November 26, 2019

Microstock Report 2: Are you “peopleing” your photos to get them sold?

I’m definitely not a people photographer. I have no problem snapping people, I just find myself more often than not shooting photos without humans in them. If that’s you, below you’ll learn why adding people to your images will improve sales and how you can add humanness even without people present. On the other hand if you are a people photographer, you’ll learn what aspects of people shots boost sales.

Why this data matters. As a contributor to Twenty20.com 1, I’m always looking for ways to improve sales of my photos. I see some photographers determining what photos they submit based on popularity of hashtags or what’s in Twenty20’s Signature Collection. But neither of these are evidence of the most important metric: what actually sold. Fortunately the Twenty20 app includes recently-sold photos in your feed. These are the most valuable resource for determining what improves sales on Twenty20. Note that this assessment isn’t scientific at all and the methodology (or lack of it) is explained here. 2.

The Report: People rule.

With all the shots of food and flowers submitted to Twenty20, you’d think those are what sell the most, but that’s not the case.

1. Most images sold have people in them.

Sadly, by not shooting people, I’m excluding myself from about 2/3 of microstock sales.

2. Most people photos are of individuals.

This surprised me. I thought there would be more group photos sold, since we see so many giddy lifestyle photos on sites.

3. There’s half a chance they’re looking into the camera.

Twenty20 has built their reputation on candid photos that look like they were taken by us average schmoes—not overdone, cliche stock taken by professionals. As a result, you’re encouraged not to post photos of people looking into the camera. But a lot of contributors get this wrong and have people posing for the camera, but looking off to the side. What Twenty20 means is they want your subjects to be oblivious to the camera: acting like they’re completely unaware that it’s there. Still, buyers are purchasing slightly more shots of people looking into the camera than not.

4. Headless people are a thing.

What specifically interested me was that adding just hands or feet to the shot increased its chances for sale.

5. Smile, but only in in groups.



When looking for photos, buyers definitely choose based on the subject’s expression. The thought here is that if you’re in a group, you’re interacting. But if you’re alone you’re less likely to be sharing and more likely to be thinking. The takeaway is that you’ll improve sales if groups are happy and individuals are contemplative.

6. No one buys selfies.

While taking a selfie is an easy way to add a human to a photo, it won’t sell. At all.

I was shocked to find not a single photo of people in my sample was a selfie. I increased the sample size to see at what point I’d find a selfie that sold, but I gave up before I found a single one. I’d think that a buyer Illustrating an article on traveling would love a smiling selfie with the Eiffel Tower in the background, but apparently not. I also assume there aren’t many stories out there about narcissism that need illustrating.

In digging deeper and looking at the #selfie hashtag, many of the photos were not really selfies, but closeup portraits, and photos of a person taking a selfie. The point is: don’t waste your profile space posting selfies.

7. A third of people are interacting with technology.

While people could be doing anything in photos, there’s a big need for people’s touch technology, like phones, computers and cameras. It’s true that some buyers are looking for photos that shun technology, like drinking tea or reading a book, these sales aren’t as popular as you’d think. Interacting with technology is the most popular thing people are doing in photos that sell.

My course of action:

When I say I’m not a people photographer, I’m not kidding: Only 6% of the photos I’ve submitted to Twenty20 to date contain signs of human life, even a hand or a foot. If you’re like me, you’re not a Joel Meyerowitz who walks up to people on the streets of New York and says “I really love that hat, could you stand over here so I can take a picture of you in it?” We’re more Henri Cartier Bressons, lurking to grab a shot that no one notices. We’re not going to change our personalities, but there are a few things we can do to “people” our photos without compromising our shyness. If you’re not shy, I’ve included some pointers that will help your selling success as well.

  1. Ask friends to take their picture. If you’re shy about taking people photos, just ask people you know. After all, they’re more likely to understand why you’re taking their photo and are more included to help. Volunteer to take family portraits and some candids in exchange for selling the images.
  2. Shoot candids. When you tell someone you want to take their picture, they’re likely to pose, put on a goofy grin and look directly into the camera. Instead, tell them to go about doing their thing and ignore that you’re. More than freeing them, this frees you from the idea that you have to act like a portrait photographer. You’ll be able to move around and shoot at will, without the expectation that you’re going to snap one image and call it quits.
  3. Shoot people from behind. For many, shooting people is not what people are shy of—it’s asking permission. If the person’s face isn’t showing, they’re not identifyable so no model release is required. If you’re shooting with an iPhone, you can turn the ringer switch off to kill the camera click sound effect to be less obtrusive.
  4. Add hands or feet. After you take a peopleless landscape, sit in the grass and shoot again so you can include your feet. In the middle of the forest hold up a pinecone. Ask friends if you may shoot their hands or feet. People who shy away from having their face shot often are intrigued when you ask to shoot their hands and feet. No photo release is required from them.
  5. Add signs of life. Adding a sign that people have been in the scene is an intriguing way to include people—without including people: An open cookie jar and half cookie on the counter. A messy knife and fork on a dirty plate. A burger with a bite out of it. These are a few ways to show that people have been there.
  6. Remove your selfies from your Profile. Unless a selfie has some element of novelty to it that might help it sell, selfies just waste Profile space that could be filled with sellable images.

*Do you like shooting food, still lifes, flowers and landscapes? That’s fine. Keep at it. Just look for opportunities to add the human touch to your shots in order to help them sell better.

Get more Microstock Reports.



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  1. Twenty20.com is a popular microstock site with an iPhone app for selling rights to use your photos. There are many microstock sites out there. I chose Twenty20 for my microstock experiments because, they have a great app and a built-in strong social community, they pay promptly and their focus is on candid shots that look like they were shot by Buffy-down-the-street rather than staged by a professional photographer.

  2. I’ll be the first to admit that this ain’t scientific research. These are just musings on broad trends I see on Twenty20 based on small samples sets of about 100 of the last sold photos. It’s true that this sample can easily be skewed by one buyer who just bought 37 photos of Volkswagen campers. When I see anomalies like that, I throw that sample out. Each Microstock Report will contain my casual observations that I hope will form a mosaic of the state of microstock photography today.


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