Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sarah Golonka Interview On Successful Stock Photography

 One of Sarah's favorite stock images. ©SarahGolonka

 Sarah, as an art director/editor for several stock agencies, a freelance photographer, stock consultant and a stock shooter, you must have, in a sense, a kind of “global” perspective on stock photography. Can you fill us in on your background in stock and photography, and your journey to where you are now?
I have been involved professionally with stock photography for over 7 years now, entering  the field shortly after graduating from collage at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, IN,  where I studied fine art photography & psychology.  At that time, I didn’t even know about stock photography, and how it would soon be playing such a major role in my future career.

Just after graduation,  I landed an internship as a photo assistant at this great little stock photography agency called PictureArts, in Culver City, CA. When I began interning at PictureArts, it was still a very small company, owned by Jeff Burke & Lorraine Triolo.  It was while I was working with the team at PictureArts, that I began to learn about the world of stock photography, and how stock photography was beginning to play such a major role in  the advertising market. I was soon hooked, and dove into learning all aspects of the stock photography world.

Fast forwarding a few years, I went from being an intern, to an editor and art director for PictureArt’s Brand X collection, worked freelance as an Art Director/Producer for both Jupiter Images & Corbis, and in addition, became a Senior Editor at Blend Images.  While each of my positions at these various stock agencies filled up my weekly schedules, I also took the time to shoot as a stock photographer as well.  I am currently represented by Jupiter, Getty, Blend Images & Tetra.

Throughout the years I have had the great opportunity to work with and learn from so many amazing creative people within the stock industry.  I’ve also have had the unique opportunity to see the stock photography world from both an editor and a photographer’s perspective.  This gives me a unique perspective, which I use to help encourage other photographers not only to shoot smart, but also to shoot creatively.

How are you allocating your time these days (with stock, editing, photography assignments and consulting)?
I am working on quite a few different projects, all of which I love!   Right now my time is spent as both a stock photography consultant, (which includes both editing and art direction for a few different stock photographers and agencies,)  and then I am also shooting as a freelance stock, event & portrait photographer, within the Los Angeles, CA area. You can view my current work on my website:

At the moment I am working on an exciting project with Sanrio (Hello Kitty,) as their event photographer for their Three Apples Exhibition, which is a 3 week long exhibit celebrating the 35th anniversary of Hello Kitty. This is currently  taking place at Royal/T Café, in downtown Culver City, CA.  I’ve been documenting all aspects of this event and look forward to having my photography published next year in a book that will be sold as a commemorative item of the event.  You can learn more about this great event by visiting the Three Apples website:

You were my editor at Blend Images, and also worked with several other photographers I am close with.  I know we all respected your feedback and your ability to help us see how we could maximize our stock shoots.  From your experience are there any “universal” or “common” areas that most photographers overlook when shooting stock?
Focusing on quantity vs. quality:
I still see so many photographers trying to shoot aggressively, focusing on the quantity vs. the quality of the images that they are producing for stock.   Especially these days, within this current marketplace, I think it is so important to shoot smart, which means turning your focus to producing images of higher quality instead of quantity.   Many photographers also need to start putting much more time into their pre-production; taking an extra moment to do the research to see what does and does not already exist in the current marketplace, generate some new ideas that they haven’t seen on a stock site before, and incorporating those ideas into a shoot list ahead of time, in addition to communicating with their editors to make sure they are on the right path, before they even begin shooting.  Shooting blindly always will give you mixed results.

High production value:
I don’t think that a shoot needs to cost a lot of money to be successful, but I do feel that a shoot needs to reflect high production value in order to be competitive in today’s marketplace.  These day’s it’s so important to raise the bar and take the extra time to think about your concepts, casting, location, lighting and styling.  All of these details are equally important to make your images more sellable.  So many of the ‘same old’ images are out there now, so why not try to take these sellable concepts and put your own creative spin on them, or just create some new concepts on your own?  Clients want to spend money on images that look new and fresh and different than what they have seen before.  Plus, creating something unique will give you less competition within the existing marketplace and in turn, will generate more sales for you if you are shooting a sellable concept.

The photographer/talent relationship:
I also see many photographers not taking the time to connect with their models, before and during a shoot.  If you take the time to make a personal connection with your talent, they will be more comfortable around you and in turn, you will create stronger and more realistic images. Be nice and make friends. Models have feelings too!

Know your own stock sales history:
This I see a lot of shooters not doing.  They know they have made money from their images, but do they know exactly which images of theirs have been selling over and over?  More importantly, do they know which images of theirs are NOT selling?  Just by taking the time to review your stock sales history, you can learn a lot about what clients like and maybe do not like, about your particular style or choice in subject matter.  Once you start to research your own sales history, you then can begin to see, from a client’s perspective, what your stock photography strengths and weakness are, and then shoot accordingly.

How has your photography and editing experience helped you in shooting stock?

I have had the unique experience of looking at the stock photography world from two different perspectives, as an editor and as a photographer.  From this I have drawn the conclusion that it is of the utmost importance for a photographer to communicate with their editors and to take advantage of the creative feedback and advice that they are willing to give you.  If you have an editor that doesn’t give you much feedback, then be a bit more aggressive and ask some more specific questions.  Learning what your editor does and does not like, and why, will only help you become a better stock photographer.

Your editors are looking at your images from not only a creative standpoint, but also in terms of whether or not your images are sellable & competitive in today’s marketplace.  Always ask questions and find out why some of your images were not selected after an edit, then be sure to take that into consideration when you plan your next shoot.  Learn from each of your submissions.  Don’t be offended by your editor’s advice or criticism.   They are looking at your images in terms of salability, so take the time to learn why they think one of your images was more sellable over another.  This is how you can then start to shoot smart and then begin to gear each of your shoots towards your agency’s specific wants and needs.  In turn, you will begin to see your select rate begin to increase, which is what everyone wants, right?

For you, what is the most challenge aspect of shooting stock? 
Taking a great idea and actually getting it to reflect that concept in a contemporary & sellable way.  Having a great idea and then executing it successfully, is never an easy task. Today you have to take so many additional details into account so that your stock images look individualistic and different than all the rest.  Here is when spending the extra time in pre-production really comes into account.  Having a solid shoot list is a great start, but then hiring strong talent (that looks and acts natural in front of the camera,) in addition to  making sure all the location and wardrobe styling details work together too….it’s a lot more difficult than many people expect.  It’s always a challenge for me.

What is the most challenging aspect of editing or art directing another photographer’s work?
Communication.  Each photographer is different and some respond better to visual examples for inspiration, while others prefer more verbal direction.  Some photographers take constructive criticism well, others do not.  Any art director or editor can have a great idea or shot in mind, but communicating that idea successfully to the photographer, and getting them to shoot that concept in the way in which you want, is always challenging!

Can you explain what separates an average stock image from a best seller?

A best selling image will not only display a sellable concept that is easily understood by the masses, but it will also push the creative envelope.  A ‘best seller’ image doesn’t look like a similar to other images shot by other photographers.  It’s individualistic. It looks real. If it is a lifestyle image, the people in the image have very natural expressions and body language, as if they are real people who had no idea that a camera was even in the room.

A ‘best seller’ image usually will also have some negative space, (so that the client can have the ability to crop or add text overlay, to the image,)  and the image will also be identifiable at a small thumbnail size. (If a client is searching a stock website, if they can’t tell what the image is as a thumbnail, they will never click on it in the first place!)  Also, the styling will be just right, the colors will compliment the subject in a contemporary way and the details of the location will not overpower the subject, but will add to the story being told, in a very natural and realistic way.

How about what separates an average shooter from an exceptional shooter?
I would say that an exceptional shooter takes the time to ‘shoot smart,’ (aka: pre-production, creative research,) but then also takes creative risks. Almost anyone can shoot a sellable concept, but it’s those who shoot that concept in a creative way, which hasn’t been done or seen before, are the ones that open themselves up to creating some of the best selling stock imagery.  Yes, taking those risks may not always work, but if you do it right, the rewards will outweigh the risks.

What do you like to shoot the most?
I really love shooting people!   Working with two or more models is my favorite because I can get them to really interact with each other, which allows me to focus on documenting their natural, personal interaction, in a creative way.   

Where do you get your ideas?
I get my ideas from a multitude of different sources.   Yes, I always like to be aware of what already exists in the current stock marketplace, but then the key is to create something that doesn’t already exist.  So after I look to see what agencies do have, I then turn to other sources for my inspiration. I always take the time to visit the local bookstores to spend time flipping through all the magazines that are on the stands.  It’s great to see what existing stock images are being printed and how they are being used. But more importantly, I also make sure to review the more editorial, assignment and fine art resources as well.  I draw a lot of inspiration from looking at what many of the non-stock photography shooters are doing, by looking at different publications as well, or  by visiting gallery exhibits and reviewing various creative blogs and websites. Honestly, we are bombarded by visual imagery everywhere these days, so you can draw ideas from anywhere!

What is your process for creating stock?
When I am beginning the pre-production for a stock shoot, I first speak with my editor and make sure I am shooting agency-specific.  I want to know exactly what their specific wants and needs are, since I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.  Shooting stock is about creating imagery that will make money, so that’s my most important first step,  making sure my shoot idea is actually a sellable one and that it will include images that my agency will actually select for their collection.  

Next I begin my creative research so I can create a strong shoot list and determine all my production details.   I first look to see what my agency already has on the subject that I’m going to shoot, making sure I’m not repeating any of the same ideas so I can gear my shoot towards what hasn’t been covered yet.  Then I begin to pull tear sheets and other creative inspiration from a multitude of sources.  I also put a lot of thought into my casting, (do they have a sellable look and can they act natural in front of a camera? )  After that I determine my location, wardrobe details (including color and style,) and work hard to make sure that everything falls into place.  Before I shoot, if my editor is up for it, I send them my shoot list and some of my styling/production ideas to make sure I’m on the right track, before I finalize my production details and start shooting.

What kind of material, in your experience, has the most income potential?

Well, from my experience I know that there are certain subjects that are always very sellable, since there is such a need for them in the marketplace, such as sports, education, and seasonal imagery, but yet depending on what agency you are distributing your work through, those needs may change depending on the agencies specific clientele.  Being a bit more general, I’d say that stock shooters should strive for creating images that again, look different and have a higher production value than what we already see being over-represented at all these current stock agencies.  Overall, images that tell a story, look natural and realistic, and that portray a strong concept;  have the most potential for creating more income for the photographer.

What is the most common mistake that stock photographers make?

Shooting for quantity vs. quality. Slow down and take the time before your shoot to do the research, create a strong shoot list and make sure all your production ducks are in a row.   Then during your shoot, you can relax, be creative and focus on getting some good variety.

What is it like to have your own stock photography edited by someone else?
Difficult, but yet eye-opening.  “Knowing” vs. actually “doing,” are two different monsters, which I learned quite quickly.   I actually love getting a critique by another editor because it gives me the chance to ask all those important questions and to find out how I can grow to become a stronger stock photographer.  I think that many photographers look at their own work much differently than they would someone else’s,  since they have much more of a personal connection with it.  This is why it’s so important for me to get as much creative feedback as possible from my editors, after a shoot.  That’s the way I learn how to make more money creating stock.   I know that I may not always agree with their decisions, but again, I know they are not telling me whether or not I’m a good photographer, just whether or not my images are sellable.  That’s an important clarification to make and to always take into consideration. 

Have you involved yourself with motion?  If not, do you plan on doing so?
Currently, I am not, but I do plan to eventually become involved.  I’ve been keeping up with all the current trends in this new and upcoming market and for right now, I am actively watching and learning to see where it’s going. Motion involves many new financial investments, and has a bit of a learning curve too, so I don’t want to jump in until I’m ready.

I have this suspicion that what separates the best of RM, RF and Micro is simply the label we put on it.  That being said, I do believe there are images that are more appropriate for each category.  Can we have your thoughts on that?
I personally believe that the quality (and sometimes subject matter,) should be the main differential factor when placing images into one collection vs. another.

Over the years I’ve seen so much inter-mixing between each sales model that it’s almost anyone’s guess these days, on whether an image is a RM, RF or sometimes even Micro, just by simply looking at the image.  I believe that although at one time each individual collection was once visually identifiable, it is no longer as easy to make that determination.  But, to keep stock photography alive and financially sound for the photographers who do shoot it for a living, I do think many agencies need to redefine and adhere to an updated creative strategy, specific to each sales model.

As things stand currently, I think that image quality and subject matter should be taken into consideration when the decision is being made to which collection an image is being placed into. It is now in the past where one could assume that a RM image was of higher quality than a RF image.  Due to this fact, I think photographers should look at RF & RM in terms of being different sales models vs. a defining factor of whether or not their images are of high quality.  In turn, photographers should also gear their shooting towards one model vs. another,  since they appeal to two different types of clientele, and therefore, depending on which collection your images are in, it could have a noticeable affect on your image sales.

Now that Micro has made great strides in the marketplace, the competition has increased ten-fold and photographers have much more competition than they ever did in the past.  I think there is a place for RM, RF and Micro in the current marketplace, but in my personal opinion, I think it’s up to both the stock agencies and the stock photographers to do the right thing and help keep the definitions clear, between each collection. I also think that if a professional stock photographer decides to shoot micro, they should put a bit of thought into the repercussions of their actions. I believe that Micro should not include super high-quality images. These images have their place in RF & RM collections.   If photographers begin to submit high-quality work to Micro,  they will be helping to contribute to the downfall of current RF/RM stock price points, resulting in a image market where both high quality and low quality images are all competing at the same low price point.  This, in time, could dramatically reduce the income of any full time stock photographer, who makes their income from both RM and RF sales.

Hypothetically, let’s say a photographer shot a high-quality image and put it in an RF/RM collection, and then they took that same image and put it into a Micro collection.  What do you think will happen?   You’ll not only be competing with yourself, but how happy will you be with your sales when your Micro shot sold more than your RF/RM image, and in turn, you made a lot less money?  I think Micro has a place and is a great outlet for photographers who can afford a big staff to help with making shooting Micro profitable, in addition to many amateurs and part-time photographers who normally wouldn’t have a market to distribute their images.  (Yes, I know there are always exceptions…)  But right now I believe it’s more important than ever for a stock photographer to shoot smart and think about why you are placing your images in one collection vs. another, and what can happen over time,  if you want to keep making a profit from shooting stock photography full time.  

Do you think it is important, or will be important, for individual stock photographers, to have their work on their own web sites?
I think it’s important for any photographer to have their own work on their own websites.  Everyone is web-savvy these days and if you don’t have yourself professionally represented online, your potential models or clients may question the quality of your work, your intentions or you may just be closing the door to many potential job opportunities. 

Do you believe that Google Image Search is, or will become, a significant factor in the world of stock photography?
Yes, I think any image search engine, including Google image search, is going to keep becoming more and more significant as time goes on.  Understanding Google analytics is a very complicated process but it should not be ignored, since more and more people do a direct Google search to find what they are looking for, online.   Phone books are a thing of the past.  I know that I have personally received unsolicited work from a Google search alone, so why wouldn’t someone else take advantage of at least properly tagging their images and personal websites to help increase their marketing and exposure?

What advice would you give someone just starting out as a stock photographer?
Question everything and learn from the answers your receive, communicate with other stock photographers and your editor; and most importantly, stick to your own style and learn how to apply sellable concepts to your images vs. trying to change your style to what you believe is ‘successful’ stock shooting style.

What advice would you give a jaded veteran such as me?

Keep your head up and look back to help prepare yourself for the future. Be aware of and open to change and work with it vs. against it.  Analyze your sales history and draw your own conclusions as to why your images did and did not sell, then apply that information to your future shoots. Keep taking creative risks and stick to shooting what you are good at vs. trying to reinvent the wheel. 

Are you optimistic about the future of stock photography (and why or why not)?
Change is happening and honestly, I am more curious vs. optimistic about the future of stock photography.  I know it will not disappear, but also am unsure of how profitable it will be, compared to the past.  So much is going on right now …..I do not think that anyone will be able to make any clear predictions about it’s future until people’s spending habits (and art buyer’s budgets,) go back to normal and the economy stabilizes.  Regardless, I do know that the previous way that photographers used to go about producing stock photography is now part of the past.  The bar has been raised and much more effort is now being placed on the photographers shoulders, then ever before.  It’s no longer about pushing a button to document a simple concept.  Now it’s about creating an image that tells a story in a very new, interesting and creative way.

On a positive note though, I do feel optimistic that those photographers who are open to change, are willing to take creative risks and who pay close attention to the business aspect of their stock photography, (analyzing their commission statements, etc. )  These are the stock shooters who are on top of their game and in the end, will have the holding power to float above this current wave of change in our industry.


Andrew Ptak Photography said...

Some time ago I decided to produce a small, tightly edited collection of images with very high production values - trying to distance myself from the crowd.

High production values means a bigger budget and I estimated it was going to cost me between $80-$100 per finished, edited shot. I projected that between 1%-5% of the shots would be keepers worthy of my objective.

Jim Pickerel, whom I listen to, said it was not a viable business with those kind of expenses. any comments? Thanks.

John Lund said...


I think it depends on the shot. If you are making shots that are unique to the market, and fill a need, then you will be successful.

For example, I have a number of shots that cost me over $1,000.00 each to produce, but that have earned back anywhere from $3,000.00 to $20,000.00 in the first three years in the market.

If you are just doing slightly better versions of a guy on a cell phone, then I would have to agree with Jim. BTW, for most of my shots I am paying about $50.00 to $100.00 per accepted image. But I am not doing imaeges that compete with the bulk of the work out there.

Hope that helps!