Friday, February 12, 2010

Handshakes, Challenges, and Success As A Stock Photographer

As stock photographers, as well as artists, we must take old concepts, like the dreaded business handshake, and bring them to life in new and exciting ways.

Blend Images, A Recession, And Opportunity
The negative news in the photography world is rampant, and it would be foolish not to pay attention…and not to be concerned. But I can’t help but believe that with the tremendous demand for images there isn’t also a lot of opportunity. I will come out and say it: There is a lot of opportunity! Blend Images, of which I am a part of, has just licensed more images than ever...even in a recession year. And they weren’t doing it by discounting. As a matter of fact, one of my associates had one sale in Blend’s just introduced Rights Managed collection for over $9,000.00. Don’t forget, despite the doom and gloom there are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on stock images.

Our Challenge As Stock Photographers
There are opportunities…but how do we take advantage of them? One way is to shoot the old tried-and-true concepts, but to shoot them in a new and different way. Let’s take the example of a handshake. Kind of makes you cringe, right? I mean if anything has been done to death, overused, and driven into the ground it is the business handshake. And yet, what better symbol is there for such important and necessary concepts as sealing the deal, agreement, success and teamwork? Handshakes are a quick read and we all get the point. Handshakes really are a necessary image in the business world. As creative photographers, as artists if you will, and certainly as stock shooters, it is our challenge to take such mundane concepts and take them to a new level.

Photos That Stand Out From The Crowd, And Success
Our continued success certainly depends on our ability to do so. I don’t really know if the crushing glut of images will spell doom for the careers of most stock shooters, but I do believe that there will always be success and good rewards for those who can create photos that stand out from the crowd. One problem, though, is getting paid adequately for creating such photos. It could be that if you create exceptional pictures and put them into micro you might have a volume of sales that justifies the blood, sweat and money that goes into such images. Of course, one danger with that is that you might have every Tom, Dick and Jane copying your better selling images.

No Guarantees, Negotiation and Possibilities
I believe it is a better strategy to put such images into Rights Managed collections. There is no guarantee that whoever is negotiating the fee for the images will do them justice, but there is at least the possibility! Too, if the demand for great images does result in higher fees then Rights Managed can easily step up to that task. Once you release an image into micro, or even RF…well, what’s done is done.

Diversification And Knowledge
That being said, I am putting images in both RM and RF. I am staying diversified in as many ways as I think prudent (micro not being one of them…yet*) in order to both minimize the impact of changes in the market, and to have the first hand information of what is selling and for how much. As they say, knowledge is power…sort of. Whether I put images into RF or RM, I want them, ideally, to be fresh, and filling a definite need in the marketplace. I am positive that if you can create exciting and compelling photography that fills the needs for business, there are ample opportunities for success and for making a very good living. Call me an optimist!

*A word about micro. I don’t mean to bash micro. I don’t begrudge the participants of micro. I just don’t believe that it is the right business model for me. Micro opened up the stock photo door to everyone and, in a sense, leveled the playing field. It has forever changed the landscape. It isn’t good, or bad, it just is. Heck, some photographers are amazingly successful with that model, and maybe someday it will be more attractive to me, but right now I believe I can earn more through the traditional outlets.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cloud Computing: Anatomy of a Stock Photo

"Cloud Computing" is an example of a newly popularized phrase; new phrases and buzzwords can signal opportunities and generate ideas."

Popular Vernacular, Stock Photos And Cloud Computing
One of the biggest challenges for stock photographers is to come up, time after time, with good ideas. Ideas can come from anywhere, but a very good place to get them from is popular vernacular. When a new word or phrase becomes popular it means there is something important going on that is being talked about. That something needs images to describe it for advertising, for promotion, and for editorial coverage. And because it is new, there probably aren't a lot of appropriate images already in place for those purposes. So when I hear a new buzzword (or phrase) I haven't heard before, I listen to it with an ear for opportunity.  Cloud computing is one of those phrases. Sometimes these things just slip by your radar. In this case, I kept getting spam talking about cloud computing. Like advertisements I managed ignore a goodly number of the unwanted emails until, in mid delete, I had one of those aha! moments. If it is worth spamming about, maybe an image is called for!

Cloud Computing, Ones and Zeros, and A Difficult Concept
Cloud Computing refers to the use of computer programs and applications that are based on a remote server and accessed via the Internet. Cloud computing is also a difficult concept to portray in a stock photograph, and a concept with very few images existing that specifically illustrate it.  This is one of those concepts, that at least to me, the illustration for which seems almost too obvious. Data is represented by ones and zeros, so a parade of ones and zeros, composed of clouds, streaming through the sky can perfectly represent cloud computing and even more related themes. Such an image can also represent networking, communications, and information flow.

Cloudscapes and Perspective

The only catch here is that the image is a difficult one to execute, at least for me. I used Photoshop to take cloud images from various photographs and then, using the liquefy filter and the warp tool, and a lot of layers and layer masks, create a series of ones and zeros. After creating a library of "information", I selected an appropriate cloudscape and then copied and pasted in the "data".  It is important when creating the ones and zeros to give them at least a semblance of the correct perspective and fine-tuning was definitely necessary when arranging the images.  I used Transform>perspective and Transform>distort to do the perspective fine-tuning. Blending the clouds in is also somewhat of a tricky task. In some cases setting the layer mode to "lighten only" does the trick; in other cases it is more a case of painstaking work "painting" the clouds in and out with a layer mask.  The entire process took me a little over two days to do.

Rights Managed or Royalty Free
Once the image is complete then a decision has to be made on distribution. The decision needs to be made as to whether to distribute the stock photo as a Rights Managed image or a Royalty Free image.  There are a number of factors that have to be considered to make that decision. If the image is one that will be licensed frequently then RF might be the way to go. If the image is harder to find a use for, then a higher payment per use is necessary (especially for an image that takes several days to create). That would indicate a RM classification for the stock photo. Of course, these days, with the deep discounting that is going on such as Getty's Premium Access program, it is hard to argue that RM is necessarily going to fetch a higher licensing fee. One other factor that needs to be taken into account is the photographer's share of revenue. With RF images the photographer generally gets 20% of the licensing fee, and with RM images, at least in the photographer's home territory, the photographer's share is 40%, double what one gets with RF. As of yet I still have not made a final decision with this "cloud computing" image, maybe I'll flip a coin!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Leaping Dancers and Stock Photo Collaborations

Alien abduction or Spiritual Ascension?

Love, Joy...and Valentine's Day!

Dancers, Photoshop and Collaboration
Recently a friend and fellow stock photographer, Tanya Constantine, asked me if I would like to collaborate on some work together. Tanya had completed a series of photos of dancers and thought that perhaps, with my Photoshop experience, I could create some good stock images by compositing the dancers into new backgrounds. She sent me some jpegs that were indeed pretty cool photos.

Egos, Gang Shoots, And Fond Memories
I do occasionally collaborate with other photographers in various ways. I have participated in quite a few “gang” shoots with two to as many as a dozen other photographers. In a few cases, as in this suggestion by Tanya, I have used the work of other photographers in composite images. I have to admit that this sort of work is not necessarily easy for me to jump into…primarily for ego reasons. I like to be totally responsible for the images I create, from the photography to the digital work. It is always a challenge for me to put my ego aside and work with other photographers to create “joint” images. Gang shoots are easier for me because each photographer still ends up with separate credit for his or her work and there is a shared enthusiasm and energy that comes with the territory. I have some truly fond memories of shared shoots, particularly ones that I have done in places like Bangkok, Mexico, India and Argentina.

Logistics And Decisions
In cases where I am just manipulating and compositing with the photography of others, I don’t get the fun of the shared shoots, and I don’t get to claim the results as my own.  Too, with collaboration there is always the need to work out the logistics of collection and distributing the royalties, and dealing with the difficulties of making various choices (such as who will distribute the images and in what model) involving more than one person. Here, with Tanya’s beautiful images of dancers, it would be foolish for me to let those potential problems get in the way of producing some beautiful and financially rewarding work.

Raw Files, Motion Blur, And White Backgrounds
I chose a few of the dancer photos and had Tanya send me the raw files via my ftp site (when technology works don’t you just love it!).  The difficulty with these images is that the dancers were photographed in motion against a white background. Their clothing and hair had motion blur making it impossible to strip the images entirely out. The only way to succeed, at least as far as I know (important disclaimer!), is to incorporate the dancers into a background that was at least very close to white…but what the heck could such a background be? When shooting images it can be advantageous to think ahead about possible compositing options, and where possible, shoot at least some images with backgrounds that make the post shoot work much less arduous!

A Metaphor For Freedom…and Love
I started with the dancer in a red shift. She could be stripped out, except for her hair, with a simple clipping path converted to a selection. My first thought was that putting her in a sky could create a metaphor for freedom, vitality and energy. As I pondered the problems with her hair it popped into my mind that if I had her head against a cloud that had a similar white tone to the background she was photographed on, I could simply fade her hair into the cloud with a layer mask and it would work perfectly. As I looked through my cloud files I came across this image of a heart-shaped cloud and I knew I had the right combination.

A Royalty Free Image and Valentine’s Day
I used the pen tool to create a clipping path, leaving a wide swath around her hair, but a tight path around her limbs and dress. A one-pixel feather was used in converting the path to a selection. I copied and pasted her into the sky image and used “Free Transform” to position and size her. As I mentioned above, I created a layer mask and with a soft brush, and "painted" with black to fade her hair into the cloud image. This final image represents not only energy, vitality, and freedom, but also love, joy and…Valentine’s Day! This image will sell a lot, and for a lot of uses. It seems perfect as a Royalty Free image and is headed for the Blend Images RF collection.

Spirituality and Alien Abductions
In the next image, a woman dancer in a green dress, was in a pose that suggested to me that she was being lifted by some invisible force…as if, perhaps, by some “tractor beam” from a flying saucer. This stock photo could be used for concepts ranging from alien abduction and science fiction to spirituality and philosophical uses. I could even see it as an image indicating being “carried away”, something that could actually be used to advertise or promote a number of different products or services. Of course, I always reserve the right to be wrong!

Art Directors, Designers and Rights Managed Collections
I found an image I had shot of New York and used “Hue and Saturation” in an adjustment layer, to create a shaft of light for the beam. I again used the pen tool to create a clipping path around the model, but leaving a wide area around her hair. After copying and pasting the dancer into the beam area I re-adjusted the lightness of the “beam”, with that adjustment layer, until her hair almost blended into the background. Then with a layer mask and a soft brush I finished “fading” the hair into the background. This is a stock image that will probably be a lot harder for Art Directors and Designers to utilize… and has a high production value look…so I submitted it to Getty who is placing it into their “Stone” collection…a high-end Rights Managed collection.

Giving Up Ego And Reaping Rewards
By collaborating, Tanya and I have each had to give up a little bit of our investment in ego, but we will both (hopefully) reap greater rewards from the resulting stock photos than we otherwise would have. I am not really a fan of the phrase “Win-win”, but this is as good a case of that as any!