My Best-Selling Stock Photos and Why They Sell

When it comes to stock photography, I firmly believe that none of us can predict what images will and won’t sell. The best way to go about it is to submit anything and everything.

However, as you do this, you’ll clearly see trends within your portfolio. And from that, you can get an idea of what type of images can sell more, in terms of your individual photography.

I’ve been selling on Shutterstock for 10 months, and have been more successful than I expected. I have 700 images in my portfolio, making around $400 (£300) from 635 sales.

I’ve found it helpful to know what other photographers are selling the most of. It can give an idea of what to shoot if you’re stuck. Here are my top 10 sellers.

1. Social Distancing

Understandably, everyone jumped on this bandwagon. Covid-19 images have sold really well for many stock photographers.

They’re easy to create because you’re simply documenting what’s going on around you. Plus, it’s been big news for a long period of time, so the lifespan of these images is long.

This image has sold 175 times, making me $65 (£49). It sells nearly every day This is what I mean when you truly don’t know what will sell. I took this photo of my shoes in a social distancing box while waiting in a queue at McDonald’s.

I believe this one sold more than my other Covid images because of timing. I shot, uploaded and submitted this on my phone before leaving the restaurant. This was during the first days that we saw businesses in the UK taping the floor. And because of that, it’s been on the first page of search results for ‘social distancing’ since I uploaded it in March.

So timing is important when it comes to what’s trending at the time. Simply shoot what’s around you, as it happens.

2. Rainbow Cake

This one hasn’t sold many times, but it did sell for a large amount. I received $45 (£34) for one sale. I was shocked!

This was another photo taken with my smartphone while having coffee and cake at a local cafe. Something many of us do for social media. There’s no harm in submitting them to stock photography agencies, as this image proves.

With this one, though, I’m not quite sure why it sells frequently. There are pages and pages of results for ‘rainbow cake’ and mine doesn’t come up. Sometimes, that’s the way it goes.

Maybe it’s the tags I used. Not only do I use the obvious tags, but also think about other ways the image can be used. For example, LGBT-related tags, since the cake has all of the rainbow colours.

As well as this, tags like ‘obesity’, ‘weight’ and ‘unhealthy’ were used. You have to think about all the ways an image may be used, and tag accordingly.

3. UK Lockdown

Once again, I shot what was going on around me, as it was happening. While queueing to go into a store, I took a sneaky photo of the queue.

And again, the timing was the main reason why this has sold well. I submitted a few photos like this, of people queueing while keeping social distance. Yet, this one was shot and uploaded shortly after a UK Lockdown was announced.

It was probably in the first batch of images on this particular subject. News sources all over the world would want these images soon after a UK lockdown is announced for two reasons: 1) to write about the announcement of a UK Lockdown, and 2) to show what the lockdown is like for people living here.

A quick note before moving on. This photo was originally rejected when I first submitted it. This is because I increased the shadows to bring out the detail in the black coat of the subject. I learned that it’s not worth doing any editing to Editorial images if you don’t have to. Shutterstock, in particular, is picky about quality. When it comes to Editorials, just keep it plain and boring.

Stock photo buyers are often just bloggers and journalists looking for an image to fill a space in their post. Focus on quantity with Editorial images, but quality with Commercial images.

4. British Gas

The van of a well-known energy supplier here in the UK. Energy companies are often in the news, and so I like to photograph anything with their logo on. It’s an easy Editorial that people will buy from you wherever that company has done something news-worthy.

As boring as it may sound, I advise you do the same. Shoot banks, storefronts, company vehicles, products, etc. Build a library of well-known companies and you’ll be sure to make frequent sales.

This example also proves that there are still gaps in the stock photography world. This basic photo of a van is the very first result when searching ‘British Gas’ on Shutterstock. I’ve filled a gap with a basic photo. And so now, every time someone writes about British Gas, they’ll see and buy my image.

5. Showroom

Staying on the theme of the last image, this was me shooting well-known businesses. However, this one hasn’t sold for the reason I thought it would.

My thinking was that Volkswagon is a popular company that may be in the news regularly. But Shutterstock says differently.

This has sold after being searched by the following words: ‘auto’ ‘dealership’, and ‘outside’. An odd, yet understandable, choice of words.

Tagging plays a huge part here. It wouldn’t have sold if I didn’t use those keywords. Always enter the maximum number of keywords you're allowed. If you don’t, you’re severely decreasing the discoverability of your image. Tags are arguably more important than the contents of the image.

This is because, as mentioned earlier, buyers are just looking for any image to fill a space in their article. They don’t necessarily care about the image: just that they have one. Get your image in front of those people by making it as discoverable and searchable as possible.

6. Toy Bus

It’s not often that I sell a Commercial image, but this is one of them. I picked up this toy bus at a charity shop for 50 pence, in the hope of creating a nice stock image when I got home.

To my delight, this is on the front page when searching ‘toy bus’, even though there are over 14,000 search results. So whether you think a topic is over-saturated or not, submit your images anyway. You never know.

A tag I use often is ‘copy space’. This is a technical term for when blank space is available for adding text. This is something graphic designers will often search for.

If you can include a version of your photo with some blank space, definitely create and submit that version. Use tags like ‘add text’, ‘empty space’, etc.

Think of it from the buyer’s point of view. What will they be searching when looking for an image like this?

7. The Senedd

Another ordinary editorial image. But it's the interior of a government building where members of the Welsh Government gather and work. This room is often seen on TV when debates are broadcasted, so it’s a rather significant image.

The lesson here is to utilise what you have access to. Journalists and commentators in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will often want to talk about the Welsh Government and vice versa. But it’s far cheaper and quicker for them to buy the image from a stock photography agency. I live near this building, so I’m able to offer that service to those buyers.

Using what’s around you is a great idea, especially when starting out. You could be uploading images no-one else has. Or maybe a better, more interesting version of an image that already exists.

Shoot tourist attractions and items of significance. Buildings, statues, memorials, events, etc.

8, 9 & 10. Documenting Covid-19

I’ve bundled these 3 because they’re closely related to each other. They’re all photos of what life has been like during the UK Lockdown.

Again, the lesson here is to go for a walk with your camera, as you normally would, and shoot everything that you believe could be used as a stock photo. Don’t over-think it. Just takes lots of photos and sort them out later.

Stock photography isn’t creative like photography is generally supposed to be, so it can be hard to get into the stock photography mindset. But when you have a routine going, you’ll be able to switch between the two easily.

Final Thoughts & Advice

I still stand by what I said at the start of this post: you truly can’t predict what will and won’t sell. The only way to find out is to submit as much as possible. This will give you an idea of what to shoot more of in the future, for a higher success rate. Just throw everything into the void. Slowly build a successful portfolio or regular sellers.

It seems that many YouTubers will tell you to focus on Commercial images. That’s what I did when starting out. But actually, I find that Editorials have made me much more money. Simply taking phone photos and tagging them well, later on, has helped me gain speedy success on the platform.

But I advise uploading whatever you enjoy most. The process of submitting stock photos is tedious, and so you should make it as enjoyable as you can. Throw it all at the wall and see what sticks, like wet and soapy toilet paper.

On the subject of discoverability, I must emphasize once again that you use as many tags as possible, and describe your image well. I’m convinced that tagging is the most important factor is selling images. If it can’t be found, it can’t be bought. It’s as simple as that.

Lastly, consistency is key. Do WHAT you can, WHEN you can do it. You’ll slowly see your portfolio grow, along with your sales. Just give it time and keep working at it.

Now go out there and start building your portfolio. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the Comments section.

Optimist | Minimalist | Photographer | Walker

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