November 2, 2021

What Is Stock Photography, Anyway?

Contributed by FIFTEEN

Ever wonder what it’s like modeling for a stock photographer? How much would you get paid? What would you wear? What would you do if you ever saw yourself on a billboard advertising fecal incontinence medication?

And what is stock photography, anyway?

Chances are you see stock photography every day, multiple times a day, without even realizing. It’s a fairly common subgenre in the advertising world where marketers can pay photographers and online repositories to use images in a wide variety of materials: websites, magazines, bus shelters, brochures...

This got us to thinking: how exactly does one become a stock model (or a stock photographer, for that matter)? Is it something they fell into, or do they set out to do it? We decided to go straight to the source and ask the models and photographers themselves to share their experiences, and feel lucky to have gotten responses from such a wide array of people: both current and former; U.S. and internationally-based.

Sarah Skilton (@skiltongram) is a rom-com book author, but briefly had a stint as a stock model around 15 years ago, while between jobs as a production assistant and writer in LA.

“When you live in LA, it's tempting to shoot your shot with showbiz because ‘Why not? It's right there!’” she said. “I signed up at Central Casting in Burbank to be an extra, and within a week I was wandering around in the background of the TV show Alias. It was fun, so I looked at Craigslist for other jobs in front of a camera.”

Skilton said the category T4P, which stands for “Time for Prints,” helped get her foot in the door. “I gave them my time, and as payment, a photographer and make-up artist who were looking to try out new techniques, update their portfolios, or simply get more practice in, paid me with shots. This arrangement benefited all parties and I was happy to have free headshots and outdoor shots with professional equipment, hair and makeup, which I then used to secure paid work.”

Skilton said she was paid between $75 and $150 per shoot in 2005, and even though she only did it for about a year, the experience obviously had lasting effects, since one of the leads in her latest book, Hollywood Ending, has some misadventures as a print and fit model.

Cesar Garcia (@cesar_garcia_artist) is a stock model in Serbia, and said that even though he’d been making a living as an actor, about a year ago he decided to give stock modeling a try. “One day I started studying the market and said, ‘I can do that,’” he said. “I messaged brands and photographers, like thousands of them, and sent them my presentation and some good photos (from my acting jobs). Some of them wrote back and then I started to have photoshoots and make face-to-face connections and started to market myself online and make a visual CV.”

After a while, Garcia said, the jobs started coming to him, based on recommendations from previous gigs. Garcia’s genre is mostly business or corporate-type shoots, such as for hotels and restaurants. He’s also seen an uptick in COVID-type photography that includes masks and said even though he comes to set wearing his own clothes and does his own hair and makeup, having a definitive sense of style can help land more jobs. “In a few cases there’s been a specific wardrobe direction and the production staff gives me the exact clothes they want to wear,” he said. “However, having some nicer, flattering clothes in neutral colors without branding or labels can help bring in more jobs.”

Jonny Long, a Portland-based stock photographer and owner of Fly View Productions, has been producing visual media for the stock photo/video industry since 2011. He loves shooting lifestyle imagery, but admits he doesn’t always know what’s going to prove popular with download rates, although he’s aware of the growing demand for underrepresented demographics, which he tries to fulfill.

Long said that a lot of planning goes into his shoots, such as wardrobe, location and casting, plus more strategic considerations like current trends and keywords, all while trying to tie in relevant briefs delivered by the agency. Still, Long said the key for him is to remain flexible and be open to going with the flow.

“We try to come up with a plan and framework for our shoot days, but are completely okay with letting a shoot take on a life of its own,” he said. “More often than not, working with and taking what our talent gives us in addition to the elements/location leads to my favorite content. I usually have a plan, and that plan is frequently thrown out the window as I don’t want my stubborn ideas of what I ‘need’ to get, to get in the way of what’s naturally unfolding in front of me.

“I’m always amazed at what does or does not take off,” he continued. “There are images or clips we shoot that I’m certain will be top downloaded assets that never have a single download, then there are others, that in my opinion aren’t even in the top assets from a particular shoot, that take on a life of their own and perform really well.”

Long frequently notices his work “out in the wild,” and said it’s fun to observe how it’s utilized. Billboards, magazines, trains/buses, and all over the Web are just some of the places he sees his photography. ”It’s especially fun to have content sent to us that people find globally, and to realize how far of a reach our media has worldwide,” he said.

Jordi Salas (@jordisalasphoto) was an established events photographer for 17 years in Spain before turning to stock photography in 2020, a move that was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said his favorite stock photography genre is lifestyle, and he enjoys shooting on location because it gives him the opportunity to meet different people. He also savors the challenge of blending his point of view with commercial photography styles and trying to make his shots as marketable as possible.

Salas echoed Long’s sentiments about noticing a shift with clients looking for diversity in his work. “I think the demand is growing every day; the clients are looking for natural and non-regular beauty,” he said. In fact, one of Salas’ top selling photos, one he sold to a major makeup company, is of a Latin American teenager with acne.

“Competition is extremely high, and it’s not easy to have sales,” he said. “Even if a stock agency like Getty or Shutterstock accepts your work, that doesn’t mean it’s going to sell. It can be frustrating, and I'm learning you need to have a very big and diverse portfolio in order to be successful. But the reward is also big: you will be able to shoot what you want, when you want and most important: you can be your own boss!”

For more information on when you should opt for original photography versus when it makes sense to go with stock, check out our handy chart and accompanying article here.

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