Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Travel and Lifestyle Stock Shooter Sam Diephuis Interviewed

The following is an interview with stock photographer Sam Diephuis. Sam shoots travel and lifestyle, and though you may not have heard of him he is talented, prolific and successful. His work has been featured by both Getty and Blend Images (Blend has frequently used his work as an example of what "works"). Sam assisted me early in his career and we have frequently shot together on "gang" shoots. I consider Sam both a friend and an inspiration.


What first got you interested in Photography?

The following is an interview with stock photographer Sam Diephuis. Sam shoots travel and lifestyle, and though you may not have heard of him he is talented, prolific and successful. His work has been featured by both Getty and Blend Images (Blend has frequently used his work as an example of what "works"). Sam assisted me early in his career and we have frequently shot together on "gang" shoots. I consider Sam both a friend and an inspiration.

I was always into a lot of board sports like surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding and I was living in Santa Cruz going to the local community college.  I decided to start shooting some surfing.  I had a lot of friends that were at a professional surfing level so that inspired me.  I was and still am far from a professional level at surfing but I wanted to be a part of the sport so it just came naturally.  At one point I would get up early shoot for 2-3 hours in the morning, eat, go surf, eat, and then I worked at a surf shop.   Pretty obsessive now that I think about it.

There was also little hope for me ever getting out of “normal” college so I decided to go to Brooks and thankfully my parents were happy to help me out.  Thanks mom and dad!  I’d probably still be waking up at the crack of dawn, shooting surfing, eat, go surf, eat, work at a surf shop with little to no pay….

How did you become a stock shooter?

It’s interesting because I was thinking about it long before I had ever gotten out of school.  I had a roommate who was a stock cinematographer who lived next to me the whole time I was at Brooks. Him sharing a house with me was just pure coincidence, he was not a Brooks student or grad. He had gotten his start early in life and had made a large collection and decided to take time away from stock and make documentaries instead.  He was a lot older (and far more mature for his age than me) and had been in the stock world for a long time (he was 30 and had been doing it for 10 years!). Since we shared a wall we would talk frequently.  He seemed to have a lot of freedom, which opened my eyes to a different way of thinking about the business of selling my pictures. 

Furthermore I was always better at making the pictures than I was at following directions in school so stock seemed like a really great lifestyle.   Commercial imagery sounded really hard to break into, and it is, maybe even more today than then.

When I got out of school I didn’t have much of a photography leg to stand on except for assisting so I moved back up to the Bay Area, where I am from, two days after graduation.  It was sink or swim at that point so assisting was pretty much the only option.  I assisted for a bunch of different photographers in San Francisco for about 6 months, which was really enlightening, as painful as the reality of the photo world was.  I think I may have learned more in those 6 months than the 3 years of Brooks.   Although I assisted and worked through Brooks the reality was that school can’t prepare you for the real world of photography.  

About that time I assisted for you and we hit it off right away.  Your life style, personality, positivity, images and business model made perfect sense to me, and when you asked me to be full time I jumped on it. By then I had worked for a lot photographers and was seeing a pattern of bitterness with a lot of the assignment/editorial photographers and after hearing how you were running your business and seeing your work it was a no brainer. 

I had some issues at first trying to find my way in the stock world.  For the first year I worked for you I made very few images.  I couldn’t find my vision and was trying to do images that were similar to yours and they sucked!  Although you are very good at what you do, I am not good at what YOU do, so it took me a few years to really start to get the groove and understand how I work.

By then I had contracts with Getty and Corbis and was starting to contribute more often.  After about 2 years working with you I was making enough money to live without another job, so I decided to stop working for you and travel for a while and shoot.  This was right when the 1 DS had come out which was a giant leap, as we all know.  I could now leave the country and shoot, edit, send images to art directors, all the while being away from home.  It was great because I didn’t need a scanner, film, and all the other odds and ends that go along with film.  Some people will say that I could do the trip and shoot film and get it processed and send in the chromes but after working with you I had learned a lot about Photoshop and was against sending in images unfinished.  Thankfully your amazing skill at Photoshop rubbed off on me. It is such a great tool and allows me to make my images even better.  

About the time I came back from my trip Blend Images started to come into the picture and we started working together again on percentage basis which worked out really well.  This allowed me to create images on a consistent basis, which was really good for helping me create a style but more importantly it gave me some badly-needed confidence.  I also started to work with Drew Kelly at the same time and we all worked together.  Good memories for sure!  It was great working with Drew because we could bounce ideas off each other and get some good honest feed back.  He’s also wise beyond his years and his knowledge helped tremendously as well as being a great photographer

I still shoot for all of the stock agencies I started with only adding one more which was Super Stock.  So that brings the grand total to 5; Blend Images, Corbis, Getty, Image Source and Super Stock. I have different relationships with all of them and really enjoy the people I work with.   I send different shoots to different companies depending on the look and feel.

One of my frustrations over the years is the lack of recognition given photographers who have committed themselves to this genre. You, for example, are an incredibly talented photographer with an amazing ability to adapt to your environment and create wonderful images in difficult situations…situations where I for example would be at a loss.  Do you find yourself frustrated by the lack of recognition inherent in stock?

Thanks John.  I feel the same way about your work.  How do you come up with these ideas?  They are so funny and creative.

Yes I do feel frustrated.  I feel that the buyers rarely take risks.  I’d like to get rewarded for making pictures that are distinctly different from other work out there.   Unfortunately we are rewarded for making images that are just slightly better or a little bit different than what is already out there.  For example Drew and I worked together making an image about 4 years ago of a business man jumping out of a flying helicopter (lots of Photoshop) and I don’t think it’s ever sold but I have images of business men on cell phones that sell all the time.  I know the concept is different but come on people there must be some way to use it! 

Interestingly enough I have a set of images of people jumping out of airplanes that sell all the time.

Here’s a few that I like that don’t sell very much, if at all…

It’s becoming less and less likely that I will spend much money on a stock shoot unless I see a portfolio piece in it, which is really unfortunate.  Hopefully when the dust settles from the recession and the economy starts to improve I will go back to taking more risks in stock.

One thing that is nice is the art directors at the stock agencies seem to be open to pushing things.  They are always excited about new creative work.  I think their eye is much more sophisticated than the average consumer.

I add to my collection by shooting things that I see.  It’s a cheap and easy way to make images for my book and stock. These image are from just carrying the camera around.

I recall doing a shoot with you on Mount Tamalpais. It was you and me and several models. I remember getting out of the truck and looking for my shot list. As usual, I needed a few minutes to get sorted out and in gear, but when I turned around to check out the surroundings you were already shooting a model holding the camera down just above the ground and trailing the model through the tall grass. Is that a case of you having thought the shoot through before you get there…or do the ideas just come to you spontaneously?

Mostly it’s spontaneous.  I don’t know really much else than that.  I get the idea, think about it, and make it up as I go.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but I usually get something good out of it.  I would also like to add that it is really hard to make cool pictures if you are going to shoot frequently with minimal budget.  It’s hard to not repeat.  So this forces me to try new things.  We shot on Mount Tam so many times because it is such an amazing location that after a while you have to try new things.

How do you prepare for a shoot?

Sometimes I look at other stock images that other people have done but more and more I try and look at what editorial photographers are doing.  My peers inspire me a lot as well. I try and get inspired by seeing other photographer’s work that is not stock related.  Don’t get me wrong there are some awesome photographers that shoot stock, but I really want to be relevant right now.  Not follow a look necessarily, but keep up to date with the feel of the time.  I definitely don’t want to chase fads... that’s is for sure.

What, for you, is the most satisfying aspect of shooting stock imagery?

I love stock and will never quit.  Slow down maybe, quit no.  I like that I can’t get fired.  I like the freedom and I like that I am making a living while I’m doing other things.  That is why I will always do stock.  The idea of waiting for the phone to ring for an ad job with no other income sounds maddening.  I also like on the rare occasion that I make a unique image that sells well or for a high value.  That’s about the only way in stock photography to tell if I have done something to a consumers liking.

What is the biggest challenge?

There are a lot of pressures on the industry right now.  Economy, pricing, micro stock etc… stock doesn’t seem to want to settle.  Actually it’s never settled for me as long as I’ve been in the business.  It’s constantly changing, new doors open and some close. Stock is not for someone who wants consistency in his or her job. 

I also don’t like getting 18 cents for an image.  If photographers had more control over pricing that would be nice.  I’m at the mercy of what ever a stock agency feels like selling my image for.  I wish I could say, hey if you are going to sell it for under $10.00, don’t sell it.  18 cents is pretty much offensive to me unless the image sold about 10,000 times for that price, but it doesn’t. 

I’m also tired of chasing the next fad.  First it was RF, then it was back to RM, then it’s all about micro, and now we are all about video, ethnic imagery only, business-to-business is the way to make money etc.  It’s overwhelming and I let the industry decided that.  I try and talk to other stock photographers to get their feedback.  That’s why Blend is so good, because everyone shares info.  

I’m trying to focus more on making images that inspire me, and sometimes they are not stock.   I also struggle to keep a positive yet "real" view of the stock industry.  If the bottom is going to fall out I can’t pretend like it isn’t.  I don’t think it is by the way, but I am preparing for such an eventuality by finding other ways of making a living in photography.  Unfortunately the reality is that my photography is worth what people will pay for it.  I know it’s more complicated than that but I can’t change what these huge corporations in board rooms are deciding is the right price.  That sentence was mostly aimed at Getty. 

Also, breaking into the editorial advertising work has been really difficult.  It takes time and patience.  The economy isn’t helping either.   

How do you determine what you are going to shoot?

I try and get inspired.  Looking at books, magazines, TV, YouTube, youth culture, documentaries, creative websites, sports… There’s so much inspiration its ridiculous.  Lately most things I am inspired from are things that aren’t stock.  Music also gets me going with ideas.

Sometimes the model dictates the shoot.  I was looking for models for a shoot and came across a girl that could do amazing contortion body poses and acrobatics and based a shoot around that. 

She’s the only person I have heard say that yoga is too easy.  I can see why.
I am also open to most shoots that help people in need.  I am shooting this weekend for a homeless shelter in East LA.  I bet I’ll get some cool pictures so why not AND it helps out.    

Do you work with editors?

Yes most of my editors I would consider friends actually.  With Getty being the exception since I don’t have an editor.  I try and talk to my editors a lot just to catch up and pick their brain.  Some I call more than others because I know them better.  They look at some of the same media, websites, art that I do and are usually on the same path as me.  Most are very creative and we understand each other.

How do you determine which images go to which agencies?

I look at the shoot and determine by the look and feel which agency they should go to.  Also if I have discussed an idea with an editor I try and send them the final result regardless of the look.  Especially if they have given me any ideas, insight or information about what they are looking for.

Do you undertake any direct sales?

No, but am not against it.  But honestly I would rather spend my time making pictures or surfing.  It seems like a lot of work and time.  I’m not a photo salesmen and don’t have much interest in that. Actually the selling part I’m good at, it’s the back end and computer stuff I don’t want to be involved with. Running websites, employees, pushing data around, keywording, etc…I don’t have the money to hire someone to do it so it will have to wait, or maybe not do it at all.  It doesn’t sound like something I would like.

You have recently traveled to shoot stock in Myanmar (Burma), China, Tibet and even Jamaica. Can you share with us what inspired these trips?

I needed to break out from my stock rut and I wanted to add a different angle to my collection.  Unfortunately they haven’t sold as well as I wanted but that could be an economy based reason. 

They were great trips and I wouldn’t change a thing.  Great portfolios pieces, great adventure, great stock, great people, it was a win win win win for me.

When you undertake these stock trips abroad, how do you prepare for them?

I call people who have gone and try and get info.  I take it very serious.  I get a guide so everything is taken care of so I can focus as much as possible on photography.  I don’t travel with anyone because of distraction and I immerse myself as much as possible.

Myanmar is an amazing place for photography. Does any one opportunity or challenge there stand out in your mind?

Myanmar was an amazing place!  Lots and lots to shoot.  I didn’t have too many challenges.  The biggest challenge was hearing about how corrupt and awful the government is there.  It’s very similar to Cuba in a lot of ways.  People have very little freedoms. The complex issue of sanctions was sad to see.  I’m not for against or against sanctions but it is a very complicated issue.  When people have to reuse old refurbished calculators because they can’t get a new one, even if they wanted to, it is a sad sight to see. Because of sanctions everything in Burma has to be reused, resold, and nothing is thrown away.   To not have the freedom to buy what you want because of your governments decisions is really frustrating for them.  I feel for the good people of Burma wanting to get ahead but are held up by the governments ridiculous control.  We are very lucky to have our freedoms.

I think the opportunity was meeting such a great guide.  By the end of 3 weeks we were really close buddies.  He opened up unbelievable doors for me.  Thanks John and Nevada (Nevada Wier) for introducing me to him and thanks Win for being such a good friend. I hesitate to use the word guide.

In your travels do you have a favorite country to shoot in?

They were all great but Kingston Jamaica was amazing!  I wouldn’t advise it for anyone that didn’t really have a reason to be there but for me it was great.   I’m a reggae/dancehall fanatic and it was just what I wanted at the perfect time.  I listen to reggae all hours of the day. I’m the first one to make fun of myself about it. Call me crazy but that’s what I grew up with and it’s here to stay.  I do want to make one thing clear, I do not condone some of the lyrics in dancehall music.   As a matter of fact Jamaican Patois is very difficult to understand and I don’t speak much Patois so I don’t understand lots of what the artists are saying. I listen for the beat, rhythm, and sound.  Lots and lots of passion and intensity.  The scene in Kingston is very much like the early 80 punk scenes because of the DIY vibe.  Most artists in Kingston come from a very difficult up bringing surrounded by extreme poverty, violence (last month 150 people died in gang violence caused by the government trying to capture a drug cartel leader.  They still haven’t caught him) and gang activity and the creativity coming out of that scene is amazing to me.  Artists work in small rooms with very little equipment.  Most get their first starts by going to outdoor sound systems trying their best at spiting lyrics to prove themselves.  Imagine Bob Marley meets Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols, that is dancehall reggae.  I’m working on a project about Jamaican reggae/dancehall artists and the music is my background, loud and in your face, just like a Kingston street speaker sound system.  I love it, most people can’t stand it and I understand that.   I’m going back as soon as things start to settle which doesn’t sound like any time soon.

I do the same thing with my Taco Truck project as well.  I like to immerse as deeply as possible and music helps for emersion.  If I’m working on the Taco Trucks I turn on Ranchero music loudly to get my mind into it.

The project turned out to be a lot more than just about the vendors and taco trucks. Most of the street vendors (vendors that don’t own a vehicle and sell on the street corners) are here illegally and are just trying to make ends meet. They work really long hours with little pay and have large families to support back in their home country. The people in my pictures aren’t taking American jobs, getting into trouble, causing problems, but they are here illegally. With all this talk about immigration in the press this project really brought this complicated issue front and center for me. One thing I can tell you is that Latin America has influenced our way of life in America in some awesome ways. For example, I can’t tell you the last time I had apple pie, but I can tell you when I had a couple tacos.

   I would like to point out that I get stock out of doing all of these shoots.  I do not go into the shoots looking for stock but I can always pick up a few stock shots, not just the owners of the trucks.  Usually the images are very authentic and are hard to replicate.

   I know you have produced shoots abroad…we have done several together, for example, in Argentina. But I believe in some of your other travels you go for more “targets of opportunity”. Is that an accurate view? 

Well China was planned because of obvious reasons (if you don’t know why, you haven’t seen TV or magazines in 5 years) but it turned out to be so fascinating.  Images of China are always needed.

After going to China I will say I do not know how we are going to fix this planet.  For every one American who driving a Prius here there is 10,000 people in Asia that would gladly drive a Hummer if they could afford it.  Hey we do it, why can’t they?  As Americans we don’t lead by example very often. 

That aside I was so impressed at the culture, growth, mass, and history.  Great adventure.  I shot about 10-12 hours day. Went to bed about 9 and got up at 6-7 everyday.  Shot at night, day, morning, harsh light, soft light… What ever didn’t matter.

In the what, ten years or so that I have known you, you have always traveled and shot stock. Over the years, have you changed your approach to shooting…and if so, how?

Yes.  With the new equipment things get easier.  Also having more income allows me to help and give people money who model for me.  I try and give back when I can when it’s not awkward.  I try and buy things from someone if they are selling something.   This is where a guide helps tremendously. 

I know you have been dipping your toe into the motion waters. Do you see video as becoming a bigger part of your work?

Yes, but I will say one thing.  Because you own a video camera does not make you a good video image-maker.  Owning a 5D doesn’t make you a good photographer so why is video any different?  It’s another beast.   I look forward to doing it more.

What are the differences for you in shooting motion versus stills?

It’s a lot more work sometimes.  I also don’t like that I can’t do “Photoshop”. I think I would like to be more of a director when it comes to shooting video.

How do you choose when to shoot motion and when to focus on stills?

I shoot both but mostly I shoot stills.  Video is mostly for memories or for the mixed media I have been working on. I am very far from making work that I would like to have on a reel and officially say, hey here’s my reel wanna hire me?  With that being said, it can get overwhelming to try and do both.  I save the video for pans across city skylines and basic things like that.



What do you enjoy shooting the most?

I love taking pictures of things that are inspiring to me.  I also like making pictures I am proud of so I try and keep those in mind.  Sometimes I will put together a shoot even if I’m not completely inspired and I usually get something good out of it.

I did a shoot with my editor at Corbis recently and I didn’t really “feel it” but it turned out to be really cool.  It’s mind over matter I guess.

What are your strategies for dealing the new realities of the stock photo world?

Keep moving and shooting. Don’t try and follow fads or shooting styles or themes that “sell” It’s a never ending.  

Do you have any personal projects you are working on?

I’m always working on something.  Mostly right now I’m building a new music book.  Reggae, Dancehall, Hip Hop, Alternative bands.  I love it all and I am trying to push myself into that.

Also, a small project on motocross.  That is an intense sport!  Very dangerous and sketchy but I admire the determination and drive.

   Is fine art in the picture, so to speak, for you?

In a dream world yes. I’ve done a couple smaller shows and one big one and had a great time doing it but the money doesn’t allow me to do it very often.  It’s a full time job and I am not prepared to get involved yet. 

What words of wisdom do you have for young photographers?

It’s a lifestyle not a job.  Even if you are making good money assume you are making half.  Charge what you think you are worth.  Don’t give your work away.  Work with people that you like.  Learn from mistakes. 

I could follow these as well!

The future of photography…optimistic or pessimistic?

Optimistic, I have no choice but to be positive.   I’m too young in this field to be too bitter.  I missed the good old days and reality is now kicking in.  It’s very easy to make pictures now for anyone with a camera and I just want to make them better. I think there will be another hay day again and I am preparing to be at the perfect spot when it does.  Weather its ad work, editorial, video, stock or a combination of all of them, as long as I’m happy doing what I am doing, life will be great!

To see more of Sam's work: http://www.samdiephuis.com

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