12 of My Bestselling Stock Photos, Analyzed

Professional stock photographers don't reveal their trade secrets very often. 

That's because photography is a dog-eat-dog business with a low barrier to entry. Anyone with a half-decent digital camera (or smartphone) can sell photos online. But, only a fraction of those millions of photographers make a living this way and the competition grows each day. (Shutterstock licenses more than 270 million files!)

I'm not a professional stock photographer, but I do earn a side income by selling stock photos. In this article, I'll analyze my 12 bestselling photos to better understand why each one is successful. I even found an artificial intelligence tool that rates stock photos! (More on Everypixel later.)

Collectively, this small portfolio has earned more than $15,000 in royalties from "microstock websites" (i.e. online stock photo agencies that sell images in high volume at low cost).

Let's look at the pictures:

Employee Handbook

This photograph is a simple representation for entire industries. The biggest buyer: law firms that specialize in employment issues. That surprised me. The image is also used on payroll and human resources websites, which is less surprising.

Everypixel Rating: 1.3% out of 100%

Image Source: Digital SLR

Man on a Ledge

This image has appeared on websites around the world, mostly in news articles about depression or suicide. For a stock photographer, not all successes are to be celebrated. 

Everypixel Rating: 99.5% out of 100%

Image Source: 35MM Film

Vintage Palm Tree Postcard

I expected to find this postcard used on travel blogs. Nope. In fact, I couldn't find a single commercial or editorial use anywhere online. I suppose the retro look lends itself to an older medium: print media.

Everypixel Rating: 7.0% out of 100%

Image Source: Point and Shoot Camera

Transfer of Wealth

This isn't a great photo (it's actually one of the first digital photos that I took), but it manages to illustrate concepts that are not easily explained. Money has used this image to depict inheritance; The Penny Hoarder used it to depict peer-to-peer lending. It's a simple visual solution.

Everypixel Rating: 0.3% out of 100%

Image Source: Digital SLR

Hole in a Plaster Wall

This is a design element that is meant to be used as part of a larger composition. It may appear in dozens of designs, but reverse-image lookup tools aren't able to find it amongst the bigger picture.

Everypixel Rating: 69.7% out of 100%

Image Source: Digital SLR

Television Control Room

This vocational stock photo is used often on higher-education websites to depict broadcasting and journalism. It also appears on public-relations coaching websites (an industry I was unaware of).

Everypixel Rating: 2.6% out of 100%

Image Source: Digital SLR

Vintage Stadium Postcard

It's rare to find a commercially-licensable photo of a crowd because the photographer would need a model release for each person in the image. I got lucky. No one in this photo is recognizable thanks to some magical combination of shallow focus and where the crowd was looking. On top of that, the image is generic (and appears in articles about baseball, football and soccer). 

Everypixel Rating: 0.0% out of 100%

Image Source: Digital SLR

Antique Cars

Surprisingly, I found this photo on commercial websites that deal in paints, coatings and vintage car parts. I was expecting it to be used in a historical context. Commerce trumps history, it seems.

Everypixel Rating: 1.0% out of 100%

Image Source: Digital SLR

Grey T-Shirt on White

Everypixel Rating: 0.0% out of 100%

Image Source: Digital SLR

This is another design element that is often used as part of a larger composition. It also appears as a standalone image in tutorials that range from logo creation to making a backpack from a shirt.

Toasting at Sea

I found this photo on a few cruise-related websites, but not nearly as often as it has been downloaded. This implies that it has been used more often in print than online.

Everypixel Rating: 6.5% out of 100%

Image Source: Point and Shoot Camera

Tangled Wires

I'm amazed at how many "how to organize cables" tutorials exist on the web. This photo also appears in articles about electrical safety and how to de-clutter a home. Its success is probably owed to the fact that it looks genuine, not staged.

Everypixel Rating: 3.3% out of 100%

Image Source: 35MM Film

Bullet Holes on White

Bullet holes are a commonly-used design element. Here is an example of this photo appearing on a retail package (that I designed).

Everypixel Rating: 0.0% out of 100%

Image Source: Flatbed Scanner

Why Does Artificial Intelligence Think These Photos Suck?

On average, Everypixel's Aesthetics tool rated these photos 15.93% out of a possible 100%. I don't know how this machine-learning program is trained to judge what makes a photo good or bad (the website doesn't say), but we can guess that it analyzes the visual characteristics of a photo.

This may not be as useful as it sounds.

Even if an image's artistic merit could be reduced to some objective score, the typical stock photo buyer isn't in the market for art: He or she is trying to drive business value

What Makes a Stock Photo "Good"

A good stock photo communicates a complex concept in a simple way. 

Someone cradling their face in their hand inside of a waiting room is depicting boredom. Light at the end of a tunnel depicts hope. An arrow sticking in a bullseye depicts accuracy.

Visual solutions like these are salable worldwide because the concepts are universal. Technical factors like composition, exposure and focus are prerequisites, but not the key selling point.

Can AI Predict Bestselling Stock Photos?

Artificial intelligence is good at extracting literal information from a photo. Show a neural network enough pictures of cats and it will learn to recognize cats. But, show a computer a picture of a cat with pink hair and a spiked collar and it won't recognize individuality.

Stock photo agencies should consider investing in AI to improve their search engine algorithms. At heart, this means mapping photos to concepts.

Google did something similar when it overhauled its algorithm in 2013. Project "Hummingbird" downplayed "keywords" in favor of context, concepts and the relationship between them. However, imagery is more complicated to analyze than text. 

Until the day comes when machines can understand the meaning of an image, stock photographers must rely on keywords to impart those meanings.

Stock Photos That Sell

I'd be rich if all of my stock photos performed as well as the ones featured in this article.

The stock photographers who make the most money are able to use visual trends (like 80s fashion, pastels and minimalism) to depict conceptual trends. Visual trends change often, but some concepts will always remain relevant:

  • Abundance

  • Accuracy

  • Ambition

  • Anticipation

  • Anxiety

  • Attitude

  • Balance

  • Beauty

  • Bonding

  • Boredom

  • Carefree

  • Childhood

  • Choice

  • Cold

  • Comfort

  • Competition

  • Concentration

  • Confidence

  • Connection

  • Cooperation

  • Creativity

  • Curiosity

  • Danger

  • Determination

  • Discrimination

  • Diversity

  • Energy

  • Escaping

  • Excitement

  • Exploration

  • Fear

  • Forever

  • Freedom

  • Freshness

  • Friendship

  • Fun

  • Gender

  • Greed

  • Growth

  • Guidance

  • Happiness

  • Hope

  • Hot

  • Ideas

  • Identity

  • Individuality

  • Indulgence

  • Learning

  • Loneliness

  • Love

  • Messiness

  • Motion

  • Mystery

  • Neatness

  • Power

  • Preparation

  • Pride

  • Protection

  • Purity

  • Readiness

  • Real People

  • Refreshment

  • Relaxation

  • Romance

  • Sadness

  • Safety

  • Satisfaction

  • Security

  • Simplicity

  • Skill

  • Speed

  • Strength

  • Stress

  • Success

  • Support

  • Time

  • Together

  • Tranquility

  • Variety

  • Wealth

  • Wonder

Final Words

I hope this article leaves you with a clearer picture of how to make money selling stock photos.

Stock photography is a business that supports businesses. The most successful photographers are the ones who create socially-relevant art that has high commercial value. They succeed because they understand markets and the needs of buyers. In the end, stock photography is a form of marketing.