Friday, December 11, 2009

Interview With Stock Photographer Don Farrall

A bursting bubble photographed by Don Farrall for his stock photo collection ©Don Farrall

Don, I know that you embraced the RF stock model early on and it has worked very well for you. Can you bring us up to speed on how you came to be a professional photographer and how you became involved in stock photography?

When I was fifteen, my father gave me a hand-me-down Mamiya-Sekor 500 DTL, and I was hooked. From there, it was on to Brooks Institute, followed by a four-year stint at Hallmark Cards, in Kansas City MO, followed by a four-year stint in Dallas, TX as a “Retail Product” photographer, where my main client was Neiman-Marcus. In 1988, I returned to Nebraska, my home state; opening a studio in Lincoln. My Dallas experience was as a specialist-photographer; my experience in Nebraska has been as a generalist-photographer, shooting for advertising clients.

In The early ‘90’s, I submitted images to “The Image Bank” and to “Comstock”; they were not interested, my work was too general. In 1996, Photodisc was looking for contributing photographers, so I submitted 100 images for consideration. The images were primarily backgrounds; very basic elements. I really didn’t have any idea how lucrative that experiment would turn out to be. Photodisc published two complete Don Farrall-Elements Discs, along with another thirty or so disc products that included some of my work. Photodisc began placing images in a searchable database on the web, and the rest is history. Within two years, the revenue was surpassing my assignment work. As the revenue grew, I invested more money and more time into stock production. Getty bought Photodisc, and I have been a contracted Getty contributor since.

What percentage of your work is currently stock?

I am currently spending about 50% of my time working on stock production, (which includes research), 30% of my time shooting for clients, and the other 20% learning something new that will hopefully contribute to both my stock and my assignment income. Of late, this has included video.

From an income standpoint, stock is still my main income source. My assignment revenue is down a bit, mostly due to the lackluster economy as far as I can tell. I am doing the same repeat projects, but the projects are smaller than they have been in the recent past. My stock income is down, but it seems to have stabilized.

Do you see that percentage changing in coming years?

When stock was king, I could rationalize spending all my time shooting stock, and for a few years I quit doing any assignment work. But I missed the contact with other creatives. I like a balance, and I like having an additional revenue stream. Unless things change too much, I suppose the percentages will stay about as they are.

I know you have work distributed through Getty. Are you using other outlets as well?

Getty has been very good to me. I am one of the few photographers, who on most occasions, will defend Getty. I placed a few hundred images with Alamy a few years ago, before Getty started accepting RF images into Photographer’s Choice. At the time, I had some “orphaned” images that were Getty “non-selects” that I wanted to place somewhere; so I put them on Alamy. When Getty opened up “Photographer’s Choice Royalty Free”, I pulled the best of my images from Alamy and put them on Getty PCRF. This was a good move; and for what it’s worth, Getty should have accepted them in the first place, my PCRF “return per image” is on par with my editor selects. I still have a few hundred images with Alamy, mostly more editorial in nature, and they bring in a reasonable monthly income, but I have not been contributing much new material there. With Alamy, search order (Rank) is very critical, and I have managed to maintain a high Alamy Rank. I have placed a small collection of images in the microstock marketplace as a test, with the intent of understanding what the fuss has been about. I’m sure you’ll ask a more direct microstock question, which I will attempt to answer in a diplomatic way.

Do you do any direct sales? If not, do you have any plans to do so?

I have made a few direct sales to local clients, but the prospect of trying to drive buyers to me directly seems pretty daunting, and at present I can’t imagine putting my efforts into making that happen. I would rather shoot, and let others sell my images; there is no way I could compete with the traffic reach of Getty. Still, I do know some photographers who have made a direct sales approach work very well for them. My work is too general for this approach, in my opinion. Where I have seen it work, it has been an all-or-nothing approach. By this, I mean if they are selling direct, they do not also sell through any distributors.

Don, as far as subject matter you are all over the place. Your work ranges from medical, to agricultural, from wind farms to money trees to African Tribes. You also have a lot of conceptual photos and special effects work in your collection. Where do you get all those ideas from?

Being a generalist assignment photographer can have its advantages when it comes to shooting stock. My assignment work covers a broad range of subjects and styles, and being proficient across the spectrum carries over to my stock efforts. As for coming up with ideas, I research a lot. I spend time perusing magazine racks, and poking around on the web; I pay attention to the news. I used to have an editor at Getty who would tell me that some of my images were too editorial. I learned to not listen to him in that regard. I’m pretty much “on” all the time, always on the look for ideas, and I am driven by the fear that my last best idea will be my last best idea. It can be difficult at times, and I have had some dry spells. With all of the content available to buyers now, it is sometimes difficult to be original. I have revisited a few concepts that served me well in the film days, shooting them with a fresh new digital update.

I also have a somewhat backwards process that I have come to embrace. I find a prop, something unique, and then I let the prop drive the creative process. I prefer to prop shop and conceptualize on the spot, rather than conceptualizing and then having to hunt down a specific prop. I will also buy props without any concept and they will sit around the studio, and one day I will pick one up and an idea will come to me. I use this excuse to explain how cluttered my studio gets at times.

How do you go about preparing for a stock shoot?

Unlike most stock producers, I don’t shoot lifestyle, and most of my images don’t include models. I really like not having a specific time scheduled for a stock shoot. I take care of my clients, who need specific time on my calendar, and I just shoot stock around that schedule. I tend to shoot series for efficiency. I may spend a day or two just shooting splashing liquid, or I may spend a half a day shooting a variety of table-top concept items. It is not unusual for a single stock image to require a full day’s effort, but when it does, I will have an expectation of that image returning a fair day’s revenue. It is also not unusual for me to be able to generate ten images from a day of shooting and a day of post, and a few hours here and there prior to the shoot day; gathering items or making props.

Do you do your own computer work?

Yes, 100%. I used to have an assistant that would create paths and do cleanup, but I have always done the creative computer work. She is no longer working for me, so I am a solo operation. Most of my stock images include some level of computer enhancement; some have more computer work than photography. I enjoy this part of the process, and consider it creatively on par with the lighting, propping and shooting phases of the overall process.

What do you enjoy shooting most?

Anything that has the potential to make lots of money! Seriously, I really get a kick out of creating something that many people will buy and use. Beyond that, I like to capture images that are difficult for others to copy. I achieve some of these images through the use of ultra high-speed strobes, and laser and sound triggers. I also achieve some of them by being very patient and shooting lots and lots of frames. I like visual tricks, and images that make the viewer smile. I also enjoy producing images that involve some digital composite work, the more difficult the better.

I make a point of showing people my stock images before I submit them, looking for their reaction. Sometimes the reaction is not what I am expecting. My toughest critic is my wife. She is the one person who is totally honest, and she will challenge me to go back and make it better. She sees things that I miss, and responds in seconds, make that milliseconds, without fearing that my feelings will be hurt. Her input is invaluable.

About how often do you shoot?

On average, I would say three days a week.

I would describe your style as simple, dramatic, meticulous and to-the-point. How would you describe your style?

Your description works. After years of shooting to layouts for advertising clients, I have learned a few things about communicating concepts clearly with images. Shooting stock has made me a better assignment photographer, and shooting for clients has made me a better stock photographer. I once suggested to my editor at Getty that I didn’t have a specific style, and he countered that my work was very clean and that it read very well. He also noted that, at the time, I had more images in Getty’s top 100 best selling RF images for the previous quarter than any other individual photographer. So for RF stock, maybe no style was just fine.

The world of stock photography has been, shall we say, challenging, for a lot of photographers in recent years. Have you found that to be the case, and if so, what are the challenges that concern you most?

I’m going to answer this in an unconventional way. I used to subscribe to Jim Pickerell’s on-line magazine “Selling Stock”-“Inside the stock image industry”. You know Jim and his publication well, and I am sure he reads your blog. I have had several in-person conversations with him, and have at times posted comments on his site. For several years I found his magazine a very valuable asset, well worth the $125.00 annual subscription price (Now $195.00). Jim has established the contacts to have the inside story on all things stock-industry related. In this regard he is unsurpassed. However, this past year I let my subscription lapse on purpose. Jim has done a very good job of documenting the decline of our industry; too good of a job in my estimation. Some might say I have my head in the sand, but the level of doom and gloom, and the suggestion that everyone should be migrating to microstock as the only hope, just wore too thin for me.

How are you dealing with those challenges?

I’m reading your Blog instead. No kidding. We have all seen the marketplace change dramatically. What matters most is what we are doing to keep in the game. Beyond that, I would have to say that I accept that the “low-hanging fruit” has all been picked, and it is now being given away. This leaves me with the challenge of creating images that go beyond, and that are difficult to copy. I used to produce around 200 new images per year, and I knew pretty well what they would earn. I didn’t have to be too concerned about what I would shoot. Now, I’m producing fewer images, and I am being more deliberative about what I shoot.

Your work over the years has been primarily Royalty Free. I know that you have at least dipped your toe into the Rights Managed waters. What is your strategy at this point when it comes to RF and RM?

I have only had an RM contract with Getty for the past three years. For lack of a better plan, I have deferred to letting my editor at Getty make the determination regarding the best stock model on an image-by-image basis. I suppose that sounds pretty naive, but it has worked out well enough for me. If I shoot something that really seems like it should be RM to me, I can get it in one of the collections. As I strive to produce more unique images, I suppose I will feel like more of them belong in RM. But I do understand the power of a successful RF image, one that will sell many times, and my thought process when I create new images is to try and create something that will meet the needs of a lot of image buyers.

What are your thoughts on Microstock, and if you haven’t already done so, do you intend to participate in that model?

To properly express my analysis of this image marketing model would take pages and pages, but I will try and give a brief answer. Two years ago, in an effort to understand “what the fuss was all about” I began studying the Microstock world. I opened accounts at several Microstock agencies, and began reading forum posts and posting questions. This lead to email exchanges, and some very frank discussions with photographers from around the world. I, of course, read Microstock Diaries, and have posted there in length in the past. I have also been to several Microstock seminars / discussion panels. I have met a number of the “star players”.

After careful study, I placed a limited number of images with three agencies. I have now pulled all of the images from one agency and am in the process of pulling the images from the second. I am leaving my account at Istock open, but have not submitted any new material. I did not enter into this arena because I wanted to, or because I wish to support the model. I entered into it so that I could say with some authority that my opinion about Microstock was based on experience, and not just the reaction from someone from the traditional stock side. My current conclusions are not just based on the results from my sample of images, though they completely support my observational analysis.

There are plenty of philosophical reasons to object to the Microstock model, but I put those aside in an initial effort to give it a chance to prove itself from a strictly monetary basis; after all, I was willing to produce and sell in the RF arena when that was not a popular position to take. Having said all of this, and considering the current models in place, my basic conclusion is: a Microstock component in addition to a traditional stock photographer’s established traditional RF and RM content is a total waste of time. Spend the extra effort working toward creating better content for the traditional marketplace, RF and RM.

There is no doubt that the “stock photography marketing models” are now all moving targets, and tomorrow could bring huge changes. Our best defense is to keep informed, and to keep striving to create exceptional content, not just more and more “me, too” images.

I don’t know what your personal experience has been, but for most of us in stock, particularly in the RF arena, a glut of images has resulted in falling RPI (return per image) numbers…so we shoot more images, which increases the glut…do you see a way out of this vicious cycle?

I’m shooting less and thinking about what I’m shooting more. Microstock is taking over the volume game, so concentrating on quality content seems appropriate to me.

Your studio looks pretty incredible. Can you fill us in on how that came to be?

Assignment work allowed me to purchase my building and to finish it out. Stock sales allowed me to buy the very best equipment to fill it with.

What do you see the advantages and disadvantages of working in Lincoln, Nebraska?

On the positive side: real estate is very reasonable. I own my studio building, and live in a Victorian House on sixty acres. My main assignment client is located three blocks from my studio. There isn’t much competition. The traffic is light, and it’s a great place to raise a family.

On the negative side: There are no support services; no labs, (not that it matters anymore), there are no free-lance assistants, no model agency, no stylists, no prop houses, and no photo equipment rental operations. I also find it difficult to convince people to model for stock; they are willing to model for specific clients, but are hesitant to sign irrevocable unlimited talent releases. They want some control over how the images are used.

Can you show us a favorite stock image that you have created and tell us the story behind it?

Money tree photos ©Don Farrall

About ten years ago I created a money tree image. It was a composite created with Live Picture and Painter and Photoshop. It wasn’t very convincing, and had an obviously fake appearance. I was just learning these programs, and this was definitely an early effort. There were very few images of money trees in the stock photo offerings at the time, and this was a good concept with a broad appeal. It sold fairly well for many years. About two years ago I received a call from an Art Director who liked the image, but wanted to know if I had a version of the tree without any bills on it, an “empty money tree” to use along with the “full money tree” to illustrate an article. I remember thinking, “That’s a great idea, I should have done that,” but I hadn’t. I didn’t have an archive file of the empty tree, or a computer that would still run Live Picture to open it up even if I could have found it, so I wasn’t able to fulfill this need. However, the request became my reason for re-visiting this concept. A few months later I created a new “empty money tree”, and various steps between empty and full. This time around I built it for a white background and a grass-and-sky background. In addition, and with consideration for the current economic conditions, I thought it appropriate to break the money tree, and show it with the money falling to the ground. This second attempt looks a bit fake as well, or maybe on the positive side, a little more illustrative, but either way, they have sold fairly well. And this time I kept the composite parts.

There is a lot of buzz these days about video, especially now that the current crop of DSLRs all seem to shoot video. Do you shoot video, or have any plans to shoot video?

I purchased a Canon 5DMK2 when they first came out, thinking I could use it to learn something about video. I had used a “real” video camera in the past, and found the form- factor and limited adjustments of the 5D to be just way too inflexible. I figured if I was going to learn video, I should just buy a real video camera. So I did. I know a lot of people are making the DSLR’s work for video, but with all of the additional investment in support equipment and time that has followed, I feel like this was the wise choice for me. I have an ENG style Panasonic HD camera capable of 1080-24P and a myriad of other video flavors, and it will do for now. I am still in the learning process, but I am getting comfortable with the camera. I have already had a few clients ask me to let them know when I am ready to start shooting video for them. I am shooting stock clips as my practice. The sale of video clips is somewhat difficult to quantify, but like many still photographers, I am learning video because it appears to be the next expected skill to have mastered, and I have never been one to pass up an opportunity to learn something new.

I have been shooting for about the same time as you have, around thirty years now. I find it interesting to look back and see how much I have learned in just the last several years. Despite the falling prices, exploding competition and endless onslaught of technological advances I am still enjoying this career. I love getting up in the morning and getting to work. Do you still feel that way, and if so, what is it that gets you motivated in the morning?

I feel privileged to have been able to make my living doing daily what many, many people have chosen as a hobby. I enjoy the creative aspect, and I enjoy the respect and appreciation from clients who value what I have done for them. In some ways I find that appreciation missing in stock, because I hear so rarely from someone who uses one of my images. I enjoy every aspect of the process, so I suppose it is that enjoyment that gets me out the door and on my way to work every day.

What advice would you give to someone just getting started in photography?

That depends on their aspirations. Over the years I have had quite a few “would-be” photographers track me down to ask for advice. They want to know if they should go to school, or what school to go to. They ask me if I will hire them, or if anyone will hire them. They want to know what camera to buy, or how much they should charge for shooting a job.

If I spend much time with them, I can usually tell whether they will succeed in this, their possibly chosen field. It has little to do with how good a photographer they are at the time, and everything to do with how much passion they have. I realize this can be hard to quantify, but the passion comes through in enumerable ways. Now more than ever, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who want to be photographers, who want to make their living through photography. Anyone entering into this field must understand that there will be competitors out there who are willing to give 110% all the time in order to succeed; these people eat, breath and sleep this stuff. Thinking of photography as just a job like any other will not cut it, because the truly passionate and dedicated will crush the “it’s just a job” photographers every time. The competition level is way too high for anything less than seriously passionate and dedicated participants.

Any advice specifically for those moving into stock photography?

I used to counsel photographers about getting into stock and can be credited for bringing a handful of photographers, and even a few illustrators, through the process of securing a contract with Getty; back in the days when that was a Golden ticket. I would have to say that I am much less “Bullish” about it now. These are difficult times to be encouraging, so I suppose I would want to see someone’s work first before I answered that question for them.

Any final parting words you would like to leave us with?

John, I met you in San Francisco at a Photo Expo; I suppose it was around 1997. You introduced me to a killer software program, “Live Picture”, that was far more powerful than the PhotoShop of the day. I immediately bought it and put it to use. We met up again later in our careers as mutual warriors in the Stock Photo arena and shared a few good discussions in NYC, and have kept in touch since. You have always been very open and helpful to other photographers, and while I know you have ulterior motives in hosting this blog (the quest for SEO) you are continuing to give back to the photo community. You have built more than a fan base here. Thank you for sharing, and for your optimism.

And about that passion thing; I think it’s safe to say you have it, and that you will make it.

Don Farrall

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