The Life of a Stock Photographer

February 23rd, 2015

Imagine a life of waking up whenever you want, grabbing your camera and going out into the world to shoot anything to your heart’s desire—while making money. Yes, this exists, and it’s called stock photography. But it takes years of proving yourself in the industry and a few blow-them-out-of-the-water shots in order to make it your full-time job. We talked to three photographers who sell stock photos and asked how they got their start and for advice for photographers aiming to make it big by putting their images out for the world to license.   


How and why did you get into selling stock photography?

While I was working as a staff photographer in Alaska at the Anchorage Daily News, I was already aware of picture agencies in the lower 48 that were licensing photographs to clients and making their photographers decent money. I started bringing along an extra camera body and shooting my own film while I was out on assignment. I reached out to All Stock which specialized in Alaskan images and began submitting images and seeing some modest sales.

What do you like/dislike about the stock photo industry?

I love that there’s no editor yelling at me that my pictures suck on the satellite phone when I’m out on a shoot in Greenland or Singapore or New Zealand. Instead, I have the little voice in my head doing it.

I dislike that I don’t have a built-in audience for my work. Much of my career has been spent as an anonymous content provider. I’ve shot images that have been used in international marketing campaigns and spreads in the world’s top magazines but have a pretty low profile.

How do you sell your photos to stock companies?

I’ve always thought that the stock agencies have a pretty medieval business model. There are hundreds, even thousands, of photographers out in the world spending gobs of money on gear and travel, devoting hours and weeks and months of time shooting pictures and creating the agencies’ raw material. And then we give it to them—for free. And then we hope against hope that they’ll pick a few of them, and actually go out and sell them. Russian serfs had a better deal. But that’s the model, and it’s worked for me.

I go out and shoot the pictures that I want to shoot. I edit, process and submit to my agencies. They select what they want, license what they can, and we split the money.


Tell us about shooting wildlife and travel.

I’ve worked my way up the ladder of boat purchases since I started using an inflatable Zodiac to bomb around Southeast Alaska in the late ‘90s. I bought a 22-foot cabin cruiser to photograph migrating whales, coastal brown bears and most recently polar bears for up to six weeks at a stretch. There is no shortage of photographers shooting these subjects, but with my own boat I don’t have the enormous expense and time restrictions of hiring a tour outfitter, and I get to work alone, without a dozen other photographers and wannabes shooting over my shoulder.


What was your favorite shoot?

The first time I went up to Hudson Bay, in Arctic Canada back in 2012. I loaded up my inflatable Zodiac boat, an outboard motor, and all my camera and camping gear, put it in the back of my truck and drove 1,800 miles north to Churchill, hauled in down to the Bay’s shoreline, inflated the boat and set out to photograph beluga whales and polar bears. I spent three weeks up there, up to 14 hours a day out on the water. It was cold and lonely and terrifying at times, but I made the best picture of my 30-year-career on that trip.

What has been your biggest win in this genre?

That I still have a career that enables me to go out and make the pictures I want. I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to go. I don’t have to sell an editor on the idea, beg them for money and hope that they will love the work. I figure out what I want to do and go do it. And nine times out of 10, I make money on the project.

I also had my biggest sale of my career last year. One of my Asian skylines netted me five figures in one sale.


How and why did you get into selling stock photography?

I am a big advocate for animal rescue. I enjoy donating my time and services toward efforts to end the animal overpopulation crisis. Providing rescue organizations with high-impact professional photos helps to make homeless animals stand out in adoption ads. Providing this type of exposure gives the animals a better chance of finding new homes forever.

How do you sell your photos to stock companies?

I work with numerous microstock agencies that represent my work and license images to buyers. To sign up for these types of agencies, you need to visit their websites and apply to become a contributor. Most agencies require that you send in an initial set of 10 of more images that pass through a strict review process before you can start uploading to their sites. The main agencies that I work with are ShutterstockiStock and Dreamstime. I also license images directly through my website at Hosting through Zenfolio makes it easy to sell digital images with your own licensing terms.


What do you like/dislike about the stock photo industry?

There is so much I like about shooting stock. If I had to sum it up into one word—FREEDOM. I love being able to wake up each morning at whatever time I want to create whatever I want, on my own schedule and in my own terms. I don’t need to spend time or money marketing to potential clients, negotiating deals or typing up license agreements. The stock agencies handle all of this back-end work.

However, that doesn’t mean that I can slack off. The stock industry is very competitive, and it takes a great deal of effort to be successful in it. It took more than five years of working at it part-time before I could even consider taking a full-time stab at it. I worked for more than 20 years at a mortgage company and just left there about six months ago to work on my stock photography full time. Those who are considering a future in the stock industry must keep the future in mind, because it may seem like an eternity before you feel that you are getting a good return on your effort. But if you stick with it and work hard, it could potentially provide you with a nice residual income that can help to fund an early retirement.


What advice do you have for people wanting to pursue a career in stock?

If someone wants to make a full-time living from selling stock, they need to put a full-time effort into it. Don’t believe the hype you read on the web that you can make an easy living out of selling old photos that are sitting on your hard drive. You need to constantly produce new, fresh images, keep up with current trends and continually work on growing your skills. You must work hard to produce a large volume of high-quality, marketable, eye-catching images. Images that tell a story in a single glance sell the best. For example, capturing an animal in the middle of scratching an itch will sell well to veterinarians or flea product companies. It is also helpful to find a niche market that you enjoy photographing so you can focus your efforts on mastering that type of imagery. Specializing in a certain genre tells buyers that you are an expert in that area, which instills confidence that your images are going to be top quality. There are millions of stock images available for people to search from. It is important to find a way to set your images apart from the rest and to keep buyers coming back to your portfolio directly.

What has been your biggest win in this genre?

Stock photography has provided me with the opportunity to merge my passions for photography and philanthropy into a career that I love. peacock-quote

How and why did you get into selling stock photography?

After a long period of overseas travel, a submission of photos to the stock library of Lonely Planet Images—now sadly sold to Getty—was my entry into the world of photography as a profession. Most photos I take have potential as a stock image. Without submitting to stock libraries, many good images of mine would otherwise sit in a hard drive without any potential to earn money.

What do you like/dislike about the stock photo industry?

I like the discipline of regular submissions as a way of directing my photographic interests and output. I dislike the way the ubiquity of photos on the Internet has devalued the worth of good images.


How do you sell your photos to stock companies?

First, I research a company to decide if the imagery they represent and what I shoot are a match, and then I’ll ask to register with them. If they think my work suits their audience then I’ll start submitting photos. Those photos become available to their clients and perhaps some will sell. I then receive a predetermined portion of the proceeds. My stock images go to three places: Tandem Stills + MotionAurora Photos and the Lonely Planet collection at Getty Images.

What has been one of your favorite recent shoots and why?

The Antarctic is my favorite travel destination, and I was onboard a National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions ship that sailed there recently. There are so many elements for creating good images—an amazing landscape, plenty of wildlife, and adventurous travelers.


Is this your primary source of income?

No, I’m a medical doctor doing locum tenens work. That job pays my bills more easily!

How do you make sure that your photos are found and licensed enough to make a living?

There is no hard and fast way to do so, but in the current climate there are three important things that will help:

1.     Choose a good stock agency that actively promotes the sort of work you shoot to clients and with staff that communicate well with their photographers.

2.     Caption your image submissions correctly and thoroughly so they can be found.

3.     If the agency requires that you keyword your images (which is a pain to do, let’s face it), then embrace the challenge and do so with as much relevance as you can.

What has been your biggest win in this genre?

With Getty, surprisingly enough, I sold a nondescript photo of a 737 airplane at a remote Canadian airport for advertising use for a large sum.

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