The Beginner’s Guide To Stock Photography


One of the more traditional ways for photographers to earn income from their photos is to submit them to a stock agency — a large photo company that licenses images to buyers who might include advertising agencies, marketing companies and magazines.

The advantages to the photographer are clear:

  1. The agency handles the marketing of the photos, letting the photographer concentrate on the shooting;
  2. Large agencies can have prestigious customers, putting the pictures in desirable locations;
  3. The income is based on royalties, giving photographers revenue streams that can continue delivering income long after they’ve hung up their camera bags.
  4. Of course, there’s bad news too. While stock agencies can charge relatively large sums for licensing images (larger certainly than microstock sites) only a fraction of those payments makes its way down to the photographer. An image that’s licensed for $175 for example, may yield only $40 to the photographer once commissions and discounts have been factored in. (And as more photographers try to push their way into stock photography, you can expect those commissions to fall further.)

    Most stock sites also rely on a small number of established photographers to drive most of their business, with other contributors often just chipping in with occasional extra sales.

    And getting in is difficult. In general, shooting for stock sites like Corbis and Getty is not a first step for a beginning photographer. It’s a mid-career move for a photographer who already has a fair-sized image bank and a record of creating photos that sell.

    So how do you get your foot in the door?

    You first have to become, if not a full-time, professional photographer, at least an established photographer.

    From Microstock to Stock
    One way for a beginner to do that is through microstock. Create a large microstock portfolio, show that you can take commercial photos, and ideally build up a client base too, and you’re more likely to attract the interest of stock companies.

    Of course, if you’re already making good money with microstock, then becoming an exclusive supplier to a stock site might no longer seem attractive. Yuri Arcurs, for example, one of a number of six-figure-earning microstock photographers, turned down the chance of supplying a stock company on the grounds that he could make more money selling multiple licenses at lower prices.

    Nonetheless, spending time in the microstock world can be a good way to get your feet wet, choose your specialization, build a portfolio and understand the sort of images that buyers are looking for.

    Create Your Own Stock Agency
    Alternatively, you could try licensing your images as stock yourself through your own website. Again, you’d quickly learn the different ways of licensing photos and how to price them. You’d also become an expert in your particular niche and build up a potentially valuable collection of photos.

    But that’s not going to happen quickly. In addition to learning how to take stock photos that sell, you’ll also have to learn how to market them, deliver them and manage relationships with buyers.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing — it might be worth doing anyway — just don’t expect to go from camera-owner to independent stock site superstar overnight.

    Walk Through The Front Door
    So let’s assume that you’re not a beginner. Let’s assume that you have a relatively large collection of commercial images, that you’ve sold pictures, have tear sheets and understand how rights are managed, royalties paid and licenses issued.

    It’s still not going to be easy to become a stock photographer.

    Corbis’s website, for example, offers no place for photographers even to enquire about submitting images. Getty is a little more open. They agree to review images but also require photographers to pass a test and may charge $50 for each image submitted.

    The best way to enter this traditional way of selling images then is using an old-fashioned method: get to know someone at the agency. That might not be as hard as it sounds. It is possible to meet agency people and photographers at photography schools or conferences. Some even contribute to online forums, although you’ll need to win their respect by posting well before asking for a favor.

    Alternatively, you can just continue shooting great images, keep putting them out there, make sure that you get attribution each time, and hope that stock companies come looking for you.

    Take a look at Getty’s submission requirements here and tell us if you’re a stock photographer… or would like to be.

    Photos by orangeacid and Matt McGee.

    [tags] stock photography, starting a stock photography career [/tags]


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