Today's Guest Blogger: Steve Heap on Getting Started with Stock Photography

Have an interest in stock photography, that is, making money with your images? My friend Steve Heap offers the following suggestions.

He knows how to do it. After all, Steve is the author of  the Step-by-Step Guide to MicroStock Photography.

Good info, Steve . . . and thanks a heap for the guest blog post!

The question I want to explore today – can you make a start in stock photography today? When I started in 2008, the Microstock revolution was in full swing and many photographers told me that it was much harder in 2008 to make money than it had been in 2004 when the early agencies started. Perhaps that was true, but it is still said today that it is much harder now than in 2008. I set out to try to find out if there are facts to back that up. Microstock photography may be hated by photographers with their images for sale in more traditional high priced agencies, but it is still growing – 35M images on Shutterstock at the last count – and the use of those images is growing fast as well. Unfortunately, the income per use is low – normally much less than $1.

Firstly, let me say that I am not a photographer of stock people shots – you know the ones, the pretty girl with the headset, or the handshakes in a modern office building. I take travel, landscape, macro, some still life and objects – a broad range of non-people shots. In fact, my best selling image across all sites is a cat – yes, one of almost 200,000 similar images on Shutterstock.

This particular one was uploaded in 2011 and has sold 1380 times for around $1400 on Shutterstock. For a long time it was in the first few results of the search term “cat” – it is now on page 2 of the results, but it still shows that an image uploaded not too long ago can rise to the top of the rankings and be licensed several times a day.

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.

But can you start now, or have you missed the boat? My gut tells me that if:

  • You are a good photographer willing to go the extra mile for a great image – ie don’t settle for a second best snapshot
  • You are willing to process them properly to get a bright dynamic snappy photo
  • You are willing to spend the time keywording and describing them accurately
  • You are willing to upload to about 10 microstock sites or so

Then yes, you can still start now and make a reasonable amount of money from stock photography.

But can I prove that? There are hundreds of thousands of new images being added each month to the main stock agencies so how will yours be seen and licensed? The starting point for me is that agencies in general do not prioritize a particular photographer in their search results – they do prioritize images that are already selling well, but those rankings are fluid and change over time. To prove that a new photographer can start to upload now and earn money, I need to look at how my more recent images sell in comparison to the older established ones. To test that, I checked my Shutterstock sales and added up the earnings from images submitted in the last 15 months - a reasonable time period to consider if you are going to compare with a new entrant into the business. In that period, I have added 1200 new images to Shutterstock – about 90 a month. Someone starting now can obviously go back through their portfolio and get more images online more quickly, perhaps. All mine were newly taken.

So, what did I find? Real proof I think! My new images represented 25% of my total portfolio, and the earnings from them reached 26%. In fact, for those math graduates out there, the performance is actually better as my new images were added over time during the 15 months, and so they are actually earning more than an average image in my portfolio! That is probably a combination of improved cameras, improved photography skills, my eye for what is a good stock photo has improved, and perhaps I’m more careful on keywording – although I doubt that last one makes a difference.

I also looked down the list of big earners from Shutterstock. My first 2013 image come in at position 43 (out of 4800) with earnings of $125.

This illustrates an important part of making money in stock – rework your images! This one started as a simple shot against a blue sky, but why not give the buyers more alternatives?

I ended up creating five variants, including one shot of the boards isolated against white and a vertical version with fewer boards. One shot – many opportunities to sell. How about simple animal shots? A nice cute lamb in a field may get some sales:

But in a more natural setting, it can appeal to a wider audience:

My conclusion – if you want to earn something from your images, it is not too late. It is not easy though, but it can drive your creativity to new heights as you constantly look around you thinking – that would make a nice stock photo!

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

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Thank you again, Steve, for a informative and insightful blog post.

Explore the light,

Speaking of making money, you need to present your work on a great web site. I recommend Squarespace. Check it out for free!