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Sell stock images: 9 tips and tricks

Photography is your hobby and you can let it pay for itself

So, you decided to sell your pictures through a stock agency.
My only real, strong suggestion would be:

Shoot good pictures, go for a visual impact, be innovative, adopt a fashionable style and keep a visual angle in your images that renders even well-known topics as fresh images.

But then, there is a lot of other details and tricks that might help, in order to better sell you photos online.
Let’s see them one by one:

  1. Check composition
  2. Gear in not the key
  3. Good editing is the key
  4. Keywords and captions help selling
  5. Exif data are important
  6. Leave generous copy space
  7. Be evocative of something, do not just describe it
  8. Let people be actors
  9. Take multiple versions of the same picture

1. Check composition — twice!

No matter what your subject is, and no matter how good or bad you camera might be, the real key to good photographs is composition. Take your time to find and refine what is inside (and what to leave outside from) your frame.
This accounts for 80% of your success in making good pictures.
See how other photographers shoot so many different versions of the same subject.

2. Concentrate on images, as opposed to equipment

Serious photographers look at pictures, the others look at gears.
I do not mean you should refrain from using high-end cameras; indeed, do use a quality DSLR and shoot Raw if you can. But do not believe that this will give you a real edge over other people adopting cheaper cameras and lenses.

Gitzo tripod

Do not feel compelled to buy expensive equipment for shooting stock: a serious compact camera like the Canon S95 (featuring manual controls as well as automatic, Raw format shooting, fast lens and lightweight body) is really enough for shooting most of your images.
Know your equipment well and use it at its best. Adopt a tripod whenever possible. Every lens gives its best at a specific aperture range: this is usually (but not always) a couple of stops below its fastest aperture. Unless you really need, use a “good” aperture in this range.
Once your knowledge of your camera is well absorbed, you will not need to think about gears anymore: you will just concentrate on shooting.

3. Edit your photographs and retouch them appropriately

One of the main things that set apart serious photographers from the crowd is editing: only the best images, carefully crafted, should leave your darkroom (be it digital or not).
Discard less than optimal pictures (there might be chances to reuse bad photos in other ways, at times), carefully crop in order to get a picture that makes sense, take care that sea and lakes are level and do not forget converging verticals (unless some drama is key to your image); eliminate spots and blemishes, adjust contrast and check color balance.
Consistency in picture editing quality will let you gain respect as a more valuable photographer.

Find a standard workflow that suits your needs, and stick to it. Picture editing software should not be a problem for your purse: there are good free alternatives to Photoshop.
Some major stock agencies require you to provide large image files. So, if your files are too small you should interpolate your images using the Raw data from the camera (best option) or the bicubic smoother resize algorithm (with resample checked, and resolution at 300 pixels/inch) in Photoshop (or similar) software.
Do not forget to fix both blocked shadows and blown-out highlights. Highlights of an image should have some detail present, unless they are tiny specular highlight. White points can be up to 250,250,250. Same for the blacks: keep some texture in the shadows and do not let black points fall lower than 5,5,5.
Avoid sharpening or otherwise manipulating your image up to a level where artifacts are introduced.

4. Provide good tags, captions and keywords for your images

Include geographical data, names of plants and animals included in the pictures, shooting date and whatever information might be useful for easily selling your images to online customers.

©Mark Poprocki

If you are taking images of places, then remember that names of the countries, towns, regions, cities, valleys, mountains, rivers, bridges, monuments, animals and plants that appear in each image should all be included. But there is more: see next point about Exif.

5. Exif data are important

Exif data, which include camera make and settings, date and time of capture, GPS location and a lot more, is a set of information that is automatically created and stored when each image is taken.
Stripping out the Exif file from your images might result in a poor choice, if you care to make your picture easy sellable.
So, instead of completely removing Exif metadata from photographs (which is a safe choice when uploading images on the internet, usually), I suggest you carefully edit them. Some of the most common points to keep in mind:

  • Apply GPS related information to all your images (where relevant). You can use free dedicated Exif editors like GeoSetter, which will let to apply the same data to a bunch of pictures in seconds.
  • Add your ©copyright to each picture (again, you can do in batches with a lot of free software).
  • Check that creation date is properly set (i.e make sure that your pictures were not captured with a wrong timestamp).

Lots of copy space for text… ©Martin Child

6. Leave generous copy space around your subjects

Customers usually need to place some text into pictures, and a wide, uncluttered area is just as important as the subject itself.
Leave enough copy (empty) space around your subjects, which gives clients space to insert slogans, texts, etc, as well as choose the best crop for their need. For designers, the location and size of empty space in an image is often just as important as the image itself. When in doubt, shoot some variations of your picture.

7. Prefer evocative over descriptive images

Stock is a rather mature and crowded market for photography, and there is a lot of pictures describing places, people, pets, plants, objects, animals and more. There are, though, considerably much less pictures focusing on mood, atmosphere, style, sense of place,… So, give an aura to your pictures! Your images should communicate and inspire. Consider that, in ads, it is feeling that sells.
In other words, do not shoot just a “girl in a room”, or a “flower in the field”; instead shoot activity, pleasure, weakness, pain, touch, fear, and the like.
If you shoot images that can be associated with concepts, pictures with strong conceptual appeal and an emotional connection, your pictures will then sell like hot cakes.

8. Have people to rehearse

When dealing with people, relax. Do not play Robert Capa at the Normandy invasion.
Understand that you are shooting “fiction”, so turn your subjects into real actors. Do not dream to catch the right moment: you are not Lartigue. Instead, plan your image, have your actors to perform and take your picture twice, three, four times, until you get it right.
Remember that model release is a must when you are dealing with people: have your subject sign the release, or you will have big troubles selling your pictures.

9. Take multiple versions of the same picture

Shoot a lot. Again, do not play Robert Capa at the D-Day: he could only shoot slightly more than 100 frames on that beach (and most were spoiled in the darkroom, which is a good lesson not to keep all your eggs in the same basket… ehm, memory card).
Think about landscape and vertical versions of the same image, think about square cropping, think about leaving copy space in different areas of the same picture; think about different actions people in the picture might perform.

If you can follow the few points above, then you are ready to sell your photographs online.


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