Saturday, January 23, 2010

Photographer, Art Director, Editor Scott Redinger-Libolt Interview

Image of Latina women with low rider cars shot on a Blend stock photo shoot art directed by Scott Redinger-Libolt.

Interview with Photographer, Art Director and Editor Scott Libolt

Thank you John for the opportunity. It’s a privilege to be interviewed by a top shelf photographer such as yourself. In efforts to be completely candid, I must preface this interview by stating these are simply my current opinions, they are ever changing, and in no way represent the viewpoint of any stock agencies I have ever worked for. Not everyone agrees with me all of the time …not even myself.

Scott, I have only been art directed on stock shoots twice in my life, and once was by you. I have to say it was a great experience and I remember thinking during the shoot that you were saving my… well, lets say your contribution to that shoot saved the day.

Ah, yes… our famous Lowrider shoot. Good times… we’ll have to do another one soon.

Still, I don’t really know a whole lot about you. I know you shoot stock and you have been (and are) an editor/art director for Blend images. Can you fill us in on your journey to being both an art director and a stock shooter?

My first photo gigs were in the early 90’s shooting publicity stills on film sets (mostly horror films) in Los Angeles. This was one of the most interesting photography experiences of my career. I learned a lot about filmmaking and the camaraderie on-set is wonderful …but I couldn’t see myself growing old in Los Angeles eating junk food and smoking cigarettes in-between takes.

Inspired by travel photography, I became curious about stock photography and employed myself at Westlight (one of the top five agencies at the time). Westlight was formed by National Geographic photographers, lead by Craig Aurness. Amazed by the people and photography that surrounded me, I strayed from the assignment path completely and by 2000, I began shooting stock under the pseudonym, “PBNJ Productions”. Simultaneously, I held Editor and Director positions inside agencies such as Corbis, Brand X Pictures, Jupiter Images, Blend Images, and SuperStock.

You could say I bring a unique combination of skills and experience to my profession now as I shoot for as many stock agencies as I have worked inside. The rounded perspective has made me a well-informed advocate for photographers and agencies alike. I currently divide my time between shooting stock, assignments, creative consulting for photographers, and freelance photo editing for Blend, SuperStock, and the Green Labor Journal. My wife and I just moved to Miami Beach last year, which we are very excited about.

Scott, how does your experience as an art director change your approach to photography?

Not so much the directing, but the overall agency experience has made me a much more profitable stock photographer for sure. Knowing what makes a stock photo sell is the key to success in this business. Evolving one’s style with the changing times is also very important. My only complaint is that after 14 years in this industry, it becomes harder for me to shoot subjects like fine art, edgy self-promos, editorials, etc.. I developed a bad habit of questioning the commercial value of whatever I was working on. This is really bad for the creative process and I’ve had to distance myself from stock in the past to redefine my inspirations and renew confidence in my creativity.

Does your experience as a photographer improve your ability to communicate and work with other photographers in your capacity as an editor/art director?

Consulting photographers on making better pictures actually started with my employment at professional photo labs in the late 80’s and has been a quest ever since. My experience as a shooter and skills with Photoshop further enhance my art directing abilities. I believe that by knowing the scope of creative options and how to achieve them gives me an edge. I must say, I have my challenges as well…. I often find myself directing a photographer to shoot a scene as I would shoot it myself. It’s very hard sometimes NOT to impose my own personal style and vision onto the project even though its actually my job to do just that. Twisted, huh? With that said… my efforts have been both praised and criticized.

Do you ever want to just take the camera out of a photographer’s hands and shoot the damn shot?

Yes, and I’ve done it a number of times …though always at the photographer’s request. I’ve requested specific f-stops and lighting techniques too. Some photographers have boundaries while others commend the experience and team effort. Everyone’s different and one of the important skills of art directing stock photographers is knowing the level of participation that is expected. Years ago, I flew to the tropics to art direct a photographer for Corbis. When I arrived, the photographer told me, “I usually just shoot whatever I want” …so, I was completely hands off and the photography was beautiful. Whatever it takes… I don’t mind lugging C-Stands or ordering lunch.

Do you have any observations about having your own work edited by someone else?

Because of my experience, I provide very tightly edited shoots to my agencies. As a result, my acceptance rate is pretty high and RPI is above average at most agencies. I know what my best-sellers will be and I think it’s important not to give an editor any opportunities to choose bad (less sellable) images. Equally important, I don’t want editors to over-select by choosing too many unneeded frames. Each picture costs me time and money in post-production and I don’t want to clog up my workflow with low or non-selling similars. I do really like being art directed on a shoot. It takes off a lot of pressure and frees me up to be more creative.

What do you like to shoot the most?

This is a hard question for most stock photographers as many are generalists. With stock, I mostly like the constant changing of subject matter and strategizing new challenges with each shoot. My wife and I shoot most of our projects together. Our inspirations are similar and our specialty is People/Lifestyles. However we both find more personal fulfillment these days when shooting spontaneous travel and fine art. When I’m shooting, I think equally about the composition, the feeling, and the authenticity conveyed within the image. Hitting the target with all of these crucial aspects gives me much joy and satisfaction …and this feeling is why I shoot.

Coming up with a constant stream of ideas can be pretty daunting. What is your approach?

When seeking subject matter for stock photography, it’s best to keep a calendar of events. Start by outlining everything that is in some way participated or celebrated…. Holidays, Sports, Travel, Weddings, Babies, School, etc… Nearly everything humans obsess on is cyclical. The same goes for needs of art buyers. If photographers can hit with the right subjects at the right time, they can maximize the life and profit of their images. Once you have made a subject calendar that is in-line with your inspirations, locale, and resources… you must shift the whole schedule backwards to account for advance art buying (about 3-4 months) and your “time-to-market”. Time-to-market varies depending on your own workflow and that of your agencies. You can plan your whole year out in advance and use it over and over. If I only followed my own advice with this process, I’d be… well… probably not sitting at my computer right now.

To what extent do you research your shoot ideas?

Films, fashion mags, and real life are my top places for inspiration. Really great styling, quirky documentaries, unique people, and interesting places turn me on. It’s so important to take time and soak up the things that surround us every day. I mean really soak it up… you might realize that you are missing quite a bit.

For ideas (other than the handy subject calendar), I suggest looking everywhere EXCEPT at stock agency search results. Look there ONLY to see what your competition is. Do not make a shot-list from what already exists. Photographers must shoot outside the redundancy found in agencies if they want their pictures to be noticed and licensed. Working with a good art director or editor can help you develop your ideas and steer you into a more original space.

How do you go about finding the “holes” in agency collections?

Your editors should be able to give you a list of holes …or you can research them pretty well yourself. With our travel photography, we simply do destination-specific searches, break-up the trips into cities, and portion out to the agent with the least amount of relevant search results. Same process can be done with lifestyle shoots by searching subject, concept, and ethnicity to find the agency with the least coverage.

How do you prepare for a stock shoot?

I like to get all the production tasks locked-down first before I let myself indulge in the creative part. Location, casting, crew, permits, props, wardrobe, rentals, lunch, and logistics first. Then hopefully, we’ll have a couple of days left for creative but not always. By this time, I’ll have likely accumulated the key shots in the back of my mind or on little scrap notes I stuff in my pockets. Production can be stressful but it’s also a distraction that allows for the creative process to manifest itself without too much pressure from me to be brilliant or to be doubtful.

Tell us about your experience with Blend. Has working with Blend been different for you than with past or other agencies?

Working for a progressive company like Blend is awesome. Many of Blend’s employees work from home (which is great for the planet and the bottom line). I’ve worked with Sarah Fix and Rick Becker-Leckrone, in many capacities and at many agencies, for the last 13 years. For the last few years at Blend, I’ve been responsible for editing, managing, and preparing all promotional imagery on Blend’s website and eNewsletter. My part-time schedule allows me to set my own hours and gives me time for personal projects.

You and Cristina work as a team. How do you divide up your responsibilities?

Yes… We live, love, work, and fight together 24/7. I usually drive the original concept of our shoots whether stock, portfolio, or assignment. We both share pre-production tasks and Cristina takes a lead on post-production and marketing. During our stock shoots, we both are shooting simultaneously using different focal lengths. The night before, we coordinate who will shoot what, when, and from what angle and lighting. This method has proven very successful as we generally get an equal amount of selects with two styles of coverage. It just takes more crew to assist but it is totally worth it.

In your opinion, what makes a great stock photo?

A great stock photo is fresh, unique yet familiar, can be cropped horizontal or vertical, and has space for client’s text/logo. For best sales potential, stock photos must have context and end users should be able to apply a multitude of concepts. The ever-growing trend for realistic advertising also dictates a more respectable aesthetic.

What qualities does a photographer need to succeed in stock?

A trust fund… perhaps a second job? Just kidding (kinda) …but we all have our own definitions of success. In my opinion, professional photography is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a profession. The satisfaction from making photographs is part of our profit and should be factored in (but not taxed).

It doesn’t matter what you are shooting these days (stock, editorial, or assignment), revenues have declined considerably. The hay days of the late 90’s – early 2000’s are finished and we need to get over that. The truth is however (in stock at least), the revenue back then was too high to sustain itself and a market correction was inevitable. Very few agencies actually reached high profit margins due to the overhead and marketing it takes to function and compete. I’m not saying that the current revenue average is appropriate either… the economy must factor in. I believe active shooters will see a noticeable bounce this year.

So, what qualities are needed to succeed in stock? A thoughtful and realistic approach to managing a creative business, flexibility during economic slumps, lots of research, trend awareness, and an annual production plan to create specific imagery intended to provide solutions to art buyers. Sound easy?

What are the most common mistakes you see stock shooters making?

1. New photographers shooting what they “think” stock should look like: When an agency signs a new photographer, many times it’s because of their best portfolio work (which may not look like stock at all). The photographer then believes they must change their personal style to fit “the bland and generic mold of stock”. They remove the personal flair that attracted the agency in the first place which results in a lack of feeling in their work and prevents their photographs from standing out. Don’t change your style! Instead, apply it into the commercial subject matter you are now faced with.

2. Opportunistic shooting without context: This is another mistake made by photographers new to stock. Instead of developing a commercially viable subject to shoot for stock, photographers often end up shooting what falls in their lap. A model needs headshots so a trade shoot is discussed and executed without much effort spent on making it contextual, conceptual, or even commercial. This results in a whole bunch of portraits of a model being a model. Pictures like this are in abundance and easily get lost in search results because of very little keywords associated. Put your model into a commercial role that fits their type.

3. A great shoot but no post-production: I see this more and more now that photographers are out-sourcing their processing/retouching in large batches. I understand the need to cut corners but be sure you approve the batches before submitting finals…especially if you are spending less than a dollar per image. I’ve seen whole shoots that are too dark, too muddy, bad color, poor retouching, no retouching, etc…. If the images don’t pop as thumbnails, they will get over-looked and sales will suffer. You must polish them until they are shiny and bright.

4. Wait and see: A common occurrence with new photographers is they do a few shoots, get maybe 100 pictures on-line, and then stop shooting until they see some revenue. This makes it near impossible to kick-start the royalties into anything substantial. Stock photography takes time and while you are waiting for royalties to come in, the best thing to do is keep shooting. If you want to test the waters, that’s fine …just dedicate a couple of years and make 500+ images before you analyze your earnings potential. By all means, shooting stock isn’t for all photographers but you have to jump in headfirst like you would with any other profession.

At this point in the stock industry, we generally have three choices: Rights Managed, Royalty Free, and Microstock. Do you contribute to all three models?

I actively shoot RM & RF imagery. Depending on how a shoot looks after editing, I make a choice where to direct the content. I don’t do Microstock because I can’t justify the expense vs. profit potential. I like my photography to retain a high production value… This could be in the quality of models, location, post-production, or all three. These things cost me money and I can’t lower my standards so my content can be sold for less money. I would surely lose all satisfaction from my craft. This isn’t to say it’s not right for other, hard-working individuals who are able to produce high volumes of low-touch content.

Where are you putting your most effort and why?

While we’re waiting for our assignment world to resurrect, we are shooting primarily for portfolio and then repurposing it for stock. I’ve found this to be a great way to stay creative and after using this strategy for over a year now, I don’t like to shoot anything for stock unless I can also see it in my portfolio. That means it can’t look a thing like stock. It’s my self-inflicted rehab from years of commercial compromise. And funniest thing of all… the agencies love the content. My editor at Blend remarked he had not seen a submission with so much soul in a long time. This also changes our subject line up for the year because we shoot to attract specific clients …so we shoot with a dual purpose which doubles the value of our photographs and without losing site of client’s needs.

There are many who question the long-term viability of the Microstock model. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I think Microstock is here to stay and the prices will likely continue to rise. I believe it is a price-point dictated partially by an actual consumer need but mostly by individuals who started with a simple, short-term plan of building a low-touch, high-traffic, content purchasing website with only one purpose… to sell it and get out. Geniuses in that respect, I must say… but polar opposite to an agency founded by photographers who have longer-term goals.

Any other thoughts on how the stock industry might look in coming years?

The thought of trying to predict it exhausts me. We have had so many surprises in this industry. If you think about the string of events: Stock first undermined editorial assignments with an RM licensing library and separated the stock photo industry from what was previously known as clip art. Then came the RF option to balance out the playing field and even offered whole CDs of content at a further discount. We can’t forget the subscription frenzy who saw profit potential with unlimited usage of whole collections (for an annual fee). Agencies started production companies to achieve the breadth and depth required to have such wholly-owned offerings …and then comes Microstock and other low-level price points. All the while, acquisitions, productions halting, staff cuts, office closures, fire sales… and you ask me, “what’s next?”

My prediction: With so many price adjustments happening with microstock going up, RF going down, mid-level collections forming, I see the possibility for two major things happening:

1. A merging of price points. If large portions of RF content continue to move downward into a mid-level offering and microstock continues to be marked up, we will inevitably be creating a huge, possibly unmanageable pool of similarly priced content. Hopefully, the cream of the RF crop will retain integrity and remain at current rates with swift and easy access. Otherwise, art buyers looking for content might have experiences much like shoveling snow in a blizzard. I believe RM will remain pretty safe and stay somewhat like it is now. Some agencies have already added varying price points to RM which is fine as long as it’s all clean, readily available, and not confusing. The future challenge will be in managing the zillions of cheaper pictures efficiently.

2. As these aspects of the industry become blurred together by price merging, possible collection mergers, acquisitions, non-exclusive cross-over, etc… There will be a few beacons of light in the dense fog: Niche agencies that retain specialty aspects and highly organized collections of top-shelf content should be able to cleverly set themselves apart from the growing masses. What could be better for an art buyer than the salvation of a few great specialty shops where they can get in, find exactly what they need, and get out quickly. The “positive experience” of licensing content will become increasingly important for agencies to provide. Veer had this strategy figured out long ago with their tightly edited collection and award winning marketing...and they were really just another general collection that sold fonts. Going forward, I believe it may take a lot of clever marketing on the part of the specialized agencies to solidify awareness and redirect the traffic to them. They must make a big push now to change the habits of art buyers as the larger “super collections” are becoming weak and overwhelming, it might just get a little easier to grab much more of the pie. The David & Goliath era is here and other industries are experiencing this same phenomenon.

We hear an awful lot about stock footage these days. Photographers are doing some very creative things with video shot on DSLRs. The Red One has almost become a cult obsession, and who hasn’t spent too much time on YouTube? Has the time to shoot video arrived and do you participate in, or have any plans to move into, stock footage?

I thought about getting into footage ten years ago when cinematographers were making great money…however, I was quickly uninspired when I heard that a lot of the subjects I was interested in were already covered. Agencies were limited at that time and were no longer accepting stuff like time-lapse, slow motion, street scenes, nature scenes, artsy stuff, etc., so I decided to stick with stills. Now, with new HD cameras flooding the market, Internet streaming, and websites hungry for video content, it’s certainly reopened the door. Footage is a highly accessible media with a larger marketplace than ever before and agencies need to replace a lot of their old film footage with newer looking digital coverage.

Knowing what we know about the evolution of stock stills, you can guess what my concerns might be if the prices of footage continues to be unregulated by the filmmakers and offered below RM prices. Web usage fees are currently very low (even for footage) and it probably should be …but we can’t propagate another medium where the cost of production takes a year or two to recoup before seeing profits. I love motion and often reflect on my time spent on film sets. I’d love to shoot and direct stock footage…so I’d love for my worries to be put at ease. Filmmakers need to unite and hold firm on licensing fees. UNIONIZE.

Do you track your sales results? If so, what kind of information are you looking for?

I use to keep very elaborate records for many years. I tracked all my shoots… production cost, revenue per shoot per year, revenue per image, best selling images, etc…. I gained a lot of helpful information and could see which shoots did well, which didn’t, longevity of images, rate of decline, seasonal peaks, etc… My spreadsheets were beautiful works of art.

In 2008, I stopped tracking everything except my average Revenue Per Image (RPI) and my average Cost Per Image (CPI). That’s really the bottom line for me and the simpler I can make things, the less time I have to sit at my computer. Once you know your average RPI (from all agencies combined), you just have to keep your CPI well below. I like to keep my CPI at 50% of my average RPI so I can be somewhat assured that the shoot will reach profit in the first year. The agency with the highest individual RPI usually gets first look at our shoots. As these averages fluctuate, so do my investments in shooting.

Assuming you know which of your images are best sellers, how can you use that information to your advantage (try as I might, duplicating best-sellers has never proven particularly successful for me)?

Well, for example: Say you have a testimonial portrait of an African American male café owner and it sells really well. Sure you can copy the shot and use a female or another ethnicity male. Sometimes it works really well but it’s not a sure thing. Depends a lot if the shot is concept driven or if it relies on the model’s charm. Often enough, the model is the single most important thing to a client. Could also be the timing of the first shot that made it hot…then, after a year or two, the concept isn’t as relevant to our society.

The common thread in my best sellers is that they are all very conceptual, usually rare in the industry, or if not rare, they are best-of-class executions …meaning they are better (or more up-to-date) than the best of what’s on the market. I could duplicate them all and make out nicely but I find it boring to repeat myself. Duplication can be good but only after your original image has lived its life out. If you duplicate your shots too soon, your images are in competition with each other. This does little to diversify your collection and is not an efficient way to increase your profit or the profit of the agency. It’s like playing multiple bingo cards… you want to cover as many slots as possible (not the same slots, multiple times).

Do you do any direct sales?

Not any stock sales but my wife and I are launching a fine art website by end of this year.

Do you think that direct sales will be an increasing part of the puzzle in coming years?

Definitely …but I think it is an either/or type of business model. Having agencies sell for me frees me up to do things other than stock photography. If selling stock was my only passion, I’d probably sell direct too. I think it will become increasingly easier to make direct sales provided your website is optimized for visibility. There are so many new image search tools being introduced so Google will become more effective in time. If you decide to market stock directly, it doesn’t mean you have to stop selling through your agencies. Diversify your collection as much as possible.

As I work on my SEO and increase my web traffic, people are finding and licensing images from me. They are finding my images through Google searches. So far that is the exception rather than the rule. Do you believe that such online searches will become increasingly important for buyers to find stock photos, or will such searches remain on the periphery?

Finding photographer’s images directly is bound to increase but I think sales will remain periphery in comparison to agency websites unless the photographers have enough money and time to continue a vigorous marketing and SEO strategy. So, it’s a matter of doing the math and comparing the net profits same as we do with all of our agents. In the end, I think it is still wiser to sell through as many viable portals as possible.

Do you have any thoughts about utilizing Flickr to gain an audience for stock images?

I don’t have time for social networking sites and even if I did, I don’t believe in using these websites for monetary gain. I can’t believe that a client I am trying to attract actually has time to “friend” or “follower” me. I have no interest in virtual fame or popularity. I believe publicity seeking on these sites goes against the initial concept of sharing content and ideas. At least this is how they started …and the whole Internet for that matter was based on sharing. I know that we rely on the Internet now to make a living …but Americans shouldn’t try so hard to commoditize everything. Instead, make time for real life contacts, tangible experiences, and real friendships.

Scott, a young photographer visited me in my studio this afternoon and asked if she should pursue stock for a career. In the past I always would have been encouraging, but today I just couldn’t sing the praises of the industry. What do you, or would you, tell young photographers if they ask about a career in stock? What advice would you offer to those new to, or just beginning their careers in stock photography?

Stock photography can be really fun, creative, and rewarding. It’s what you make of it really. Work on your online portfolio! Your website isn’t just to help you get assignments…. It will also help you get contracts at agencies, attract models, and give you industry respect when collaborating with stylists and negotiating access to locations.

There are two main strategies to making stock photos. Some shooters concentrate on quantity in hopes that a lot of pictures will sell for a little bit each while others concentrate efforts on making single images, usually very conceptual, that will sell fewer times but for bigger amounts. Find the method that best fits your personal inspirations, skills, and lifestyle.

The first year in stock is very hard as there won’t be much money coming in. Stock takes time so you must be patient and set yourself goals as to how much money you can invest to kick-start that revenue. Be sure to choose an agency who has a good RPI. Look on their website and contact some photographers who are shooting similar content for them. You should try to make at least 200-300 selected images in the first year (per agency). If you do your research, listen to your editor, shoot smart subjects with commercial models, and spend not more than $5000 - $7000 doing it, you should be in great shape and inline to increase your goals for the 2nd year. If you can achieve more than 300 selects, your experience will be more rewarding. Your revenue expectations must be realistic and your faith will be tested more than once.

Do you have any advice for us old dogs about how to survive this image-glut and the twin terrors of Microstock pricing and the recession?

It’s a very hard time for the advertising industry as a whole right now. One good thing is that recessions are cyclical …so our economy is as sure to recover, as it is sure to fall again in 5-7 years. We all need to understand that we are in a non-necessity industry making every one of us extremely vulnerable during economic slumps. Therefore, we must not live beyond our means. As for microstock’s affect on our livelihoods, I don’t think there is anything to do except to adjust and evolve our business models to accommodate the changes. With good quality images flooding into these lower price points, all we can do is make better pictures so we can continue to justify a higher price and make our pictures stand out among the “glut” as you put it.

Is there a positive note you can leave us on?

I think there is a renewed sense of hope for the Rights Managed licensing. RM built the foundation for this industry and I believe we are coming full circle to embrace it once again. My personal RM revenue has seen the least decline and the most stability over the last decade …so in the long term; I think that’s a pretty smart place to invest. I believe there will always be a large enough quantity of clients who prefer licensing RM imagery through a respected source rather than wade through a rising sea of lower-level imagery. If RM’s higher standard of quality remains in place (meaning if agencies don’t flood it with similars and mediocrity), it’s armor will shine brightly and continue to provide an outlet for professional stock photographers and sophisticated art buyers alike. It’s up to everyone’s ability to uphold the integrity and prestige of RM…or the perception at least. Based on our experience with what is happening to every other price point, we have no choice. I have a similar hope for very high-end RF imagery with proven sales records. While most agencies are spending time identifying lower-end imagery to sell at a discount, I think it’s just as important to use efforts to identify the highest quality and push it forward. There is a fog coming and agencies need to work hard on their shine and allure.

A similar circumstance with stock footage… the integrity of the filmmakers will be challenged by low prices and limited licensing options through big agencies. Footage has a lot of possibilities if filmmakers come together and form outlets for direct sales similar to how Blend Images formed as a unity of photographers interested in retaining control of content.

Thank you John for the opportunity to inform, inspire, anger, and vent. I hope you enjoyed my ranting. I’m always open to comments and invite criticisms. Photographers seeking creative consultations, please drop me a note on the contact page of my website:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tips For Making Best Selling Stock Photos

A sense of motion, a strong concept, versatile cropping possibilities and relevance to the market's needs help make this "green" stock photo a strong selling image.

Best Selling Stock Photos, Sales Volume and RPI

While there is no magic bullet for creating best selling stock photos, there are some principles that can help you achieve consistent sales volume and RPI (return per image).
I will briefly go over each of five important points that I have learned from some of the best stock shooters, art directors and creative directors in the business, as well as from my own experience.

Suggestions, Wisdom and Stock Photo Efforts
The points we will go over include: Motion vrs. Static, Horizontal, Vertical, and Square Crops, Negative Space, Concepts, and individual models vrs. Groups. Keep in mind that these are not hard and fast rules, but rather suggestions gained from my own experience and from the wisdom offered by other veteran stock photographers and industry professionals. As you plan and execute your shoots, if you can keep these suggestions in mind, you can increase sales and income from your stock photo efforts.

Motion Vrs. Static:

Motion sells. I first heard this from Tom Grill, the most experience and analytical stock photographer I know. I have first hand experience as well. When shooting any situation in which motion can be appropriate, be sure and include it. Off the top of my head I can think of several instances where a shoot has included the same situation with and without motion. The motion has to be done well, but when it is, most of the time, the motion images out-sell the static ones.

Horizontal, Vertical, And Square Crops

In terms of cropping there are several points to consider. If your thumbnail doesn’t grab the interest of whoever is looking for images, then you have already lost the battle. Thumbnails on stock agency sites are designed to fit both vertical and horizontal images. By having a square thumbnail your picture utilizes all the available real estate, your image is bigger and tends to stand out more.  It is also my belief that if you can frame your picture so that it can be cropped for verticals, as in a magazine cover, and also as a horizontal for applications such as magazine spreads, then you are allowing for the greatest possible sales of that image.

Negative Space
Negative space, particularly in the world of stock photography, can be a very positive thing. Think in terms of headlines and body copy. Allowing room for type will also help maximize your sales potential. In general allow a bit more room for cropping than you might otherwise. You never know how someone will want to use your photos. They can always crop in tighter, but can’t utilize the parts of the image that you have cropped out.

Concept Stock Photos Sell
As a rule, concept images outsell those without concepts, and often by a very large margin. Ideally you can create lifestyle images that have concepts; concepts such as success, standing out from the crowd, teamwork and freedom. I try and incorporate some of these concepts, and others, into every shoot.

Individual Models vrs. Groups
The question about whether to shoot groups or multiple models as opposed to single models, is a bit trickier. Pick your situations; don’t just shoot groups to be shooting groups. Each model adds expense and complexity to your shoot. If you do want to tackle groups it is important to have a thorough shoot list with more scenarios than you think you will need. That way if one idea is starting to flounder, or proving troublesome, you can move right on to the next. This is one area where it can be particularly important to do your research. Because it is more expensive and challenging to shoot stock of groups (even small groups of two or three models), there is less competition for those shots. Check and see what kind of group shots are in demand and are under-represented in the collections you shoot for. If you can shoot what is needed in an edgy way that looks “real”, then you will do very well.

Motion, Framing, Negative Space, Concepts And Groups

Again, the above are suggestions, not hard and fast rules. But if you can add motion, or a sense of motion, to your still images, pay attention to your framing and crops, allow for negative space, illustrate concepts, and add the judicious group or two, you can add to your RPI, your sales volume, and your bottom line.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Shannon Fagan, Photographer and Stock Artists Alliance President

Shannon Fagan photographed this young girl in New Mexico, and found a print of it in China (see interview for details).
Photo ©Shannon Fagan

Shannon, I know you as a top stock shooter and as President of Stock Artists Alliance. I also know that you have done many large produced shoots both here and abroad. You have won a raft of awards from Communication Arts Photography Annual to PDN to Print and even to the Addys. Can you fill us in on your background, how you came to be a photographer and how stock came to be your focus?

Thanks for such a nice introduction John. I’m at the ten-year point in my career and it’s been a decade’s worth of introspection these past few months. Our industry is rapidly evolving into unprecedented territory. I took a seat recently in attendance at multiple key industry conferences: Media Bistro’s User Generated Content Conferences in San Jose and New York, the Picture Archive Council of America’s Conferences in Chicago and Miami, the Photo Plus Expo in New York, and the Society of Digital Agency’s Conference in New York. I’m soon en route to The Professional Photographers of America’s ImagingUSA convention in Nashville. It’s an honor to share my observations from this collective experience with your audience. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned this past year, when you’re an industry President during a recession, and during a sea change in media content sourcing; everyone seeks an active opinion. You and I won’t fail to deliver here J

I concentrated in photography during a college degree filled with academics and art/photography courses at the University of Memphis. I had key mentors such as art photographer Larry McPherson, sculptor Greely Myatt, and painter Richard Knowles. Prior to that, my high school senior year included explorations of creative independent thinking speared on by a Fulbright exchange educator Luc Weegels from Amsterdam. Collectively, these persons taught me everything that I needed to know about process, about being prolific, and about being a professional. I took internships in New York City summer after summer, and when I graduated in 1999, I was ready to begin my waking dream of combining creativity with business. I loved photography, and I loved art, but I knew that it was necessary to earn a living in turn. Stock photography was a natural component and I was quickly being presented with multiple contract opportunities.

What agencies carry your work and do you also license images yourself?

I’m with nearly every major collection for stock photography internationally. It reads as a who’s who list of image aggregators, including microstock as a recent addition to the mix.

I currently not involved in direct licensing. It’s not that I don’t believe in this manner of distribution, as there are some very worthy proponents in this area of selling. I’m an admirer of the collections of Jim Erickson and Saxon Holt for example. Both have fantastic business models, niche content, and established clientele. This is very smart for the type of businesses that they have found themselves involved in.

If price is the “holy grail” of our industry, then completing direct licensing is both a business and a lifestyle choice. I have chosen to coordinate the logistics of travel to photograph, and to run the daily business operations. I’m also the creative director and technician. Completing direct sales and marketing would take a major expense and commitment initiative on my part. I’ve chosen to focus my energies elsewhere, and it’s partially a choice of reducing my overhead and remaining flexible to changes in our industry in the years to come. When you commit your business to direct licensing, you must first acknowledge the necessary means financially, the time logistically, and the support infrastructure long term. Your primary goal is to drive adequate sales traffic to offset these startup and yearly costs.

Direct licensing sure sounds popular these days, especially with the availability of a simple Google search for images. In my experience, image creators must be level headed and understand that a bulk core percentage of stock image buyers just want “a photo”, “any photo”, and they are not willing to wait for a return phone call, nor able to pay consistently more than the going market price. Direct licensing really works for collections that cannot be obtained elsewhere, and for which have established clientele already interacting with the niche-oriented photographer/s. Current agency contributor contracts do not allow for direct licensing by the contributor. One must understand that taking on direct licensing means taking on a level of business commitment long term with a separate offering unseen in agencies.

Tell us a bit about SAA, this new merger, and why we photographers should join.

The Stock Artists Alliance is the world’s only trade organization devoted to stock imagery licensing. It is now merged with the world’s largest photographic organization, The Professional Photographers of America. We choose to join forces in a consolidation of opportunity to provide the Alliance of Visual Artists (PPA’s umbrella organization) with an unparalleled level of stock expertise. They provided us with access to top legal experts, some of the best benefit packages for photographic members worldwide, and a service orientation that goes unmatched. This combination of forces will bring SAA members offers of equipment insurance, health benefit packages, seminars for business training, their own dedicated AVA/PPA Imaging USA conference, and a membership services department dedicated to their individual needs. We have an SAA dedicated publication, Keywords, and a dedicated email forum uniquely designed to address ongoing debates in the stock photography industry. We initiated a twitter stream this year and Facebook presence. We’re the only trade organization that addresses stock concerns directly with top agency owners and creative staff. It’s a prime membership to include as part of one’s business planning and daily operation. I encourage your readers to join in and participate in the discussion.

Micro stock has exploded onto the scene, but seems to be reaching a maturation point, at least for many of the top micro producers who are for the first time seeing their earnings level off. Do you have any thoughts on the future of micro stock?

User generated content is hot, and for microstock, it is being created professionally by photographers amongst us. To some degree, it is an oxymoron to call professional microstock content “user-generated”. Earnings are leveling off because of an oversupply in nearly every channel of imagery internationally. Free imagery isn’t seeing a leveling off in earnings however (I’m being a bit tongue and cheek here!), and it is becoming a new competitor as users provide talent in trade for exposure.

I have a great respect for microstock. Microstock photographers are some of the most business savvy in our industry. Its history is a classic self made commercial art success story that is a reminder to nearly all of us who started out in art school with dreams of being professional photographers. The future of microstock is a repetition of other classic branding stories. There will be stratification of the offering by quality and price, and price itself should continue to rise, albeit slowly. It will continue to eat away at traditional pricing for imagery that is inherently the same or can be obtained at lower prices.

I’d look at the airline industry in terms of where it goes from here. There are top tier airline carriers with limited routes, but their clientele is small, particularly in a recession with a tightening of budgets globally for the next couple years. There are mid tier fliers and they take the bulk of traffic with great expanse. There are low cost competitors, with perhaps no frills, but great service. Passengers “dressing up” today for any international flight in business class, let alone coach, has become a thing of the past. Expecting complimentary dinner service has also permanently changed. This goes to say that flying as an art of travel isn’t special anymore and we might take note of that with the following.

I’m going to take a lot of flack for saying this next statement, but I do feel that what we do as an industry for commercial photography is not any more insular than the B2B businesses hiring us. Expect media in the coming years that is generally less driven by quality and creative invigoration, and more driven by price and availability. I appreciate this New York Times article by technology visionary Jaron Lanier, and audio interview. Making a portrait of Lanier was my first-ever editorial portrait assignment. I shot Kodak negative film with a Pentax 67 camera and delivered contact sheets to Fortune Magazine. It’s an understatement to say that our manner of business has changed dramatically since that time, and it was uniquely resonant to me to read about it Lanier’s book “You are Not a Gadget”.

Look at the airline industry and how tickets are bought and sold. Where did the travel agents go? Availability will be the next self-fulfilling prophecy in commercial art. Desktop publishing software took out the printing industry. Rights managed creativity was cherished because that was what was prolifically available. This table turned and then went to Royalty Free. It is now microstock.

We are reading online newspapers proliferated with cell phone images. We are watching television commercials shot with low-end cameras to be made to look “user-generated”. We want to create our own content. We want to be individually famous for 15 minutes. Apple and Facebook are on this trend line. Do not expect to bend the wants of the consuming public globally. Microstock listened to that, intelligently. In fact, it helped to develop it as a self-fulfillment to what was an anticipated global desire, just as Apple’s iPod did with portable mp3 music at a low cost. Follow your heart and combine it with your creative and business intelligence. You do not necessarily have to be a microstock photographer to succeed. You do need to be positioned with where the marketplace is going.

Royalty Free images have certainly been suffering from the glut of such imagery available. As photographers, our response to declining revenue from that glut is to produce more imagery. Do you see any way out of that vicious circle?

I take a lot of direction from comments made by Jeff Howe, author of the book "Crowdsourcing", when he addressed the User Generated Content Conference in New York. Howe said "photography is the canary in the coal mine, with inexpensive cameras, easy editing, and internet access. The threat to photography is a continued downward price pressure due to natural pressures of supply and demand." We are not seeing a decrease in the interest to provide image content online, rather, it is exponentially growing.

I believe the vicious circle may be starting to slow. However, ironically, it’s not because there isn’t a desire to have it continue by the content creators. Photographers love to shoot. I objectively project, and assess in observation, that it is slowing because those that create the content can no longer afford to create it in the quantities that they did in the past. This is because revenues are being choked by distributed offerings at lower price points, ‘free’ being one of them. To maintain continued investment, one needs a steady revenue of encouragement. The big question yet to be determined is what is the tipping point for contributors to earn a living vs. returns on investment that they are experiencing this year and next?

The next question to follow is one that we have witnessed play out for the past two years already. I ask this analytically. What happened to all of the motivational mechanisms for an agency to support its self-funding contributors with art direction support, production help, imagery training, and regular meetings to keep the buzz of energy alive? What happened to mentorship? The signal to seasoned contributors and seasoned agency staff, if you read between the lines, is that the image licensing industry is confused, financially struggling, and veterans are necessarily expendable. This is a market condition at this time, and for small business owners operating as full time professional photographers, generally energy begets energy. Leadership is becoming a rarer commodity as images commoditize.

As traditional contributors find other paths that are more lucrative and more rewarding, will crowd sourcing or new professional or semi-professional photographers be able to take their place? My gut tells me yes, but my business sense tells me no. Shooting stock independently, as a professional, takes years of experience and innovation cultivation. Agencies have laid-off numerous instigators of creative direction, i.e. their salaried art directors and editors. There are now more laid off professionals in this area than there are available positions for them to be assimilated into. They must and will migrate to other professions, commercial art not necessarily to be one of them. This is a dot com era bust for the stock photo industry. There could be two upcoming changes in our traditional industry: increases in royalty percentages to core contributors to encourage participation, and/or ‘perk’ programs to initiate veterans. Major microstock agencies are already doing this with their regular contributors whose canister levels or selling levels are high. I’d take note of that. It’s quite impressive on their part. It’s one of the reasons we are not hearing of professionals in the user generated fields jump ship to more traditional lines of selling.

Microstock has a different need than Rights Managed. Contributors all have the same need. They need to be cultivated if to be retained over time. When the industry was on the growing upswing, cultivation was high via agency staff support, regular agency meetings, and the like. Now, we are witnessing a downswing. What goes up, yes, does come down. Ask veteran assignment photographers about their career changes over time. Being a freelance commercial artist is not a protected, tenured, salaried position, and agencies will see changes to “who” is providing the content. It is highly unlikely that the stock photographer of tomorrow is being actively cultivated by today’s agency staff in a manner that retains long-term relationships. Imagine for a moment, the start up fixed overhead costs associated with ingesting new contributors on a self-funded traditional scale. Veterans of today will slow submissions, retire, and move to new industries. It’s happening in 2009, and I agree with what was explored at the UGCX in New York – this will be the year that it all changed. This opens up a new era in stock photography. Flickr and iReporter might be a good model for the future of content in years to come, and if we’ve seen self-fulfilling prophecies of the past, I cannot help but see that what’s available is what will be bought. It’s not that the model that currently exists is invalid. It continues to work. I’m pointing to where we’ll be in 2-5 years. Everyone agrees that licensing content on the web is due for a change. Now that average prices to produce the content exceed what the content sells for, one knows that the current model is broken.

How do you feel about the future of Rights Managed stock photography?

You, John, have been a voice of reason for rights managed this year and you’ve shared with your readers some really wonderful insight. Rights Managed imagery continues to carve out a stable future and strategy. It is an ingredient to a successful business if the contributor enjoys shooting it and is interested in creating the types of unique content needed in this area. Personally, Rights Managed has been my best success for creative imagery and personal artistic development for my entire career. It may not have trained me in the logistics of a diverse offering and building my business to a new revenue level for re-investment elsewhere, but it was a crucial component of my shooting and will continue to be.

One thing I find mildly distressing is Getty’s current fixation on Flickr. I have even heard that some Getty photographers have started putting images through flickr instead of Photographer’s Choice (Getty’s pay-to-play option) to avoid the PC charges and perhaps get a better acceptance rate. How do you see flickr’s role in the larger picture of the stock photo industry?

Flickr highlights just how much a contributor now must ‘play the system’ and not just create award-winning imagery alone. I would go so far as to say that distribution of imagery is more important than what the imagery is itself. Jaron Lanier’s book also addresses this important truism of Web 2.0. This has created the vicious circle that we talked about above. It encourages imagery to be commoditized. This is just simply a business condition at this time. It does not show any signs of letting up any time soon, so my advice is as follows: As a contributing creative commercial artist you have a responsibility to your business (to your models, your crew, your future hires) to stay in operation. They rely upon you as a market maker. Flickr is leveling the playing field, yet again, to the barriers of entry to license imagery globally. If you assess that it is worth your business’ time to channel distribution via Flickr, I would vote to try it. One must look at the amount of time it takes to participate in licensing via this manner. Flickr was not designed as a place to house professionals’ full time portfolios, and yet, in evolution, it has tested that. It’s a tool. Use it as such if it fulfills a need that you have. The industry will eventually adapt around that, just like it did around the digitalization of photography.

There are an increasing number of options to detect copyright infringement of images, such as PicScout and Tin Eye, to name just a couple. Do you think that there will be a shift away from so much piracy?

I’m in Beijing at the moment, and I just got off the Skype phone with PicScout’s CEO Offir Gutelzon. I was shocked to learn that in the United States, where intellectual property has reportedly the highest degree of enforcement, that 85% of all online imagery being used is pirated. 85%! These are PicScout’s numbers talking here, and if it’s 85% in the US, how much more could it be in other countries throughout the world? I was informed that in China it is estimated that all major stock agency licensing accounts for only 40% of imagery use in the marketplace there. The other 60% is pirated. If that’s the case, then China is doing better than the United States! Take that!

This is such a difficult discussion to be had because many companies project what the infringement percentages are, but no one can ever truly know. The best we can do is educate and make available offerings that allow an easy license to avoid the theft of imagery online. User habits are in line with human nature and the tendency is that if you give someone an inch, they’ll take a mile. That’s a tough act to follow when enforcing legal use of intellectual property licensing online. You can read this two ways. Give people an easy manner to license, and they’ll do so. Give people an easy way to steal imagery unchecked, and well, they’ll do that too.

For many of us these are tough times in the stock photography business, yet there are more people buying stock images than ever. In fact, it is easier than ever to break into the stock photo business, though I think harder than ever to make a good living at it. Can you share your thoughts on the changes that are rampant in our industry and what strategies you are using to deal with those changes?

I’ve touched upon several of these above. One of my favorite podcasts of the past year was from Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program lecture series. Scott Kriens, President and CEO of Juniper Networks said, “there is an inverse relationship to the amount of credit that one takes for success, and how useful the information is that they provide.”

This has been a year in which to do personal introspection and self-assessment as to what lifestyle one wants to have as a photographer. I’m not the only one thinking this, but I might be the only one saying it. Earning a full time living from the profession in the future is clearly under pressure. For the analysts amongst us, we’ve seen it coming for several years. Trade organizations are shifting. Photography publications are shifting. Trade conferences and seminars are shifting.

Ironically, education and validity to the medium of photography remains rooted to the dream that one magazine assignment, or one substantial award will lead to a lifetime career of success. That system started shifting in the early 1990’s. To expect a bounce return to normalcy, pre-recession, would be naïve to suggest. I would not want to be a leader who shares a lack of objectivity, and often, in our media, unfortunately, being objective and pragmatic is viewed as pessimism. The overly zealous, and those with a lack of regard to current needs in our industry, will fundamentally be weeded out.

It is wise to test new technologies, but timing is everything. As returns on shoot days for self-funded stock imagery push themselves into years instead of months, this industry is more and more about entrepreneurship than it is about being an artist. It always has been when you investigate the personalities who are at the top. Follow your heart. I’ve said this several times because this is the best advice that any successful person in any career field ever gave me. If that is in photography, you will always be at the top of your game. Following your heart means recognizing what you are most interested in and what you inherently are good at. I am most proud of photographs that I have made, not because they won awards, but because they touched those around me in a way that I could not have done had I not held a camera in hand. This career is about connection. I love what I do because I can connect people together.

Do you see social media as essential to success as a photographer in the coming years?

It depends on how it is used. Social media is a very potential waste of time. Uh oh, did I say that out loud!? And yet, I love being a participant on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and whatever comes next. It is, no doubt a distraction to my core work, but I can’t help myself because I love being ‘in the know’. That is what makes the abilities of the Internet and mobile communications so successful within the context of social media. It is transforming where we get our trusted sources of news and, in turn, visual content. Humans are social animals and we gravitate to community. We are at a time when the medium, well, perhaps the context, of what constitutes ‘being’ a photographer is changing. The beauty of this is that all photo enthusiasts can share these changes and thought processes via the readily available accesses of social media. Facebook alone has become a massive self-promotion tool for the creative field. I daily get invitations to personal fan pages, networking events, or group integrations. Isn’t it ironic at just how much cutting through the noise of social media mimics the same manner in which stratification of our own licensing industry is undertaking? Irony or not, yes, I believe that social media is a critical component of being a small business in the coming years, but it’s because it’s always has been. We used to just call it ‘networking’.

Are you employing social media, and if so, how?

I’m actively involved with Facebook and Twitter and I just joined QQ and RenRen in China! These mediums are quintessential ways to learn about my colleagues and my friends’ interests and happenings’ globally. From a business perspective, as a photographer always seeking a great idea on which to expand upon, the medium of social networking is a quick means to disseminate and obtain what I like to call ‘whereabouts’. My friends post their needs or interests and I respond. I post mine as well, and a network of sourced information hits my ‘in’ box. It’s the random aspect, filtered, that makes these networks so successful. They naturally filter themselves and provide me with creativity and contacts. Just as any project, the more you put into them, the more you obtain back out.

OK, a bit more about your photography…where do you get your ideas from?

My best ideas come from personal and direct observation. I know that’s a fairly simple straightforward answer, but it’s becoming more and more true as the internet homogenizes us. I never achieved success by direct copies of others’ works, nor their opinions. Be willing to stand out on your own, no matter your work, no matter your ‘take’. This alone is being a success, and today, with all that we’ve talked about above, it is so much more critical than it was just five years ago. Yes, it’s all been done before. Our planet has been Google-d. Therein lies the biggest threat to our creative industry in the years to come. We will suffer from a lack of thought innovation, not technical innovation. There will be a perceived need to not create when there is so much free and available content online at the click of a button. Your ideas as a commercial artist will need to speak to both; what sells, and what sells artistry. The latter will become more rare.

What do you enjoy shooting the most?

Ha! Well, I enjoy a challenge. The more limiting the idea, the more mundane, the more logistically intensive, the more creative it is. Send me your “boring” projects. I’ve had just as much fun shooting a “business handshake” as I have had traveling to shoot throughout Beijing or British Columbia. It’s about the mindset in place when tackling a challenge. I’ll admit, I tend to bore too easily and am on a constant search for a new unchartered adventure.

Can you share a favorite image of yours with us and perhaps a bit about how the picture came to be?

I’ll share a favorite image of Getty Images’ Beijing office. It is one that I was so proud to see hanging as inspiration above the sales staff when I arrived to a meeting there last week. I traveled to Santa Fe, NM in 2003 for a commercial assignment and returned months later to complete personal work. I photographed a young girl in a tiara peering through a star shaped magic wand in her grandmother’s living room. She was glowing with pride and at the same time, all dressed up, acting in a manner of sticky silliness that makes us all feel like a kid inside. It could have been shot anywhere. I did it in New Mexico because I developed a relationship of trust with those that I had been working with there. Remember when I said that the most important aspect of photography for me is connection? I have connected this moment, totally initiated on my own behalf with a family who had never modeled before, to an agency sales team 7000 miles away working in the world’s fastest growing economy. I take pride in this. Send me your impossible projects. There’s no such thing as impossible in my repertoire.

Any words of wisdom or advice that you would like to leave us with?

Again, follow your heart, and most importantly, don’t ever take ‘no’ for an answer. If you do these two things well, you’ll always have a career in visual imagery. You’ll also do yourself a favor, because, you’ll always be great at what you do. No recession or unemployment statistic can belittle that. People love people with energy and those are the only people that I want working on my team. They’re the only people that I can afford. Don’t agonize with bitterness over these adjustments that we’re seeing in our industry. Embrace them with the complacency that as shifting occurs; opportunities open up for movement into other new challenging needs in our economy. One of my key art mentors once told me during a drawing exercise, “You are not a slave to the still life laid out before you.” As photographers, we are illustrators to the elements of life that we rearrange with our lighting and design, retouching, and communication. Seek your best opportunity in this. Others will follow.

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