Stock Photography: Selling Your Own

By Janet Smith

PhotoShelter Search Return PageWith decreasing sales and a smaller percentage of licensing revenue going to photographers through stock agencies or distributors, many photographers see handling sales themselves as the answer.

Direct sales can be an important part of an overall marketing strategy. You deal directly with clients, negotiate terms and keep a much larger percentage – if not all – of the sale.

Services, such as PhotoShelter and LightRocket, help photographers build their own websites. They offer a variety of site templates, archiving and e-commerce services. The services charge monthly fees for varying levels of use and some transaction fees. SEO analytics and social-media integration also can be part of the package.

Lightrocket Search Results PageBut getting your images online is just one part of the process. With increased flexibility and control comes increased responsibility for sales and marketing. That means selling yourself and your work by reaching out to photo buyers and driving traffic to your website.

Jim Pickerell, industry observer, author and consultant, noted, "Most discover that the problem is making customers aware of their site and getting them to use it when they want to search for images. Unless you have a very strong customer base that wants to use your images, you can have great images and a great-looking site, (but) it will generate almost no traffic."

Customers gravitate to big distributors, Pickerell said, because they know they will always find something.

"They don’t want to have to keep track of who specializes in what subjects," he said.

That means educating potential buyers about yourself and what you do.

A 2011 PhotoShelter survey of 500 photo buyers found that 61 percent used Google to find images, while just 30 percent used Google to find photographers.

When contacting buyers, Photoshelter advises: "There’s no replacement for doing your homework. Very few people actually do it, so this is an easy way to stand out from the crowd. Know whom you are emailing, what they’re interested in, what they’ve recently used, what styles work with their publication, and the subject matter that hits their sweet spot. By sending an email that’s personally tailored to each person, you look like a savvy in-the-know photographer instead of a lazy spammer."

That same survey found buyers wanted the following on photographers' websites:

  • Fast image loading.
  • Email address and phone number always visible.
  • The ability to click to view all thumbnails. 
  • The ability to search all images by keyword.
  • The ability to send or copy a link to a photo or gallery. 
  • Captions below photos or on mouse-over.
  • The ability to view at full screen.
  • The ability to create or send a lightbox of select images. 
  • The ability to price, purchase and license images on the site.
  • Images grouped in logical categories, galleries or portfolios.

PhotoShelter's survey of photographers who sold stock independently yielded the following advice:

  • Decide what specific types of stock photography are under-served and produce images that meet a need. Specializing will help you target your marketing and help build a reputation for delivering a specific subject matter very well.
  • Continuously update your blog or website with new content, both text and photos. Text (headlines, captions, blog posts) provides context for your images that can enhance search engine results.
  • Build your blog and engaging followers through social media to help you stand out.

Scott McKiernan, CEO and founder of Zuma Press (and NPPA vice president), said companies like PhotoShelter are not likely to get photographers sales and work, but they can help them connect to existing clients.

Most importantly, McKiernan said photographers should not let their images sit on their laptops.

"Don't over-edit yourself," he advised. "Don't censor yourself. You need to be pushing what you just shot. Why put it on a blog, if you're not going to distribute it."

And photographers should keep their options open, McKiernan said. The world today is non-exclusive.

"Editors are getting stuff from all different sources," he said. "I don't see any advantage for anyone to be exclusive (with one agency). I encourage people not to be in 40 boxes, but there's always more opportunity with more than one box.  As for managing your own stock sales, don't make that your whole thing."

Andrew Fingerman, Photoshelter’s CEO, said his company was not a stock agency in the sense that Getty Images, Corbis or Shutterstock might be. Those companies might help get a photographer sales or new work using a sales team, distribution affiliates and actively marketing to editorial and commercial stock buyers.

But, Fingerman said, PhotoShelter has marketing tools built into the product to help attract traffic to a photographer’s images and help a photographer provide clients professional-grade services. PhotoShelter also doesn’t do some other things stock agencies do – control pricing or demand 70 percent or more from the sale of individual image licenses.  With PhotoShelter, photographers set the price, interact directly with customers, control downloads of their images and pay 8 percent to 10 percent to use Photoshelter’s e-commerce engine.

“At the heart of PhotoShelter is the online archive,” he said. “You can upload your photos and make the entire archive searchable and discoverable online. This is a huge benefit in terms of search engine optimization.”

Fingerman said photographers do report new clients finding them through PhotoShelter. A recent survey of visitors to photoshelter.com found that people searching for photographers or photography accounted for 40 percent of the site’s traffic.

“We consider it our mission to make your images more useful and valuable,” Fingerman said.

Brad Mangin PhotographyFor Brad Mangin, a sports freelancer since 1993, business success lies in control — owning his images and doing all he can to market them. 

“Because I own my images, my whole thing has been to maximize my earning power, not to rely on Getty or anybody else.” Mangin said. “I leave no stone unturned. If I go down in this business, I’m going down swinging.”

He said he has used PhotoShelter since about 2005. When Photoshelter started, it offered a redundant archive, the ability to license images and create galleries to share with clients. Today it offers “great websites” and lots of information about the industry, including how to use social media to promote your work.

“If you talk to 100 photographers, you’ll get 100 answers on how they use PhotoShelter,” Mangin said. “It’s about empowering photographers with the right tools to help them run a business.”

His business advice to photographers includes making sure potential clients can find you, and for that to happen, he said, you have to have a plan. Photographers have to decide what they want to be, then work backward so they come up in the right searches.

“With a niche market, you have a lot more success,” said Mangin, who specializes in baseball and has more than 70,000 images archived online, dating back to 1987. “Try to be the photographer in a specific area.

“Own your stuff and market it,” he said. “These are your pictures. No one else has them. Have some pride.”

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Janet Smith is a freelance writer based in Colorado. Formerly, she was the editorial page editor and managing editor at the The Island Packet in Hilton Head Island, S.C. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in business administration.