What is a concept?
Merriam Webster defines concept as “something conceived in the mind” or “an abstract or generic idea generalized from particular instances”. While Wikipedia goes into depth with its explanation, the simple one is quite enough for us in here.
In photography, you could also say “concept means what the image is standing for”.
Many images are very literal, there is no „hidden“ meaning behind what you see.
For example this simple image of a pencil. There isn’t much behind what you see. As a stock photo, it works quite well as being what it is, a pencil on white background, that can be used as a design element, cut out and pasted onto something else. So it is totally okay to have images that have no real concept behind them, literal works just as well in many cases.
But some images show something but there also is a (or possibly multiple) words behind what you see.
For example, my broken piggy bank can illustrate a number of ideas from „fulfilling a child hood dream“ to „having no money“. This image had about 300 downloads on Shutterstock alone, and I have a few similar ones. I doubt I would find it in use searching for an article on broken piggy banks. Instead it will be used to illustrate articles around all kinds of financial topics, probably mostly connected to financial problems.
One of the most overused concept images is an apple on a book which illustrates all kind of concepts from education to health, school and brain development.
Maybe even more so, the thousands of variations of a “business hand shake” is not really being used literally very often. It’s not about the human hands, it’s about “making a deal”, “agreeing on something”, “accepting a new job”, “our business is personal”.However, it is also important to know that the concept also implies a common understanding with the viewers, so concepts often do not work across cultural borders. While a hand shake might be seen as the successful conclusion of negotiations in our Western culture, in some countries this might actually be seen as an example of acting “unhygienic”, exchanging viruses and bacteria.
The more hidden the concept is behind the actual visual representation, the more problematic this is in stock photography (or the better your chances of finding a niche?) as there are cultural differences even within regions that might not be understood by someone outside of a rather small community.
How to use the idea of “concepts” in your stock photography for better sales?
One of my most common answers to the eternal question “why don’t I get more sales” has always been: “Ask yourself, what kind of article would I have to write to make YOUR image useful as a preview on social media to make readers click on the article.” This is basically asking for “what concept is in that image”.
You can take an image of an air plane, and that might already represent concepts like “travel”. Unless you provide an “editorial use only” image – which could also get used once a specific airline is in the media, for example during a strike or for being bankrupt -, most images of airplanes would be used not just to show the plane but what it stands for.
However, adding another element like in this case the residential houses, the image in addition represents the noise involved with flying and airports near cities, it might also represent health issues arising from the noise etc.
So it isn’t the main object alone that goes into “concept” but also the specific context. Whenever you take an image of anything, try to also think “how else could I show the same thing in a different concept that represents something beyond the literal”.
As another example: A cat can be just a cat. However, shown in the right context, an image of a cat can also mean “feeling home”, “having a companion”, “learning responsibility” or so many other things. It’s the context that also makes the concept.