Stock Photos
10 Pro Tips For Direct Marketing

There is a sizable market for travel photos, particularly of popular locations. (Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia.) The vast majority of these markets do prefer that people be included in most of the photos.
Photos © 1999, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Is there a serious photo enthusiast out there who doesn't harbor a desire to see his or her work published? Well, the vast majority I know would love to market their images to books, magazines, and advertising agencies. In fact, the most commonly asked questions during my seminars and photo tours relate to getting started in stock photography. That's because this is one facet of the business which can be operated on a part-time basis, without giving up your day job.

If you are among the many photographers who wants to supplement his or her income by selling reproduction rights to images, read on. The following 10 tips contain much of what I have discovered while marketing my own work. Supplemented by advice from the top experts in the field, this is the information you need to get started in making stock sales possible and potentially profitable.

1. Shoot slide (transparency) film.
This is a fact of life: 80 percent of markets for stock images will accept only color slides or larger transparencies. The remainder will accept black and white prints (very few will consider color) but the rates paid are much lower. Granted, color slides can be made from color negatives but the processes available are inconsistent, complicated, and expensive or unlikely to produce the superior quality required in a fiercely competitive market.

The low speed/high-resolution ISO 50 to 100 films (pushed a stop when necessary for higher shutter speeds) are used by 99 percent of stock photographers some 90 percent of the time. An ISO 400 slide film (or Kodachrome 200 pushed to EI 500) is used occasionally if there is no other means of getting the image--indoors where flash and a tripod are prohibited, for example. Fast lenses (f/2.8 in a zoom or f/1.4 to f/2 in a single focal length) allow for the use of lower ISO films in low-light situations. There is no need to use a "professional" film, however.

Many markets are actively seeking pictures of family members involved in some meaningful activity. Hence I try to shoot as many pictures as possible of this type, knowing in advance that they will produce sales. A model release helps to maximize the value of such stock.

2. Submit only your best images. Unless you have a "once in a lifetime" shot of an unusual subject, expect an instant rejection if your photos are not extremely sharp. Check all of your slides or transparencies with a 4x loupe as editors do, or preferably with a good 8x loupe to be absolutely certain the image is razor sharp. Given the choice, photo buyers prefer sharpness in all areas--plenty of depth of field. Avoid distracting out of focus foreground elements especially. Naturally, all of this calls for a tripod for most of your photography plus high quality lenses, flash perhaps, stopping down when possible, etc.

Other criteria include: ultra-fine grain, effective lighting, bright colors, accurate captions, and lots of vertical images. (Turn that camera frequently to produce horizontal and vertical framing as often as possible to maximize the potential for sales.) All primary subject areas should appear nicely lit. The bottom line: never submit images which are not first-class in terms of sharpness, lighting, and accurate exposure.

3. Photograph people as often as possible.
There is no shortage of excellent images of flowers, landscapes, and animals on the market. In order to maximize the potential for sales, photograph people or at least include them in wide angle outdoor and travel images. Read a couple of the books listed in the separate section as to the types of "people pictures" which are selling or buy a copy of the Direct Stock catalog and review the images for some inspir- ation. Recruit friends to act as models if necessary. Attend events where you'll find people involved in some interesting activity--kayaking, cycling, jogging, roller blading, etc. as a starting point to building your files in this category.
Most editorial markets (books and magazines) do not require a model release, but some do so take a release when possible. (Sample forms are printed in many books on stock.) This will make your work marketable to commercial photo buyers as well. However, remember that 90 percent of photos published in advertising are obtained from stock agency catalogs or a few well-known professionals with massive files of saleable images. As a starting point, focus on editorial markets which need numerous "illustrations"; naturally, model released images will be valuable if you later decide to sign with a stock agency or sell to commercial markets.

Seasonal images are always in demand as stock. Carry a camera whenever you go out and stop to shoot when you come upon a suitable subject.

4. Specialize in several subject types. If you photograph only skiing, you will severely limit the possibilities of your stock file. Diversify into at least five categories to maximize the types of images to meet photo buyers' needs.

Consider Rohn Engh's advice: "Find yourself--know your photographic strengths and weaknesses; then find your corner of the market." Begin by listing your hobbies, areas of expertise, the subjects you most frequently photograph, your favorite locations, and specialized areas you have access to. This list will provide preliminary guidance as to the subject matter you should most aggressively pursue.

While it's tempting to try to become all things to all markets, emphasize those situations and subjects within your sphere of knowledge, interest, and geographic area. Seek out those which require the pictures you already take (or would enjoy creating) with skill and proficiency. Then, build your library by shooting high caliber images which specifically target the markets expressing a need for your areas of specialty. Establish a long-term relationship with photo buyers by providing outstanding material, within the deadline, and to their exact specifications. Then they are likely to call on you first for filling subsequent stock needs for years to come.

5. Shoot saleable images of subjects actually in demand. As you would expect, subjects currently in high demand include "model released" people interacting, lifestyles, minorities, industrial, and high tech. What you will actually shoot will depend greatly on your skills, access to various subject types, and the markets you want to target. For more specifics, check the information on general photo needs provided by photo buyers listed in the book Photographer's Market.

If you have friends who regularly hunt for example, you may decide to tag along with your camera. Before doing so, check all of the listings provided by hunting magazines found in the Index under "Outdoors/ Environmental." You may find that the majority want scenics showing hunters dressed correctly and wildlife (big and small game). Several indicate that they do not want "cute animal shots or poses." Then, flip through some of the magazines at a well stocked bookstore as part of the education process before heading out. This is but one example. Regardless of the subject, this type of advance research and information is absolutely essential.

A model release is not required by most editorial markets. However, for a cover, or for advertising and other commercial applications, a photo is not saleable without a release.

6. Caption your images accurately. A photo of a mountain climber used in advertising may not require much background information, but the same image will need a specific caption for editorial markets (at least the location). If you photograph nature subjects, an accurate caption of the species, etc. is a prerequisite for any sale. If you're not sure whether that rodent was a chipmunk or a golden-mantled ground squirrel, get to a public library and conduct the necessary research. Start by captioning your new images and any older work as it is sent out to potential buyers. Trying to caption 10,000 slides already in your files is an exercise in frustration.

Slide captioning software (such as the Cradoc Caption Writer for DOS, Windows, or Mac) is often advertised here in Shutterbug. Be aware that labels stick to cardboard slide mounts more effectively than to plastic mounts. A printed label is not absolutely essential but if you handwrite the captions they must be extremely neat and legible. On plastic mounts, use an ultra-fine Sharpie or other permanent marker.

As society has more leisure time, we find more and more publications addressing suitable activities. Stock photographers must be aware of such trends and should shoot regularly for such markets.

7. Get information on current photo needs. Some magazines publish general Guidelines for Photographers, available in return for a self-addressed stamped envelope. This is a good start. Some publications also have "Want Lists": monthly listings of immediate photo needs and you should ask for one. In truth, getting a copy of full Want Lists from publishers is actually quite difficult. After you have made several sales to a certain photo buyer, do ask if they have a Want List and whether they would agree to send you a copy regularly. If they perceive you as someone who has a huge file of appropriate images--and can frequently fill their needs--they will probably agree.

Most editors prefer to circulate the full list to only a select few photographers and stock agencies, so they are not inundated with submissions. However, they will publish "difficult to fill" photo needs in the various marketing newsletters. A subscription to such newsletters is not cheap, but is a worthwhile investment for those with a large file of images.

8. Do your homework. Why waste your time--and potential clients' time--by submitting images which prove to be inappropriate for the buyers' needs? Most magazines suggest that you read a few copies (at the newsstand, library, or ordered by mail from the publisher) before submitting any pictures. Naturally, they want you to read their "Photo Guidelines" as well. I have found both pieces of advice absolutely invaluable. They give me a valid reference point for deciding whether I still want to submit work and of what type, subject, and caliber.

Images of specific landscape features (such as Yosemite Falls) have stock value, but don't ignore generic subjects. When they illustrate concepts, such as "cool, clean, and refreshing," they are particularly saleable in the higher paying advertising markets.

9. Consider the pros and cons of a Stock Agency. Stock agencies perform a valuable service in return for the commission (roughly 50 percent), and they do have access to markets photographers cannot reach otherwise. However, they generally have extremely high volume commitments. For example, one agency requires 2000-3000 "marketable" (based on their criteria) slides or transparencies as a start; then, they expect hundreds more every month thereafter. While smaller agencies will accept fewer, most part-time photographers still have difficulty generating an adequate supply on a consistent basis.

Entire chapters are devoted to this topic in the books listed. In a nutshell, most agree that stock agencies are right for the experienced, high volume stock photographer. Until you have a very large file--and the time to shoot regularly--marketing direct to photo buyers is the most practical approach. The rule of thumb is that you can expect to earn one dollar per year per image on file with an agency. As John Shaw indicates, you can probably do better than that in the early stages by marketing direct.

10. Be prepared to operate a business. There's no question that selling stock will require a significant commitment of time if you want to go beyond "dabbling" in the market. There's not only extensive photography, but more--research as to current needs, packaging and sending photos, writing query and cover letters, keeping records, maintaining a reliable filing system for instant retrieval of pictures, and other administrative tasks. Comput-erized accounting, word processing, and slide filing plus labeling can make this all manageable. Some business acumen or night school courses in administration and computers can even make it profitable.

If you buy only one book in this regard, I would recommend Sell & Re-Sell Your Photos. The content is intended to help photographers setup profitable home based businesses marketing stock images by mail. A few weekends of reading and you'll be well versed in many of the areas others took years to learn--through the school of hard knocks. (The Business of Nature Photography contains the best information ever published on that, more specific, topic.)

Conclusion. Become a valuable resource to photo buyers on your personalized market list, and seek out others on a regular basis. You'll find new ones every week in bookstores, libraries, in reference materials, and at the newsstand. Then, pick a day, perhaps this very weekend, when you will take the first decisive step. Send out some pictures or a query letter to a potential buyer you have identified, then begin to establish plans for an ongoing marketing effort.

There's really no thrill quite like seeing your pictures published, and getting paid for it as well. Whether you decide to market through a stock agency or direct from your home, opportunity waits around the corner. Whatever your own talents and interests, there are prospective clients out there with needs your pictures can fulfill. Seize the opportunity and you can establish a profitable sideline, one which will offer other rewards as well.

There is no shortage of additional information on stock photography. The following books are well worth considering:
How to Shoot Stock Photos that Sell, by Michal Heron, Allworth Press, New York, ISBN: 0-927629. Distributed by Writers Digest Books, (800) 289-0963. Features 25 specific stock photo assignments--most including people--that will help you shoot saleable images. Also, information on business procedure, negotiating prices, negotiation, and essential business forms.

The Business of Nature Photography, by John Shaw, Amphoto Books (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, ISBN: 0-8174-4050-X. A mini workshop on all facets of marketing images of flora and fauna to editorial (non-advertising) markets. Includes a section on digital imaging.
Stock Photography, The Complete Guide, by Ann and Carl Purcell, Writers Digest Books, ISBN: 0-89879-552-4. A primer for the beginner, including all facets of the business, particularly re: marketing travel images (often including people).

Negotiating Stock Photo Prices (1997 Edition), by Jim Pickerell. Available from Taking Stock, 110 Frederick Ave., Suite A, Rockville, MD 20850, (301) 251-0720 or by e-mail at Advanced information on the markets (especially commercial), pricing, digital imaging, selling in the new media, and various business issues. A realistic overview of the markets today and in the future.

Sell & Re-Sell Your Photos, (Fourth Edition, 1997) by Rohn Engh, Writers Digest Books, ISBN 0-89879-774-8. The 15th Anniversary update of Engh's comprehensive course on making and marketing saleable photo illustrations. Includes types of subjects to shoot, working with models, developing specialties, operating a mail-order stock business, business and legal issues, information on the web, and other digital issues, pricing, promoting, etc. Emphasis on high volume sales and repeat business to editorial markets such as book publishers which do not pay high fees but use numerous images.

ASMP Stock Photography Handbook, American Society of Media Photographers, 14 Washington Rd., #502, Princeton Junction, NJ 08550, (609) 799-8300. An advanced book on the business of stock photography including forms, pricing, contracts, etc.

Direct Stock catalog (individual photographers' stock photos). 10 East 21st St., New York, NY 10010, (212) 979-6560, fax: (212) 254-1204.
Photographer's Market (annual edition), edited by Michael Willins, Writers Digest Books, ISBN 0-89879-709-8. Listing of thousands of markets from magazines, books, and other publishers to Ad, PR, stock agencies, and special interest publications. Absolutely essential for anyone marketing stock regardless of the subject type.

Where to Sell Your Photographs in Canada, by Melanie Rockett, Proof Positive Ltd., 5315 108 St. Edmonton, AB, T6H 2Y6. Similar concept with only Canadian markets listed.

The following newsletters--some with current "photo needs" listed--have proven to be very helpful in providing leads or essential information on the markets:

PHOTOLETTER, Photobulletin (current photo needs listed daily or monthly), and PhotoSource International (Rohn Engh), Pine Lake Farm, Osceola, WI 54020, (800) 624-0266. Many listings of needs, particularly from textbook and magazine publishers. Call for a sample quoting this article. Also, PhotoStockNotes (general stock information and news for photographers at all levels).

Taking Stock, (Jim Pickerell's newsletter on industry trends; see address in Books section.) Essential information on the industry, primarily for the advanced stock photographer.

The Guilfoyle Report (Nature and travel photography marketing newsletter on trends and including current photo needs.) AG Editions, 41 Union Square West, #523, New York, NY, 10003, (212) 929-0959, e-mail: and web site: Excellent source of leads--if you qualify (only for experienced stock photographers with publication credits).

Travelwriter Marketletter, (news and markets for travel writing and photography), 301 Park Ave., Suite 1850, New York, NY, 10022.