Consider stock photography the long game. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme; at least it hasn’t been for me.
I’ve been uploading photos onto stock sites for few years, very sporadically. It’s never been my intention to be a serious stock photographer. I look at stock sales income as a part of my retirement plan. Many photographers do make a living from it (like the man who photographed my town house to sell. He hasn’t uploaded stock in five years and still makes $1,000 or more per week from sales).
There are many stock agencies to choose from and I’ve contributed to three. Just google “stock photo agencies” and you will see tons of names as well as “review,” “compare,” “most popular for contributors,” and more to help narrow your search. Carefully read the “for contributors” information so you’ll not have any surprises later. Also, many agencies will list what’s trending, or a “shot” list. The smart photographer will concentrate on shooting those subjects. If you look at the submissions to a specific agency, you may get an idea of their specialty if they have one. Some agencies have more of a travel theme, some like shots of people doing everyday activities within a theme (generational and diversity are popular searches from editors).
When you submit your test photos for consideration, upload your very best: technically flawless, horizons straight, spots removed, well composed. If you don’t have any like that, go out and shoot some. Keep it simple. The agency reviewers just want to see if you can take a good photo.
I initially started uploading to Alamy exclusively because they pay well. But I found it very tedious keywording the photos—they don’t go on sale with “good visibility” until you’ve inserted 45-50 keywords. That can be tough if your photo is the still life Three Eggs on Black Velvet.
Thankfully, I had an epiphany one day and have reduced the time I spend keywording by 80%. I describe the main subject of my photo, e.g., “old town Sacramento,” in a search engine and look at the Wikipedia page. There is usually enough description that I can the required 47 keywords, which means good visibility for sales. (This is just for Alamy, which requires many keywords.)
This is my highest earner on Alamy:
My dog, Buddy. I’m not sure what was so interesting in the tall grass, but it made a darling photo.
I have the most photos on Shutterstock. Their clients pay different amounts per photo, and the photographer’s fee depends on how many photos have been uploaded monthly. This one has made the most money:
It’s just a simple sprig of holly from a tall shrub outside my house.
This one has been downloaded most often from Shutterstock:
Sidewalk café in Vienna? No. It’s from a little patisserie in East Portland, Oregon. I was having a Christmas tea with family and just happened to have my camera with me. Oh, who am I kidding? I brought it on purpose for just this kind of opportunity.
This is my second most popular download on Shutterstock:
Horse country in Kentucky? Nope, wine country south of Portland. I snagged this on a bicycle weekend with friends. (Yes, I bike with my camera.)
The next most popular download on Shutterstock:
Safari on the Serengeti? Yes!
So, what do these photos have in common? Not a lot except they are well composed and technically good. And they sold all over the world. The clients came from India, Austria, The U.S., Africa, Spain, France, Thailand, Switzerland, The U.K., and Germany. To me that’s exciting. What they do have in common is I got off the couch and submitted them (and hundreds of others that haven’t sold—yet). There’s that old saying, “You never know until you try.”
If you want to try your hand at stock photography, here’s a few tips:
- Know what sells. Look at the contributions on stock sights and what’s trending.
- Ensure the concept of your photo is clear and well executed. Vague subjects won’t catch the editor’s eye.
- Think like an editor or marketing director. What type of images are they after?
- For the most part, use natural light. Stock imagery is sharp, clear, and well lit.
- Think thumbnails. Editors are browsing small photos on stock sites. So be sure your photos look good small.
- Be an expert. Shoot what you know, and photograph subjects you’re familiar with. This gives you an advantage over the competition.
- Submit a lotof photos. If you want to make money, you’ll probably need hundreds of photos on the site.
- Keep your camera with you all the time. If I’m in my car, the tripod is there, too. Even if my goal is a landscape shot of one of Portland’s iconic bridges, I’m thinking stock. I have a “what’s trending” list and model releases in my camera bag.
Now get out there and start shooting. And by all means, have fun.