How to Take Stock Photos That Sell

How to Take Stock Photos That Sell

I’ve been making money from stock photography for about 10 years now. I very rarely set up a shoot, or go on a trip thinking “I can’t wait to take stock images and make money from this,” but I've managed to recoup some money I've spent on trips over the years. Although I don't shoot stock full time, there are a few things that I do to make sure that every shoot I do gets me at least a few nice stock-style images that I can try and sell.

Be Unique

One way to make stock images sales is to have something that no one else (or few others) have. Let’s say that you’re given the option to climb and photograph K2, a mountain that around 300 people have climbed, or get a ride up to the top of the Empire State Building to take photos from the observation deck. What would you choose?

While it’s a ridiculously extreme example, if someone needs a photo from K2 for sale, and you have it, that’s money in the bank. If you have a photo from the top of The Empire State Building for sale, and someone needs that shot, you’ll likely be up against thousands of other photos.

I travel a lot, and I’m almost always shooting when I travel. I always make sure I shoot the parts of cities or countries that most tourists don’t want to, or are scared to go to, like this image of North Korea below. This is where some of my favorite photos come from. The back alleys, stranger’s living rooms, the places you maybe shouldn't be. These places are ideal for my style of portraiture, but they often offer up different views on a city that most people don't get to shoot.

North Korea

Be the Best

The other way to sell images is to have the best photos, even if they’re not rare. This requires that you be a damn good photographer. The best tip for that, of course, is to shoot as much as you can to develop your eye.

In addition to being aesthetically amazing, your images also have to be technically perfect. Your photos need to be sharp, in focus, exposed perfectly, and composed well for stock. They can't have brand names, trademarks, or recognizable people or property without the correct releases. Make sure you review the submission guidelines and familiarize yourself with common reasons for rejection

Know What Sells

One way to stay ahead of the curve is to take a look at trends in the usual places that use stock images: magazines, books, online articles, and sites like Adobe Stock. Think about those types of photos when you’re out on a shoot. There are also forums on sites like Flickr where photographers discuss what is selling for them and post their best sellers. Once you have a good idea of what type of photos people are buying, it will start to become second nature to look for those types of shots.

Here’s an example of an image that I took at a concert, knowing it would be a good shot to upload and sell as stock. What makes it a potential seller? For one, the lighting is unique, almost surely taken on stage at a concert. Because it has no identifying people or objects in it, it could be used as a head image for a newspaper or magazine story on a variety of different subjects. I purposely left a lot of empty space on the left side, making it easy to add copy to the image, something that buyers often look for.

Take advantage of the events that you're already likely to be photographing, like concerts, weddings, and parties. This image of a cake that I shot at a wedding sells almost every month. I knew when I saw the cake, with the perfect natural window light, this was a great stock photo. It's a classic shot, but still has room for a designer to add text or treatments suited to their needs. Detail shots of rings, cakes, flowers, groom’s ties, and watches are also popular.

Traveling provides endless stock opportunities, from beautiful landscapes, to strange and interesting food. It’s probably unlikely that you’re going to have model release forms with you when you’re traveling, so if you are shooting people, remember to get their contact information. 

Images with people in them are often some of the best-selling photos, so I recommend having these types of images in your portfolio. If you shoot fashion, headshots, or portraits, it’s simple to ask for a signed model release. Variety is key, so shoot from different angles, and try different lights and scenarios. For example, if you have someone in a suit in an office, you can shoot them on the computer, on the phone, speaking with another person, working in a team, and doing paperwork - get creative!

No matter what or where you’re shooting, there are bound to be stock photos to be made, you just need to know where to look. It's a great way to make additional revenue with what you're already doing. If you do your research, take technically great and unique images, and stay consistent, you’re sure to be successful. If you think you've got what it takes, you can start selling your images by signing up with Adobe Stock here

Eric Reichbaum's picture

Eric Reichbaum is a photographer based in London and New York City specializing in portraiture, travel, and live music. His work has been published in The New York Times, Playboy Magazine, The Washington Post, NYT Magazine, and People Magazine among other publications.

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great post! this makes me realize how much money I've left on the table with images I have just sitting around!

multiplied by number of sales each day... in case you have variety of images in your portfolio it can make nice extra cash each month ;-)

In the real world it happens VERY seldom

Basically these are OK advises, but there's so much more in the background that you can't affect on and whatever you do your sales won't go up. I know 10 stock photographers, everyone with it's own story. Different sales, different approach... Stock is getting more messier every year.

Great post! Most of my Getty stock is made up from travel pictures, make a few sales, but nothing massive. But it's money for nothing as far as I'm concerned, since it's generally images I'd have taken anyway

Love it! Thanks Eric!

Eric Reichbaum wrote, “…you can start selling your images by signing up with Adobe Stock here.”

Stock is “licensed” rather than “sold”; it’s part of intellectual property, and IP is always licensed or transferred/assigned (sold). Third-parties don’t “buy” your photographs; instead they “license” them from you.

It would have been helpful for Eric Reichbaum to have included actual money data he’s been able to generate from licensing his stock images. Everyone seems to be shy about sharing fees and income. That tends to push rates and licensing fees downward.

I no longer photograph stock per se; it just doesn’t pay for the amount of time, travel, etc. needed to produce many quality images. Are there any photographers making money licensing via Adobe Stock?

If you’re starting to license your stock images especially through Rights-Managed entities, it behooves you to timely register those images with the US Copyright Office, in case a non-licensee infringes your copyright.

I searched the US Copyright Office, but didn’t see any registration filed under Eric Reichbaum’s name.

All photographers, including internationally-based photographers, can benefit greatly by timely registering their photo copyrights with the US Copyright Office--this is critical when an infringer is located in the USA (re: enhanced statutory money damages and potential recoupment of attorney fees and legal costs vs. actual damages and no chance to pursue attorney fees without a timely registration).

Re: It would have been helpful for Eric Reichbaum to have included actual money data* he’s been able to generate from licensing his stock images. Everyone seems to be shy about sharing fees and income.

That is because they don't make the money they brag about! Just wishfull thinking. *Like you, I would like to see some payment slips from Adobe

Re: Eric Reichbaum wrote, “…you can start selling your images by signing up with Adobe Stock here.

IF you are extremely lucky!

Interesting post. Unfortunately there at so many "at it" - it is a very difficult business, Adobe Stock was mentioned, I just wonder who really sells their pictures on this platform. Oh yes, not so long ago I watched a MAX show promoting their stock platform. They had a lawyer from Germany on the show, bragging about how he makes a four figure income with his photos. Four figure income? To achieve that one must sell thousands of photos especially when one bears in mind the peanuts they pay. My images are on Getty, how much do I get? Just 15% of the sale price. They offeri photos for 9.90 Euro per piece. Now 15% of that is rounded up, €1.49. So for a four figure income (€1000) you need to sell 671 photos. (hopefully my calc was correct?) He, the lawyer bragged one photo of his has been downloaded more than 4000 times????? I say BS!
Sounded to me that the whole show was a promotional venture to get people to sign up to Adobe Stock.

I am having a difference of opinion with Adobe at the moment over the rejection of some recent images. It was a series of 5 images, all 5 being rejected. Prior to uploading to Adobe I uploded them to Getty. Within 24 hours they were accepted and available in my portfolio. Do Getty have lower standards than Adobe? For me, Getty is THE benchmark.

Just to point out, Adobe doesn't have professionals checking the images. They have a lot of volunteers carrying out this function. In fact Adobe made it quite clear to me, these people were NOT employed by them.

If anyone understands German I can post the answer I received from Adobe.
I'll post part of it anyway;

Unsere Bildmoderatoren werden regelmässig geschult und auf "freiwilligen" Basis findet ein Arbeitsverhältnis nicht statt.

Sorry to go on like this but Adobe really p***ed me off this time No, this incident is not the first time I am involved in a conflict over rejected images - and to think I am paying €50 per Month sub for their CC platform.

Hahaha - I will never buy any subscription s/w, especially not from Adobe! :)
All the best with Getty...

I've been a professional photog since 1993. Can't tell you how many times I've seen that headline (in articles as as book titles): How to take Stock Photos that Sell. Not to say this author doesn't have some good ideas to share. It's just that being successful as a stock photographer has always been VERY DIFFICULT, and it's ten times more difficult now that it was in 1993!

Great suggestions, thanks for the 'outside the box" perspective.


Which stock site do you recommend to use? There is Getty/i-Stock and Adobe, but how to choose?

I always thought it was a good idea to try to shoot stock while doing a photo job. But when your concentrating on the subject in question it's difficult to think about anything else. Years ago when I was an assistant there were still specialist photographers- Stock, beauty, fashion, lingerie, publicity, landscape, etc but now it seems to just be a big blur where everyone can crossover, which can be a good or bad thing. But for the people that were doing stock photos before, the golden age seems to be over. For those still interested in it, why not put those photos in an agency instead of leaving them dormant in your computer or photo filing cabinet? But don't imagine you will be making millions. The truth is commercial photography of any kind is in a very difficult moment and I can't see it getting better. The banalizing of photography due to digital cameras and telephones means that people don't see or need photos in the same way as before. Publications (of course there are exceptions) are dying and the emphasis is moving to online publishing. The same quality needed for a magazine or publicity shot is not needed for the internet. The world is awash with millions of images that companies can use, paying someone a small fee (if the photo wasn't part of a competition and the prize is publication!!) for what was done by a professional before. If the millions of amateurs that are taking photos just have one superb, beautifully composed, perfectly exposed exclusive picture it makes no difference that every photo that a profession photographer takes is too. Because they don't sell at the same price. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade. There is still some work out there (if you know the right people), but some of us need to wake up.

Do put your phtos on shutterstock, istock etc ... they will give you 0.25$ ! they sale for tens or hundreds !
Better do you own website and sell from there for the right price !

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Many of their images are also available in the Adobe premium collection!

Very Nice Article.. You did a great job.. I like the way you write, you explain the topic.. Keep posting... Thank you...