An Interview with: Luxury Spa and Resort Photographer - Trinette Reed & Chris Gramly Luxury Spa, Resort, and Hotel Photographer specializing in Fashion, Lifestyle, and Architectural Photography in California
Trinette, can you bring us up to date on how you got into photography and specifically stock photography?
Chris, how about you?
Chris: I am a jack-of-all-trades. I studied mechanical engineering at The Ohio State University and moved to San Francisco after graduation to work for a big six consulting firm where I was a consultant/programmer. I ended up working for a smaller firm after that, then a few startups during the dot-com days. During my years in the corporate world I spent time in Australia, Vietnam, Germany and other areas of Europe for work and travel. When I wasn’t working I was taking pictures. I have always had a deep love of making pictures, which probably started by watching my father who taught black & white photography to deaf high school kids. I was always around photography and being photographed so naturally I was intrigued.
I would say I left the corporate life, but really it left me. I was fired from my last tech job for my unwillingness to sacrifice my personal life for work – it was the best thing that ever happened to me. From that point on I have worked for myself. For the next few years I was a general contractor and began flipping houses in the bay area, when the housing market crashed I met Trinette and decided to finally pursue photography – something I had always wanted to do.
So how did you guys end up working together?
Trinette: I met Chris through a good friend who suggested that he call me and pick my brain about photography. Chris had recently decided to pursue photography as a career. We became good friends first and had fun exploring photography together. About six months later, we took our relationship to the next level and have been happily working together ever since. We have a great flow together and our skill sets compliment each other really well. Not to mention that we totally love and adore each other, and I happen to believe that he is the most perfect man in the world.
Chris: When I met Trinette I realized that the myth “You can’t make any money as a photographer” was not true. I was curious and had to learn more. I have always been a quick study and I finally met someone who knew the business of photography. I am blessed to have met her and I love her to pieces. We make a good team and love working together – what could be better?
What does your teamwork look like (i.e. do you have different roles and areas of responsibility as well as shared roles)?
Trinette: We share a lot of roles, but also have different roles too. We usually share pre-production unless one of us is busy with another priority. We tend to brainstorm together both for shoots and overall business/ company direction. I do the editing usually getting opinions from Chris where needed on final edits and keywording. Chris deals with all the equipment (thank god) and manages all the technical stuff, data and backups. I really love art directing as well.
Chris: I prefer to have Trinette do the styling, she is very good at it and I tend to doubt myself when it comes to which scarf looks best with which jacket. If we hire a stylist Trinette directs them while I am busy with the gear, making sure everything is in order, clean and organized. I find that we have a very complimentary set of skills and it all ends up functioning like a well-oiled machine.
Bottom line, there are things I don’t want to be dealing with and she happens to be great at those things – the reverse is also true.
On joint shoots do you both get behind the camera? How do you decide who does what?
Trinette: Yes, we both do. We decide that based on who is feeling like shooting, it usually works out where one of us is feeling it more than the other. It also depends on who/what we are shooting for. We each have our own contracts at some agencies, so that often dictates it as well. Also, lately, I have been shooting stills while Chris is shooting motion at the same time. That allows us to really cover more ground when shooting stills and motion, which we have been doing on most of our shoots.
Chris: I am thankful that we can both shoot, art direct and light. I think it would be a lot more pressure if only one of us could shoot because sometimes you just need a break or you just don’t feel up to the task. We can cover more ground and maximize our investment when we both have a camera in hand. When only one of us is shooting it is great to have a second pair of eyes to provide feedback and creative input and art direct talent.
I know you work together as a team, do you also maintain separate photography endeavors?
Trinette: Yes, we do. We both have ideas that we want to carry out that feel more personal to us, in those cases, the other person is in more of a supportive role rather than a collaborative role. We usually discuss this up front before a shoot so it’s clear to both of us. I think it’s important in a collaborative relationship like this where we support each other in having our own individual ideas and vision when that arises. It’s nice to have both options, we have a great flow in our collaboration and we both know we have the freedom and support, to say “hey, I want to do my own thing on this one.”
Currently how (with whom) are you distributing your stock photography?
Trinette: Currently, we are shooting both macro RM / RF, micro RF, macro/micro motion video and assignment work. We distribute our stock work mostly through Blend and Getty and various micro agencies.
Are you seeing any trends with the individual distributors and with the business as a whole? What is your long-term view of micro?
Trinette: I think the obvious trends are that buyers are moving towards micro and agencies are being forced to lower prices to compete. At the same time the quality of micro is increasing by leaps and bounds. There are some really creative photographers in micro doing amazing and inspiring work. I personally think that micro and RF are going to merge at some point in the future.
Chris: Recently iStockphoto has introduced a premier collection called Vetta. I am participating in this collection at iStock and it has performed quite well. I believe there is exciting potential for other micro agencies to create similar collections. It is clear that customers are willing to spend $100 on a well-executed micro image and I find this very encouraging. I expect to see other micro agencies follow suit by raising prices and putting some energy into value add collections.
Trinette: I would personally like to see the barriers between micro and RF come down and have one model with different price points depending on quality. At this point, what is the difference between micro and RF content? It used to be price, but now Vetta images are selling for $100 in micro, and Getty is selling RF (and RM) images for $1. The distinctions between these two different models no longer make sense. Agencies like Fotolia and Veer are now putting micro and macro both on their site side by side. I think this is a step in the right direction.
I also think the micro agencies have a very hard time sorting the relevant images for their customers. There is a ton of room for improvement in this area. Agencies like Shutterstock have decent sales for two to three weeks when you first upload and then your image sales falls off very quickly. The new content goes to the top. I hope that at some point they will be able to move the high quality content to the top of the search engines so customers are getting more relevant results.
My other big concern overall in the photography industry is that there seems to be a general sentiment in the marketplace that a lot of people think that images are free. I find it a little disturbing how many images are being used illegally and how socially acceptable image theft is. Most stock image usages are unauthorized. There is a lot of money on the table from those usages. Some of it is ignorance and some of it is intentional by the user. It would be nice to find a way to deal with that, educate people, and offer them the images to buy at a reasonable price. I know there is some technology being developed to be able to track images better. I am looking forward to seeing how that develops.
Chris: One trend that might be obvious is that you cannot just go out and produce a shoot the way you used to, spending money at will, knowing you will make it back in the first year or less. Cost per image has become the name of the game, both in micro and macro. I could go on and on here, but I’ll try to stick to the question…
Another obvious trend is the insane amount of images entering the market. If customers cannot see your images, they cannot buy them. This has become one of the biggest hurdles in micro and somewhat of a challenge in macro depending on where your images are sold. In micro you are competing with thousands (if not tens of thousands) of images for a given keyword phrase and the search priority is often based on sales performance of an image. Having your images seen is not that easy.
In my opinion the business as a whole is still in flux and I don’t think the dust will settle for some time. I agree with Trinette that micro and macro will merge, the question is - what will that look like? There are still a lot of changes brewing in this industry and let’s just say I have my seatbelt pulled tight for the road ahead.
Trinette, you are a founder of Blend Images. What do you think the future holds for Blend?
I think the future for Blend is a positive one. I think Blend’s strength lies in owning all levels of the market for ethnically diverse imagery. We are launching a new mid stock collection soon, which I am excited about as well as our recently launched RM collection and motion film is coming soon too. We want to be THE place to come for diversity, and we want to capture customers at all price points and be able to fill all their image needs.
We are also offering a level of customer service that our customers really appreciate. I think there is a bright future for a high quality niche collection like Blend. This is a niche market that has been growing and will continue to grow. At Blend, we see everyday that customers are still willing to pay macro prices for good quality images that fit their needs.
I think something else that makes Blend strong is community. We have a tight knit group of owners and contributing photographers that represent a wealth of talent and knowledge. We believe in sharing information and figuring this thing out together, this has been something that has made us stronger as a company.
Chris, I have only known you for a few years. I have always been impressed with your IT skills, and I have to admit that your photography belies your relatively new emergence on the professional scene. To what do you attribute your quick (from my point of view) success?
Chris: Aww shucks… Thank you for the compliment John. I think the biggest factor in my rapid success has been connecting with other professionals like you and Trinette (and Jack, Stewart, Rick, Shalom, etc. etc… there are many others) and soaking up as much knowledge as I can. Trinette has been my biggest inspiration and asset through this journey. Besides being an extremely talented and creative photographer she is also a brilliant businessperson. She has taught me a great deal and through her I have managed to plug into a community of professionals that provided me with a great advantage when it came to finding good information and best practices. Learning photography is one thing; learning stock photography is another thing entirely. I already had some of the photography part down, but the stock part came through observing, participating, discussing, making mistakes and just going for it. Spending time in your studio working with you has been very valuable to me in many ways, which is just one example.
As I said before I am a quick study and I love to learn, especially when it comes to something that I am passionate about. I believe that my engineering background and strong technical ability have been priceless assets along the way. I have seen many photographers struggle in this arena and I am fortunate that I have the technical skills to adapt and troubleshoot my way out of the technical abyss. It also helps when learning new crafts/mediums like motion.
Trinette, you have a strong background with the traditional “Macro” end of stock, and yet you appear to be dipping more than just your toe into the micro waters. Can you share your thoughts on that?
Trinette: Well I noticed that my returns in macro took a really hard hit over the last several years all the while, the editing was getting tighter and tighter and returns were plummeting, this was really squeezing our ability to turn a profit on stock shoots. Right now we are really in a testing phase with micro, it’s very different from macro in many ways and there is a bit of a steep learning curve. We are still in the learning phase. One of my favorite things about micro is being able to edit my own images.
I will say however that my Blend sales have held much more steady than my Getty sales. My Getty sales have fallen off a cliff. That is a very positive thing about Blend that it is so widely distributed and not solely dependent on any one agency.
Chris, what are your thoughts on micro and do you think your beliefs are influenced by not having such a history with macro?
Chris: I think I have a lot less resistance to micro than a lot of people and I think it is important to stay open to change when your industry is in flux. I don’t have the history of making a guaranteed $100 to $500/image/year as a standard for my income so I haven’t really taken that for granted. I entered this market when it was already on the decline and micro was already up and running, though I didn’t really ‘get’ micro at the time so it was not on my radar. I believe micro is a very viable outlet for imagery of a certain type and I am more than happy to be involved with it. There is something very satisfying about being in control of your content and being able edit your shoots. As Trinette said, we are still in a testing phase and we are paying close attention to the data and the changes. The jury is definitely still out for us and I am not suggesting that traditional macro shooters can jump into microstock and start seeing good returns.
As Tom Grill mentioned in his recent blog post: 50 x $200 = 200 x $50. The dollar amount is the same at the end of the day and the emergence of volume sales in stock photography is here to stay. As a businessperson I want to pay attention to this model and see how I can benefit from it.
At this point how much of your energy is going into RM, how much into RF, and how much into Micro? What is your reasoning behind these choices?
Trinette: I would say we are doing about 50% RM, 50% Micro (including motion) at this point this year. That could change as we acquire more sales information from micro – the numbers will show us the reality in the market and where to put our energy.
What have you learned about achieving success in the microstock arena?
Trinette: I do not consider myself successful in the micro area yet. It’s way too early to tell. The logistics of micro can very quickly bury you. We went through a very intense three-month process of figuring it all out last year and wanted to give up on it everyday. Now there is a service called Lookstat that handles our micro content. They are a really great company. I wouldn’t think of getting into micro without their help, they offer a really great service of retouching, keywording, and uploading content. They also offer data management so you can see your sales and what shoots are making you the most money.
Lifecycle will be something very important to evaluate with micro. If the lifecycle of an image is six months or even a year, that will be an important factor in evaluating profit.
Chris: I agree with Trinette that we would not be pursuing microstock without the valuable services provided by Lookstat. We also use JaincoTech for some of our retouching, yet another way that Trinette and I can spend more time producing & shooting and less time bogged down with the details or post-production. For us it is too early to draw conclusions about microstock, we have not been in the space long enough.
One of the challenges in micro is analyzing sales data. Recently Lookstat implemented the ability to create Collections so we can group images by shoot and then see the sales data per shoot. Analyzing sales data is key and we love to crunch numbers – just because your images are selling doesn’t mean you are making money. You have to analyze the cost to get your images to market - from the shutter to the agency website. Lookstat is also going to be adding other features like portfolio growth, sell through rate, etc.
Another challenge in micro is just keeping up with the changes - there is a large micro community out there and a lot of information to take in. The best way to keep my finger on the pulse is to tune in to Microstockdiaries.com and listen to what Lee Torrens has to say. I can’t seem to keep up with all the changes in micro, but Lee is a great source for all things micro and reading his blog is a great way to stay current.
You are also getting into motion. I believe your first effort was on a shoot in Tahiti. Can you tell us about that experience and how it may have help shaped your path in regards to video?
Chris: That shoot was a steep learning curve. We were in NY last year two weeks before our trip to Tahiti, which was supposed to be just a stills shoot. After talking to Stewart Cohen and some others in NY, we decided to go for it and add motion to the shoot. We spent the next two weeks putting it together knowing nothing about motion video. We got on the phone with the Getty film department for advice, hired a DP from LA and rented an HD camera. We shot two days of motion and two days of stills. We art directed and had a DP for all the camera operation. We had some of the worst weather ever on a shoot, severe tropical thunderstorms throughout the day with little bursts of sunshine. So our shooting time got cut in at least half by the weather. Given that, we had a great shoot and fell in love with shooting film. Getty ended up taking about 52 RM clips from the shoot. Now we have the 5D and have been shooting film since then with that camera.
It is probably a bit soon, but do you have any information yet on returns from that effort?
Trinette: We spent about $20K on the motion part of the shoot. It’s been online since February and we have made about $2K - a bit disappointing to say the least. The stills part of the shoot has done much much better. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have spent that much. A lot of that money was spent on renting the HD camera and DP. Now we are shooting with the 5D while shooting stills so it helps keep the cost down significantly. We made the decision for this shoot before we had the 5D so doing it on the cheap was not an option at the time. We also produced the shoot literally just before our Getty sales fell off a cliff. Live and learn. It was an expensive learning experience. Here is a link to the motion shoot from Tahiti. http://www.trinettereed.com/portfolio/index.php?c=7&d=motion+video+gallery
Have you shot any more motion?
Trinette: Yes, we are trying to shoot motion on all of our shoots now.
What role do you see video having in your overall plan?
Trinette: Very significant. It’s a big part of our plan. I don’t think the sales are there yet, but hopefully that will change soon as the technology for displaying moving images changes.
Chris: I believe motion is going to take off at some point. People have been saying this for a long time now, but I am a believer. Technology is advancing at such a rapid rate and younger generations expect to see things in motion. Before long every billboard will be in motion, posters around urban areas will be in motion.
Right now, what is the biggest challenge you see stock photographers facing?
Trinette: Making a living. Producing shoots for low costs, getting enough selects to make it worth it and our changing industry. This industry has been in a huge state of flux for years now. 2005 is when I really started seeing a steep decline in my stock sales. In 2006, I had a full production staff and studio space. Now in 2009, it’s just Chris and I working out of our house. We outsource whenever possible and we get very resourceful when producing shoots. That downward trend that started in 2005 has continued to now in 2009. No one knows when that will stabilize or perhaps reverse. I know photographers who have given up on stock all together. Flickr and social media have also forever changed stock photography.
I would love to see the dust settle in this industry and restructuring and merging of the RF/ Micro market at various price points as one model. High quality content is priced higher. Again the success of the Vetta collection proves that customers are willing to spend more money on micro sites for quality. It’s about the customer finding the right image for their need; I believe that customers are willing to pay more. If the agencies can figure out how to work out the search results so the quality content has better placement and can be prices higher, I think we could actually start making a decent living again in stock.
Chris: If I were a lone stock photographer out there I would make it my priority to get educated about the changes in the market and get involved with those changes. Get involved in the community of your peers and share ideas, thoughts experiences. If you put your head in the sand and hope that things will get back to ‘normal’ you will be looking for another career before long.
How are you guys dealing with those challenges?
Trinette: Diversifying. Trying to stay open minded to new ways of doing business. We are also focusing more on assignment work and we have a few other businesses in the works, some totally outside of stock photography.
What role do you see your web site playing in the coming years?
Trinette: I think our websites and SEO is going to be very important. We are already seeing evidence of this.
Chris: As I mentioned before a big challenge is getting your images in front of the customer. I think direct sales will be the way to do this as technology and SEO make it possible for individuals to handle this in house.
Do you foresee a movement towards more direct sales? If so, how do you plan to get the necessary traffic?
Trinette: Yes, I do. Recently I have had a number of clients contact me that have bought my images on Getty and have wanted to know if I sell any images directly. They told me that they would prefer to buy directly from me. We actually just had a direct sales portal designed that will be live soon. We link to all of our images on Getty and Blend, and we also offering a collection of images that we are going to be selling directly. We are very excited about it. For direct sales, I think the name of the game is focus on a niche, own it, and SEO the hell out of it.
Chris: Traffic, yes that is really the issue isn’t it? We have only begun to learn about SEO and plan on putting more energy into that this year. For now, we hope that our regular clients will use our direct sales website and plan to build more of an Internet presence in our niche of luxury hotels, spas and resort photography. I think with SEO, the more niche you are the better chance you have of getting customers to your site.
It has always been a strategy in photography to specialize. I am, for instance, focusing on business/concept imagery. Am I correct in that you guys are specializing in Spa Photography (sounds like a bit more fun!)?
Trinette: Yes, we specialize in luxury hotel, spa, and resort photography. We still do a lot of fashion, beauty, architectural and lifestyle imagery as well.
Can you explain a bit more about that decision?
Trinette: I feel that my work in general over the years lends itself to that specialization, so it felt in some ways like a very natural transition for me. A couple of years ago, Chris and I were at a luxury resort and spa in Napa Valley on vacation and after thoroughly relaxing into our vacation, we started brainstorming and visioning about where we wanted to take our business and what we wanted to create in our lives. Focusing on luxury spa and resort photography was what came out of that “meeting” lounging in an outdoor cabana by the pool.
We came home and got right to work on it putting together a new website that focuses on that niche. We realized that we already had a body of work of spas and resorts without even trying, it was right there under our nose in the midst of the thousands of stock images we had been producing.
Chris: We have spent the last couple of years filling the holes we had and also focusing on architectural photography, which is something we both love, and something that spas and resorts need. Often resorts hire an architectural photographer or a lifestyle photographer, we wanted to provide the client with one stop shopping and deliver architectural, food, lifestyle, detail images and motion video all in one photo shoot to cover all of their visual needs. I think we have done a good job of that and being able to offer all of those services to the client.
Do you still take on assignment work?
Trinette: Yes. And this is actually something we are more actively pursing now. When we were in New York last month, we just signed with a new commercial photography assignment rep O’Gormon-Schramm. We are very excited about working with them. They are already reaching out to the spa and resort market and getting our name out there.
If so, do you plan on placing more, less or the same emphasis on assignment work?
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of stock photography?
Trinette: I am optimistic, although there are times in the last few years where pessimism has gotten the better of me in regards to making a living at stock. I am also hedging my bets. I would not feel comfortable being 100% dependent on stock right now. I used to encourage photographers I mentored to go into stock. I don’t do that anymore. Having said that, I do think that photographers who can adapt and shoot quality content and keep costs down will be able to continue to make a living, at least for now. One thing is for sure, it is way more difficult and much more competitive than it used to be. I love shooting stock and the freedom it affords me. It was always my dream to do exactly what I am doing.
Chris: I too am optimistic. I believe that if you are able to adapt you will succeed. I see a lot of opportunity ahead and I plan to make sure we are poised to be in the best position possible going forward. Diversification is one way to do this, adapting to market changes is another. I cannot stress enough the importance of cost per image and analyzing your returns, no matter what space you are playing in. We have actually expanded our business in many ways during this recession and I think that those who do the same will benefit.
If you had to give one piece of advice about how to achieve success in stock photography in the coming years, what would it be?
Trinette: Be open minded and open to change, experiment, use the downturn to focus on what you really want to be doing, stay connected.
Chris: Stay open to the changes and open to learning; don’t pretend to know what you don’t know.
Trinette, can you share with us a current favorite image of yours (or yours and Chris’s) and the story behind it?
Trinette: This is an image I shot at a hotel and resort on the island of St. Barts. This woman was swimming underwater in the ocean; I was standing on top of a small boat shooting down into the water. I was leaning over the edge of the boat and Chris was holding the back of my pants so I didn’t fall in. The model kept turning sideways in the water while she was swimming, which actually worked well for this particular shot. Before we left for the trip, I had this idea of wanting to photograph a woman with various nature elements compositing them together. So when we got home. Chris composited some clouds over her so it looks like she is swimming through clouds and water. This was more of a personal shot for me, not intentionally shot for stock, but of course we submitted it to stock as well.