Friday, March 12, 2010

Carrying the Load: Anatomy of a Stock Photo

A businessman carries his co-workers on his back illustrating management issues, administration problems and fairness in the workplace.
One businessman carries more than his fare share of the load in this humorous concept stock photo dealing with management problems, administrative issues and fairness in the work place.

Overworked, Exploding Heads, and Too Much Responsibility
Not too long ago I blogged about feeling overworked. I illustrated the blog with a stock photo of a man’s head exploding. I was mulling that image over in my mind, thinking about whether it would behoove me to create another version. My thoughts morphed from the concept of having too much information, to having too much to do, to carrying to large a load to carrying more than one’s share of the work. Certainly a lot of us, I would guess all of us at some point or another, feel like we have to carry too much of that load. Too much weight, too much responsibility, too much everything! And if all of us feel that way, there must be companies that have products and services that help us deal with those situations. Those companies need to advertise their services and products. So how can we create images that will work for them?

Visually Interesting with a Clear and Compelling Message
I came up with the idea of a businessman with his fellow workers all piled onto his back. It is an image that I haven’t seen before, is visually interesting, and when accompanied by a headline can have a clear and compelling message. It is also tricky enough, and time-consuming enough, that there aren’t going to be a whole lot of people creating the same image. All in all, it sounds like a good stock photo to invest in. Below I will share how i did it with the "before" photos and explanations.

Images with Environments Bring In More Revenue
OK, how to make it? I could shoot it on white…but I have found it to be the case that images with an environment seem to bring in more revenue than those on white. It seems logical that a business environment would be a good one. I don’t really want to go out and find an office just for this one shot. The solution, for me, is to create the environment. The following is how I created this concept stock photo of carrying too much of the load.

Concept Stock Photos
The way I work these days is to come up with a series of concept stock images and shoot the models all in one session, then spend the next week or two doing the composite work. I have a small but serviceable studio (1,100 square fee) in Sausalito, Ca. I have a shooting area, an office, and an extra room for whatever. It was in my studio that I shot a few models in enough poses to create roughly a dozen composite images. You can see that I don’t get real picky about backgrounds…sometimes I end up cursing myself for my cavalier attitude! For this image, as you can see, I had my model stand on the floor (he is standing on a discarded piece of white seamless that I was simply too lazy to move) and pretend to hold the models on his back. They were actually seated on apple crates; except for the one woman who actually was sitting on him piggyback style. I then photographed another model seated on a table. This model is George, a neighbor of mine, who filled-in at the last minute when one of my scheduled models simply failed to show (I hate that!).
In-progress photos of a stock photo illustrating management issues and fairness in the workplace.

I photographed the models as if they were on the primary models back; in reality they were sitting on apple boxes with the exception of the lone woman model who actually was on the man's back.

When one model didn't show, I recruited my neighbor, George, to fill in.

A Cubicle Set and a Quick Test
In that “whatever” room in my studio I have a cubicle set up which I sometimes use for a kind of business set. The corner office area was still “dressed” from a previous shoot, and in fact, even my strobes were still in place. This is actually a pretty small room. I pressed myself against one wall and with a 16mm lens fired off a few frames. My idea was to do a quick test to see if the cubicle set would work for this image. I didn’t bother moving the storage boxes on the left, which are actually full of transparencies that I don’t know what to do with. On the right are some extra cubicle parts piled in the corner.
Office cubicle set in my studio
I have this "set" of a cubicle in a spare room at my studio. This was supposed to be a "test" shot so I didn't bother cleaning it up!
Tango dancers illustrate the concept of teamwork and negotiation in a business office setting
I pulled this shot of tango dancers in an office, shot in Buenos Aires, to use for my "background" behind the office cubicle.

Photoshop, Clipping Paths, and Tango Dancers
I used the pen tool in Photoshop to create a clipping path around the cubicle walls and foreground, and, after converting the path to a selection with a 1-pixel feather; I did the old “Command-J” to create a new layer. This way I could pick a background and paste it behind the cubicle to provide some sort of larger office environment. After trying a few things out I came across this shot of tango dancers in an office setting. I had shot this a couple of years back in Buenos Aires. I pasted it behind the cubicle, and then made two separate files out of it, one for the right hand wall and one for the left hand wall. I next used the Transform>Distort function to give the walls similar angles to those of the cubicle walls.

The Extract Filter and Unwanted Hair
Next I used the pen tool to create a clipping path around the models. I left extra room around their hair. Again I converted the path to a selection and created a new layer out of the selection. I used the extract filter to eliminate the unwanted areas around the hair. I pasted the group of models into the image of the set, and then pasted George in. I used the liquefy filter to adjust his legs a bit so that he fit in as if he had been also seated on my standing model. I used a combination of adjustment layers (Brightness/Contrast), and airbrush layers (painting black with the airbrush) to light and darken appropriate areas and to add shadows.

Debris on the Rug and Cloning
There was a fair amount of cloning and so forth to clean up the right hand corner of the room, eliminate various imperfections, shoe logos, and debris on the rug. I never did re-shoot the room, just got caught up fixing up the shot I had…oh well! I also had to get rid of some color fringing which I had neglected to do in RAW. I used an airbrush set to “Color” with the opacity set to 50% to accomplish that task.

Storage Boxes and an Air of Authenticity
Once complete I have an image that can be cropped vertically for a magazine cover, horizontally for a spread or billboard, or anything in between. There is plenty of room for headlines and body copy. I left the storage boxes in, figuring they lend an air of authenticity to the situation…and can also indicate moving or such; or the end user can easily crop out the boxes.

A Half day, No a Whole Day!
Total imaging time came in at around a half-day, though I keep interrupting the process to check on my web traffic, peruse my e-mail, answer the phone and run to a nearby café for a cup of coffee. The end result is that it takes me a day to do an image like this. Excluding my time, this way of working usually ends up costing me an average of around $100 to $150 per image model fees, props, assistants, shoot food, etc.. In an interesting aside, my most expensive shoots have also tended to return me the most money.

Management Problems and Fairness in the Workplace
This image is great for dealing with management issues, administration problems, fairness in the workplace, overworked employees and workplace perceptions. The image addresses ethnic diversity, gender diversity and age diversity. A creative art director or designer can use an image like this in ways we could never even imagine. I believe that creating useful, versatile stock photos with impact is a way of providing excellent service to the clients that we, as stock photographers, seldom ever get to meet.

Royalty Free and Return On Investment
I submitted the completed image to Blend Images and it was accepted into the Royalty Free collection. I thought briefly about arguing for Rights Managed, but then decided that perhaps my art director was right, and that it might even do better in RF than RM. At any rate, as more of my concept images go into RF I should get a more concrete idea of which model actually gives me the best return on my investment. We will see….

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Positive Indicators In Stock Photography

An African American woman executive stands, briefcase in hand, on a long straight road watching a sunrise of possibilities
We create our own realities; see the future as bright and then find out how to make it so.

A Less Than Optimistic Interview and Positive Indicators
After Jim Pickerell’s less than optimistic interview I think it might be a good idea to point out what I experience as the more positive indicators out there in this crazy world of stock photography. I agree with many of the “thought leaders” in the image business that our industry is in the midst of profound change, and that making a living at stock photography is not getting any easier. Or is it? In some ways it is easier! But I digress. For the moment, a run-down of what is positive in our industry.

It Is Easier Than Ever To Be a Stock Photographer
First, the use of images is exploding. Second, making great images is becoming easier and easier. Third, distribution options have gone through the roof, including self-distribution. Fourth, information about stock photos, about the stock industry, heck about everything, is available as never before.  I don’t think anyone can deny that it is easier to be a stock photographer than ever…oh yeah, we are talking about making a living at stock.

More Images Are Being Used Than Ever Before

Lets look at that first part, that more images are being used in more ways than ever before (of course, according to most reports 80% of the photos being used on line are purloined images). The very fact that so many images are needed means there is opportunity. I can verify from my own experience with Blend Images, Getty and Corbis that there are some large amounts still being paid for RM photos, and that there are plenty of sales of high-end RF sales as well. I was checking my sales at Blend this morning and was gratified to see dozens of sales over $200.00 (Blend’s share from other distributors), over a dozen for over $300.00, and even one for over $400.00. Of course, then there is something like a hundred Getty sales for $1.82. Oh Well…. But seriously, estimates have placed the stock industry at close to two billion dollars a year. That is a lot of money, and there are still a ton of clients who are willing to pay significant sums to license the images they want and need. If you have never read Dan Heller’s blog you might want to check it out. He makes a case for the industry being far larger in size. Also, I ran across this little tidbit, which seems to confirm the idea that there are still clients willing to pay a reasonable fee: “It was incredibly positive to hear from agencies that are seeing not just their turnover but also their per image sales price holding strong”. This quote is from Pepper Stark who has a stock photography industry consultancy. For the full article click here.

Don't Forget Video

And don’t forget video! While I am only hesitantly dipping my toe in the video scene, and my sources report that the bottom has dropped out of the video market, at least temporarily, video is being used everywhere from on top of the gas pump when I fill my car, to behind the teller at my bank, to popping up everywhere on the internet. In with just under 50 clips on line with Getty, up until a couple of months ago, I was averaging about  $750.00 per month in royalties!

Making Great Images Is Easier Than Ever
The second part is also hard to argue with: Making images, making good images, is easier than ever. Digital cameras give you better quality than film, instant feedback, and no film costs! Those of us who remember having to deal with filtration for film, waiting till long after a shoot to see if we were getting anything, and spending insane amounts of money on film and processing…well, I don’t think anybody can say, with a straight face, that making great images hasn’t gotten a lot easier. And I haven’t even brought Photoshop up!  Digital capture is one of the developments that has helped dismantled the artificial barriers that used to keep stock photography in the hands of the few.

Dismantling The Old Boys Club
The other development that has dismantled the old boys club is microstock. Now, literally, anybody can get their images distributed. Even Getty solicits contributors through flicker now.  Or you can distribute or own images using systems such as Photoshelter to deal with online storage and shopping carts. You can spread the word with Twitter and Facebook, or sell your images on products through CafePress, Zazzle and others. I offer fine art prints through Imagekind…and it sure makes the process easy!

Understanding the Stock Photo Industry

Information about the business of stock photography is available from blogs everywhere. You can watch a video and see exactly how Yuri makes his images, find out the intricacies of RPI from Tom Grill, or bone up on the fine points of using social media in your photography business from Jack Hollingsworth. You can log onto microstock sites and find out which images sell the best. You can utilize services like LookStat to analyze your sales, and/or to efficiently upload your images to multiple distributors. aggregate useful information for everyone. You can use Google Analytics, or programs like Wordtracker to research keywords and improve your SEO.  Forums to share information on the workings and news of the stock industry are coming out of the woodwork ( I just joined Stock Artists Alliance...and don't forget the afore mentioned Jim Pickerells' PhotoLicensingOptions). Sites like Microstockdiaries and StockPhotoTalk aggregate news and information for you. If you want to understand the industry, learn more about photography, or see how successful stock shooters work…the information is right at hand.

Be Very Very Good At What You Do
There is no question that being a stock shooter has never been easier! As for making a living off of stock photography, I believe that option still exists (I am not the only one still doing well in stock), and will always continue to exist. The trick is to provide photos that help companies get their messages across better than the next photographer’s images…better to the degree that you, or your distributor, can collect an a fee worthy of the time, effort and money that goes into those images.  In short, you have to be very, very good at what you do.  You have to create great images within reasonable budgets. You have to be smart about what images you create, and you have to be smart in distributing those images.

Facing Challenges, Competition and Possibilities
Yes, being a stock photographer has never been easier; and yes, making a living at it certainly has its challenges. But what business isn’t facing such challenges? The corner grocer has Costco down the street to deal with.  The neighborhood coffee shop has Starbucks across the way.  We stock photographers just have one hell of a lot of competition, but the possibilities are greater than ever. If we can maintain a positive attitude we are far more likely to find and utilize those possibilities!  As a matter of fact, I think I better wrap this up and go create an image!

This blog has moved

This blog is now located at
You will be automatically redirected in 30 seconds, or you may click here.

For feed subscribers, please update your feed subscriptions to