What Makes a Marketable Photo

Rohn Engh

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In other words, which photos sell and which don’t?

From our experience, there are certain indicators that point to “good sellers, ” and to those that won't fare too well.

A major element concerns subject matter and its relation to “supply and demand. ” You might have a wonderful picture of a hot air balloon, but if the photobuyer has 10,000 such pictures to choose from, the law of probability for a sale is not on your side. The same goes for a photo of a sea gull, a covered bridge, a fireworks display, or a little child happily eating birthday cake. Supply and Demand.

Next, let's consider the technical aspect of your photo. A first place winner in an art photography contest does not automatically qualify as a “good seller. ” For example, that wonderful photo of a child eating a piece of cake, complete with all the joy in the world easy to read in the child’s eyes, might not be a good seller if the lighting is poor, or there’s camera shake, or the resolution is poor.

A photo of two workers putting down asphalt on a stretch of road, with passing busy traffic on a hot summer day, might not win a contest aesthetically, but it could be a good seller in a category such as “industry. "

The best guide to what type of photo sells is right in front of you on your coffee table in magazines, photo books, and trade publications, your children’s textbooks. Usually you’ll find the following elements present in highly marketable images:

Illustrative quality. Images that tell a story, evoke emotion, a mood, and are simple in design (not cluttered and confusing). Very often the photo can lend itself to illustrating a variety of subjects and concepts, thus extending its marketable prospects.

People. A vast majority of editorial stock photographs feature people in the photos. People involved in their everyday life. Aim to use “real people” in your photos, rather than commercial models. Editorial buyers prefer images with “regular” people in genuine situations. Reminder: When a photo is used for editorial purposes (information or entertainment) a signed release from the people in the picture is usually not required by your photobuyers.

Symbol. Any icon or familiar object utilized somewhere in the photo will help orient the viewer as to what’s going on in the image. It helps to make the viewer a collaborator in the effect of the photo. The object doesn’t have to be a clear-cut symbol, such as a smoke stack or a stop sign. It can be more subtle, such as a ribbon or a shoelace, but the easier and faster the viewer can recognize it, the better.

Consider the logo of successful corporations – they are often simple, and clearly convey a message for the company.


If you are putting your photos on line to market them, keywords descriptive of each photo are important elements in enhancing the marketability of your images. Single keywords of obscure or arcane subject matter can work, but for the most part, photobuyers will find you easier if you use multiple specific keywords to describe each image.

Photobuyers use search engines such as Google, Yahoo, MSN and others to help locate the source of photos quickly. You can be the photographer they locate, if you “caption” all of your photos with effective and specific keywords (keyphrases).

Think about it - how do you search for an item on the Internet? Reverse the process and imagine what keywords and phrases that you think a photobuyer would probably use to tap in to find one of your specific-content photos. Put these keywords in your photo-description listings, and do the same for all your photos. Time spent on this is well-spent; include relevant mood and situation descriptors as well as physical descriptions.

Rohn Engh is director of PhotoSource International and publisher of PhotoStockNotes. Pine Lake Farm, 1910 35th Road, Osceola, WI 54020 USA. Telephone: 1 800 624 0266 Fax: 1 715 248 7394. Web site: www.photosource.com/products


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