An Approach for Building Your Portfolio

It's one thing to sit down and think of ideas to submit for stock, but I see a lot of people taking the same approach as I do: We mainly shoot what we know. Specifically, we work within our comfort level and skillset. I don't have a studio nor do I have access to models so I generally revert to do the same types of images. Keeping your portfolio growing is a challenge if you're going to continue in the same rut.

I can do studio-type shots but it's a pain to try; I don't have backdrops, I don't have the proper lighting, etc. It doesn't stop me but it also makes me lazy. I think of an idea and I put it on the back shelf because of the effort required.

So that got me to thinking; what can I do that is beyond the norm but much more manageable to accomplish? The thought process got me to break down the stock industry into nine types of images:

1. The Usual: You go on vacation and take pictures, right? I've gone through my archives several times now and each time I've pulled out additional images that I've added to my portfolio. I do believe vacation and travel pictures are generally the least desirable to put out for stock because everyone takes pictures of the same thing when it comes to travel and vacation images. However, they do get sales now and then. Yes, I know you can get top-notch travel images, but only if you work on it while on vacation, and it doesn't help you when your archives are filled with low-grade snapshots from years before you got into stock. The bottom line is there is potential in your archives.

2. Your Passion: Some people gravitate toward landscapes. Others, street photography. This is probably one of the easiest categories to get pictures. You take certain types of images as easily as eating, sleeping, and breathing. Don't take this for granted, though; think about ways to get even better with the genres you enjoy photographing.

3. Spontaneous Opportunities: Here's but one example... I got a new roof on my house recently so I took photographs of the work being done. You don't plan a shoot for such things but if the opportunity is there, shoot it! Got a nice new dent in the car? Shoot it! Real life comes at you everyday, use the camera to capture both the good and bad.

4. Commercial Images: We all know what this is. Pretty, smiling girls holding shiny toasters. I don't have pretty, smiling girls readily available (who will sign a model release) nor do I have a shiny toaster. That doesn't stop me from thinking about what I could do if I did. This is one of my weakest areas because of model/studio access but I have turned my living room into a studio when I had the ambition.

5. Illustrations: In another life I used to draw and publish cartoons so I can draw though my style is what it is. Creating stock illustrations is very different from pen and ink and it's like learning how to draw all over again. Being good at something doesn't mean you will be good at doing the equivalent for stock. I feel I have the confidence and experience to eventually master the transition and so far the biggest problem I've had is finding the time to learn the new tools and processes. Some of you may be good at illustrating but lacking with photography. It doesn't matter, the point is, you open up a whole new set of possibilities when you try a new medium.

6. Your Imagination: The best stock images are those that no one else has done. This doesn't mean creating a concept of a flaming toaster flying through space (a shiny one at that!) Search the database and you'll find very few images that are really good and of the subject DISHWASHER. An extreme example, but what other subjects are wide open in the database?

7. The Obvious: The salad you're about to eat. Trees in the park. Well, OK, those are a little too obvious. But do you stop to grab your camera with the obvious? Maybe the obvious isn't so obvious if you don't look for it!

8. The World Around You: Do you live 20 minutes from the Eiffel Tower? Times Square? No matter where you live, you live in a gold mine for images that no one else can take except on an expensive vacation. Take advantage!

9. Concepts: What kind of images can you create that say TAXES? Or LOVE? HUNGER? WORK? Spend time with your brain drifting in between and around different ideas with no limitations. I see many portfolios with extremely talented and gifted people behind them but their portfolio is one dimensional. Put that talent to work in new areas!

The above is not intended to be a definitive breakdown of stock but an exercise in identifying possible categories. Once that is done you can start to think about the limits you place on yourself. It's easy to stay in the categories you're good at. If you don't venture into other categories, you will never reach your full potential and maximize your ability to increase your portfolio (and profit!) My venture into illustrations has not been pretty, but I've been rewarded with sales for trying!

Photo credits: Roberto Giovannini.

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August 14, 2010


I do not yet have any accepted images. All 40 or so have been rejected for various reasons. I have to keep my chin up although I have been shooting over 45 years. i've won photo contests and state fair ribbons. What advice does anyone have other tahn to keep submitting?

August 12, 2010


I like yor article it great and believe I have read others of yours that were as good

August 12, 2010


Like the article - I'm in Wisconsin too. You give hope!

August 05, 2010


Great article... v.useful.

July 31, 2010


Well put !!!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts !!

July 27, 2010


Lots of great tips! Thanks for sharing them.

July 25, 2010


Great blog - good reminders!

July 25, 2010


Nice article, congratulations!!!

July 25, 2010


Do you have something to learn! Thanks

July 23, 2010


Great article! I think i found myself in it :)

July 23, 2010


I really like your article. Thanks for sharing.

July 21, 2010


Thank you for the tips they are great to know.

July 20, 2010


Great tips!

July 19, 2010


Thanks, this is very interesting and useful article, Great blog!

July 18, 2010


So true. I work at a shot then turn around and shoot the neighbors laundry, pool or wood pile and they are the one in my portfolio. On your own street ,yard ,home are many good opportunities.

July 18, 2010


Beautifully written article and so well expressed.
Love how you share the issues involved with that special sprinkling of subtle humor :)").
Well for one, i am too lazy to usually comment on blogs , but you managed to get me to make the small effort to respond to you... To me- Point numbers 3,6,8,9 are positive solutions and motivating...

Wishing you all the very best

July 17, 2010


Very true! I am new here, just started in June. I am trying to figure out how this stock photography works (e.g. what sales, what goes and what doesn't). I am a photojournalist by trade and have lots of archives but when I go through them they don't seam appropriate. Either I don't have MR or it was shot at ISO 400/800 etc. So, I started doing studio stuff but it irritates hell out of me to set up each picture. I am trained to capture the moment and not to pay attention much to perfect lighting. By the time you set up your light you lose the moment. Anyway, I am going to try to balance somehow - to use minimum of the lighting gear and to focus on what I do the best - photojournalistic approach.
I managed to file just over 104 pics in 1.5 months. Cheers everybody.

July 17, 2010


Really great article! It makes me think about how lazy I am, and what a great number of opportunities I've already waisted... Thanks for waking me up:)

July 16, 2010


Great article. I'm trying to get out of my comfort zone. Not easy. Thanks for putting things into perspective :)

July 16, 2010


Great blog! Thanks :)

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