23 tips for stock photography
Stock photography tips
The stock photography game can be a complicated undertaking. If you want to get started in stock photography, or want to improve your results, a few tips for stock photography are always welcome. Keep reading to learn all about the insights I gathered in my years of being a stock photographer.
Keep in mind, it all start with good quality photography. If your images are rubbish to begin with, these tips are not going to help you very much.
Tip #1: Stock photography gear
Some are reluctant to start stock photography, because they are afraid they don’t have the right gear for it. Honestly, there is no reason for that. A phrase that is often heard among photographers, is: “the best gear, is the gear you have”. Especially for beginners, there is no need to invest thousands in your gear. Of course, if you have the money laying about, it’s always worth investing in quality gear and useful tools. But for getting started, just having a decent camera suffices.
Most stock photography agencies don’t accept photos taken with a mobile phone. Even though the technology of phone cameras has greatly improved over the years, they can not compete with the detail that full size lenses can produce. So you need to get a decent camera at the very least. I would recommend using at least a DSLR or mirrorless camera that supports interchangeable lenses. A full size sensor is best, but a cropped sensor can also work. If you’re on a budget, you might even consider a good second hand camera.
Buying photography gear
Depending on what you want to shoot, you might start needing extra gear, like lighting or extra lenses. Be sure to research what kind of gear you might need before you start investing. It would be a shame if you bought a camera and along the way you find out it doesn’t suit your needs, so you have to buy another one. If your budget allows it, always go for one of the main brands like Canon, Nikon or Sony. My personal choice is Canon, but they all deliver quality gear for different price ranges. Also, choose a reliable vendor for your gear. In the Netherlands, I mostly use Cameranu, that has an online shop as well as brick stores around the country.
Tip #2: Search your library for stock photos
Most photographers don’t think of starting stock photography before they start taking photos. Therefor it’s pretty likely that you have a library filled with photos you have already taken. It would be a shame to just let these photos go to waste, so why not see if there is any good candidates for stock photographs in there? Of course, not every photo is a candidate to become a stock photo. Keep reading the rest of the tips to find out which images would be eligible.
The advantage of starting on a stock platform with photos you’ve already made, is that you can build a portfolio relatively quick. And the more good quality photos you have in your portfolio, there better the odds are you will start selling. You can also use these images as practice material, to find out how the stock platforms work and how they review the images
Tip #3: Keep learning
You’re never too old to learn, as the saying goes. And this saying exists because it is true. Photography is very broad trade, that requires a lot of knowledge. And if you have the basics down, there is always more to learn. There are so many different types of photography, all requiring there own techniques and sometimes specific gear. Furthermore, things keep evolving. There is always new ways to do things, new inventions and new trends. Things you learn when doing one type of photography can sometimes also be applied in other fields of photography, creating different and new effects.
Great sources for learning for free can be YouTube or online blogs. There are some good channels out there for every type of photography, as well as post processing techniques. Stay on top of them, besides learning from them they can be a great source of inspiration.
Tip #4: Get inspired
It’s OK to find inspiration with other stock photographers. Just realize that there is a difference between inspiration and copying (see tip #6). Research the work of successful stock photographers and try to find out what makes them so successful. Then try to figure out how you apply this to your own photography. At the Adobe Stock platform, for example, you can get insights in what the most recent top sellers are creating. Study these photographs and find out how you can achieve the same of level of photography and creativity. Even if you are in a different niche, you can always find things or ideas you hadn’t thought of before.
Another way to get inspired, is to just hit the WWW or open up a magazine. Study the photos these media are using. This is the type of images they are looking for, therefor this is the kind of photos you should be taking!
Tip #5: Study rejection reasons
It’s inevitable that you are going to run into rejections when submitting to stock photography platforms. Sometimes this can create a dent in your confidence level or even your pride. Don’t let the rejections discourage you, let them be a learning opportunity. It depends on the platform how detailed the rejections are. But when your image gets rejected, they always give you rejection reason.
When you get a rejection, you should check your photo again and be very critical of yourself. On many occasions, you will find that the harsh rejection you received was for good reasons. Imperfections you may not have noticed at first, may become apparent when they are pointed out to you by someone else. In some cases the fault can be corrected, but sometimes you have to accept the fact that the image is just not up to par and start over. The next time you’re shooting, you will consider your past errors and hopefully not make the same mistakes again.
I do have to admit however, that sometimes rejections seem unfair. There are two options for the review process. Either it is done by a human or it is done by AI (although most stock agencies won’t admit to that). You will never know which of the two was the case. But what you do know, is that humans are only human and they can make mistakes. And you also know AI is not perfect, so it can also make mistakes. Don’t use this knowledge as an excuse, but it can always happen that photos get rejected wrongly. If you believe that is the case for your image, then you can always resubmit it. You will see that in many cases it will get accepted the second time around.
Tip #6: Be original
When taking photos for stock, try to do something that has not been before. If you want to photograph a certain subject, it’s worth having a look at your favorite stock platform to see what’s already there. Look at the photos you can find and see if you can think of a different way to portray the subject. Maybe try different angles, different lighting, different backgrounds. Get creative. The point is to offer the client that is looking for photos an alternative that have not yet seen before. Customers are always looking for fresh new content.
Most of the times the algorithms of the stock sites show photos that have sold well in the past higher up in the search results. So if you come in with a new photo that looks a lot like another image that has been sold a couple of times, it will be shown below that image. If the customer was looking for that type of image, chances are he’s going to buy the first one and not the one that he sees later on. If you have a good image that does not resemble any other, you have a better chance of selling.
Tip #7: Think of a use case
Before taking a photo, or at least before uploading a photo to the stock agencies, think of a possible use case for the photo. However good your photo may be, if nobody has a use for it, it will never sell. Take a look at the photo below for instance, this is my daughter after she has eaten a hot dog. The food is stuck between her braces, not a pretty sight. But believe it or not, this does make a good stock photo.
I saw this when she was eating and immediately said: “after you’re done, I want to take a photo before you start cleaning”. In my mind I already saw this photo as an example in text books and information folders for orthodontists. Also keeping in mind tip #6, because most photographers would go for the squeaky clean look when photographing braces. And I was right, it might not be my best seller, but it does sell quite well.
If you are uploading photos that you wouldn’t be able to find a possible use for yourself, you’re just wasting your time. This will also lower your ranking with the stock platforms, because they favor contributors that consistently upload good selling content. If you upload a lot of content that never sells, your new uploads will appear lower in the search results, resulting in even less sales.
When you have found a use case or even multiple use cases (the more the better) for your photo, it’s way easier to think of keywords. You can also use some keywords to steer your customers in the direction of your photo. A buyer might even stumble upon an image he didn’t even know he needed. That’s where your creativity becomes an added value for the buyer.
Tip #8: Think of concepts
In conceptual photography, an image is used to communicate an idea. Usually the idea comes first and then the photo is created to portray that idea. These type of images are great for accompanying articles online or in printed media. A good example of a conceptual photo can be found below, where the photographer communicates the idea of stopping smoking.
Quite often creative software like Adobe Photoshop is used to create these images, but that does not always have to be the case. It has to be said this type of photography is not for everybody, for me personally it’s out of my comfort zone. But if it does suit you, it can be a great earner for your stock photography portfolio.
Tip #9: Create seasonal content
One thing to keep in mind when creating and uploading these pictures, is the timing. For instance, if you have a nice family gathering for Christmas and you decide to do some stock photography for your portfolio, it has little use to upload these photos just after Christmas. By the time media and companies start working an their campaigns for the season, your photos will be old content with little to no downloads. This means they will appear in the bottom of the search results.
The trick is to hold on to your images, and start uploading them about three months ahead of the event. That is the time these images start being searched for. Then, if a photo gets sold a couple times in the first season, there is a good chance it will be in the top results again next season. Because stock agencies love to show the buyer photos they know to have sales potential.
Tip #10: Edit your photos
There is always an ongoing discussion about photo editing and if it should be done or not. My opinion on this, is that photo editing is part of the process. The idea is to create the image you envision, and you can use all tools at your disposal. And one of those tools is photo editing software. Of course, there are different levels of editing. With today software, the sky is the limit. But, even if you don’t want to edit your photos too much, you should always check if some small corrections might be needed.
Take a good look at your photo, first the overall picture and later inspect closer at 100%. Check to see if your horizons are straight, if not; correct it. Examine the white balance, and if needed; correct it. Look for noise issues. Take a look at the colors, do they need correcting? I always look if there are distracting elements that need to be removed, like spots, smudges, flies. Sometimes the composition needs to be adjusted a little, which can be achieved by cropping a little.
See photo editing as something that’s sometimes necessary. You try to capture the image in camera as close as you want the end result to come out, and everything that didn’t quite work out can be corrected in post. Of course this doesn’t mean you can save a failed photo. The base photo should be good photo, editing can make it into a great photo. You can make your photo stand out just a bit more with some slight adjustments. The art is not to go overboard.
Tip #11: Get your stock photography keywording right
It’s one thing to create an outstanding image, but if no one can find it, it will be lost in a sea of stock photos. You need to submit your photos together with the right keywords, don’t underestimate the importance of this. The keywords you submit with a photo, help the stock agency determine whether they should present your image to client when he enters a search query. A client is searching for a specific subject in his image, and the search words he enters should lead to what he needs. And you want him to find your photo.
Therefor, it is imperative that you only use relevant keywords and also that you use every keyword possible that is related to your photo. Normally you should have about 30 relevant keywords for your photo. You should start with simply describing the subject of your photo. Don’t mention items that are in your photo but of no real importance, for instance an airplane that is just barely visible flying high above your landscape photo should not be entered as a keyword. A customer looking searching with the keyword “airplane” will not buy that photo. If your photo is shown in searches a lot and never bought, it will drop down the ranks.
Tip #12: The description has to be right
Same as for tip #11, the description of your image is also important for the findability of your images. Your description should not be too short, also not too long. One or two sentences should cover it. Your subject must be described and some of your most important keywords should also be in the title.
As a rule of thumb you should always consider the following when writing your stock photo description:
- Who: Describe who you see. How many people, what age group, gender, ethnicity, things like that.
- What: Tell us what the subject of your photo is. What are we looking at? Just mention the main subject, not random stuff that just happens to be in the same picture.
- Where: For some photos it can be useful to mention where it was taken, for others it is not important. For a landmark it is of value, for a commercial product shoot is doesn’t matter.
- When: It can be added value to mention the time of day, date, season or period a photo was taken.
- Why: What is the reason you took this photo?
Bonus tip: Editorial caption
When you upload editorial content, you have to use an editorial caption for many stock platforms. This is not the case for all of them, but for example Shutterstock and Bigstock do require it. If you upload images as editorial without using an editorial caption, they will be rejected at the platforms that require you to do so.
The editorial caption is just a prefix for the description in a set format. Mostly it is like this: “[city], [state or country] – [date]: [description]”. In my experience they don’t argue about the date being in the wrong format, but most platforms use the US date format (month-day-year). An example of a description with an editorial caption would be:
“Rotterdam, The Netherlands – 2-28-2023: This is an example of a description with an editorial caption”
Tip #13: Be specific
This goes for your photo, but also for your description and keywords. When taking a photo of a specific subject, make sure that subject is the only focus of attention. Be weary of distracting backgrounds or items or people that do not need to be in the picture. They can be a turn off for buyers.
For description and keywords, it’s important that you let the buyers know exactly what they can expect to find in your image. If the location is relevant, be sure to mention that and be as specific as possible. So adding a street name, name of a borough, name of the city and name of the country, sometimes even continent can be necessary. You might want to ad the name of a building. When photographing a bird, don’t just ad “Bird” as keyword, but also research the exact name of the species and subspecies it belong to. Throw in the taxonomic name too. If someone is looking for a very specific photo, and you have it in your portfolio, you want them to find it.
Tip #14: Choose timeless subjects for your stock photography
Tip #15: Be the first
If you have the opportunity to be one the first people to photograph something, you can end up with photos that end up at the top of the search results for a long time. Media are always searching for new things to report about. If there is a new building in your town, or a new monument, landmark, amusement park, and so on, and so on, go and capture it! In the beginning, there will not be many images for that subject. This means low competition.
If your images are good quality, chances are your going to sell a couple of times. And then you have an image that has already sold a couple of times in a category that is still building. In the mean time photos keep getting added by other contributors, but in the search results the photos that have already sold always get a higher place. And since most buyers are pressed for time, they will often choose one of the photos at the top of the page. So make sure you start at the top of the page, and just keep riding that wave.
Tip #16: Model released photos
In the commercial section of the stock photography agencies, the best sellers are good quality photos with people in them. There is just one catch; you will need a model release, signed by all the people in your photo before you can submit your photo as commercial.
Professional models will charge you money for the shoot and also for the model release. You have to think for yourself if it’s worth the investment, if photographing models is your specialty it may pay of on stock sites. There are some other options though. You can also photograph yourself. In that case you still have to sign the model release. Just put your name and signature for both the photographer and the model. Otherwise you can also ask friends and family if they want to help out.
One important thing to think of, is to always be honest with your models. In stock, you never know what the photos will be used for up front. There have been examples in the past where models had been presented with a form to sign, with the photographer not explaining what they were signing for. And then they saw a bus driving around town a couple months later with their face on the side marketing hemorrhoid cream or something nasty. Don’t be that person.
Tip #17: Be diverse
Photographers sometimes tend to shoot people that look themselves. But the buyers at the stock agencies are looking for more diverse pictures nowadays. They want to see people of different ethnicities, ages, walks of life, people with handicaps, short people, tall people, heavy people. If you can get these types of people to do a model released photo shoot, you’re on the money. The best is even to have a mix of different types of people in one photo. Just like you see in real life.
Tip #18: Keep it natural
This tip for stock photography has to be applied both to how you photograph your subject, as to the post process editing done to your images. First the photos themselves. Most buyers nowadays want to see real situations as they would happen in real life. In earlier years you would see the classic stock image of two business people shaking hands, both looking at the camera with a great big smile. That’s not how it normally goes in real life. In recent years most buyers would prefer a more natural and unposed look to the photo. In the real world the people would at each other when shaking hands.
On the editing side, make sure you don’t overdo things. You often want the image to bright and colorful, but don’t go overboard. Don’t turn up the saturation to a level where your eyes start to hurt. Also don’t lighten up dark areas so much that are no more shadows in your image. Your photos need to look vibrant, but natural. If you want to add or remove elements from your picture for whatever reason, make sure nobody can tell by looking at it that you made these adjustments
Tip #19: Try your hand at video
Stock video is the new stock photography! There is a huge demand for stock video content in recent years. Prices and commissions for stock video are a lot higher then for stock photography. If you have a camera that can also shoot video, you should try that sometimes. You might like it, and earn a good sum of money along the way.
There are also some drawbacks to video of course. The technique is something you would need to learn if you’re not familiar with it already. Also, the file sizes are considerably larger then is the case with photos. Then there is the editing software you need to learn. A great free piece of professional software for video editing is DaVinci Resolve. Don’t worry about the sound, because most agencies want you to strip that before uploading anyway.
Tip #20: Avoid saturated topics
A saturated subject, is a subject that there is so many photos of, that it highly unlikely you will be successful in selling any. These are mostly the easiest things to photograph. Things that everyone can find around them, easily available and not difficult to photograph. One the most common examples is flowers. Type in the word “flower” in the Shutterstock search window, and you will get over 40.000.000 hits. Good luck to the person trying to sell flower image number 40.000.001 I say.
If you want to succeed in one of the saturated topics, your photos have to be of a truly remarkable quality and really stand out above millions of similar photos. And then you to be lucky enough that they get picked up and start being shown towards the top of the pages. Honestly, in most cases uploading to these categories is a waste of your time.
Tip #21: Make series
When shooting, if you have the chance, don’t just go for the one great photo but try to make a series on the subject. This way you can give the customer options. Maybe they like one of images, but it’s just not exactly what they need. If a customer clicks on that image, the platform usually show them other photos by you that may suit their needs. If you have a couple of photos of the same subject from a different perspective, angle or creative approach, this could be exactly what they need. You keep the customer interested in your work, rather then them moving on to look for other images.
You can make it even easier for customers to find your series on some platforms, by grouping the photos into a collection. Sometimes I see a couple of sales to the same buyer all at once all from the same collection, increasing my revenue greatly.
Living in a port city, I often shoot ships coming in here. Cruise ships can be good sellers, I especially love to shoot them when they are brand new and on their maiden voyage (tip #15). Check out one of my series that has been a strong seller on Shutterstock: Cruiseship Iona
Tip #22: Spread your uploads
Stock platforms like it if you show them you upload on a regular basis. They want to see contributors who keep uploading quality content and they will reward you for it with a higher ranking in the algorithm. If you do stock photography as a hobby or a side project, you might not always have material to upload. By spreading the load a little, you can keep yourself in a good spot with the platforms. If you have done a large shoot, resulting in a good volume of images, don’t upload them all at once. It’s better to split it into 4 parts and upload a bit once a week, then to upload everything in one go and coming back for uploading photos from a new shoot a month later.
Tip #23: Use multiple agencies
Why put all your eggs in one basket? Some people swear with going exclusive for one agency. Some agencies, like Dreamstime, will reward you for going exclusive by giving you a greater part of the cut. This might seem interesting, but if going exclusive means you’re missing out on 90% of the buyers market, it’s not so appealing any more.
Some say that uploading your photos to multiple stock agencies will result in customers going shopping for your image to find the platform where they can buy it the cheapest. I don’t believe in that at all. The platforms all have a structure where buyers get cheaper prices when they buy many photos from that platform. The clients who buy the most images will have accounts at one or maybe two large stock agencies and get all of their images there on the cheap. Meaning you want to be in that mix with your photos. The buyers that go window shopping, usually only need a couple of images, otherwise they wouldn’t have time for that. This means they pay more per photo, earning you a greater commission anyway.
Uploading to multiple stock platforms is a bit more work, but if you have a good workflow it should not be a problem. Most work goes into shooting, keywording and post-processing. When that’s all done, you can just upload to all the agencies. There is also some apps and websites that help you with that for a fee, but I don’t use them personally.
Lets get to it!
I hope some of these tips help you to grow as a stock photographer, whether you’re an experienced stock contributor, or just getting started. I have tried to be as open and honest about sharing my experience as a stock contributor to help you along your way. Let me know what you think of my tips in the comments or if you anything to add to the list.