Back in the first part of this series, I briefly touched on the importance of keywords. This article will be all about keywords, how to choose them, how different people choose them and why some work better than others. Keywords are what buyers type into the search boxes to find your images, it is far and away the primary way that a buyer will get to see your image. It is fair to say that the more time you invest into keywording, checking your keywords and updating them will give you greater returns over just putting enough to get you by and never updating them.

It is my strong belief that an average image will do exceptionally well if the contributor can understand how designers think and search for images. has 2.2 million images on it, focusing time and energy on making your images more search friendly will greatly increase the chances that a buyer will find your images. A great image with stellar keywords will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

In web design and marketing, there is something known as SEO, or search engine optimization. It is an industry on its own that focusing in making websites more search engine friendly so that they show up better in common search results based on the content of the site. As a contributor to a stock photography site, you need to do similar work to get your images viewed. Unlike websites that must hire SEO experts to try to optimize their sites for how Google may or may not work, you have a direct affect on how people find your images in a search query on a stock photo site. Knowing what your audience and what they are looking for will help get your images more views in common search terms, but where do you start?

  • Describe everything in the image by physical description, or what your eyes see turn into words. This is really obvious, but some people really miss this critical step.
  • Designs in which your image may be used. This doesn’t work for all images, but it does for a good deal of them. If you are submitting a photo of some tropical resort, using words like travel, destination, vacation, Jamaica, etc.
  • Just like real estate, location, location, location. List the location of the photo, it is a very common search pattern for designers to look for certain cities or locals, so include them.

Telling you how to do this is nearly impossible with just words, so I’ve bought an image from iStockphoto’s dollar bin, a place where images go to die a slow death. The dollar bin on iStockphoto was created as a last chance for images to get some downloads before being deleted off the site. Many reasons can be given for having a file put there, as it is at iStock’s discretion, but more often than not, the image hasn’t performed for a period of time and / or it just is old and not up to current standards. All images and all sizes in this dollar bin are $1 to download, a good place to find high resolution images on the cheap and a great place to find an example for this article. I don’t know the photographer who took this image, but I do know that the keywords that were chosen for it are probably the reason it has received a low number of downloads. From a technical standpoint, the photo is a bit flat and has a small pet peeve of mine, two catch-lights in the eyes, but it is a solid image regardless.istock.jpg

The keywords for the sample image are: male, college student, 20-25 years, casual clothing, relaxation, men, boys, looking at camera, portrait. Sadly, because of the poor keyword choices, it has only been viewed 168 times and downloaded 17 as of me writing this article, over a 27 month period. One of those 17 downloads was mine for this article.

That is it! A lackluster list of keywords on what could have been a very successful image. As an experiment, I asked five regulars on iStockphoto to give me keywords for the same image, provided they were submitting it themselves. I also only sent them the image instead of linking to it on iStockphoto, I didn’t want them to see the keywords that the actual user chose. Here are the results,

  • man, standing, alone, one man, isolated, relaxed, hands in pockets, vertical, young man, color
  • man,male,young,twenties,casual,smiling,tee shirt,t-shirt,looking at camera,portrait,hands in pockets,waist up,isolated,isolated on white,cheerful,happy
  • male, isolated on white, white background, young adult, teen, man, one person, smiling, standing, looking forward, caucasian, white, tee shirt, short sleeve, casual clothing, blue, confident, front view, hands in pocket, confidence, youth, student, relaxed, short hair, happy
  • man, male, young man, casual clothing, jeans, hands in pockets, blue, tshirt, smiling, looking at camera, relaxed, 20-25 years, 25-30 years, shy, bashful, timid, unsure, handsome, blue jeans, isolated, on white, young adult, one person, Caucasian, attractive, standing, white background, denim, waist up, cute, good-looking
  • Isolated On White, Isolated, Vertical, Full Length, Front View, looking at camera, Casual Clothing, One Person, One Man Only, One Mid Adult Man Only, hands in pockets, Cheerful, Comfortable, Smiling, relaxed,Males, Men, Mid Adult Men, 30-35 Years, Adult, Mid Adult, 30s, Caucasian, Only Men, Only Mid Adult Men, white background, white, standing, t-shirt, blue, smirking,

What you will notice is that there are a lot of common terms used between the five people who submitted. Men, man, age, jeans, shirt, pretty common stuff, it is what is can be seen. Some keywords given were just great, ones that I would have never thought to use. Timid, comfortable, handsome, looking at camera, hands in pockets, front view. These all relate back to how a buyer may be searching for your images. Even the term vertical relates to how a buyer may search, as they need to fill a specific hole in their design. Chances are, someone looking for this image is going to type in some of these words, and then further narrow their search using more of these very keywords.

What I’ve also found to be very helpful is to ask someone who is not into photography or design to help out. Grab a friend or family member and ask them to look at a photo and describe everything in the scene that they can. Take note to what words they use and the order in which they give them to you. You may be a bit surprised. You can also use the forums on iStockphoto or any other photography forum to ask for assistance, many people will often give you some advice. Don’t rely on them to come up with all of your keywords all the time though.

I’ve scoured around the internet to try to find a list of most searched stock photography keywords and phrases and haven’t been able to come up with anything for free, some sites clearly want money for their info, but it doesn’t carry that much value to me. What I will do from time to time is browse the popular downloaded files (function currently disabled) and people that are in my creative network to see what they are uploading and see what words they use.

Keywording is as much an art as photography, expect to spend 2-5 minutes per image to add keywords, so be prepared going in. I’ve found that submitting several similar shots that share keywords at the same time can help out as well. Copy all of your keywords into your favorite text editor and then copy / paste them to each file you upload that they relate to. Doing this should save you some time, but make sure that the keywords apply to the images you are submitting.

One word of wisdom, do not use unrelated keywords. I wouldn’t use the term TEENAGER in the sample photo above, clearly that man is not a teenager. Doing so will not only make you look bad, you could loose the right to sell photos on any particular stock photography site.

Lastly, keywords evolve, images evolve, designers wants and desires evolve, even how people search is evolving. Building a great portfolio these days is only half the battle, getting people to look at it is where the war is. If you are serious about selling stock images, plan on spending one day every few weeks to look over the images you have submitted and the keywords associated with them, tweaking when needed.

Related articles:

Special thanks to: diane555, PattieS, Carole Gomez, wolv, and Qingwa for taking the time to create keywords for this article. They did a great job and are an excellent cross-section of iStockphoto’s members, including contributing photographers, illustrators, image buyers and designers. Please take a few minutes to check out their portfolios.