The biggest difference between photography enthusiasts and photography professionals is what they’re hoping will happen when they put down the camera. A photography enthusiast hopes that he or she has captured an image that will make them proud, show that they’ve improved their skills and made use of their talent and technique. A photography professional’s aim is much simpler. They have to hope that they’ve created an image that sells. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the picture is or how much they enjoyed shooting it, if the picture doesn’t pay for the time it took to create it, they’ve failed. That requirement can dictate the subjects that photographers choose to photograph. As much as they might want to spend their days shooting sunsets and landscapes, most professional photographers will also have to make sure that they focus their lens on subjects for which they know there’s a market.
Often, that means topics that reflect businesses — which also happens to reflect the type of clients who buy them. Asked what sort of pictures sell best on his site, Oleg Tscheltzoff, CEO of microstock site Fotolia, once told us that it was always businesses and “everything around people.” Put a person in a suit and put them in front of your lens and you’ve got a much better chance of making a sale.
That’s certainly reflected in the sales figures that are easily available from stock sites. A look at iStockPhoto’s most popular files, for example, reveals that while the highest rated images tend to be artistic and natural, almost half of the fifteen most downloaded – the images that buyers actually paid for — contain people.
Not all of those photos are business-related (although more than half are, and two show families) but what they all have in common is that they communicate clearly. To sell multiple times, a stock image needs to be versatile enough to convey different messages, depending on the context and the text that will surround the picture. But they also have to be articulate so that whatever message the user wants to communicate comes across easily. It’s no coincidence that the most popular images on iStockPhoto include two with keywords in the title relating to “happy”, while others are particularly expressive.
Portraying one single emotion in an image might not require difficult poses or sophisticated techniques but, together with suits and office settings, it does produce pictures that sell.
Matching the Seasons
While around half of iStock’s most popular images are business shots, it’s notable that many of the others are seasonal. The most popular image over the last three months is a Christmas tree. (Look at the best-selling photos over the last month though, and it’s a Yuri Arcurs shot of a “happy businesswoman” in a suit that’s top of the list.) Other popular images include snowmen and tree decorations.
Like businesspeople, these may not be the most original subjects to shoot but there is a demand for them every year, and they need to be refreshed every year too. And seasonal images are in demand more than once a year. Christmas might only turn up in December, but businesses need pictures that reflect changes in the seasons, Easter, Chanukah, Halloween, Thanksgiving and any other calendar event that affects people’s lives. Even the Superbowl can make for seasonal sales as publications write stories about it and advertiser’s attempt to cash in on the event. Pictures like these might only sell for a few months, but in those months, they can pack in an entire year’s worth of sales.
So business pictures can sell, and so can images with clear messages and photos that reflect the calendar. Each of those kinds of photos can be shot by just about any photographer, so while they can sell, your submissions will need to be particularly good if they’re to beat the competition.
Create Exclusive Images
An alternative approach then is to take pictures for which there’s relatively little competition. Demand like this isn’t necessarily difficult to find. When Jennifer Hurshell co-founded GoGo Images it was because she’d noticed that clients were having so much difficulty sourcing multi-cultural images that they’d commission the shoots themselves. PhotoResearchers depends in part on photographers with access to science institutes to supply some of their more esoteric pictures.
But it’s not just access that can make a picture rare and in demand. Understanding can help too, and that can come from a photographer’s interest, passion or a hobby that isn’t related to either photography or the kinds of pictures they shoot professionally. It’s Andreas Reinhold’s love of cars — and his background in engineering — that wins him commissions from specialist magazines. It’s sports photographer Jerry Lodriguss’s fascination with the night sky that gives him a whole new subject to shoot, and an additional revenue stream. And it’s Sean Davey’s lifelong love of surfing that’s allowed him to build an entire career out of traveling to beaches around the world and photographing people in the waves.
It would be great to be able to say that if you photograph a particular list of subjects you’ll always have images that sell. Of course, that isn’t true. Photographers flock to fill demand and wherever there’s a need for a particular subject matter, you’ll always find photographers (both professionals and now talented enthusiasts) rushing to meet that demand. It’s not enough to produce pictures with the right subjects in them; to make sales, you also have to create photos that are shot the right way, at the right level of quality and that convey the right message.
But there are topics that are more in demand than others. Whether you decide to compete against the many photographers who put models in suits and hold clipboards or focus on a passion that allows you to bypass the masses and fill a niche, the only way to actually generate those sales is to consistently create good pictures.