Saturday, April 17, 2010

Relevant...and Risky Stock Photos

Careful What You Wish For

I am sure I am not the only old time stock photographer who has harbored a secret desire to have Tony Stone, the man behind the “Stone” brand and the precursor to Getty Images, come back to stock and save us all.  Well, he is back…and has joined with Vivozoom to help propel that micro stock agency to the forefront (read the article at Microstockdiaries).  Careful what you wish for!

Focus on Quality and Make Relevant Photos

When Tony was asked what advice he would give to us traditional stock shooters he replied, “Focus on quality, and before you fund a shoot examine hundreds of stock images in print and online, and then imagine real uses for your own images. Here’s your mantra: “Relevance, relevance, relevance.”  This approach will focus your shooting, reduce your costs and boost your sales.”

What Is Relevant?
So how the heck do you know what is relevant? There are several questions you need to ask to determine relevance. It is also important to remember that determining the relevance of an image is more of an art than a science.  The first question to ask is who is going to use this image? The second question is why would they use this image rather than another one? The more likely your image is to be used than another, the more relevant it is. So you have to factor in the competition. The more competition there is the less relevant the image. The more relevant the image the greater investment is warranted in creating the image.

An Art, Not a Science

Other factors to take into consideration include the projected lifespan of the image, and distribution variables; is the image better suited for commercial stock photography, blogs, imprinted merchandise or fine art prints…and do you have suitable distribution for its intended categories? Of course, as I mentioned earlier, determining the relevance of an image is as much an art as a science. A great example of the difficulties of determining an image’s relevance can be seen in an image I made of a man with a blue face and shaved head with his head on fire. After making the image I sat on it for quite some time. I just couldn’t figure out who would use it for what. Finally I sent the image in to Getty anyway. My art director/editor at the time told me she didn’t want it. What the heck, I decided, I had nothing to lose so I sent it to Corbis. They loved it! The first sale it made was for $17,000.00! It has sold many, many times since. And I almost didn’t send it in at all!

Compelling Images, Art Directors and Creativity

Sometimes, even if you can’t answer the question of who would use the image and why, if the image is compelling enough, art directors and designers can and will use their creativity to come up with uses. I am guessing, but I think that such images would be better suited to Rights Managed where infrequent uses can be offset by higher licensing fees.

Instincts, Risk, and a Lot of Cents....
Sometimes you have to go with your instincts, but if you can answer who will buy your image, and what for, you certainly have a leg up on succeeding in stock photography. If you take the time to see how much competition there is for your photos, so much the better. But don’t forget to stretch yourself, take the occasional risk, and allow room for those crazy images that don’t always make perfect sense…they may end up making a lot of cents!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Plus Side of Competition In Stock Photography

Increased Competition and Becoming Better
The world of stock photography has become, shall we say, competitive? Insanely competitive.  I think everyone of us has done our share of moaning and groaning about that fact. But rather then indulge that downer of a past time; perhaps we should look at the positive side of the new competition in stock photography. It brings me back to something that Ed Kashi said in his presentation at the Blend Images creative meeting. He said “To become a better photographer, I have to become a better person”.  The new competition in our industry is definitely making me a better photographer, and I hope in some ways a better person as well.

Mediocre Won’t Cut It Anymore

I know I have to work harder at every aspect of the business. I am working a lot harder at figuring out what to shoot. I am being a lot more efficient in my use of money. And I am stretching and pushing myself at everything from more accurate bookkeeping to asset management (boy do I have a long way to go there) to lighting shoots. Mediocre won’t cut it anymore, and I love what I do too much to risk losing it in this newly fierce arena.

Long Term Success And Being Good

Ellen Boughn drew my attention to a blog post “The Case for Being Disruptively Good”.  In the post Umair Haque makes a case that long-term success requires being good (as opposed to being evil). This is especially true as the world becomes more connected and transparent. It is also true in our profession of photography. The practice of being good helps us establish real connections with the subjects of our lenses whether they are people or landscapes or still life compositions. It helps us forge real relationships with our vendors, our distributors and our clients. Being good, and being real, amplifies all of our efforts whether those efforts are in marketing, creating social and business networks, or seeking support to help deal with the challenges we face.

A Goal To Aspire To

To succeed in the long term in photography we need to strive to be better. I believe that one’s life and one’s business, particularly in such an intimate practice as photography, cannot be separated. To insure our long-term success we need to be better photographers, better business people, and better human beings. Umair Hauqe describes Apple Computer as “disruptively good”. I don’t know that I could ever be “disruptively good”, but it is a goal that I can aspire to. Brian Tracy, my favorite motivational speaker, reports that, “There is never a traffic jam on the extra mile”. Lately I have been getting to know that extra mile pretty well! Taking that extra mile and aspiring to be disruptively good is something we should all be doing anyway, but it is the competition in this new world of stock that has actually lit the fire under me to make it happen.

Photographers That Inspire You
Think about the photographers that inspire you, that are really making a difference and/or are at the peak of their game. In all likelihood they are sharing information, honest in their dealings and being good human beings. All of the photographers that I have personally gotten to know, who are stand out successes, have impressed me as quality people as well. They have high standards and good values, and live up to those standards and values.

Reality as Motivation

The bar has been raised for succeeding in photography, particularly in stock photography. I have the choice to whine about it (which I sometimes do), or to step up to the plate and use that reality as motivation to become better as a photographer and as a person. Sometimes it is two steps forward and one back. But when I look back at the last five years it is clear that the change in our industry has been both difficult and has also made me better.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Tortoise and the Hare...How to Thrive in Stock Photography

This photo of the Race between the Tortoise and the Hare is a great metaphor for business and for success in whatever endeavor you are undertaking
The Tortoise and the hare, a stock photo that certainly applies to success in stock photography!

The Tortoise Mentality.:How To Thrive In The Stock Photography Business
If you want to thrive in the stock photography business I think it is best to take on a tortoise mentality. You need a thick shell to protect you from all the negative press and commentary that is constantly flying around. But perhaps more important, you need to practice a consistent and deliberate production of content maintained over a long period of time, to create a body of work that will support you.

Billions of Images, Recession, Depression and Common Sense
Sometimes even I get mildly depressed at all the negativity out there surrounding my chosen profession of stock photography. On the one hand, with literally billions of images available, and millions more going up online every year, and thousands of contributors happy to give away their images…well, that is pretty bleak! But sometimes it is necessary to keep faith when the voices all around you are yelling otherwise. I try and review the positives when I feel myself getting too weighed down.There is an enormous amount of money spent on stock photography. There are more buyers of stock than ever. I still make excellent money at stock photography, and still have many sales ranging from the hundreds of dollars to the thousands of dollars every month. We are coming out of the recession and common sense says that sales will pick up. I do good work. I have excellent distribution. I am in a great place and have a good start on improving my position through my web site.

A Sense of Control and Hope For the Future
This brings up an interesting point for me. What does all the work I am doing on my site and with SEO provide me? One big thing is hope for the future. Without hope, without a positive outlook, my production would fall and I would become victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know that the web works for some photographers, and I can see progress, albeit slow, in my own efforts. Knowing that I can go beyond just making images, and actually boost sales through my Internet efforts, gives me a sense of control that really helps me stay productive.

Slow and Steady Production and a Large Body of Work
Another important example illustrated by the old fable of the tortoise and the hare is the slow and steady nature of production needed to succeed in the long-term undertaking that stock photography is. Back in the so called glory days of the early 1990s it took me over five years of constantly adding images to get to the point where I could let go of the assignment work. Now it takes a much larger body of work to sustain you. Too, if you are trying, as I am, to provide images that are well thought out, that illustrate concepts and have staying power, and that require a lot of pre and post efforts ranging from market research to intense Photoshop work, then it takes more time to produce a large body of work.  The good news is that it can still be done. I personally know several photographers, who weren't even photographers a few years ago, who are well on their way to being able to totally support themselves through stock photography.

Encouraging Results and a Lot More Work
Then there is the Internet and SEO work. Originally I thought in a year I would have created a huge amount of traffic. After a year-and-a-half I can see encouraging results, but am now thinking it will be another year…or maybe longer, before I see a truly significant return on my efforts. I am licensing images, selling prints and coffee mugs, sending traffic to my stock agencies, and even pulling in a small amount of advertising revenue through Google Adwords. But to offset the effects of the oversupply of images and the recession is going to require a lot more traffic, and a lot more work to get that traffic. The amount of work required means one has no choice but to take a long-term view.

Uncertain Outcomes and the Certainty of Revenue
Some might question the wisdom of putting a large amount into a project with an uncertain outcome. I would answer that if I am making images for stock that I would be proud to have in my portfolio, then should I decide to go after photography assignments, the time and effort will not have been totally wasted no matter what happens in the world of stock. Too, I know that my images will earn me money. There is some question as to how much, but there is no question about whether they will bring in revenue. As I have mentioned before, I have images created twenty years ago that still bring in income. Back in 1990 when I first started using Photoshop to create stock photography (and to do assignments as well), there were those who said it was too soon. In some ways they were right…it took forever to do things. And yet, as most of those images are still earning money, maybe it wasn’t too soon…and I am certainly glad I had a long-term vision for my stock career!

Be a Tortoise and Not a Hare
So be a tortoise in the sense that you need to protect yourself from negativity in order to stay productive and to do the things that need to be done to get or stay successful. If you have to pull your head into your shell from time to time, so be it. But do keep sticking your neck out as well, putting one foot in front of the other, producing images, getting them into the market, and someday you will find that you have crossed that finish line…and ahead of that hare as well!