What it Takes to Become a Successful Stock Photographer


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Photography: Ron Chapple.

Microstock makes it all look so easy. Shoot a few images, edit them, upload your shots and wait for the money to roll in.

It might come in small amounts but with enough photos and a steady stream of new uploads, you should be generating income.

But to become a successful stock photographer, you’ll need one more thing: you’ll need patience.

Your Photos Could Lose Money for Years
Ron Chapple, a photographer with 30 years’ experience and who now specializes in stock photography, explains that the cost of shooting a sellable stock photo means that it can take some time before the image breaks even:

A high cost production can run into thousands of dollars… Overall, the goal is to pay for all production costs in the first one to two years of sales, with the profits coming in years three to five of that image’s life… Getting started in stock requires a multi-year commitment.

It also requires careful planning. Ron has a team of twelve that includes two photographers as well as artists, a designer, data experts and a financial manager. Each year they review sales, trend data and internal research to identify images that distributors might need. Eighty percent of the 15,000 images the studio brings to the market each year are shot on the basis of those predictions.

The other 20 percent is whatever we feel like shooting! That 20 percent is why I got into stock in the first place — and that’s the fun stuff that might just become a best seller.

That might show the limitations of planning. Although Ron has been shooting stock exclusively since the early nineties, he can still be taken aback by the success of an image. The photo below, for example, was uploaded a few months ago and has already sold over 300 licenses.

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Photography: Ron Chapple.

This may sound too simple, but a happy, colorful, simple image will sell multiple times. Make sure there’s lost of copy space and cropping options. We do get surprised every month — and usually on the images we shot “just for fun.”

What’s Harder than Picking Top-Selling Images?
If picking successful shots is tricky, choosing how to license them is no easier. Most of Ron’s editorial images are sold Rights-Managed (RM) because it allows the use to be determined when there is no model or property release. Others though are sold Royalty-Free (RF).

Business-wise, licensing diversity is good. Having images in all pricing sectors as well as different subject matter mitigates the effects of a tumultuous marketplace.

That might suggest that it pays to be a generalist and shoot as many different types of photos as possible. In fact, says Ron, there is room for niche photography too but it depends on the photographer’s business model, distribution channels, and the size of the niche and its market. A niche stock business can complement a similarly niched assignment business but developing several niches is usually best.

It can also pay to distribute stock photography in different ways. Ron points out that in addition to being marketed as stock, photos can also be sold as products through Lulu, Cafepress or Zazzle.

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Photography: Krista Schatz.

Unlike many stock photographers then, Ron doesn’t see the rise of microstock as an unbeatable threat. He prefers to see it — and other changes — as a chance to open up new revenue streams and an opportunity to find new ways of selling photos.

I do believe that for many shooters, including myself, making a living solely from licensing images will be increasingly difficult, but that doesn’t mean there’s not opportunity… The new economic landscape for photographers of all levels is easier access to buyers.

Yes, there’s tons more competition but the best images will always rise to the top. Personally, I’m far less interested in the “business model du jour” than I am in getting great images to clients.

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Photography: Ron Chapple

You can see Ron’s PhotoPlus Creative Research presentation here and an example of a niched stock site here. And tell us about your experiences with stock photography.
[tags] ron chapple, stock photography [/tags]


4 comments for this post.

  1. Garry Said:

    Patience is a prerequisite for any stock photographer. If you expect to get sales straight away you are going to be very disappointed... unless you are very lucky of course.

    I'm still waiting for my first stock sale through Alamy, but fortunately I'm not relying on photography to pay the bills.

  2. John Said:

    I recommend you to use specialized soft, such as Cushy Stock for automate stock images preparing.

  3. Bakari Said:

    It's great to see that behind the scene shot by Krista Schatz. Provides an idea of why so many stock photography images have high key lighting.

  4. Bighouse Said:

    Stock imagery is advancing by leaps and bounds. I find myself researching constantly to just maintain an edge. Being new to the field, I rely on the expert advice of other pros to keep up to date. Any ideas or advice is greatly apppreciated.

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