My Stock Photography Experience

What I Learned In My First 4 Months

by Michelle Arnold 02.07.17

Photography is Art

~ The Thrill

Stock photography sites connect images (photos, videos, and illustrations) with potential buyers. It allows artists and photographers to sell an unlimited number of content a day to a vast customer base. The feeling of selling your work is comparable to getting a like on a social media site. It is exciting at first because it validates that you’re doing something right, and it gets more exciting as the number of images sold grows because it validates that you’re talented, and then it gets less exciting as time goes by because you’re ready to take on something bigger. I’m a photographer focusing mostly on natural food ingredients using a Nikon D750 camera with a Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO lens.

I’m still in the first phase of my stock photography journey where every sale is exciting and gives me the encouragement to do more, and to do it better. But you should know right up front that it’s not as easy as snapping a photo of everything you see with your phone camera. In fact, I sense that if your portfolio is overflowing with less than desirable images your quality photos will be lost in the crowd. It takes time, energy, money, and effort to build a solid portfolio that will make money month after month. Keep in mind, a phone camera is a perfect tool and your current surrounding has the perfect subject matter, but you’ll still need to take the task seriously. Learn all of your phone camera’s features and study composition, exposure, and focusing so you can create your unique style.


~ Standing Out in the Crowd

With hundreds of millions of photos available on stock photography sites how do you get your images noticed?  There are no guarantees, but generally it’ll be helpful to keep an eye out for what is trending in your genre; such as food, fashion, or landscape. I get most of my inspiration from magazines, catalogs, and social media sites. Next, I recommend you create your own personal style. Customers are looking for a fresh perspective. Lastly, keep working at it until you’re pleased with the image, and only upload your best work.

Here are a few detailed thoughts for you to ponder when figuring out how to get your images noticed.

1. Process your images. Today’s cameras collect a wide range of data for each image and processing them allows you to pull out the exact hue of blue you had in mind, brighten areas in the shadows, and correct exposure. It also allows you to fix minor flaws like removing a scratch from a table.

2. Go simple, but do not go plain. One freshly washed blueberry is simple yet not plain. If your photo has too many components it won’t be generic enough for stock photography, and if it’s too plain it will likely get lost among the many other similar images. Find the right balance that works for you.

3. Focus on your focus. The subject of your image needs to be sharp. A slightly fuzzy, blurry, or hazy image simply will not do for stock photography. There is room for a some creativity with focus in stock photography, such as a blurred background, but getting too creative can get your image rejected, and if accepted will often result in fewer sales.

4. Avoid over staging your scene. If every crumb, pepper flake, and fold in the napkin is precisely placed, it will show and it will distract the viewer. Your photo will have less of a chance of selling.


~ Keywords

Tagging images with keywords is a time consuming and a tedious task. It does get easier the more you do it, and you’ll quickly learn ways to be more efficient at it. In the meantime, I recommend you put in the time and energy this task deserves. The keywords you assign to your images are a crucial link between you and a buyer. Getting your image in front of a buyer is the first step to making a sale. You’ll be most successful if you add all keywords that adequately define what is being expressed in your image, and nothing more.  Going overboard with keywords is easy to do,  all too common, and isn’t helpful. This poor practice undermines the foundation of how stock photography works, and the system fails for all. Check it out for yourself. Imagine an image you would like to find, type in a few succinct keywords, and evaluate how many images display that are not appropriate for your search. I looked up dried parsley. Among the great images of this fabulous herb were hundreds of soup images. I can only assume that dried parsley is an ingredient in the soup as it clearly is not detectable in the images.

~ Feedback

When an image of yours sells you are getting positive feedback. Examine that image and try to imagine what made it sellable, and keep doing more of that. When an image doesn’t sell it is not as clear cut. The photo may still be worthy. It might be that it’s out of season, maybe the trend is not hot right now, maybe your keywords aren’t getting your image in front of potential buyers.

The more difficult questions to answer are, what measurement tells you you’re being noticed? Is selling 10 photos a day a big deal? Maybe you’re not a big deal until you’re selling 100 photos a day. What if you sell one photo enough times to earn $100, is that a big deal? Or is it big enough to sell any number of photos that gets you a $100. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do know that my experience is going better than I expected. I’ve created personal goals for my stock photography journey to help me make decisions that are good for me.

Keywords: Food color, dye, additive, pigment, blue, easter

~ Money

Caveat: I don’t have access to any statistics at an individual level when it comes to stock photography but my own.

First off, in my opinion, stock photography may have been a real money making opportunity when the concept first launched. It may still be a real money making opportunity for elite photographers, those with portfolios that have as many images as a good 401k has dollars, or for the photographers that have access to celebrities, popular events, or behind the scene spaces. But it is a popular belief that with so many stock photographers and so many images available the “easy money” days are over.

For those of us starting on a budget, purchasing all our subject matter with our day job income, and have a small space in front of a well lit window to make our magic, it will be difficult to earn a lot of money – at first anyway. In my experience the average sale nets .25 to .99. The idea is that you keep the rights to your work so you can sell it over and over eventually achieving a fair profit from each work of art. Also, unless you choose to create an exclusive relationship with one site, you are allowed to upload your images to multiple sites. This may increase your sales, but will certainly increase your effort. I work with five sites: Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, EyeEm, Dreamstime, and 123RF.  Each site has their own niche, and what sells on one often does not sell well on the others. I’ve sold the most images on Shutterstock but have earned the most money through EyeEm.

I started with a couple dozen photos and it took 10 days to sell the first one. By the end of four months I have 525 images in my portfolio and I sell an average of six a day. I’m not getting rich and I’ve put a lot of hours into honing my craft and building my portfolio. If you want to see how things are progressing for me check me out on Shutterstock @ Michelle Lee Photography

So, is it worth it? If you’re out to make a lot of money quick, if you’re looking for fame, or if you’re looking from something easy in your little bit of spare time, then I’m going to say the answer is no. But if you’re looking for a place to break into the business, if you enjoy detailed activities, if you have a lot of spare time to fill, or if you want endless practice with your camera and lenses, go for it. It can be a great way to improve both your photography skills and supplement your 401k.


~ Do you participate in stock photography? Can you add more insight?

~ Do you buy images? Can you share your process with us?


 Your comments are greatly appreciated!


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