Selling Stock Independently

- - Stock

I think for many photographers the ability to license their images as stock without paying a huge commission to some middle man is the ultimate dream. And, to be honest I don’t think it matters a bit to buyers whether they get the image from Corbis/Getty or directly from the photographer as long as the transaction is fairly seamless (e.g. prices are fixed, high res download available, images are captioned). Photoshelter has a solution with a new feature that allows photographers to form virtual agencies. Art Wolfe, David Doubilet, and Thomas Mangelsen formed a new agency called Wild (here). Art thinks the big agency model is dead and you can read more on that in a story he wrote for Outdoor Photographer (here).

The big hurdle of course is figuring out how to get your material in front of buyers if you’re not 3 of the most famous wildlife photographers in the world. PS has a Q&A with photographer Randy Santos, who now makes a living independently licensing his images as stock (here). He uses SEO and direct marketing to reach potential buyers. Here’s his tips from the piece on how to sell stock independently:

  • Listen. Talk with your potential customers, listen for the void, and then fill it.
  • Show the client you understand their perspective. Art buyers certainly care about quality images – but their favorite photographers also provide assurance and convenience.
  • Specialize and build a full collection. My work may not be groundbreaking, revolutionary, or even the best photography in the world. But, there is value in that this is well-defined, well-organized, searchable collection of images.
  • Differentiate yourself. Set yourself apart from the masses. Clients need to remember you for something special.
  • Learn and practice good business. Professionalism is essential in every aspect of the how you conduct business.
  • Work really hard on your website and SEO. Sure, you want to be creative and get personal fulfillment, but you need to get your work out there in a way that buyers will find it.

When I worked as a photo editor I competed with other publications for advertising and readers. I always needed to run the best unpublished stock photography I could find. That usually amounted to calling photographers directly and cajoling them into sending me outtakes from a shoot I found on their portfolio. I see no reason why solutions like this can’t be the future of high quality stock.

There Are 38 Comments On This Article.

  1. I have often wondered if my doll photography had a place in stock. Do you think there is a market for my “silicone love doll” work? I am tired of being broke! I can’t imagine there would be a big need for my stuff- but hey, you never know!

    thank you tons,
    Stacy Leigh

    • @Stacy Leigh,

      You have good work on the website.

      My advice to my young assistants (esp those that shoot fashion work) is to branch out into less represented subjects that are real money makers. Food, product, architecture etc. I have an associate who loves shooting fashion… but his income comes mostly from food photography.

      I love shooting people too, but it represents maybe 1/3rd of my income. Its a crowded market with many talented individuals – and if you’re not in one of the major fashion markets like LA or NYC, its that much harder.

      Eventually you’ll build up a repertoire of people clients that pay well, so that you can really focus exclusively on it, but it can take a long time. The life of an artist is not an easy one…

      • @craig, thank you for your response. I shoot dolls more so than people. I am in NYC and never thought that I shot fashion- but then I never knew what box I fit in anyway… I mean using sex dolls as models and such. I do appreciate the time you took. Thank you.

        Stacy Leigh

    • @Stacy Leigh,

      I thought you were joking, but then saw your name and remembered the stuff you did w/ Chip Willis and the real doll. Heh.

      • @James, Yes… Chip is one of only two photographers that I let shoot my dolls. He is a great guy, and I’m glad the work we did together held a place in your memory.

        Stacy Leigh

      • @richlouis, Thank you tons!!!!!!!! That means a lot to me. I have newer better work with the dolls I have to upload… very cinematic. I hope you think the new stuff is even better.

        Stacy Leigh

        • @Stacy Leigh, those dolls are rad.. but if you are broke, u should sell one of those dolls.. they cannot be cheap by any stretch.

  2. The trick is Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I have found this to be a prickly path. Just when you think you have it figured out, Google changes their methods, “Bling” dosen’t even bother to crawl the sight, and Yahoo crawls once and never updates. On top of that, I haven’t found a search engine yet (regardless of their claims to the contrary) who can search IPTC data attached to an image.

    I have about given up on SEO. I am spending more time direct marketing to potential buyers and trying to convince them to review the images on my site.

      • @Allen Murabayashi,

        Allen: A direct cut and paste quote from your website:

        “Search engines are changing constantly.”

        Which is my point. How do we better spend our time; chasing ever changing search engine parameters, or direct marketing to our potential clients? I can tell you that no client has ever found me on the web on their own, but I stay in business by using direct campaigns PERSONALLY referring clients to my website. I’m not sure being found on the web by searches through Yahoo is all that it has been represented to be. In addition, with stock only being a small portion of an income stream (and getting less and less due to microstock pricing)is it worth it?

        After some frustration, I find that I am much more successful shooting and when I’m not shooting, contacting clients; rather than spending hours on website optimization.

        Your point is well taken however, and maybe I should consider hiring it done.

        • @T. C. Knight,
          search engines are constantly changing but the tweaks that they make are rarely earth changing, and you can’t go wrong by having on-page factors and building links to your website. that stuff is not likely to change in the next 5 years substantively. we’ve had photographer make a modicum of changes to their website and appear on the 1st search page as a result. randy santos, who is mentioned in the blog post, depends on SEO to drive business, so it does work.

          i COMPLETELY agree with you that you must continue your outbound marketing activity like calling, visiting and direct marketing.

          but ultimately, i believe to be successful (or more successful), the modern photographer should use both inbound and outbound techniques to drive visitors to their work/website, and convert them into revenue.

  3. @ aphotoeditor
    “I see no reason why solutions like this can’t be the future of high quality stock”

    This address a fundamental concern to the individual photographer:
    return on investment (ROI).

    An over supply in the marketplace, gluts of existing images, hundreds of thousands of photographers willing to give up their images for below the cost of their equipment and production. Easy access thru flickr,, etc.. Shifting markets with many out of work or little work photographers. Creating good images is easier today with high quality dslrs.

    Consider this in context to other realities today:

    – the “good enough” attitude today
    – content online is free attitude (even among those who are in the educated professional class)
    – the quantity of photographers who will participate in this market at a net loss
    – great shifts (and possibly losses) in quality media space.

    This doesn’t mean a photographer today can not get some great sales, projects, ride a wave for awhile, etc.. I question the period of time over an entire career. Will it produce a solid stable return over the long term?

    So while this may be the future of (one segment) of the high quality stock market, how many (good) photographer can create a healthy ROI?

    These are the same considerations for virtually any other market or genre of image creation today.

  4. Thanks, Rob, there is some good stuff here. I have to read through the Photoshelter info more carefully, but it sounds like it might offer some potential. I was very happy to see they don’t charge a gouge, excuse me “setup,” fee for their pro accounts.

    I wonder how crowd sourcing ( ) would work for stock? If there was more of a marketplace environment (e.g., image consumers describing what they want and image providers offering up potential matches) it might be a better alternative than Getty, et al.

    From the provider perspective you might be willing to dig deeper through your files if you knew something about the project (as opposed to offering up generic stuff for consumption by nameless publications). From the consumer perspective you might be able to get more unique images that are a closer match with the creative concept.

    Just a thought.

  5. astockphotoeditor

    The argument put forward by Rob (and Art and Robbie) is plausible, but here’s the problem: no matter how much money you can make through your own sales efforts as a sole proprietor, or a member of a small collective, or as a big international enterprise, you can always make more by putting your images in distribution through international affiliates.

    Like most conventional stock agencies, the small stock agency that I work for has global reach through partnerships with local agents in Asia, Europe and South America. This has the effect of diluting licensing fees, and we grit our teeth about the effects of dilution just the same way that working stock photographers grit their teeth.

    But distribution also has the effect of getting sales that we would not otherwise get for our contributing photographers. Distribution makes our commission checks to photographers bigger. For anyone running a small business, either as an agent or as a contributor, more is more.

    • @astockphotoeditor, Considering we’re talking about the WORLD WIDE WEB here, what’s to keep a sole proprietor from reaching those same global markets through SEO and Gorilla marketing? The beauty of all this is that clever photographic marketing can practice the same DTC, (direct to consumer), marketing that has increased the profits of pharmaceutical companies.

      cut out the middle man!

      • astockphotoeditor

        @Tim, I stand by my original point. Every single thing you can do to productively increase your sales is worth doing, including those that you mention, but no matter how good you get at it, your sales will almost certainly still be greater, with relatively little extra effort, if you can place strong collections of images in distribution in the conventional stock ecosystem. Among the non-trivial benefits are language localization (how’s your Mandarin? Swedish? Russian?) and local sales staff. Not every affiliate is equal at accomplishing these tasks, but many of them are very good at serving real clients and filling real needs. Art Wolfe will have star presence in most markets, but ad hoc virtual agencies will be almost invisible without local help. It might still be worth it for individual contributors to pursue the approach suggested by PhotoShelter, but they will be leaving money on the table if they intend to rely only on their own sales and marketing to build their stock business.

        • @astockphotoeditor,
          The problem that I see with photo agencies is that, no matter how good you are as a photographer, they will not take from you pictures for which they are already well covered, and it’s logical. Unfortunately for the photographers, they are generally well covered, at least with travel and documentary pictures. But from my own point of view, I’m not enjoying spending time processing 200 jpgs to get, three months later, a request for only 15 hi-res. More work, and another three or four months before the pictures are uploaded. And then two or three years before seeing a sale–if the pictures’values have not expired by then.

  6. Warning, shameless self-promotion: We’re working on allowing photographers to sell their photos directly to buyers and within a common marketplace without charging a huge percentage. You can set your own prices and we take 12% of a sale.

    We’re in the process of creating the ability for you to set up your own store/domain so that you can directly market your photos to buyers.

    We have 1200+ photographers and 200,000+ images. We’re still very new but we’re growing and are in this for the long haul.

    If there are any particular features you are looking for please let us know. We really want to meet the needs of photographers and buyers.

    twitter: @clustershot

  7. In my niches, gardens and native plants, I make many more stock sales direct from my office than through three agencies combined. I’ve cultivated a relationship with a relatively small number of editors who send wantlists regularly. I search my collection, build private web galleries for them to preview and edit from, and then deliver high-res files when they’ve made their choices. I can never predict what someone is going to want next month. With a broad and deep collection in my specialty area it’s hard to justify the time required to prepare and keyword high-res files of everything for online sales and direct download. During my busy shooting season I can barely keep up with captioning (I’m six weeks behind at the moment).

    I do have two specialized websites with large numbers of images online: Pacific Northwest Wildflowers at and Inland Northwest Gardening at . These both have individual image pages with text descriptions that are search friendly. Do I get much business from them? No. Most comes from direct contact with buyers by e-mail.

  8. As a guy who paid off a mortgage and put two kids through school from Stock income, I’m glad I did it then and not now.

    I’ve pretty much given up on all of the agencies, each for their own reason, and won’t participate in MS, so I’m slowly setting up my own stuff at Photoshelter too.

    It will be interesting to see if this is a trend that really gathers momentum and puts us back to where Stock was years ago with a bunch of boutiques and mom and pop operations (before Getty and Corbis gobbled them up) or if the two big boys are just too big to stop.

  9. After shooting mostly what I consider my own personal work and licensing it as “Stock” through agencies for the last 10 years, I would offer the following:

    If you are a generalist and you shoot general lifestyle or like to shoot many different subjects and you can produce a lot of high quality work at a low cost ($20 per image or less!) and you have or can get a contract with Getty or Corbis, then your best bet is to sell your work through one of these two giants. (Keep in mind that Getty and Corbis don’t like giving contracts to generalists. So if you don’t already have a contract, you will have to “Specialize” to get a contract.) This is a difficult, if not impossible way to make a living and I believe any stock photography endeavor should only be a part of your overall income at this point in time.

    If you are a specialist, (see Mark Turner’s Post above) and lets say you shoot frogs and you are the world’s champion “Frog Photographer,” perhaps you can make money by licensing images yourself. This can be done with a great deal of work letting everyone know you are the best “Frog Photographer in the World,” and, as Rob mentioned, having a professional website that allows art buyers to purchase high res images at any time of the day or night at competitive, industry rates. This takes a lot of time and energy and you will spend more time driving traffic to your website and building clients than you could ever believe. But after several years, and with great images that buyers want and need, you should be able to make a decent dime off of your “Frog Stock,” because you will be the most popular stock image site for frogs.

  10. Final Thoughts on the two largest companies in the Stock Photo Industry:

    “astockphotoeditor” is correct, marketing your work through the giant photo agencies will mostly result in a photographer making the most money. HOWEVER, Photographers also will have the least amount of control over pricing and editing of images. After 1 year on a major agency site, your images will begin to be buried in search engine results and the amount of money particular images make will go down as the images move lower in the search order. At which point, it becomes apparent that you will need to make more images and upload them and get yourself on the “Stock Photography Treadmill”= keep making more images at a lower cost that are great quality, then edit, keyword, upload, and repeat the process over and over again. One problem with this method is that the big agencies are editing more and more tightly and accepting fewer and fewer images per shoot, but their rejection comes after you’ve already invested a load of time and money. Plus, the agencies aren’t bound to charge any particular price for your images. They can offer rights-managed images for microstock prices if they want to, and certainly they’re already doing this with RF images. There’s just no control over “return on investment” when you use a major stock agency.

    Finally, as new models of tracking and licensing stock images continue to evolve on the web, large agencies may become irrelevant. What is needed (or is on the way) is a very specific image search engine on google images (or some other search engine) that can search across all available stock images. Such a huge virtual agency and search engine may create problems for Getty and Corbis. The next five years should be fascinating.

  11. Greg – Your last paragraph hits the nail on the head – the future of Stock is Google – if anyone figures how to filter all of the crap out. I can’t see a photo buyer going through pages of snapshots, and if they’re keyworded properly that’s what they’ll get.

    I think it will come, but probably not in my lifetime.

  12. The guys at Photoshelter have been writing some great articles on their blog. So much information!!! SEO has definitely help our company, as well as all the social networking…like this blog. If you are not Getty or Corbis you have to put yourself out there any way you can.

  13. I went to the metadata traveling workshop that Photoshelter is helping to sponsor last month. Immediately I began changing, adding more SEO features to my website and to my web presence and have improved my stats to my site by 400 percent in a short time. I feel much better about my site already. A web site can be very time intensive and if you don’t get much out of it what’s the point?

    Another good thing to do is complete the google local business tabs once you have a gmail account. This can be very important for those in your community to find you: It’s called local search I believe and you don’t hear much about it.

    Work on those outgoing and inbound links. My visitors are mostly increasing through having many different referrals, everything from the search engines to facebook and twitter. It all adds up.

    I am sure that any time, any era has its challenges. Conquering the web, along with our chosen field, is ours.

  14. hmm…interesting. i have an account with photoshelter, have not populated it with a set of licensable images but i think that i like andy anderson or jim erikson’s approach a bit better. They seem to brand them self with a cool custom site of high quality images.

    i also don’t put tons of stock into SEO for being successful on the direct to photographer situation. I just think it is all about brand and marketing and ultimately having enough great content as a single photographer to give the creative community reason to visit your site/portal.

    but i do agree that art buyers do not care where it comes from as long as they can find it and its the image the want. a smaller niche group may appreciate the one off nature of a small direct relationship. For that premium, they can have the exclusive on the image and at a more reasonable price than with getty, although less the payout to getty, it would be worth it for the photographer…i think.

    back to work on my getty submissions ;-)

  15. Very interesting post and comments. I’ve listed with an agency for about 7 years and, while it’s generated sales, I’m looking at throwing away the generalist mold and concentrating on the Carolina areas ( courthouses maybe). Thanks for the input!

  16. Thanks so much for putting the word out about Photoshelter! PS needs great PR!

    I just signed up… I think it’s a fabulous alternative to big stock agencies. They have great SEO video tutorials. They’ve educated their photographers on optimizing their sites to be SEO friendly. I’ve learned so much.

    However, Photoshelter also needs to do more direct marketing for the Photoshelter community. To generate traffic from targeted buyers. Of course, each photographer needs to do that too. But that’s why big stock agencies get to charge the high commission. For the visibility.

    Here’s a great interview with the EVP of Trunk Archive, “boutique” stock agency, representing the archives of top tier photographers:

    “Our business model is based on the idea of promoting individual artists and their archives. We don’t sell “stock photos.” We only license the work of very high-end photographers,”