Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rolf Hicker: World Class Travel and Nature Photogapher Interviewed

Rolf and Michelle Hicker are a husband and wife photography team shooting nature, wildlife and travel, and whose website generates in excess of 8,000 visitors a day!

From Polar Bears and Killer Whales, to the Northern Lights, to Cathedrals in Spain, Rolf Hicker has earned his position as one of the top travel and nature photographers in the world. But he is more than that. Rolf is truly a photographer of the Internet age. Do a Google search for just about any travel or nature subject and Rolf’s site and/or images are among the very first to come up. He has over 20,000 photos online on a site that he built himself…and he isn’t through yet. He is about to launch a new blog (in addition to his existing travel blog) that is the culmination of some three years of software development.  Rolf, and his partner Michelle, provide more than just beautiful photography, they also provide a wealth of information about the places, things and creatures that they photograph. In addition, they shoot video, put on workshops and, well, let’s find out from Rolf the whole story….

Rolf, there are so many things I want to ask I almost don’t know where to start. Maybe a good beginning would be for you to give us a brief idea of how you got into photography and a little bit about the journey that led you to where you are today.
It was a adventure which actually got me really into trouble with photography. We floated with a self-built raft through parts of Alaska. At that time I had a Super-8mm Film camera and a SLR with me, which I borrowed from my Dad. At home I put a little film/slideshow together for friends and they like it sooooo much that they told me to show it to the public. That was when I was about 18 or so. I always preferred to do a really good job instead of just doing it. So instead of starting with 20-50 people I started fairly large with my first public slide/movie show, dissolve technique, live narration and all the other good stuff. I started in the German Museum in Munich with over 350 people at my first showing ever. Well, 20 years later I ended my public showing tour, I finished with about 120 shows within the last 6 months. We had over 120000 visitors in just those 6 months.
Long story made extremely short.
The second big part of my journey was my move to Canada, where I live now. I only had a very restricted work visa at the beginning, I was very dependent on only a couple people I was allowed to work for. I did not have a lot of money left as I had to close my photo-studio in Germany and I also had to leave my slides behind. Times were extremely tough. Agencies never worked reliably enough for me, so I basically had no money in my pocket and no product (slides/images) to sell.
On top of that, I met my wife Michelle in Whistler. Well, 2 weeks later I used my credit card to pay for the flight to New Zealand where Michelle is from. After a few weeks we just knew that this was a fit - and Michelle came with me back to Canada, without a work visa. So times only got more challenging.
We really only had ONE chance to stay and live together; We had to find something we could do inside Canada without needing a work visa for. The answer was… the web!
I had a website fairly early, but I did not understand how I could monetize it into paying the bills. Now at this stage Michelle and I needed to use this only chance we had. We both studied the Internet for months, read every book available, and slowly learned to do some coding stuff (as simple as CSS can be - when you’ve never had anything to do with codes, web, html etc. it sounded like Chinese to me… and I don’t speak Chinese)! We worked 18 hours a day, day after day after day, no weekends, no nothing… and this was when we really put our head into, which at this stage still my main website (but that will change soon).
Tell us about your technology background too.
Nil, 0 nada - I got degrees in teaching and in management/economics - sorry to disappoint, no technology whatsoever, also no formal photography education or apprenticeship.
I learned photography the same way I learned the web - by self studying it, 18 hours a day, over a long time. And I still do so today. I learn as much as I can and there is ALWAYS more to learn. That’s what I don’t like about photography.  Some photographers think they are gods, but the gods of photography are already all dead, so I hope the arrogance of some photographers comes down a bit!
Do you license your stock photos through any agencies, or just through your own site?
Agencies - yes, less and less. I canceled my contract with 8 agencies last year!!! Simply because I’m sick that my hard work was sold for 2$, and everybody but the photographer made money with my pictures. I’m very happy and proud of those steps, they were very difficult, especially in bad times. But I got so sick that the agencies paid when THEY wanted, sold for EVERY price as long as they still could make a dime. I still have a couple agencies (small agencies) for how much longer? I don’t know. One had the first 2$ sales on the last report and I’m already talking about canceling. If WE Photographers don’t change the industry - who will???? The agencies?? Hahahaha, real funny, they are all greedy huge companies (most of them) and they don’t care less about us.  If all photographers would cancel contracts then who do you think would survive?? Right - the photographer, why?? Because we can give a customer a better deal, a fair deal, and don’t have to share it with 3 or 4 other agencies anymore. The buyers still need the images, so if they only can have them from the photographers... right...we cut out the middle man.  As simple as that. BUT who has the guts to do it? Not many? Yes it may hurt in the short run BUT at least there is a chance of survival. So yes, I’m happy that I pulled my images from most of them. SINCE then I’m selling waaaaay more images myself and we are looking actually at huge rising numbers over the last few years in direct image sales (licenses of course - I only do Rights managed)
And YES - I do sell also over my website!
Rolf, with something like three million visitors a year to your site, you seem to have mastered SEO.  To me SEO means quality content in a well-organized site. After a year of intensive effort I have come to believe the “secret ingredient”, if there is one, is time.  It seems to take forever to get indexed and move up in the rankings. 
Actually we have a few more visitors....
Uhhhhhh, don’t get me going!! I don’t know how often I hear from other photographers that I’m soooo lucky to be on top of searches for some terms, others say that I do black hat SEO, and and and...SEO IS VERY SIMPLE! But it takes a lot of time OR in other words A LOT OF WORK!!!!! Again, when we are home, we work 14-18 hours a day, every day. We hardly go photographing or anything else. Labwork and websites! Thats it. That is the whole secret to it. Yes, there are some points you need to know BUT all those “secrets” are all built in today in wordpress, joomla etc.
What does good SEO mean to you, and is time the important factor I think it is?
Mean to me?? Absolute nothing! I gave up on it! Yes, I have not wasted my time anymore with writing thousands of emails to get a link somewhere on a non-follow link directory…those times are over!!! Today it is time and work, and most people I know don’t like that combination.
The golden times are over (I never had them) - today “photography to survive” means very simply - hard work, hardly having a private life, hard work and nothing but hard work, and sometimes long-term thinking.
Over the last 6 years we invested every penny we made into our future. I was building new software for my websites with professional programmers for the last 3 years. It has cost us a fortune - yes, a small fortune BUT I know that I will get it back. I spent 1000’s of hours in the last 3 years to develop a software frame that fits ME! A professional travel stock photographer, not the fancy, making $2000.00 an hour famous studio ad photographer - no, I’m a full-time professional photographer for 25 years.  I never made huge money, but I’m very happy to be able to do what I feel like I have to do - it is a lifestyle, and trust me, not many want that lifestyle ever. Everybody is jealous of us - pro photographer and travel = dream job…NOOOOOOOO!
Love it or leave it - and a lot of those “pros” which give free images away for local papers (I do appreciate these photographers - but don’t call yourself “pro” if you don’t make your living from it!!!) will leave the “pro” photography category. Geez, I know quite a few real pro’s which don’t understand that it is getting harder and harder, and harder on the family as well! I know in fact that they are NOT willing to put the hours in.  Fair enough.  You can still be an awesome photographer, even if you give up trying to make a living LONG-TERM from it. Others are lucky; they call themselves pro’s but they already have so much money that AGAIN, they don’t have to make their living from it.
If everybody involved understood this, and if picture buyers understood that photographers work at least as hard as the agencies do, if they understood that they must make sure that the photographer gets the fee rather than an agency, if the “half-pros” and amateurs understood that they take food off of the table from a real pro photographer (who has to make a living out of image sales) every time they sell an image, THEN new images will be created by real photographers in the future, and the very small market for educational, nature awareness, and travel would then be shared between fewer agencies. Simply imagine the industry from the other side… 1/2 of what Getty made last year actually belongs to photographers! Well 50% is the standard. I believe then, very strongly, that those serious photographers won’t take those $2.00 sales anymore. They will simply see that they can’t survive with such low prices. Then they will withdraw their images, huge agencies will have nothing to sell, the whole network of a couple of huge companies and THEIR sister companies, which take their cut 4 times before the photographers get their 50% (and of course $2.00 at the end), well those agencies will go bankrupt! Why…because they don’t have real people behind them. Lots of people work there, but that’s it. No real heart, like us photographers! They will go bankrupt because investors will let them fall so fast as soon as they aren’t making the big bucks anymore. No person is so involved in those companies that he/she would go into office on Sundays only to keep the company alive – no, THEY DON”T DO THAT …BUT we photographers do that, almost every weekend!
Your site appears to have a lot of internal links…is that for your clients…for the search engines, or both?
Of course it is for my clients in the first place - I don’t build a website for a search engines! I built it for our customers. And they will be very happy with all the new features I’m coming out with over the next few weeks. Features agencies have never thought about... why… because they don’t care about the photographer OR the customer! It is as simple as that.
I built my new webframe for me and for my customers - for me to make it easier and more efficient to upload, write, keyword (yes, I even built a keyword tool into my backend) etc, and for my customers I have new options which makes it more efficient for them too! I did that BECAUSE I do appreciate my customers’ time as well.  I hardly have time to breathe, so I don’t want to waste anybodies else time either. The biz has to run efficiently. Twitter, Facebook...of course BUT not to become a celebrity as some people are trying to do. I do spend some time on the social networks, and I love the way I can deal with my fans on Facebook… BUT HELLO - now Facebook is making the money on our work again!!! Please visit me on my website and help me to survive rather than enriching Facebook - PLEASE!!! Yes, it is a great service, yes, I do like it BUT we are creating content for them! Is anybody really making money with facebook? My customers mostly prefer NOT to have all details public! That is why I never have had big membership drives, show my group and win.... etc. I hate that stuff. I’d rather give a print away once in a while to the best real fan. I simply believe in my own website, FB yes for promotion, but again - they make the money that we, as pro photographers, need to make.
What are some key points that photographers should keep in mind when designing or building their sites (…or how do you get 8,000 people a day to your site)?
You know - again, their is no secret - if you willing to work hard - yes hard, not just 6 hours a day - then you will have success LONGTERM - everybody thought when the web took off that everything is instant - it is not. If you not willing to INVEST on one side and work constantly on it for a minimum of 5 years...leave it, don’t waste your time or money.
I don’t think I’m that stupid that I would invest a lot, yes a lot of money into my new software while not knowing that I “hopefully” will get some return on it. BUT, we think 10-20 years into the future, because it is our living. AND one thing I learned - it is not the traffic making us some sales. It is the opposite - we have a number of servers running today (ouch, expensive every month) to keep up with traffic – the amount of traffic is secondary to the quality.  
You have a lot of ads on your site. Many photographers have indicated to me that they think it is a mistake to clutter up a photography site with ads. I believe that with a site oriented towards stock photography, the ads are less important than having great photos that are easy to find. Plus, ads have the potential to be a good supplemental source of income. 
Good question - there are many days were I ask myself the same question. Again, server costs are extreme with traffic, so every penny helps. Another point, not everybody would go this way. I’m not scared to make long term infrastructure investments, yes they bring us down to 0 reserves every time we need to invest large sums, BUT without those investments I don’t believe you will survive for long; the market is too difficult today and too small.
I know that ads do disturb picture buyers but they also have to understand that all that service, finding images directly from photographers online, instant high resolution downloads, instant payments etc., that all costs money too.  Maybe we would do better without the ads, but in a recession I will not try that out! I don’t have a problem if I become more of a publisher if it will to help to stay a pro photographer. Who knows, maybe in 5 or 10 years I, as a publisher, can buy images from Rolf Hicker - how cool would that be - deleting yet another middleman who is making too much money off of our work!
I am finding that good SEO or at least my version of it, is a tremendous amount of work. Sometimes I find myself wondering if it is really worth it. Is the work it takes to generate the kind of traffic you are getting really worth it? Frankly, I am more than a little amazed at the fact that you can be both a prolific producer of quality imagery and put so much into your site, conduct workshops, and even shoot video…all this while also traveling eight months a year! How are you able to accomplish so much?
Same answer again - we live it - it is our life to work all day - not everybody's idea of life I guess. It is not only me - it is both of us, Michelle as well, working non stop. We also made some good decisions - instead of doing this and that we concentrated on our work, we saved our money and reinvested it into our future. Does it work? I don’t know, but at least we have tried as hard as we can.
What can you tell us about your workshops?
Of course, the biggest challenge: time. We have been doing the workshops for many, many years…long before others figured out that they need to do more to survive. The problem has been that I could not find more time to schedule more workshops. The last 17 or so were all sold out. Why? I only take up to four people at one time. I’m not one of those photographers who are setting up 30 tripods and the customer is allowed to make the click so they can claim it was their picture. I do mine on a super personal base since day one. Some of our customers did expect something else (although I told them before how my workshops go down) but most of our customers are super happy because it is so personal.
I ask the customer what they are interested in.  I don’t squeeze a schedule on them - yes, they pay us on their vacation time, so all I want is to give them the best time possible. Some want hardcore photography day and night, some want to still be able to enjoy the process in a more relaxed way.
I have not even updated my website with my photography workshop for years. Yes, I do feel badly about it, but every date I put out has been booked almost instantly and I did not even advertise.
BUT!!! I have it on my big white “To do” block - update workshops! Actually we are shortly going to be announcing a big change with our workshops! Well, ok, I will share it here with you - you are the first to hear about it.
Because we are only human too we decided to take our “baby time off” now. Yes, we have just had an addition to our family. Our son was born just a few weeks ago. So this year we won’t travel that much. We incorporated that into our long term planning again; lets travel first as much as we can and then catch up with work later.  That is what we basically have done the last 4-5 years.
Believe it or not, we ran out of a camper with a satellite dish for Internet access while we were on production. We were sitting with our laptops for 6 weeks in Spain in a small hotel room (yes, we had a really good deal!), worked on 10000 pictures, bookkeeping, websites, new website development and the whole business. 
Now it is time to “harvest” what we put in over all those years. I know many of my images on look dull. Well, working on a laptop in a hotel room, with 21MP files is not fun, but at least we got the images out asap before we had to continue our production. Was it stressful? Ohhh yes, and our bodies felt it too.
So here it is, the news I am sharing a couple of weeks too early!
For this year we probably don’t do any more international workshops, BUT instead we will offer workshops directly from our house while we having our baby break.
We live in one of the greatest outdoor places on earth; Northern Vancouver Island. As a German it was always my dream to live close to the water.

So this year, and possibly next year, I will focus on making more dates available because I can do all my workshops here on Northern Vancouver Island. We have the most scenic coastline on the west coast, which is not easy to get to. We have the best whale watching for orcas, humpbacks and sometimes dolphins. Why should I go to other places? Lets go green and save some flights! And to make a nice package we decided to open a B&B as well. So this is the deal.
Our customers come and stay with us in our B&B for 3 or 5 days of workshop, relax (we are only 2 min. away from the water), have the opportunity to do lab work (often missed in the field trips) and all of the photography work. We even do one-on-one workshops now. Working from up here makes this all possible.  I love these one-on-one and one-on-two workshops. They are fun and super efficient. I can be a tour guide with a professional photography background and my ego doesn’t care. We want to have our guests happy, so if they decide that they want to sleep in tomorrow, we sleep in and we work afterwards. We do everything for our guest, even custom make the breakfast. Why should we have a big buffet everyday if we know you only like toast with butter? I’m just putting the website together for the B&B, we are just finishing the suite (yes, our guest get more then just a room) and I hope to be able to show pictures very soon. The view I already can share:
And besides my “home workshops” I will probably not do much more.  I have an inquiry right now about leading a workshop in Antartica and the Canadian Arctic (that sure make me think), but I have not decided yet if I will take the contract.  It is baby time and I want to see first how it goes. I don’t want to leave Michelle behind. I think we are allowed to do office work for a year.
I just received my German slide archive and the new Hasselblad X5 scanner (RAW files) so I will produce more images then ever before as I finally can scan my archive.  It will be busy...again...but I can work from home, which will give me time with our son.
Can you share a little bit about your Travel Channel with us?
Hmmm, yes - I think it is a great idea. WE are traveling to all those destinations. Some writers I worked with go somewhere for a week for what should take months. We can’t leave before we have the images we need, so I believe that we do really know some areas very well. Don’t ask me where to go on a Mexico beach vacation, I don’t know, I never was on vacation.  But we do know a lot of travel related areas, and have travel ideas because “travel” is almost as large as photography in our life. So we figured out how to share more and more. The problem is that it is a lot of work and we have not really found the time yet to go deeper into it.  BUT it is planned, and our new software will helps us largely get back into the travel channel.  More to come! We have ideas all figured out. Now we may have to find some freelance writers. Do you know any?
How do you choose what to photograph?
Depends on assignments, contracts, publishers and US. Many little considerations are going into our plans, most of those considerations are included in our long-term plans, though some of the locations come up all of a sudden out of interesting requests and/or assignments.
What do you love to shoot the most?
My love used to be with wild animals and landscapes, natures etc., but the last few years I have really enjoyed travel photography. It is way more challenging then landscape. Imagine standing in Arches National Park, it is difficult not to get an awesome picture. BUT imagine a country in which you don’t speak the language, a country with different standards, it is way more difficult to photograph. You have to know local laws etc., not to get in trouble. It is way more difficult to find “stuff” to photograph if you are at a city that no one else has photographed before. I hardly have taken a single landscape shot in the last few years.  I know it is crazy, but at that time it was our biz, we had to do what we had to do.
I don’t do photography for my ego; I do it to survive. Of course I would love to be able to ONLY do the fine art landscape jobs, but hey, honestly, I can’t even remember when I sold a picture from the US Southwest. I’m German and I live in Canada. I have had many times when publishers would not buy from me because I’m not an American. I’m very sad about this. In my earlier days I did slideshows on Alaska and the South West.  I know in fact that I brought 1000’s of travelers from Europe to the US by showing them how spectacular the scenery is (by the way – I have done the same with Canada) but today publishers sometimes decide on more then just the image. And I’m fine with it.
I actually just returned from a trip to the South West. And did I ever enjoy shooting landscapes again, but even this time I needed to make sure I’m not following other photographers too much (yeah right, in the  I needed to get what sells and not what I wanted to shoot. You see John, I’m not a big cover shooter, I have NEVER submitted to a magazine in North America ever. If they had a request I of course was proud, but I’m not the “star photographer”.  I would rather put more food on the table then spending the time to maybe getting an image on the cover… and covers don’t pay much anymore.  I’d rather sell 4 images in the meantime. I don’t get the fame, but that is not what I’m out for. Don’t get me wrong! Of course I’m proud to be featured, on a cover, back cover or inside. I’m proud of every single photo I published, no matter if it is a cover or not.  It is published so it must have been good enough to be published.  Of course, I can say that I sold pictures to companies like National Geographic, Marlboro, Porsche, BMW, Holland America and so many more.
So to answer the question: nature, landscapes, animals, travel and once a while I love to do people studio work. I miss the studio I had in Germany for weddings… not that I’m saying I’m really good at it…but so far my customers liked the pics and I had to learn something new to master.  I learned sooooo much from my studio work.  Was it a struggle?  Of course it was. I did not have anybody telling me what to do or how to do it.
Do you also shoot assignments?
Yes, grrrrrr, the sad part is that often I’m not even allowed to show the pics. I don’t have ANY rights on them. Yes, sometimes that is the assignment. You shoot, drop film and leave. They are the most painful ones, but they help to survive.
You have also shot motion. Do you see that becoming a bigger part of your mix?
Right now I hardly do motion.  I used to shoot Super-16mm. I don’t have the time for it right now, I better concentrate on stills...for now. I would love to do some serious shooting again!
What are some of the challenges in shooting motion as opposed to stills?
Uhhh, the challenges are completely different. I think this would go too far now... unless you want to publish a book...just kidding.
Are you shooting, or planning to shoot any video with a DSLR?
Yes I do, but only for fun at this stage. I am working on a time lapse series on clouds etc..  More to come....
On top of everything else, you have opened your own gallery. How is that working out?
Actually it is closed. We closed it 3 years ago after we could not get a long-term contract. We wanted to improve the gallery but the landlord would not give us a long-term contract, not even for a year. So we decided to close the gallery. Another problem up here that it is difficult to get somebody to handle the gallery while we are on a shoot.  It was great and yes I do and don’t miss it.  Now we have a small gallery at our B&B and we will take the gallery online.  I am still working on the site:
What is the biggest challenge for you in the Fine Art market?
Challenge? I think it is the same problems every photographer has. Money is tight, the market is huge but all together I can’t complain. I’m still a full time professional photographer.  Yes it is tough, but we survived so far and I’m not planning on quitting yet.
What percentage of your business is “Fine Art”?
Well, hard to say. Why? We were traveling the last 4 years, we didn’t have a base, we needed to wait for our immigration to go through and, and, and. To make it short, it used to be 40-50% 10 years ago, now it is 10%. BUT this is mostly because I have not marketed my fine art in the last 6-8 years at all. I needed to throw everything into stock photography till we settled down again. We needed the income while we were on the road. I simply have not had the infrastructure to deal with fine art while we were on the road. This is the reason why I’m mostly known as a stock photographer today, although I’m not the typical stock shooter at all. I’m actually very happy that now the time has come for me to show my better pictures, some of my fine art pictures again. We are settled, not traveling as much (right now because of our son) and I’m finally able to introduce myself into the North American market. Also, I have published in North America a lot, I’m not very well known, simply because I never been to any NANPA meetings or any other meetings of that kind. I’m more the worker, not really a talker. Yes I can talk, doing live slideshows over such a long time, being on stage almost every night for 6 months in a row...yes I can talk, I had my fair share of “official talks” in Germany, but over here I have never been “seen” or “heard” before.  It does not bother me at all; we are very quiet people. Photography is my passion, our life (yes, that very clearly includes my wife) that’s why I became a photographer. “”Unfortunately”” I made it my profession, which took a lot of the romantic part away. It is my business today, but we not aiming to make a million. We only need to make enough to survive, to support our lifestyle - photography. I’m absolutely not in it for an ego fit - not at all. Of course I’m proud and happy when I see my pics on a cover, but I’m also as happy when I see it in a spot size because the picture has been chosen for a reason.
So... Fine Art... it will pick up again as times change again for can expect to see much more fine art shots very soon.
Microstock, the oversupply of images, and the recession have hit a lot of professional photographers very hard. How have you fared?
Everybody got hit...hard. I also blame a lot of photographers for the situation we are in. If you sell for every price, and still believe in “you let me use it for free and I make you famous...” well, you see the results. Too many photographers were selling themselves short; no long-term thinking was involved. I’m proud to say - We did not sell ourselves short - ever. Yes our prices have gone down too, that’s normal market, but we never sold ourselves short. I in fact canceled almost all the agency contracts I had. YES, I canceled many contracts simply because I saw how most agencies were working. They don’t work for the photographers, they only work for profit - full stop. When I saw my sales reports, dollar here, two dollars there, I figured out very fast what was going on. Agencies selling us out like nothing, selling at prices that NO photographer ever can survive with.  Making deals which are great for the agency, but hardly ever for photographers (selling 100 images at once is nice, but when 100 photographers must share a 80% lower price then only the agency makes a good profit, and the publisher...but none of the photographers. Here we go, we canceled and I’m very happy about it. Yes it did hurt us, but today I believe that we may have a chance because I believe that many agencies will go down as soon as other photographers do the same. Then... the publishers will come back to us, the photographers, and we can then offer great prices which we don’t have to share with one, two, three, eight, nine or more other agencies.
In a world of Internet I believe we don’t need many of those agencies anymore. Picture buyers get often a better service (at least from real pros) AND better prices than with agencies. Only the old structures keep the agencies alive.  For how long?  I don’t know.  It depends how long it takes photographers to see that they don’t really need the agencies.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of stock photography?
Both.  It only will get more difficult, but also maybe easier. I think publishers will figure out sooner or later that they need, over a long-term period, good images. They also will figure out that you cannot produce unique, quality images cheaply. So here we go, sooner or later some magazine will be proud again to support photographers. It will be “IN” again not to buy the cheapest but something a little better…you get what you pay for!
It is only today that this is not quite right. Why?? Because of the agencies. Take them out and it would double (ok, not quite) the money coming directly to photographers. Just imagine all the money agencies spend in admin, and they still make millions. The fact is that the agencies are not doing their job anymore, they don’t try to sell YOUR images, no, they just put it into a big pool and see what sells and for that they want 50/60% of OUR money. WE ARE the ones buying equipment, flying, risking, traveling, working, sweating and, and, and...and they want 50/60%??? For what?  For putting my images in a pool? Come on?? Please!

I’m not saying all agencies are bad* but I believe many of them are. If I can keep those 50% then I only have to sell half as many shots…as simple as that! It is time for US to tell publishers that it is waaaaay more ethical buying directly from a photographer than from an agency. I had so many publishers tell me that they had no idea that we have to pay so much to the agencies. Unfortunately many of the “non-profit” organizations don’t talk about that either. Most non-profits are quite sure that photographers get sponsored by agencies.
For me it is a simple bottom line…photographers have to do their own selling, maybe participate in some co-op’s, not a lot of admin costs, I’m sure it will work long-term. The question is, who wants to think long-term today???
Do you only sell Rights Managed photos, or are you also exploring other pricing structures?
Rights managed only!
Can you share one of your favorite photographs and the story behind it?
Need more time to tell a story, but that one should be ok...more to come now on my blog too.
Rolf, I could go on asking questions for a long time, but I know how much you have on your plate, so let me just wrap it up by asking if you have any words you’d like to leave us with?
Oh man... that’s a tough one. Well...hmmmm you said “to leave with us”…“us” as who? Photographers?  Publishers? Agency stock holders? Or someone we value extremely highly...the consumer. Yes, those people which keep everything alive, every government, every large company and yes, that consumer which gets kicked in the butt all the time. I’m really pleased to see all those consumer protection agencies coming up, mostly in Europe so far, but I’m sure sooner or later it will come more strongly to North America too.
So, to the consumer I would say...but from the “small people”, small businesses like most of us photographers, you are directly having an impact on us! Why would you ever want to spend your hard earned money with a big cooperation, and probably a CEO, that does not even know what to do with all the money. Your $100.00 in a nice print brings a photographer wayyyyy more than if you spent $90.00 in a big cooperation. We all must see again that the “small people and businesses” are the workers, not the big companies...they only live from us.
Same message goes out to picture buyers. If we give you better prices and better service WHY would you ever consider buying from a huge cooperation? I know, lots of old strings attached… but I’m very confident those strings are slowly breaking apart. Picture the hard working photographers, not the people who are just making another banking transaction and that don’t really care.
And to photographers my message would be: Wake up! Don’t accept everything from the agencies. WE ARE CREATING those pictures, not them, why would we ever consider giving them 50%...honestly, I would rather make that sale myself and make sure my family has enough to eat.
I always had to make a living from my photography. I never had a rich sponsor or wife to “pay” for my profession. No, we had to work for every penny, and yes, it was not always easy (actually I can’t really recall that it was ever easy). Stop giving your images away for free; that is what ruins a whole industry. If an agency sells for $5.00 a wildlife shot which took four weeks of sitting and waiting, that’s considered free in my eyes. Is that really how much you value your images?
So here we go...nothing really new... time for a change...and change is always difficult...but if their is no real change...soon...then you will have a hard time finding real pros to make an interview with.
And to answer a last question...yes, I missed a sale today because I would not accept the pricing a publisher tried to force on me. A fairly unique image, unlimited languages, first print run 100,000, 1/2 page for $40.00 is simply not “doable” for a real pro. I need to pay for food with my images.   How much is left over is when I get $40.00 for that use? I’m sure somebody will gladly let them use their picture “for free’, but I’m happy it won’t be mine.
 Rolf and Michelle's Long Standing Web Site:
 Rolf and Michelle's New Site:
 Rolf and Michelle's B&B:

*My Two Cents on Agencies. Certainly I have to agree with Rolf that many images are being drastically underpriced. I too get those $2.00 (and less) sales through agencies and also feel that the agencies are often benefiting at the expense of the the photographer. But for some of us, at least for me, agencies do have a viable function. I know that I could not and would not want to handle the hundreds of stock sales I make each month.

Also, as part owner of Blend Images (which is in turn is part owner of SuperStock), I have to say that I believe Blend is treating photographers well and working hard to achieve a balance that enables them to serve both the photographers and clients in these difficult times of transition in the stock photo industry. SuperStock, under new management, is also making moves in the right direction (stay tuned for more on that soon).

I do believe that it is important that photographers who want to thrive in stock for the long term put the necessary work into creating websites that both bolster their agency income and provide an option should they find the agency model not working for them, and Rolf and Michelle are a good example of how such an approach can succeed.

1 comment: said...

excellent interview....thanks, a lot to think about!!!