Could You Make (And Even Sell) Your Own Photos?

by | Feb 7, 2019

By Lee Foster

Almost every modern writer/author will have an ongoing relationship with photos. You likely are using photos for:

  • your blog
  • your articles
  • your social media
  • perhaps as illustrations in your books

Where will you get those photos? You have your sources. But could you also create some of those photos yourself? If you get good at this, could you even sell those photos to others?

Our Photo-Driven Culture

Aristotle defined our species as the rational animal. If any 21st century update on that would be universally allowed, it is perhaps that we are the photo-driven rational animal.

Photos influence a lot of what we do as media communicators and as consumers. Every communication benefits from a strong photo, whether a still photo or a moving photo, meaning a video.

Supplying photos for sale to others has been a profitable venture for me and for many other photographers.

For example, travel publisher Lonely Planet and their Lonely Planet Images stock photo agency paid me about $220,000 in the years 1998-2010 for the use of my photos in their books and in their external sales to other publishers, especially magazines.

They published my photos in more than 300 of their books. They sent me two copies of each book in which I had photos. I have long shelves of those books in my condo in Berkeley, CA.

The current situation in selling photos is more difficult, but profit is still possible.

Your Camera

The main revolution in the field of modern photography is the invention of the phone as a photo device, especially the iPhone. I happen to use an iPhone 7+ for much of my current photography. Samsung phones are equally good, but the iPhone is what I know.

Chances are you are using a fairly sophisticated phone already, so you probably have a pretty good camera in hand now.

The iPhone 7+ has enough pixels, those little increments of information, in its capture for many photo uses. Keep in mind that the capture device only needs enough pixels for the intended display use.

The iPhone 7+ captures at 72 dots or pixels per inch, with the total size on the long side of the image at 4,032 pixels. That’s enough for most screens. Some print uses will benefit from additional pixels.

I like the + in the iPhone 7+ because it indicates that this is an iPhone with two camera lenses. The phone has a wide-angle 28-millimeter lens and also what is called a “normal” lens of 56 millimeters. It is useful to have these two lenses. You can get closer to a subject and still use all the pixels.

Some of the iPhones after the iPhone 7+ also have the two lenses. I recommend a phone device with the two lenses.

The Camera Beyond Your Phone

If you get involved in photography, you might want to supplement your phone camera with what is called a DSLR camera, or digital single lens reflex camera. All of the great camera brands, such as Nikon, Canon, and Sony, have competing cameras that are good.

You don’t need the latest greatest DSLR camera. You just need the recent good. I shoot with a Nikon D7100 and an 18-140 millimeter telephoto zoom lens. The technology is about five years old.

When I am out in the field getting photos, I capture with both my iPhone and with my Nikon, simultaneously.

There are two things a DSLR camera can do better than a phone camera.

First, the DSLR with a telephoto lens can pull in distant images and use the “full frame” to capture the subject. For example, see the geese flying in a group as the illustration for this post. The image is at the top, as the Featured Image, and then is midway down in the post in full detail. Those geese are fairly far away. But I zoomed in with my Nikon and caught them crisply.

On the other hand, with this recent restaurant photo of a chef, I used my iPhone only for the capture. See this chef as the Featured Photo and fully presented below in the post in an article on restaurants here.

Second, the DSLR sensor, with more pixels, can make your photo more eligible for larger-size print sale opportunities, such as the cover of a magazine.

Processing Your Image

The photo right out of the phone or DSLR camera may need some “processing” to be useful. How will you do that?

You may want to change the dimensions. The terminology in photo speak is to “crop” it. You may want to intensify the colors. Above all, if you ever want to sell photos, you will want to put in the information, called “File Info” or “metadata” that will be attached to the photo. The File Info tells what the photo is about and that you are the creator and want your copyright honored. Potential licensors will see your contact information.

One of the great ironies of our modern photo era is that buyers find photos they want based on the words attached to the photo. A Search Engine, such as Google, needs to find words associated with your photo that parallel the Search words the buyer has selected. If there is a close match, Google may award to you the gift of the Search.

So, how should you “process” your photos? I recommend you invest $10/month in licensing from Adobe for their Photoshop/Lightroom software. This is the industry standard. The monthly license fee is a lifelong commitment. No other tool is as satisfactory, in my opinion.

Your Own Photo Selling Site

Potential buyers will see your photos on your blog/website/social media or in your books and may inquire about licensing them.

However, the much larger audiences are the photo buyers who do not know you, but will search for their photo needs, which you may be ready to supply. For that, you need a specific photo-selling site, such as my Foster Travel Publishing photo selling site.

I license my photos from this site, which has about 7,000 of my photos, to my main clients, which are major magazines, and to unknown clients who find me.

I also have my site set up to license photos for a small price, $20/photo, to individuals for their blogs/websites/books. I call this category a Personal Use License. A potential buyer finds a photo, moves it to the Cart, sees the option of the Personal Use License for $20, pays with a credit card, and immediately downloads the high-resolution file of the photo for their use.

My selling structure is provided by an entity known as PhotoShelter. About 80,000 photographers use PhotoShelter. For a Standard site, about $300/year, you get 100 gigabytes of storage space on their server, plus their selling software, and their “themes” with which to present your photos.

You totally control all aspects of the commerce, setting your prices. Their software also allows people to buy your photos as cards, as prints, or printed on T-shirts and coffee mugs, whatever you authorize. It’s all automated.

Most importantly, most credible photo editors buying photos will know about PhotoShelter already.

Your Possible Photo Agency Partner

Are there agencies today, such as my mentioned Lonely Planet Images agency, where you could possibly place your photos to get further sales? (Lonely Planet Images now no longer exists, having merged with the Getty agency.)

Yes, there is one good one, in my opinion. It is called Alamy, located in England but selling worldwide at fairly decent prices. I have about 3,000 images with them. Search “Lee Foster” (in quotes) so see some of them. I started putting in photos about 2006. So far, I have had 1,032 sales for $85,630 in revenue paid to me.

Alamy will accept photos from the newcomer and outsider. The requirement is that the photo be properly processed, with appropriate metadata. The possible agency opportunity is an argument for your investment in Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom photo processing software.

What Would Help You in Photography?

This post just begins to explore the subject of a writer/author possibly creating and selling photography. I will be doing a post for Joel Friedlander once every five weeks or so. I could do more posts on photography. Would that be useful to you? What would you like to learn? Let me know in the comments section below this post.
Photo: BigStockPhoto

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Bob

    Lee, I would like to see more written about the overuse of the vertical photo.

    I think it is because many are used to the way the i-phone is held. But the result is often like looking at a scene through a keyhole.

    A good way to be conscious of the desirability of the horizontal view is to remember that most desktop monitors and TV sets are horizontal. Thus best use of the space is to make the photo horizontal also.

    Vertical photos should be saved for portraits and a few special subjects that actually fit well with that aspect — a full page in a book for another example.

    Bob Bone
    (Author of “Fire Bone! A Maverick Guide to a Life in Journalism” and other books.)

    • Lee Foster

      Thanks, Bob. You make a good point and raise a major issue.

      One wonders what the consumer prefers. About half of the viewers coming to my website come on computers. So I think they definitely prefer the horizontal, using their screens effectively.

      The half of my viewers who are looking at my website or my ebooks on their mobile devices (see my Amazon Page at–what do they prefer? I’m not sure.

      However, I have taken your advice on this matter in my practices. For example, I have 100 photos, one for each chapter, in my ebook product SF Travel & Photo Guide. I deliberately made them all horizontal. One aspect of the discussion is that a person with a phone can alway turn the phone horizontal to view photos or videos. That observation would argue for the importance of horizontals in all e-products.

  2. Jana

    Thank you for being willing to explain all this stuff. Even if an author or blogger doesn’t want to sell photos, learning these technicalities can’t hurt. (I’ve blogged 5 days a week since 2008 and always used my own photos.)

    Here are some of my information gaps:

    A step-by-step explanation of the “File Info” aspect would be helpful.
    An explanation about Photoshop, specifically if one could get by using an older Photoshop Elements (the elementary version of PS) that is not subscription based.

    But wait, there’s more!

    How about explaining about sizing photos—so many places want 300 ppi but cameras and phones take pics in 72 ppi, and the resizing makes my head swim and my brain shut down. Further, when I resize to 300 ppi and email the photos, they arrive smaller.

    Thank you, thank you!

    • Lee Foster

      Jana, your cabinart site is a good illustration of someone using their own photos. Only you could create these images. Congratulation on your long use of your images.

      I’ll get to all of your questions in the future. Thank you.

  3. Marjorie Turner Hollman

    I have read about metadata tags, but would appreciate a step by step (with graphics) and how to set up metadata on my photos. iNtriguing article, thanks so much!

    • Lee Foster

      Thank you Marjorie. I will put “how to insert metadata into a photo” on my list of future articles.

  4. Nate Hoffelder

    Given how many free photos can be found online, I’m not sure that it’s worth most authors’ time to learn advanced photography skills. I don’t think it will pay off. Instead, I think they should learn how to search for images online and then turn the image into a blog graphic.

    • Lee Foster

      Nate, your point is well made. It is more difficult now to sell photos than it was in the past. However, there is hope. If you have the exact photo that the buyer wants, the chances of a sale are good.

      For example, this week a photo buyer unknown to me found one of my photos about the movie/TV world of Los Angeles. She wanted the bar in the TV series Cheers as a backdrop for a corporate event. She searched Cheers on my photo website and found my photo. She contacted me. I said she could use it for x$ paid in advance into my PayPal account. She made the payment immediately. I downloaded the hi-res image for her and sent it as an attachment. She was happy. I now have a new client.

    • Brian Hoffman

      I agree. I would suggest anyone thinking about doing stock photography go to the Alamy site. Look at both the photos taken with iPhone and with DSLR. Ask yourself if you can make photos like you see. That is your competition.
      Photoshop doesn’t come with instructions. You have to buy very expensive books or scour the Internet for information You’ll need to learn layers and masks, levels an curves, how to resize photos, how to check your image at 100%, and . . . .
      Photography is a black hole for time and money. Nikon’s top of the line semi-pro camera, the D850 is over $3000 for the body. It has over 42 megapixels to you your phones 12. Good lenses can be had for $400 to $4000 dollars. A good strong tripod can go from $400 to $3000. Remember, you’re putting an expensive camera on the tripod, don’t buy a cheap one. A great camera bag like Domke or a Billingham is over $300. Filters like polarizers, neutral density, or infrared will go from $75 to $300. Then there’s the CamRanger for focus stacking to insure you’re in perfect focus front to back-$200 plus an iPad.
      I mention all this not to scare you off but to let you know what the competition is using to insure their images pass the QC tests at the various stock photo companies.
      iphone photos have a good market but few professional designer use them because they are less versatile. They might want to use the photo for a website and the same image for a ten foot wrap for the back of a city bus.
      Remember your first book and how much you had to learn? You have even more to learn and it’s an even bigger commitment in time and money. If you are still interested-go for it and have a great time. It can be a wonderful experience

      • Lee Foster

        Thank you, Brian. Brian offers a range of lucid comments, obviously developed out of abundant experience. I essentially agree with everything he says, mainly that making photos for sale is a possible but challenging path, requiring dedication over a long period. Creating photos for your own use is step 1. Creating photos that others will buy is step 2.

        I like that Brian closes with his comparison of the new author and the new photographer. Both paths are challenging if your goal is to turn a profit. Both require long term commitment. Both are also joyous paths and success is possible. Some of us have done both, and it has been an exhilarating journey.

  5. Flo Selfman

    Excellent article. I would welcome any additional articles on any aspect of photography. I appreciate the clarity of your explanations.

    • Lee Foster

      Flo, I will likely do some future articles on aspects of photography.



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