11 essential tips on how to sell your very first stock photo

Chad Verzosa

Have you ever wondered exactly how to break into the world of commercial photography? Well, the simplest route is through stock photos. It's both the easiest and fastest method to getting your images published virtually everywhere—from websites to blogs and even print brochures.

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Photo by Lonely Planet

If you’re interested in trying out stock photography but don’t know where to begin, here are 11 essential tips to help you sell your very first stock photo.

Don’t worry, it’s easier than you think.

01. Find a good camera

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Photo by Prasanna Kumar

A good camera doesn’t need to be costly. You can start with a compact or a bridge camera if you don't have a big budget. Just remember to read up on reviews of the camera model before you buy, so that you can pick one with an excellent lens and a good ISO performance. In other words, it has to be capable of taking sharp photos in a variety of lighting conditions.

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Photo by Mario Calvo

If you have a bit more money to shell out, then consider purchasing a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. They not only have more features than regular cameras, but they also have interchangeable lenses, allowing you to capture a wider variety of scenes. Alternatively, you can also buy used cameras for even less.

02. Invest in a quality lens

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Photo by Felipe Lima Rizo

The kit lens (starter lens) that comes with your DSLR camera takes decent pictures for regular use. However, if you zoom in and look at your images carefully, you’ll notice that they’re not 100% sharp.

The only way to solve that problem is buying a good quality lens. You can buy zoom lenses from old film cameras. Although they function much just like your kit lens, they’re often better because they’re designed for professional use and are quite cheap these days. The best ones are 28mm-75mm and 35mm-75mm—they offer an excellent range to let you shoot from up close and from far away.  

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Photo by Alasdair Elmes

Once you have enough experience with the zoom lenses, consider using a prime lens which doesn’t zoom in or out. Although that sounds like bad news, the image quality of prime lenses is far more superior than zoom lenses. There are many options out there, and the best ones are 35mm and 50mm for starters.

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Photo by Muhammad Haikal Sjukri

Since you’re most likely using a crop-sensor camera, using a lens meant for a full frame camera would magnify your scene 1.5 times. Therefore, a 35mm would be equivalent to a 50mm, while the 50mm would be more like an 85mm. Keep this in mind when choosing a lens. If you like shooting up close, then go for 35mm. If you typically shoot farther away, then 50mm would be perfect.

03. Shoot RAW

JPEG is the default file format your camera uses to save and process your images. It drastically compresses the files to help you save memory space and transfer data from one device to another faster.

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Photo by Tom Holmes

This is a good thing—except when you need to edit your photos. Since it compresses the image, there’s a danger that you might reduce photo quality further if you manipulate it in post. Consequently, your stock photos might end up getting rejected because they look too grainy or pixelated.

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Photo by Ari He

You can avoid this by shooting RAW. This file format takes up a lot of your memory’s space and can’t readily be viewed on your computer. However, the uncompressed files mean that you get to edit photos without potentially affecting their quality. This can come especially handy in stock photography, since you need to retouch your photos 90% of the time to keep up with the standards of stock agencies.

04. Find your niche

People need stock photos for just about everything. That’s why stock agencies don’t just stick to one subject or genre. They want to have every type of image available, so that they can offer their clients whatever they may need—whether it’s for a personal food blog or a big hair salon business.

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Photo by Alex Loup

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that you should take photos of just about anything you encounter. Although you can certainly go that route (many stock photographers have), you’ll enjoy more rewards if you choose a specialty.

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Photo by Caitlyn Hastings

Limiting your scope may seem counterintuitive in stock photography, but it works in the long run. Why? Because you get to focus on what you love the most. If you stick to one genre that you excel in, you have more chances of capturing more breathtaking shots because you're good at it.

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Photo by Henry & Co.

Furthermore, you’ll likely encounter clients that may like your style. If your collection looks cohesive, then people are more likely to come back and buy more from your collection of images.

05. Observe photography trends

Sticking to just one genre doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take the same type of photos over and over again. To maximize your chances of selling stock images, you also need to follow trends.

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Photo by William

For instance, if you’re a landscape photographer, you might want to take photos of beaches in the summer since clients look for those images during that season. In November, you might also consider shooting pumpkin patches just in time for Halloween.

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Photo by Alex Perez

Just remember that, in most cases, people buy images weeks before they become the “trend.” So take photos of beaches in the spring instead of summer. That way, you’ll give your clients plenty of time to include your photos on their website or marketing materials before the season starts.

06. Always prepare model and property releases

A release is a contract that gives you permission to sell or license photos with recognizable people or properties, freeing you from any legal liabilities that may arise.

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Photo by Bernard Osei

Most stock agencies require you to upload a signed release whenever a person or a private property is involved. But even if they don’t ask for the document right away, it’s best to keep it in your files. After all, you never know when someone sees their face on the internet and needs a reminder that you asked their permission to use it.

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi

You need a release whenever a person or a private property is easily recognizable in your photo. So when you’re shooting for stock photography, always carry a stack of releases in case you need it. There are many free templates available for you online. Most stock agencies also provide you with their own model and property release, which you can download without any fee.

07. Take several versions of one photo

Just like anything in life, people also want options to choose from when it comes to stock. So don’t just take one photo of a scene. Take as many as you can to cover whatever it is a potential client may need.

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Photo by Tyler Nix

Take photos from different angles. You never know who needs a close-up or a panorama. If you’re shooting people, have them try out different poses and facial expressions. These variations may come in handy when a client needs several photos of someone for different moods.

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Photo by Tyler Nix

Apart from providing your client with choices, having many photos also gives you an opportunity to earn more money. Think about it: instead of just having one picture, you have dozens of photos to sell. Remember that the more files you have in your collection, the more likely people will find them.

08. Learn how to edit photos

As mentioned earlier, editing is necessary when it comes to stock photography. Since quality is crucial for stock agencies, you’ll need to make sure you submit photos that meet the standards of the one you’re applying to. And to achieve that, you’ll sometimes have to adjust light, colors, or sharpness of your photos. Therefore, it would help a lot if you develop these basic editing skills alongside your photography.

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Andrew Neel

There's a learning curve when it comes to editing. The secret is to keep practicing until you master all the essential elements of retouching. Once you’re comfortable enough using the fundamental components of your editing suite, then you can advance to the more technical and creative side of editing.

On the flip side, a good rule of thumb is not to over-edit an image. The trend in stock photography now is leaning toward authenticity—both in terms of subjects and colors. Try to keep things natural and make adjustments only when necessary.

09. Avoid logos at all costs

Most people use stock photography for commercial purposes. Therefore, it only makes sense to exclude brands not associated with their business. That’s why it’s crucial that you don’t include any logos in your photos.

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Photo by Gian Cescon

When possible, have your model use plain clothes without visible brand insignias. It goes the same for other items such as products and vehicles. If that's not possible, get creative with your angles so that the logo isn't visible in your shot.

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Photo by Nik MacMillan

Completely avoiding logos can be quite hard to do, especially since they’re everywhere these days. So, the next best solution is to remove the brands in post. It may seem challenging at first, but in most situations, all you really need is the patch tool to remove them. Just select the brand you want to delete and choose a clean area that you can use to patch the logo.

10. Use keywords wisely

Think of keywords as hashtags on Instagram. They allow people to find your work easily when they’re searching for photos to use. That's why you need to think wisely about which ones to use if you want your stock photos to sell well.

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Photo by Jon Tyson

To get started, list down all the elements present in a single photo. For example, if your image features boats, buildings, and the sky, then include those in your keywords. Next, look at the most popular stock photo online similar to yours. Write down the keywords it has and incorporate them into your keyword box as well.

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Photo by Stig Ottesen

When listing keywords, you want to be descriptive but precise. Consider things like genre, subject, visible and significant elements in the foreground or background, angles, style, emotions, activities, and concepts. The number of keywords you’re allowed to use depends on what the stock agency allows.

Canva, for example, allows up to 50 keywords. Keep in mind that it's perfectly okay if you don't reach the maximum number of keywords, because you also want to avoid irrelevant keywords that are not only annoying, but could also result in a rejected submission.

11. Keep taking photos

To keep your collection relevant, always update it with fresh photos. Apart from the quality, stock photography is also a numbers game. The more pictures you offer, the more chances you have to earn.

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Photo by Samuel Thompson

Just keep taking photos, even if you only get to do it on weekends. It doesn’t matter if you can only submit 10 new photos per week; you’ll still end up with 500 plus photos at the end of the year. Before you know it, you’ll have thousands of photos available for sale.

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Photo by Rafael Romero

Apart from earning money, stock photography teaches you a lot about creating quality work. There’s a probability that most of your photos will get rejected initially, but that’s okay. Going through this process will make you more meticulous, and it will force you to produce better pictures along the way. As you get better, you’ll see your clientele grow, and that’s quite a rewarding feeling.

If you’ve got all of these in the bag, Canva’s looking for awesome contributors for their program, for which you can apply to here.