6 Insider Tips on How to Succeed in the Business of Stock Photography

Yvan Cohen

Mon Sep 02 2019

6 Insider Tips on How to Succeed in the Business of Stock Photography

The beauty of having a camera with you everywhere you go at almost all times of the day, is that there’s really no excuse to miss a picture. You’re always there, camera in hand.

You and a few billion other people that is.

Photography was once an activity for vacationers, well-to-do hobbyists and a select group of professionals. Nowadays, owning a picture taking device is about as common as having a ballpoint pen in your pocket (at least it used to be).

We are communicating more and more through pictures rather than words. Just ordered a delicious looking meal? Don’t bother describing it longhand, snap a picture. Feeling emotional in front of a dramatic sunset? Why waste time waxing lyrical in words when you can capture it in pictures and share the moment with the world a few seconds later.

As digital photography has become increasingly integral to our lives and the volume of photographs pouring onto the internet has exploded, the idea of doing photography as a business is starting to sound a touch unrealistic.

How can one compete? How on earth am I going get anyone to notice my pictures, let alone buy them?

Yet we photographers still cling vainly to the hope that by uploading our pictures to a photography portal like 500px, or Shutterstock or Istockphoto, we are going to start making sales. This is perhaps because to be passionate about photography you have to believe in your talent. And it stands to reason that if you believe your work is great, then others should too.

Every two minutes humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.

Hold that thought and ponder this piece of information that I just dug up on the internet: “In 2014, according to Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report, people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day. That’s 657 billion photos per year. Another way to think about it: Every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.”

These numbers are simply mind boggling and they are 5 years old. You can be sure those figures have risen since.

So where does that leave you, the lone photographer who took maybe one or two amazing photos today, or maybe none at all because the light wasn’t’ right or you weren’t feeling inspired. How can you possibly create even the slightest of ripples in such a vast ocean of imagery?

The answer? Chasing an income from selling stock imagery online is an extremely high risk business, and like every business success depends on a lot of factors.

Here are some things to consider:

1. Never be mediocre

The first golden rule is that you can never be mediocre. With more than 675 billion photos being uploaded to the internet every year, your mediocre images will sink without a trace. So the professional photographer aiming to make something even nudging towards a living cannot put anything less than his or her best work out there. That being said, one of the paradoxes about strong stock sales is that while your work needs to be outstanding, if it’s too original or unique in style, it’s likely to have more narrow appeal in the marketplace. As brilliant as your work may be, clients are often looking for the easiest image that just works without being too self conscious, and not an edgy piece of art.

2. Research the best sales channels

Think carefully about where you distribute your work. It stands to reason that with supply vastly outstripping demand (even though demand has grown considerably) this is not a seller’s market. Research which sales platforms are performing best. Think Getty, think Alamy, think Shutterstock. Pick a distribution channel that is proven and start there.

3. Don’t rely on traffic to your website

Don’t go at it alone. At LightRocket we have met so many photographers who have created websites and then stood back waiting for the visitors to arrive. It ain’t gonna happen. The only regular visitors to your site are going to be friends, family and the clients you send there. Yes, there’ll be a little bit of organic traffic from search engines but never enough to justify a stock photography business.

4. Be realistic about your place in an ocean of stock photos

Remember too that as supply zooms past demand, prices slide. In such a vast market you have to weigh up the statistical chances of your images actually being found, even if they are properly captioned and tagged (which by the way they will have to be if you want to stand a chance of competing in the stock photography market).

5. Don’t be exclusive

Try and avoid exclusive deals with stock agencies. They win, you lose. With billions of picture creators out there and only a few powerful portals for stock photography sales, it makes good sense to try and place your work with a number of outlets. It’s like any investment strategy, pick the right places to invest and diversify your portfolio.

6. Manage your expectations

If you do decide to eke out a niche in the stock photography market, make sure you manage your expectations. The reality is that you are unlikely to make very much money at all, especially if you go for the micro-payment sites like Shutterstock or Istockphoto. It’s probably best to build a photography business around assignments where you get hired for a day rate and then invest your images into stock photography outlets for a little extra income to help offset gear costs, for example.

Written by Yvan Cohen | Yvan has been a photojournalist for over 30 years. He’s a co-founder of LightRocket and continues to shoot photo and video projects around South East Asia.

Featured Photograph by Taylor Weidman

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