Top Photos

“Wishes” by Eva Serrabassa is the most downloaded photo at the most visited microstock site.

By Andrew Hudson Published: June 17, 2011 Updated: July 2, 2015

To see how you can make a best-selling photo, let’s see what makes a best-selling photo.

I’ve compiled the top ten best-selling (i.e. most downloaded) outdoor and studio photographs from the top two best-selling microstock agencies. By reviewing and analyzing these photos, we can find patterns and see what elements are key to high sales.

Let’s take a look.

The Top 40
Best-Selling Microstock
Outdoor and Studio Photos

Outdoor PhotosStudio (Indoor) Photos
Based on the total lifetime downloads as reported by iStockphoto and Shutterstock as of March 2011.


Here’s a quick analysis of the commonalities in these top 40 photos:

  1. General Topics
    All these popular photos are general in nature, showing general happiness, business, the outdoors, happiness with a house. None of the shots are specific, such as a specific location or business situation.
  2. Exclusive?
    I was surprised not to find an overlap of photos between iStockphoto and Shutterstock. Perhaps all these photos are exclusive to each agency.
  3. Horizontal
    Most of the photos — 31 out of 40, or 75% — are in a horizontal format. Of the others, five are vertical and four are square.
  4. Models
    Most of the photos — 26 out of 40, or 65% — include people. Of these, 18 feature people who are smiling; none show unhappy people.


Since most of the photos feature people, let’s look at those 26 pictures.

ModelsPhotosFemaleMale% female

One may be the loneliest number, but it is also the most popular when it comes to models. 40% of the people photos feature a sole model, with the 15% each for the photos of two, three, four, and five or more people.

Women win. Who knew? Women apparently are more attractive than men. Of the ten models in the single-person photos, six are women, two are men, one is a girl and one is a boy. That’s a favoritism of 70% female, or twice as many females as males.

Men draw even in group shots of two, three or four people, allowing equality to prevail with 50% for both camps. But in larger groups of five or more people, women win again at 60%.

Happy and Solid

Besides being women, what else do the models have in common? Well they’re mostly all happy. Smiles and happiness are evidently key to the success of these photos, where all looks well with the world, and the future is bright. Of the other expressions, three are studious/working and two are of bliss.

For clothing, solids rule. In all the business situations, solid tones without color are the rage, with all the men and all but two women wearing black or very dark blue suits with white shirts. The remaining two women are wearing mid-toned gray suits — what exciting variety.

In the non-business groups, the models are either wearing mid-toned earth-colored solids, or primary-colored solids. Only one model is wearing a pattern, and that fits the background. No shirts have designs, stripes, two or more colors, or artwork. I guess this is an example of KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Outdoor Photos

The best-selling photographs taken outdoors feature these elements:

  1. Blue skies and grass
    I guess that’s not unexpected for outdoor shots. No photos show unsettled, angry or stormy weather. Again, everything is happy and upbeat.
  2. No specific locations
    I was surprised not to see any landmarks or skylines in this selection. New York? London? Paris? Sorry, no. Everything is general in nature and nothing can be placed. And only one beach shot? C’mon, where’s that vacation spirit?
  3. Models
    Even though the subject matter is “outdoors” where nature would be expected to prevail, models still feature in half the shots (10 of 20). Once again, the power of people to sell photos cannot be ignored.

Studio Photos

  1. Business
    We can see who buys microstock photos — businesses. Presumably corporate brochures and websites are looking for generic and happy business photos, as 13 of the top 20 studio photos are of office workers.
  2. High-Key
    All the business photos feature a high-key, white or over-exposed background. This gives a very clean look. Also, none of them feature significant color, relying on white, gray, gray-blue, dark-blue, and black.
  3. Where’s the food?
    I was surprised not to see many food shots or product shots in the top 40.

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