Finding Success with Stock Image Libraries


WTF? No one told me I would appear in a Playboy ad!
This is a post of something I wrote on my other photography blog which is intended for a mobile audience. For those of you who have heard, there are some individuals who shoot stock and earn over US$100,000 a year. If you want to get to that bracket, then you gotta know what sells and what doesn't sell on stock image libraries.

Stuff that Sells

For the most part, the demand comes from the corporate sector where they had enough of paying for rights managed photos, a royalty free option is preferred and yes, you need models in the picture and we are not talking toy airplanes here.

The Hot Stuff that every Stock Agency is looking for are:-

Model Released people doing things. So, rather than just standing there, we want people out walking (not a dot on the landscape), shopping, using technology, celebrating, engaging, all the everyday activities we enjoy, in fact.

Story Telling Themes that Sell:-

Concepts, with and without people. Such as – Adventure, Balance, Connection, Discovery, Escapism, Fragility, Growth, Hope, Idyllic, Journey, Loyalty, Motion, New Life, Persistence, Real People, Sharing, Teamwork and Young at Heart.

There are caveats to this list and besides the property and model releases you are expected to furnish, you also need to avoid the following in all your pictures:-

Trademarks and Logos
Before you submit photos for consideration, make sure you whip out your trusty desktop or notebook computer and fire up Adobe Photoshop. Stock Agencies do not want to see any trademarks or logos in your picture. Combing through your image for offending logos and trademarks is easy. See that logo on the jacket that says Hugo Boss, well take that out and that Coke Bottle in the background? Just erase the logo and word Coke from the bottle.

Art Installations
Don't submit photos with famous arts of works in the background. Waste of time really as all that is already copyrighted. So for example you want to pose a model next to Rodin's Thinker, well think again dude. It's not going to fly with the Agencies. Public monuments are fine, like the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge and Statue of Liberty but it has to be in a context of something.

Events and Concerts
If you had to buy a ticket for a sporting event or performance, you cannot shoot any fucking thing intended for commercial use there. It can be for editorial use and that restricts your market by about half. The paying customers are always the corporates who are looking for royalty free exceptions. If you can produce a picture they want, they will skip paying for a rights manage photo and go for yours. Will this make you any richer? I seriously doubt it.

What me? Royalty Free? Are you kidding?
If you had sports pictures from a curling event in Sochi Russia, well you can't sell that as commercial stuff unless you fucking hire the damn team to pose for you in a make believe set. That too must be sans Olympic attire and logos in the background. And you can't sell it as an Olympic image either, just Curling.

The same applies for concerts. You can't shoot in a U2 Rock Event and sell that as a commercial image. Bono will clearly tell you it is a no-no.

Stock Image Agencies would Puke if you Tried Submitting...

There is a list here too. Don't bother looking too deep into it as I am sure you have all tried to make your first million in stock photography by venturing out to your own back yard.

  1. Squirrels, Ducks, Geese, Swans, Pigeons and all the birds and animals you find in your garden or local park
  2. Seascapes, Shorelines and Lakes - especially the one's with long shutter speeds
  3. Sunsets over water
  4. Sunsets behind Trees
  5. Trees
  6. Generic landscapes with no distinctive geographical, iconic or stylistic features
  7. Snapshots of dogs and cats
  8. Nature abstracts submitted as "backgrounds"
  9. Insects – unless they are fantastic
  10. Objects on a white background – especially Food and Still Life images.
  11. Animals in captivity, where it's obvious they are in a Zoo or Safari Park
  12. Individual Flowers and Plants outdoors, especially close-up without any context or visible sky

This list isn't as extensive as I would like but it is a start. For the record, there are tonnes of these types of photos on Flickr which people are already giving away for free. So what makes you think that picture you took in your back yard is going to make you any money?

How to Make Your First Million in Stock Photography

Invest in those freelance models. Remember what your Mom said about bringing strangers home? Well it's going to make lots of money if they can sign a model release and do you bidding. Pose them with props, such as your TV remote, Playstation 4 controller or in your bathtub taking a bubble bath. Activities like these sell like hotcakes as Royalty Free Imagery.

Use expensive props as accessories. Remember the guy who lives down the street who has an exotic vintage Ferrari, well you can find out when he's not home and get your models to pose next to it. Just remember to blank out the number plate for good measure or else he might want a cut from your earnings. Props are extremely important in stock photography. You don't need to feature a logo of the prop in any shoot as long as you pose the model right.

Travel to Places People won't Venture to. If you go to Iceland, you could hire someone to don a space suit eating a hamburger and that will sell in droves. The landscape is nothing like what you will find anywhere in the world. You could even fake a moon landing there. Take along a scale model kit and drop that in your shoot.  Forget the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, those have been done to death. Humor sells and if you can use that to good effect, you'll sell millions.

Set up an Indoor Studio to Stage photo shoots. This is probably the least expected but makes the most money. You can for a start have you own studio set up within the confines of your home and shoot models in various poses. All you need are just three type of backgrounds, black, white and grey. You don't even need to have a background element as this can be further added on in Photoshop by whoever buys your photos.

Invest in Photoshop. Yes, you can make a million pictures by compositing various subjects and elements to make a picture. If your photoshop skills are up to mark, you can do almost anything. Add flying pigs into your sunset pictures, make your dog laugh out loud while watching TV.

And if you noticed I didn't say it won't cost you a dime to stage any of this. All of the above cost time, effort and money because that's what the majority of photographers are not interested in investing. Anything which cost them next to nothing to do has been done to death. Taking pictures of garden vegetables, strangers molesting your pet dog or hamster, backyard insects or even those beautiful sunsets at the park might seem lovely to you but no one is going to buy them. The key is to be unique and that calls for models. So if you don't know anyone who will pose for you, time to fire up Facebook and connect with your friend's friends. Who knows, you might get lucky?

Royalty Free is a Hit and Run Business

I bet no one told you this but Royalty Free is just another name for an open retail store that works on a honor system. You take the goods, drop in the money and move along. They do not look after your rights should your image be used by various other people who did not buy your photo. Let's for a moment assume that someone did buy your photo for use in a website. Well guess what? A web surfer will steal that photo and post it on his website and so on. Guess who is going after them for royalties? Well it certainly not the stock image agency. How about the dude who turns your photo into a viral Instagram meme? Do you think you can sue him?

Stock agencies do not as a rule furnish you with the name and address of the purchaser. This is not their beef. You can have your photos submitted as a rights managed photo but that doesn't mean the stock agency will look after your photo either. They only take notice when it is sold as exclusive rights managed for a fixed duration usage. Those pay big bucks. But once you go that way, the chances of you getting a photo sold diminishes as buyers often opt for royalty free if a similar picture is available.

In the corporate world, you need staff to stay responsible to rights managed photo use. Often such responsibilities fall under the guise of the marketing communications department. Smaller companies won't even bother with this and lets the advertising agencies deal with the details. Would they care if the usage rights have lapsed? What do you seriously think they would do if you didn't pay up?

The competition for that corporate dollar is rife. And stock agencies expect you to follow their lead by racing to the bottom is terms of pricing of any photo. They don't care how much you spent staging and capturing that photo. It's not their business to care. They want to sell everything for a dollar if they could.

In the near future, you'd shoot a model and composite various elements to make it new. That's why Photoshop is such a game changer in digital photography. You can make new photos out of old ones. Think for a moment, need a model to wear a new attire? Just change the colors of the clothes she's wearing! Want to have an interesting background? Drop in a bokeh blurred background in Photoshop and you'll have a new picture.

So don't give up your day job for a career in stock photography if you don't have a dime to invest in it from the beginning. It takes more than just back yard pictures to bring home the bacon if you want to carve out your own turf in the stock photo business.