The experiences of Alamy's decades-long stock photographers: how do you build a portfolio that can sell?
The Alamy Forum is a treasure trove for beginners and even advanced stock photographers. Dozens of photographers share their experiences, their monthly income, the pictures they have sold (except their repeat sellers), as well as the list of used pictures found in newspapers. In addition, the members of the forum have an irreplaceable role in the identification of plants, cars and other unidentified topics.
In this article, we explore a central topic with the help of the forum members: what and why can be sold among the photos uploaded to the stock photo company Alamy?
A single niche or a diverse portfolio?
If your niche is quite special, it may be worth building a specialized portfolio. There are people on Alamy who capture only plants, who mostly capture airplanes, and who capture almost exclusively marine animals. Since it is relatively rare for someone to be able to photograph military or passenger aircrafts (with a professional eye), and it is also not common to admire marine fauna up close, these portfolios may prosper well.
However, the average photographer is better off capturing every subject that comes his/her way.
Most stock photographers recommend that our portfolio be diverse.
Let's photograph everything from company logos to shop windows to typical buildings that we suspect someone will need at some point.
Always keep in mind the eternal rule: only photograph what you think can be sold. If you photograph a plant, do it like no one else has, if you photograph a building, do it like no one else has. There is no need to multiply the number of photos taken on already saturated subjects.
Can best-selling topics be identified?
If you photograph mixed subjects, it can generally be said that the editors will take pictures related to current events and news, e.g.: political figures, company logos or (company) building facades, weather, plastic pollution, energy crisis, global warming, etc.
If you take photos of all the types of flowers, bushes and trees around your place of residence, there is a good chance that you will have sales. An important tip is to take at least three pictures of each plant: from a distance (full-length), close-up (half-length) and details (flower, leaf, bark). The exact titling and keywording are important (English name, Latin name, location, season etc.).
Some people specialize in one subject, so they have a lot of photos of, for example, airplanes or sea creatures. However, their sales do not skyrocket, because their target audience is restricted.
It's worth thinking about mixed topics and mainly taking photos at your place of residence.
Hot topics - Live News
The point to upload to the Live News feed is that the photos are quality controlled immediately, and your pictures can be sold within minutes. Needless to say, photographers in the British Isles (or in the USA) have a big advantage here, as Alamy's customers include quite a few British newspapers. Therefore, I would not recommend the Live News option to photographers outside the UK or USA.
A top stock photographer's method for increasing his sales
Keith Morris, a Welsh stock photographer, is remembered by many of the Alamy contributors, because he was the one who almost never left his Welsh home town, yet he had an outstanding number of sales. His method was to constantly study the newspapers and analyze the photos that were chosen to illustrate each article. What is special about the given photo, why was it chosen? When are portrait and landscape images used?
Don't go after your own head, but examine what your customers need!
Does the size of your portfolio matter? How many more photos should you upload in order to have a steady income?
Every stock photographer's portfolio has a different size, from 1,500 to 150,000 images, depending on how long he/she has been building it and at what pace. While there is a clear correlation between the number of photos you have and the amount of sales, we cannot say that if you have uploaded 100,000 photos, you will necessarily earn more than someone who manages only 2,500 photos.
Some claim that 10,000 images are the minimum when you can count on a regular income, but I know a real example of how portfolios of tens of thousands can be beaten with 2,500 images.
What is the secret of this?
The first and most important factor: research, find out what customers are looking for.
Use the AoA (All of Alamy statistics) tables, have a look at the "What should I shoot" list, where you will find specific customer needs.
Second in order of importance is proper keywording. If you don't set your keywords (tags) right, customers won't be able to find your photos, no matter how great they are.
Strive to regularly expand your portfolio, but always pay attention to the customers' needs and the proper keywords!
To travel or not to travel?
Keith Morris, mentioned above, took photos mostly (if not always) in his home town. There are photographers who are constantly traveling the world. Most photographers on the Alamy forum agree that you do NOT need to leave your home town to increase your income. Of course, this does not preclude you from traveling, even for the sake of photography. Alamy is fundamentally and inherently a British company, with mostly British photographers and mostly for British customers.
English landscapes, cityscapes, and company logos are worth much more sales than "foreign" ones, that's why if you don't live on the islands (or in a trendy, oriental place) (but, for example, in Poland), then you need more location-independent photos.
It is not recommended to travel just to take stock photos. You will find plenty of saleable topics in your neighbourhood!
If you're traveling, see what customers are looking for about that location
Advice from a photographer who travels a lot: On the All of Alamy page (AoA, Alamy's searchable statistics page), search for the location you are going to, set the order to ascending in the views column, so that the most recent customer searches, which are under 100 (i.e. less than one page), will be displayed (searches with 0 results are often wrong or misspelled words, but may even include keywords that are not yet on Alamy). These are often new buildings and venues. Then, when you arrive at your destination, take lots and lots of pictures of them and upload them to Alamy. Usually, quite a few sales can be expected in the next few months.
There's no point in photographing tourist attractions that many people have done before you. Always do research to see what hasn't been photographed at the given location!
Portrait or landscape?
Many photographers claim that they are paid much more for images purchased for book covers than for more general newspaper article or website illustrations. It is therefore very important to take portraits (verticals).
Characteristics of an image intended for a book cover: definite message, vertical format, copyspace. You don't have to think about complicated topics, for example, a photographer earned a four-figure sum with a photo of a spade stuck in the ground in his garden. Since the topic is simple, keywording is of utmost importance (think about what a book could be about with your photo as its cover)!
It is also worth taking portrait (vertical) pictures, because e.g. it can be used as a book cover for good money!
A consciously composed image or a snap shot?
Some photographers reported that their pictures, which they took without any awareness, often find buyers. On the other hand, there are those who take mostly composed images.
If you have both in your portfolio, your chances will be higher. These days, pictures of captured moments are more and more in demand. Models with their mouths open is slowly disappearing from the marketing repertoire of companies. If you chose to take studio photos, it is important that the model actually does what the image is about. In other words, don't have your model stare at a blank screen (there are plenty of bad examples...).
Photograph authentic lifestyle scenes!
Step in your buyers' shoes!
Before you press the shutter button, think about what purpose and topic the picture you are taking could be used to illustrate.
If it's just a pretty landscape, but doesn't have a message, don't click. A typical example is the ever so popular sunset / sunrise. Every photographer goes through that stage where they think their sunset (kitten, dog, falling plaster, etc.) picture is the best of all! But not. There are 6.5 million sunset pictures on Alamy alone, and what pictures they are! They are wonderful! It is not worth competing in such a field. This of course applies when the sunset (kitten, dog...) is the main subject in the picture.
Most of Alamy's customers do not want to buy a print for their wall, but want to illustrate an article, book or website. Artistic images are therefore not recommended here. A close-up of a baby's hand, or a street photo of a bank's front sells better than a wonderful sunset at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Alamy often emphasize the importance of copyspace, because book and magazine editors love not having to deal with an image when they want to write text on it.
Business or hobby? What is your goal?
Contributors with large portfolios clearly consider stock photography as a job, a business. In practice, this means that they take photos every day, keyword in the evening, and then research the customers' needs for their next shots. Thus, their portfolio grows rapidly, which is one of the pillars of regular sales.
If you upload pictures as a hobby, then every sale can make you happy, regardless of the amount received. At Alamy, photos can be sold for anything from $1 to a few thousand dollars. It depends on the usage. The book covers win the prize. Also good money may be expected for photos that are used in TV shows.
The only way to make a lot of money with stock photography is to treat it as a business and put in the work.
The importance of keywords (and titles): single words or phrases?
Alamy photographers like to experiment with keywords. They try all variations from single words to complex half-sentences. Several people have come to the conclusion that they can get ahead on the search pages if they use specific phrases or combinations of several words as one keyword.
If a buyer enters a half-sentence consisting of several words into the search field, Alamy's system prioritizes exact matches, so a photo containing those exact words as one keyword will go upper.
For example: if the search term was "happy man", then the photo using the words "happy" and "man" as separate keywords will appear further back than the one with the composite "happy man". You can easily try this with your own pictures. Include your words separately in one of your photos and as one keyword for another, then after 1-2 days (when Alamy has already indexed the images) search for the word combination on the Alamy search page.
An experienced photographer with a huge portfolio advises us to get serious about keywording and try to reduce the time spent on it. He suggests "multi word" keywords. So here we are not talking about phrases or half-sentences, but about the use of separate words that describe the image as one keyword. Eg: "mexican north latin america american americans" is used as one keyword.
In this case, the words used together (as one keyword) are closely related in meaning, so they are never used together, at the same time, in a single search. E.g.: "woman women lady female".
The correct use of keywords is extremely important. It is recommended to use complex phrases or words with a similar meaning as one keyword.
Here is a list of things you should consider before pressing the shutter button:
- a diverse portfolio is always more fruitful, so do not be choosy
- step into the shoes of the customers, make a research of customer needs
- you need not go far to take saleable images
- take at least 3 photos of a plant (full, half, detail)
- vertical images win if it comes to book covers
- authentic images sell
And what to do after shooting:
- select the best photos
- select the most relevant keywords, use key-phrases and multi-word keywords
- title the image with whole sentence including what, where, when
- wait patiently...