Photos That Sell: The Art of Successful Freelance Photography

This is another great primer to really get you thinking about ‘why’ photo buyers use specific images. It covers a broad range of photo uses, and provides many insights into that photo buyers are actually paying for.

It covers the elements you should be working into your compositions and the styles & moods that really sell. All up a very handy book for anyone getting started in stock photography and wanting to target their efforts and start shooting more marketable photos.

Photos That Sell: The Art of Successful Freelance Photography

How To Shoot Stock Photos That Sell

Sell Stock Photos Book Review

This is a book we’ve been recommending at OzImages Photo Stock Agency for quite a few years now … so long in fact that it’s actually gone out of print in that time.

You can usually find a copy on Amazon if you dig around a bit, and if you do it’s probably the single best investment you could make in your stock photography business.

The information is timeless, and it includes a series of self-assignments to really get you thinking ‘stock’ while you build up your collection.

There is a fair emphasis on working with people and the right way to incorporate human activity into your iamges for better sales potential. While a lot of nature/landscape shooters prefer to avoid this, when you include people you automatically increase demand and lower competition, so you should always be open to these possibilities.

All in all, if you only ever buy one book on ‘stock photography’ I’d recommend this one without hesitation!

How to Shoot Stock Photos That Sell

Stock Photography Pricing

How to Make Sure You’re Paid What Your Photos Are Really Worth

A lot of photographers feel they’re ‘ready’ to dive into stock photography — they’re up to speed on quality & content, they’ve got a good starting volume and they’ve got the time to work on it – it should be all systems go, but one thing holds them back.

They just don’t know what to charge for their photos? They are worried that they’re either going to ask for too much and lose a sale, or that they might ask for too little and the buyer will take advantage of them. Either way they are worried they’ll lose money and look a bit stupid.   Does that sound familiar? If it does, what follows is a crash course in Stock Photography Pricing that will take the stress out of the process for you.

Rule #1. Professional photographers don’t sell their images, they license them

When you sell an image you are actually giving your customer the permission to use that image in return for a license fee. Usually this is for a single specific use. Usually it is for a fixed period of time or a fixed number of reproductions.

Rule #2. Professional photographers never give up the copyright or ownership of their work

Because you are licensing a single use for a limited time, it’s important to note that the image remains yours and the copyright remains yours. You are allowing the Client to use the image strictly on your terms.   You can look at the Photo License as a rental agreement. Just as a car-rental company will tell you where you can go, what you can do and when you have to have the car back, your Photo License tells the Client exactly what they can do with you image and when they have to stop using it.

So How Do You Determine A Price?

The cost to license a photo is generally a product of the value of the use to the Client and the value of the photo in question. The photographer evaluates the value of the use of the specific image to the Client and then determines a fair and reasonable price that covers costs and allows a margin for profit.

This is standard in any business. The operator studies their customer, they assess their product, and they determine a price that covers their costs, delivers value for money to their customer, and leaves them a reasonable profit margin for their efforts.   Rights Managed photo pricing is no different EXCEPT the value of a photo depends on how the customer wishes to use it. So based on that, prices to license the same photo will vary depending on the use.

The Value Of The Photo Use To The Client

In simple terms, a photo used on the front cover of a magazine has a higher value to the Client than say a small reproduction in the back of the same magazine   The photo on the cover is actually going to help sell the magazine, which is obviously of immediately cash value to the Client. The photo in the back of the magazine still has some value, but it’s size and placement suggests it’s not of overwhelming interest to most of the magazine’s readers, hence it has less value to the Client.

Of course if the same photo was used instead for a double page advertising spread inside the magazine, it would be worth even more to that Client. The advertiser would be paying a premium price for the space, so you can rest assured they selected that particular photo because they believe it will get them the maximum return for their spend.

These are very simplistic examples, but what you need to recognize is that in each of these examples, the photographer isn’t selling the photo … they are selling the less tangible ‘service that photo provides’ the Client.

A lot of photographers find it difficult to justify charging different customers different prices for what they consider the same ‘product’.   The key is to remember you aren’t selling a product; you’re selling a service.

You are not selling the photo itself. You are selling the Client the rights to profit from the use of your photo.   And since the return to the Client on each use will vary, the purchase price must vary as well.

The Value Of The Photo Itself

Every photo has an intrinsic value based on the uniqueness of the content, and the quality of execution. In simple Supply-Demand terms, a great photo of a rare subject is always going to be worth more than a poor shot of a common subject.

A commercial photo also has a residual value, based on it’s freshness. The more exposure an image gets, the less appeal it will hold for future Clients.   An example would be if a photo was used internationally for an extensive advertising campaign. Once the image has been seen by millions of people there is little chance that a different Client would ever use it to promote their own product. They wouldn’t want to risk sending a conflicting message to their audience by using a ‘second-hand’ image. It’s easier and safer for the Client to just find another image.

So every time you license an image, it has an impact in the future sales-potential for that image.   A textbook publisher in need of a simple illustration probably won’t be too concerned where the image has been used before, or where it might appear in the future, but that usage will become a factor the next time someone considers using the image.

If a Client wants a new image, it doesn’t matter if the previous use was a thumbnail in a textbook or double page spread in Time, they will still consider the image used.   Of course there are many situations where previous use isn’t an issue, but when a Client does need an unpublished image they will usually be paying top dollar for it!

So while the temptation might there to write-off  smaller sales as insignificant and not worth a lot … that one small sale could disqualify your image from a much larger sale down the track. As a business person you must make sure you are compensated for that at the time.

If you are someone who struggles with the idea of charging different prices for different uses, remember this …   If you were to license the best photo you’ve ever taken for a high profile advertising campaign, the future customer pool for that photo is immediately reduced to one. It is highly unlikely that anyone else will ever purchase that image again.

Unless the original Client decides to re-license the image later on, it’s residual value is virtually gone. So your initial license fee should represent your evaluation of the residual value of that image!

The Mechanics Of Pricing

Rights managed licensing takes into account a lot of factors and  can be confusing at first. It’s a whole lot easier if you can remember the following;   All the usage factors you are ever going to see come down to one thing … evaluating ‘exposure’.   How prominently is the image going to be published and how many people are going to see it.

The books and software and calculator websites will talk about dozens of different factors:

  • Print run
  • Circulation
  • Reproduction size
  • Screen display size
  • Screen duration
  • Number of issues
  • Regional rights vs world rights
  • Electronic rights
  • Time in use
  • Placement & positioning
  • … and a whole lot more.

All they are really asking is how prominently is the image going to be published, and as a factor of that, how many people are going to see the image.   And as we’ve already discussed, at the Exposure goes up, the Profit Value to your Client goes up, and the Residual Value of the image goes down, so you charge more.   Your price is the product of those elements, applied to the Intrinsic/Residual Value of the image.

  • Low Exposure X Low Profit Value => Low Impact on Residual Value = Low License Fee
  • High Exposure X High Profit Value => High Impact on Residual Value = High License Fee

Of course there are any number of degrees for each of these values but the key is not to get caught up in too much detail. When you use the various calculators and print guides, be as accurate as you can but don’t panic if you don’t know a specific detail or the options offered don’t exactly match your usage. In most cases it won’t have a major impact on the final price.

My only other suggestion is to use the Price Calculators often to develop a feel for what different uses are worth before a buyer comes knocking on your door. If you are new to the business a Print Price Guide is highly recommended as well.   Most of all, don’t be intimidated by the process.  Always value your work and your time. Never give up ownership or copyright and remember, you can always say ‘no thanks’ if the price just isn’t right.

The Stock Photo Price Calculator

A free online price calculator for any photographer wishing to know just what their photos are actually worth. Just follow a few simple prompts to select the usage criteria and the calculator does the rest. Now serving over 40,000 possible usage combinations!

This calculator is constantly updated using real-time feedback from hundreds of photographers around the world, so it is getting more accurate every day! Try it out, bookmark it and tell your colleagues!

Stock Photo Price Calculator

Stock Photos That Sell

Stock photos are used for countless different purposes these days, so it’s easy to imagine ‘anything can sell’, but realistically photos that sell are usually going to meet some fairly standard criteria. Obviously there will be exceptions, but more often than not, the best selling stock photos will usually share some of the following traits …

1. Most feature a strong, simple subject.

Stock photos are almost always ‘of something’ and it’s usually instantly recognizable. Vague landscapes or cluttered scenes don’t often sell, and anything where the viewer has to work hard to identify the main subject is inlikely to interest many buyers. When it coems ot compositions for ‘stock’, less is usually more!

2. A strong foreground subject.

The main subject is usually going to be positioned right up in the foreground and there’ll be minimal clutter or distractions in the rest of the image.

3. Backgrounds are simple and complimentary.

They add to the message without distracting from the main point of interest. There’ll be no strong design elements interferring with the main message. Washed out skies are no an option.

4. People will be included.

When people are often used they are logically involved in the situation and there is a believable reason for them being there. Over-posed models have little use, and if a model is obviously posing for the camera, then the story will be told by carefully selected props or strong facial expressions and/or body language.

5. Faces & eyes are visible and clear.

If the face is visible, more often than not, the eyes will be a key focal point. Where people are included, they are used to convey emotions and ideas, so vague expressions or obscured faces have little value to most stock buyers.

6. Symbols are used to add meaning.

Quite often there’ll be carefully selected objects visible in the frame that subtley add to the message the photo conveys. These will be carefully selected and positioned to make their inclusion believable and logical.

7. Simple props create variety of  meanings.

The more prolific photographers will incorporate a variety of simple props to capture dozens of different storylines from a single situation. Each carefully developing a different message for a different potential buyer type.

8. Empty landscapes still have strong visual elements.

There’s little demand for the big empty landscapes, seascapes, sunrises and sunsets. When they are required, buyers have a lot ot choose from, so if you’re going to shoot them, make sure there are ‘strong’ visual elements to keep it interesting. (Turn the camera around and shoot some verticals when appropriate).  And always remember a strong foreground subject is a safer bet!

9. Life, movement, action … all add to the marketability of a shot.

A buyer will almost always choose the action shot over the bland portrait … of anything.

* The child engrossed with a toy will always outsell the child holding to toy looking at the camera.
* The galloping horse will outsell the horse standing still in the middle of a paddock.
* The sailboat underway, canvas full, tilting from the wind will outsell the shot of the moored boat.
* The lion stalking it’s prey will outsell the lion sleeping in the shade.
* A couple ejoying a glass of wine will outsell the still ife of the wine bottle and two glasses

… and so on.

10. People are the key!

No matter that field of work interests you most, if you want to sell stock photos, you need to be including people in your images to develop ‘mini-storylines’ that buyers can use to help convey their own messages.

Get people into the scene every chance you can get, and when you can’t, make sure you look for ways to get some life or activity into the shot. Yes there is definitely a market for quality still life photography, but generally the demand is considerably higher (and the competition considerably less) when you start telling stories.

The Golden Rule of Shooting Photos That Sell

The one thing that will increase the marketability of your images more than any other, is simple to stop and think about who is likely to use the subject matter …

Who uses photos of this subject?

What do they do with the images?

What do I need to do to create an image they can use?

Make that thought process a habit … before you even look through the viewfinder … and you’ll be shooting the kind of stock photos that sell themselves. Guaranteed!


Have I missed anything? Please post your ideas below and we’ll see if we can build the ultimate guide to shooting ‘photos that sell’!

Commission Vs Subscription

Here’s a short video we put together to illustrate a few differences between paying your stock library a commission on all sales, or paying a flat rate subscription.

The standard legal disclaimers apply … these are examples only, do your own due diligence etc etc … but hopefully they’ll get you thinking before you sign away half your earnings …