Five Ways to Make Money in a Popular Photography Niche

I’ve read articles by a number of photography business gurus arguing that if you want to make decent money from stock photos or prints, you need to find a niche that isn’t already saturated with images. They advise photographers to shoot model-released lifestyle photos or still lifes, for example, and to stay away from travel and nature — because everyone shoots travel and nature.

That might sound logical enough, but is it true? In four years of marketing my work, I have sold pictures through stock agencies of heavily photographed locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gateway Arch, the Mall of America, and the San Francisco skyline. And I don’t even spend a lot of time shooting iconic locations like these.

You know what I think? I think you can still make money selling the photos you want to shoot — if you know how to market yourself.

Here are five tips for selling your photos in any niche:

1. Keyword your images thoroughly.

I have looked at a lot of images on many different sites, and the one thing that amazes me is how poorly most photographers keyword their images. Take the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. If you only include the most obvious keywords — like the name of the bridge and the city — how can you expect anyone to find your images among the thousands on sites like Alamy, Corbis or Getty? I include more than 30 keywords on my Golden Gate Bridge images — including words like “iconic,” “landmark,” “sunsets,” “mountains,” “landscapes” and “coast.” That puts me ahead of the majority of photographers adding images to these sites.

2. Provide detailed caption information.

I’ve found that nature photographers often like to keep their specific locations secret, so they might label an image in general terms such as “Zeus’ Lightning Rod, Colorado Plateau.” Unfortunately, this is a good way to keep your images a secret from the public — because photo editors want details. You need to provide location specifics, as well as any relevant scientific information, if you expect to sell your work to textbooks or guide books, for example.

3. Focus on a niche within your niche.

I live in Southern California and have spent a lot of time photographing scenic locations in my area as if they were the Yosemite Valley Overlook. As a result, I have generated a healthy revenue stream from shoots that have cost me little in the way of travel costs. A recent print sale of Southern California scenic locations, for example, has netted me several thousand dollars.

My original motivation for focusing locally was pragmatic: I was out of school with not much money in the bank. I knew that photographers generally ignore the region — even though there are more than 15 million people here. That’s a nice market for prints and stock.

4. Optimize your Web site and make your archive available to search.

The Internet has opened up the photography market to new buyers around the world. People who haven’t traditionally purchased through photo agencies are now searching online for pictures — and are often buying them directly from photographers’ Web sites.

Most of the direct sales I’ve made in the past two years have involved the use of PhotoShelter at some point in the process. Usually the buyer finds my Web site, then searches through my archive. Or I’ll send a lightbox after some consultation and complete the sale off-site, negotiating via e-mail or phone. Customer service is the key to selling direct.

5. Protect your rights.

While the Internet offers new opportunities to market your work, it’s also made it easier for people to steal your images — so you have to take steps to protect them. If your photos are floating around in cyberspace without watermarking, or downloaded off some subscription plan, then you have lost the ability to manage the use of your work.

Even if you take precautions and license your photos on a rights-managed basis, however, people will sometimes use your images without permission. And in those cases, you need to stand up for yourself.

For example, the other day, I walked into a grocery store near my house and saw a large painted mural of one of my images. It had been painted to match my photo to the smallest of details. Given that I had never licensed the image, and that it shows up on the first page of Google Images for that location, I am pretty certain that this is an unauthorized commercial use of my image. I am still exploring my options on this one — but let’s just say that I plan to do something about it.

23 Responses to “Five Ways to Make Money in a Popular Photography Niche”

  1. Outstanding article! You take the "mystery" out of selling your work. Sometimes, we photographers feel that marketing our work and marketing ourselves is 'beneath' us. Your article offers great tips to "rescue" ourselves from the limitations that we impose on our work. Photography is supposed to be fun!

    Selling your work is another fun component of photography.

    Great post!

  2. Thank you Richard. You have inspired me to go out and shoot the best collection of scenic locations in the area that I live that I can. I live in Saint Petersburg, Florida, and we have a much photographed bridge and pier here, but I will use your keyword suggestions.

    Good luck with the grocery store! I know I'd be pretty angry if that happened to me.

  3. Regarding your mention of Photoshelter. I have about 1000 images on my site there and before I uploaded any more I gave it a few months for Google to find and index me and produce some meaningful numbers on my Analytics report.

    The only traffic I get comes from my own website or blog - my PS images are invisible to Google still. After asking around I find that there is an issue with the way PS handles the images - a security issue I believe - and that means Google can't/won't index them. It's not just my work that can't be found on a Google Image search, I haven't found one example of a PS hosted image being returned in a Google search result.I understand it's a similar issue with Getty and Corbis.

    I've made sure that I have incorporated all of the SEO suggestions that have been made, but what's the point if the site is invisible? I'm mulling over putting my work on my own web server where at least all of the efort in keywording, captioning and SEO might actually pay off.

  4. Hi Andrew. I agree with you. The only pages that have SEO value in my experience are the gallery pages and the bio page. I use Photoshelter for other reasons though - the archive, lightboxes, convenience, etc... so those are more valid reasons to continue using it in my opinion. I don't want to deal with the hassle of hosting my own stuff.

  5. I can still see a reason to use PS, but not with the expectation that photo buyers can use Google Image search and find my images. Too bad. Ah well.

  6. I think a custom designed CMS system is probably the best option if you are looking into hosting your own stuff that way you can have it made exactly the way you want it constructed. They have out of the box solutions like Lightbox Photo but you will have the same indexing issues as you cited with Photoshelter.

  7. Firstly, congratulations on your emphasis on keywords. We have 18,000 photographers on and every month we tell them that the big message on key words is that professional picture buyers search for WORDS; they don't search for pictures.
    Secondly, Andrew Ptak's comment on SEO and Google Images. This is a continual source of concern for us and our photographers. The unique images we sell seldom appear on Google Image Search. We assumed it was our fault, but then it happens to picture libraries the size of Getty. I had a meeting with a senior Google executive at the Frankfurt Book Fair last month and he promised to look into it. Google's reply to me (in full):
    "Hi Gwyn
    I checked w/ the images team. We don't any guidance here but I did receive one suggestion for you -- namely, to make sure all of these pages are in your web sitemap."
    Well of course they are. This doesn't really help. Has anyone got any smart ideas? Why can't Google tell us what their image search parameters require?

  8. @Richard - you know a lot more than I do I'm sure, so can you tell me why there would still be an indexing issue with something like Lightbox? Thanks.

  9. From the sites I have seen, the Lightbox template has a similar site architecture as Photoshelter's which clearly is not that effective for spiders to crawl images. If you want, email me and we can talk more in private.


  10. Using PS isn't that bad. It has also some applications that others don't have.


  11. Great post - I'd have to agree with all 5 points. I'd definitely pursue the artist or company that commissioned that mural. That's messed up, dude.

  12. Keywording your images was very appropriately at the top of this list.

    I'm often baffled at how many people simply neglect to tag and keyword images in every little nook and cranny that your website allows. This is simply a must for organic discovery amongst the search engines.

  13. Good article. Thanks for sharing.

  14. It's all about keywords, and coming up with relevant and also off the wall keywords. You want your images to show in niche searches as well.

  15. Thanks. I'm not sure you want to stuff your keywords on your site like you would in the image meta data unless it fits the context of what you do for the most part but I agree that some descriptive text is necessary both for spiders and for potential photo buyers that are browsing your site.

  16. We are still in the process of learning what exactly triggers the Google Image Indexing. It's important to note that the team that does the "universal" search is different from the image search, and we're also finding that things like backlinks to deep content have a positive effect on image indexing.

    We've also seen a recent, significant increase in the number of images indexed in Google.

    I personally think Google is very interested in indexing licensable content -- their shopping search, integration of creative commons, and other indicators suggest they are always interested in enabling better searches. The fact that image libraries have security controls on the images is clearly affecting indexing, but these issues are very surmountable by both parties. It's only a matter of time, and I think you'll see significant improvements in the next 12 months.

  17. Thanks for coming in on this Allen - you give me hope!

  18. The article makes perfect sense and I believe the use of Photoshelter for example improves the chance selling, making your images avalable quicly and in proper way


  19. Great post. Pulls together the points really well.

  20. Thank Richard for a wonderful ideas. As you mentioned about Photo shelter, I also have good quality pictures as wedding photographer I hope you will like my collection. Thanks.

  21. I'm quite sure that good keywording is important and I've been blogging about it recently. Trouble is it's very time intensive. I'm trying out controlled vocabulary at the moment and I'll report more on that when I've had some experience. It's one of the great ironies that to find pictures we need words. Keep fighting

  22. This is a fundamental problem with dynamically generated pages, CMS backends and multi-tiered sites that rely on a database, application server, front end webserver. The problem is Google indexes static addressess URL/URI , these web galleries store all your information and photos on a database, pull the info live and generate a page dynamically by the applications server . In other words there is nothing for Google to index. Many times the images have a numberical random name 123abc.jpg so people can't link to them , and this compounds the problem. Static HTML image galleries, with meaningful names, and image labels/captures are the way to go if you want SEO

    Have a thumbnail gallery with coded images, have a single page for the full size image that has the image name in the title , have META Keywords for the description, and use full image tags as in

    These are things Google can see and index, put a nice text description of the image below it to boost SEO relevance

  23. All doable opportunities but first you have to commit yourself to doing ‘something’ and then you have to ‘do it’. Not always an easy thing for most people.

    If you have a natural entrepreneurial spirit, a skill, you’re a self-starter and you have the will to be successful, you’ll be on your way 😉

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