The Photo That Keeps on Selling

When the National Geographic Traveler issue arrived in my mailbox, 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 (left) is one of my best-selling stock photographs—it has sold over 650 times and made over $900 since I uploaded it to several online stock agencies back in 2007.

Besides this magazine ad, I’ve spotted it in guidebooks, Outside Magazine, a CD cover, National, travel websites, and more.

As one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” Machu Picchu is among the planet’s 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 hadn’t 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 farther and found another spot several hundred feet away that provided a dramatic view of the less-photographed backside of the site.

Dramatic sun rays 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.

The images just before and after the one I showed you above—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 basic reasons:

1. 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—I’ll bet you’ll be surprised.

2. 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 isn’t always easy for us photographers to achieve, but the rewards are great when it works.

Editor’s Note: You can read more articles here on ways to fund your travels abroad or make money when you move overseas.


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