Stock Photography Reality Check Part One


So you think you might like to dabble in stock photography?  Here is a bit of a reality check to keep your expectation in line with reality.

What is stock photography?

Stock photography is the solution to expensive custom photo shoots.  Not every commercial photo use such as a magazine advertisement,   online ad,  local ad circular, small business business card etc. has the budget for a full on custom photo shoot.

Brand name fashion ads in Vanity Fair and Vogue, yes, but not Joe the Plumber’s ad in the yellow pages.  So stock photography provides a library of already made photographs for designers to use.  They might not get exactly what they want but it will be close enough.   Also what they get won’t be exclusive but their lower budget clients will have to deal the very real possibility that other pizza joints will use the same shot of a steaming hot slice of pizza.

In the old days, stock photographs were on slides and the stock agency would do a search for their clients and show they possible images on slides.  They would also publish stock books showing the images available.  All the images were provided by professional photographers.

Then came the internet, cheap, unlimited storage and access to photographers of all walks of life.  This allowed the stock libraries to expand and to accept images from professionals and amateurs alike.  These new stock providers were dubed “microstock” because the economics of lots of images procured inexpensively allowed them to offer the images to their clients for less then stock images previously cost.

Will I make a zillion dollars selling stock?

The microstock industry has matured to the point where there are millions and millions of images available for licensing.  In the very early days, one could up load a crummy photo and it would sell over and over.

Now a days your images are in competition with millions of other images.  The reality of today’s microstock market, is that you can see a few sales here and there but you can’t expect to give up your day job for microstock.

Are there more sellers or buyers?

The reality is that there are zillions more images available to license then the buyers will ever need.   Just like most things on the Internet – eBay, the fine art photography market, people trying to sell used Ikea Lack coffee tables on Craigs list – there are far more sellers than buyers.

How many images do I need in my microstock portfolio before I start seeing sales?

When I first started selling some of my work as stock, I figured I’d upload 40 or so images and I’d be soon laying on the beach watching my bank account fill up.  Then the reality struck and I realized I’d have to become an image factory if I was going to sell anything.  It was around 400 stock images in my portfolio before I started to see steady sales.

But you can’t stop there.  You have to continually feed the beast just to keep your head above water.  Images flood into the stock agencies every day, you need to provide fresh inventory to your portfolio just to be notices.

It’s gotten to the point where the stock agencies play games like rotating the contributors in the search.  They want to keep the good contributors interested so they try to make sure everyone gets a sale once in a while to hold their interest.

What are the best selling stock images?

The best selling stock images are the ones that are the most costly to procure.  Custom photo shoots with models cost a lot of money but at the same time in the advertising world, photographs with people are the most valuable – images with people are the most sought after.

Every amateur photographer wants to shoot landscapes, flowers or birds so of course the stock agencies are saturated with these images.  If you want to stand out, shoot people or other hard to obtain subjects.

You also want to create images with copy space so designers can add text.  A good way to learn about what types of images make good stock can be found in these books:


Leave a Reply