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Make Money in Microstock Creating Photos that Sell: Getting into a Stock Frame of Mind

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When you shoot for stock, you are creating the raw materials for someone else to use for his or her purposes. One of the best ways to understand this point of view is to put yourself in the shoes of the people you are trying to serve. Rob Sylvan explains.
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As photographers, we're all drawn to different types of photography. Certain subjects, locations, techniques, and styles exert a pull on our creative minds more than others and fit better with who we are in the world. I love to be outdoors as much as I love how photography helps me capture and share that love with others. Embrace and nurture whatever it is that pulls the strongest for you. Own it! Leverage those passions as you attune your mind's eye to shooting for stock.

The key concept to keep in mind when you shoot for stock is that you are creating the raw materials for someone else to use for his or her purposes. That is the whole point of stock photography. This may be a paradigm shift from what you are used to doing with your photography, so the sooner you can start seeing in that light, the more satisfying this process will become. One of the best ways to understand this point of view is to put yourself in the shoes of the people you are trying to serve.

Knowing Your Customers

The types of people who license images from microstock sites are impossible to lump into a single category. Due to the combination of a low price point for licensing and the ever-expanding demand for images to be used in print and online projects, you will find microstock customers run the gamut from regular people blogging about their lives to large media outlets and from graphic designers to church groups. What they all have in common is the desire to find a selection of images that fit their specific needs and projects.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 Canada Geese Migration. © Rob Sylvan (

You can't know who will find your stock photos useful and you have no control over what projects your shots will wind up in, but you will find more success if you can visualize examples of how a photo could be used before you start shooting. Then you can shoot with those uses in mind. Luckily, there are examples of how stock photos are used all around you. You just have to start looking for them.

Doing Your Research

Magazines are a great place to start looking because each one is designed to appeal to a certain demographic. It is a safe assumption that your magazine subscriptions reflect your taste, politics, interests, and hobbies. Pick up any magazine and just look at the images. Stock images are used on covers (I've seen microstock images on the cover of Time magazine), as supporting elements to feature articles, and in the advertisements. All of these uses are targeted to appeal to people just like you—which puts you in a great position to start creating some of those types of images.

I was on a plane recently and spent a few minutes flipping through the in-flight magazine, a treasure trove of stock photos in use. The types of stock photos range from simple objects on plain backgrounds (like cell phones, wine corks, cassette tapes, coat hangers, and so on) to people engaged in all manner of activities (walking, sleeping, talking, and eating, to name a few) to iconic postcard images of locations around the world (the kind that make you want to travel to those locations).

You don't need to book a flight to do your research, though. Hop in your car instead and go billboard hunting. At the time of this writing, the first billboard you'll see when you enter New Hampshire on Interstate 95 is a lovely photo of a senior couple (Figure 3.2). As soon as I saw that billboard it brought a smile to my face because I recognized the subjects as the parents of an old friend and fellow microstock contributor. If you live in the city, you need only to step out your door to look at bus wraps, posters, shop windows, and restaurant menus.

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 My Parents. © Joseph Jean Rolland Dubé (

Don't get out much? That's OK, too, because you can finally find a purpose for all that junk mail coming to your door every day. Look at the store flyers, pamphlets, coupons, and sale circulars at the holidays. You know the photos you see superimposed on all the TV sets and LCD screens in those ads? Odds are they are stock photos. My wife's grandfather once got a surprise in the mail when he opened the annual report for a school he was affiliated with and found his granddaughter and great-grandson (Figure 3.3) on the cover!

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 Mother and Son. © Rob Sylvan (

Of course, the Web is awash in stock images too. Microstock would not exist without the Internet, and these days the Internet seems to be increasingly hungry for microstock images. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find any website that doesn't have some stock element being used somewhere.

Clearly, some of the photos you will see in all of these various mediums were shot on assignment for that purpose specifically, but remember that stock photography is an offshoot of assignment photography and filling a specific purpose is still the name of the game. This is your chance to choose and create your own assignments.

Keeping Track

Now that you are seeing all these images being used in all these different places, you need to hone in on the styles and types that speak to you the most. One of the best ways to do that is to keep a file of the ones you like the most. Grab scissors, a file folder, a notebook, and your camera. If you can, cut out the advertisement, article, or design that interests you and put it in the folder. Can't cut it out? Take out your camera and photograph it, or take some notes in your notebook. Build up a collection and keep adding to it over time. Don't be surprised to find yourself starting to think about ideas or concepts of things to shoot, so keep that notebook with you at all times to write those ideas down.

As you are building this collection of images and ideas, take time to stop and analyze what you have. Ask yourself some questions:

  • What types of photos could you see yourself creating?
  • What is it about those photos that interests you?
  • What resources, skills, and knowledge do you bring to the table for creating those types of images?
  • What are the predominant colors used in the examples you have collected?
  • What themes do you see emerging?

The point of this exercise is twofold: to help attune your eyes to spot how stock photos are used and then to home in on the types of shots you are most interested in creating. As you identify style and subject matter that appeals to you, it can inform the choices you make about what gear to buy (do you need lighting for indoor studio work, or do you need a new macro lens for getting up close and personal with wildlife?), the types of props you will need, and the types of locations you need to access.

You will start out creating a collection of images. But you will find in time that you are learning a lot about yourself, and this I think is incredibly useful. When you are first starting out, I highly encourage you to find ways to create stock within your current means. What do you do for a living? What are your interests and hobbies? Where do you live and what is interesting about it? Who do you know and where can you gain access? What gear do you have and how can you maximize it? You'll be amazed at all the opportunities for creating stock that are all around you. Yes, you will also find that many of these types of stock images—such as flowers, pets, keyboards, and brick walls, to name a few—are incredibly overdone and oversaturated. Don't let that stifle your creativity! You need to crawl before you can walk, so start slow, set goals, and keep moving forward. Besides, if I had succumbed to the notion that the world already has enough photos of Christmas trees, I'd never have created my most successful stock photo to date.

Thinking Like an Image Consumer

When I worked as an instructional designer, I would work with the client to transform whatever training materials the organization had into smaller, easily digestible, and more simply communicated lessons. A big part of the process was finding or creating visuals that could assist in effectively communicating the core messages each lesson was trying to teach. Sometimes a simple visual that just said, "Here is what this thing looks like," fit the bill. Other times a more complex image demonstrating some action was required. One of the most common types of images we looked for (and which were very hard to find) showed the same two people engaged in dialogue with a variety of expressions and gestures that we could use in different sections throughout the training.

In all these cases, the person looking for stock images has a specific need to communicate a specific message, and the role of the stock image is to aid in that communication as simply and effectively as possible. As the photographer, this is where you need to shift your thinking from "How can I best capture a given scene?" to "How can I capture this scene to most effectively communicate a message that will be useful to someone else?"

Many of the most successful microstock contributors started out as graphic designers or still have their design day jobs. These people are successful because they know what is useful. They have a great eye for composition and know how to communicate visually. Take your growing clip file of images and spend time thinking about what messages are being communicated in each one. Try to imagine yourself in the role of the designer for each clipping in your file.

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Let's walk through a real-world example of how a simple object found its way into someone else's project. I have a photo of a frying pan in my portfolio (Figure 3.4). The classic cast-iron frying pan is an iconic kitchen staple. It's easily recognized for what it is and what it does. I shot it on a white background (which we'll cover in more detail in Chapter 6) in the simplest way possible.

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 Frying pan.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 New Development. Downloaded over 8,900 times.

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