions, wall posters, phone cases, iPad covers, clothing, skateboards and heck even fridges (why not?)
Yep, print on demand is freakin' cool!
You can experiment with different prices and totally personalise products.
You could create a photo t-shirt design for people who LOVE alien muppets, weird sports like indoor soccer, strange countries like Swaziland etc!
Print on demand is basically just a product that gets printed only when it is ordered.
In other words you don’t spend gazillions printing products that might end up in a dusty box in your garage.
Let me explain how it works (roughly):
1. Upload my photo t-shirt designs to Printful
2. Printful connects (syncs) to my Shopify store
3. Customer goes to my store and purchases
4. My store syncs Printful who create product and ship to customer
5. Difference between what you paid for the product (wholesale price) and RETAIL price is your profit
That's probably a little complicated.
Currently I just upload to RedBubble and they do all the print on demand (background) stuff.
Sold a few things already but they have mainly been to people I know so that doesn’t really count, right?
Like I said, you can use print on demand for things like photo calendars, photo books, framed photo prints and WAY more too!
7 - Youtube videos and blog posts
I’m always pushing affiliate stuff, but I don’t go crazy. Except when I do go crazy with it.
The most important thing for me is a RECURRING income product.
Recurring meaning a product or service that people would pay for every month, which means you earn a commission every month too.
When it comes to blog posts and Youtube videos the key is consistency!
You need to be prepared to "suck down" 12-24 months before any dollars flow in... I'm ALL in though!
8 - Photo books and workshops / calendars / aerial photos
How did I manage to lump all these together?
Can you believe people actually paid me to run photo book workshops?
It’s a huge area and a tough sell. Firstly because you’re selling your time for money. And secondly because you have to deal with ten gazillion questions. (All at once).
Some of them wanted me to actually create the book on the spot and others wanted me to explain the process.
Four things come not back: the spoken word, the spent arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.
- Chinese Proverb
Probably the best way to do a photo workshop is create it on video as a step by step guide or as a Screenflow video guide where you walk them through how to do it. You of course make sure your affiliate links are enclosed!
That way you are doing the creative work once and then you can promote it forever.
You also make your slide show workshop thingy into a book and sell it on Amazon.
Job done. Everyone happy.
Just remember you're doing all this stuff to help others.
And when you help others out you feel good about it.
Talking about photo books, all these websites will be happy to pay you if you can get people to make a photo book, calendar etc through them:
2. Milk photo books
I’m up to my 6th photo book. I'm sure it’ll take me a hundred books to get everything right.
I can say with confidence though that I much prefer the experience creating a photo book with Blurb or Milk photo books.
But do check... I haven't looked into this area for a good while and the technology changes...
As for the aerial photography...
I’ve got a DJI Mavic Air 2 and it's out of this world. Super high resolution images and 4K video. Flown it above a handful of people’s homes and gardens and captured some nice images.
No one has shot it out of the sky yet so that's a plus!
Don’t worry, I occasionally ask permission.
My suggestion for aerial photography is to focus on stock photos! I do pretty good in this area. Animals and textured backgrounds don't need permission!
9 - Royalties from photographs / designs
Punkin' them royalties!
It was hard to believe at first... I took another look and wondered if this was real...
Sitting in my email it was. A royalty payment from a boutique fine art agency in Canada that landed my work on the walls of the Marriott Hotel in Los Vegas. (And others).
Full disclosure - some of my photographic work ended up on the restroom walls!
You know how if you’ve ever walked into a foyer of a beautiful hotel they might have this fantastic artwork on the wall? Well your boy Hurley takes claim to a few of them.
There’s a huge process from getting your work to the boutique agency to then seeing it on the walls of the Marriott, believe me.
You might think the artist lucked out but if it wasn’t for them, my work wouldn’t be on the walls of the Marriott Hotel for all to see...
Still if you look at what the boutique agency earned in comparison to what the artist earns, it can make your eyes tear up a bit.
Having said that, royalties are the way to go.
If you can line up someone to sell your photography designs on a product, wall paper, drawing book, pillow case, surfboard etc then you can earn a royalty from every sale.
This is where things can go quietly ballistic in the background for a photographer!
10 - Travel recommendations / Airbnb etc
This one holds great potential!
I’m just starting to get into this but I can see it’s like one of the best things going. Especially if you mix it with fun adventure travel. Businesses will pay you to review, write up and talk about cool travel locations.
And they'll fly you there to do it too...
To make this happen you'll need to travel somewhere interesting and take detailed notes about your trip.
Capture photos or videos of the things that are related to that trip too. Kind of like I did in this post about the Japanese Shinkansen that travels from Osaka to Kagoshima.
Notice I made sure to take some snaps of things like the JR Railpass, the Shinkansen bullet train, and so on.
So for that adventure in a friendly sort of way I promote things like Airbnb, also Booking.com and also the JR Railpass. All will happily pay you a commission if someone clicks through using your link. (Apart from Airbnb who reward travel cash credits!)
But you can take this further by actually getting say a resort, hotel or specific location to actually pay your accommodation costs (and maybe even your flights too!)
There’s probably a lot more things I haven’t covered but I’ve tried to get most of it.
If I missed some details please let me know! I hope you’ve got some ideas about how to earn money from photography, using your iPhone, or any smart phone or camera.
Thanks for taking the time to read this!
* PS. I don't really do drugs. Apart from some good organic red wine and that one crazy night in Japan...