Photos That Sell

“Bill, make sure ?you jump far enough; I don’t want you to land on me,” I half-jokingly tell my climbing partner as he carefully stacks the rope at the edge of the crevasse.

As if jumping across a huge crevasse isn’t enough, I continue to direct Bill. “Stretch out so you make a clean shape as you jump. Try holding the ice axe out to the side. And kick up snow as you jump; that will really make it look dramatic.”

I’m attached to an ice wall, dangling in my harness, waiting for Bill to jump over me and across the crevasse. It’s March in Alaska, and hanging inside this crevasse reminds me of a grape popsicle in my freezer at home. But Bill has the hard job. If he doesn’t make it across the crevasse, he’s going to bounce off me as he lands in soft snow 20 feet below us.

“Three, two, one—here I go!” Bill yells as he takes a flying leap off the lip of the crevasse. For a split second, he’s frozen in the air against the blue sky, gracefully leaping over the gap. His form is perfect, and my camera is practically smoking as I shoot 9 frames a second.

“Amazing! That was awesome!” I holler up from below. “I bet that image is going to sell really well.”

Little did I know I had just created one of my best-selling images.

A logical progression for aspiring photographers or part-time pros is creating images that sell in today’s marketplace. With the explosion of the Internet and new sources of media, today’s photographers have more outlets than ever before to sell their images. Some photographers sell their work as stock, others shoot landscapes to sell at art shows, and pro photographers are tapped to create images for editorial or advertising projects. In the end, you need to create an image that “sells.” Here’s the good news. Many tried-and-true principles that create a good photograph also create an image that sells well. But there are other considerations beyond good composition that determine what images will create income. Follow these guidelines, and your images should rise to the top of the pack and make the sale.


In today’s competitive market, producing images that are technically perfect is expected. I’ve done portfolio reviews where the photographer describes how, even though the image is a little out of focus, it’s a great shot because of the subject. I know the photographer is emotionally invested in his work, but photo editors and fine-art buyers are not. They look at work objectively, and the image either matches what they need or it doesn’t. Put on your thick skin, present your work, and listen to the feedback. Start by having a technically correct shot. Proper exposure and focus and dust-free images are a necessity.


Nine times out of 10, people will prefer a simple, clean image over a busy, cluttered one. The human eye likes or-
der—you don’t want to get dizzy trying to figure out what’s going on in an image. Try this exercise: Pick your 10 favorite images, and look at them closely. What do you really like about them? I’m willing to bet that most of the images are clean, simple shots, and the shots that aren’t simple are those where you have an emotional attachment to the subject (stay objective if you want to sell your work). When I shoot editorial, advertising or stock images, I know my client will want powerful, clean images to sell the story or product, so I keep things simple.


When shooting images to sell or license as stock, a good practice is to “shoot concepts, not subjects.” Here’s an example. I photographed dog sledding for a tourism bureau in Alaska. The client wanted images that would encourage people to visit Alaska, and one of Alaska’s unique aspects is the raw, unmatched beauty of the state. While my subject was dog sledding, the concept was beauty and wonderment of the grand Alaskan landscape. I started this shoot creating tight shots of a family enjoying dog sledding, illustrating joy and happiness, but I quickly had the mushing team travel below massive glaciated peaks in the distance. Combined with snowy glaciers and blue skies, this shot really captured the stunning beauty of the area. The dog sled gave perspective to the image, but the shot was about the concept of beauty and solitude. Here was a place where visitors could get away from the stress of city life.


Have you ever noticed how each year there’s some big fad or trend that seems to be everywhere in the media? Sometimes it’s a current event, a political policy or a new piece of technology. Remember when the first iPods came out? I had multiple stock agencies telling me they needed shots of iPods being used by everyone from kids to grandmas. The iPod was hot, and images were needed in the marketplace using this new technology. Nothing has changed. People will buy images that capture current trends. My images of hikers using a first-generation laptop near a tent will never sell again—the computer looks comical, it’s so outdated. But if I shot the same image with a new MacBook Air, chances are someone might license this stock shot for a project.


One surefire way to create images that will sell is to capture something no one else has. In essence, you’re eliminating your competition because there’s no other shot like it. Admittedly, this is hard to do. Almost every iconic symbol, landscape and location has been photographed extensively. If you take the same shot everyone else has, you’ll be competing against the masses to sell the shot. There are a few ways to make your image stand out. First, try to find a unique angle for a familiar location. Explore aerial views, or try lying on the ground. Second, wait for unique light. I’ve licensed a shot of the Tetons over and over because of the wild storm clouds that surrounded the peaks. I was shooting from the standard spot, but the weather created something unique. If the subject is smaller, try creating your own unique light by adding flash. Third, capture an event no one else has photographed. Having a camera close at hand is a good policy for unexpected dramatic photos. Maybe you see a rare animal or capture a dramatic sunset in your town. These are unique images and will have selling potential.


A great way to entice someone to buy or license your work is to capture emotion. Capturing emotion strikes a chord with many buyers; everyone relates their past experiences to strong emotional shots. Who can resist seeing a child bursting with laughter swinging at the playground? Capturing emotion will capture buyers.


Which image would you buy to hang over your fireplace? Image one is a moose dripping in water while grazing on a lakeshore under midday sun and harsh blue light. Image two is the same moose in the same location, but with warm, rich light bathing the scene. Most people would pick image two to hang on their wall. Create images in favorable light for the subject and concept you’re shooting. If you’re a landscape shooter, shoot at sunrise and sunset for beautiful light. If you’re a portrait shooter, use flattering light on your subjects so they’re happy with the final shot. For a beauty shot, you might use a large softbox. For a sports portrait, you might use hard-edged light for a g
ritty look.


Similar to using good light, seek out color patterns that work together and create a strong image. When I was shooting in Yellowstone this winter, I photographed dramatic textures and patterns in the snow in many of my landscape images. When I processed them, I saturated the blue color in snow to make the shot more dramatic. Blue signifies cold and winter, and adds impact to the shot. Remember, this is about selling your images in the marketplace. I find adding a little color and saturating landscapes makes them more dramatic and sellable. My buyers don’t care if I saturated a little color. On the other hand, some buyers may want unaltered images. Newspapers have strict standards on any manipulation of images published. Determine to whom you’re selling and what’s appropriate for that market.


One way to improve your odds in creating marketable images is knowing your subject. Ask any sports photographer, and he or she will tell you that knowing when and where the critical action takes place is the key to success. You might get lucky, but luck favors the prepared. When I photograph whitewater kayaking, I always know exactly where the paddler will go and what will be the most dramatic spot in the rapid. If you’re photographing a local celebrity, do your research so you can establish rapport with your subject. This will make the shoot more relaxed, and you may get an image no one else has taken before.


Another technique to sell or license more images is taking advantage of your strengths and unique situation. Imagine if you had a friend who was a dentist. He goes to work in a dentist’s office with all the equipment one uses as a dentist. This is your advantage. Hire a model, go to your dentist friend’s office, and shoot a variety of medical stock images. You have access others don’t. Another example is having technical ability others don’t, which allows you access to shots no one else can get. Only experienced climbers summit Everest, so the image pool from this location will be small. Everyone has some sort of “home court advantage” in his or her image-making. Don’t overlook using it.


So far we’ve talked about techniques for creating images that sell. But the bottom line is that if buyers don’t see your work, they can’t buy your images. Whether it’s selling prints at the local art show or marketing your work as stock, you need to get as much visibility of your photographs as you can. Your odds of selling your work improve with more exposure. Is that crevasse jumper image still selling? I just finished writing a book on photographing adventure sports, and Bill jumping the crevasse was chosen as the cover shot. When you create a good shot, it just keeps on selling.

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. Visit at

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