Taking Nature Photos that sell!

While the subject of this blog contest is how to create breathtaking Nature and Wildlife photos, I thought I would say up-front that most of us have a conflicting desire. Yes, we want to create fantastic Nature photos, but we also want to create saleable images as well. Do those two desires go together? Yes and no - the best-selling images are not always the most beautiful. The best-selling ones are the ones that meet the needs of the buyers. So let’s dig deeper into what makes a great photo and what advice I can give to help you find and create them. Incidentally, if you find this article useful, please click that green button on the left!

Waterfall near Queens Bath in Princeville Kauai

Why don’t beautiful images always sell? I’ll illustrate this with one of my own images. The photo above is (I think) a great landscape image. It has color, warm light from the sun, leading lines towards a small human figure fishing in the ocean. I have it as a large metal print on my wall at home. But as a stock photo - not so good! It has been online for over 12 months and has sold just 9 times.

Panorama of welsh countryside

Now this one is not among my favorite images. It is a perfectly pleasing panorama, but shows none of the criteria that normally distinguish a great image. And yet it has sold over 1500 times - admittedly over 7 years, but still with a much higher return per month that the first photo. Why is this? I think we need to always consider what buyers are looking for and give them great images that meet those needs.

What Buyers Want from Nature Images

I think that the demand for nature and landscape images can be broken into two main categories - images of specific and popular places and, secondly, more generic nature images that can be used as the background to stories or promotions that want to use the feeling that the image generates to sell their message. The panorama above falls into the second group. It could have been taken anywhere in many countries and it presents a calm eco-friendly feeling. I found uses in company websites offering to buy and sell land, others with its use in the background to sell an environmentally friendly product. The buyers don’t want their readers to jump to any conclusion about where it is - they want to use it to reinforce their own messages.

Famous locations - you need to present your best shots

Cherry Blossom and Jefferson Memorial at sunrise

We all love to visit spectacular places both in our own countries and when we travel on vacation or on photography tours. Too often though, we are either in a hurry to get to the next beauty spot, or we are standing among many other photographers to try to capture that famous composition. While that photo might look great in your portfolio, unless the light really comes together for you while you are there, the chance of it selling frequently are unfortunately not that high. It is better to try to focus on a smaller number of great locations on your trip and take a very disciplined approach to getting your shot. On your first visit, don’t even bother to take a photo! Scout around, look at the standard view (where all the other photographers are) and then walk off the beaten track to look for different interesting viewpoints. Try getting closer to the ground, see if you can get a higher perspective, check for foreground interest - an area of rocks, an old gnarled tree, spring flowers perhaps and see how you can incorporate them in your composition. Think about that composition - is it best horizontal or vertical, what sun direction would best highlight its features? What time of day would be best - sunrise, day, sunset or even at night? Can you use a tripod? Do you need any special tools - a neutral density filter to really slow down the shutter speed or a polarizing filter to dampen reflections? Finally, what lens would best capture the mood of the scene? Wide angle lenses are commonly used, but a telephoto might provide that unique perspective that others have missed. Then with all that noted, you can check the weather forecast, and, with fingers crossed, come back to your chosen spot ready to capture your masterpiece.

Beautiful early morning Jefferson Memorial with cherry blossoms

In my examples in this section, the first shot was taken when I turned up at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC before the sun rose and I was walking along looking for shots to take. I was pretty happy with it and it has sold reasonably well. But I was lucky to live relatively close to the Capital, and so year after year I would go back - often staying in a hotel so that I could scout out locations (and take sunset photos) in the evening and then be back at dawn to go directly to my chosen spot. In this case, with the second image, everything worked as I hoped. There was no wind, the sun rose and illuminated the blossoms immediately in front of me, and everything was bathed in warm gold light. I also used a special filter (known as a gold’n’blue polarizer) that allows you to change the hue of reflective surfaces. Using that filter, I could get a more beautiful blue in the water than existed in real life! That second shot has sold over 800 times because it has two attributes that buyers’ need. It is a photo of a well-known place that is written about every spring. It also happens to be timeless in nature in that nothing changes from year to year and so it doesn’t become dated. Finally, it is a very dramatic image that really makes a visitor to the Capital area want to visit at Cherry Blossom Festival time. Very few of them will actually see the scene as well-lit as this, but it sets up the hope that they might!

Tips and Techniques for famous locations

Glorious beach at Anse Marcel on St Martin

The rules of composition apply to stock photos as much as they do to fine art wall prints (and in fact some of your images may well end up printed on someone’s wall!). So think carefully about how the viewer’s eye will travel around the image. We are trying to encourage the viewer to spend more time looking at our image than others on the grounds that the longer someone is interested in examining a photo, the more interesting and intriguing it is. So think about the path the eye will follow. I often find that first closing my eyes, then, while facing the image on my screen, open them and try to identify what I first see in the image. Is it what I consider to be the most intriguing element - the reason I took the photo in the first place? If not, what can I do to change that? Usually we see bright, contrasty elements first and darker muted areas are only examined if they have something of particular interest, so make sure that you adjust your light and contrast levels (perhaps with dodging and burning) to make sure the subject and focus of the image is clear. Also, don’t crop as tightly as you might for a wall print. Look for natural framing devices - like the trees in this beach scene. Leave more space around the image for a title perhaps, or to allow a different format than you envisaged. Take vertical images as well as more traditional landscape orientations. And, use a tripod whenever and wherever you can! A tripod forces you to stop and think about the best shot. It enables lower ISOs for low noise and higher aperture numbers for greater depth of field. So if you are looking for the best shot you can, take that tripod!

Look for opportunities to increase your sales

Panorama of welsh countryside

As I watch the sales of my various uploads, I often go back to my files to see if I have different images of a shot that is beginning to take off so that I could create a different perspective to meet a similar but slightly different need. While you shouldn’t submit multiple crops of the same image, a different crop of a similar photo is fine. So watch those sales and try to capitalize on an image that has captured the buyers’ interest. I have replaced the skies on some images as well to give a different mood to the shot. If the sky is relatively bland, would a more traditional blue sky with fluffy clouds fit better? You are aiming to meet the needs of a buyer and so there is nothing that says that the image must be exactly as seen by the camera.

Cute lamb in meadow in wales or Yorkshire Dales

Finally, look for how you can use your images in other composites. I took this delightful little lamb in a relatively boring and muddy field. True to life, yes, but a great photo - no way! But isolating it and moving it across to my farmland panorama gave me several different shots that met other needs - farming images, spring or Easter photos perhaps.

Last thoughtsWhen you are out doing what you love, always bear in mind that you are both a photographer and a business person. You want to create the most beautiful shots you can, because you are an artist and are driven by the beauty of your surroundings. Take and enjoy those shots - print them and post them on social media. But also keep your mind focused on what earns you some income. Look for the different viewpoint, look for more generic landscapes that have a different audience and, when you are in front of your computer, look for ways to maximize what you have come home with! And, finally, don’t forget that Useful button! Thanks!

Photo credits: Steveheap.

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September 03, 2019


Congrats on being the top post in the contest Steve! 

August 21, 2019


Great article on the finer points of stock photography.  Many people shoot photos to win a photo contest though a plain ordinary photo might sell better.

July 25, 2019


Dreamstime is probably similar to other agencies in the way that landscapes sell. I would not hesitate to place my best landscapes on Dreamstime.Steve

July 22, 2019


based on comment below about your 1000 time seller, do you find dreamstime is a good place for landscape?

June 16, 2019


Thanks Mcardleh! And for Gulrez - the sales are across all agencies. This isn't exclusive to Dreamstime.Steve

June 11, 2019


Some excellent insights.  You've made some really intriguing points that I have to think about and work on applying with my own landscapes in the future.  Thanks for adding so much detail, and the images that you've attributed those concepts to.

June 02, 2019


 أفكار مشجعة  شكرا بالتوفيق

May 31, 2019


You told this panaroma image has sold 1500 times, but it's just sold 10 times as visible on the site.

May 28, 2019


Wow, so many nice comments! Thanks to you all!Steve 

May 27, 2019



May 27, 2019


Great article and very useful. Thanks!

May 26, 2019


Definitely one of the best blog posts I have seen. Great work.

May 23, 2019


This is one of the most useful articles that I have seen.  I often thought it would be useful if DT would have a community section where contributors could reach out to each other. 

May 16, 2019


Great post. Thanks for your elaborate explanation 

May 16, 2019


Good points, your work is beautiful and according to your sale rate, they are also very attractive to prospect buyers. Thanks for sharing!

May 15, 2019


Nice Work and Blog !

May 15, 2019


Thanks all! And I’m glad you found the article useful!Steve 

May 15, 2019


Spoken like a business man who sells photos. Well done, your point of view is perceptive and well written, Thank you. Enjoy Life.

May 15, 2019


Spoken like a business man who sells photos.

May 13, 2019


Excellent points and very well written article. Thanks for writing! William

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