What is your best selling photo in terms of revenue?

Ron Niebrugge Alaska, Ask Ron, Chugach, Photos, Travel 12 Comments

A pond with Mt. Alice in the background, Seward, Alaska.

A pond with Mt. Alice in the background, Seward, Alaska.

As part of my Ask Ron series, Phil Cola asked what is my top selling photo in terms of revenue, and what was the location, setup, logistics etc.

It is a great question – I know I’m always fascinated by the annual issue of Photo District News (PDN) in which the major stock agencies share the same information on their most successful image from the prior year.  My most successful images draw on some similar parallels that I will touch on below. 

By the way, Phil Colla is an excellent photographer – he was one of the first photographers I knew who had a blog, I have been following his very informative blog for years.  If his name looks familiar here, you may remember Phil and I shared a chartered helicopter for a flight over San Diego earlier this year.

So interestingly enough, the above photo is the top performer thanks mainly to one large sale for a Nature Valley billboard ad campaign.  It has sold a few other times, but its success is because of this one sale.  In fact, our top 5 (maybe more) grossing images are all because of a single sale.  That tends to skew the number.  Maybe tomorrow I will post our more popular sellers in terms of number of times sold.

Now to answer Phil’s questions about the setup and logistics.  Considering all the really amazing places we travel to, you might think there could be a great story here, but there really isn’t much to it.  This is a little pond within the city limits of my hometown.  In June there is a short period where the greens just rock. (We are getting close to that time this year)  I also knew that in the same month this pond gets hit with some really sweet evening light.  So I waited for a nice evening, drove down there and grabbed this photo – I was probably away from the house for about a half an hour as I worked the last light of day, then came back home.

So what does this have in common with other top stock revenue earners?  For one, I’m always surprised as to how many of the images in the annual PDN article are landscape images.  I would say 4 of my top 5 earners are landscape images as well.  I wouldn’t have guessed that – I have always thought model released outdoor activity images would be the big winners.

The other thing that surprises me is that it seems like the best selling stock landscape photos all have nice light, but not the rare, dramatic light that draws all the ohs and awes on photography forums.  Supposedly, the largest stock sell ever was an image of a green wheat field  with a blue sky along with a nice cloud overhead – it is the photo that accompanies all Window XP computers.  My image has some similar traits – bright warm blues and greens, but not some dramatic sunset or other light.  This holds true for my other top earners as well.

Since I have shared with you my hits, it only seems fair that I share some of my misses as well.  My misses are photos where I spent a fair amount of time and money and thought I really had a winner – but then the photo never sold.

Comments 12

  1. Hey Ron,

    Interesting topic, thanks for posting about this. I thought this was a great point:

    “The other thing that surprises me is that it seems like the best selling stock landscape photos all have nice light, but not the rare, dramatic light that draws all the ohs and awes on photography forums “.

    I’ve often thought that, and the more I look around photo forums, with more and more amazing landscape photos around, it surprises me even more to see so many images sell well that don’t adhere to that kind of light standard so many photographers seem to expect.



  2. Interesting observations regarding the PDN survey. I read a lot of PDN issues when I was working in advertising but didn’t catch the part about landscape images selling. It does make sense though about the fair weather stuff selling better since that is what people relate to. A dark and stormy image might be nice for bragging rights and to show to your photo buddies but as for having a lasting emotional impact on non-photogs I think the opposite would be true. Weird how that works.

  3. Ron, thanks for the kind words, and responding to my question so generously. My experience is similar to yours in some ways. I have a few images that account for a disproportionate amount of revenue, due to advertising sales among those images which are so much more lucrative than the more common editorial sales. Photo sales are in some ways no different than real estate sales: the distribution of amounts is highly skewed, with a small number of outliers at the high end accounting for few sales but much of the total dollar action. (That’s the statistician in me getting a little carried away.) On the other hand, large animals are the sellers for me, as opposed to landscapes. My best revenue generator is a whale photo, as is my second best photo, and I can’t recall any really big landscape sellers. One other thing: I also would have thought your excellent model-released person-enjoying-the-outdoors images would have been the big earners for you, so hearing that they do not dominate your top 5 is a surprise.

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    Thanks guys,

    Thanks Carl. Not that I want to let market demand dictate my photography, but it is nice to be aware of what tends to sell.

    He Richard, it seemed to me that when the major agencies shared top performing photos, it wasn’t uncommon to see a few landscapes – I didn’t expect to see any. Maybe my memory isn’t as accurate as I think – very possible.

    Hi Phil,

    Not surprised your best sellers are whales because you have some amazing whale images!

    I’m also a bit of a statistics junkie. Unfortunately my business software doesn’t seem to allow for easy tracking of sales by subject. I would love to see my sales by keyword so that I could see which state, national park or other subject matter sells the best. If I’m trying to decide between visiting two wonderful national parks, no reason not to pick the best performer.

    The outdoor recreation stuff does sell very well, but almost entirely for editorial use which keeps it out of the top performer list.


  5. Thanks for the info, Ron. It’s nice to hear what is working for people. I’ll raise a toast tonight for your continued success 🙂

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  7. Interesting reading Ron.

    I agree with your comments about nice lighting beating the dramatic light when it comes to stock. Oddly, one of my recent licenses was for a skyline image with a cloudless predawn sky. However, in the final published image, they photoshopped in stormy low clouds. Go figure.

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  9. > The outdoor recreation stuff does sell very well, but almost entirely for editorial use which keeps it out of the top performer list.

    Makes perfect sense to me. If you have a big advertising budget and you need an image with a person, you’ll want more control (esthetic as well as legal) than stock affords. In other words, you’ll have the image shot on assignment.

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  11. Thanks for the insight! I’m a 74 year old beginner with some experience and a Nikon D200. I’ve been browsing but with no clear direction. If you were starting new again, how would you go about it. I really enjoy driving the countryside photographing old barns. I don’t think photographing people is my thing. Any suggetions?

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Kind regards,

    Thomas Pratt

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    Hi Thomas,

    I would begin by contacting local magazines, calendar companies and business and grow from there. That is how we began – by growing very slowly with local Alaska businesses.

    You might look for a copy of John Shaw’s book on the Business of Nature Photography. It is a bit dated, but still some good information in there.

    Good luck,


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