10 Tips to Building a Strong Stock Photography Portfolio

The Stock photography market is growing and evolving, more and more photographers are looking at selling the rights to their images as a way to help pay for gear, travel and increasingly, as a reliable income. Occasionally someone will ask me what I think it takes to make a strong portfolio that will sell. I’ve pulled together a few guidelines that I’ve learned along the way:

  1. Don’t Worry so Much About Gear: 

    You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again… a good camera doesn’t make a good photographer. Don’t think you have to buy the biggest, best, most elaborate gear to make beautiful images. Today, some pro’s are even using their cell phone cameras for their catalog of images. The key is to find what works best for you and build on that. One fantastic lens may be all you need.

  2. Expect Rejection: 

    The fact that you have images and are willing to sell them, does not automatically mean that your images will be accepted into a stock catalog. In fact, most photographers (and by that I mean nearly all) have to deal with their share of rejection. The first step is getting accepted to submit work for licensing and even once you’re accepted, each image is scrutinized prior to acceptance. If you get rejected (and you most definitely will), pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on.

  3. Pace Yourself: 

    Sometimes, once you get accepted into a reseller’s collection you may feel the need to fill it up quickly. Resist that urge! Be just as discerning about the work you’ll be uploading to the collection as the work you chose to submit for your application. And as you continue to shoot new series for stock, try to keep a clear head and shoot what you enjoy, what challenges you and what moves you. Step back, grab a note book, jot ideas down and sketch. Slow, careful planning rather than spray and pray will get you a stronger portfolio with less rejection much faster.

  4. Think in Series, not Shots:

    Not everything you shoot will be able to follow this guideline, but if you’re planning out your shoots, you may find there’s a lot more to work with than you originally imagined. For example: If you shoot food, shoot all the steps it takes to make the final dish you’ll be shooting… line up the ingredients, the plating props, the tools etc. and instead of having a single shot of a finished cake, you’ll have an entire series to submit! Why? Designers often may be seeking more than one example to help flesh out the layout they’re building. You stand a better chance of selling more than one image, but also it helps make your portfolio more full.

  5. Cast a Wide Net: 

    Again, this is not going to be a great fit for everyone, but, the more variety you can offer, to more likely is it that you’ll sell your work. If you only shoot portraits, fashion, or food, your market is limited to that single niche. Instead try to branch out, explore subjects and avenues you might not have considered before.

  6. Don’t be Afraid to Break the Rules:

    Think there are rules in stock photography? Perhaps you think stock photography is nothing but stuffy, multicultural office shots with elaborate lighting and management. Forget that. If you can do it, great, but don’t let that thought process bog you down. Today people work in so many ways, from home, on the road, in small co-ops, etc. What defines the workplace isn’t what it used to be. Plus, work-based imagery is only one piece of the stock photography pie.

  7. Manage Your Images Well:

    Organize your shoots by date and subject so you can track them down easier should you want to submit them (or resubmit them to another site). With that in mind, you’ll also want to add your title, description, keywords, copyright and URL information right into the meta data of your files (you can do this in bridge or lightroom). This way you won’t have to re-type this every time you upload. Most sites are able to pull that data and populate the upload forms for you. This is a HUGE time saver.

  8. Copy Space & Composition:

    For an image to go from good to great, requires a keen eye for composition. If the background is busy, cluttered and messy, or your crop too tight, designers will only have a limited number of ways to use your photo. Instead, allowing the designer to select the best crop and proportion of “white space” gives your photo more potential. Perhaps it’ll be used as a cover and needs room to place text around the focal point. Maybe it’ll be the background for a poster, a lead in image for an article. Who knows, but allowing the designer the option to crop the image themselves can be a really simple way to add value to your photography.

  9. Avoid Pre-Packaged Filters: 

    It’s like being a kid in the candy shop… how many ways can you manipulate your image using layer blend modes, filters, distortion, creative blurring, etc?? Try not to get carried away. The more work you put in, the more you reduce the market for your image. Much like black and white, if your image looks over-processed it’ll be a hard sell. Keep your treatments on-trend, but subtle so the finished images can remain as timeless as possible.

  10. Don’t Forget to Enjoy it: 

    If you really want to make a go at selling stock photography, don’t forget the reason you thought you wanted to become a photographer in the first place… it’s enjoyable. If you turn it into work, not only will you lose your passion, but your lack-luster experience will translate into lack-luster images.


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My background as a fine artist (painter/illustrator) and graphic designer gives me a somewhat unique perspective when at a shoot composing my photographs. I came to photography a bit later in my creative career, but I've embraced the challenge and excitement of harnessing a new medium and have worked to make it my own.

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