Stock Photographers Keep Playing the Hits

Jim Maxwell once wrote an essay on how to write a country song guaranteed to hit the Top 40: Include a done-me-wrong lady, a horse, a thief, a train, a jailhouse, a shotgun. Mix with emotion: jealousy, love, regrets. Add some action: a bank robbery, wreck at a railroad yard, a hard-driving rodeo. Deliver with a twang, weave in a refrain that can be repeated with five notes on the piano –and you can’t lose.

Would you like a similar recipe for moneymaking stock photos? How about: a financially happy family, watching a group of busy employees, silhouetted against a palm-fringed beach, at sunset, with dramatic clouds in a big sky featuring (in the upper left-hand corner) the NASA shot of the planet Earth.

Well, maybe separate shots of each of those elements would be more manageable.

Like popular songs manufactured from a formula, stock photo “hits” aren’t necessarily the photos you’d choose as the best representatives of your heart or talent — but they sure can pull in dollars for you while you are laboring to survive in the stock photo industry.

Financially successful commercial stock photographers manufacture the “hits” over and over again — and were doing so long before the days of the Web and microstock.

Photography Best Sellers

Twenty years ago, James Ong, the former president of the Four By Five Stock Photo Agency, compiled 100 top-selling stock photos and provided each photo’s sales history in the book Photography Best Sellers. Needless to say, Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith aren’t included among Ong’s top sellers.

So, what was the No. 1 moneymaker in Ong’s compilation? A subject that isn’t hard to get; just point your camera and shoot. It was an image of clouds. The photograph earned — back then — total sales of $75,131. The No. 2 picture? Also clouds — earning $66,174. Other pictures in the top 15: busy workers, happy families, sunsets, beaches, and the public domain NASA picture of Earth.

If you are into photography strictly for the money, the above could be a clue as to what you should be taking (or making) to send to the microstock sites that you work with.

Things really haven’t changed that much in the past 20 years. If you look at the current best-selling images on iStockPhoto and other stock sites, you’ll see lots and lots of clouds.

James Ong never made any value judgments on his book’s photographs, by the way — other than to say that money talks. And who can argue with that?

[tags]stock photography[/tags]

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