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:

Jenne Farm – The most photographed farm in the world

Photographers line up to photograph Jenne Farm

Jenne Farm in Reading, Vermont (The address of the Jenne Farm is 1264 Jenne Road.) is suppose to be the most photographed farm in Vermont and perhaps the world.

It even showed up in Forest Gump in a scene where Forest is running across America (and back again) and it has been used in Budweiser commercials and other movies.

I’ve seen a lot of photographs of photographers lined up, tripod leg to tripod leg, in the early morning or like in this photo, in the middle of winter. I’ve visited the farm many times (and tossed a donation in the donation box) but have never run into another photographer there. Perhaps I don’t get up early enough or these are photo clubs or some kind of photo tour.
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….in the world of landscape photography, Jenne Farm becomes a sunrise mecca each autumn, a scene that so screams “quintessential New England fall” — rolling hills, weathered red barns, and an 18th-century farmhouse, all flanked by autumn leaves — that it has become, it is said, the most photographed farm in the country, perhaps the world.

“On busy days, there can easily be a hundred people up on that hill photographing everything we do, and sometimes people get confused and think it’s a park instead of a working farm and private residence. They’re always asking for the public restroom, when can they take a tour of the house, and the location of the restaurant.”
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In the world of amateur photography, an iconic spot like Jenne Farm becomes “must have” shot on photographer’s bucket list.  Once you’ve seen a photograph of the farm, you start seeing every where.  On calendars, on post cards, on book covers etc.

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Amateur photographers who “collect” these iconic spots become like a bird enthusiast tracks their life list and travel the world to check off more birds than that guy in the bird club.

Antelope Valley – check.

Grand Canyon – check

Bass Harbor Lighthouse – check

Nubble Light – Cape Neddick Lighthouse – check

Old Faithful – check

Eiffel Tower – check

The only problem is not seeing the forest for the trees or being so focused on these icons perhaps they miss other interesting places and scene that are right around them in their neck of the woods.  Also standing in a line with a dozen other photographers all getting the same exact shot doesn’t lead to much individual expression or personal style your work.

The goal with any iconic spot should be to bring a unique take on the location.  Difficult to do of course with a spot that has been shot to death.

What is your value proposition?

As an Artist Your Value Proposition Separates Your Work from the Crowd

What is it about your work that makes it deserve a sale? Think about the last time you purchased or supported another artist’s work. Why did you do it? How did it make you feel?  What was the value of the purchase to you?

Consider that buying artwork is not like buying a commodity product like salt or gas.  Art is not purchased because it’s the lowest price or you had a coupon.

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Out of the zillions of available art works and photographs on the market that you could purchase, for some reason this particular piece of artwork compelled you to love it and purchase it.

Some of the factors involved might be:

  • You met the artist face to face
  • You saw a documentary about the artist
  • You read an interesting article about the artist
  • The artwork provoked a strong memory
  • The artwork was the perfect size or color for a space in your home
  • A friend recommend this artist
  • The artist reminds you of a more famous artist that you can’t afford
  • The artwork created a gut reaction
  • The art makes you happy
  • The art makes you think
  • The art sets a mood
  • The art matches your decor
  • The art matches your theme
  • You like the artist positions
  • You like what the art has to say about the world
  • The art is modern, the art is retro
  • The art gives you a positive feeling

etc, etc, etc.

One thing to remember when selling art is people buy or support art for a very different set of reasons than anything else they spend money on.  Not only are they receiving a product for their money but they like to know they are supporting an artist so they can continue to create.

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Support Artists To Support Your Set of Values

If you see work you like, you should support this work, even if you don’t end up owning it, because this artist is creating the kind of beauty you want to see in the world. By helping this artist survive and continue to make work, you’re helping someone change the world in the way you want it to change.

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Your Value Proposition

Your value proposition as an artist sets you apart from your fellow artists and photographers.

VALUE PROPOSITION – (in marketing) an innovation, service, or feature intended to make a company or product attractive to customers.

In an never ending flood of amateur snapshots uploaded daily on social media, a professional level quality and execution.  Consistently, editing, selection and subject choice can be enough to pull your work out of the masses and into the realm of quality worth spending money.

Your followers will come to expect focused images with good composition, free of dust spots, grain and poles sticking out of people’s heads.

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My value proposition as a fine art photographer would go something like this:

Using professional equipment, honed post-processing skills, years of study, effort and passion for my subjects, creativity and a unique vision, I offer a unique and compelling images suitable for display in the finest homes and offices.

Further my collectors come to appreciate my style of clean and uncluttered compositions.  They might also take comfort knowing that my work has been shown in galleries, on book covers and magazines around the world.

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The fact that professional image buyers have selected my work to grace book covers and illustrate magazine articles doesn’t make someone love it, but it does provide affirmation that their choice is a solid one.  After all, if it’s good enough for a book publisher to bet the success of a book launch on, it’s probably good enough to grace a guest room.

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See my portfolio at:


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Which work should I be most proud of?

I currently have about 5,000 image for sale on my Fine Art America store –

Of course, they are not all masterpieces and some of my older image probably should be tossed, but sometimes you never know what will sell.  Lots of the images were created with other markets in mind besides decor.  Some like my popular stock image “Bagel Breakfast Sandwich” sells all the time for stock and has even sold a few times as fine art.

So the question comes down to this – which images should I take the most pride in?  The ones I personally like the most? The ones buyers seem to like the most? Or the ones my boutique stock agency curates and accepts for their business?  The options are as follows:

My self-selected photographs for my portfolio book:

My collector’s selected portfolio of recently sold images:

My professionally curated portfolio on Arcangel:

Usually the customer is always right but I think I would put the order of importance as Agency Selected, Artist Selected, Customer Selected.

Boutique Stock Agency Selected as the top in order of importance.  This is the portfolio I’m most proud of because it has been hand selected among other professional photographers by industry professional image buyer with years of experience.

Second I’d put myself because I think I have more experience viewing, reviewing and self-curating fine art photography more than the average buyer.   I’ve spent years not only creating fine art photography but looking at fine art photography by other photographers in books, museums and even took the History of Photographer course at Boston University.

Of course I love any purchase of my work by collectors and buyers, only they don’t always buy what I’d consider my best art.  Often my best gets undiscovered while something more second rate becomes popular.

I guess this order reflects the way I work.  I often think of the boutique stock market and book covers as a goal when I’m photographing, and I always shoot what I’m personally interested in.  If buyers like what I’m offering then that is a bonus.

Productive artists periods – intense creativity

Travel: Vermont

I think all artists work in spurts of creativity.  Periods in which the art flows more freely and successful outcomes seem to come more easily.  It’s like a manic/depressive roller coaster ride when periods of little activity and success following these more successful creative periods.

I can look back to a few summers ago when I was spending a lot of time down in Connecticut helping my parents move out of their summer home to prepare for a permanent move to Florida.  The time was spend cleaning, packing, taking trips to Goodwill, painting, raking etc with moments of intense exploration and photography during breaks and the trips back and forth from New Hampshire to CT.

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I explored the Connecticut River Valley region around my parents house with new intensity as I might never get back to that region any time soon plus I explored towns along I91 as I traveled back and forth without the family.

Another recent period of intense creative activity occurred with a few half days in the Stowe, Vermont area.  My wife had a conference to attend and I went along, spending an afternoon and morning exploring the area.   I probably only had six hours total but I made the most of them and came back with a lot of great images.

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Hunting around the Wolcott, Morrisville, Stowe, Waterbury and Hardwich areas of Vermont, always on the look out for vintage tractors for my ongoing series on old farm equipment, I found a bunch of great spots and tractors even though it was raining half the time.

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The foliage was past peak, but in a few short hours I was able to capture some handsome cows, old barns, vintage farm trucks, several antique tractors, old abandoned houses, historic wooden covered bridge train trestles, pumpkin farms, old chicken coops as well as some cool old relics from the past. This is what I call a high target area – plenty of cool stuff to photograph.

What is fine art photography? What is commercial photography?

Beautiful Farmhouse Interior

Basically fine art photography is defined by photography produced for aesthetic reasons rather than for as a commercial project.

concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.
“the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure”
a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.
“the Cubist aesthetic”

concerned with or engaged in commerce.
“a commercial agreement”
synonyms: trade, trading, business, private enterprise, mercantile, sales
“a vessel built for commercial purposes”
making or intended to make a profit.
“commercial products”
synonyms: profit-oriented, money-oriented, materialistic, mercenary
“a commercial society”

Of course there isn’t always a clear line between fine art and commercial art or photography.  Once can appreciate great photography created for commercial purposes or use art created as a fine art project in an ad campaign or on a product.

But the term “fine art” refers the the original intent of the artist.  Fine art photography’s client is the artist themselves and the viewers.  No assignment or constraints are given by a third party.

In commercial projects a client give the photographer directions and guidelines for the project.  These may be extensive or vague but the photographer clearly is bringing about the vision of the employee, not solely their own vision as it would be in fine art photography.

Is that really the only difference between fine art photography and commercial photography?  Yes, basically the intent of the photographer.  Working for themselves vs. others.

Fine art photography can be sold of course but that doesn’t change whose vision is behind the work.  Fine art photography serves to share with the world the unique vision of the artist.  Commercial photography exists to sell products.

Another element often assigned to fine art is the level of craftsmanship although when compared to the quality of commercial photography say in the world of fashion, this really is a rather mute point.  But if you were to compare an Ebay snapshot created to sell some old leather books, then the craftsmanship levels do add into the equation.  But craftsmanship alone does not determine fine art from commercial work, it is the intent and purpose of the work.

Wood or Metal Prints – What is the differences, advantages and features of one over the other?

Any image from Edward M. Fielding’s portfolio of 5,000 images can be purchase as a print on paper, canvas or matted and framed with your choice of over 100 different types of frames and mats.  In addition they can be ordered in some of the latest mediums of metal or wood.

Metal is shiny, saturated and eye popping with an almost 3D effect when lit properly. Save this for colorful photographs. Think shiny sports car.

Wood is flat, unsaturated and gives a vintage feeling. Think woodie surfing wagon.

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  • Thicker
  • Flat
  • De-saturated colors because the natural wood tone provides the “whites”
  • Vintage feeling
  • Each print is a “one of a kind” due to the the natural grain in the wood.  No two are exactly alike.
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Metal Prints

  • Metal is pretty much waterproof and is great for wet areas like a bathroom.
  • Thin
  • Modern
  • Lightweight
  • Floats on the wall
  • Shiny
  • Looks great with lots of light shining on it – almost 3D
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Smart Doggie

Tiki the Westie as Smart Doggie

Smart Doggie – part of a series of photographs in collaboration with my West Highlands White Terrier – “Tiki”.

Tiki, a rescue from a southern puppy mill, came in to our lives just when I was starting to have more time to dedicate to my photography.  As the rest of the family seemed to run from my camera and modeling duties, or were simply busy, it was just Tiki and I in the studio.

Tiki immediately took to the studio and the treats that were offered.  Even today if I pull out my studio lights, Tiki gets excited and sits where he thinks the photograph might occur.

Once when setting up an assignment photo for a Halloween shoot, Tiki wandered into the set and sat. So of course I had to give him a mask and snap the shot.

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More and more images ensued. Tiki as a Broadway Actor. Tiki as Aladdin. Tiki as a ballerina. Many images were inspired by finds in the baby clothing section of the local thrift shop.

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Eventually many of the Tiki the Westie series were compiled in the little gift book “The Quotable Westie” which can be purchase via CreateSpace or Amazon.

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Can you sell something you know nothing about?

Including your own art?

Imagine walking into a hardware store, finding a clerk and asking about hammers.

“For this job do I need a claw foot hammer, a roofing hammer or a electricians hammer?  Is a fiberglass handle better than wood? What the difference between this triangle head and this round one?”

And the clerk just stares at you blankly and says “Idonntknow”, shuggs his shoulder and goes on break.

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To sell art you need to know at least as much as your customers know.  Is you knowledge of photography limited to knowing where to buy a camera?  If a potential customer ask you a question about your photography would you have an interesting response?

“What motivated you to take this image?”

“I don’t know.  I just was thinking it might be a good thing to take a picture of and everyone else was taking a picture of it.”

To be a credible artist, at least do some soul searching and be able to talk about your work enough that the potential buyer get the impression that you are seriously working on your art and craft.  Be prepared to answer questions like:

  • What style is your photography?
  • Who are your influences?
  • Which photographers do you like?
  • Do you know the history of photography as an art form?
  • What are you goals with your photography?
  • What are your passions?
  • What is the last photography monograph you purchase?
  • What is the last photography show you attended?
  • What do you want the view to feel when they look at your photography?

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Selling Art and Photography requires thinking like a buyer

Do you consume art and photography like you expect your buyers to?  Do you purchase original art?  Do you follow great photographers on social media?  Do you read about compelling photographers?  Do you visit galleries and museums to see what is going on in the world of photography and art?
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To ask a buyer or collector to purchase your artwork, you have to provide more of a reason than “here is a image – buy it” – you need to think and act like a buyer.  Think and act like a participant in the world of art and photography, not just like a stock boy putting another can of soup on the shelf.


Better Photography: Composition in Photography – Introduction

Rule of thirds

Learn Composition in Photography – More than any new camera purchase, learning to compose interesting and compelling photographs is a far better way to improve your photography.

Composition isn’t a set of rules, requirements or standards, composition is the arrangement of the elements in the picture to a pleasing result, and although any “rules” are made to be broken, you need to know what makes a picture visually pleasing before you can experiment with new ideas.

The basic composition ideas are based on thousands of years of art history going back to the Greeks.  Simply these composition ideas work with the human brain to convey information.

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  • In the visual arts, composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art, as distinct from the subject.
  • It can also be thought of as the organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art.
  • The composition of a picture is different from its subject, which what is shown, whether a moment from a story, a person or a place.
  • The term composition means ‘putting together’ and can apply to any work of art, from music to writing to photography, that is arranged using conscious thought.

The basic composition ideas of balance, framing and the rule of thirds are the foundations of good composition that have been around since formal art was being created.  I’ve updated this 1950s college film in the public domain with some of my photographs to give you an overview of these basic composition concepts.

Balance – A balanced composition feels right. It feels stable and aesthetically pleasing. While some of its elements might be focal points and attract your eye, no one area of the composition draws your eye so much that you can’t see the other areas.  Balance can be symmetrical or by visual weight.  The train below is symmetrical, even on both sides.  The fishing pier is balanced by the visual weight of the foreground pier and the background building.

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Framing – Horizontal and vertical framing as appropriate as well as framing with elements in the environment.  Do you ever get the idea that some photographers don’t understand that their camera also works sideways?  Using architectural elements such as shown in the photographs below can also be used as framing devices.

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Rule of thirds – The ancient Greeks figured out that a composition can be divided into thirds, vertically or horizontally and the most pleasing places to place the subject is off center and specifically in the golden spots where the lines cross.

Rule of thirds
Example of the rule of thirds in a photo composition.

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In future blog posts, I’ll examine various composition techniques in further detail.