How do you choose winning images?

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I was having a look at Shutterstock‘s new darkroom for contributors. It’s still in experimental phase, but looks pretty good to me already. In the Gallery View, we can view total earnings for individual images and these images appear in a list in order of total purchases, total earned or by the date uploaded. I clicked on total earned to see the order of my most lucrative images.

What are my earners?

I have a very small portfolio on Shutterstock, at the moment just 145 images. In a collection of 14.5 million images, it’s amazing that my images are found at all. However, my images are downloaded by buyers pretty much everyday and to date have been downloaded 1021 times. Looking at my top earning photos, I’m trying to see if there are any trends. 2 out of my top 10 earners are editorial images, 2 are landscapes (1 taken from a passenger plane), 1 is a cityscape (taken from a passenger plane), 4 are portraits and 1 is a still life shot, so a fair mix. Out of these 145 images, 52% of my earnings have come from just 10 images, which is just 6.9% of my portfolio and between them have been downloaded 434 times. If only there was a microstock clairvoyant plugin which could tell you what images you shouldn’t spend your time on. Could I have guessed that my top 10 shots would have done so well before I uploaded them? Possibly, but as much as I try to choose only winners to send to agencies, time and time again I guess wrong and it often surprises me that what I think may have great potential, often gets rejected by reviewers. But the reviewers don’t always get it right. More than 50% of my earnings are from just 10 images, but the reviewers had confidence in all 145 of them, many of which have just had a few downloads and 38 images haven’t had any downloads at all. So to a large extent it seems that they are guessing too.

Why are they winners?

Like many people who submit to microstock, I am not a full time photographer and take photos, edit and upload when I can. Until now, I haven’t spent too much time analysing my sales and just send the agencies images I like. But I want to start focusing more on what buyers like, so I will look more closely at what sells from now on. What is unusual about my own stats is that only 2 of my top ten most profitable photos on Shutterstock were shot with all seriousness, for me that mostly means going to an event with the intent of getting marketable images, but I also occasionally shoot models and still life. 8 out of my 10 most profitable shots were taken when I just had my camera with me (which is not always), without having any events to go to or ideas in my head, random pictures of people and places. So the images which I seem to be putting the least effort into are making me the most money. Maybe I should stop trying altogether.

I’m trying to find reasons to why these shots are doing so well. Walking around aimlessly and stopping if something or someone catches my eye is what I enjoy doing and what I have always done. I love to take portraits of ordinary people, but on the occasions I shoot models or still life, I find myself just wanting to get the shoot over with. The logic is, if you’re not enjoying it you’re not going to get the best results. Events I go to often just last a few hours, there is of course a certain pressure if you know that you have just a short time to get some decent shots. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the events I go to or I don’t come out with anything good, but I still prefer to be walking around aimlessly and stopping if something or someone catches my eye. Also, often events that I go to have lots of photographers, with many of them being full time professionals, directly or indirectly this is my competition, which may be a much tougher competition than those who I’m competing with taking random photos of people and places.

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I have experimented with all sorts of photography, but just don’t seem to enjoy it as much as what I already know and feel is second nature to me. And if I look at my top selling photographs on Shutterstock most of them represent what I feel I do best. Other images, although accepted by Shutterstock but of subjects I feel that aren’t my strongest, are competing with images by photographers who have more of a passion for these subjects, and it probably shows in their work. So although it may be good to diversify, the chances are that you are not going to be good at everything and it might be better to find what you’re good at and try to perfect it.

Shelf life

The nice thing about stock is that the work you do today can reward you for years and years. So it’s worth remembering when you shoot if the image you take has longevity. I have an image of passport stamps which sold really well for quite a while. However, sales of this image all but died out. The stamps date from 2006 to 2008, so the image looks outdated now. The image below though, of a Cambodian boy playing the flute, which I sent to agencies a couple of years ago, continues to sell consistently and I expect it to keep selling for years to come, well at least as long as there are boys in Cambodia selling flutes to tourists.

Get Big Headed

Ideally we would want a large revenue from each one of our images online. Although it may not be possible to have equal success with all our images, analysing our sales and images from time to time could help us to increase the size of our head and reduce the length of our tail, in other words being able to recognise and produce more of what sells and recognising also what doesn’t do so well. It seems I have a long way to go. Inevitably though, there will always be certain images which for whatever reasons just hit the right chord with buyers, whether we could predict it or not.

Your observations

These are personal observations and thoughts from my own portfolio, but I would be interested to know about winning images from your own portfolio. Why do they sell so well and how good are you at choosing winners?

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8 thoughts on “How do you choose winning images?

  1. You have touched on a science Getty and the like have rooms full of people working on.

    My top-selling image at Shutterstock is of smoke on a black background. It has sold on every type of license and sells almost daily. The irony? It was rejected by 9 other agencies. Studio shoots with models on concepts such as finanace and xmas are consistent (seasonally is consistent too).

    Landscapes are slower sellers for me. I have a huge food portfolio, so it does well, but don’t bother if it’s not styled or good food 🙂

    1. That is ironic. One of my images on Shutterstock was rejected from all but one other agency. I remember thinking when sending it that the agencies will probably reject it as it’s borderline snapshot. However, I like the image so sent it anyway. Luckily Shutterstock accepted it and it is now one of my top 10 earning images there. This is the image.

  2. I feel that the best system only rejects images which have material defects or copyright issues. However this needs to be balanced by a culling of the database based on performance. For instance, no sales in a year or two flags the image for potential deletion. This could be automatic, or it could be up to a reviewer.

    Even the best image producers are often surprised by what sells. And we all have images which were rejected by one agency (or more), yet accepted elsewhere and became a best seller. The review process is very fallible.

    1. You make some good points and the system you suggest could be a good one. I guess I wouldn’t mind having my non-selling photos deleted in a year or two, in return for a better image acceptance rate. If the images don’t sell then that is the ultimate review. To have images that you just know will sell well, but rejected through a reviewer guessing incorrectly, is not fair for sellers and buyers too, as they are also missing out.

  3. I have a portfolio of over 4000 photos. When I started I wanted to put as many photos as possible. Now I have slowed down and upload more quality photos. However, you never know what will sell. For example I took a photo of a friend in the bonnet of his car doing some mechanical repairs. It is now in my top 30 sellers. I agree you need to shoot what you love. As a travel photographer I love wandering headlessly and see where my camera will take me. I claim that my camera is like a passport into people’s lives. People open their houses and heart to me. That is when I feel alive.
    Photography is a form of expression. Stock is the outlet with all the mags and websites that use my pics. Just do what you love…over analysing makes no real sense. A beautiful photo is like a beautiful woman…you can’t always put your finger on what makes her pretty apart from the fact that you feel the emotion.

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