10 Secrets of the Stock Photo World

istock / istock

Stock photos are omnipresent. You see them on websites, billboards, ads, and packaging. They’re so common that you probably don’t give them much thought. But behind every picture, there are photographers and models hard at work trying to anticipate the needs of consumers. To better understand how (and why) these images get made, we spoke to several people in the business.

1. Photographers come up with their own ideas. 

For the most part, photographers will snap their own photos and sell them to agencies. Everyone has a different method for thinking up new ideas. Photographer Sean Locke and model Emily Shearon will bounce ideas off each other and try out different scenarios as they go along. For example, during a wedding shoot, Shearon spontaneously decided to be an angry bride. The picture ended up on a package of tattoo coverup. “It’s me looking all pissed off with my arms crossed, with this huge snake tattoo on my arm,” Shearon says. “And in the next picture it’s me smiling and the tattoo is gone. It’s absolutely hilarious.”   

Photographer Lisa Young says that she keeps a notebook by her bed because the best ideas always come right before she falls asleep. 

Some agencies will hold weekly challenges for commonly searched for words, such as “garden,” or—more abstractly—“sparkle.” The challenges are just for inspiration, but sometimes entries do get posted on agency blogs.

2. Most models are acquaintances. 

Lisa Young, iStock

There are a number of websites to help photographers connect with potential models, but often, photographers don't have to look any further than their friends and family. “That way, I know I can trust them, and I can get a good idea of what they look like in a normal environment from their images on Facebook,” Locke says. Explains Young, “I have tried working with aspiring professional models, but for my shooting style, it works better if I have a personal connection to the models."

When a photographer and model have a good rapport, it’s easier to find pictures that really work. Young's favorite shoots are the ones she does with her husband: “When it's just the two of us it doesn't feel like work. We have a great time and usually end up laughing so hard and so much it's a miracle we get any pictures done."

3. Stock modeling is not a full time gig. 

No matter how often you pose for pictures, mugging for stock photos isn't likely to put food on the table. Usually, stock photo shoots are just side gigs, or favors for friends. Occasionally, regular models will seek out stock photo jobs as a way to build their portfolios.

4. Finding a set can be challenging.

Lisa Young, iStock

Stock photographers primarily work in studios. But when an assignment calls for an on-location shoot, it helps to have connections. Often, there's a rental fee to use a space, and photographers are usually required to get insurance. To save money, photographers will sometimes offer to trade free stock images for use of a space.

For studio shoots, models will often pose in front of a white background and hold blank signs so that the art directors who purchase the photos can manipulate the images for their purposes.

5. You never know where your work will end up. 

Stock photos pop up in all kinds of places, all over the world. (Photographers and models say they're frequently tipped off to uses of their images by friends and family.) Stock model Jeanette Kozlowski once found herself grilling hot dogs in a Vienna beef ad, despite now being vegan. Young’s daughter, who is a psychology student, found a picture of herself in one of her textbooks.

6. Modeling for stock images can make you famous …


Shearon is considered one of the most downloaded faces of all time. After working with Locke for years, her face became so prevalent that there’s an entire Facebook group dedicated to finding pictures of her. 

“Every time I start a job at an agency, I kind of wait to see how long it’s going to be until one of the art directors looks over and goes, 'Is this you?’” Shearon says. “It’s happened at every job I’ve ever had, where people randomly recognize me.”

7. … But not necessarily the way you'd hoped.

Says Shearon, “I’ve never done an inappropriate shoot, or something that I’m not comfortable with, but the problem is that once my face is out there, I lose control of it.” The model notes that she has unwittingly appeared in sex toy catalogs with a personal lubricant Photoshopped into her hand. She’s been portrayed with different colored hair, different eyes, and once with man-hands.

“I ended up in a commercial for CougarLife.com, which is a dating site, and my boyfriend at the time had employees that saw the commercial,” Shearon says. “I actually hunted down the guy that produced it.”

Legitimate agencies do have stock agreements intended to protect their models. These documents state that you can't use a model's likeness on dating sites or represent the person as real. But in the Internet age, misuse is unpreventable, and photos tend to spread like wildfire. “Once it’s out there, it’s out there,” Shearon says.

8. Sometimes the pictures are too convincing.

Kozlowski once ran into some trouble during a shoot at an airport. “We had people dressed up as gate agents and passengers,” Kozlowski says. “Some passengers were trying to change their flight, and came up to us while we were trying to shoot.”

9. There’s a lot of competition. 


With so many available options, users searching for a stock photo often pick the first picture they see on the first page of results. The increased competition translates to lower earnings for photographers.

“Each year for the last four I have earned 20 percent less than the prior year, despite continuing to work and upload images and growing my portfolio,” Young says. “Soon it will not be worth doing professionally.” 

10. Those pictures you think are weird aren’t strange to everyone.


Occasionally, you might come across a stock photo that is nothing short of baffling. The weirder stock photos that exist (see: the senior citizen superhero snapping a selfie) are usually a result of trying to capture something abstract and not quite getting there. “Sometimes, you have a concept in mind and try something, and you think you nailed it, but out of context, it may just look silly,” Locke says.

But while the cyber woman with corn might seem absurd to you, someone, somewhere may be able to put her to work someday. Even if it's just for entertainment purposes