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.

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