Make Money Selling Stock Photos: Book Review

For those of you who want to take the mystery out of selling your photographs through stock houses, a new book by PeachPit Press was just released, called Taking Stock: Make money in microstock creating photos that sell, by Rob Sylvan. He explains step by step, how to sell photographs to stock houses and make money doing it.

While I am unskilled at photography, I must admit, Rob covered the topic with so much depth, and in a clear manner, I felt I could walk outside and start taking photos and selling them.

What Stock Houses Look For
He explains the business from the perspective of the buyer and he often asks us to look at what stock houses are really looking for. For example, he tells us how to avoid centering things, and rather, leave an open space on photos, so the buyer can include their own text in the photo.

What amazed me the most, is seeing what I considered simple subject matter, from a variety of photographers, who make a living doing this. Rob sold a photo of his Christmas tree thousands of times and it brought in $13,000 (see left).

Perhaps this is an unusual example, but it did get me thinking about how you don't need to be a fine artist, or beat the pavement for clients, in order to make money in the photo industry. The best part, is the investment for this type of business is minimal. You don't need to buy film, development supplies or have a darkroom, and it's free to post the images.

Rob explains how you might just need to switch gears and think more about the "function" of the photo. What is the subject matter? Who might use it? A magazine? An annual report? A pet obituary? As your photo sales grow, then you might think about paying for models or upgrading your equipment. And when I say models, I don't mean fashion models. I'm talking about pictures of people at work, children, and medical environments.

The Importance of Emotion
Rob emphasizes repeatedly how important it is for the image to communicate a clear emotion. You can't rely on just taking a "pretty picture."

The viewer should not have to "guess" what the emotion is. It should be very clear by looking at the picture, what the person or subject matter is saying, without using words. This was very familiar to me, since that is also a critical goal for the front of greeting cards.

Topics Covered
Photo stock houses are relatively new, and have become more popular over the last decade. This book covers about every possible topic a person could imagine about this business, from what kind of camera to buy, to what companies to submit your images to.

He gives clear instructions on how to use Adobe Photoshop and Lightbox to adjust an image to make it stock-house-friendly, and he points out how important it is to remove all logos from clothes, background objects and even fishing poles!

He also covers legal issues of copyrights, protecting your images, industry standards for licensing arrangements, and how to get paid. And since this book has several exercises for the reader, it could easily be used as a how-to manual for starting a business or teaching a class.

The one thing that seems to be missing from the book is a definition of what is a "photograph." For example, can I sell manipulated photos, grunge art or digital collages? What about decorative stationery borders or scrapbook images? Where does illustration fit into stock houses? Doesn't every company need a greeting card for holidays?

Avoiding Rejection
I think the section most photographers will find extremely helpful are a list of tips to avoid rejection from the image houses. He points out details such as removing dust and hair from photos, cropping styles, removing distractions, and making sure you have model releases.

Photography is Moving Online
This book came along at the right time. I know a professional photographer who recently closed her business and stated to me with confidence, "Print is Dead." Over the last several years she's watched magazines, catalogs and other print media move online.

Because of this, companies no longer need professional photo shoots, and since online images are low resolution, their in-house staff can sometimes get away with using their own digital cameras.

For photographers who have left the industry or are considering leaving, the opportunities available with image houses may be the direction to go, especially since the same image can be resold thousands of times, and the photographer can use their own creativity to pursue themes they enjoy.

You never know, there just might be people out there looking for a photo of your baby, kitten, or frying pan...but before you start snapping pictures, take a look at this book first, and you'll know how to do it correctly, from square one.

Images excerpted from Taking Stock: Make money in microstock creating photos that sell, by Rob Sylvan. Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I came across your review from the Art of Licensing Yahoo group and had to put in my 2 cents. Just to clarify, microstock (which this book is about, according to the title) is a really tough way to make money because the the prices are extremely low - as low as $1 per image, and that's before commission. And generally the buyer gets unlimited usage. So a card company could purchase an image for practically nothing and publish the image indefinitely. Not a great deal for the photographer. Yes, there are some photographers who make a living this way, but microstock is essentially a hobby for most people. It's a "long tail" business, not unlike Etsy or Zazzle, which profit from having gazillions of contributors, most of whom don't make very much. Not that any of these businesses are doing anything wrong or illegal, but artists should know what they're signing up for.

Also, you bring up the point that the book leaves illustration out of the mix. Actually if you look at microstock websites like istockphoto there are some very generic illustrations available - generic because the pictures sell for so little. As you know well, high-quality illustrations take time to produce - selling them for $1 is hard to justify for anyone trying to make a living. However, there are some stock agencies which sell "rights managed" illustrations like Stock Illustration Source. Rights managed stock, as opposed to microstock, is priced according to usage and the fees to the artists are reasonable.

Kate Harper said...

Response: This book talks about mainly 6 companies who do rights management. No where in it did I get the sense he encouraged selling an image for mass production resale--which is a whole different thing, and I agree, that is not a way to profit since it would probably be a 1 time flat fee.

Rather, he talks about the process of selling the same image thousands of times over, and the buyers are not publishers who want to resell it, rather they are for advertising, web images, in-house publications such as annual reports, etc, and brochures.

In my view this in not comparable to etsy or zazzle because getting accepted into one of these 6 stock photo sites has several requirements. Not only does the photographer and quality of the photo have to go through a screening process and be accepted, but it has to include copies of model releases and other legal copyright documentation. The nice thing is, this book explains how to do it all the correct way...from the very beginning of taking the picture correctly.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, I haven't read the book and don't know which agencies are discussed, but microstock is a specific type of stock photography that is sold at a very low price for a flat fee. And, yes the usage is unlimited - microstock is, in fact, royalty free but lower priced than traditional royalty free images. Microstock images can't be resold as stock images, however they can be published in perpetuity. Please read this definition of microstock (I know it's Wikipedia, but it's quite accurate): While it is possible to sell the same image thousands of times over, it's the exception not the rule. And yes, the requirements are more stringent than for Etsy or Zazzle, but just to clarify, the similarity between microstock and these businesses is the "long tail" structure - tons of contributors and the fact that a large number of amateurs & hobbyists are part of the mix.

I'm not saying the book doesn't have any value. It's useful to learn about what kinds of images are marketable and about model releases and such. But, from your review it doesn't sound like the writer talks about the limits of what an artist can expect from microstock.

Rob Sylvan said...


Thanks so much for the review of my book. I'm glad you found it useful and interesting.

I do want to respond to your question about illustrations. Many microstock sites accept vector illustrations (those created with programs like Adobe Illustrator) as well as 3D generated raster images, manipulated photos, and raster illustrations (those purely created in Photoshop). In addition, many sites also accept video, audio, and flash submissions. However, none of those are content types that I personally have delved into, and as such I focused this book specifically on what I knew from my own experience, which is photos.

If I may reply to BB, thanks for your interest in the subject. The first chapter of the book is titled, "Is this book for you?" In which I attempt to set realistic expectations for what one can get out of this opportunity. The book is also filled with examples of real people's work, along with where to find those people if you'd like to ask them any questions about their own experience.

One of the great things about microstock is that it is very accessible to everyone, and as a result, most of the people are quite accessible too. One of the resources I recommend in the book is a website called Microstock Diaries, and on there is an excellent post that answers the question about why people get involved:

Please don't hesitate to contact me directly if you have any other questions.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...