An Introduction to Stock Photography

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Before, when ad agencies or publishers needed photographic content for a project, they would hire a photographer. In past years, this practice has been slowly replaced with stock photos.

Stock photos are images that are licensed out for specific purposes. These images are stored in image banks or libraries where anyone can purchase the rights for their use. The biggest advantage of using stock photos over hiring a professional photographer is of course the amount of money the publisher or end user saves. The biggest drawback is that the user has no creative control over the images since it is already pre-made.


Rights-Managed Images

In using rights-managed images, the user pays for the use or license of the photo for each use. The price of the license will be largely dependent on how the image is going to be used. For example, you can only pay around $200 for a license if it’s going to be used for a local publication with limited circulation but the cost for the same photo can go up to several thousands of dollars if it’s used for a nationwide ad campaign.

Royalty-Free Images
Royalty-free images, on the other hand, means that the user need not pay for each use of the photo. Payment for the license is one time. The price of the license is dependent on the size of the photo since the size determines how the image can be used. Small images can only be effectively used for websites while larger and higher resolution images can used for print ads. The most common distributor of royalty-free images today are the microstock sites.

Microstock sites are websites that specialize in royalty-free images that accept submissions from amateurs and professionals alike. Some examples of microstock sites are iStockPhoto, Dreamstime and Shutterstock. If you want to start selling your photos then microstock sites are the way to go.

A short but interesting article comparing rights-managed and royalty-free images can be here.


CC Photo by pfala

When microstock sites started making waves in the photography community, two things started happening. One, professional photographers started complaining that the proliferation of cheap photos greatly affected their earning potential. (This article by Photopreneur would be a great read about the topic.) Publishers who used to hire them are now buying photos for as low as $10. Second, a lot of aspiring amateur photographers started making money from what only used to be a hobby.

What Type of Photos Can You Submit?

CC Photo by SC Fiasco

Getting started with micro stock sites is easy enough. There are no registration fees and most only require that you submit several photos that pass their quality control standards to get your portfolio started. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind before you start sending our your images.

1. If your photo has a recognizable face then you will need to secure a model release from the person. This document states that the model or subject is giving you permission to use their photo for profit. This form is uploaded along with your photo. A sample model release form can be found here.

2. Your photo cannot contain any copyrighted brand or logo. This is where your skills in Photoshop comes in. If the logo is unavoidable then you have to be able to cleanly remove it from the image.

3. You must own the sole copyright of the photo you are sending.

4. Image quality is of utmost importance. Images that are poorly focused/lit/composed are automatically rejected. Noisy images or overly edited images are also not acceptable.

5. Your image must be marketable. You can browse through a stock site’s most downloaded or most popular images to give you an idea what type of photos are currently selling. Some sites like iStockphoto even have a page dedicated to images that they currently need. Your pictures also need to be versatile so it can have as many different uses as possible. Some expert tips on marketable stock photos can be seen here.

To get a concise list of image requirements, browse through the image library’s FAQ sections.

Overcrowded Libraries

Since there are no limits on who or how many photos can submitted, stock sites are becoming overcrowded. Dreamstime currently has a total of 3,868,237 images in their library. That’s great if you’re looking to buy photos but it’s a bit disheartening if you’re looking to sell. Some sites like iStockphoto has even closed some categories in their collection due to too many submissions. You need to have a portfolio numbering in the hundreds if not thousands to get noticed.

Earning Potential

When you go through other sites that discuss stock photography, you will most likely encounter articles to feature top selling professional stock photographers that earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from stock sites. If you take these figures at face value then it looks like these people are actually rolling in money. The truth, however, is that they’re not. The biggest factor that these article fail to give us is how much these photographers spend to maintain their portfolio. Let’s take Yuri Arcurs as an example.

Yuri Arcurs is considered to be one of the top selling stock photographers today. It was reported that in January of this year, he earned a total of $64,000 from micro stock sales alone. When you do a little bit more research on him, you will find out that he literally has thousands of photos in his portfolio and he employs 2 staff photographer and 10 freelancers in his studio. In an interview with Mircrostock Diaries, he states that with all his overhead costs, it will still take him a few months to break even.

There are a lot of costs if you want to be a full time professional stock photographer. You will need to cover fees for models, stylists, wardrobe and location usage. What some do to cut down on these expenses is to do multiple shoots using the same model and stylists in one go. Read Rich Legg’s article on how he maximized the use of a private jet for multiple set-ups.

It is possible to earn some money with stock sites. Rummage through your image collection and hopefully, you’ll find some that’s usable. If, however, you are aiming to make this a full time job then be prepared for everything that it entails. You will need to spend some serious time and money to get your portfolio up to par with the established pros.

Possibly Related Reading:
Macro Photography, Part 1
Macro Photography, Part 2

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