How to make money from stock photography

Have you ever wanted to make money from your photography? Shooting stock images is a viable way of making some extra cash, and you don't even need to be a pro to make a profit.

Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
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Lexy Savvides
5 min read

Apart from striking out solo as a commercial or professional photographer, there is another way to turn a hobby for imaging into a viable career path.

(Credit: Stuart Murchison)

Stock photography is how thousands of photographers make money or supplement their main income by licensing images. These photos could be used for almost anything you can imagine; illustrating an online news story or appearing on a billboard in an ad campaign.

Agencies traditionally act as the mediator between client and photographer, aggregating a huge library of images that can be searched on keyword or even colour to help find the right photo for a particular use.

Though shooting stock photography might seem like something only professional photographers can do, with the right equipment and persistence, just about any photographer can turn their hobby into a profitable enterprise.

Meet the stock photographer

Stuart Murchison is a professional photographer and shoots stock imagery for iStockphoto.com. He first became interested in imaging during his time at university studying architecture. While living in London in 2006, he attended one of iStockphoto's yearly events, which inspired him to start shooting much more.

Though Murchison primarily focuses on commercial, fashion and architectural photography, his stock imaging work makes up around 30 to 40 per cent of his income.

"There really is no limit to what can be submitted as 'stock' photography. It can be travel, food, editorial. Anything you photograph, someone might have a use for it for something. It really allows you to be very free. Anything I shoot that's not for a client has a potential to be stock," he said.

In most artistic endeavours, it's looking at the collective body of work by an artist that determines whether or not a particular image is valuable. With stock photography, it's all about the individual photo — not necessarily the photographer behind it.

Brad Ralph is the senior artistic director of content and co-founder of iStockphoto.com, and says that, in terms of stock, it's much more viable to think about a popular image than a popular photographer.

"This is because certain variables alter the certainty of an image being sold. For example, does the photographer specialise in niche images or shoot generic cliché, popular topics? A photographer that produces and uploads multitudes of generic business photos that get well-placed in search could get 50 downloads a week or more, but they might all be small web-resolution images. A highly skilled and creative artist may only produce 10 exquisite conceptual stock images a month, but one print resolution sale could yield equal or better financial wins."

One of Murchison's most popular photos to date was one he took straight after buying a 50mm f/1.8 lens. "I returned home to try it out by taking photos around my flat. One photo I took was of my hand in front of a mirror, with its reflection visible. The shallow depth of field made it look like two hands reaching out to each other," he said.

(Credit: Stuart Murchison)

A series of images can also prove popular with buyers. Murchison's photos from a trek to the base of Mount Everest in 2006 have also been some of his best-sellers.

Finding that popular shot

Stock photography has not always been the cool kid of the imaging world. It's quite common to see photos that have become clichéd through overuse, with newer photographers trying to replicate the look and feel of top-selling images.

When it comes to making a popular image that will sell well, Ralph suggests to follow trends from the global market.

"Popular stock images are those that customers can relate to and convey messages in a realistic way," he said. "Buyers trend towards images with positive messages. 'The good life' is visualised through images of playfulness, enjoyment, contentment and simplicity — moving noticeably away from the focus on wealth and luxury items."

(Credit: Stuart Murchison)

Ralph also said that images of mature men and women were best-sellers, as they imply trust, while health and medicine images are always snapped up.

"Business rules in stock imagery," he said. "The trend today is images that display teamwork across time zones, global connections and workplace diversity. Additionally, images of working early and staying at work late into the evening are highly sought after topics, as customers increasingly want to prove that they are hard workers.

An infographic showing some of 2012's stock photo trends. (Credit: iStockphoto)

A stock photographer's kit

The most important tool for a stock photographer is lighting. Whether it's natural or artificial, a well-lit shot ensures the best results for being selected by an editor from a stock photography agency.

"Photographic style also plays an important role in what stock agencies look for in a winning stock photo. Boosted colours, retro-filtering or de-saturated tones may be popular, however, a well-lit and exposed image has the most universal appeal," said Ralph.

This isn't to say that all stock photography is based around studio work. Murchison does a lot of travelling, and when he's on the road, it is just a camera, lens and tripod accompanying him. "If I'm shooting lifestyle stock images, however, there will be a lot more equipment involved, especially if I'm shooting in a studio with no natural light," he said.

(Credit: Stuart Murchison)

Murchison started out by buying second-hand speedlights from eBay and made all the modifiers himself to save money. Even with basic equipment, photographers can still get stock-worthy images.

Though he still uses speedlights to this day, Murchison has upgraded to strobes, which are more powerful for his work. "Also, clients don't tend to find battered flashes with cardboard modifiers taped onto them very professional."

How to get started

Ready to start shooting stock photography? Ralph offered the following tips to any aspiring stock photographer.

  1. Know the capabilities and limitations of your gear and be prepared to invest in quality equipment, including lighting. Image quality is everything, and poor image quality is the number one reason images get rejected by editors.

  2. Search the stock collections you plan to submit content to, and look to fill a void. There will always be content gaps on topics that are scarce or popular images that need updating. Perhaps you can even look to replicate an outdated photo with a new twist.

  3. Most stock agencies provide information on the content topics that are needed and not needed. All you have to do is find it and follow it. Learn how to search keyword standards at your agency and work to optimise your metadata. It can mean the difference between getting your photos ranked high in search, or being lost in the abyss.

  4. It is also important to develop a style and refine it. Feel free to experiment in your personal projects and test the waters buy uploading the occasional fun image. You don't have to play the trendy-style game when it comes to shooting. A customer who likes your style will come back to check on your latest images, so be cautious of alienating repeat buyers. Remember — they have photoshop too.

  5. Learn how to work with models. If you're not comfortable communicating and directing your subject, it will show in the final product. A good tip is to use actors instead of models, as they tend to look more real and work better for stock photography.

  6. Shoot. Upload. Repeat. Being successful in stock photography means working hard and constantly refreshing your portfolio to keep up with trending topics. It's a full-time job for many people, and it's hard to compete if you're not putting in the same level of effort.