Today we’re diving into probably one the most googled questions of recent years: How to make money as a food blogger? For many food bloggers, making money doing what we love can be an illusive unicorn. There are so many ways to establish a food blog revenue stream these days – ads, sponsored content, cookbooks, meal plans, and other branded products. A passive income stream not often discussed is selling stock food photography. Selling stock food photography, especially for emerging food bloggers who do not have access to sponsored content and premium ad networks, can be a terrific passive income source provided the content is executed intentionally and distributed via the right platform.
Cameron and I began blogging as a way to market the work we’d already been doing for several years as assignment and stock food photographers. We’ve grown our premium stock food photography portfolios to over 5,000 images and we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. And as lead editor for a premium stock agency, Cameron coaches new and established photographers on how best to stay on top of the stock game. If you too have an interest in getting into the world of stock food photography, or enhancing your existing portfolio, read our top tips for succeeding in the world of selling stock food photography.
12 Tips for Successfully Selling Stock Food Photography
#1 It’s not about you (or anyone else)
Anonymity and versatility are the hallmarks of successfully selling stock food photography. A woman isn’t “Nancy” – she is every woman. A perfectly grilled steak represents a backyard BBQ, how to feed a hungry husband, or a paleo meal. Create a portfolio of stock food images that can be used in as many ways as possible.
For every stock food photoshoot we do, we ask ourselves “Is this useful?” Not every image will hit this benchmark, but you need a core group of images that will. The 80/20 rule applies: 20% of your images will drive 80% of your revenue. The remaining 80% of images will be more niche, but they’ll drive new buyers to your portfolio. Take some time to consider how you see images used in marketing campaigns in your everyday life and apply what you see to the photos you’re capturing. If your images are too niche or narrow, they won’t sell to a wide audience – and selling to a wide audience is how you ultimately win at the stock game (by selling the same image multiple times). As a side note, this means anything noticeably copyrighted or trademarked is out.
#2 Be technically perfect
There is no way to sugar coat this point and we cannot stress the importance of it enough. A buyer could be purchasing your image to use as a thumbnail in a magazine or on a billboard (and everything in between). If it’s the latter, technical perfection is king.
For the most part, you need pro equipment, proper editing software like Lightroom and Photoshop, and the skills to execute technically perfect images again and again. Nail your focus, contrast, and exposure, and learn how to get these elements right in camera. This is not a game for beginners. That being said, stock is an excellent way for amateurs to learn how and where they need to improve, as there is no better learning curve than rejection.
Similarly, keep it real. Forget about toning and fancy filters. Let the colors of the food represent themselves naturally. Buyers don’t want or need trickery – they need clean, natural images that they can edit to their preference.
Camera. Cameron owns a lot of cameras, including 3 DSLR’s and probably a dozen film cameras (I know). That being said, we shoot food exclusively with a Nikon D750. It’s got an ergonomic and compact body, as well as a swivel back, which is invaluable for overhead shots. For the extreme nerd, the D750 also has wifi capability, which allows focus and shooting control from your iPhone. While investing in a high-end, professional camera body is a financial commitment, the benefits are plentiful, including tack-sharp images in even the most challenging lighting conditions.
Lenses. The vast majority of our overhead images are shot with a Sigma Art 50mm ƒ1.4; for angled and detail shots, we switch to the Nikon 105mm ƒ2.8 VR. Both lenses are super fast, and offer unparalleled sharpness and close-focus capabilities.
If you’re just starting out, we recommend investing in a 50mm for maximum flexibility, and adding 105mm as budget allows. That being said, this decision comes down to personal style. I know a ton of bloggers who shoot mostly detail shots, and reach for the 105 more often than the 50. If you have the time, experiment with a few different lenses by renting them for a day from a local camera shop so you can make an educated decision about the best gear for your style.
#3 Be delicious
This should go without saying, but bears stating. No matter how technically perfect your images are, if the food isn’t screaming “eat me now!” your technical prowess won’t matter. As food bloggers, we typically set high standards for our recipe posts, and you should bring those same standards into any work you create exclusively for stock.
#4 Develop a look
You need to develop a commercially saleable brand for your food stock photography, but this doesn’t mean that your photos need to look like everyone else’s. Whether your brand is dark and moody or light and fun matters little as long as it’s cohesive and consistent. Cameron and I spent a lot of time and experimentation developing our stock brand, which happens to be (mostly) clean, fresh, and brightly lit.
We can do dramatic studio lighting. We can do trendy, chef inspired dishes. But for the most part, we don’t represent these styles in our stock portfolio. Once we established our brand and a healthy portfolio that represented it well, we saw a dramatic increase in food stock sales. Why? Because clients both recognize and trust our brand – and it fits with the stories they tell. They’ve bookmarked our galleries and know they can come to us for what our brand provides. By developing a look, instead of a niche (for example, all healthy foods, etc.) we’ve been able to offer an extremely wide variety of content to a focused audience. This has created buyers who repeatedly visit and purchase from our portfolio. As a side note, we regularly create content that doesn’t make it onto the blog. While our stock photography and blog brands are similar, they are not identical, and that’s okay! While our blog is a wonderful marketing tool, it’s also a creative space that we use to explore new trends and ideas.
#5 Pick the right agency
Selling stock food photography requires a lot of flexibility in the beginning, and finding the right agency can take a bit of time, patience, and experimentation. Start by selecting a reputable agency that fits your brand. There are a variety of different options these days:
- Niche agencies that exclusively work with stock food photographers such as Picture Pantry and Stock Food
- Premium agencies offering higher priced collections to a smaller subset of buyers such as Offset, Stocksy, and Adobe Stock Premium
- Big stock houses that offer economical packages to the mass market like Shutterstock, Fotolia, iStock
When you’re just starting out, your brand and portfolio size will drive which agency is the best fit. We got our feet wet with iStock, and eventually moved into premium agencies. We recommend that you get traction in one agency before moving onto another. Join one agency for the first six months until you get used to how the stock world moves. Spreading yourself too thin in the beginning could dilute your profit potential.
#6 Be timeless, but not trite
Stock is a long game, and if you keep at it long enough, you’ll have a percentage of your portfolio that will sell month after month for several years – this is your evergreen content. We have found the average lifespan of solid, timeless food portraits in our collection to be anywhere from 3.5-5 years. That’s a long time!
This means you’ll need to develop a strong, commercial portfolio of highly saleable images that have longevity. When you’re first starting out, we recommend going for the least common denominator. Tacos, pasta, colorful salads, pizza, burgers, wings, cakes, sweets…all of the edibles that have long shelf lives. These are commercially attractive foods that will never be out of vogue. Use these timeless foods to develop your look and brand. Here are some of our most commercially successful stock food photos in this category:
On a related note, keep your styling current, but simple. Props are important, but there’s something to be said about not taking the styling too seriously. Don’t overcomplicate with super trendy props and intricate styling until you know your buyer. One cliche is still true – a picture tells a thousand words. But don’t let it tell a million.
I’ve collected a small library of timeless props over the years that I turn to again and again for styling stock food shoots. Here are some of my favorite props:
#7 Know when to be on trend
That being said, there’s a time and a place to be on trend. Do your research and keep on top of food trends. Pick your battles wisely, and know what’s going to be a hot ticket for a solid period time (at least a year) and what’s a fleeting fad. As an example, we’ve had a lot of long tail success with paleo content, like the paleo breakfast tacos below, while turmeric was a stock flop and blog win. Ultimately, you have to know what the market is looking for. Isolated apples on white are passe. Gorgeous food that looks like it’s out of an issue of Bon Appetit is on point. The blogger “style” is highly desirable right now – take advantage of that!
#8 Tell a story. Add a human touch
Hands, arms, and faces where natural and appropriate will enhance sales because these elements pull the viewer into an experiential role.
Experiment with food images that tell a story or represent a lifestyle. There are ways to capture movements like farm-to-table, paleo eating, and fitness (and on the flip side, concepts like gluttony) with simple food portraits. Prep shots, serving shots, a half-eaten sandwich, and other “food in process” shots are all fair game and contribute to the story you’re telling. We often find that several images from a set will be sold together, and each image is a different chapter of the buyer’s narrative.
Eventually you can start to experiment with lifestyle food images – backyard BBQ’s, holiday dinners, family brunch at home, cocktail parties, and more. These can be much more complicated shoots that involve models, model releases, and careful attention to detail, but they are an excellent revenue driver and largely evergreen content. Fair warning – they are also exhausting! We only produce a handful of food lifestyle stories per year, but lifestyle stock food photography shoots are totally worth the effort (and a ton of fun).
#9 Create a color story
Pick a focal primary color, and then one or two secondary colors and integrate them subtly into your color story. Think about your photos from the perspective of a graphic designer, who is ultimately the end user of purchased content.
#10 Anticipate the seasons and the holidays
As with the blogging world, food stock photography gets very hot around the winter holidays. However, the buying season starts much earlier – usually in September, lasting through the first week or so of December. That means you’ll need to start thinking about holiday food over the summer. Create a strategic plan for selling your stock food photography so that your content is available by August. This will ensure that it’s been uploaded, review, and approved by your stock photography agency with enough time to be in front of buyers as they start building inspiration galleries in early fall. This “schedule” holds true for most food stock photography content. We generally plan at least three months ahead for seasonal material.
As a corollary, embrace the holidays, but don’t be cliche. Again, see #6. Find a fresh way of telling a timeless story in your style. Familiar isn’t always desirable.
#11 Know when to use flavor cues
And that is sparingly. There is a time and a place for this type of styling, and it’s not necessarily relevant in stock. Again, ask yourself “Is this useful? Does this help tell my story?” Keep in mind the idea that stock images can and should be multifaceted because clients are going to use them beyond their intended purpose. That gorgeously styled green smoothie goes from “healthy and fresh with 100 uses” to narrow and niche once you add a variety of specific ingredients to the background. When it comes to flavor cues, it’s easy to box yourself in. Use them smartly, and with intention.
#12 Be patient
Selling stock food photography is a long game, and there is little instant gratification (although it does happen from time to time!). Cameron advises new stock contributors (in general) that it takes a portfolio size of about 1,000 on brand images before sales become consistent. Because food stock is a bit of a niche in the industry, we found that once we hit about 500 images in our premium collection our sales leveled out to a predictable monthly number (with consistent increases as we added more relevant, salable content). But as we mentioned above, solid evergreen content will continue to pay for many years ahead, and in that vein, stock is a lot like blogging.
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