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The Stock Market: Exploring Stock Photography

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Read Time: 9 min

Creative professionals all over the world frequently require high quality images, but often don't have the budget to hire a photographer for small projects. Enter stock photography: an industry where awesome photographs are out there and ripe for the using. Today, we'll be taking a look at the wild world of the stock market - stock photography, that is.

Why stock photography?

If you aren't already familiar stock photography, most often, these images are royalty free, meaning that a flat fee is paid for usage of the images - not a "per-use" fee.

For the photographer, stock photography certainly creates some excitement from a business perspective. As a portrait or wedding photographer, my earning potential for an event typically ends after my clients pay me in full.

For stock photographers, the transaction is an open ended event; after posting it to a stock sales website, purchases (and therefore income) can be generated at any time. Because market needs are constantly shifting, many stock photographers may shoot an image one year and not experience significant sales until that image becomes more culturally relevant.

Stock photography is equally opportunistic for the buyer. If you are building a website or constructing any other multimedia project, it's not hard to see the value that stock photographs offer. As opposed to employing a photographer on your staff or commissioning a freelance photographer for any small project that needs photos, you can instead browse massive catalogues and purchase inexpensive stock photos.

Stock photos of cars are a great choice if you can't afford to rent one for a day to photograph it. Source: Gunter Nezhoda

In the Internet era, the stock photography market is phenomenal. With dozens of sites offering low cost and royalty free photographs, companies and organizations now have the power to put together top quality media. The web has opened the door in both directions, both allowing stock photographers to achieve greater success than ever before, and allowing designers to use high quality, low cost images.

If there's one message to take away from this discussion of the business of stock photography, it's to get in on a marketplace early. Recently, Envato (parent company of Phototuts+) has launched a brand new stock photography marketplace, Photodune. If you're considering jumping into stock photography for the first time, this could be a great place to get started before many of the top stock professionals jump on board.

For this article, I got in touch with a photographer with items listed on Photodune, Gunter Nezhoda. Throughout this article, I'll be sharing some insight that Gunther has to offer on how to get started in stock photography, having recently tackled the same feat himself.

With the recent shifts in the American housing market, this image could be very relevant for a journalist writing an article about the situation. Photo by Gunter Nezhoda.

What will you sell?

Basic business principles tell us that if we want to enter an already established market, our product (in this case the stock photo) must be one of two things: unique or priced below its competition.

Marketing a stock photo that is "unique" doesn't mean that it has to be a photo of something exotic or wild. In this sense, "unique" means only that our photo differs from the current market offerings. Let's consider two ways that our stock photographs can be different than what is already available:

Higher quality - Consider that one option is to provide similar imagery, but in superior quality offerings. Selling images of higher resolution is one way to persuade users to choose your image over a competing, similar one. Also, other technical aspects such as more flattering lighting and superior color is one way to set your images apart.

PhotoDune photographer Gunther Nezhoda says: "Commercial Stock photography has high requirements on sharpness, focus and low noise. I always shoot in RAW and always ISO100. You will find that the best investment lies in your lenses. If I had to compromise, I'd rather do that on the body than on the glass. Crop sensor will work but full frame is better."

Different material - You know, many stock photographs have a certain "look". I can pick out most stock photographs of people from a mile away, and you probably can too. The generic faces with the nondescript clothing are dead giveaways that an organization used stock photos.

In some of my design projects that involved using stock photographs, I did my best to choose photos that looked as little like stock photos as possible. Studying the "look" of common stock photographs helps you to understand how to differentiate your work.

Many of the stock photography veterans like to perpetuate the myth that the stock photography market is oversaturated, or that being profitable with stock photography is no longer possible. I would have to disagree with this notion, simply because the market's needs continue to evolve and shift.

What will you shoot?

Stock photography encompasses nearly all subjects. With the choices being almost endless, it can be a difficult choice to decide what your stock photographs will feature. People are always a popular choice for subjects placed in a variety of settings and featuring different clothing choices. the combinations are nearly endless.

In contrast, remember that we are looking to offer something unique with our photos. Shooting what already exists is hardly a roadmap to being successful.

There are some style guidelines that can be followed to increase your chances of making a sale. Often times, stock photos are shot on a white background. For the person who will be working with the stock photo, this provides them with the most freedom in the editing stage. Your stock photos will almost never be used directly, so when shooting an image, remember to leave enough room for design moves like cropping or placing text over the image.

This image of trucks made by Photodune photographer Gunther Nezhoda is a perfect example of how to make a great image for stock photography. This type of image appeals to a number of different buyers and leaves enough room for text or modifications.

In shooting stock photographs, avoid basic mistakes like photos of models with shirts featuring writing. Often times, graphic designers that will be working with stock photos will need to flip your images, and thus render the image useless.

PhotoDune photographer Gunther Nezhoda says: "a person in the image can sell the photograph. No matter how many business people with laptops are in the collection, every person has different looks, expressions, charisma and so on. Ten photographers can shoot the same subject and each image will have a different vibe. Same than in wedding photography, you have to capture that special moment and this will get you the download."

It's nearly impossible to quantify what goes into making a successful stock image. Remember that as with any type of photography, doing your due diligence in researching the market is a necessary step to finding out what buyers are interested in.

Don't seek to copy what already exists, as you won't succeed in selling a product that people have already purchased. Instead, research, recognize trends, and fill the voids of the marketplace.

One reason that the window to stock photography remains constantly open is our society's desire for things that are modern and up to date. Styles and fashion change, and so do the subject matters that are in demand.

Even though a stock photo of a man in the grocery store from four years ago could be technically excellent, the products on the shelf and the now outdated cell phone clipped to his belt make the photo almost useless to a modern designer.

Success in Stock Photography

Building a good stock photo portfolio can increase your success exponentially. If a stock photo buyer likes your work, they may come back to your portfolio later to see if your images fit a future project. As with any creative industry endeavor, some of your best clients will be the repeat buyers who will turn to you as a reliable source of high quality images.

Consider that if you have repeat clientele, they are probably buying photos that correspond to a certain industry. If you know who your buyers are, it's also a great idea to drop them an email to find out their needs, and how your images can fit those needs. Consider commissioning shoots based on the feedback of your valued buyers.

This image, also by Nezhoda, is a perfect example of the type of photos that graphic designers love to purchase. It's ready to be used as soon as it's downloaded.

I think that one of the most important aspects of succeeding as a stock photographer is balancing the line between being a generalist, and a specialist. As we've discussed above, you must offer something unique that isn't already out there. This requires exploring the untapped niches - the photos that haven't been taken yet. However, you have to keep your photos general so that they'll appeal to enough buyers.

PhotoDune photographer Gunther Nezhoda says: "Advice for newbies: I don't know if I'm qualified to give advice, but what always worked for me was dedication and persistence. Don't get discouraged. Many of your photos will be rejected, especially at the beginning, don't blame the agency, they are happy to approve every shot they can, because that's how they make their money – with good pictures.

"Browse the forums and learn from established photographers, browse the agencies and look at as many top selling images as you can and read the EXIF data. Don't settle for less, learn how to use your equipment and push it to the max. Don't upload just everything. An image has to be clean, has to have a message and a vibe. I learned a lot about composition since I do micro. Learn all you can about light. That's all we do, we capture light. Produce the highest quality you can."


Stock photography may be one of the most competitive niches of imagery today. With many talented stock photographers, it may be daunting to attempt to enter an already populated market. However, as with any market, niches of success are always open to newcomers. With enough perseverance and enthusiasm for expanding your stock portfolio, you can attain success in the stock market.

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