Sell Stock Footage, Sell Stock Illustrations, Sell Stock Photos

A Guide To Stock Photography Keywording And Keyword Research

Keywording your stock photography and stock footage can be an incredibly boring and time-consuming job. It is so easy to take shortcuts and leave the keywording work half-way. This happens to me all the time. However, keywording is one the most important jobs you can do to your footage and images in the post-processing stage.

Keywords or “search terms” are what buyers use when they’re looking for media in the stock media platform. Without keywords, even the best-ever-made image would never be found.

Also, using keywords that have nothing to do with the image in hopes of getting more sales will eventually only hurt your sales in the long run.  Nobody wants to see a picture of a cat when they’re searching for a picture of a dog. The search algorithms know that.

Contrarily, using relevant keywords creatively, even mediocre content may sell. However, also if you have used keywords optimally, your images may never sell if they don’t appear high enough on the search results.

So how to overcome these obstacles? That’s what this post is all about. So let’s dive in a little deeper.

A Guide to stock photography keywording and keyword research

Related Posts:

How Do Image Keywords Help Your Images To Be Found?

Image keywords are an important part of image search engine optimization (SEO). By optimizing your images with the proper keywords, you can ensure that your images are found more easily in image searches. Image search engines index not only the text on a webpage but also the images on the page.

In order for image search engines to index your images properly and return them in image search results, you need to provide them with the right keywords.

The most important thing to remember when selecting image keywords is to choose keywords that are relevant to your image and that accurately describe the content of the image.

For example, if you have a stock photo of a dog, some good image keywords might be “dog,” “puppy,” “canine,” or “pet.”

By choosing relevant and accurate image keywords, you can help ensure that your images are found more easily in image searches, resulting in more traffic to your stock photo portfolio, website, or blog.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization or SEO is a term usually involved with web content development. It means optimizing a website’s content for search engines; in other words, creating web pages that would rank as high as possible on the search engine’s results pages. This is done by creating high-quality content on specific topics.

For example, in this article, I’m writing right now, I want google to understand that I’m writing about “Keywording and keyword research for stock contributors.”

I would like this post to rank as high as possible for search terms such as “stock photography,” “stock footage,” “stock photo keywording,” and “keyword research” The search engine analyzes the content I’ve written and indexes it into its database.

When a search engine user searches for content, the search engine picks all content from the database that matches the user’s search terms and arranges them on the search results page. The search algorithm determines how the results are organized or ranked.

Usually, the keywords I’m hoping to rank high, actually rank very low or not at all. The reason is that those keywords are already highly competitive and rank websites that are much bigger and more reputable than my little blog.

However, very often, my posts may rank for keywords I did not expect. Those keywords are much less competitive, and therefore my posts rank higher on the search results. That is how my blog gets traffic from google. Not from the high traffic and very competitive keywords, but lower traffic and less competitive keywords.

I’ve quickly learned that to get traffic, it is better to find those less competitive keywords or subjects and write high-quality content around them.

So what does that have anything to do with creating stock images and stock footage? Read further to find that out.

Keyword Research for Stock Photography

Stock photography has been a very competitive business for years now. Certain search terms may give tens of millions of results. For example, the search term “business” offers over 44 million image results in Shutterstock. That is over 13% of all images in Shutterstock as of today.

Keyword "business" in shutterstock.
The keyword “business” gives over 44 million results in Shutterstock!

As a new contributor, it is impossible to rank high on the search results with that keyword, and if your images don’t appear high enough on the search, you won’t get any sales either.

So what can you do then? Just throw in the towel and walk away?

Don’t give up yet, because the same principles as with web page SEO can be applied to stock media as well. That was to find less competitive keywords and create high-quality content around them.

The idea behind this is to get your images high enough on the image search results that buyers can actually see them.

According to Adobe Stock, over half of all downloads happen at the top one-third of the first page. So for getting sales, it is essential to get your images as high as possible, preferably on the first page.

It is especially important for new contributors who have not yet got many downloads. Because after they start getting downloads, it seems to get easier to rank higher.

There seems to be a connection between contributors overall downloads and how high their images appear on the search results. Also, if a contributor’s images are popular on a particular niche, even his/her new images tend to rank high on the search results in that niche.

This is the same as with SEO, when the search engine starts to “trust” your content, it will push the content higher on the search results.

Now, how do you find those keywords that are less competitive? By performing the keyword research. Let see how…

How To Do Keyword Research for Stock Photos?

It is actually quite a simple process. No rocket science here. The hard part is to find those less competitive keywords that are also being used by the buyers.

I already showed how competitive the keyword “business” is. It gives over 44 million results!

But if you start to break it down, you begin to find opportunities.

For example, I could go location-specific with “business” and “Finland.” That gives only 20000 results. Now, that is already something worth trying. As of being Finnish, I could start creating business images specific to Finland. I already know from experience that Finnish companies are using Shutterstock. So there is some level of demand too.

What else may business-related buyers be looking for?

How about “business” and “fail”? That gives 74000 results on Shutterstock. It’s still quite high, but it’s better than its opposite “business” and “success,” which offers over 7 million results! In the real world, most businesses fail, so there is a demand for that kind of imagery too. Of course, it would be better to find those more positive subjects as there’s more demand for them.

Breaking down popular search terms is just one strategy you can try. You can also go after specific, less competitive keywords. However, those are a bit more challenging to find.

As an example, after some digging, I found the search term “peer-to-peer economy.” That gives only 10000 results on Shutterstock. The peer-to-peer economy is also known as “sharing economy”, which offers over 80000 results. However, some buyers may search it by the word “peer-to-peer economy,” so it may be worth trying.

The sharing economy is not a big thing yet, but it is something that is slowly coming. So that may be an investment for the future.

Also, check carefully how high quality each search term gives. Even if the first page shows high-quality content, but then the quality drops quickly, you may have good potential to make sales! Even if there’s a lot of competition for that particular search term.

How To Know Is Your Image Keywords Competitive Enough?

This is a difficult question, and I can’t give a direct or simple answer to it.

Sometimes finding out is there traffic to less competitive keywords is just a trial-and-error thing. Experimenting, so to speak. You can’t really be sure if there are going to be buyers before you make some content, submit it, and wait for a few months (or years) to see if it sells. If you’re lucky, you may hit a “jackpot.”

However, sometimes you can find less covered subjects that you know are in demand. A good example of that is “Alternative Travel Imagery.” Travel images of destinations that are unknown to the majority of the public, but draw in tourists that are looking for something off the beaten path.

Such an example is my Turku, Finland images on Shutterstock that are continually selling all over the world. Additionally, you can go after unique images of major travel destinations. For example, my image of gondolas in Venice with a photoshopped star sky sells better than all my regular Venice images combined!

Turku, Finland images in Shutterstock
Search Term “Turku Finland” gives only 6700 results

Then there are trends. Every now and then a new trend pops up. When that happens, demand for images illustrating that trend snowballs. At the moment, such trends are Ukraine War, Energy Crisis, and the Slowing Economy, a few to mention. Creating content that is based on current trends may boost your earnings for a while.

However, the problem with trends is that they come and go, and when a trend is out of the headlines, your revenue dries up too.

Guidelines For Keywording Stock Photography

Good image keywords can mean the difference between your photo getting lost in the millions of other stock photos or being one of the first results that come up when someone searches for a specific keyword.

So, how do you choose the right keywords? A good place to start is by using the 5 W’s rule: Who? What? When? Where? And Why?

  • Who or what is the subject in the image?
  • When was the image shot?
  • Where was it shot?
  • Why or what is happening in the image?

Asking yourself these questions will help you to narrow down the possible keywords for your image.

Usually, adding 25-30 keywords is enough. However, if you’re confident that more relevant keywords can be added, then go for it. Just keep in mind to absolutely stick with relevant keywords. Don’t use keywords that don’t really have anything to do with the image. Using irrelevant keywords may hurt your sales in the long run.

Below I’ve collected some examples to consider while keywording your images.

  • People: gender, age, ethnicity, expression/mood, count. Don’t forget special characteristics such as scars, beards, etc. if applicable. If the image doesn’t include people, use the keyword “no people.”
  • The activity of the subject(s): Such as running, skiing, sleeping, etc.
  • Location: Country, state, city, area, landmark. Be as specific as possible.
  • Setting: indoors or outdoors.
  • Season and Time of Day: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer and Morning, Dawn, Day, Night, etc.
  • Main objects and focal points in the image: Building, river, mountain, food, animal, plant, etc. Use also scientific names of the plants and animals (Latin name). For example, Giant Panda = Ailuropoda melanoleuca.
  • Themes and concepts: Brexit, Coronavirus, Cybersecurity, etc.
  • Colors: Consider listing the main colors of the image.
  • Technical aspects: Aerial view, Wide-angle, Time-Lapse, etc.

You can also use keywording tools to help with the process. My favorite tool is Shutterstock’s keywording tool. You can access it from the contributor portal.

The tool will help you to find keywords, but sometimes it adds irrelevant words or misses some. So you should always check the results and remove irrelevant or add missing keywords.

Each agency also has its own rules on keywording. Let’s take a look at the keywording system of 3 of the most prominent agencies next.

Adobe Stock

If you’re selling images on Adobe Stock, it’s important to optimize your keywords and captions to ensure that your photos are being seen by potential buyers. Here are some of the most important practices to keep in mind:

When captioning your images, keep the titles concise and ideally around 70 characters long.

Be descriptive, and include information on who, why, what, when, and where is in the picture.

Avoid adding a brand, product, or people’s names in the title

The title will become the URL and be searchable making it more visible on Google.

For keywording, arrange the most important keywords in the top 10. Keywords on the top have the highest weight in the search engine algorithms, so it’s important to include the most relevant keywords here.

You can also include keywords in the title and in the top 10 for an extra boost.

In general, use 15-35 keywords – more than that may be irrelevant and won’t help your ranking.

Use singular nouns rather than plurals (e.g. “dog” instead of “dogs”). Adobe Stock search knows the difference.

Finally, for best results, add all keywords as separate words unless the name requires a different one. For example “Golden Gate Bridge”

Adobe Stock also has an automatic keyword suggestion system. It usually offers irrelevant keywords for the images, but sometimes it provides keywords that you didn’t think of in the first place. Worth to try, I think…

Here’s more about selling photos on Adobe Stock: How to Sell Your Photos on Adobe Stock?

And here’s a very informative video about Adobe Stock keywording:

Adobe Stock's Uploading Portal
Adobe Stock’s Uploading Portal. Keywords must be sorted by the most relevant on the top.


Unlike other stock photo websites, IStock has a predetermined keywording system. This means that if you’ve used Shutterstock’s keywording tool, for example, then not all keywords will match with IStock’s system.

For example, the word “star” has more than one meaning, so IStock has a predetermined, more specific keyword “Star – Space” to be used for images with stars on the sky.

The keywords that are not compatible with the IStock system are marked in red in the image submitting portal. They can be fixed by clicking on the word and choosing the right keyword from the list that it offers. This again slows down the process, but it is essential to be done, so that correct keywords are being implemented in the images.

Why IStock have such a system? Probably to help the buyers find more easily the type of image they need. What matters most is that you take the time to fix those incompatibility issues, so that your image will be correctly keyworded and therefore easier to find by potential customers.

IStock keywording portal
IStock Keywording Portal. The keywords marked red are not found in the Stock system.


Shutterstock’s keywording system is one of the most straightforward in the stock photo industry.

Shutterstock allows submitters to use up to 50 keywords to describe their images.

While other sites require users to take extra steps such as sorting keywords, Shutterstock’s system does not have any such requirements.

This makes the submitting process much faster and simpler.

All that is needed is for the user to select the image category and shoot location.

In addition, Shutterstock’s keyword tool can be used to find even more relevant keywords for an image. The keyword tool will generate a list of appropriate keywords which you can choose to add to the image.

So no matter what kind of image you’re trying to sell, Shutterstock’s keywording system makes the process quick and easy.

Shutterstock keywording portal
Shutterstock has a very straightforward keywording system. No sorting or fixing of keywords needed which makes uploading new assets quick and painless.


Keywording your stock assets is the most boring job ever. However, it is also the most important job.

Without keywords, your images cannot be found by the buyers, and you’ll never get any sales.

By adding relevant keywords into your stock media assets, you’ll make your images searchable.

When you take your time and go through the keywording process throughout, you increase your probability of getting sales.

Also, by performing keyword research and finding less covered subjects in the market, you get your stock assets higher on the search results.

The higher your images are in the search; the higher are your sales also.

Each stock agency has its own system for keywording. Familiarize yourself with each system to maximize your sales potential.

Always remember that even the best image in the world won’t sell if it cannot be found. On the other hand, even a mediocre image may sell if it is easy to find.

Last note but not least. Have some fun! Don’t overdo it. If you like making images of subjects that are very competitive, then go for it! If you become a master of that niche, in the long run, you’ll surely make money with that content.

Thanks for reading!