The Secrets of Successful Stock Photography

Photography: Elena Elisseeva

One of the most impressive things about professional photography is the range of people who take it up. From teenagers skipping college and shooting bands between trips to exotic locations, to former surf fans who have found a way to turn a couple of hobbies into a one full-time job, the background of the people who choose to generate an income from images can sometimes be as interesting as the pictures they take. With a Ph.D. in physics from Moscow State University though, Elena Elisseeva might well have the most impressive pre-camera resume of all. After working in a number of research and corporate jobs in Canada, she eventually turned to a passion she had enjoyed since her teens. She took up stock photography full time.

Elena submits her images to nine different stock sites each month, including iStockphoto, Crestock and Shutterstock, and is close to winning Sapphire ranking at Fotolia, which means that she has sold almost 50,000 licenses at that site alone. Only four photographers are ranked higher, including top stock contributors Yuri Arcurs and Andres Rodriguez.

Simple, Clean… and Commercial
Elena describes her images as “simple and clean,” and tries to ensure that they each have a clear concept or message which can be easily used by buyers. The picture above, for example, contains just three elements: the water, the leaf and the stone. The one below portrays one emotion clearly. All of those of those factors enable Elena to meet her client’s demands… which more than shooting attractive and technically sound pictures is what stock photography is really all about.

“As in any business, you have to think like your customers. Understanding what they want and fulfilling the need is the key,” she says. “I find that images that have a clear concept or message perform better.”

Like many photographers, Elena asks friends and relatives to pose for free but also hires professional models for some images. In addition, her website offers free family portraits in return for a signed model release that would allow her to sell licenses to use the photos, a clever strategy and a good way to combine portrait photography with the passive income that can be generated through stock.

Elena only uploads around 200 pictures every month though. That’s a relatively small amount for a full-time stock photographer — Ron Chapple told us that his studio, consisting of two photographers, produces as many 1,500 sellable images in a good month. Elena explains that she prefers to focus on producing a few high quality images than shooting larger numbers of mediocre photos.

“I can tell that the number of downloads does go up with consistent uploading of quality images, in spite of seasonal fluctuations,” Elena says. “As long as I see an increase in revenue from year to year, I am happy. And with my current portfolio of more than 5,000 images the income is enough to support a living.”

Fotolia Rigs its Search Engine
In fact, focusing on high quality imagery is usually a good idea because of the way that microstock sites are designed. Fotolia’s search engine, for example, has an in-built bias which pushes popular images to the top of the results while dropping older images with fewer sales to lower pages. A photo will either have a good chance of selling multiple times to buyers searching for that keyword — or it will have a good chance of not selling at all.

Photography: Elena Elisseeva

The main reason that Elena doesn’t shoot more photos is the work involved in keywording, image processing and uploading. Each shoot produces a huge amount of post-production and archiving work, she warns. While it’s possible to pay someone to do at least some of that work for you, the costs can be high and will certainly take a large chunk out of your profits.

“It is fairly easy to submit a few of your good shots and have a little additional income to finance your hobby.” she says. “Making a living by stock is entirely different story. It is a lot of hard work. For every week of enjoyable shooting there is a month of processing, keywording, submitting, keeping track of images, etc.”

That can look like a pretty sober warning to anyone considering taking up stock photography full-time but what it really boils down to is that if you want to make a living out of stock, you have to be prepared to work hard. That’s a warning that every job should carry, especially when you’re self-employed.

On the other hand, hard work and commitment is something that anyone can bring to photography, even if you don’t have a doctorate in physics.

[tags] microstock photography [/tags]

3 comments for this post.

  1. R. Kneschke Said:

    You wrote: "focusing on high quality imagery is usually a good idea"

    I don't want to sound foolish, but is there a times when it is a good idead NOT to focus on high quality images?

  2. pax Said:

    Is it usually allowed to upload the same image to multiple stock sites? Or is she just upload different images to different sites?

  3. Henrik Said:

    pax, with most stock site it is your choice if you want to have an image exclusive with them or not.

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