Shutterstock Contributors and Offset Artists share their secrets for creating bestselling images and generating downloads.
In 2018, Shutterstock announced that it had sold more than one billion licenses, with 5.5 images being licensed every second. Last year, we reached another historic milestone: $1 billion in earnings paid to contributors. According to reports, the global stock images and videos market is expected to generate revenues of more than $4 billion by 2023, due in large part to the increased demand for images for commercial campaigns and marketing.
Stock photography represents a growing, flourishing market for professionals and enthusiasts, alike. It’s also a competitive one. With more high-quality photos being uploaded every day, it takes a unique skill set to create images that sell over and over again. Here are ten ways to make your portfolio more marketable and produce photos that sell.
1. Capture Timeless Subjects for Long-Term Gains
Create images that won’t go out of style. Image by Artie Medvedev.
“Uploading content to your portfolio is like making an investment,” Ukrainian photographer Artem “Artie” Medvedev explains. “Smart investors always diversify their portfolios. Try to capture different topics and track which ones are most in-demand.’
“To get a stable income, I recommend betting on the ‘blue chips.’ Blue chips in stock photography are those topics that sell all the time — lifestyle, business, health, etc. These subjects will form the foundation of your long-term investment.’
“Another strategy is what I’ve nicknamed the ‘day trader’s’ approach. In addition to those stable, timeless topics, you can also create images around trendy topics in technology, fashion, or current events. These images tend to sell faster, so they are worth including, but I like to think of my portfolio as a diverse, long-term investment, with images that won’t go out of style.”
2. Authenticity is Always in Demand
Take authentic photos people can relate to. Image by Marina Andrejchenko.
The number-one tip among the artists we interviewed? Make your photos feel real and authentic, rather than posed or staged. “The best way to create stock photos that sell is to focus on authentic emotions, natural atmospheres, and real-life stories that people can relate to,” Ukrainian photographer Marina Andrejchenko tells us.
“Try to create a clear and relatable mood in your photos. Watch life unfold around you at home and work, and turn those simple ideas into marketable photo shoots. These everyday stories are everywhere — choose the ones that inspire you the most.”
3. Keep Your Edits Clean and Simple
Give the client a clean edit so they can adapt it to match their brand idea. Image by Olivia Gatti.
The natural look is essential on set, and it’s equally important in post-processing.
“I suggest using only clean edits and no crazy filters!” Boston-based photographer Olivia Gatti urges. “Once someone buys your photos, they might change it up, so they need to see it as a ‘blank slate’ that they can adapt to match the look and feel of their brand and campaigns. Simple and plain clothing, plus the timelessness of the scene or emotion, seems to have power with stock sales.”
Filters and presets are popular on social media, but chances are the buyer has a specific edit in mind. Keep yours clean and simple to give them room to apply their own filters.
4. Create “Multipurpose” Photos
Variety and versatility are important in reaching a diverse number of viewers. Image by SeventyFour.
Once it’s downloaded, your photo could be used in any number of ways and formats — as a vertical on Instagram Stories, a horizontal on a subway ad, and more. The stock photos that sell best are likely to be the ones that can be used in all sorts of contexts, across industries and platforms. Variety is important, and so is versatility.
“The key is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes,” Konstantin from SeventyFour tells us. “I visualize each photo as a large banner and think about the message it should convey before I hit the capture button. The image should be generic and multipurpose on the one hand, but unique and impactful on the other. That’s what makes for a bestseller.”
5. Plan Your Shoots with Attention to Detail
In preparation for the shoot, scout your location ahead of time. Image by Superlime.
“The most important thing is preparation,” Alexander Alenin, a.k.a. Superlime, explains. “Find inspiration in the best images on the market, and come up with an idea based on what’s selling.’
“Find the right model, source simple clothes without logos, scout your locations, and take into account the position of the sun during your shoot. All those details in your photo — from the expression on the model’s face to the background — affect the long-term potential of your sales.”
Coordinate with your models and location owners in advance to make sure you have any model or property releases signed, and draw up a shot list with settings and scenarios to try out once you’re there. You can also share your mood board or storyboard with your collaborators so they know what to expect.
6. Study the Latest Advertising and Marketing Visuals
Keep a journal of where your photos are used and which ones are most popular. Image by Eugenio Marongiu.
“It’s so important to create photos around trending topics,” Andrejchenko continues. “I read blog articles from Shutterstock to get recommendations for what to shoot. Beyond that, remember to explore magazines, online advertising, and campaigns in the ‘real world,’ like in subway signs or billboards. Analyze the photos buyers like and purchase, and take note of how they’re used.’
“As your sales grow, I recommend tracking what sells and taking note of where your photos are used when you see them ‘in the wild.’ That will help you to understand where they are needed and encourage you to find ways to improve next time. Whenever I see my photos published somewhere, I’m inspired to move on and develop new shoots.”
7. Identify What You Can Do Differently from Others
Stay current with what is trending in the advertising world and use that knowledge to create unique images. Image by Olivia Gatti.
If you run some searches on Shutterstock and find pages and pages of results with photos similar to yours, think about how you can make your images different from the rest. “If you have access to exclusive locations and interesting people, make use of that!” Medvedev urges.
Maybe it means taking a fresh aerial perspective on a well-known location, or perhaps it means highlighting a unique, local cuisine on your next food shoot. If you’re traveling to a well-known destination, maybe wander off the beaten path and ask locals for their location tips.
“I work in the commercial world quite a bit, and look at the big advertising industry magazines and websites, so I have a general idea of current trends and looks. That said, I usually stay true to how I work, see, and shoot,” Gatti admits. “I’m a big believer in doing what you do best. Not that emulating and experimenting is bad, but sooner or later, you do fall into your own visual voice.”
8. Leave Room for Customization with Simple Compositions
Tell a simple story by leaving out unnecessary details. Image by Fabio Principe.
All the rules that apply to photography in general also apply to stock photography, so brush up on your composition tips and research emerging color trends to catch the eye of potential clients. “When I’m shooting for stock, I tend to create simple images, where all the colors and details come together to help tell a clear story,” Tenerife-based photographer Fabio Principe tells us.
“I exclude anything superfluous from the frame, as many buyers prefer images with some copy space and plenty of cropping potential. I am quite critical with myself, and I’m careful about the images I submit, uploading only the ones with the best compositions.”
9. Upload Seasonal or Trending Content Before the Searches Start
Update your seasonal photos before buyers begin searching for it. Image by Navistock.
“Trends often come in cycles, repeating themselves and evolving over time,” Belarusian photographer Alex Nabokov, a.k.a. Navistock, says. “This is especially true of fashion photography, but it also applies to subjects like lifestyle and even product photography. The secret is staying ahead of schedule and having your seasonal content uploaded before the buyers start searching for it.’
“This kind of organization and forward-thinking takes a lot of discipline, so it’s important to make a shot list, a props list, etc. so as not to forget the little things and accessories. Then, having done all the preparatory work in advance, you can concentrate your energy on making the best photos possible on set.”
10. Up Your Keyword Game
Choose eye-catching keywords to attract the consumer’s attention. Image by bbernard.
While Shutterstock does have a fantastic “Search by Image” feature, most of your potential clients will use keywords to search for photos, so you need the right ones to be discovered. We discussed keywording in-depth in this article, but the most important thing is to include a mix of generic and specific words and phrases.
Also, try to include different types of keywords. Use some that literally describe what’s happening in the photo and try others that capture the mood or concept behind the shoot. If you’re having trouble, use a keywording tool like KeywordsReady or Lightroom Keywords as part of your workflow. Track what keywords have led to your image sales thus far, and check out what other popular photographers are using in their keyword sections.
11. Upload Consistently
Provide buyers with fresh content by consistently uploading new photos. Image by Olena Yakobchuk.
Another tip for getting discovered by image buyers? Shoot lots, and upload regularly. The team at Shutterstock searches through newly added images every single day, and each month, they publish a blog post about Fresh content they love (see the April Fresh post here).
When buyers search for photos on Shutterstock, they can filter the images by “Most Relevant” or “Fresh Content,” the latter of which prioritizes newly uploaded material. By shooting consistently and adding diverse photos to your portfolio weekly, you could increase your visibility. Buyers are always looking for something new they haven’t seen before.
Keep at It!
When you find a theme that sells, expand upon it. Image by Dragana Gordic.
You might have noticed a recurring theme throughout this article — all of these photographers think long-term. If they don’t see returns on their photos immediately, they adapt and diversify. If they do land on a theme that sells well, they keep shooting and expanding upon that idea.
“When I started with stock photography, I was lucky because my husband was already an experienced contributor, and I knew that the most important thing in this business is not to give up,” Serbian photographer Dragana Gordic tells us. “It’s not always easy, and not every month is ‘our month,’ but the work and effort we put into our stock portfolios always pay off in the long run.”
Cover image by Jacob Lund
Check out the articles below to unlock even more insight on making it in stock photography:
How to Pitch Your Photography to Brands and Magazines11 Pro Tips for Showing Technology in Stock Images15 of the Most Popular Stock Photos to CreateDepicting Everyday Intimacy and Romance in ImagesWhy Your Home is The Perfect Place for a Photoshoot
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