What is Stock Photography?

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What is stock photography? To many photographers it is a path to profits. Other photographers find it to be a hole of frustration. Realistically, stock photography is somewhere between these two extremes.

There are three ways to look at stock photography. The first is the view that photographers have of it. Stock agencies will see stock photography differently. Buyers of stock photos are sure to have their own impression of what stock photography is.

I am assuming that most readers here will be looking at stock agencies through the viewfinder of a photographer. Still, to be successful at stock photography you will need to understand all three angles of the business.

All three views share some common elements. We will start with these shared views as stock photography secrets are revealed.

Is Stock Photography A True Business?

Is stock photography a real business? Many people involved in it will agree that it is very much a business. Some photographers see it as a place to warehouse their mediocre photos. For them, the business element is unlikely to come into play.

Stock photography consists of existing photographs that can be used for various purposes ranging from advertising to educational uses. The concept for buyers is that it is much less expensive to buy a stock photo than it is to commission a photographer for a specific assignment to create similar photos.

Stock Photo of a girl with rollers in her hair, holding a tissue over her mouth with lipstick on it

Stock Photography As Seen By Buyers

Stock photography is very appealing to buyers. This has never been more true. The creation and growth of micro stock agencies have changed the face of stock photography for everyone involved.

I entered the stock photo arena back in the old days. You know, back when photos were taken with the use of film. Now we have digital cameras, electronic photo manipulators, and micro stock agencies. Old grey beards, like me, can feel very intimidated by all of the changes in the business.

Stock Photography: Professional Images and Techniques

Back in the film days it was common for stock agencies to send out original slides for potential buyers to review. Now photos are uploaded and emailed and shown in online galleries. The selling process is very different. Stock photography today is instant gratification.

It used to be important to choose an agency that was well known and that had strong connections in the buying world. This is still true, but it is not nearly as important as it used to be. Now if you can get your photos to come up in searches on the Internet, sales can be made. Hell, you don't even need an agent these days.

Buyers are looking for specific types of photos. They don't care if they come from a photographer or a stock agency. If you have the picture that the buyer wants, you have the power.

Digital Stock Photography: How to Shoot and Sell

We will talk more about agencies in a later chapter. This chapter is meant as an overview, not a detailed description of what your options are and how to take advantage of them.

In short, buyers are looking for high-quality photos of specific subject matter that can be licensed for a reasonable fee. It boils down to the picture and the money. There is no loyalty between buyers and stock agencies. Yes, times have changed.

I just finished writing a new e-book that is a Book Buster entitled: Sensible Stock Photography: Secrets Revealed. I have been a stock photographer for about 30 years, so I have a bit of experience to share with people new to the business.

What Are The Basic Goals Of Stock Agencies?

Stock agencies exist to make money. Few agency owners do what they do as a hobby. It is all about the cash. If you can make money for an agency, they will be interested in you and your work.

There are many differences between agencies which we will discuss later. For now, it is enough to simplify the issue by saying that agencies what to represent photos that will sell often and for high prices. You can bet your best lens that agencies see what they do as a business.

Stock Photographers

Stock photographers come in many forms. Some are more serious than others. Photographers often look at stock sales as beer and peanut money. Other photographers make their entire living shooting and selling stock photos.

What type of stock photographer do you want to be? How much money do you want to make from your photos? Will you be happy to see your photos published even if you don't make a lot of money? Since this book is expected to be of the most interest to photographers we will spend more time on this topic.

Man cooking, flames jumping up from a hot wok
Wok of Dong by Ricardo Liberato on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

What do you want?

What do you want from your stock photography? Is your main goal to see your work in print? How important is the income from stock sales to you? Only you can answer these questions, and they must be answered.

If you are looking to make a lot of money, you should look at other means of income. It is surely possible to make big bucks with stock sales, but far more photographers make less rather than more.

Stock photography can provide many things to photographers. The list below identifies some of them:

  • A goal to shoot for
  • Something worthwhile to do with your photos
  • A source of unknown and unlimited income
  • Critical assessments to make you a better photographer
  • A chance to see more of your work published
  • Legitimacy for your camera business tax deductions
  • The excitement of being notified of a sale that you didn't know about
  • The hope of using stock photography income as part of your retirement
  • The thrill of competition

There are, of course, other benefits to be had from stock photography. You will know what is right for you when you try it.

An Opportunity

Stock photography is an open opportunity for all photographers. Your existing credentials don't count. It doesn't matter if your name is famous in the industry, although this never hurts. As long as you can produce high-quality photos on a consistent basis, you can be a stock photographer.

Taking Stock: Make Money in Microstock Creating Photos That Sell
Taking Stock: Make Money in Microstock Creating Photos That Sell

It used to be common to be an exclusive photographer for one agency. This type of arrangement still exists, but it is now common for photographers to be represented by multiple agencies at the same time. This can increase sales considerably. Most photographers in the digital age choose non-exclusive representation.


Some themes sell better than others for stock photographers. I love to shoot macro photos, nature, and wildlife subjects. These types of photos are sometimes purchased from stock agencies, but they are far from the best-selling categories.

Weddings are usually the main moneymaker for local photographers. People photos are the key producers in the stock market. Models have to sign releases, but the work can be simple, easy to plan, and you can produce a high volume of photos in a short time.

Stock Photo of a young girl writing with a pencil in a classroom setting

Photos that can be used as backgrounds for advertisements are another popular seller through agencies. These can be anything from photos of clouds in the sky to colored pebbles. Creative photographers excel at these pictures.

Stock Photo of a panoramic landscape with a lone tree in a green field and a blue sky with white fluffy clouds

Food is a very popular seller with most agencies. Shooting a bowl of fruit in a studio might not be your idea of glamorous photography, but it can pay the bills quite handsomely.

Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling

Objects are another fairly popular category. This could be a jar of candy, a hammer, or a toaster. Avoid trademarks in this type of photography. If it exists, there may be a request for a picture of it at some time.

Stock Photo of a biscuit resting next to a cup in a saucer

It's What You Make of It.

Stock photography is what you make it. Some photographers consider it a waste of time. A lot of photographers use it for supplemental income. Photographers occasionally make great livings shooting stock. What will you make of it? Well, your feelings now may change considerably by the time you finish this rare, unveiled look at what stock photography really is and what it means to photographers.

About the Author

Dodge Woodson is a full-time internationally-known, best-selling author and photographer. Dodge recently entered semi-retirement and created the World Photographers Organization (WPO). Photographers of all skill levels come to WPO to learn, to increase their sales, and to take advantage of the extensive resources offered to the general public and members. He also created an e-commerce site, www.ccionlinesales.com to showcase his brainchild. the Book Buster e-books. The site offers a full selection of Book Busters, e-books, used bound books, new bound books, stock photography, and much more. Having been a pro photographer for more than 30 years and a full-time writer for 17 years, Dodge now feels it is time to share his tricks of the trade with up-and-coming freelancers.

Written by Guest

January 2nd, 2011 at 10:06 am

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