How I Got Started Selling Stock Photos

I started in high school, taking classes and learning the ins and outs of photography.  I remember one class period when the teacher took me aside and said, “Brian you have a really good eye, but you stink in the darkroom.”  It sounds much worse than it was, as I really did stink in the dark room and I knew it, but I wasn’t aware that I had a good eye.  Believe it or not this compliment/criticism made my day and I have been in love with shooting ever since.

For years I took pictures with my trusty Minolta X-570 and X-700.  I still love the sound of a motor drive, but who doesn’t.   I switched to a Nikon D-200 about 4 years ago, when I needed to buy a digital camera to do some work for a new client in Seattle.  I had been teaching my self Photoshop CS 2 & 3 for almost a year, but not to use for photography, but more as a graphic design tool.  In January of 2008 I started to mess around with the idea of taking stock photos.  I found several places online where one could apply to become a member photographer.  The first one I chose was Istockphoto and went ahead and applied.  To apply for a stock site one must submit a number of images for review.  I had to choose 3 images and submit them.  I spent some time reading the forums at istockphoto to learn a bit, and despite this, I still ended up getting 2 of the 3 rejected.  But that was ok, one could try again, so I did.
It took 3 attempts to get accepted, but I finally made it.  The thing about stock photography that is different than fine art photography, is that it isn’t good enough to have a  ‘good eye’, one must be good in the digital dark room.  It is ironic that all these years since high school and I just happened to get pretty good at Photoshop and now could use that skill to make my photos technically sound.  There are a number of tips that will help one get going in stock photography.
I like to start with the fun stuff. Working on building an online stock portfolio improves one’s technical skills. I think most people enjoy improving at their craft, I know that I do. The next best part is the external validation. I was filling up my car with gas two summers ago and there was a hose lying on the ground. It had the tiniest pin hole in it. Water was spraying out and it looked interesting. I took my camera out and got two pictures. The fun came when I had my first sale of ‘Leaking Hose’. I made 25 cents, and one would have thought I had won the lottery. I was giddy. Now two years later, I still feel good every time it sells, or any of my images for that matter.Ok, so on to the tips.

1) The larger the photo the better. Prices increase with the size of the image, at most sites. Some people will want really large images, and those that have only the minimum size allowed will be left out.

2) Don’t up-size your image. The inspectors are very clever and they will reject it immediately.

3) Learn and understand the sites rule with regard to copyright. If the image has a person who is identifiable, or a child of any sort, you will need a model release. The model releases can be downloaded from the site. If there are any copyrighted images within your shot, they must be edited out. This could be a logo on a pair of jeans, a sign above a restaurant way off in the background, or even building that is famous. The Eiffel Tower can be photographed during the day, but all the night photos, with the lights on are copyright protected. Any of Frank Gehry’s buildings are off limits. Don’t even think about using the Opera House in Sydney. And lastly, most all makes of car and all cruise ships, if they are the main subject, are not allowed by most places.

4) Learn to use Photoshop CS 2, 3, or 4, or something similar. Stock photography is about creating images that are salable, not about capturing ‘truth’ as one would do in journalism. On average I spend between 30 minutes and 3 hours working on a single image.

5) Shoot in Raw! This is worth repeating. Shoot in Raw! Raw gives one the most flexibility with regards to adjusting the white balance and getting the highest quality images possible.

6) Learn to shoot images isolated on white. This gives your customers a good deal of flexibility; they can use the image in combination with their own designs.

7) Study what other people are shooting and selling.  This will give you a good starting point if you want to try to do this as a career.  For me, I shoot what I like and if someone needs a picture of a cactus, then just maybe they will buy my shot.

This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to stock photography, there are lots of other things one can learn.  For instance, the milk in the photo of the cereal is Elmer’s glue and the bubbles in the coffee are dish washing soap bubbles.  Learning to shoot and process photos well enough to get them accepted has made me a better photographer.  The excitement of selling a photo, well that is just a delightful bonus.


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