How to shoot a $1000 best seller photo.

What stock photography sells best?

Are you a photographer selling your work online? Maybe directly on your website or on major stock sites like Shuttterstock, Istock, Adobe or Dreamstime?

Ever wondered why some images sell better than others?

Or why some images don’t sell at all?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the aspects that could help make money selling stock photography.

Products in this post:

1. What subject to shoot.

Not in my wildest dreams could I have planned a photographic opportunity like this. Remarkable situations, difficult to achieve or to repeat assures unique content, and make your images stand out from the crowd.

Luckily we don’t have to rely only on luck to shoot great photos and with dedication and mindful thinking, there’s an endless unique situation to create from scratch.

This tender moment of 5 lion cubs was taken on a game drive in Tsukudu Game Lodge in South Africa. We were extremely lucky to spot these animals and I was only able to take 20 shots with a Canon 7dMark 11 and a Canon EF 70 – 200mm 1:2.8 L IS USM lens.

best selling photos
©karelnoppe_Close up of lion cubs laying together waiting upon mother.

Not in my wildest dreams could I have planned a photographic opportunity like this. Remarkable situations, difficult to achieve or repeat assure unique content, and make your images stand out from the crowd.

Luckily we don’t have to rely only on luck to shoot great photos and with dedication and mindful thinking, there are endless unique situations to create from scratch.

2. Know your public.

Choosing a subject or niche is crucial when deciding on what to shoot. Searching on google or photo libraries on any stock agency could give a good insight into existing content.

The importance of knowing the quality and quantity of your competitors could help in making a wise decision. Not all subjects have the same commercial demand.

Lifestyle shots of an African kid doing homework with her mom have a much wider audience than an “easy to get” image of a sunset on a lake.

Sunset is a good example of an over-saturated subject for commercial use.

best selling photos
©karelnoppe_Close up portrait of african teacher supervising little kid doing homework outdoors.

Above image was shot with the Canon 7dMark 11 and the  Canon 100mm f/2.8 Usm L Macro Lens.

best selling photos
©karelnoppe_Sunset at Lake St Lucia, South Africa.

3. Think generic.

Most of my best-selling images have a few basic elements in common. Selling simple images with generic topics could attract a wide variety of clients.

This image of a young woman driving a convertible is fairly simple, neat, and with little visual confusion.

best selling photos
©karelnoppe Photography_Portrait of Young girl driving cabriolet at sunset.

Diverse potential clients like car manufacturers, insurance companies, driving schools, advertising companies, tourism boards, bloggers, news agencies, car hire services, car retail services, and financial entities, could be interested.

This image could also evoke some conceptual emotions like luxury, wanderlust, women’s rights, or being on vacation. Images with more than one identity are a good choice to reach more public.

Image shot with the Canon 5D Mark IV and the Canon EF 70 – 200mm 1:2.8 L IS USM

Trending topics and holiday events are always in demand. The image of a Philippine Tarsier primate is unique but in this case too singular, limited, and has little commercial value.

©karelnoppe_Philippine Tarsier Primate

4. Do research.

After choosing your subject it’s time to do an in-depth search both online and on printed media. Looking at other photographers’ portfolios could also be a source of inspiration, but don’t copy.

This fine-tuned search could help with the choice of your Color palette, clothing, location, lighting, models, and what photographic gear to use.

Knowing your client’s needs is important to plan and to per-visualize your shoot. The more information you have beforehand the better.

5. Keep it simple.

In my opinion, looking at any thumbnail picture should immediately reveal the content of the image.

Too much information makes it more difficult to see what the picture is all about and most probably won’t qualify as a “best seller”. Keeping it simple guarantees fewer mistakes and more visual impact.

My preferred color palette is between 2 to 4 colors.

best selling stock photos
©karelnoppe_Close up Low light portrait of young woman relaxing in foam bath.Low colorful candlelight ambient with candles on bath tub.

Above low light scene was lit with existing color LEDs and candles.

I used the Manfrotto 190 XPro Carbon tripod and the “nifty fifty” Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM lens for a sharp image and bokeh.

I only use black or dark tones for some luxury products, food, sensual, and beauty portraits. That vast majority of my best-selling commercial content has bright or high-key tones.

food photography
©karelnoppe_Macro close up of appetizing chocolate brownie with dark chocolate dressing and vanilla ice cream against a black background.

Chocolate Brownie Image shot with Canon 100mm f/2.8 Usm L Macro Lens.

6. With or without People.

Images with people sell really well. Diverse people, couples, kids, seniors, or anyone ” camera-friendly enough could become part of the best-selling photo.

photography that sells
©karelnoppe_Close up face shot portrait of two multiracial friends showing affection outdoors.

Real people are more in demand than ever. That doesn’t mean forgetting about professional models. Depending on your needs professional models may be the right choice and a good investment.

The first thing to consider though before shooting people is a MODEL Release or Property release for any property or artwork.

Be sure to have these releases sign in advance. My portfolio has more images of people. Many other niches like food, interiors, architecture, objects, landscapes, or conceptual images are good choices with big sales potential.

top 10 photo selling websites
©karelnoppe_Moving cars leaving rays of colorful lights on busy highway at dusk.

7. Appearance and quality.

If you’re serious about commercializing your photos then consider using the best possible photographic gear. Smartphone photography could be the right choice for social media and personal snapshots but has limitations for shooting high-quality commercial images.

Investing in good camera gear pays off in the end. Read more about some photographic gear in my post “Secrets to shoot stunning Real Estate photos”. 

The camera doesn’t make the photographer but a good camera with good glass will certainly help to produce high-quality images. Think of your photoshoot like a pile of dominoes.


Neglecting one of these steps will affect the others in the same way. Taking care of details in your shots is important. The same portrait of a model smiling or frowning could completely change the mood and feeling of the image.

©karelnoppe_African girl in front of vegetable dish

Adobe Lightroom could add that extra touch to make your images pop. The last and one of the most important aspects to bear in mind is “keywording”.

Read my post on “How to be successful with stock photography”

"Remember that Google can't see photos
  and depends on KEYWORDS, 
 good DESCRIPTION to classify 
 and rank images"

Starting off by answering these 5 questions…Who? What? When? Where? Why? Explain action, color, emotions, expressions, age, and every important aspect of the image. With your eyes closed If you’re able to describe an image by only listening to the keywords then you are good to go!!

This image below is a studio portrait with a white seamless backdrop. Basic retouching with Adobe Photoshop and adding a different backdrop opens new opportunities.

Shot with the Canon 5D Mark IV and the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Usm L Macro Lens.

I used  3 Elinchrom Ranger Quadra RX Hybrid Pro with a Elinchrom Rotalux rectabox 60 x 80 cm on the main light.

©karelnoppe_Attractive black girl wearing a stylish yellow dress in the vineyard

Final Thoughts.

This post is based on my personal experience selling commercial photography. My photos have been purchased in more than 150 countries in the last 10 years. I believe in quality over quantity.

I hope this article helped with some insights to start making money with your stock photography business.


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