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.
There are many more ways to break into the business than we have room to discuss here, but let’s take a close look at one method that anyone can pursue.
After you’ve chosen the client you think will be interested in your photography, compose a query letter on professional-looking stationery. Request a copy of the publication's submission guidelines, and remember to include a short bio if you have one and an SASE.
One of the most important facets of your business is organization. You want to be able to locate images easily and send them out quickly. Although I’ve been fully digital for about four years, I still have more than 100,000 well-organized slides.
If you have slides and transparencies, I recommend using archival slide pages with plastic spines in hanging metal file cabinets. Digital files are best stored on external hard drives and backed up on archival CDs, or you can maintain two sets of drives for this purpose. Use software like iView Media to quickly organize RAW files, film scans and processed TIFF files. I also use software to embed metadata (such as caption, keyword and copyright information) quickly across large volumes of images.
The scans and TIFFs should be tracked for submission, rights management, billing and income recording. I highly recommend InView and StockView by HindSight. This product, in my humble opinion, is essential stock photography business-management software.
As far as numbering your images, I’ve found that the simpler the numbering system, the more likely you’ll stick with it. So keep it simple.
Submit in digital format whenever possible. If you’re planning to submit images that were taken with film, you should consider scanning them, and scan them well. The higher the quality of your scans, the more likely an editor will use them. Typically, 6-megapixel scans is the minimum image size suitable for most publications.
When submitting your digital files, you should send a CD with 8-bit TIFFs or maximum-quality JPEGs at a resolution of 300 dpi. The dimensions of the file that editors need vary between publications and often will be stated in the guidelines you received. Be sure to embed your copyright info in the IPTC field of the files for added protection.
If you shoot film, most editors won’t accept dupes, so you’ll need to send the originals. I suggest sending them in 20-pocket pages and individually sleeved in 2x2 slide protectors. Then sandwich these pages between protective material like corrugated cardboard. Be sure to include a delivery memo that states the value of lost or damaged transparencies.
It’s also important to track which images have been submitted to what client. For example, an image with six months of exclusive rights with a particular client that’s accidentally submitted to a competing client will cause not only embarrassment, but also potential legal problems. Keep those records up to date.
I always send my submissions via either FedEx or UPS for next-day delivery. Doing so ensures that the publisher will have to sign for the images and adds some importance to your submission.
Pricing: Don't Sell Yourself Short
Pricing is one of the most difficult areas of your photo business. Prices are often dictated by the industry using your image. If it’s based on a guideline for submissions that you requested, the price usually will be stated in the packet that they send you.
If you’re contacted by a buyer, however, you should refer to some of the pricing guides and software available for pricing. I recommend getting the buyer to first state the price they’re willing to pay. Then you can inform them of the standard rate for their desired usage. They’ll usually go up on the offer or at least split the difference with you.
In a nutshell, negotiate one-time, non-exclusive rights so you can sell the same image over and over again. This is how you can rack up impressive earnings.
Using The Web
The Internet has been a growing part of my business. In the first few years, it produced less than five percent of my income. Today, it’s an important source of my revenue and undoubtedly an indispensable tool to building one's business. Don’t underestimate its potential.
If you don’t have a Website, build one! Make it simple to navigate and easy to view. Huge, slow-loading pages are a no-no. Keyword your web pages to make them easy for clients to navigate. Links from noncompeting businesses and careful use of search-engine submission forms will help your visibility. Remember, a store with no windows has few lookers!
As your library of images grows, you may consider using stock agencies to help broaden the scope of the markets that you can reach. There are some positives and negatives here. The number-one positive is the ability to make sales in markets you’d never reach by yourself. Also, of almost equal importance, is that agencies do the marketing work for you.
This comes at a price. They usually charge at least 50-percent commission. With commissions to foreign agents, it’s not unusual to receive as little as 22-percent net. Your pictures also will be tied up for at least four to eight years. Depending on the contract you sign, you may or may not be able to market the images yourself.
It can be profitable working with agencies, but consider this carefully. It probably won’t be the main source of your income.
What we’ve addressed in this article is enough to get you started in the stock-photo business. I firmly believe that if you’re willing to put enough effort into this venture, you can earn a living. Furthermore, if you have good images and you’re willing to be a great marketer, the sky is the limit!
For information on Byron Jorjorian’s Marketing Your Images CD and RAW Workflow course packages, visit www.naturephotocentral.com.