The Secrets Behind Effective Keywording: Get the Most From Your Images When Submitting to Stock Libraries

The Secrets Behind Effective Keywording: Get the Most From Your Images When Submitting to Stock Libraries

Whether you’re new to stock or have been submitting images for a few years, it’s always worth paying attention to how best to squeeze as much visibility out of your images as possible. Just how good are your keywords, and are they getting your photos seen ahead of everyone else's?

You’ve picked your images, cloned out any brand names, checked sharpness, and printed the model releases. It’s now time to upload your work and if you’re like me, your Lightroom catalog has made a start on creating some general keywords. Usually between 10 and 25 keywords is enough but when the likes of Adobe Stock allows up to 50, it’s good to know how to start filling out that list.

How to choose effective keywords when uploading to Adobe Stock

Choosing keywords can be a dark art. Are you being too vague, too specific, too niche, or too generic? Trying to find that balance can be tough, especially with such a vast number of images being uploaded every day. To make your images work best for you, it’s worth putting in a bit of research, especially when many images are bought by people who didn’t know precisely what they were looking for when they started their search.

The Obvious: Be Specific

The level of detail in your keywords can be critical as often buyers are trying to fill a specific niche. Not only that, if you have a photo of a stack of books, while the keyword “books” should be an obvious choice, you also need to be specific: are they leather-bound antique books? Science textbooks? Hardback? Dog-eared? Are they all one color? The details matter, especially when buyers are wading through a huge number of search results and then trying and filter their results down.

For example, “rock climbing” yields more than 250,000 results on Adobe Stock. By contrast, “woman bouldering outdoors” produces fewer than 2,000. Instead of leaving my description broad, I’ve pinned down the gender of the person, the specific type of rock climbing, and the fact that it’s on real rock rather than an indoor gym. As well as explaining the activity, I might also want to try and describe more plainly what the image depicts: "blonde," "woman," "reach out" — all of these should be in my list.

Get Moody and Then Take a Step Back

As well as the content of the image, consider what story your image tells, or what emotions it inspires. If there’s a person in the image, what are they feeling, or what does their activity inspire? For my climbing images, typically I associate it with feelings of focus, aspiration, achievement, and effort. Other keywords might be more about a viewer’s reaction to what’s happening, such as height, strong, risk and danger.

Best practice when choosing keywords for stock imagery

Once I’ve finished being absorbed by what’s in the photo and the feelings that it evokes, I try to take a step back and figure out basic elements that I’m overlooking. Often this is the time of day, dominant colors, ethnicity of models, hair color, or other elements that for some reason don’t seem immediately obvious when I’m absorbed in creating my initial lists. I’m also careful not to forget the location, both geographically but also generally — in this case, it is in the Fontainebleau Forest in France, but it’s also “outdoors.”

Don’t Forget Your Title

It’s easy to get absorbed by keywords and forget that every image should have a simple title that accurately describes the photograph. Simplicity is key, and you should keep in mind that people looking for imagery are often using search engines rather than heading directly for stock websites. For SEO purposes, aim to write fewer than 70 characters and try to capture both the scene and the mood with a sentence that makes grammatical sense. For example, “A woman bouldering and climbing a rock, looking confident and happy” might be the best option for my image. Keep in mind that the title does not show up in search results so be sure not to omit any important words from your list of keywords.

Smile bouldering woman climbing bouldering - stock library keywords

Check Out the Competition

Fortunately, the best inspiration for your titles and keywords is right under your nose. When submitting an image of a female rock climber, I can probably muster about fifteen keywords before I start to run out of inspiration. That’s when a quick search comes in handy and I harvest a ton of ideas from other people’s brains. I simply search for “female rock climber” and click on my favorite result or an image that is closest to what I’m about to submit. With one more click, I can find all of the keywords that the photographer has submitted with that image and pick out those that I think are most useful. (Note that it’s not a good idea to cut and paste keywords from other photographers as you might be breaching the agency’s policy.)

Stock library keywords - check out the competition

If the first image doesn’t yield good results, hunt around. Many will be incredibly similar, but there’s usually a handful of good ideas that will be valuable additions to help you pad out your own list. Furthermore, after a little bit of searching and comparing images that appear on the first page of results, you’ll get a handle on how the most successful images are keyworded so effectively that they appear on the first page of search results.

Think Industrial

The incredibly diverse array of people and companies buying stock is mind-boggling but one thing almost universal: if someone is paying to use your image, that photograph is being used commercially, which means that, at some level, an industry is involved. Your stack of books might be “literature,” “academia,” “education,” or “publishing”; my rock climbing images usually have the keywords “outdoor,” “leisure” and “extreme sports.”

Reach the People Who Don’t Know What They Want

With such a diverse array of uses for stock images, trying to get into the heads of people buying these photographs can be tricky, but you can be sure that some of them know that they want an image, but they’re just not sure what it is. For example, they might need to illustrate an article about something aspirational and want an image that compliments the color scheme of their client’s website.

Stock library search results for happy outdoor red

You’d be surprised how many people are searching for really vague terms such as “outdoor happy red,” simply hoping to find some inspiration in the pages of results that then come up. This example yields more than 100,000 results, but as soon as you add “sunny” and “strong,” suddenly there’s only 19. Having a mixture of specific terms and more emotional keywords can be surprisingly effective, especially when you consider that people don’t always have something particular in mind.

Be Organized

Earning money from stock imagery is about three things: quantity, quality, and being organized. The returns can be slim when you’re starting out, and it’s important to make the process as efficient and streamlined as possible. The time you spend creating the best workflow will definitely pay dividends later on, making you much more likely to keep uploading because your system feels like less of a chore.

In my experience, the best way I’ve found to organize keywords is through Lightroom. I’m about to create a dedicated Lightroom catalog specifically for my exported stock imagery because (on a Mac at least), it’s by far the easiest way to apply keywords across a large number of photos.

Using Lightroom to manage keywords when uploading stock imagery

In the same way that I use Evernote (and more recently Bear App) for keeping lists of Instagram hashtags, I’ve created lists of keywords for my various stock submissions. I can skim-read a few of my categories and quickly spot something that I’ve missed, or simply copy and paste my basic “climbing” list straight into Lightroom. This can be a real time-saver and help you to avoid missing some obvious keywords simply because you have so many images to organize.

Most library websites have handy ways to manage your keywords once they’re uploaded but getting it right on your computer first and then making small changes once uploaded ensures a much quicker, simpler process. If you’re still short of a few keywords, Adobe Stock has a handy auto-keyword feature which can make up to 25 suggestions. It can be a useful tool for finding keywords that you might otherwise have overlooked. Be sure to check the list and remove anything that’s not relevant.

Adobe Stock places great importance on the order of your keywords. At first, this can seem annoying but keep in mind that this works greatly in your favor if you make the right choices. If you’re not sure what to prioritize, check out the competition again and base your choices on what’s working for the images that are proving the most successful. There are no hard and fast rules here, but “climbing” should be close to the top, while “forest” can definitely appear further down the list. It's also worth noting that Lightroom will alphabetize your keywords (though Adobe Bridge does not) so you may need to reshuffle them once uploaded.

Extra Tips and Tricks

  • Include two-word terms but repeat them as individual words. For example, my “rock climbing” images should also be tagged with “rock” and “climbing”
  • Avoid brand names and trademarks
  • Use the infinitive form of a verb: eg, “smile” rather than “smiling” (unless it's also a noun, like "climbing")
  • Nouns should always be singular
  • Check which languages your agency supports. For example, Adobe Stock supports English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Korean
  • If there’s no-one in your image, include the keywords “nobody” and “no people”
  • Don’t include any technical data, such as the camera brand, lens, or shutter speed
  • Geographic data is useful, but being too precise is unnecessary. If you’d never heard of that tiny village before, it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone is searching for it unless it is significant, perhaps historically or as a tourist destination
  • Don’t use any spammy or rude keywords.
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Nicholas Morris's picture

Interesting. How long does it take to start making decent money in stock? I've always considered it but heard it's a pretty long process.

It’s unlikely the majority of photographers can earn any substantive income from licensing stock images via RF models through Adobe and other stock libraries (lots of work for pennies):

Instead, consider licensing your stock images on your own via your web and social media sites, while retaining 100% of the licensing fees.

I’d rather license a single image granting some exclusivity to the licensee for $1000/year vs. licensing the image 4000 times via Adobe Stock at $0.25 (or less) per year--not worth it at all! With the former, the stock licensing value of the image is $1000, instead of $0.25.

Nicholas, the problem that most people face is with what they are loading on to these sites. Just because a picture is nice, doesn't mean somebody wants to pay for it. Conversely, a picture that isn't even aesthetically pleasing might be sold - for example, a picture of a plastic bottle on a beach can be used by somebody writing an article about pollution. But a pretty picture of the beach at sunset might not be of any use to somebody.

Nick - We just published an article on stock photography, regarding among other things whether you can actually still make a living from it:

I thought Adobe AI is already capable of assigning keywords automatically...

Johnny Rico's picture

Why don't you guys do an article on how minuscule the amount of money you make is in these transactions. Wait, I think I've already seen some of those articles on Fstoppers before, the juxtaposition is hilarious. Micro Stock is horrible for the industry.

Just because you haven't figured out how to make it profitable, doesn't mean it isn't.

When you say "horrible for the industry" what you really mean is "I tried it and wasn't any good at it and didn't make any money, therefore it is terrible and nobody can make money from it".

Johnny Rico's picture

Nah mate. Micro stock is horrible for the industry, proven time and time again.

"the industry" is changing. will you choose to change with it, or remain where you are? neither is wrong, they're just different strokes for....

good article with many good facts and tips.
i'd like to add that in some cases you should tag some camera data. panoramas, wide-angle, close-ups, fast or slow shutter-speed, or extreme telephoto can be search parameters.

Frederic Hore's picture

Thank you Andy Day for your succinct and valued comments! As a fellow working tog, appreciated your insights!
Cheers from Montréal

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Frederic! Kind words. Greetings from France. 😊

to those asking/thinking/dreaming about making money from stock photography; I would suggest that in many cases it's going to be a long time dream for most. I personally cannot be bothered with selling photos or images these days .
Take the pressure off yourself and enjoy your photography. That does not mean you forget selling totally. As Andy said; use your own web site and your social media pages including Flickr. . Follow the advice from Andy about keywording. No point having the greatest photo if the dollar bloke cannot find it. The one big sale is far better than 100 tiny ones .
Photography changes dramatically as soon as you add "I have to make money" or even "I want to make money"

If you make a few dollars from your "hobby" than that is a bonus to the enjoyment you should be getting from photography and/or just owning too much gear like so many do.

But I'm an older fart so what would I know? You may have those special qualities to make consistently good pictures that 'you can sell' for better than average money; so don't stop dreaming; but be realistic .

winston Shaw's picture

While this article is well written and will undoubtedly prove useful to those photographers willing to spend endless hours keywording their images for every possible market I find its basic message troubling. More and more photography seems to be moving away from the creative sector into what I call the Madison Avenue Hype sector. More and more the skills required for success have less to do with content value and more and more to do with identifying "trends" and marketing to them successfully. This is not to say that marketing has not always been key to success in photography. To some extent it's always played a big role. But rather to suggest that secretarial skills are more and more central to photographic success. Not good news...