Today's Guest Blogger: Steve Heap

I was at the premier photography event in the mid-Atlantic region over the weekend – Nature Visions – and as I looked through the excellent nature images on show, I got to thinking about a common mistake that photographers, especially nature photographers, make when they think about selling their photos through stock agencies.

The conversation goes like this: “I’ve uploaded these great images to Shutterstock, but I rarely get any sales – what gives?” What they really mean is that they have some photos that they love – it might be a beautiful image of a bird caught in flight – and it probably would get a great score in any camera club competition, but they are not asking themselves the real question – how would someone use this image?

This is the question I want to explore today – how can you increase your earnings from stock photography especially if you like nature and landscape photography? The answer is clear – you need to be able to answer one question. How many different uses can I think of for this image? More is obviously better! With those answers in your mind, you can then process and crop the image to maximize those uses, and you can try to keyword and describe the image in ways that would help someone with that use in mind find your photo. What do I mean by crop here? Ignore the rule of thirds and getting a tight crop – include lots of space where a designer can add copy – they can crop it to fit their available space.

Let me illustrate this with one of my images (above) that was selected for this exhibition.

This was a lovingly photographed image of a Swamp Milkweed Seedpod. Taken in my home studio, I combined perhaps 15 focus stacked shots to get the depth of field and then carefully cloned out any areas where the stacking didn’t get perfect results. I sharpened it selectively, and displayed it as a 20x16 inch matted print. I got some great comments from both judges and other photographers as an image that really jumped out at them.

Contrast this with the image below. A simple well executed image of a truck mounted rig used to drill deep in the ground to bury the loops for a geothermal heating system. Nice and sharp, well exposed shot. Artistic? No way!

I then went to Shutterstock and used a cool feature that lets contributors search their images by keyword to create a collection, and then give the download and earning stats for that collection. I have seven different shots of the seedpod and five shots of the drilling rig. I’m sure you can guess what I found – the 7 seedpod images had been downloaded a total of 14 times and earned $7.79; the photos of the drilling rig had been downloaded 343 times and earned $250.72.

Of course, the reason is clear. There any many, many more uses of those images. Not only energy efficiency and global warming concepts, but also water well drilling and related news stories. I removed the name of the company that owned the rig, giving it more opportunities to be used in for commercial advertizing. In fact this drilling company has changed the color of the cab to more closely resemble their trucks, I assume!

I can hear you thinking – but that truck isn’t a nature or landscape shot! Which is true! However, to make money in stock, you need to focus on producing shots that people want to use in their articles, blogs, websites and adverts. Always ask that question – what can people use this photo for. I do sell nature and landscape - this stitched panorama of the countryside in Wales sells nicely for me - $345 on Shutterstock alone. Not particularly artistic, but it is obviously meeting a need for a peaceful and bucolic image of the rolling hills.

Which brings me to my final point - always think about how you can reuse your images to meet multiple needs. As an example, I took a nice shot of a new born lamb with its mother:

But with a little bit of Photoshop work blending the lamb and its meadow into a section of this panorama in Wales, we end up with a new image that sells better as the lamb is now telling a different story.

I hope that has helped get your mind around why your fine art images may be disappointing you in terms of sales and how to think about which images would sell better. I sell my images on most of the main Microstock agencies with Shutterstock and iStock still being the most productive for me. Now, with about 6000 images in my portfolio, I’ve grown my income steadily to around $25,000 a year. If you are interested in following in my footsteps, I’ve written an eBook, Getting Started in Stock, about how to make a start in stock photography.


Steve Heap blogs regularly about stock photography at BackyardSilver and also licenses images directly from his own company at BackyardStockPhotos. He is the author of Getting Started in Stock, available from Amazon and BackyardSilver.