The “business handshake” between two men. An exasperated woman surrounded by paperwork at her desk. A doctor in a lab coat with their arms folded or pointing at a chart. These nondescript images are now almost archetypal in the realm of the Internet, yet they’re not limited simply to the web – you come across these stock photos almost daily and across a number of mediums.
Stock photography lends itself well as a quick, cost-effective solution to basic image-based problems, which is why it has exploded as a field in more recent years. With that being said, becoming a successful stock photographer is an art form, so we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide on How to Sell Stock Photography.
What is stock photography?
Simply put, stock photographs are photos which the artist has licensed to be purchased and redistributed for commercial purposes. Traditional stock photography licenses can be expensive, costing hundreds or thousands of dollars per image due to both the popularity of the photographer who took the photo, as well as the usage extent of the license involved.
This is where microstock photography has come in to fill the demand for lower priced stock images – and this is typically what the term “stock photography” now refers to. Microstock licenses generally sell between $1 – $5 per image, with most licensors also taking a cut of the profit.
The different forms of licensing
As a photographer, you will still retain the copyrights to your photos once you submit them to a stock website or agency. Photos are licensed, not “sold” – this allows you to reproduce them, create offshoots of your own work, display them anywhere you’d like, and/or distribute them. There are several different types of licensing that a stock website may use.
Typically, most stock websites have the buyer simply pay a flat fee to use an image. This fee does not give the buyer any rights to resell the photo or claim any ownership on it and is viewed much like a “one-time use” deal.
This type of licensing is more expensive for the buyer (they’ll have to pay the base price every time they use the image) but gives more say to photographers about how their photos are handled. Photographers can decide how (and if) a photo is restricted in its usage.
It’s also important to remember that while not technically a form of “licensing”,
Some sites will require that your arrangement with them be “exclusive”
When you upload your photos to their site, you can no longer upload that same photo anywhere else (your own personal website and other stock photography websites included). Before you upload anything, make sure to read through every agreement.
What kind of photos should you shoot?
The world of stock photography exists as a delicate ecosystem. You have to take photos that have mass appeal (in order to attract the most amount of potential buyers), but you also have to make your photos stand out from thousands of other uploaded photo submissions. Most important of all, you have to make sure that your photos are photos that stock websites actually want and need.
Most sites provide a detailed list or some general guidelines about the photos they would like submitted to their database. The most-requested photos tend to be ones with people as the subject – and shockingly, there is no longer a high demand for stock photography featuring single pieces of fruit against a white background. One of the most crucial things to remember when submitting photos of people is to:
Include model releases (signed agreements between you and the person(s) in the shot), or else the site won’t accept your photo for redistribution.
Shop for model releases and other great legal forms at the LawTog
Make your mark in stock photography by diving fully into one niche market. Instead of taking a wide variety of different photos, you’ll have more success if you hone your skills shooting one select style or subject. If you’re highly adept at taking photos of families, for instance, your chance of having one (or several) photos accepted will increase as you submit many high-quality photos of the same thing, as opposed to many mediocre-to-average quality photos of several things.
Stock websites know exactly what they’re looking for, so do a favor both to them as well as yourself by offering a variety of photos that fill in any gaps in their collection instead of simply re-submitting photos that have been successful in the past. Along with image subject guidelines, stock websites also provide image quality guidelines. Generally speaking, to better your chances of a photo being accepted, limit the amounts of edits you perform on it. This includes unnecessary cropping, lens flares, high contrasts, and anything else that detracts from the actual subject of the photo. Your photos should be clear and crisp and shot with additional lighting to improve the overall quality of the image. Stock photography is about demonstration, not interpretation – avoid using “artsy” angles or lighting.
Make your photos searchable
A good stock photo goes beyond simply good photo composition, however. To make sure that your photo is chosen by a lot of buyers, make sure that your photo is easily searchable – give it an effective title and appropriate tags and keywords. Avoid using keywords that are either too vague or completely irrelevant – don’t tag your photo of a surfer as “business meeting” simply to increase your search result hits. The point is to direct as many actual buyers as possible to your photos.
Tagging your photos is an integral part of driving buyer-traffic, so consider tagging your photos beyond their literal meanings
Include “conceptual” tags as well. For instance, a man on a tightrope could have tags like “risk”, “danger”, and “balance” beyond that of simply “tightrope” or “circus”. To avoid generalization, and therefore avoiding the risk of your work being overlooked, also describe not only the action in a photo (ie. if a person is standing, running, etc), but also the emotions that can be associated with the image: happy, proud, enthusiastic, and so on. Remember, people don’t come to stock photography websites simply to browse – they come with an image in mind already. Tagging specific details such as prominent colors in the shot or how many people are in the photo will help buyers find your photos when they search for what best matches the idea they had in mind.
Take notice of the main categories on your stock photography site of choice. These sections are often promoted on the homepage of the site and get high traffic.
Some of the iStockphoto categories
Where to sell stock photos?
Here is a quick overview of six stock photo sites and a comparison of earnings:
Dreamstime: Dreamstime allows you to submit images in one of two ways: either as a non-exclusive contributor (which means you can work with other stock sites; this earns you 25-50% of the net sales of an image’s downloads), or as an exclusive contributor (which means you cannot submit to other stock sites; this earns you 60% of the net sales of an image’s downloads, plus a $0.20 commission per image you submit to Dreamstime that is accepted). As a non-exclusive contributor, you may also choose to submit some images that are exclusive, for 27-55.5% of the downloads’ net sales.
Veer: Contributions on Veer can earn you as little as $0.35 per image download, or as much as $7 – the photo rates are all dependent on the size of the image (ranging from XSmall to XXLarge).
Stocksy: Stocksy is an art cooperative for stock photography; site contributors have to be approved based on the quality of their work, so it’s a very exclusive partnership. However, Stocksy not only pays its contributors 50% per image download, but also splits 90% of its profits with its contributing artists at the end of the year.
Shutterstock: As a contributor, Shutterstock initially allows you to earn $0.25 per download of any image you submit. As you earn more from your images, you move up into new brackets of per-download payments, topping out at $0.38 per download.
Fotolia: Fotolia will pay you a royalty based not only on your image downloads, but also in accordance to your portfolio’s site ranking, thus earning you anywhere between 20 – 63% per image download.
iStockphoto: On iStock, contributors may receive a starting royalty of 15% per image download, and up to 45% for exclusive contributors – rates increase due to the number of images you upload, as well as your portfolio’s popularity on the site.
Who should shoot?
Stock photography is an integral part of the photo industry – not only does it yield quick returns for the buyer, but it also costs them a fraction of what organizing and shooting their own shoot might cost. Much like survival in any other photo market, the trick is to stay on top of supply and demand – when shooting and submitting your work, keep in mind what type of photos have yet to have been shot, and perhaps even more importantly, what type of photos have already been completely exhausted by other photographers.
Although competitive, the field of stock photography is a viable source of income for technically-inclined photographers, such as those who shoot portraits or weddings, who are willing to invest the time to create and market a quality product for an unknown potential client. Check out Brooke Becker and Jack Hollingsworth for examples of photographers who have made their living through stock photography.
Frequently Asked Questions about Stock Photography
Do I need a model release?
If your stock photos are of people, most likely you will need a model release. Most stock photography agencies and websites will expect one. If there is a chance that the photos will be used for commercial purposes, a release is generally required. TheLawTog is our trusted source for model releases and other legal resources for photographers.
What subjects sell best?
Photos with high commercial value are typically used in advertising and commercial websites and blogs. Themes such as business people, offices, technology, society, lifestyle, food, and drink are popular. Just remember to look for timeless subjects vs chasing the latest trend.
Should I include recognizable brands in my stock photos?
You should not include any trademarks or logos in your photos. You should edit out any logos/trademarks before submitting.
How much post processing should I do?
Basic corrections to the technical aspects of the photo (cropping/framing, exposure) are ok but avoid heavy processing. The best advice is to put yourself in the shoes of the buyer. In many cases the buyer will process the photos according to their needs, so you don’t want to overdo it.
How important are image size and image quality?
Image size and quality are very important. A DSLR with a good quality lens is best. If a buyer is looking to make a high-resolution print then larger image sizes are important. Most important is image quality. Make sure your photos have good lighting and contrast, are in focus, composed in interesting ways and are free of chromatic aberrations and heavy compression.
I often shoot interesting buildings and objects as part of my client work, can I sell the images as stock photography?
Pictures of private property require a property release from the owner/responsible party. More details about property releases from TheLawTog. Pictures of public property generally do not but confirm that the shot is truly public property.
Should I make my content exclusive or non-exclusive?
Exclusive content means your images can only be sold through one agency/stock photo website. Non-exclusive means you are free to sell the images to other agencies or through other channels.
Exclusive content usually pays more, but the trade-off is a potentially reduced market for your work.
Photo credit: Brooke Becker. Signup for Shutterstock using her affiliate link.