Basic Tips on how to Get Started in Stock Photography

This is an article I wrote a ways back for Epinions and Associated Content. I thought it was still relevant so I repurposed it for my blog post here.

A career in photography can vary according to an individual's skill sets and commitment to the medium. For a semi-serious photographer like myself, stock photography — specifically microstock — allows me to keep my day job while I continue to explore and refine my technique. And it also helps when I can make a few extra dollars on the side.

What is Stock and Microstock Photography?
Stock photographs are images which are licensed for various uses. Whether for a print ad, brochure, or an annual report, stock photographs provide a vital visual resource for any number of business-related assignments.

Stock images are easily available through online websites that organize photographs into a searchable database and negotiate a licensing fee on the photographer's behalf. In exchange for the one-time license fee, the buyer is allowed to purchase the image royalty-free and use the image for various purposes (with limits as described in the licensing agreement). The value of the license is determined and based on how the image will be used, i.e., the medium (print or online), image resolution (size), the duration of use, print run, etc.

Microstock photography operates in much the same way as stock photography but the licensing fees are usually less expensive; as low as $1 or pennies per image, but is made up for in volume.

How Do I Get Started?
While serious amateurs can develop a decent stock portfolio, understand that this is a highly competitive field. The following pointers are just some basic highlights that a beginner should follow. As you hone your craft, you can build on these basic points to further advance your skills and technique:

Proper Exposure means Proper Equipment
Stock images should generally be brightly lit and free of too much shadows. If you have studio photography experience, using some key equipment like flood lights, reflectors, and lightboxes will help you shape and control exposure as well as properly frame your subject.

If you're a beginner and don't have all the fancy accessories, don't be discouraged. To start off, you should have three basic pieces of equipment: a solid digital camera (serious amateurs can start off with something like a Canon Powershot G11 or G12), a polarizing filter and a tripod.

Shooting outdoors is a great, inexpensive way to start your journey. 

© Copyright Jack Aiello

Sharp Focus
Images should be clear, crisp and free of any blur, noise, chromatic distortion, or over sharpening. Don't overprocess your images in Photoshop. Always view your image at 100% to make sure that this is the case.

Composition (use your rule of thirds)
Excellent composition is key to getting your photographs accepted. Avoid "snapshot" compositions as they do not make marketable stock images. Tighten your shots and try to isolate your subject on a white or uncluttered background.

Subject Matter
Images for your stock portfolio should be flawless in technique and possess high commercial value. You must constantly ask yourself who will want to buy this image and why? An image with high artistic merit may not always be suitable for commercial use, and therefore does not make a good stock image.
© Copyright Jack Aiello 2010

Isolated emotions, such as people who are smiling and laughing always sell well. But there's also a whole range of feelings that you can capture — such as someone frowning, showing concern, or angry — that are also viable images.

Also, there is a vastly growing need for models of different races and ages. Always consider photographing Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern or African American models. In addition, don't limit yourself to young subjects. Consider senior citizens and middle-aged models as well.

You must always attach a model release with any model you photograph. Always have a model release form handy. Most stock websites have release forms that you can download.

Keep your images free of anything that might pose a copyright or trademark infringement (recognizable logos, license plate numbers, copyrighted artwork).

Avoid clichè images like flowers, pets or fruit bowls. Stock agencies have numerous images in this category.

Most important of all, be persistent. For every image that gets accepted into my portfolio, I must have had 6 or 7 that were rejected or denied for various reasons. Don't get discouraged; this is what helps you become better.

To help you get started, below are some examples of reputable microstock websites for beginners who want to break into the business. Good Luck!

Great site for beginners who are looking to break in. There is a review process where you have to submit some samples, but once you're accepted, they provide amazing feedback on your submissions. They also have a great discussion forum where you can share ideas and gain invaluable tips from other fellow photographers.

Another great start up site. Similar to Bigstock, Shutterstock has a review process at sign up and they tend to be more selective about submissions. Still, I found this site to be more rewarding in terms of sales. Shutterstock also has a great newsletter to which you should subscribe for networking and tips.

Just as the previous two, a review process is also standard for Dreamstime. The site has a great interface for photographers to check their stats, how many times their image was viewed, etc. They have a fairly strict review process, but they provide solid feedback and a thorough tutorial for photo submission guidelines.

Some Other Reputable Microstock sites you should also check out:



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