How to Keyword Photos for Stock Photography

In this article, we share our top strategies and stock photography tips on how to correctly title and keyword your content to successfully sell stock photos and footage to earn passive income.

My wife and I have been in the stock photography business since 2015 and we earn a living from it. Early on, we realized that properly supplying keywords and titles for our microstock content is the most valuable part in the stock photography business. Although many stock photographers consider it the most mind-numbing and boring task ever, without the proper description and keywords, your content will not sell, no matter how great it is.

Why Keywords and Title Matter for Stock Photography?

This article uses title and description interchangeably because the majority of stock photo agencies have only one field for that, which is typically description (Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, Alamy). Few have separate fields for title and description (Getty Images is one of them). Each stock photography platform has its limit on the number of symbols allowed in the description, typically ranging from 150 to 250, including white spaces.

Keywords, or sometimes referred to as tags, are search terms that determine the discovery of your photos on search result pages. Typically, you are allowed to have up to 50 keywords for each stock image or video. Each photography keyword can be either one word or multiple words that will count as one keyword.

The most important job for stock photographers is to make sure that their content appears on the first three pages of search results for successful selling of stock photos and footage. If content shows up later, the chances of a client clicking and buying the stock photo or video goes down exponentially. There are many factors that come into play when it comes to how your content will rank.

Maroon Bells peak view at sunrise in Aspen, Colorado at blue hour with Rocky mountains and snow in July 2019 summer at dawn
Maroon Bells At Sunrise in Aspen, Colorado

All stock photo agencies will create a separate page for your image and make it discoverable by the keywords, title, location (if allowed), categories and even information from your model release. Later, your image will also rank based on how often it was shown to clients in search results, clicked on and bought.

Among all this, the most important factors are the description and keywords of your accepted content. I also speculate that stock photo agencies correlate descriptions to keywords, so having relevant words in both of them will reinforce the ranking of your content.

How to Properly Keyword Stock Photos and Videos?

We keyword and title our content ourselves. While some people outsource this work, we never did because it costs money and there is a risk that we may get a bunch of generic keywords for our stock photos and videos that will require reworking. Although keywording/titling is the biggest bottleneck in our workflow, we take great care in completing this job and like being in control of our work.

While there are many pros and cons to outsourcing keywording and titling, we highly recommend doing this work yourself, at least at the beginning. You can decide later if delegating it to someone else is worth it.

Whenever we begin keywording and titling, we always keep in mind the 5 W’s, which will guide you into finding the most appropriate keywords. The 5 W’s are:

  • Who/what is the subject?
  • When was the content created?
  • Where was it taken?
  • What is happening in the photo/video?
  • Why does it happen?

We always start with Shutterstock’s keyword tool. The way this tools works is that it allows you to input search terms and then select at least three similar images or videos. After making your selection, the tool will supply the most relevant and less relevant keywords that you can choose from for your image.

Shutterstock Keyword tool for finding keywords for stock photography photos and videos

After including the most relevant keywords from Shutterstock’s keyword tool, we come up with other tags on our own that could be relevant. We always target 50 keywords because that is typically the maximum number of keywords. Of course, if we have nothing relevant to add, we may have fewer than 50 keywords. We typically consider the following factors for additional keywords for a stock image or video.

Location and Date

Unless it is a generic subject, we almost always include the location of our content, such as the country, state or region, city and landmark name depicted in our content. It is important to be specific. Sometimes, we include abbreviations of states (e.g. FL for Florida).

Quite often, we research the location of a photo or video on Wikipedia to find additional keywords. If it is indoors, include the keywords “indoors” and “interior”. If the photo is taken outdoors, use keywords “outdoors” and perhaps “outside”. Also, under certain circumstances, specifying the year, month or even date could very important (e.g. a date of a particular march protest).


If you have people present, include their age, gender, ethnicity and how many of them there are. Also, if there is certain mood or facial expression, include that too (e.g. happy, smiling, sad, depression). If there are no people present, include “no people,” “nobody” or even “empty” if it is important for the content.


If there is an activity happening, describe it in simple terms, such as running, kayaking, skiing or swimming.

Season, Time of Day

If you take a lot of landscape images and videos, adding a season to your keywords could be important. Also, is it sunrise or dawn? Is it morning, day or night?

Maroon Bells peak at sunrise with frozen lake reflection in Aspen, Colorado at Rocky mountain in autumn and winter with snow
Maroon Bells Peaks and Lake in Winter in Aspen, Colorado

Main Objects

Include keywords that describe the main objects depicted in your image/video. Is it a mountain or rolling hills landscape? Is it an animal or a plant? Besides generic keywords, be more specific and include keywords that are unique to your content. For instance, consider the names of mountains, names of landmark in English (or transliteration in English if the name is written in foreign language) and scientific names for plants and animals in Latin.


If your imagery is conceptual, add keywords that describe this concept (e.g. freedom, depression, disease, religion, politics).

Color Tones

If you image has certain colors that dominate and would be of interest to a buyer, consider including them. For instance, you have a photo of a bedroom interior with beige colors of walls and bedding. Include “neutral,” “beige” and “color” as part of your keywords.

Technical Data

This refers to what photographic technique you used when you took a particular shot. For instance, is it wide angle view, closeup or macro? Is it high angle/aerial view or ground level? It could also be a profile or side view, panorama or HDR shot. If you have blurry background, you can include bokeh, blur or blurred background, and defocused.

Also, if you submit stock footage, there could be keywords specific to how you recorded this video. Among the keywords we regularly use are timelapse or time-lapse, rack focus, shallow depth of field, point of view or pov, zoom in or zoom out, slow motion or slowmo, vehicle shot and handheld shot.

Use Other Keyword Tools

Recently, we started cross-checking using the free keyword research tool (you will need a free account with them to use their tool). The tool is useful for identifying missing keywords for an image/video after going through the Shutterstock keyword tool. free keyword research tool for stock photography keyword tool not only shows relevant keywords for a particular search term, but also ranks each keyword based on views and sales. This is helpful to identify if you are missing a keyword that is relevant to your image and can help improve the sale of your image.

Use Multi-Word Keywords

We frequently use multiple words for one keyword. For instance, instead of having “new” and “mexico” as two separate keywords, consider having just “new mexico”, if your photo was taken in the state of New Mexico. If you use two separate keywords, your image may show up if someone searches for the country of Mexico, which is not what you want. However, by using multiple-word keyword, you will not only indicate the appropriate location of your image, but also have one extra tag to add.

Singular vs. Plural Form Keywords

Certain stock photo agencies discern singular vs. plural forms of words. Among them is Alamy. Google tells the difference between plural and singular forms too. So, if someone searches for a “cat image” vs. “cats image” on Google, they would see different results. Other agencies, such as Adobe Stock and Shutterstock do not tell the difference. I tried to search Pond5 for singular vs. plural forms of a word and it seems that it tells the difference.

When you keyword you content, always include the form that is the most appropriate for your image. If you have one dog, include “dog” as a keyword. However, you can perhaps include plural form too, but be aware that this will potentially provide irrelevant results to your clients. This can harm your ranking in the future, especially for stock photo agencies that can tell the difference.

Verb Keywords

While many other online resources would tell you to use infinitive forms for verbs only (drink, eat, smile, run), I disagree with this. Even though many stock photography agencies do not see the difference between common forms of a verb (Adobe Stock, Shutterstock), others (Alamy, Pond5) can tell the difference.

Crested Butte, Colorado with happy young woman standing by farm fence and in summer with green grass and alpine mountain view with cows grazing at pasture
Farm at Crested Butte, Colorado

Same goes for Google. This means that they will give you different search results depending on whether you searched for “dog walk” or “dog walking” So to be safe, we typically include at least two forms of an important verb, mainly its infinitive form (walk, run, swim, read, climb) and its present participle or gerund form (walking, running, swimming, reading, climbing).

Reusing Keywords

Once we started building our portfolio, we began to reuse some of our keywords for images/footage that had a common theme to them. We typically do not use presets, which can be done in Adobe Lightroom through creating a set of keywords that you can apply to a batch of images. Although using presets may be convenient, instead we just copy paste existing keywords for a similar image/video and then replace and add more relevant keywords. This works for us because we work with each photo or video individually to ensure it has the right set of keywords.

There is a fast and easy way to find and copy keywords from a similar image in your portfolio. If you submit your stock photos to Alamy, you probably know that they accept almost all if not all the images you submit to them. This makes it easy to search for an image with specific tags in your entire portfolio through their Alamy image manager and then copy and paste keywords from a similar piece of content. Because Alamy does not accept footage at this time, we use Pond5 instead to find similar videos by keyword and then copy paste keywords from there.

Disambiguating Keywords for Getty Images

Getty Images is the only stock photo agency to our knowledge that requires contributors to disambiguate keywords before submitting content. This means that you cannot just supply Getty with your keywords and move on. Instead, you have to go through and choose a more precise suggestion for a particular keyword from a list they provide you.

Let’s suppose you have the keyword “aspen”, referring to a tree common in Colorado. Getty will give you 10 suggestions to choose from, such as “Aspen – Colorado”, “aspen tree”, “aspen leaf” among many others. Doing so, they force you to choose the exact term that you intended to. So, if you meant “aspen tree”, you would choose that. In case you skip this step, the keyword will not be used.

Getty Images IStock Deepmeta keywords disambiguation or disambiguating for stock photography
Getty Images or iStock Keywords Disambiguation in DeepMeta

Typically, you have to do that for over half of all keywords (more than 25) for each stock photo and video. I would say that this is the most annoying thing when it comes to submitting our content to Getty Images because it takes a lot of our time.

Put Important Keywords First

When you prepare a list of your keywords, make sure to put the most important keywords (at least 10-15) at the very beginning. This becomes important later when you submit your content. Adobe Stock uses a hierarchy of keywords, where tags that appear first are given priority in ranking on search results pages. Also, Alamy wants you to identify the so-called 10 supertags, which are keywords that will rank most during the search. Putting the most important keywords at the very beginning will make tagging these supertags an easy matter.

How to Title Your Content

When we title our content, we typically keep the number of symbols under 150, including white spaces. After you finish keywording your content, it is much easier to write a title since you already know what is important. The title should read as a regular sentence describing exactly what is depicted using the 5 W’s strategy I mentioned above. Make sure that each title starts with 7 to 10 of the most relevant keywords that you identified before. This is important, because these first 7 or more words from your title become part of the URL (link) for your stock photo or video webpage and will be part of the ranking on Google.

I want to emphasize here that title to some extent is even more important than your keywords for search engines, such as Google, Bing and others. This is because search engines discover your image by its title primarily. Why does it matter? It matters because people still search for images through Google or Bing, and not necessarily directly on stock photo agencies. Frequently, after discovering an image through Google, a person would be a one-time buyer of your content, as opposed to being a subscription-based customer. This is important because one-time buyers pay substantially more and you get a higher cut from that sale compared to subscription-based purchases. So be sure that your title is relevant and to the point.

Check for Misspellings

Before you finalize your title and keywords, check that there are no misspellings. It happens to us all the time. There are numerous online free spell-checkers that will flag misspellings. Also, make sure that your keywords and title do not contain any special characters, such as ç, @, é, / or å.

Example of Creating Keywords and Title

Consider this image of Ice Lake in Colorado that I would like to create title and keywords for.

Ice Lake Near Silverton, Colorado

First, I go to the Shutterstock keyword tool and provide the search terms “ice lake colorado” and select at least three images with the closest resemblance and hit the “Add all” button.

Because I see that there are many other images that do not necessarily depict the Ice Lake I intended to, I narrow my search by adding the search word “Silverton” since I know that this lake is located near the mining town of Silverton, Colorado. I hit “Add all” button again and choose five more keywords as highlighted in red:

Shutterstock Keyword tool for finding keywords for stock photography photos and videos. Example of keywording stock photo image

The next step for me is to go to Wikipedia or similar resources to check if there is any additional information and keywords I am missing about Ice Lake. Because there was no Wikipedia page for this lake, I went to the US National Forest page and read it to see if I missed anything. For now, all the keywords I have are good enough. There are 50 of them as shown below:

clear, panoramic, panorama, meadow, pristine, san juan, durango, lakes, ouray, summit, turquoise, basin, trail, colorado, ice, lake, snow, nature, mountain, mountains, water, landscape, rocky, park, cold, hiking, travel, blue, peak, rock, scenic, forest, national, sky, wilderness, outdoors, range, usa, cloud, ice lake, spring, summer, green, rocky mountains, silverton, alpine, reflection, adventure, beautiful, glacier

The next step is to go to keyword research tool and input “Ice Lake Colorado” as a search term. I chose 37 keywords that potentially may be useful. Likely, most of them are just duplicates of what I already have in Shutterstock’s keyword tool. I copy and paste these 37 keywords into Shutterstock’s keyword tool and get 60 keywords as shown below.

clear, panoramic, panorama, meadow, pristine, san juan, durango, lakes, ouray, summit, turquoise, basin, trail, colorado, ice, lake, snow, nature, mountain, mountains, water, landscape, rocky, park, cold, hiking, travel, blue, peak, rock, scenic, forest, national, sky, wilderness, outdoors, range, usa, cloud, ice lake, spring, summer, green, rocky mountains, silverton, alpine, reflection, adventure, beautiful, glacier

Note that going to is not a necessary step and we rarely go there unless the stock photo or video is a special one and we think that researching keywords for it would be worth the time.

After copying and pasting keywords from, I have 60 keywords, so I need to go through and delete 10 keywords irrelevant for my image. This process involves some judgement and I chose these 10 keywords to remove highlighted in bold.

colorado, ice, lake, snow, nature, mountain, mountains, water, landscape, rocky, park, cold, hiking, travel, blue, peak, rock, scenic, forest, national, sky, wilderness, outdoors, range, usa, cloud, ice lake, spring, summer, green, rocky mountains, silverton, alpine, reflection, adventure, beautiful, glacier, clear, panoramic, panorama, pristine, meadow, san juan, durango, lakes, ouray, summit, turquoise, basin, trail, view, tourism, river, valley, tree, outdoor, vacation, natural, landmark, scenery

The thought process here is to remove any duplicate or irrelevant keywords. In my case, I do not have “cloud”, “river” or “tree” in the image. Since I have both “outdoors” and “outdoor”, I delete “outdoor”. Also, I have “rocky”, “mountains” and “rocky mountains”, therefore I will remove “rocky mountains”. Also, I have a keyword “san juan” separate from the keywords “national” and “forest” because there are San Juan Mountains and San Juan National Forest. So if someone searches for either of those or simply “mountains”, my photo should show up in the search results. Then, “cold”, “adventure”, “tourism”, “vacation” and “natural” are too generic keywords and can be removed.

Shutterstock Keyword tool for finding keywords for stock photography photos and videos. Example of keywording stock photo image

At the end, I have 50 keywords. Next, I quickly rearranged the keywords with the most important ones at the forefront by retyping them into Shutterstock keyword tool, which puts these tags first without duplicating them. Also, I do a quick spell check and the final product looks like this:

ice lake, colorado, ice, lake, rocky, mountains, panorama, silverton, alpine, reflection, san juan, national, forest, hiking, mountain, panoramic, water, landscape, nature, park, cold, travel, blue, peak, rock, scenic, sky, wilderness, snow, outdoors, range, usa, spring, summer, green, beautiful, glacier, clear, pristine, meadow, durango, lakes, ouray, summit, turquoise, basin, trail, valley, landmark, scenery

Next is title/description. I target 150 symbols. The title for image is:

“Ice Lake, Silverton Colorado in San Juan National Forest with Rocky Mountains in summer in panorama view”.

Notice how I put the most important keywords at the beginning and the total symbol count with spaces is 111. When you keyword and title your stock content, you can accomplish certain tasks in batches, such as spell checking.

Concluding Remarks

As you start creating keywords and titles for your content, you may be slow in the beginning. At least, we were. But as with anything, you will start to get the hang of it, create your own shortcuts and find efficiencies to speed up your workflow. The trick is to identify areas where you spend the most time and brainstorm ideas to improve the process.

In our next series of articles, we go over to efficiently directly embed keywords and titles into your stock photos and stock videos to efficiently submit content on stock photography websites.

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