Saturday, September 25, 2010

Strategies For Stock Photographers and Thinking Green

A light bulb stock photo of a twisty bulb shaped like a human brain illustrates the concept of thinking green and creative energy conservation ideas.
An Iconic Cliche', the light bulb representing ideas, gets a new "twist" creating a visual showing "Thinking Green" and Creative ideas for energy conservation.

Strategies For Stock Photographers
In my recent interview with Alamy Head of Content Alan Capel, when asked if he had any suggestions for strategies for stock shooters he replied “…don’t be afraid of the cliché but give it a twist, make it more contemporary, add something that’s not been there before”. He added, “Try all of this and some will hit the mark but the rest of the time you may well have to follow the tried and tested route. If you can strike the right balance you’ve got a good chance.”

Thinking Green, Creativity in Ecology and Imagination in Conservation
I think he was right on with his advice for us stock photographers. The above photograph of a brain shaped from an energy conservation “twisty” light bulb is just such an effort. The light bulb is an iconic symbol for ideas. Further, the fluorescent replacement bulb, or “twisty bulb” is becoming a standard symbol of ecological efforts and thinking “green”. It was with that in mind, and Alan’s advice still in my head, that I spent some time coming up with an old cliché’ and giving it a new “twist” (pun intended). If I am correct, the photo is a great image for illustrating the idea of “Thinking Green”, as well as for concepts such as creativity in ecology and even imagination in conservation.

Block Buster Images and a Very Long Shot
I now have about two days worth of effort tied up in that image. At that rate I would be lucky to make 150 images a year…and those numbers probably won’t cut it in today’s market for stock photography…unless those hundred and fifty images average out to be real block busters…and that is a long shot…a very long shot.

New Paradigms, the Stock Photo Industry and Time
The proliferation of images has indiscriminately brought down the price of all photography, good and bad, easy and cheap to produce, as well as difficult, expensive and time-consuming to produce. I will place this image into a Rights Managed collection hoping to get some good sales…but also knowing that every month Getty is selling my RM images at prices that make microstock look good. Fortunately, as a long time stock shooter, I have a relatively large body of stock photo work that sustains me as I produce my new imagery. At least for now I still have the luxury of not having to pump out an ungodly number of pictures. I still have time to explore strategies to deal with the new paradigm of the stock photo industry. I wouldn’t want to be starting out right now.

Light Bulb Stock Photos and Recycled Energy
I am focused (those puns just keep on coming) on creating images that make me happy, such as the “eco bulb” above. I think it behooves me to put my energy into images that are less common and that can therefore command at least some premium…though that premium could show up in quantity of sales rather than in price per license, and that can stand out from the crowd (now there is a good stock photo concept). While we won’t know for some time if the energy I put into that light bulb stock photo will pay off monetarily, I know for sure that it is giving me dividends in creative satisfaction and more energy to recycle into my business.

Shoot What You Love…and Love What the Market Wants
Seasoned shooters have always told the young shooters coming up to “Shoot what you love”. Never has that been more appropriate. But the other half of that is “…that the market wants.” That is, if you want to make a living in photography it really helps to love shooting subject matter that is in demand. I am very fortunate to love shooting concept images of all kinds. Actually, let me amend that: I am very fortunate…period!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Travel Photographer Glen Allison Creates Cool Photoshop Actions!

This photo of a Mongol girl on horseback was converted from a color picture to an infrared Black and White with Glen Allison's Photoshop Actions.
I used Glen Allison's Photoshop Actions (Infrared Fury) to convert this young girl on horseback that I photographed in Mongolia from color to black and white infrared. It worked beautifully!.

Looks like the entrepreneur in you has teemed up with your inner artist. You're now offering some pretty cool Photoshop actions at a very attractive price. Can you fill us in on this new undertaking?

Thanks, John, for asking. Though I try to accomplish most of my basic image correction in Lightroom, where adjustments are stored as metadata, still I always seem to spend a lot of time in Photoshop. This is especially true when I'm trying to massage my images with nuanced control in localized areas for different colors or tonal ranges. Since I'm on the road continuously, my Photoshop time is quite precious which led me to develop these first three very intense actions. My premise was to pack each one with just about everything I'd ever need to adjust when using the action with a wide range of image types. Simple actions usually don't work for every image. Localized control is essential, which means there's always a fair amount of work still to do after running these new actions. To make adjustments quick, I've isolated each aspect of the effect into a separate layer and the intensity is controlled by varying the layer opacity.

Since color wavelengths respond differently depending on the light source, and I like to be selective in my control, the first aspect of these actions is to quickly isolate the six main color categories of red, blue, green, yellow, magenta and cyan. But these are relatively narrow spectrums and I soon discovered that though it was easy to do a Color Range selection in Photoshop for each one, the results almost never gave me what I needed when trying to automate the process in an action. The blue Color Range selection, for example, never captured all the sky since there's a fair amount of cyan in skies. And the green Color Range selection never captured all the foliage since trees and grass are never pure green. There's always yellow in the mix. So I spent a huge amount of investigation and testing to create my own color spectrum range for these six main colors. My selections for each one also include aspects of similar colors on either side of the main hue. The result is that now most of my skies, foliage, etc., are instantly selected when the action runs.

I applied these strategies to each of the three actions: INFRARED FURY, PASTEL PASSION and TONAL TEMPTATION. While each of the three deals specifically with the respective effect, the way the actions work in terms of execution is very similar and speedy. The word "speedy" is relative, of course, when you consider that much of the creative work for each image is still yet to be accomplished after the action is run. These actions are more like workflow actions that save time. The Pastel action generates 35 layers in the final image and most of them are set by default to zero opacity, which means you don't see much effect until after you've added your creative input. This suits me fine because I need total control. And when you consider that this action utilizes a staggering 761 steps to accomplish the feat, then you start to realize how "speedy" the action really is and the volume of time it saves just in experimentation alone. Imagine trying to remember every one of these individual steps for every single image you wanted to play with. Whew! BTW, the idea is to trash all the layers not used before saving to keep the file size down.

I decided to virtually give away these new GASP Actions at a buck ninety-nine each just so I could treat myself to a nice Starbuck's coffee every once while for the effort. There are many free actions floating around the Internet but probably nothing like these. Only brave souls who want intense action should check them out. If you want quick, then go to Mr.Nik. Or to Mr. Kubota. Each has crafted some awesome actions that I've used in the past, though their prices reflect powerful marketing strategies and the associated overhead for staff. And in many cases I felt restricted by the lack of nuanced manipulation in localized areas of my image.

Though one could go wild with my little actions, for myself I usually use them for very subtle effects and nuanced massaging. I like to create images that tend to jump off the page but ones that you can't really tell what I did to accomplish the magic light or what is causing the image to have more of a three-dimensional look. Most of the GASP image samples on my web site, however, are those that demonstrate more exaggerated results but that's because I needed to make it more obvious at a glance what each action might accomplish. But in my opinion, the real art will be created with subtle moves.

Do you have plans for more actions along these lines?

Over time, I'll be developing more. I'm possessed by even wilder ideas. But now I'm going back to traveling and shooting. When I started creating these first three, I was in Malaysia for what I originally thought would be a two-month shoot but I quickly got overwhelmed by the magic of these actions and wound up spending six weeks straight at 16 hours a day to wrap up this little project. Yep, it was very intense. Though I went to Malaysia to shoot photos, I only did so for about two hours one afternoon after the first month of my marathon Photoshop action pursuit when my brain finally got fried at the computer.

I know you are on an eleven-year shoot. Are you doing this work on a laptop or do you have a tower stashed away somewhere?

I'm doing every single bit of it in my hotel room on a 17-inch MacbookPro loaded to the hilt with 8 gigs of RAM and a 7200 rpm hard drive as it sits here whirring away and getting a bit hot. At least it keeps my coffee warm. The non-glare display on this unit is amazing. I find there's no need to spend money returning to a base for more power or a bigger monitor except for the larger screen real estate. I quickly got comfortable working on the small screen and trained myself to keep my head dead center to judge brightness, contrast and color so that the light falloff would not affect my final results. After being on the road for exactly one year now, I've had no reject images from numerous stock photo outlets.

How about your travel odyssey? Is that going well?

Yes, I've having extreme fun; I'm like a kid gone wild at a mega toy store in Tokyo. But I'm not moving as fast as I thought I might be. During the past year I've shot photos in India, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia and almost Malaysia. To reach my goal of 200 countries I must shoot 18 per year so I'm already way behind schedule. But, hey, I'm flexible. Joy is more important and I have no boss. There's quite a bit of downtime doing post-production, uploads and a huge amount of time spent writing my travel blog. I decided early on to try and craft posts that were hopefully fun and a bit entertaining.

Are there any new developments in your stock photo undertakings?

Yes, radical changes, at least for me. I've pretty much decided that I will curtail most of my commercially oriented travel stock photo pursuits because in today's marketplace these efforts don't necessarily turn out to be the best investment . . . at least for travel images measured against travel expenses. Truth be it, however, I got bored doing the same old stuff.

So, I'm shifting gears for the thrill. 

I'll still shoot some travel oriented images if a great stock photo jumps out and grabs me. But my focus will now be to shoot very interesting people in remote and exotic locales. I'll be going for the "dignified" environmental portrait of mostly indigenous people. I want to celebrate their lives. I'll be using an array of portable lighting gear for dramatic effect. Now I must travel with an assistant for security, translation and to help manage the gear, which so far includes four Canon Speedlites, a small softbox, a shoot-thru umbrella with misc. reflectors, light modifiers, small stands with boom arm, domes and clamps and a ring flash for smooth lighting on the fly plus five TT5 PocketWizard radio slaves. My focus will be to create a "boutique" body of work that will only be licensed as Rights Managed images, photos not easily accessible or accomplished. I don't want to dilute their value. Yes, there is not much market for this type of imagery but one of my goals is to live an exciting life even if it might mean scraping by on whatever meager funds I might garner if it turns out that way. I'll decide the best marketing strategy as I go along. My mind is occupied by zero worry. 

My ultimate goal is to celebrate human dignity through extraordinary travel experiences.

I'll see where it leads me in terms of creative development. 

First stop: back to India on October 1st for a three-month shoot. 

So please don't dare ask me to write any more actions at the moment. :-)

Are there any other developments we should know about?

Well, now that you ask . . . yes. 

Once I get a few of these new images under my belt, I'll be starting a another blog called "Stroborati" in which I will not only show a final image using my portable lighting but I'll also include shots and explanations about the lighting setups and probably some views of the hordes of curious onlookers I'll be attracting. My lighting setups won't be extremely complicated or elaborate but they won't be inconspicuous either with strobes strapped to trees or a softbox being held by an eager, agile young kid balancing on the back of a water buffalo for extra height in the twilight. I'll also include some interesting details about the unique cultures I'll be visiting.

Most importantly, however, I'll strive to share the inside story about the people who have so graciously posed for a photograph.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alamy's Head of Content, Alan Capel, Interviewed

A composite picture utilizing hundreds of smaller photos to create a snapshot of modern society from chaos and confusion to vacations, work and family.
Alamy has the largest online collection of stock photos with a collection numbering over twenty million images...creating both opportunity and challenges.

Alan Capel, Head of Content for Alamy Stock Photo Agency.
Alan Capel, Head of Content for Alamy.


I know that Alamy offers Rights Managed and Royalty Free imagery and is unique in that it gives photographers the opportunity and, I guess, responsibility, of editing their own work. What else should I know about Alamy?

We still give the majority share (60%) of the sale back to the creator or owner of the work, this has remained a core driver from the very outset. We recognize that customers want variety and depth, but that’s worthless without a fast and cunning search interface so we combine the largest hi-res stock collection on the web with a super fast site all built using our own in-house technical expertise. We’ve grown our collection organically without acquisition and as a result we have no debt. Also, we have a philanthropic approach, with 89% of our profit funding a medical research laboratory that operates at Alamy HQ in England.

How about filling us in on your path to where you are today?

1999, James West our CEO and his Uncle Mike Fischer wanted to build a company that leveraged the rapidly emerging power of the web. Initially Alamy was going to be an ‘Ebay for images’ but we had to swiftly make some concessions to the reality of how stock photography operated. We wanted to banish some long held beliefs (agencies do the editing and keywording, agencies take the majority share of the sale) whilst still offering the customer a familiar proposition. We made our first sale in 2001, broke even in 2004, became profitable in 2005 and have sustained that profitability through the recession.  We set up an Alamy office in India where a large amount of our technical work takes place and we opened our New York sales office in 2009. We now have a Creative Collection and a News offering for photojournalists alongside our core collection.  We have doubled the size of the collection in the last 3 years hitting 20 million images this month.

One aspect of Alamy that I find very interesting is the ranking system. It seems like an increasingly necessary, but tricky proposition, to insure that prospective clients get to see the best work quickly and not be bogged down by the less appropriate, and ever increasing amount of imagery. At the same time it is important to keep the new “gems” from being buried. Can you give us some insight as to how the ranking system works?

Not the technical side, sorry I can’t!  But I can tell you the stuff we share with our photographers which can help them help themselves. You need to think of the ranking system as a series of plus and minus points which added together give you your overall score. You’ll get plus points if your images are clicked on and zoomed and you’ll get plus points if your images sell, if you sell for a lot you’ll get more plus points. You’ll get minus points if your images are on a page of results viewed by a customer but ignored.

What should photographers keep in mind about the ranking system when providing photos to Alamy?

Given how it works simply loading up image after image is not going to work, you need high quality, well edited work. Keywording is also a very important part of the equation. If your keywording is inaccurate and/or irrelevant there is a greater likelihood that your images will be ignored so relevancy is key.  

A note here: One photographer I am aware of has indicated that too many keywords actually hurts his Alamy results…go for accuracy and quality…not quantity.

I often get e-mails from people who come to me after finding my work on an agency site, but wanting a better deal. It is frustrating because I want the agencies to charge an appropriate fee, but I feel panicky at the potential loss of a sale. Check any stock photo forum and you will see lots of complaints about the low fees charged by agencies…and yet with so many images to choose from it is a buyer’s market.  How does Alamy determine prices for it’s various products? 

Doesn’t the fact that they come to you indicate that customers may feel the agency is charging too much? I think a lot of the criticism about low fees is born out of a lack of control. Faced with a similar negotiation with all of the facts laid out in front of them I’d challenge anyone to get a significantly better deal. Surely, as we are an agent only taking 40% of the sale it’s very much in our interests to get a fair price. When you are getting 100% maybe you’ll blink first?

I believe we strike a fair balance. The approach we take has many facets to it, we have a price calculator which we see as being pretty industry standard, however we are involved in many deals which operate outside of the calculator This is either because the size or parameters of the deal don’t easily ‘fit’ or it’s a key client with agreed rates.

Bottom line is we try to understand our customers and the market. By getting close to our clients we’ve been able to confidently gauge our approach to negotiations.

Do you feel that the slide in prices is leveling off?

In some areas yes, in some areas no. Web-wise a level has been set but there seems to have been a degree of shooting oneself in the foot by those who set that benchmark. Similarly with microstock, so we’ve got an uphill task  to establish a fair and sustainable price in what will soon become the dominant market for imagery.

Do you offer discounts to clients? How does that work?

As mentioned above we may have set discounts based upon agreed rates and we’ll also offer discounts to new customers to attract business. Bulk deals where we can prosper due to the breadth of our content may also result in discounts.

Do you plan on entering the subscription market?

Not today, no

Many feel the interests of the photographers are not being met by stock agencies. Jonathan Klein has said, “We are photographer friends, but not photographer cuddly.”  Is Alamy photographer friendly…and how so?

Well we’ve always felt we are photographer friendly but I guess you’d have to ask the photographers. Let’s be frank, we were popular because we exploded onto the scene offering very healthy royalty splits, a non-exclusive, no tie in contract at a time when photographers were being disenfranchised by commission hikes and acquisitions. This  had left good photographers behind and emerging talent with nowhere to go. But we’ve stuck to these principles and built on them. Through our Member Services team we’ve brought an approach where we’ll be on the end of the phone or email to answer your questions and guide you through the process if needs be. That’s either disappeared from stock businesses or was never there in the first place. Where possible we’ll give photographers options to choose whether they participate in various additional revenue streams so hopefully we are not twisting the photographer’s arm up their back.  So yeah, we are photographer friendly.

Do you see Social Media as an important part of your mix?  What is it you are doing in that arena?

We do often get a little ‘miffed’ when we hear claims of company x or y inventing crowd sourcing. If we didn’t quite invent crowd sourcing we were certainly the first in our industry to open our doors with an inclusive offer for all photographers, pro or amateur. These days we are getting heavily into Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. But you’ve got to strike a balance, if you’ve got nothing interesting to say, say nothing, however if you’ve continually got nothing interesting to say, maybe that tells you something about your business.  Our guys will use social media to do a number of things, @alamymarketing we’ll alert customers to content we’ve got, often related to a current news story and on our contributor twitter @alamycontribs there’s all the news and announcements you’ll need plus loads of general photography links and retweets. 

IStockphoto seems to be going through a bit of an upheaval with changing their royalty payments and Getty merging micro and traditional stock collections. Do you foresee any ramifications for either iStockphoto, Getty, or the industry as a whole by selling micro alongside traditional stock?

Other than confusion for customers and difficult conversations for sales staff to handle, no.

Why should a photographer include Alamy in their distribution mix?

We are non exclusive and we’ll give you 60% of the sale. And we sell images, lots of images and we are still growing. We’ve got a strong profitable sustainable business model and if you have a strong benevolent streak 89% of our profit goes to medical research  …err is that enough?

Do you think it is important for stock shooters to develop a “brand”?

Agencies yes, individual shooters probably not. There are very few photographers who can reach the heights where a brand will help to feed their continued success. By then the brand will have developed itself based upon their work and its application.

When it comes time for me to submit my images I am always in a quandary as to whether they would serve me better as RM or RF images. Some are saying that RM is undergoing a resurgence…and yet there are a huge number of buyers who won’t even consider RM.  How do you see RM faring in the future?

The best picture invariably wins, we do see some customers having a preference and budgets play a part but there will always be a place for RM. We’ve sold single RM images for $20K $30K $35K in the last few months and the photographer will be counting their blessings as well as their cash that they didn’t go RF.

Do you see any of the new image tracking software programs such as PicScout, Copyright Registry or Tin Eye helping with enforcement and/or monetization of imagery?

We are waiting until we see a solution that is cost effective, but yes technology will play a part, I’m just not sure it’s ‘clever’ enough yet.

Microstock has taken the industry by storm…and has been declared unsustainable by some, while others are making it work. I have even seen where at least one industry pundit reports there may be more shooters grossing over $100,000.00 a year in micro than in traditional stock. What do you see the future of microstock looking like?

Prices are going up, royalty splits are going south. I think we’ve seen this before. It’s like Royalty Free all over again. Microstock is almost becoming a breeding ground for stock shooters, where the best are then either plucked from the relative obscurity of a sea of fancy usernames and avatars, or they realize that there’s money to be made from their work but most of it is going to someone else. I’m not sure the ‘storm’ is now quite how it once was and maybe it will lead to change.

How important is Internet searching for photography to Alamy…does it generate any significant sales?  Do you see Google and other similar Internet image searches becoming important in the future?

Yes very much so, ‘Google’ is a verb after all.

Is the iPad coming to the rescue?

Not on its own but it will be the first of many very nice pieces of kit that will elevate photography above the written word in the right context.

Is it realistic for photographers to think that they can make a good living on stock alone in the coming years?

Good ones yes.

For those of us attempting to earn our living through stock photography, do you have any suggestions or strategies that might be helpful?

A comedian once said "why are there never any new clichés?".  But often that’s what works, don’t be afraid of the cliché but give it a twist, make it more contemporary, add something that’s not been there before. Try all of this and some will hit the mark but the rest of the time you may well have to follow the tried and tested route. If you can strike the right balance you’ve got a good chance.

Can you share with us an example of what, in your estimation, makes a great stock photo?

You look at it and its shouts a word or phrase out. It may be literal, it may be conceptual but it’s obvious why the shot was taken. How many stock images when used get more than a few seconds to catch the eye, immediacy counts.

Do you have any thoughts about motion…does Alamy plan to enter that fray?

Yes we are working on motion and beginning to take video in, there’s a lot to learn but we are sure we can do an ‘Alamy’ but with video.

Should stock shooters expand into that arena?

They should at least consider it.

Last but not least…what have I forgotten to ask you…and/or are there any words you want to leave us with?

I’ve been in the Industry for 20 years now and I’ve seen a lot of changes, but without these changes imagine how boring it would have been.

I have to agree that boring this industry is not!