Monday, February 28, 2011

Former Getty Staff Photographer Siri Berting Interviewed

Siri Berting, freelance photographer and former Getty Editor, Art Director and staff photographer.

Siri, I first came to know you as my editor at Getty Images.  I went through a number of editors at Getty, so I don’t really remember the circumstances of losing you…but here you are all these years later with almost 5,000 images on Getty, a slew of awards including the Communication Arts Photography Annual, and what looks like a pretty enviable career as a freelance photographer.

Can you catch us up on how you ended up as an editor at Getty…and in turn how you transitioned into photography?

I am a firm believer that you need to ask for what you want. I wanted to be an art director. I wanted to work with the photographers and be involved in the image generation process. Since I was already employed there as a Digital Coordinator (better term for data entry) I asked often to work closer with the creative’s and one day I was finally given the chance to try my hand at being a photo editor. 6 months later I was promoted to Art Director and from there my path opened up in front of me.

 A few years later I saw things changing in our department and saw an opportunity to make a move for a Staff Photographer position. My goal, since high school actually, has always been to be a photographer so while I loved being an Art Director I knew I had to jump on the opportunity. So again, I asked and made my interests known to my boss. Then the opportunity to be involved in a multi photographer shoot, as one of the photographers, was offered to me. So I put my heart and soul into it, worked my butt off and proved myself. That night driving home from the shoot I saw a shooting star fly right past my car window, in downtown LA no less, and I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. The universe confirmed it.

I am dying to know what life was like as a staff photographer at Getty. Can you share some of your experience with us?

Life as a staff photographer is great. You have resources, ideas, support staff, gear, a budget and people who ultimately want to see you succeed. It was a dream job. We were always shooting different things and always learning and expanding creatively and technically. No two shoots were ever the same. Plus, since I had been working with most of the people for many years, we had an easiness in our communication. I was always hustling to get the shot and move on. If I was sitting still for too long I wasn’t shooting enough. If something wasn’t working, or a model wasn’t conveying the right emotion, I had to find a way to make it work. For example, one day I was shooting at the beach. I was my own art director on set so I called all the shots. It was REALLY windy that day and my nice calm workout-on-the-beach shots were just a mess of hair and teary eyes. So we changed gears used the motor home as a windbreaker and figured out some other concepts to shoot that would work with the wind. I think a lot of photographers would have given up in the gale, but I had to come home with pictures so I found a way to make it work. That is what it means to be a staff stock photographer. You always find a way to make saleable images even if you go off script a bit. There was pressure to fulfill the price-per-picture, but there was freedom to creatively make the shots happen.

 In regards to the process, we would have a general concept we would focus on for 3 months or so i.e. technology in the workplace. We would brainstorm shoot ideas around this concept and then those ideas would get assigned to an art director to manage. Since I had been an art director and knew the drill sometimes I would be assigned to take a shoot from a germ of an idea, flesh it out, produce it and shoot it. I owned the project from start to finish. Other times though I would be shooting another art directors idea, helping their idea come to a visual form.  Then once the projects were divvied up they would get on the calendar and the team would get to work to make them happen.

What was the biggest challenge for you as a Getty staff photographer?

I would say because of changes in photography at the time, the biggest challenge was making the transition from film to digital. I fought it for a long time but ultimately I feel quite fortunate to have gone through the transition, with all the resources Getty had to offer, available to me. I wasn’t alone in the transition; the whole team was making the switch from shooting to workflow.

As a creative person though, I would say my biggest challenge as a staff photographer was finding a sense of self and personal style in my work. Because I had to shoot everything and anything, I never felt like I really had an opportunity to perfect my brand of images. It wasn’t until some time away from Getty, and some help of consultants and my rep, that I was actually able to find myself in all 4500 images I had shot for Getty and see how I was going to market myself as a freelance photographer.

What was the best part of shooting for Getty?

The best part about shooting for Getty was, not having to market myself to get work and not having to negotiate budgets with a client. I won all the jobs automatically. With 20/20 hindsight I see what a luxury that was. Nevertheless, if you asked me this question while I was working at Getty I would have said the best part was that I could shoot basically whatever I wanted within reason. If I had an idea I could bring it to life and find a way to make it work within a budget. Plus I really honed my skills at conveying a concept or moment that speaks to people in one image.

I can’t help but think that with your art direction background, with years of what I would imagine would be pretty intense shooting, specifically for stock, and with all the research available from Getty, you must know as much about shooting stock as anyone.  What tips can you pass on to us about what makes a great stock photo…and or a great stock photographer?

The thing that makes the best stock photos in my mind is a connection between the subject and viewer, easy read, and clear concept. People aren’t just smiling in front of the camera but they are living in front of the camera and the photographer is just documenting that. It is not as easy as it sounds though. A stock photographer needs to be able to look at the scene they are shooting and ask themselves “What is the point? What is the Moment to capture in this set up?”

I track all of my stock sales…and when I review the sales history I always come to the same conclusion…everything sells…and I can seldom predict which images well be those stellar ones.  Do you track your sales…and if so, does your sales history help you in producing new stock imagery?

I do track my sales, only my sales that I have submitted while not at Getty though. In this market I don’t think looking at my stock sales is the best way to gauge what I should do next. Right now only the safe imagery seems to be selling. The areas in stock I want to focus on moving forward are areas where I don’t have any imagery in that subject. For example I shoot a lot of lifestyle for my portfolio and some of that makes it into stock, but I need to focus on shooting more business concepts in order to fill out my stock offering. It is very similar to investing ones finances. It is not a good investment to have all your eggs in one basket.

Do you research the needs of agencies…scout out where the “holes” in their collections are?  If so, how do you go about that?

I will do that on a shoot-by-shoot basis if I have something come up that I am going to shoot for stock. I look at collections asking myself “How can I make this different from what they already have?”.

Where does your inspiration come from? Magazines, Catalogs, Movies, Large group photography shows?

Usually an idea starts from something I saw in a magazine or in a movie. They are usually lighting ideas I want to try or concepts and moods that I want to explore. Then the idea will sit and germinate a bit in my mind until another image will spark it back up. I like when different parts of an idea are generated by different inspirations. My final idea might congeal after another spark of inspiration. So my ideas come from all over. If I need to come up with an idea or want to plan a new shoot for my portfolio, I can actually very easily look through a pile of tear sheets or magazines and then spend some time delving into those pictures in my mind. From there I go on a little mental visual journey, pulling from my inspiration bank and let the images I want to create come to me.

Are there any photographers that you particularly are inspired by?

Some stock shooters I know plan their shoots out a year ahead of time, while others like to be spontaneous to a fault. How do you work?

I have a list of stock shoots I would like to do, mostly smaller things with clear concepts that I can pull together pretty simply or known perennial needs that I haven’t done yet. When I get some free time I look at my list and see what I might want to do and who is available to me to shoot.

Do you have any target number about how much per image you need to limit yourself to for productions costs?

At this point a lot of my financial resources are going into marketing my freelance career so most of my stock stuff is shot on the cheap or for trade.  I can do a lot with very little and that comes from my experience working at Getty, pre-visualizing shots, getting to the core of the moment and finding great faces and personalities.

As an art director, what kinds of common mistakes did you see photographers make when shooting stock?

Not moving around enough. Stuck on a tripod. Putting everything in the center of the frame. Just by moving ones POV a little bit can really change the meaning of an image or create a nice composition with space for copy etc.

One of the most successful stock photographers (Sam Diephuis) I know also edits the most tightly…and in the gang shoots I have participated in with him, he gets the most accepts. He theorizes that making it easier for the art director or editor influences things in his favor. Is there any truth to that theory?

Absolutely. An editor’s job and natural instinct is to edit out, so if you take the guesswork out for the editor and provide different points of view on the same subject you will have better chances of increasing your selects. It is much more refreshing for the eyes of an editor to see a couple of very different shots back to back rather than editing from a string of sisters just looking for the best expression. This comes back to my comment about the biggest mistake for a photographer is to not move around.

Any other advice for those of us (that still have editors or art directors) who would like to make our editor’s lives a little easier?

 I don’t think it is about making their lives easier. I think it is about getting as many images into the collection as possible. Editing tighter is good so there is not a lot of repetition to be edited out. Gifts at Christmas were always appreciated too.

How are you finding assignment work different than shooting for Getty?

 I find on assignment the pace is a lot slower. The shoots don’t have the same hectic pace of a stock shoot. Some times I think to myself “Really, that’s it? But we could do so much more.” If a client only needs 6 shots in a day I wonder what they want me to do with the other half of the day? Nevertheless, I think clients appreciate that I can move fast, find the shot, nail it and move on. When it comes to library jobs that is a good skill to tout.

What other agencies do you work with?

Corbis, Moodboard, Blend

What is your strategy for allotting images to various agencies?

One strategy is thinking about which images haven’t had fresh work of mine uploaded in a while. Then I might do a shoot to that agency or collection to refresh my offering. Another strategy I use is to research what other agencies are offering in my selected subject matter that I would like to submit and then see where the imagery might be best suited for maximum sales. In the instances when I am shooting a subject that I know will sell, but might not knock the socks off of an editor, I will put it into Photographer’s Choice on Getty Images.

Do you sell any of your stock photos directly?

No I don’t sell my stock directly. I will make lightboxes from the different agencies I am with and send them to clients if they have specific requests. I see this trend in a lot of editorial clients trying to fill their picture needs. They might not be commissioning shoots but will just put a call out for images in the subject matters they need. So that is when the light boxes come in handy.

Do you think personal branding is or will be important for stock photographers?

No I don’t think personal branding of a specific photographer really matters in stock. It wasn’t during the heydays of stock so I don’t think it will be now when things are becoming even more homogenized.

Do you believe that social media is important for stock photographers to engage in?

I don’t feel social media is important for stock photographers to market their stock images that are with agencies. If they handle their own stock requests like Erickson Stock then it could be beneficial to their business.  To promote a freelance commercial business though I think social media is very important. It is just another way to tap into clients and keep in contact with them.

As far as the future goes, can you offer your thoughts on Rights Managed, Royalty Free…and heck, even micro stock?

You would think I would have some insight into this since I have been working in stock for so many years, but honestly I don’t know. The market has changed a lot since I worked for Getty due to the economy and onslaught of digital. Nevertheless, I think it comes down to the client and where they feel comfortable shopping. It is akin to the whole business model that Gap Inc. has with their brands Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy. They each have the same types of clothes items, ie jeans, suits, sweaters, lounge wear but with different production value and geared towards a different client/ demographic on a whole, with occasional crossover. I think a good stock shooter, who is in it to maximize the business of it, will have imagery in all platforms: RM, RF and Micro. Then their images will come up for all kind of searches by all kinds of clients, giving them greater potential to make sales from those different markets. I can’t say that I have personally organized my stock business like this, if stock was my sole focus for photography I would spend a lot more time on putting more eggs in more baskets.

How do you decide on whether to put an image or a shoot into RM or RF?

I mainly focus on RM because I feel like RF and micro are merging closer and closer and getting too saturated. I like having the opportunity for an image to make larger sales as can happen in RM but will never happen in RF or Micro. With that said though I will create shoots for both RF and RM depending on subject matter mostly. A lot of my still life imagery goes into RF but I really focus my people/ lifestyle imagery to RM. I feel in my imagery I can capture a moment, connection and sense of place well. That is what I personally bring to the images as the photographer. Because of the added level of connection and content in the images they are better suited to an RM collection.

Do you shoot motion, or are you considering getting into motion…and what is your reasoning?

Yes I am getting into motion. I have always loved motion and I feel it is just another way to tell a story. I think with the rise of online magazines motion is going to be what sets some magazines apart from others. It adds richness to content. I think still imagery is very important but motion and stills will co-exist together in the online space.

Do you think that the brand an image goes into in the Getty family, say Stone vs. Image Bank, vs. PC, makes any significant difference in the performance of a stock photo? 

By performance do you mean what price it sells for or how many times it sells? I have Stone images selling for $10 so I don’t really think it matters. It might if certain clients prefer to make their searches easier and only look in one brand in order to narrow the results. But by looking at my sales nothing tells me one brand is better than the next.

Can you share with us a current favorite image of yours and the story behind it?

Image ©Siri Berting
This is an image I shot while on location on Oahu. I hired the model for the day and set out with a general idea of shots to get around the concept of wandering and relaxation. On our way to one beach we came upon this amazing Banyan tree and spent an hour here. The light was amazing and it inspired me to do what I do best and find the moment.

The future of stock, are you optimistic or pessimistic?

My views are more optimistic this year than they were last year. However the industry is not where it used to be. I believe stock is a great model for the photography industry and a great way to generate passive income. I believe stock still has a place in the commercial photography industry. Nevertheless, Photographers just need to stay on top of their collections, constantly building the offerings and not to expect the same returns as were being generated back in the 90’s and the 10’s. The lifespan of an image is much shorter than it was 10 years ago and that means that we have to shoot more often and not rest on our laurels.


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