What goes into the most successful stock images? Learn from the pros with these tips for photos that customers love – and buy.

The stock photography industry has probably changed more in the last ten years than it has since the first agencies were founded way back in the 1920s. With the introduction of digital technology and smartphone cameras the market has exploded. Photographers can make more images (at lower production rates) than ever and customers are demanding more images every day.

In 2017, it’s not necessarily enough to be a great photographer. In order to stand out, one must understand exactly what kinds of images are in demand at any given moment. Stock photography is about adapting to new trends, often before anyone else does.

Shutterstock conducts in-depth market research (often years in advance) to guide their contributors in the right direction, and for this article, we also wanted to gather some firsthand advice from some of the top stock photographers in the world.

We asked them, “Is there such a thing as a formula for making a successful photograph?” Below, they share the specific elements and ingredients that contribute to an image’s profitability. No complexities here – just clear, concrete, easy-to-follow steps for conceptualizing and creating a great stock photo.

1. “It is risky to try something new because buyers might not like it, but if they do, the risk is totally worth it.”

Andrey Popov

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Take Risks
Gear: Nikon D800E camera, Tamron 24-70mm f2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f9; ISO 100.

Image by Andrey Popov.

Is there a formula to making a successful photograph?

The formula for a successful photo is very simple: Take a very popular and in-demand subject matter and shoot it differently. Use a different point of view, different colors, different lighting, different prop or clothing styling, different poses, different crops. Buyers look at the same subjects and themes over and over again, and they get tired of looking at similar photos and want to buy something new and fresh. It is risky to try something new because buyers might not like it, but if they do, the risk is totally worth it.

Pictured: [1] Image by Door Andrey_Popov. [2] Image by Door Andrey_Popov.

2. “Always think of a concept first. Think, ‘What is the best and the simplest way to illustrate this concept?’ “

Maglara

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Think of Concept
Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 100mm; exposure 1/2 sec; f11; ISO 200.

Image by Maglara.

Is there a formula to making a successful photograph?

I think there is no formula. But I always keep a few important rules in mind. Always think of a concept first. Think, “What is the best and the simplest way to illustrate this concept?” When composing a photo, leave some negative space for text. The colors should also be part of the concept; sometimes it is better to make them complementary, and sometimes the contrast between the colors can create an atmosphere.

Pictured: [1] Image by Maglara. [2] Image by Maglara. [3] Image by Maglara.

3. “I always make mood boards and plans, even if they are just for me.”

Sergey Novikov

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Mood Board
Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 140mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f8; ISO 100.

Image by Sergey Novikov.

Is there a formula to making a successful photograph?

Creating a successful photograph is about perfecting what you can control (lighting, set, props, etc.) and then setting clear goals for your models. Let people act naturally. Mind the composition and the details, observe, and finally make a shot.

I always make mood boards and plans, even if they are just for me. Even if you are photographing a still life in your own studio, it is much better if you have a plan for the shoot. It’s also important that you do the research and know what kinds of images are unique and what designers are in desperate need of. Even if you’re shooting something simple like a bottle of wine, there are so many ways to do it that will be different from what is available in the collections today.

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Mood Board

Image by Sergey Novikov.

When it comes to stock photography, review different sources: magazines, advertisements, social networks, and blogs. Browse the collections to find new niches, and visit exhibitions to hone your vision. A tiny spark will grow into a well-defined shooting plan. The process might be tedious but when one idea combines with another, the magic happens.

4. “Let your images breathe for copy space, and keep them authentic.”

Rafael Ben-Ari (ChameleonsEye)

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Copy Space
Gear: Nikon D7100 camera, Nikon 60.0 mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm (in 35mm: 90mm); exposure 1/160 sec; f2.8; ISO 800.

Image by Rafael Ben-Ari (ChameleonsEye).

Is there a formula to making a successful photograph?

I think that a successful photograph should tell a story in one decisive moment, while transferring a simple and clear message through the use of excellent light and color harmony. I love to photograph Indigenous people and their unique lifestyle, so in recent years I have traveled extensively throughout Australasia and Oceania to document the cultures of Indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders. Let your images breathe for copy space, and keep them authentic.

Pictured: [1] Image by Rafael Ben-Ari (ChameleonsEye). [2] Image by Rafael Ben-Ari (ChameleonsEye).

5. “Think about what the photograph needs to communicate. Ask yourself, ‘Why would a prospective buyer choose this image above all others?'”

Corepics VOF (Hugo de Wolf)

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Think Like the Customer
Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF70-200mm lens. Settings: Focal length 90mm; exposure 1/100 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.

Image by Corepics VOF (Hugo de Wolf).

Is there a formula to making a successful photograph?

Research, plan, shoot, process, and repeat. Research and planning are the key elements here. With modern, state-of-the-art cameras, almost anyone can take a good photo. And with Shutterstock’s vast collection, assume that most subjects are already well-covered.

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Think Like the Customer

Image by Corepics VOF (Hugo de Wolf).

Think before you shoot; visualize an image’s potential use. Think about what the photograph needs to communicate. Ask yourself, “Why would a prospective buyer choose this image above all others?”

6. “It’s all about capturing a genuine, candid moment and allowing the viewer to see a story behind a still image.”

Elena Elisseeva

6 Photographers on the Ingredients of a Successful Stock Image - Candid Moments
Gear: Nikon D3X camera, 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f3.2.

Image by Elena Elisseeva.

Is there a formula to making a successful photograph?

The subject is the most important thing; however,  the same subject can be depicted in many different ways. I think the most successful photos have an emotional connection to the viewer. They bring us into the time and the place where they were taken. It’s all about capturing a genuine, candid moment and allowing the viewer to see a story behind a still image.

Here, the model looks out of the window, enjoying the sunshine and possibly her new window blinds. She does not look directly at the camera, so we feel like we are observing her without direct interaction. It’s like this image is a part of a story.

Pictured: [1] Image by Elena Elisseeva. [2] Image by Elena Elisseeva.

Top Image by Maglara