Outdoor and adventure can be photographed in many ways. There are the peak action subjects such as biking, kayaking, running, and also static subjects like camp scenes, and people enjoying the outdoors. This image has been successful because of the mood it exemplifies. In 70% of the uses, copy was placed over it for ads.

As photographers, we love to explore the world with our cameras and are gratified when we can capture the wonders around us. It’s a natural evolution for many photographers to eventually want to market their work and make money. Selling and publishing your photography validates your efforts when someone else sees value in your images. Love and money are the two main reason photographers enter into professional photography and the stock photo business. This seemingly simple step, however, is actually a huge leap. Planning and preparation will provide a smoother transition.

What is stock photography?

A stock photo is an existing photo for which the photographer owns copyright. The photo has commercial value and can be employed for multiple-uses by a variety of clients. Whenever a photographer licenses the use of one of his photos for a fee, a stock photo was sold. In the early days, photographers doing assignments for the editorial markets would have all the outtakes returned to them. At some point, it made sense to make those outtakes available for re-licensing for other uses, and stock photography was born. However, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that stock photography as an industry really took off, marking the beginning of the big stock photo agency. It didn’t take long for the agencies and photographers to realize that outtakes from assignments weren’t going to meet the growing demand for imagery. This was the beginning of the stock photographer who made some–if not all–of her income producing stock photos for an image-hungry market. Today there are many stock photo agencies representing thousands of photographers in what some say is a billion dollar market. Finding your niche and a place to fit in is the next challenge

What makes a good stock photo?

There are many reasons why an image becomes a good stock photo. A photograph is a goodstockphoto only if a client is willing to offer compensation for the use of that photo. Until then, it’s just another pretty picture. Good stock photos can often be described as “subjects that are timeless and have long-lasting appeal.” These might be generic images such as a spectacular moment in nature (i.e. lightning), a smiling face of a teen, a close-up of a cell phone in-hand, a soldier in uniform, the American flag, or maybe a firefighter. The list of subjects is endless.

Business is the top selling category in stock photography and this image was also shot in the studio by first placing vertical blinds to a long pole suspended from light stands. Our folding table served as the desk.

Some popular stock photos are timeless and sell for years, while others may sell well only for a limited time. Technology is an example of a hot market, and those photos need to be constantly updated to stay current. I was shooting stock photography when the first fax machines arrived, and there was a big demand from people using that equipment. That demand has fallen off. Now clients want photos depicting consumers using other cutting-edge electronics such as Ipods, Xbox, and large-screen TV’s. And these images will be outdated in a short time as new technologies emerge. A good stock photo should be devoid of logos, outdated objects that date it, and out-of-style clothing. It should have technical excellence and broad appeal.

Some subjects are difficult to make into good stock photos due to the volume of similar photos on the market. An image that is site-specific to a well-known spot (such as Delicate Arch in Arches NP, Utah) must be absolutely spectacular to be a good stock photo. That arch has been photographed thousands of times, and images of it can be obtained for free on the Web.

Stock Photography Concepts

Successful stock photos work because they illustrate a concept, often a specific one requested by a client. Some sample concepts that are popular include the following: teamwork, success, competition, family, happiness, pride, performance, quality, reliability, trust, work, etc. Nature and landscape photographers often overlook this aspect, thinking it applies strictly to stock photographers shooting lifestyle and business themes. Our photo agency licensed an image years ago for the cover of an annual report. The image was a grove of Giant Sequoia trees photographed from ground level in a wide-angle shot looking up at a Sequoia seedling that was about six inches tall as it burst out of the dirt, surrounded by century-old monarchs. The title for the annual report was “Growth in 19XX (whatever year it was).” Conceptually, that was a perfect stock photo.

The concepts for “family” can include anything a family might do–vacation, celebrate Christmas, enjoy a birthday party, go camping, as well as exercise discipline, express a single parent family, and so on. Concepts are not limited to any one subject. For example, the concept “teamwork” can be communicated in many ways (i.e. two rock climbers, one belaying the other; a couple in a canoe; or two business people at a computer). The list is long and varied, and the applications for marketable photography are endless.

Where do you fit in the market?

Any stock photo that says ‘Heartland’ or the American Farmer will be a good selling subject. In this case, I was out exploring when I saw this farmer and his crew harvesting their cornfield. I stopped and asked about photographing them getting the job done. I later talked the farmer into posing in exchange for a bunch of prints for him to hand out to the family.

All facets of professional photography are extremely competitive. Being a good photographer is not enough to guarantee success. You have to be an incredible photographer with good images, a good marketing plan, and great business sense. The place to start building your business is to determine what your product is and where it fits in the market. As in all businesses, your image-files are a product line that you must sell to your clients in order to succeed. Ask yourself the following questions: What do I love to shoot? Who buys what I love to shoot? How will I sell them what I love to shoot?

There are four basic areas that are often crossed by photographers who enjoy shooting it all:

1. landscape, nature, and travel;

2. people, families, and lifestyle;

3. business, industry, and commerce; and

4. adventure, outdoor, and sports.

Once you know which area you prefer, you’ll have a better understanding of the necessary steps to beginning. If you’re a landscape, nature, or travel photographer, you need to decide if you want to be a local/ regional photographer, specializing in the area near your base. If so, building your product line would include photographing the countryside, the city skylines, historic sites, waterways, natural areas, parks, and any other locations that make your region notable. If your goal is to market a photographic product line that’s more national or even international, then you must begin building your product line with an extensive file of images, following the same steps. Your subjects could be the National Park system, all states and provinces including the local and regional parks, wilderness areas, any and all waterways, forests, and tourist destinations.

If you enjoy photographing people and lifestyles, your subjects could be families, teens, children, seniors, couples, singles, gay life, single parenting, and so on. Business and industry would include subjects such as, but not limited to, the Stock Market, technology, medicine, manufacturing, communications, and business themes. Adventure, outdoor, and sports stock photo subjects are also varied and can include rafting, skiing, climbing, biking, hiking, football, soccer, etc.

Whichever area you choose, building a sizable inventory of current stock photos requires a substantial investment in time and money. Landscape and nature photographers will need to travel to photograph scenic destinations. People photographers–whether business, lifestyle, or adventure shooters–will need to work with models, props, and possibly distant destinations. To compete with the more established photographers in all of these areas, you’ll need to shoot aggressively for many years and have the financial resources to do so.

Long-Term Strategy

This conceptual image of ‘research’ is staged in the studio. You can buy all the props to setup these types of shots and just need room to light it properly.

Stock photography is a long-term process that requires time, energy, and money. Besides creating your photographic product line, you’ll need to continue to research your markets and determine what clients are buying, the style of imagery they’re buying, and where they’re buying it. You do this by continually looking at your target markets and their products. These could include book publishers, religious publishing houses, and niche publishers, calendars, gift and note cards, and magazines. Look at what they’re buying. Some calendar companies produce a wide range of calendar titles, while others create only specialty calendars focused on subjects such as cats or national parks.

One way to keep your research at hand is to start an idea file–a box or file cabinet with file folders labeled for different subjects or destinations such as Alaska, California, Florida, people, kids, or technology. As you search magazines, brochures, or any printed material, clip out the pictures that catch your attention and file them in your idea file for future reference. My idea files contain categories of all subjects with sub folders. In these folders are clippings from magazines, ads, brochures, and a collection of restaurant napkins, scraps of paper, or anything I could write on when the idea hit me. I read outdoor and travel publications, tear out all the small articles on destinations, and place them in my idea file according to state. Next time I travel to Texas or want to photograph someone’s child, I’ll look in my idea file for places to photograph that I wouldn’t have thought of if I hadn’t looked through my file.

Start shooting

When you’re beginning to build your files, work locally. Shoot the parks, rivers, botanical gardens, waterfalls, mountains, skylines, historic sites, and parks–anything close to home. There are many fabulous and well-published photographers who don’t leave their own neighborhoods. They become well known as the source for great nature photography in that area. There are local postcards, calendars, tourist brochures, Chamber directories, restaurant menus, advertising and design agencies, and many more potential markets for local imagery.

Landscape and nature is no doubt the most popular area of stock photography and the most crowded. Stock images in this category must be breathtaking. Here, this simple waterfall has been quite successful from magazine placements to ads for water filters and insurance companies

If you plan to shoot lifestyle or business people, start with family, friends, neighbors, or anyone else who will model for you for free or cheaply. Make sure that your subjects are “model” material. Unfortunately, there are stereotypes that make even stock photography more salable. If your models work for free, you can compensate them with prints or a percentage of future sales. Be sure to pay close attention to current trends in wardrobe and styling. This is one of the biggest reason stock photos fail to sell–unattractive or outdated clothing. Whatever the subject you choose, be sure to shoot horizontals and verticals, as well as zoom in and out, so you have room for placing text.

Clients and your business

The most important point here is, who is your client? You might not be able to answer that specifically, since you may not know who your clients are or will be. Despite this uncertainty, you must start shooting for intended clients immediately. Stock photography as a business is not about shooting for yourself anymore. Be prepared to spend years building an image file. Remember you started shooting for love of photography, and the cost of building an image file is huge. Like most hobbies, photography is expensive. By the time you’re selling your images regularly, you should be afraid to look at the investment you made building your file. As you divide the costs of building the file by your revenues, it will probably equate to something ridiculous–an hourly rate measured in cents rather than dollars.


Success in photography is driven by passion. You can’t measure success solely on financial investment versus future revenues. It takes years to build your business, a business driven by your passion for photography. As long as you keep the passion and follow a clear plan, you’ll be successful. Professional photography is a lifestyle, not a job. 

by Charlie Borland

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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