More than 29 years ago, I received my first check in the mail for the use of one of my images. It was an indescribable thrill for a beginning nature photographer—the ultimate affirmation of my work. I now have more than 10,000 published images, and I firmly believe you also can have the same success.
So what is the stock photo business? In essence, it’s the licensing of images that already exist in your collection. These images have a value that can be calculated. I like to use a conservative value of $1 per image, per year. In other words, if you have 10,000 "marketable" images in your files, they have a potential value of at least $10,000 per year, each year, from here forward.
Marketable means using an image that’s well exposed, well composed and appropriately sharp with a clear subject—any interesting image you have that you might see in a book, magazine, calendar or advertisement. Remember, every time you press that shutter button, you’re drilling for oil! Most may come up dry, some produce a modest income, while others could be gushers. Like an oil well, your images will earn for years to come.
One of the best ways to begin marketing your images is by setting basic goals, depending on the number of images you currently have and how much shooting you plan to do. The time you spend marketing these images should also be considered. If you can find a few hours in the week to manage, organize and submit images to clients, you’re already beginning to build the foundation of a successful business.
Before You Get Started
It’s possible to start your business with about 1,000 images; 10,000 images would be better, but you’ll soon amass more, so don’t be concerned about quantity at first.
You also need to work at being a businessperson to succeed. The photographers who earn money are those who are selling themselves and their images. If you're positive and willing to make an investment in knowledge, equipment and time, it will all come easily to you.
The next step is to find out where you fit in the marketplace. Go to a bookstore and find images like yours. Look through magazines, books and greeting cards, and note the names of the publishers or manufacturers.
Almost every area of interest and every hobby, from fishing and knitting to model railroads, has a number of publications, Websites, trade magazines, books and catalogs devoted to it. The optimistic stock photographer will see all of these people as potential clients.
Another good resource well worth considering is The Photographer’s Market. It breaks down the market into various categories, telling you what kind of images each business is looking for, what it pays and how you should approach it.