A Primer For Selling Stock Photography

A Primer For Selling Stock Photography

By Gary Gray


Thoroughbred horse farms are a common sight in rural Kentucky


I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Many top photographers out there who are selling their workshops and prints and running a business are also selling their photos via Stock Photography agencies.

Stock Photography is a revenue stream.

I’ve discussed the topic of Stock Photography a few times in the past but have never really delved into it deeply as a subject on my blog or in my other publications.  I think the main reason is that I don’t want the competition. Fearful thinking from a guy who is trying to protect a source of income, but honestly, I don’t think I’m doing anything that is actually protecting my spot in the market. When one looks at the reality of the situation, the big Stock Photography sites have millions of images for sale, photos taken by thousands of photographers of a very wide variety of subjects. When I look at the 1,000 or so images I upload each year, well my insignificance is self evident.

My view of the road of course is limited to the subject matter that I tend to sell as stock. Nature, Wildlife and Landscape images for the most part. I keep it simple, as these subjects don’t require model or property releases. I live in nature and that’s what I photograph and those are the photos that I sell on stock agencies. Your mileage may vary but the market is wide open for someone who wants to put the time and effort into making their photography produce a profit.

Years ago, in the beginning of the digital camera age, the common refrain I heard was to the effect that online stock images were going to kill photography.  That’s horse hockey. The proliferation of digital cameras has opened the market up to more people than ever before. You don’t have to be Ansel Adams to sell landscape photographs.

One of my favorite sayings is “any photo that isn’t earning income is a worthless photo.”

Worthless in so much as that it does nothing for your bottom line if you aren’t selling it. It may be nice to look at them, and share them on Facebook and get likes but the prospect of it earning money is totally dependent on how you market and sell that image.

In this article, I’m going to share some of my experience and knowledge with you regarding selling your work as Stock via the online micro stock agencies such as ShutterStock, Getty, Adobe Stock (the big three), and many others.

You’d be surprised at how robust the market is for good quality stock photography. There are tens of thousands of companies and people out there who regularly buy stock photographs, for many uses.

My images have been used in magazines, newspapers, television, internet and countless other ways. Every one of those uses has generated income for me and my business. Some of my photographs have earned me a great deal of money. Money that I otherwise would have never seen. Am I making a living from it? No. But I earn enough with my portfolio to provide myself with the equivalent of a small pension in my retirement. This is reoccurring income, month after month, year after year. Presently, it equates to thousands of dollars a year.

I’ve heard  the complaints from acquaintances and in online photography forums. “Yeah, I sold a stock photo for 30 cents, wow, whoopee.” “Pennies a day.”  “Chump Change.” Here is a fact. Not every photo sells for the minimum, which indeed can be 30 cents. I’ve had many photos sell for much more. Some have sold for up to $30 for a single download. It’s all going to depend on the usage rights the buyer wants. My average sale equates to 70 cents per image sold.

Well, here’s the deal. If all you have are a few dozen photos in your portfolio, you are probably wasting your time.  It’s going to take a portfolio of at least 500 solid images before you can even dream of having a meaningful monetary return.

The trick to earning money is to have a large portfolio of images. My personal goal is to get my stock image count to 10,000 photographs. If you are someone who takes a lot of photographs, and I’m talking along the lines of 20-30 thousand shots a year, you have money just waiting to be collected.

Lets start with organizing your image catalogs.

You’ll need a good method of organizing and assembling your stock photography collections. I use Adobe Lightroom for this purpose. Lightroom is going to give you the organizational and editing tools to work in bulk. I haven’t found any other software to be as efficient and effective for this purpose.  Get your catalogs organized and keep track of what you’re doing. The idea would be to create an assembly line process for identifying and producing stock images from everything you’ve been saving and the new images you are producing. I have image catalogs dating back to 2004, when I bought my first Digital SLR.  In the years since, I’ve taken over a half million photographs and just about everything is organized for mining images from a multitude of catalogs on different subjects and different years.

For example. I’m known for my moose photography. I have close to 20,000 photographs of moose. I have moose photos from each year organized into different catalogs. I can call up any given year’s catalog and I have upwards of 8-9 thousand photographs to sift through. Finding the really good shots happens first, but I am still making passes through the catalogs and finding images that I’ve ignored. When I find an image I want to use as a stock photo, I mark it with blue color label in Lightroom, do a quick edit to make the image as appealing as possible and then export that image as a JPG file to a master collection of uploadable stock images.  When I accumulate 10 or so images, keyword them and upload them to the stock agencies. I try to do this on a daily basis when I’m in the office looking for something to do that doesn’t involve playing games on the computer or wasting time on Facebook chatting with friends. I can identify and rip out 10 images in less than an hour most of the time.

Do the math. If you upload an average of 10 images per day, every day of the year, you can build a portfolio of 3,600 images in less than a year. In your spare time. Lets say those images earn an average of 70 cents each over a one year period. You can earn $2,500 a year by spending an hour per day editing your photos. The beauty is of course, once the photo is edited, you don’t have to do it again. It’s done. It’s online. You just wait and and eventually you get paid. Over and over and over… When you die, they’ll still be earning money. You can leave that to your estate so your family can reap the benefit long after you are gone.

Get your images organized and turn your operation into a production line. Once you have it down solid, you have a way of making it rain loose change. I jokingly refer to it as filling coffee cans with quarters. It’s no joke though. I cash in dozens of coffee cans fulls of quarters every year, year after year.

Once you’ve established your work flow, you’ll want to be approved by the agencies as a contributor.

To work on a larger scale, I highly recommend that you download an FTP program so you can upload your images quickly and in large batches. All the stock agencies have instructions on how to configure your ftp software for their service. It’s not difficult and it’s a must have.  I recommend a program called FileZilla. It’s freeware and works like a charm.

Nothing difficult here. Go through your images and pick out a handful of your absolute best images and submit them when you apply.  Don’t send the junk shots. Use your best stuff to gain entrance.

What makes a good stock photo?

Remember of course, my subject matter is Nature, Wildlife and Landscape photography. I can’t speak to models and static office scenes and still life and such. I like to keep the overhead low, so not having to deal with model and property releases keeps my stock photography model simple. You feel free to go in what ever direction you like, I just can’t give you a lot of inside scoop on how to handle the other types of stock from what I’m doing.

Stock agencies have fairly strict technical requirements for the images they select. As a starting point, here is what you’ll have to face.

  1.  Image sharpness.  Stock agencies do not like photographs that are not clear and sharp. Sharpness in critical areas is a must. Animals faces and eyes, landscape foregrounds, main composition elements have to be sharp.
  2. Proper exposure. Unevenly exposed images with lots of shadows and very bright areas are frowned upon. Nice, well lit and properly exposed without a lot of distracting things going on with the light are a must.
  3. Composition. Better composed images sell better. I call it the postcard effect. If your images look good enough to be on a postcard, you’re in the game. They don’t have to be masterpieces. They need to depict a scene or subject in a meaningful way. Don’t think for a minute that artistic flare is of no importance. Any image that makes an artistic statement with the composition will sell but artistic isn’t a requirement. I have many simple photographs of ducks sitting in water that sell quite nicely. Buyers are looking for what they want to use for the project they have in mind. Sometimes it’s just a nice clear photograph of a particular subject. Sometimes, it’s a dramatic scene of nature.
  4. Descriptions and Key-wording. Most stock agencies allow you to insert up to 50 keywords into your image files. Use them all. Find meaningful, relevant keywords for your images and populate them to the max allowed. Your photo titles and descriptions are quite important too. Write your image descriptions to sell the image. Let the potential buyer know what he is looking at. Help those search engines find your photos through those descriptions. More descriptive is better. If you are using Lightroom, create base keyword sets that can be applied to a batch of photographs. Edit the specifics of images that vary slightly from the baseline. This is work you don’t want to have to repeat over and over.
  5. Over Processing. Stock agencies don’t like a lot of fluffy post processing. They prefer to let the customer do the post processing. Try to avoid over-saturated photos, dramatic effects, lots of editing.  Don’t be afraid to punch your shot up a little bit, but don’t get heavy handed. Bad post processing will result in a rejected photo.
  6. Image Noise. Excessive digital image noise in your photos is not going to make the grade. I’ve found that the highest ISO I can regularly expect to use and get an image approved is ISO 3200 and I usually try to keep it much lower than that. Anything I think is a usable shot above ISO 1600, I run through DXO Optics Pro for noise reduction. These are far and few between though. Some agencies are a little more forgiving than others regarding noise levels. Adobe Stock for example, actually looks at the exif data in the image and if the shot is a high ISO photograph, it will warn you. I know this because I’ve uploaded an image with exif exposure info included and also stripped out. The one where it’s stripped out never gets flagged. Try to use images that are under ISO 1600 and make sure you’ve double checked them for noise levels.
  7. Sensor Spots. Always review your photos for sensor spots. Newer digital cameras have self cleaning sensors and have improved this situation greatly but don’t fool yourself into thinking your images are spot free. If an approver finds a single sensor spot in your photo, it will get rejected.  Keep your camera sensor clean. If you are using an older camera that requires you to manually clean your sensor you are well advised to examine images from that camera with extra thoroughness. No sensor spots.

So, you have now accumulated enough photographs that you can start building your portfolios. Here are a few pointers about dealing with the agencies.

Firstly, don’t fret rejection. When I first began uploading stock images to the online markets, my acceptance ratio was hovering around the 50-60% range.  Most of those photos that got rejected at first were for the reasons I’ve already described. Quality control issues. Today, my acceptance ratio on all the stock agencies is above 95%. I’ve learned what will pass quality control and I don’t try to beat the system. I keep a minimum quality standard at all times. I have learned to take photographs that produce this minimum standard. It has improved my photography.

Not all stock agencies review the same way. I’ve had many a photo rejected at one agency only to be accepted by another agency and end up selling quite well. Just because one agency doesn’t like your image, don’t let it keep you from uploading it to another agency. I’ve found the most accepting agency to be Getty iStock. Just about anything I’ve selected for a stock photo will get approved there. Of course, I keep the quality high, but Getty seems to be the most forgiving of minor image aberrations that other agencies may nit-pick about. One agency I use has rejected more photos because of sloppy key-wording. Don’t put your name in the keywords. ShutterStock is very picky about noise in images.  Most of my rejections on ShutterStock seem to be related to my sending up an image taken at a marginal ISO, but I’ve still managed to get a few really nice photos taken at ISO’s up to 12,800. Just make sure that what you are sending up meets your quality standards, which should be based on your awareness of what the agency will accept.

Sometimes you’ll get a real nit-picker reviewing your image.  I write this off to a few individuals who are having a bad day and they take it out on your image that day.  Don’t let it worry you. Accept the fact that no matter what you do, 5% of what you submit will be rejected by somebody. That’s the subjective nature of this business.

I’ve found it best to submit images in batches.  Sometimes, up to 30-50 images in a batch.  When I send up images piecemeal, 1 or 2 at a time, they tend to get a little more scrutiny. By submitting large batches, the person reviewing your images is less likely to toss out a load of shots over some nit-pickey thing. They want as many images in their system as they can get. That’s how they make their money. Large batches fair better when being reviewed.

Plan on the review process taking a few days. I’ve seen images get approved within 30 minutes, but more often than not, large batches will sit on the system for at least 2 or 3 days before you know how they did in the review process.  By that time, I’ve probably uploaded another couple of batches, so over time, it’s just a slight delay that is hardly noticed. On occasion, one or two images will sit in the review process for quite a while. These are usually images that I consider to be pushing the envelope with noise or subject matter and I figure they are just waiting for someone to look it over with a little more experience and expertise. They usually get through though.

The more images you have online, the less scrutiny you’ll get in the review process. Newbie’s get hammered harder. I submit enough stuff, their reviewers are familiar with me and my work, so I get a little more slack. You will too once you’ve established you are in it for the long haul.

I don’t waste time fixing images that get rejected. If they don’t make it through, they get left behind. There are hundred more to follow so strays just aren’t worth fooling with.

One thing that is very important is to edit out or not include any trademark or identifying information in your photos. I’ll use train photos as a prime example. I like to photograph vintage steam locomotives and trains. They are labor intensive, as there are lots of things written on the sides of trains. The name of the railroad, the serial number of the engine, the boiler plate, the serial numbers of the train cars.  Anything that can be identified as specific property or that contains a trademarked name or image has to be edited to remove that information. I had a hot air balloon image rejected for it containing a small serial number on the side of the balloon that could only be seen on the computer at 100% magnification. Car brands, store signs, buildings with names on them, anything that can be specifically identified as being someone or belonging to some entity needs to be cleaned up.  Photos with people in them will get a lot of scrutiny. I try to submit any images containing people, including blurry shapes at a distance. They will get rejected if you don’t have a model release or a property release.

Don’t try to sell photographs you’ve taken of venues that require paid entry. A museum that charges admission, a park that charges admission. If they think it’s proprietary ownership of the subject, you’ll get rejected without a property release.

Once you’ve had your photos approved by an agency, the payouts don’t automatically land on you. I’ve found that a typical image requires 3-4 months of being online before it becomes indexed by search engines and begins selling in any meaningful quantity. Oh, I’ve had shots sell the day after they were approved, but most images require a little dwell time before they start generating sales.

This should give you a basic idea of what you can expect to experience when attempting to sell your photography as Stock images.

Not all photographs are created equal. Not all photographers are created equal. Your mileage may vary, but if you understand these basic things and resolve yourself to the doing the work required to be a successful at selling stock photos, you can earn quite a bit of side money. I’ve got this down to a finely tuned process and for me, it’s just second nature. I’m making thousands of dollars a year and I expect nothing but more as I keep adding to my portfolios. All you need are the tools, talent and motivation to succeed. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Getting paid.

Every stock agency I use pays me through PayPal. There are other options available, but I highly recommend you establish a PayPal account if you haven’t already done so. Some agencies pay out once you’ve accumulated a specific amount in sales, say $100, $50 or whatever. Some agencies will pay out on a monthly basis. All agencies have record keeping tools to allow you to keep track of your sales and payments. Some are better than others.

You can also find Apps for some of the stock agencies for the iPhone and Android. I have them loaded on my notepad and mobile smartphone. Every time I make a sale, I receive a ding. Nothing more warming to the heart than to hear a bunch of dings going off on the iPhone.

So, if I’ve convinced you to delve into the world of stock photography, how about you throw me a bone by signing up using my referral link. If you click this link and apply for an account, I’ll get a little money on the side as well. Once you are established, you too can refer clients to the agencies and get paid for those referrals as well.

Here’s the link.

ShutterStock Referral Link