Success as a stock photographer takes hard work, strategy and patience. Understanding how to create marketable imagery with appropriate metadata is key. Metadata helps buyers find you. Marketable images consistently resell, improving overall revenues.

My stock photography experiences

I have a relatively small stock photography portfolio of about 1,500 images, and haven’t added to the portfolio for a couple of years. Occasionally I check it for earnings and that is about it. Still, I receive a monthly check, which isn’t bad for doing nothing.

  • My stock images have sold nearly 12,500 times.
  • I have paid for camera gear, computers and software from my earnings.
  • Even in today’s crazy world images are selling.
  • When I first built my portfolio, I did my homework and then developed and implemented a game plan, just like I would for any business venture.
Samburu dancers, Kenya. This image sells very well online and has been used on prestigious platforms such as CBS News in the United States.

If I have tapped your interest, and you have decided to give stock photography a try, here are ten tips to improve your sales, based upon my experiences:

Ten tips to get started

1. Really know your craft

Be able to consistently and efficiently create high quality imagery. Buyers do know the difference in images, as I have learned from my sales.

  • Limit noise, balance lighting and use good composition and technique.
  • Clearly define the subject.
  • Be creative, and develop original, fresh perspectives for your subject matter.
  • Work at improving your skills and learning new ones.

2. Diversify your imagery, and develop your own style or niche

With diversification you will appeal to lots of different buyers. If you find a niche, diversify within your niche. Many stock photographers have learned to illustrate and have included illustrations as part of their portfolio, or they have combined photographs and illustrations into one image.

3. Understand the difference between stock photographs and fine art

Stock photographs are conceptual, not necessarily artistic.

  • A travel writer describing a beach resort may prefer a boring image portraying blue skies and ocean with luminous beaches rather than a creative colorful sunset with stormy clouds. This is because travelers imagine themselves sitting on beautiful beaches in perfect weather.
  • Conceptual photographs can also be interpretive. For example, the concept of “hope” can be depicted with a photograph of a rainbow, a sunrise or a child.

4. Study the popular images on stock agency websites

Learn what buyers are buying and carefully consider how the images were made by the photographer. Use what you learn in creating your imagery.

5. Understand how image metadata is interpreted within the search algorithms developed by each stock agency you affiliate with

By metadata, I mean the keywords as well as the titles and descriptions you attach to your images when you upload them to a stock site.

  • Some algorithms give greater weight to the words used in titles and descriptions rather than words you have listed as “keywords,” when a buyer does an image search.
  • Blogs and message boards on stock agency websites may help you understand the search algorithms used on that site.
  • Learn by reading the titles, keywords and descriptions of bestselling photographs.
  • Review and decide whether or not to adjust the metadata of images that are not selling and which have poor placement after keyword searches.
Fishing at sunrise in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. This image was an editor’s choice image and placed very well in a stock agency competition, giving it a very high profile on the agency site.

6. Participate in the community of each site you have a stock portfolio on, if participation is available to you

I learned so much from the blogs and message boards, and became friends with photographers all over the world. It seemed that my sales increased when I participated more actively. I also recommend joining in on agency sponsored competitions. My exposure definitely improved when I placed well in agency contests. I even made extra money when chosen as one of three winners.

7. Make your image stand out as a thumbnail

Buyers will see lots of images, lined up as thumbnails, during an image search. Your image will be buried among many. Try using bold colors or striking composition.

8. Do not compete against yourself

In your stock portfolio on one site, consider uploading a single strong image — rather than five similar images — of the same subject.

  • One image with numerous sales is better than five with much fewer sales.
  • Sales per image may affect pricing and/or placement during keyword searches. Depending on the agency, more sales may mean higher prices or improved placement.
  • Declutter your portfolio by deleting images that do not sell. Your portfolio will look more successful to buyers, and your ratio of sales to images will improve.
  • Sales per image ratios may affect the algorithms used for keyword searches, depending on the sites you sell on.

9. Carefully research the agencies before you decide where to sell your photographs

Compare pricing. There are many pricing schemes out there. Also see if there is a “fit” between the types of images you like to take and the type of images that have significant sales. Determine if the contributing photographers are helpful to “newbies.” In addition, you should consider exclusivity. Exclusive photographers make more money per image, and should have better placement in keyword searches.

  • I am an exclusive photographer with Dreamstime. It is not a household word like Adobe Stock or Shutterstock, but it is a community I am proud to be a part of with an impressive array of diverse buyers.

10. Be patient

The first sale typically takes a painfully long time. In addition, stock photography works on volume of sales, since prices per image are low. Unfortunately, you have to wait for sales to multiply considerably to see real revenue. I experienced a nice bump in sales once I uploaded 1,000 images into my portfolio.

Girl in Christmas Pajamas. This image was also an editor’s choice image, giving it a higher profile on the stock agency site.

Final thoughts

After your photographs sell, look for them online. Have fun seeing how they are being used. The biggest thrill of my stock photography career was when I was buying a book on Amazon for a trip to Italy. When I looked carefully at the front cover of the book on my computer monitor, I saw my photograph. OMG!