September 29, 2010
THE STORY OF A BEST-SELLING STOCK PHOTOGRAPH
By Danny Warren in Portland, OR
The October 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler arrived in my
mailbox last week. I picked it up and casually started flipping
through it before my wife and I headed out to dinner that night. When
I got to page 14, I saw a full-page ad for Peru with a large picture
of Machu Picchu and my heart skipped a beat — that was my picture!
This image is one of my best-selling stock photographs — it has sold
over 600 times and made over $800 since I uploaded it to several
online stock agencies back in 2007. Besides this magazine ad, Ive
spotted it in guidebooks, Outside Magazine, a CD cover, National
Geographic.com, travel websites, and more.
As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is among
the planets most iconic landmarks. So I knew it would afford
excellent opportunities for stock photography even before leaving on
my trip to South America.
To get a good shot, before leaving, I researched how other
photographers chose to capture the site and mentally banked angles and
locations I liked.
But when we got there, the weather was overcast and the light was flat
and lacked the striking shadows that make the location
photographically interesting. By mid-afternoon, my wife and I had
visited most of the site and I hadnt managed to take any pictures I
was excited about. We sat down — tired and hungry — and contemplated
making the long journey back to our hotel.
At that moment, the sun started breaking through the clouds. I knew
this might be my chance and I hurried to an overlook that provides a
perfect postcard viewpoint of Machu Picchu. Several other
photographers were standing shoulder-to-shoulder snapping pictures.
I decided to explore a little further and found another spot several
hundred feet away that provided a dramatic view of the
less-photographed backside of the site.
Dramatic sunrays shifted across the ruins below me. I raced to capture
the moment before it dissipated. I shot 18 photos in the rapidly
changing light. All the elements — the light, the composition, the
exposure — came together in just one of them. This is it:
The images just before and after this one — a difference of only a
few seconds each — are far less appealing because the sun rays are in
different places. I had managed to do what all photographers strive
for: To be at the right place at the right time with my camera ready.
The photograph I captured has become a successful stock image for two
** First, the subject matter is in high demand. Machu Picchu is one of
the quintessential and recognizable locations that instantly conveys a
sense of travel and adventure. The next time you are at the store,
browse through the travel magazines and count how many Machu Picchu
pictures you see — Ill bet youll be surprised.
** Second, my photo stands out from others like it because it shows a
different angle and captures a beautiful and fleeting moment in time.
The final result is an aesthetic, unique, and highly saleable image.
Other highly successful stock images probably have very different
stories, but they all have the same basic characteristics. They are of
high-demand subjects and they stand out from similar shots.
This is the astonishingly simple recipe for a best-selling stock
photograph. It isnt always easy for us photographers to achieve, but
the rewards are great when it works.