5 Characteristics of Successful Stock Photos

If you are interested or are selling your outdoor and nature photography, there are important factors to creating images the markets will want. It is not always clear on what exactly what makes for a successful image, but there are some ideas inherent in many  successful images that are proven time and again.

Successful stock photos earn money over and over. While it is nice to license an image once or twice, it’s even better when an image licenses many times.

While there are many nature images that appear to sell simply because they are beautiful images, there is usually an underlying reason the image is succeeding beyond its simple beauty.

That beauty in itself often tells a story about the photograph and its location by evoking an emotion. As an example, people buy calendars, gift or note cards, for the pictures. The picture evokes an emotion that prompted a purchase because the buyer gets joy from observing the picture(s).

People often buy products based more on the pictures than the text indicating that the photograph was successful by prompting the impulse to buy.

Here are 5 characteristics of successful selling images:

Technical Perfection

  • This is a no brainer! Sharpness, correct exposure, great lighting, no artifacts, low noise. These are often required for an image to be successful.


  • In today’s digital world, believability has become a characteristic that can make or break an images appeal within the market. With the ability to Photoshop just about anything conceived, photographers should take note about what they do in the digital darkroom.
  • From sunset skies that are darker than the foreground, to unrealistic saturation and HDR, the need to explore the markets and see what is published should be the definitive guide to how much image processing makes for a marketable image.
    For those shooting people, a parka from 1979 with colors not available anymore to an orange tent in a campsite can result in images that don’t stand a chance in the market. The need to research what is published today should guide your approach.


While I have had my fun with grungy HDR, I have not seen myself, much if any commercial licensing of images using this technique.

Story or theme

  • Successful images tell a story and have a strong theme about them. They captivate the viewer who looks at the picture and draws a conclusion as to what the image is about and the message behind it.
  • For the client using the image, they are looking for the photo that tells the story to the audience they are looking to reach. Often commercial stock image buyers and photo editors have a theme already in place and then seek an image that states that theme.
  • While it is not always easy for the photographer to think of themes while out shooting, the simple mindset of ‘building a photo’ over ‘taking pictures’ often means that there is a sub conscious process at work.

This trail image is not that great of a photo when you think of calendar quality images. But it told the story the client wanted to say.

Broad Appeal

  • The goal for every stock photo is that it has broad appeal and sells many times to a diverse client base with different needs and goals. With a strong story or theme that can carry across diverse concepts, a variety of clients might use the same image for completely different messages. The idea is to capture images where a wide spectrum of clients finds that the image states their message.


This camping image has been widely used including a clothing catalog, a beer advertisement, various magazines, and more. It has universal appeal.


  • Not every successful stock photo must be unique but if it is then there is an increased chance it will do well in the markets. This would include images that are once-in-a-lifetime captures of events in nature like a hurricane, lightning in an unusual place, or an adventure image that makes the viewer stop and look.
    There are plenty of beautiful flower images, waterfalls, national park landmarks, and more, in the markets waiting to sell. It’s the images of these same places that are remarkable and stand out that tend to be used more often.


This lightning image has been licensed numerous times and in most cases it was because it was unique. We see lightning pictures all the time and they may be licensed as well. One of this images attributes is room for text. In almost all usages I was involved, text was overlaid across the image.

While most nature photographers wander in search of great scenes to capture, leaving home with a goal in mind can often result in photography that produce better results in the markets.

For example, you might be headed out this weekend to hike and photograph a waterfall. If you are going with a hiking or with a companion, get them outfitted with the proper apparel and a small day pack. Then place them at the base of the waterfall observing nature and the falls.

You will come home with beautiful waterfall pictures and also beautiful waterfall pictures with a person. The person gives scale to the scene but also tells a story and meets the concepts that commercial photo buyers seek.

While your waterfall image might make it in the calendar, your person image might be in the magazine or an advertisement for the Granola bar in a magazine.

Keep in mind these characteristics for successful stock images on your next shoot and some day you just might be surprised with the results.


– Charlie Borland  – BPSOP Instructor

Charlie is teaching following courses at BPSOP:

Mastering Canon Flash Photography

Mastering Photography for Architecture & Real Estate

Student Special Feature

It’s Wednesday which means it’s time for a look at some student work!  We recently checked in again with Anne-Marie Littenberg to see how she has been doing.  She shared some recent images, which blew us away so we thought we would feature her again.  She sent us some more words about BPSOP.

I enrolled at BPSOP for the first time a year ago, after having consumed Bryan Peterson’s books. The books were a great start, but my learning curve really took off when I started taking classes. “Understanding Exposure” provided an excellent foundation because it taught me how to use my equipment so I no longer even think about putting my camera on automatic.

Studies with Kathleen Clemons, Ron Goldman, Bryan Peterson, and Chris Hurtt provided an incredible tool box of skills I don’t think I would have been able to develop through books.  The skills range from the technical (how to use equipment or achieve specific effects) to the artistic (how do I reach a specific artistic vision, and develop my own style?). Instructors’ talents are great, and they are wonderfully generous with their time and attention.

An aspect of BPSOP I love is the interaction with classmates from around the world. We help each other with problem solving, do additional critiquing of each other’s work, and generally have a great time. I get to see the world through the lenses of folks in Jordan, India, and Europe from my computer in Northern Vermont. I wish my college classes from 30-something years ago had been this much fun, and that I had learned as many practical and creative skills and techniques as I do through BPSOP.


– Anne-Marie Littenberg – BPSOP Student

Get Closer


Very often I get asked, ‘what is one thing that I can do to improve my travel images or my photojournalism imagery?’  My answer: GET CLOSER.


When photographing most of us simply snap a shot from where we were standing and aim over at what we are interested in, maybe zooming. But do we take a few moments and actually get to see and know what we were looking over at?  Have you tried getting closer?  Let’s take a look at two main subjects that can often benefit with ‘getting closer’: people and scenes.


Here is a test for you to see if this theory applies to you.  Take a look at some of your more recent images.  Ask yourself out loud, or even ask a friend or stranger to look at your images and ask, “Would the main subject of this photo be stronger if I were closer physically?”



By ‘physically’ I mean, well, physically and not simply with a longer zoom lens.  Long lenses are critical for a lot of work, especially when you can’t physically be closer in any way.  They can be great for ‘street shooting’ and of course for wildlife.  However the downside is they can flatten a shot or scene, and can also create a real sense of great distance from your subject.  They help us stay in our comfort zone, and also can seem to help stay in the subjects comfort zone too, (especially lions and grizzly bears, and Sean Penn!)  But take a look at your images again, and ask that question again.


Here is your challenge.  The next time you are out with your camera, (which I hope is nearly always for you) use a 50mm lens or wider, and take the photo as you normally would.  Find the scene and subject that interests you and simply snap the photo that you ‘feel’ is how you would typically create.  Then start to ask yourself the question, “Can I be closer somehow?”  Then zoom with your feet.  Step in closer, don’t just twist that zoom barrel or switch to a longer lens.  Physically walk in closer and keep shooting.


You will probably feel a little weird, and almost invasive in a way, but endeavor to get closer physically.  You will notice if you are using a wider-angle lens that you will get quite a bit of distortion, but don’t worry about that at first. This is an exercise to simply get your body accustomed to be closer to things, and see how you can compose and craft a cool image.


Once you get accustomed to physically being closer, then see if that distortion is harming your image, or helping it.  If it harms or looks to be too much, then slowly zoom the lens barrel and slowly back up.  You will see things begin to become more normal but be sure to not lose the essence of closeness to the subject and showing what helps to tell your story. Some distortion can be a good thing, or isn’t as harmful as you think.



Typically when first challenging a photographer to get closer to people there is a fair amount of resistance and even some fear, or trepidation.  People can seem scary, can’t they? We are all aware of respecting a person’s privacy and their own ‘bubble of safety’.  I am very cautious when shooting to be respectful of this, as I want my subjects to trust me.  The more they trust me the more access they will give me: meaning time, attention, effort, or even allow me to physically be closer to them.  Typically the closer I can get, the better the images can be made.  It’s a team effort, and the more they trust me the easier it is to make stronger photos.  One of the things I find that works for me is to simply start a casual conversation with the person, and ask them questions about themselves.  You were thinking of photographing them for some reason.  How about conveying that reason, and ask them to teach you about who they are before you snap that photo?  It can be some of those elements of the person that you can ‘get closer’ on: their eyes, smile, hands, what they are working on, or simply a closer more intimate portrait of all of them.




Once we get started or they allow me to photograph them, each question is 2-3 snaps of the shutter.  When it is all said and done, I have 20-30 images at least of the subject where they and I are close together or close to the action. It’s rarely, RARELY ever able to be just one frame, you have to shoot a few. Somewhere in there is the best shot. Usually, it’s closer than where I started, but not always the closest point entirely. When I flip through the images later I look for the one that helps me tell the complete story, in one frame. That’s why I shoot a bunch and play with being closer and stepping back.


All great journalists and travel shooters know that it is our job to help you the viewer, to look at an image and not just see what is happening out there, but what does it feel like to be there in the middle of it all.  My advice?  Get in the middle of it all and find out.  Be curious.


Now, get out there and get closer!


– Alan M. Thornton – BPSOP Instructor

Alan Teaches:

Travel Photography

Travel Photography II

Lighting with Strobes


“Light” is one of the most critical elements needed to craft a great photograph, though at times it can be one of the most difficult things to find or control to look exactly they way you wish it too. If we are fortunate there might be some great natural light out there, and we happen to be awake at 5:30 am to catch that great sunrise light. Or maybe you took Bobbi Lanes, “Portraits Unplugged” course, and learned how to craft and hone available light that you might be able to find.

So what happens when you don’t have that great available light, or more importantly, you want to sleep in?! No worries, strobes are here to save the day!

From food and still life, to portraits and products, strobes are here to help you to really take complete control, and master the craft of photography and light. Strobes are amazing because they allow you to dictate it’s feel and essence, and it’s brightness and contrast. They also allow you to make images when there is no light, or the weather is bad, or you just don’t want to leave the house! Lighting with strobes not only does all of that, but they also allow you to have complete control over creativity; you are calling all the shots. (I think they make you thinner too, not 100% on that one though, so don’t hold me to it.)


…or you can capture a sense of action and intensity…


…capture someone’s character and history…


…or simply make a memorable portrait of a good friend and his baby son…


Strobes can do all that, and so much more. Now, they do come at a price, (literally), and they also take a bit of time, training, and practice to understand and master. It might look like it’s too complex for you to take on, but we have a solution for that. BPSOP and I are pulling together to make a great Intro to Lighting with Strobes course to help you out with understanding how to use a studio strobe light, it’s modifiers, how to set them up, create your own home studio space on a budget, and how to get the right exposures and contrast! It’s a great course with a lot of fun, facts, and so much technical info you might need a forklift to handle it all! It’s very simple structure and format allows you to learn the technical aspects step by step, and the weekly assignments allow you to practice and try things out. Each week we get together for a critique and answer your questions, and help you lock in how to get those lights to do what you want. Our goal is to get you comfortable and confidant to get those lights out and to make some amazing images that look, feel, and say what you want them to! I hope you’ll join me!!


Alan M Thornton – BPSOP Instructor

Alan Teaches:

Intro to Lighting with Strobes

Travel Photography I

Travel Photography II

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  • Thank you so very much for this course! It’s allowed me to take the blinders off and present my images for what I want them to be without being a slave to the “reality” of the camera. I would also add that in conjunction with your printing course, this has been the most useful course I’ve ever taken. Your notes are more than comprehensive and your comments and critiques are direct, clear, and always directed to the improvement of the art. Read More
    Bill After The Click
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