The Tao of Shutterstock: What Makes a Stock Photo a Stock Photo?

For all that, though, there's a communal power to the stock image. Some guy (maybe in Russia), his identity masked by a coy username (igor_zh) and his impact amplified by his canny use of keywords, figured I would eventually come to search for poetic pictures of sun-pierced clouds that would in their way represent "hope." And he was right. Stock photographers specialize not just in imagery, but in sentiment prediction: They anticipate people's needs before they become needs in the first place.

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One of those photographers is Ben Goode. A graphic designer based near Adelaide, Australia, Goode moonlights as a stock photo shooter. He's become one of the most popular contributors on Shutterstock. Goode has sold over 150,000 images during his seven years as a site member, he told me, netting him over $70,000 in U.S. currency. Goode describes the stock image creation process as a combination of strategy and serendipity -- with a healthy dose of market anticipation thrown in. "Over the years I've learned the type of image that sells well on Shutterstock and definitely try to create images to that end," he says. Now, when he goes out on a shoot, he'll take both shots for his landscape prints website and images that may have broader relevance. "Stock-friendly" shots, he calls them.

To these latter, Goode will add a little Photoshop magic -- a crucial step, he notes, and one that involves much more than simply filtering images à la Instagram. Goode edits each image "on its own merit," he says, which sometimes involves slight adjustments or selective color changes, and sometimes involves 20 or even 30 layers added to the original image until the thing is fairly bursting with color and exuberance.

As Shutterstock grows as a service, and as the market for stock images both broadens and saturates, photo-stocking is becoming its own specialized skill -- a cottage industry built on Adobe. "To just take an image and bump up the saturation does not cut it in stock these days," Goode says. "It takes a lot more to give them some real punch and appeal with designers." 

So what he strives for, Goode says, is "maximum stock impact."

Which leads to a question: What, exactly, is "stock impact"? One of the more wacky/wondrous elements of stock photos is the manner in which, as a genre, they've developed a unifying editorial sensibility. To see a stock image is, Potter Stewart-style, to know you're seeing a stock image. And while stock images' stockiness may be in part due to the common visual tropes that give them their easy, cheesy impact -- prettiness, preciousness, pose-iness -- there's part of it that's more ephemeral, too. Though they have little else in common, shots of a German Shepherd typing on a laptop and a man contemplating the sunset can both be, in their special way, stocky.

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One thing that unites stock images, says Jason Winter, a Virginia-based teacher, web designer, and part-time Shutterstocker, is the "unique perspective" presented in the composition of the photos themselves. When shooting a stock photo, Winter told me, you want to think not just about capturing an image, but also about creating a product that will visually pop, particularly against the white backdrop of a web page. By "twisting a photo just a bit and making it appear three-dimensional," he says -- by, for example, ensuring that your shot contains a well-defined foreground and background -- you can create an image that will embody stock's other-worldly appeal.

But there's also the cultural sensibility of the stock photo: the cycle -- virtuous or vicious -- that occurs when people start thinking of "stock" as its own aesthetic category. Life as told through the stock image is beautified and sanitized and occasionally dominated by camisole-clad ladies holding things. It is posed; it is weird; it is fraught. But it is also unapologetic, because it knows that it has its own particular style -- one that, meme-like, is incredibly easy to replicate. Dress up your cat, point, click, edit, upload, and wait for the Internet to reward you for your efforts. As Shutterstocker Emily Goodwin tells me, it's not necessarily the traditionally "pretty" stuff that sells well on the site. No, it's the utilitarian content -- the images that capture the banalities and absurdities of every day life -- that prove popular. Stock begets stock, until suddenly the Internet is able to answer when you request a picture of a dog in a top hat that eerily resembles Snoop Dogg in one of his lesser phases.

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Images: Ben GoodeNikolai Tsvetkov, igor_zh, Douglas Freer, and Lobke Peers -- all from Shutterstock.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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