Saturday, March 6, 2010

Jim Pickerell Interviewed: The End of Stock Photography As A Career....

A tidal wave of change for businesses or individuals, with possibly dire circumstances, is illustrated with this picture of a wave about to hit a businessman
A tidal wave of change is overtaking the photography world, both assignment and stock photography.
Jim Pickerell has done it all in Photography, from war correspondent, to stock agency owner to industry analyst and publisher of the highly regarded stock industry newsletter Selling Stock. Jim gives us a thorough rundown on his view of the future of stock and suggestions on how to adapt to the changing industry.

Jim, can you share with us your journey into and through photography, into stock, and finally, establishing yourself as the premier industry analyst and commentator?

In high school I worked in a camera store, sold cameras and photo supplies, and processed customer film using the “dip and dunk” method. I attended Ohio University for two years where I majored in photography. At that point I felt I needed more time to practice what I had learned before I finished my degree. I also knew that I had a selective service military obligation after college, so I joined the Navy as a photographer. After Navy photo school was assigned to the Navy photo lab in Yokuska, Japan. Later, I became a Tokyo based staff photographer for Pacific Stars & Stripes, a military newspaper circulated to all military instillations in the Asia/Pacific region, and traveled all over the area on assignments.

After four years in the Navy, I went to UCLA and three years later received a degree in Political Science. During this period I did lab work for UPI and one summer I served as a National Geographic Magazine intern. The day my UCLA class graduated I was on a plane to Tokyo to begin a career as a freelance editorial photographer.

After a summer in Tokyo where I worked hard, but generated almost no income, I got a one-month temporary assignment from UPI to go to Vietnam and cover for them until they could send a staffer out from New York. When my month was up I decided to stay in Vietnam because living was cheap and it seemed to offer more photographic opportunities than anywhere else in Asia at the time, but even that wasn’t much. This was 1963. There were about 15,000 U.S. advisors in country, no U.S. combat units and for the most part it was pretty quiet. I was the only non-Vietnamese freelance photographer based in Saigon at the time. The other two Western photographers were Horst Fass of AP and the New York photographer who replaced me at UPI. A few other Westerners came in an out from time to time, but no one stayed long.

Three weeks later the Vietnamese military overthrew their president, Ngo Dinh Diem. I was the only photographer in Saigon shooting color that day. Earlier that year Life Magazine had decided that they wanted to try to use a color shot from the major news story in the world each week. I came way from that event with my first pictures in any national magazine and a Life cover.

I covered the war in Vietnam for three-and-a-half years with occasional forays into other parts of Asia. During that period I wrote and illustrated a book called Vietnam In The Mud, which sold out its first printing. In 1968 I returned to New York, still with the vision of a career as an editorial photographer. After 8 or 9 months my wife and I moved to Washington, DC.

In Saigon I was in demand as a war photographer, but New York and Washington had plenty of experienced photographers covering business and politics. I was a nobody I began looking for more commercial work. Short of funds, and with a new daughter, in 1969 I took a staff position with Aviation Week & Space Technology. This was the worst year of my photography career. I liked photographing airplanes and manufacturing, but the magazine didn’t have a travel budget for a photographer and I spent a lot of time sitting around. After a year I went back to freelancing with more of a focus on government and commercial assignment work.

All this time I had been submitting outtakes from assignment shoots to several stock agencies. In fact, the Life cover (November 15, 1963 - was a stock photo as I was shooting on speculation for Black Star that day. Stock sales became a small, but growing part of my overall income. The 1976 copyright act changed things for stock photographers who now owned their production rather than it being owned by the client who assigned the work. More photographers began to produce stock and customer interest began to grow. I began to spend more time in between commercial and some annual report assignments shooting stock. Stock sales became a steadily growing share of my total photography income.

In the early 1980’s I helped establish the mid-Atlantic chapter of ASMP, served two years as Vice President, two as program chairman, two as President and a member of the National Board. One of the issues that arose while I was a national board member was whether ASMP would publish a new edition of their Stock Photography Handbook and pricing guide. The board decided not to do it, but I felt such a book was needed and decided to publish one independently.

The first edition of Negotiating Stock Photo Prices, which featured charts with recommended prices for all types of rights-managed stock photo uses, was published in 1989. I continued to update the book through the 1990’s and the fifth edition was published in 2001.

In 1990 I began publishing Selling Stock, a subscription based newsletter printed six times a year that dealt with all aspects of the stock photography industry. In 1995 we began delivering the articles online as well as in the printed version and steadily increased the frequency to the point that Julia Dudnik Stern and myself average three stories a day five days a week. At the end of 2006 we gave up the printed edition entirely and went exclusively to online delivery.

In 1993 my daughter and I started a Stock Connection, a general interest rights managed stock agency that gave photographers a 75% share of sales. This was the highest royalty share available at that time. Later we found it necessary to reduce the royalty to 65%, but are still operating on that basis. Today we also represent some royalty-free, but the concentration is still in rights-managed sales. We represent a collection of more than 200,000 images from over 400 photographers.

We are on the verge of launching a new online information service – PhotoLicensingOptions – that will expand beyond stock photography and deal with the business side of photography and every possible way that photographers can earn money from the pictures they produce.

One of the hallmarks of my career is that it has been one of continuous re-invention.

Let’s get down to it; can people still make a living at stock?

NO -- with a few exceptions. (1) It may be possible if the photographer lives in Eastern Europe, various parts of Asia or other places where the cost of living is low. (2) If the photographer has very low expectations in terms of living standard. (3) If the photographer already has a large collection of imagery in distribution channels he can probably “make a living” for a while provided he cuts his costs and transitions into some other type of photography that guarantees a fixed fee for work produced. Gross stock revenue will decline. (4) And finally, many photographers will be able to supplement another income source with what they can earn from stock licensing, but they will not be able to support themselves on the income from stock licensing alone.

For photographers living and working in the U.S., I think it will be almost impossible to realize a profit from images produced now and going forward. The demand, even for microstock is leveling out or declining, and there is way too much over supply of every subject matter. The supply of good quality imagery will continue to grow at a much faster rate than it has. Prices will continue to fall. As a result no one will ever be able to earn as much as they earned in the past from stock photographs.

 Stock can be a supplement to other sources of income, but not a living.

There is a lot of speculation about “tablets” like the Kindle and the iPad possibly leading the way for more image use and therefore a possible boon to stock photo licensing. Do you have any thoughts on that?

The iPad, in particular, has the potential to become a widely used tool in the field of education. Currently, I believe worldwide licensing of stock photography for educational purposes totals something in the range of $350 million a year, but that figure is more likely to decline than grow as a result of the introduction of the iPad.

A lot of images will be used on iPads, but that doesn’t mean professional photographers will be earning more from licensing rights to still images. For the past five years, at least, book publishers have added something like the following to their requests for rights to use a picture in a printed book.

The requests have included, “the right to publish the picture in an unlimited numbers of electronic uses on the Internet, or in any other electronic product now in existence or yet to be invented, for 10 years from the date of invoice.”

Most image sellers have been agreeing to these terms for little or no additional money. Consequently, the rights for most of those iPad educational uses in the next decade have already been given away. Getty Images has been a leader in this giveaway. Find a rights-managed image on their site and you may reproduce it inside a printed book in any size from postage stamp to double page spread and print an unlimited number of copies, for 7 years for $267. If you also want electronic rights for the same book and time period it is available for an additional $120. If you only want to use the image in an electronic book the price is $92 for 10 years. And because publishers tend to be large users of images Getty offers them much more favorable bulk deals.

The theory that there could be a “boom in stock photo licensing” assumes that publishers will continue to print all the books they are currently printing, plus the electronic versions for the iPad and Kindle.. However, I expect the use of printed books to decline rapidly as school systems switch from printed books to electronic. It is likely that professional photographers will lose many more sales than they gain.

For an analogy think of how the demand for right-managed and traditional royalty-free images has declined as microstock and the demand for it has grown. There are a lot more image users now, but the overall revenue from licensing rights to stock images has declined in the last few years. So in one sense there may be a “boom” in that more imagery will be used, but the implication of the question is “will there be a growth in revenue generated” and to that question the answer seems likely to be NO. In addition, the revenue that is generated will be spread among a much larger group of photographers with much more of it going to part timers and amateurs.

Interactive Electronic Whiteboards

The buzz word in delivering educational information today is “Interactive Electronic Whiteboards”. These systems normally include a computer with an Internet hookup, a video projector and a large white board on which the image on the computer screen is projected. The computer can be operated by touching the image on the whiteboard with either one’s finger or sometimes an infrared stylist. The user can write on the board with a colored stylist or fingertip and the information can be easily stored. In some applications students, each with their own personal computer, sit in a classroom, view the professor and the whiteboard at the front of the class, but also have all the information that appears on the whiteboard on their computers in front of them and can interact with each other and make and store their separate notes.

A basic system can be had for about $3,000, and of course that price will drop soon. It is easy to see how the iPad will become the student’s, or the teacher’s, portable computer within this system.

Such systems are not just being used in universities but also installed in K-12 classrooms across the country. In October 2009 the Detroit public school system inked a $40 million, multi-year contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to install its “Learning Village” electronic system throughout Detroit schools. When HMH gets around to licensing rights for use of images in the Learning Village program, and on iPads, I am sure they will argue that the image is not worth anywhere near as much as it was worth in a printed book and therefore want to pay a lot less than $92 for such usages.

These electronic systems will enable school systems and teachers to exercise a lot more control over their lesson plans. School systems will be less dependent on publishers than they have been in the past and will customize their curriculum and lesson plans to a greater extent. They will use the Internet as a resource. When they want photos they will go to Google, Flickr and microstock sites first. People who want to sell to the education market will have to find a way to sell quality work to individual teachers and school systems at very low prices and hope that volume will make up the difference.

The iPad and Interactive Educational Whiteboards are video friendly mediums. I believe there will be a lot more demand for short videos and a lot less demand for still imagery.
Think about science classes. Can magnetism be explained better with a still picture or a short video? What about dissecting a frog? I looked up “dissecting a frog” on YouTube and found 459 videos. Most were not very good and could have benefited from professional lighting, professional camerawork and good sound and narration, but where do you think teachers will go to find visuals that will inspire their students?


The iPad will be a boom to the education industry, not professional photographers. Elementary students will no longer have to carry heavy book bags, just a simple iPad. They will learn using the tools of their future careers, not outdated 20th Century ways of learning. Tests and additional resources will be available to students wherever they are. Teachers will be able to test and grade online. School systems will save huge amounts of money compared to what they previously spent on books. No longer will university students have to pay $1,000 for the books they need for a semester’s study. They will upload all the educational materials they need onto their iPad for a fraction of that cost.

The need for tons of paper to print test books will be reduced. Trees will be saved. Trucks to carry books to market will no longer be needed. There will be less need for book distribution outlets, or at the very least the need will be for a very different type of distribution outlet. There will be less need for complete packages called books. Experts on various issues currently found within books will discuss their research and findings in shorter articles and teachers will compile a series of such articles into course curriculums.

The world is changing, but not necessarily for the better for those photographers who want to continue to operate based on 20th Century rules.

Comparison shopping tools, such as Spiderpic, are starting to spring up. Do you think those tools will have any real impact on the industry?

Spiderpic will have a major impact on the microstock and subscription segments of the market because it is so easy to compare prices when the price is based on file size. It will be much harder to effectively compare prices on the rights-managed side of the business because there are so many other variables.

Microstock sellers will be pressured to go exclusive and not put their images on multiple sites so some companies can maintain higher prices. When the distributor licenses images as either single images, or part of a subscription the company competes against itself. We also know that those who market the same images through multiple sites always make more money than those represented exclusively by one company. 

Dan Heller and Jim Erickson are at opposite ends of the photography spectrum, and yet each appears to be making direct sales work. What can we learn from their success? Does their success bode well for the rest of us?

I don’t know enough about Dan Heller’s business or what he earns from direct sales to speak intelligently about his business model. I have done an extensive story on Jim Erickson and believe there are a few keys to his success. First he is a very good photographer and there will always be a few who are the exception to the rule.

One of the important elements of his success in stock is his strong assignment business. His assignment customers are regular users of his stock. Working closely with art directors on assignments also helps him understand what is needed in stock and I’m sure aids him in developing concept ideas. He also generates enough revenue that he can justify building a very effective site and publishing regular catalogs of just his work. In addition, he had the advantage of building his career when the business was much more viable – on both the stock and assignment sides - than it is today.

Given how the business has changed I do not believe that someone with the same degree of talent and drive could ever achieve what Erickson has achieved as a still photographer.
Timing is important and the heyday of stock photography has passed.
Getty has just added social network licenses to their pricing for RM images. Included are commercial and non-commercial categories. Do you think that the problems of image theft, and the attitude that theft is OK, can be overcome enabling the use of photos on personal blogs and social networks to be monetized?

Unfortunately, I don’t think in today’s society the problem of image theft can be overcome. There is a general attitude in our society that individuals are “entitled” to all kinds of things for which they shouldn’t have to pay. Information on the Internet is just one of those things.

That said, the fact that so many microstock images are being purchased for small uses on the Internet is evidence that a significant number of people are willing to pay something for images. This may not be because buyers recognize that images have any value, but rather because images have been organized in a manner that makes it easy for buyers to quickly find something that works for their projects and thus saves them time. It should be recognized that buyers might not feel any responsibility to pay creators for their efforts; they’re just paying for convenience. The same thing can be said of iTunes.

On the other hand, the creator is getting something rather than nothing for his efforts. The big question is whether that something will be enough to justify continued production on the part of the creator. In the long run, I doubt it will.

Which pundits do you think we should be paying attention to (beside Selling Stock)?

It is natural for people to want a short list of experts to follow. It’s helpful if those experts agree with what the reader wants to hear. But with the technological changes taking place in the photography industry, I’m not sure that any of the pundits (me included) have many of the answers. One of the things that makes prognostication difficult in the photography industry is that there is almost no good, solid public data upon which to base decisions or opinions. Very few individuals or companies make data related to their business operations public.

That said, I think photographers should be listening to everyone who speaks at the annual PhotoEast conference. They should be listening to the leaders of the trade associations and everyone who has written a book about the photography business. To make matters more difficult there are many different aspects to the business of photography, stock photography being only one of them. Part of what each individual must do is figure out whether it is advisable to focus on just one aspect of the business or to work in several different areas. The answer may differ for each individual.

One of the things I’m trying to do with my new site is bring together, in one place, information from experienced experts who work in all the various ways that it is possible to earn money (and hopefully in many cases earn a living) from taking pictures. I want to offer a variety of differing opinions in each subject area from individuals who have enough experience, or have done enough research to justify their point of view.

I want to make useful information easy to find. At that point it will be up to the reader to determine which part of that information will help him or her increase earning from the images produced. Some of this information will also be available in other places on the Internet. But, it is often hard to find. I’ve found that when doing an Internet search it is often necessary to wade through a huge amount of dross in order to find a few useful gems. Photolicensingoptions will deal with a narrow focused issue – the business of photography – and find the gems for readers to consider.

Can you give us a quick rundown of which agencies you think are currently doing the best job for photographers?

Best is a relative term. The stock photo industry is in such a state of crisis that it is hard to say what the best course for any photographer might be. Photographers need to recognize that while agencies are “empowered to act on behalf of the photographer” they are not necessarily acting in the photographer’s best interest. Most agencies are seeing a decline in sales. The goal of most agencies is to maximize profits and that is not necessarily in the best interest of photographers. Most agencies are cutting costs and trying to honestly and fairly service the photographers who have been with them for many years. It is not a good time to jump into the business either as a photographer or agency/distributor.

I favor agencies that try to give photographers a larger share of the revenue collected. I favor agencies that make an attempt to price based on usage rather than file size, but I must acknowledge that the concept of pricing based on usage is waning and pricing by file size is growing more and more popular.

The agencies that focus on selling at low prices, direct to consumers, (microstock) are experiencing the most growth, but the prices are so low that the vast majority of photographers will not benefit.

Consumers do not want to search through hundreds or thousands of sites, each using different search methods, in order to find an image they can use. Consequently, they tend to go to sites where they can find a wide range of imagery of a broad cross section of the photographic community. Thus, photographers need a central place where consumers can go to find their work. But, for the most part these sites make little effort to set prices at levels that are favorable to photographers and they take an unreasonable share or the fees they do collect.

Many agencies make very few direct sales, but instead serve as consolidators of images that are then shipped to a wide range of distributors in order to reach a larger customer base. This may be a necessary service, but a further cut is involved, often leaving the image creator with a very small percentage of the unreasonably low fee that was paid in the first place.

Photographers should make every effort to put the exact same images with as many agencies as possible on a non-exclusive basis. Different agency editors will select different images for often, unfathomable reasons – and that’s OK. In some cases several agencies will select the same image and that’s also OK. Each agency will have some customers that the others will not reach and you want your images to have a chance to be seen by everyone. Some photographers will do well with one agency and other with a different agency. It is usually difficult to predict which agency will be most successful at selling a given photographer’s images. Be suspicious of any agency that wants to be the exclusive representative of your images and make sure they are offering you a significantly better deal than if you place your images with several agencies non-exclusively.
If you were shooting stock (hey, maybe you are…), would you be shooting for RM, RF or Micro…or some combination?

I think rights-managed (RM) is on the way out. It would be nice if customers were willing to pay to use an image based on the value they receive from using it, or to some degree the cost of production. But, that day seems to be passing. No matter what the subject matter there are too many good alternative choices available at much lower prices. Why should customers pay more? Part of the theory behind RM is that customers need exclusive rights to certain images. Some do, but there are way too many similar images competing for those occasional exclusive sales.

Exclusive sales make sense if the photographer is producing something that fulfills a specific need for the customer, and a fee has been negotiated upfront before the work is done (an assignment). But they make no sense when the photographer is shooting on speculation and trying to produce what some unknown customer will want sometime in the future and when the photographer has no idea how many other photographers are simultaneously producing something similar.

Thus, RM images must also be licensed for non-exclusive use and because the price is negotiable agencies often license RM images for prices far below non-exclusive royalty free images. The other problem with RM is that because the photographer and agency must make sure they can track all image use so they can license exclusives when requested, it becomes much more difficult to broadly market the image through multiple distributors.

Royalty-free (RF) has a market advantage over RM because it is non-exclusive. Thus, it is much easier to offer it for licensing through multiple-distributors. However, it is much harder for the average photographer to effectively participate in the RF market. Selling RF through one distributor only (many photographers do this on Alamy) is not a very satisfactory solution because the photographer fails to reach out to all the customers who deal with other distributors. Most RF production companies want to work with a few very experienced photographers who are prepared to produce high-volume. Consequently, most photographers find it very difficult to effectively participate in the traditional RM market.

The other problem with traditional royalty-free is that microstock will eventually cannibalize it because microstock offers the same unlimited use and is cheaper.

I have a problem with both royalty-free and microstock because they price based on file size rather than how the image is to be used. File size has very little to do with the value the customer receives when using an image.

The use of microstock will continue to grow while the use of images priced using the rights-managed and traditional royalty-free models will decline. However, microstock prices are so low, and the share of the fees paid the photographer so small, that it is hard to see how a photographer can earn a reasonable amount of money for his efforts. In addition, the volume of images being added to the collections is growing at such a rapid pace that most photographers will never earn enough to justify the effort they put into producing the images and preparing them for market.

Microstock is trying to find ways to raise its prices without losing its base. It has defined different bodies of work as being of higher quality and priced these images at a higher level. The problem with this strategy is that the higher priced images will never be used by the customers with limited budgets. Thus, those who only license their images at the “higher prices” lose potential sales. The system works for distributors because they don’t care which images sell as long as every customer goes away with something, but on average it doesn’t work to the advantage of photographers.

Microstock has defined a few types of uses as requiring “extended licenses” which in some cases may be negotiated. More use types should fall into the extended license category. Even as it is now the microstock pricing system has grown into something much more complex than the pricing system for traditional royalty-free and it promises to get more complex.

I believe we need a pricing system that makes every image available at all price points rather that arbitrarily assigning each image to a particular category of use based primarily on price. Above a certain base level, I don’t believe it is possible to define certain image groups as being of “higher quality” quality is in the eye of the beholder. Often very basic images are used in ways that justify a high price and the supposed “high quality” images are just what people with small budgets need. We should forget about licensing rights to stock images for exclusive use. When someone needs exclusive rights let them hire a photographer to produce an image on an assignment.

I favor a system that licenses images based on how they will initially be used, but also offers unlimited future use. Customers demand this kind of flexibility because they are unwilling to accurately predict or track future uses. Such a system is not perfect, but it is better than the alternatives we have today. It would be open to some misuse, but no more than the today’s misuses. It is not fair and reasonable to charge businesses the same to use an image as someone whose use is for a personal blog or a school project.

I want to believe that most customers will be honest in disclosing, to the best of their knowledge, how they intend to use the images they license. However, I also recognize that this may no longer be the way most people operate in today’s society. PicScout provides a service to search the Internet for images represented by certain agencies. They find that 85% of the uses they identify are unauthorized or used beyond the original license. It has also come to the attention of many in the industry that for more than a decade major book publishers have been printing many more copies of books than they licensed rights to print. Given these examples maybe there is no way for photographers to get reasonable compensation for their efforts. Maybe the whole idea of licensing stock images as a business is no longer practical for a photographer.

When I first got into stock photography in the 1960s the idea was that stock images were outtakes from assignments, or occasionally something you shot when you had nothing better to do than sit around drinking a beer. There was no great expectation of earning money from such images, but if you did it was a windfall and not something on which you should base a business. Most stock photographers need to return to this way of thinking. If you have the images and you don’t mind the extra administrative work necessary to make the images available for marketing than put them into the market and see what happens. (The administrative work wasn’t as big a problem in the 1960s as it is today because all you had to do was ship the raw film to your agency and you received 50% of any sale made.) But don’t expect any return and look at what you get as a windfall. If your goal is to earn a living taking pictures then focus on projects that provide a guaranteed return when the images are delivered.

I have been predicting that eventually RM, RF and Micro would all be sold on the same sites…and yet Corbis and Veer have just gone in exactly the opposite direction. Veer is no longer selling RM as Corbis attempts to more clearly differentiate its brands. Is this the way the industry is headed?

I think Corbis and Veer are struggling to find a model that works, but I don’t think this new strategy will be successful. I agree that all sites should eventually have images available at all price points.

For such a system to work I believe all the images will have to be priced either on the basis of file size, or of use. As we look to the future I don’t believe a mixture of both will work for very long. I favor a use-based system, but there must be a wide range of defined uses -- some very small uses where the fee is only $1.00 and moving steadily up the scale until we come to certain advertising uses that command thousands of dollars. There must be a system that allows the best images to be used for personal as well as commercial purposes.

There needs to be a system that stops trying to define what is best and price it differently. Every customer’s idea of best differs from that of every other customers depending on particular need at a particular time. Editing often rejects more images that would sell in the right market than it keeps. Let the customer see it all, decide what is best and be charged a price that has some relation to the value he will receive depending on how the customer intends to use the image.

Where are the “Rays of hope” for stock photographers?

I think we should remove the word “stock” from this question. It should be “Where are the ‘Rays of hope’ for photographers?”  Photographers have developed skills at seeing and in taking pictures. Shooting stock is not the only way to earn money in photography.

Photographers must recognize that dramatic changes are taking place in the business and it is time to adapt. At one point all professional photographs were produced on glass plates and tintypes. Next they had to be shot on 8x10 of 4x5 sheet film. After that came the 35mm single lens reflex and color. Then we entered the generation of digital with sharper images and more control. Also note that the effective lifespan of each of these methods of producing images became shorter and shorter.

The next stage of communicating with images may be moving more toward video and away from stills. My advice to photographers coming out of school is to throw away the still camera and focus on video. 

But the ray of hope is that many of the photographic and business skills already learned can be re-applied in new ways in the visual communication business. It is time for everyone to be considering reinvention. A few may find it unnecessary, but no one should be confident that they will be doing the same kind of work three to five years from now that they are doing today.

Many of your customers will be trying to make old strategies work. Do what they ask, but look for new customers who are on the cutting edge of new ideas. The ray of hope is that those customers are out there.

You have a new project… Can you tell us about that project?

I have been writing about the stock photograph business in _Selling Stock for 20 years and involved in stock photography for over 45 years. I am absolutely convinced that it is time for everyone in the stock photography business to start thinking about re-invention and transitioning to some other line of business. There are many other ways photographers can use their skills to earn money.

We hope to publish articles in that will explore all the various ways photographers can earn money from the images they produce. We will examine new developments and trends in each aspect of the business. In this way we hope to help photographers identify and transition into more lucrative and satisfying aspects of the photography business. We plan to provide our readers with a continuing steady stream of quality information from experts in the various photographic disciplines. Initially there is a focus on what is happening in stock, but that will change quickly so check back frequently or sign up for our regular weekly email that summarizes the new stories available.

Readers pay a small fee to read stories of interest. There is no charge unless the reader actually intends to read a particular story. The goal is to bring all the best information on the business of photography together in one place. has operated on a subscription basis with readers paying $195 a year for a daily service. PhotoLicensingOptions is designed to provide the same quality of information, but at a price of $1.00 or $2.00 when the reader finds something of particular interest. In this way anyone can easily determine, without making a huge initial investment, if any of the information offered is worth the price.

As an agency owner and industry analyst, what are you doing to prepare for the future?

We are looking for ways to maximize the return for our photographers as long as possible. We are also trying to be frank and open with them and help them understand that they need to be thinking about re-invention and transitioning to some other line of work. None of the photographers we represent are totally dependent on us for their livelihood.

We also anticipate that there will come a point where it may be necessary to close the physical agency operation, but given the way we have structured the business that can be accomplished and still keep revenue flowing to our photographers as long as anyone is interested in using their images.  

What is the one piece of advice you can offer us veterans who can’t be dissuaded from pursuing stock photograph?

Expect your annual revenue to continue to decline. If you are under 55 the stock photography business will be dead as a way of earning a living long before you are ready to quite working. Plan ahead. Recognize that I am not saying the photography business will be dead, just the stock part of it.

Do you have any advice for newcomers to the field of stock photography?

If you are taking pictures just to have fun, enjoy yourself. If the money you earn from taking pictures is an important part of your support, then look for customers who will give you an assignment to shoot pictures for which they have a specific need and for which they will pay you immediately after you have completed the job. Make sure the pay is sufficient to justify doing the work. If you can’t be happy shooting that kind of pictures then look for another way to earn a living.

Instead of just thinking about how to take a pretty picture of a happy couple that fits some ethnic stereotype learn more about how that picture is to be used. What is the picture supposed to communicate and how do consumers react to such communications? Expand your knowledge beyond just photographic techniques and learn about other ways of communicating information. I recognize that this is easy to say, but hard to do because everyone has a limited amount of time, but those who can do it will be the ones who succeed.

Many of your clients will be trying to make old strategies work. Do what they ask, but look for new clients who are on the cutting edge of new ideas.

And finally, are there any last thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

My career in photography has gone through many stages of reinvention. For me photography has always been about a way to earn a living that was exciting, interesting, challenging and ever changing. I have never been concerned about creating art. I’ve always been more interested in finding clients who would pay me a decent wage and delivering to them the best I knew how to do and more than they expected. None of my images will be remembered as great, or fine art, but I’ve mostly enjoyed the work and I’ve had a lot of satisfied customers. Often when it came time to make a career change I would agonize over it and think things would never be a good as they had been. Almost without exception the work ended up being more enjoyable and satisfying than what I had been doing previously. Aim for enjoying what you do and giving your customers the best you can do. The rest will take care of itself. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Funny Animal Pictures and Lessons Learned

Funny Animal Pictures: A Cat and a Canary Feather

My Animal Antics series of funny animal pictures began with my image of a cat with one yellow canary feather protruding from his smiling face (click here to see a sampling of the Animal Antics series of images). I originally created the image as a stock photo, but before I submitted it I was invited to exhibit at the Sausalito Art Festival (way back when it was unusual to be using Photoshop). Someone had advised me to bring some un-matted 8x10 prints in addition to the larger matted and framed fine art prints. The first day of the festival I sold all 8 of the Cat & Canary prints. I went home that night and printed up a dozen more…and the next day I sold all of them.

Greeting Cards and Anthropomorphic Pets
I realized at that point that I had an image that really clicked with the public. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that perhaps the image should be a greeting card. I made an appointment with one of the art directors, Collette Kulak, at Portal Publications. I showed her a few of my anthropomorphic animal images, including, or course, the cat and the canary. I then suggested that perhaps, with Portal’s help, I could be the animal equivalent of Anne Geddes, who was enormously popular with her images of babies in flowers, pea pods and so forth. Kind of a bold statement in retrospect!

Exclusivity and Higher Royalty Rates
Collette, to my everlasting amazement, agreed with me! We started off with four images and added a few more each quarter. After about two years I was beginning to wonder if all the work I was putting into those images was worth it. Then suddenly one quarter I got a royalty check of about $6,000.00. After that things just took off. The cards became so popular that Portal offered me a higher royalty to be exclusive with them, and soon I was Portal’s best selling card artist. I held that position until Portal was purchased by a venture capital company and slowly carved up until nothing was left.

Funny Cats, Camaraderie, and Gratifying Work
I am now in the process of reviving the line with new distributors. The cards are doing well and I am excited to see a comeback taking shape. I thoroughly enjoy working with the pets and the process of creating funny cat photos and humorous dog images. I also enjoy the camaraderie of working with a team, something that rarely happens in my stock photography. One other aspect of this undertaking that is gratifying: I receive a ton of e-mail from people who just plain get a kick out of the cards.

Coffee Mugs, T-shirts and…Barbecue Aprons!
In addition, I am making these images available at CafePress for a variety of imprinted products including coffee mugs, mouse pads, T-shirts (for both people and pets), water bottles, and yes, barbecue aprons! If you check out the site you can see all the various items. This is all part of my process of diversification, of seeking out ways to reach as wide an audience as possible for existing images, images that I think of as income-producing assets.

Gift Books, Christmas Ornaments, and Lessons Learned
To date the Animal Antics pictures have been used (exclusive of CafePress) for figurines, picture frames, Christmas Ornaments, Gift books (printed in seven languages), checks, Purses and Tote Bags, Vet reminder cards, calendars, and, well, I can’t even remember all the products! The gift books had a good run (Andrews McMeel published three of them), the greeting cards still sell like gangbusters, and everything else kind of fizzled after varying degrees of modest success. In all of these efforts I have learned a few things.

Get An Advance
I have learned that you should always get an advance (so when, if for whatever reason you don’t get paid, at least you have something). An advance isn’t just money in your pocket, it is an indication of the faith, and effort, that a publisher/distributor has in the product. Not only that, but at least you have something if the client ends up running into their own financial problems…a lesson I learned all to well when I provided the images for a Calendar without requiring and advance. The calendars were printed and sold, the company changed hands, sold off its calendar division and disappeared. I pursued the matter briefly but realized it was going to probably require more legal fees and time than was worth the effort.

Take The Royalty
If you believe in your images and the product, and are offered a choice of royalties or a flat fee, take the royalties. If that original cat and canary image had been licensed through a stock agency as a greeting card I would have received several hundred dollars. With royalties I have earned over $6,000.00.

Be Stingy With Your Rights
I have learned that you should make sure that whoever is distributing the products has a good record for that kind of product. A company that is great at distributing greeting cards may be terrible at selling calendars. Do your research before giving up rights.

Explore Your Options
In the environment we photographers currently find ourselves in it is important to take the same kind of advice any good investment counselor would make: diversify. There are many ways to diversify and some of them might just end up being your main gig! Explore your options. Start looking around you at all the ways photography is used. In what ways are images like the ones you make being used? Diversify, make good business decisions, and your images can work for you for in a lot of ways and for a long, long time.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Information overload...I Think My Head is About to Explode!

Picture of a man with his head exploding from too much information; from information overload
Information overload...I think my head is going to explode!

Facebook, Linked-In, and Google Analytics
I haven’t figured out Facebook yet. I twitter, sort of, I blog, a lot, and spend countless hours entering metadata, reading blogs, trying to understand what the heck is going on in this crazy business, uploading images, consulting with my webmaster on our ongoing SEO efforts, and occasionally taking a look at linked-in. I just learned how to view alt text with my Firefox browser, and to check my Google page ranking. I do keyword research; check my smarterstats reports and Google analytics.

Final Cut Pro, File Maker Pro, and Fetch

I have learned some Final Cut Pro, am struggling with File Maker Pro, need to download numerous firmware updates, can’t ever finish downloading any software updates and can’t get my licensing straight with Fetch. One of my computers is slower than molasses and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The battery on my UPS needs replacing and beeps at me every fifteen minutes, and costs about the same as replacing the whole unit. Not cheap.  Somehow I only have one card reader, which is always plugged into the wrong machine with a card in it that I don’t remember if I have downloaded.

Monitor Calibration, Microsoft Office, and Bridge

I have two one terabyte RAIDs online, both filled to the brim…and about five one terabyte drives with stuff haphazardly copied onto them…and not much room left to do anything with. I haven’t calibrated any of my six monitors in, well, years! I have three laptops and one works…though the battery last approximately twelve minutes. I can only use Microsoft office on one machine at a time, and, naturally, it never seems to be working on the machine I need it on. On one machine bridge refuses to see all the images on one of the RAIDs, but works fine on everything else. I have no idea what “permissions” are.

Inaccurate Restrictions, Captions and a Human Answering the Phone
I realized the other day that Getty has inaccurate restrictions on at least some of my images, but do I really have time to check on all six thousand? I noticed yesterday that one of my captions at Blend Images refers to a man as a woman. Is that important? Well, at least if I call Blend a human will answer the phone!

Video, Metadata, and Modelreleases

I have two videos waiting to be sent to Getty, but can’t face doing the metadata. My first Canon 5D video is sitting on a couple of cards waiting for me to figure out the Final Cut Pro thing again. The stills from that shoot are on a couple of more cards…I know they are around here somewhere! For that matter, I bet the model release are too…I never through any of that stuff away! That reminds me, my printer is out of ink….

Battery Life, The Genius Bar, and Google Buzz

Should I worry about my battery life when I only pick up my camera once a month? Should I keep them on the charger…or is that for the ProFoto 7b batteries? Why can’t I get my e-mail on my iPhone…I used to be able to! For that matter, how come the guy at the Genius bar couldn’t figure out what the problem was?  Some photographers are creating apps for their promo efforts.  What! Am I supposed to create phone apps now? And what is this I hear about Google Buzz?

I think my head is going to explode!

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Revolution In The Professional Photography World

The photo world is in a revolution, and no one knows where we are going to end up. How do we keep on the road to success?

Shannon Fagan, Ellen Boughn and Yuri Arcurs
In a guest post by Shannon Fagan on Ellen Boughn’s blog , Yuri Arcurs (hey, to start off a sentence with those three names in the first fifteen words---pretty impressive), comments that his rpi has dropped from over $9.00 per image per month two years ago, to half that now, and is possibly on it’s way to $3.00 per image per month, below which he will not longer be able to produce and still earn a profit. That is, to me, a pretty stunning comment…and not a very uplifting one either.  Here is a photographer who is generally acknowledged as the premier microstock shooter in the world, and in my opinion is one of the world’s premier stock shooters of any business model, and he is anticipating his profit dipping to a point where it isn’t worth his time to produce! Yikes!

A Blog Post Worth Reading
BTW, this is a blog post worth reading. Lots of interesting stuff. David Sanger offers some extra-curricular reading that is also fascinating. I am terrible at reporting on what others say…but check out Ellen’s blog its makes for a fascinating and informative read.

We Are In A Revolution
I will say that after reading the material David suggested, it really hit home to me that we are in a revolution where the old ways are dying and the replacement ways aren’t known yet. I suspect that this revolution will continue past my age of productivity, or even my lifetime. What we “professional” photographers are faced with is a career-threatening change that is accelerating rapidly and for which there are no certain answers. On the bright side there is an accelerating need for images. On the downside, image theft is rampant, image supply is infinite, and old distribution models are crumbling.

The Low End and The High End
Popular theory has it that you can thrive both by supplying the low-end of the market, and/or by supplying the high-end. Here we have the premier low-end supplier, Yuri, indicating that he has to make 11,000 images a year to maintain his income, and that soon it might not be worth his time continuing to produce. Oops…there goes half of popular theory. At least if you are supplying the high-end you don’t have to produce 11,000 images a year!  Heck, after twenty years of producing stock imagery I have personally produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 images. I can’t compete with Yuri (but then it sounds like Yuri might not be able to compete with Yuri…). 

Where to Turn For Hope
Where do I turn to for hope? Well, a couple of areas. I have doubled the number of images I have with Getty in the last two years…and my income is only down 30%. So, if I keep producing at my newer high levels, and the market quits dropping…at least I am still earning enough to live decently. So that’s at least not the end of the world with those afore mentioned caveats. My Blend Images sales are also came down, but not quite as much, and they actually seem to be going up again…so that is hopeful. I am not giving up on agencies yet. I am still making very good money with them.  It may just be that today’s agencies will become the filters that will be required in the coming years in order to deal with and find the images a buyer needs with a reasonable amount of time and effort. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

Images That Stand Out
For me the biggest hope is that I can produce images that stand out enough that there will still be people and companies that are willing to pay a reasonable amount for them…whether they find them through an agency or with internet searches, or through some yet-to-be-determined vehicle. Of course, the challenge of getting buyers to find your images is an immense one, one that I believe (though I may be wrong), can be done through SEO, patience, perseverance, and perspiration (earlier blog post). If you agree you better start implementing that right now, because I suspect it will take years of dedicated work.

The Key: Quality Photos
The key to almost everything for photographers is creating quality photos. Algorithms that reward those with the best-selling work are popping up at agencies everywhere. Quality content is a key to building traffic and attracting buyers for direct sales. And in an Internet world where comparing prices has become so easy, well, you are going to have to have the best looking work in any given price range to make the sale. Quality photography and diversity are our best options for surviving, and even thriving, in this revolution.