Thursday, November 14, 2013

Having Fun Creating Stock Images

Photo of a fiery mushroom cloud rising up behind the silhouette of a large metropolis.
Sometimes you just have to have some fun making images...the driving force behind this nuclear armageddon image.

Fun And A Mushroom Cloud of Flame
Every once-in-a-while you have to just have some fun. That is what I did with this image of a fiery mushroom cloud of flame rising up from behind the silhouette of a city skyline. Of course, I still intend to make money with this image, though I hardly expect it to be a best seller. Because the image is not something that there are many uses for I am pegging it as a Rights Managed image…though as I submitted it to the Getty House collection it may yet end up as an RF image.

A Metropolis Skyline Silhouette
The image began as a skyline shot of New York. I pen tooled (created a clipping path) of the buildings, created a selection and created a new layer. I used the hue and saturation control to create the silhouette by bringing the lightness slider all the way down. I wanted the city to be a more generic metropolis so I added more buildings from a San Francisco skyline shot to create the final city skyline. Next I experimented with different sunset and sunrise images behind the skyline finally settling on a sunrise shot from Mexico.

A Sunrise And A Nuclear Explosion
It was while I was playing with the sunrises behind the city silhouette that the idea came to me for the “nuclear explosion” image. One particular fiery sunrise image looked as if the city was back lit from and explosion or fire. I went to my archives for flame shots…I had some fireballs from my time at burning man…and was able to fashion them into the mushroom cloud explosion.

Cropping Flexibility And Copy Space
As usual I made the image to have cropping flexibility and room for headlines and copy.  When making stock images I believe it is better error on the side of extra room for art directors and designers to use than to make tighter crops that might be a bit more esthetically pleasing.

Creativity, Science Fiction And Getting Seen

I can see this photo being used as a book cover for a science fiction thriller, or perhaps for a sensationalistic editorial on the danger of nukes or terrorist attacks. Certainly the image can serve to illustrate concepts such as "armageddon, nuclear holocaust, and the end of the world. With stock images you just never know when an art director or designer will come up with some really creative way to use your work.  Of course, the biggest challenge, as always, is getting your work seen by those creatives.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Closing The Barn Door After The Horse Is Gone

A man closes the barn door after the horse is gone in this concept stock photo about prevention, timeliness and procrastination.
A man closes the barn door after the horse is gone in this concept stock photo about prevention, timeliness and procrastination.

Shutting The Barn Door After The Horse Is Gone
After thinking about it for about two years, I finally got around to taking some photos of a friend, Pippa Murray, while she worked her horse.  I spent about an hour shooting while she was being coached on jumping her horse, and getting some pretty good material for my stock imagery in the process.  As usual, when I shoot for stock, I went in with a shot list that included “shutting barn door after the horse is gone”. As Pippa was prepping and grooming her horse Bella, I had Stephanie, my partner, grab a quick shot of me pretending to pull the sliding barn door shut.

Building My Image In Photoshop
Back in my studio I went over my material, picked one of the “door shutting” images and brought it into Photoshop. I used the pen tool to create a clipping path on the inside of the barn door opening. I excluded both myself, and the barn doors, from the clipping path. I then made a selection with the clipping path using a one-pixel feather, inverted it, and used the selection to create a new layer. This gave me a layer that included everything except the background. Going back to the original background layer I applied a layer mask “reveal all”. After creating a new background (bottom) layer of white, I used a large soft brush to fade away the original background layer making the image look as if the scene outside the barn were overexposed and “blown out”. The next step was to add the horse.

Should Have Brought That Shot List!
Naturally, when shooting Pippa riding her horse I neglected to shoot specifically for my barn door image (should have brought my shot list and checked it off…so lazy!), so I had to improvise. I did get a few images of her and Bella clearing jumps from behind…but only a very few. Those images stood out though because when jumping the horses’ rear hooves, in their highest position, gave the animal a lot more sense of action and added a bit more of a humorous feeling. The only problems were that the horses’ front two legs were obscured by the jump, and Pippa’s leg and saddle obscured a lot of the horse’s side. It took about three hours of work to make the horse look the way I needed it to look by cloning, copying and pasting and so forth.

Qualities Of A Successful Stock Image
One never knows if an image is going to sell in stock, let alone do well, but I believe this photo has a lot of the qualities that make for a successful stock image. First of all, I think it is a concept that can apply to a lot of messages. The idea is one of prevention and of timeliness. “Have You Backed Up Your Data” could easily be a headline that would go with this photo of an escaping horse…after the barn doors are being closed. In fact, there are a ton of businesses, services and products that are designed to help us prevent bad things from happening or help us deal with such events including everything from firewalls to insurance to training. In addition, prevention is a difficult concept to illustrate making this image one with less competition. The potential is there for a good selling image.

Humor Is A Plus
Humor is also a plus for this shot. Any time you can inject a little humor into an image you dramatically increase it’s chance for sales. The humor here is a little subtle, but I think it is hard to avoid smiling when you see the photo. The semi-silhouette lighting adds both drama and plenty black areas providing copy space for headlines and text, and the image is easily cropped square, vertical or horizontal.

Rights Managed or Royalty Free?
I wrestled with whether this should be a Rights Managed or Royalty Free image, but finally went with Royalty Free because I think the shot can be used to advertise so many different products and services and for a lot of editorial uses as well. With this image I am counting on the large market of Royalty Free users will pay off more than the SOMETIMES higher fees of Rights Managed. Time will tell!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Succeeding In Stock Photography

Business people ride a roller coaster in a photo illustrating the ups and downs of the market.
The stock photography business has become a roller coaster of ups an downs, but some photographers are still doing well.

Poor Sales And Pulling Imagery
I just read a post on a forum in which a photographer complained about his sales (or lack of sales) at Alamy and is going to pull all of his imagery. Everywhere one turns photographers are decrying the state of the industry. I can’t even count how many photographers I have heard give up on Getty and Corbis. Even microstock photographers are hating on iStock (formerly iStockphoto) and Shutterstock. There is no doubt that these are challenging times in the stock photo industry, but I think it is important to keep in mind that the ones we hear from most are the ones who are having a hard time. The shooters who are experiencing success are for the most part eschewing the forums to…drum roll…make images!

Photographers Succeeding In Stock
There are photographers who are succeeding in stock.  So while that one unnamed photographer is pulling his imagery from Alamy, Jon Boyes has found a formula for making Alamy pay well…and is experiencing increasing sales.   Cristian Baitg is finding success with iStock. Others I know are growing their sales at Getty (I can’t speak to Corbis as I don’t personally know anyone who is an active Corbis contributor). Even the upstart agency Stocksy, with just a few months under its belt, is claiming that several of their photographers are making good livings (though I would sure love to know exactly what that means….). I am also aware of many Blend Images photographers who are doing well.

Making Stock Photography Work
My point is that we photographers can still make stock work for us, but need to understand what model suits our particular abilities and style. Jon Boyes, for example, has the patience and discipline to understand and make the most of key wording at Alamy.  Cristian Baitg knows what works, and how to shoot it, for the micro model. 

Rights Managed, Royalty Free, Microstock And Roller Coasters
I hear photographers say their RM imagery is doing well but that they are giving up on RF…and I also hear the exact opposite. I know at least one photographer who has given up on Getty to shoot microstock! I personally am experiencing what I am sure many other shooters are…a roller coaster of up and down months. One month I think things have turned the corner and the future is rosy, the next I have to grit my teeth and not let a disappointing sales report interrupt my productivity. When you hear the sky is falling, take it with a grain of salt and learn as much as you can about your own situation and what will work for you.

Understand Your Distribution
To succeed in stock photography these days it certainly helps to understand which agencies offer what. Getty, for example, is still the 600 lb. Gorilla, but is not offering much in the way of individual art direction. Blend Images (disclaimer…I am a part owner of Blend), as another example, offers vast distribution and individual art direction.  Shutterstock boasts a huge customer base, but certainly isn’t right for my style of imagery…at least not “as right” as Getty or Blend. On top of everything else agencies are going public, venture capital is coming in, and agencies are jockeying for position with renewed vigor. Change is afoot and it may be very important to pay attention to it!

What To Shoot, How To Shoot And How To Distribute
Each of use needs to really understand what to shoot, how to take advantage of our own skill sets and shooting styles, and which distribution channels work best our own circumstances. If we can understand those things we can still thrive in stock just isn't easy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Power Of Working With A Stock Agency

A man stands before a footbridge to nowhere deciding whether to proceed or not across a dangerous roadway to the future.
A bridge to  nowhere, or the way forward to opportunity? This concept stock photo is the result of a collaboration between the photographer and his stock agency.

A Rickety Bridge, Concept Photos And A “Supply Chain”
A couple of weeks ago Blend Images asked me to work on some concept stock photos. One concept they asked me to undertake was that of “Supply Chain”. As I thought about what I could create to illustrate that concept this bridge image that I had captured on a trip to Myanmar sprung to mind.  I liked that the bridge was rickety and near failing and could represent the adversity and challenges that face most supply chains.

A Bridge In Need Of A Location
I went through my archives and found the image. The existing background was very uninteresting so I decided to strip the footbridge out and put it in a much more dramatic setting.  I decided to create a clipping path using the pen tool and have the isolated bridge on a separate layer. Then I could simply try differing backgrounds till I found the one that worked the best. It took me about an hour, give or take a few minutes, to create the clipping path and put the bridge on it’s own layer.

Fog Banks, Cloudscapes
I went back to my archives in search of just the right background. It didn’t take me long to realize that having the bridge simply disappear into a cloudbank would be great. I used a combination of San Francisco Fog banks and high-altitude cloudscapes to create my ideal scenario.  The whole effort from clipping path to finished image only took a few hours. I was pretty excited with the image, which I realized had a compelling drama as well as enough flexibility to apply to a wide range of concepts.

A bridge to nowhere stretches out fading away into a cloudbank in an image of mystery, risk and possibilities.
This version of the footbridge was before my agency art director suggested adding a person, and while it is still a great image, adding a person takes it t hat extra step.

Editing And A New Direction
Next I sent a low -resolution jpeg to my art director, Jim Dougherty, at Blend. He quickly replied that I should try adding a person to the image, perhaps a figure crossing the bridge.  Looking back it seems like an obvious option, and yet without the input of my editor I wouldn’t have tried it...I was pretty darn happy with the image the way it was. In fact, when Jim first suggested that I try it I was a bit doubtful. I figure it might actually limit the sales opportunities...I really like how the bridge without a figure seemed so open to a wide range of concepts. But one thing I have learned from thirty years of being a professional photographer is that I don’t have all the answers.

Crossing The Bridge
The next morning I went in to the studio, set my camera up on the camera stand and used the self- timer to photograph myself in a variety of standing and walking positions. I ended up silhouetting myself out in three different positions. I began with having the model (me) just about to enter the fog bank, and then I began trying different scenarios. None of them were really working for me. Finally, I just added myself in the foreground to look as if I am contemplating an attempt at crossing the bridge. That was it!

Rights Managed, Or Royalty Free
Originally I was thinking this would be a Rights Managed image. A lot of work went into it...a full day of photography and imaging not even counting the original bridge image shot in Myanmar. And yet, I could see so many potential uses from the risks and dangers of “Cloud Computing” to such tried and true concepts as “The Way Forward”, The Future, and “Journey’s”.  Add to that the fact that as an RF image I can also include the original bridge photo sans model, and I decided to go Royalty Free.

Working With An Agency And The Big Picture
This is just one example of how working closely with an agency can pay off. Every photographer works differently with their editor or art director, but however one works with them, it is important to take advantage of their knowledge. As photographers we see only a very small part of the big picture. Art Directors such as Jim have the advantage of knowing what the gaps and needs of the agency collection are as well as having access to a ton of market research. They see the work coming in from numerous other photographers as well, which helps them understand where an individual photographer can fit in and maximize their own strengths.

Honing In On Market Needs And Fine Tuning Photography
As stock photography continues to get increasingly competitive it becomes ever more important for photographers to hone in on the needs of the market and to minimize wasted efforts that are duplicating existing work or aimed at non-existent needs. Working closely with an agency can help photographers make the most of their time and resources and help them fine-tune their photography to make it the most effective it can be.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Converting Social Media Efforts Into Photo Revenue

A man in business attire is drowning under a sea of pictures in an image about social media, bandwidth, data management and time management.
As we all start to drown under the demands of social media it is important to consider how we spend our limited time.

Converting Social Media Efforts Into Photo Revenue
Wow, I haven’t written a blog post in over a month! As a matter of fact, I haven’t been on Google + more than two or three times in that period, have barely glanced at Facebook, and have all but abandoned my nightly perusing of Google Analytics. I haven’t looked at Pinterest in over a month, nor have I kept up with Tumbler. A few perfunctory tweets on twitter rounds out my social media activities. Taking note of this, I realized that I have found a way to convert my Social Media efforts into more revenue. I am doing that by spending less time on social media and more time doing what I really love doing, making more images. Between Getty and Blend I have uploaded fifty of my composited concept images and uploaded another 45 “accepted” images shot as part of a joint shoot with a friend of mine. This has been the most productive month I have ever had. So while my headline maybe be a little misleading I think it is important for those who are serious about stock photography to carefully consider how they use their time.

Cutting Down On Wasted Time
For the last several years I have been working at getting more efficient, more disciplined and more productive. That isn’t necessarily the same thing as spending less money on shoots because in what I do time is my biggest constraint, not the cost of the shoot. My emphasis has been on efficient use of my time and I have found a couple ways that are really helping me in that goal.

Next Image Up
My latest technique for increasing my productivity is to have my next image already planned before I finish the current one. I am now spending a little time each day planning out the next image and what individual steps need to be done towards completion of the image whether it is finding a photo from my archives, shooting a prop, or casting models.

First Task The Next Morning
Whether I am about to begin a new image or hopefully complete one in progress, I find it immensely helpful to plan the first task to undertake the next morning. I can’t stress enough how important this seems to be to jump right into a good creative/work flow each morning.  Getting a good productive start in the morning seems to almost always carry right on through for the entire day.  So the last thing I do before I leave the studio is review what I will start on first thing the next the morning.

Committing To Ideas
The other part of my increased productivity is in committing to ideas.  I always have a list of ideas to work on, but now I commit to the next one before I finish the one I am working on. Now it doesn’t always play out that way. I also allow myself to jump into images that present themselves to me during the course of my work. For example, as I peruse through my files looking for parts I need an idea will often spring to mind. If I finish an image and it is fairly early in the day I might then jump on such an idea and try and whip it out before starting on my next “major” idea. But again, the important thing is that I have an image already mapped out and ready to dive into.

Breaks, Exercise and "Off" Time
I do take occasional breaks to exercise and to surf the net. Giving myself permission for brief sorties outside my “production zone” insures that I don’t get burned out…which would really negatively affect my output! I might also add that I often take a day out of my work week to work around the house and I take several trips each year with at least one being a major one usually to some exotic destination. Giving myself plenty of "off" time keeps  me at my best when I am working.

Quality, Quantity And Consistency
A reminder here that the one trait I can see that is shared by all the top earning stock photographers that I know is that they all are prolific photographers. They combine quality, quantity and consistency. That is the overriding goal I find myself working towards these days. If I can achieve that then I believe the money will take care of itself...and so far it seems to be working.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Gold At The End Of The Stock Photo Rainbow

A businessman looks out over a city skyline with a rainbow leading to success in an urban environment.
There is gold at the end of the stock photo rainbow for those who approach their shooting with discipline and thought.

My Top 100 Images For 2012
I recently took a very close look at my stock photo sales for 2012. One of the more interesting things was that of my top 100 selling images, thirty percent (well, okay, it was actually 29%) of them were created before 2005 (which is as far back as I have been keeping track of sales). That seems pretty significant to me. That figure includes my sales from Blend Images, Getty and Corbis.

Endless E+ Images And Search Algorithms
That high number of long-in-tooth images seems even more impressive when I look at the seemingly endless number of E+ images that fill page after page of search results on the Getty site. With so many images competing for search slots how the heck does anyone ever see any of my images?  The answer has to be that the search algorithms Getty and others use do take into account an images’ sales history, and possibly even the photographer’s body of work as well. It sure would be nice if we could see behind the curtain once-in-a-while whether or not it would help with our sales!

Market Needs And Production Value
So what can we individual photographers do to make those algorithms work for us? Well, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do, which makes it that much more important to focus in on those things we can do. Certainly it is obvious that the more quality we put into our images the better off we will be. In this case quality can be production value as well as relevance to market needs. Actually, making sure your image is something the market needs probably is even more important than high production value! The trick here is to not let your perception of what the market needs inhibit your creativity. I believe it is also vitally important to edit really tightly and not water-down the over all quality of your body of work.

Improving Agency Sales
Another thing we can do is get our imagery up on our web sites with links to work on the agency sites. I get around twenty visitors a day that find my work via the Internet and then click on through to whatever agency is handling the image they have found. While I can’t track what percentage of those visitors actually license images some of them do, and when they do it is a double bonus because the image they license moves up in importance.  When you think about it, having a website that can help drive traffic to your images, even on agency sites, is one of the few things we can actually do to improve our agency sales. In fact, I am currently having my own site “tuned-up” to provide, hopefully, a better user experience as well as better SEO. Should have that up in about a week or two.

Success In Stock Photography
I really believe that success in stock photography necessitates images that have a long life span. So my mantra is creating photos that are relevant to the market, have a high production value, and resist becoming dated.  My own recipe for success also includes diversifying my images as much as I can (the limiting factor being that it has to be something I enjoy creating) and diversifying in terms of agency distribution.

Gold At The End Of The Rainbow
If there is gold at the end of the stock photo rainbow (you knew I had to work that in), the only way to get there is by having the discipline to create new work necessary to ensure maximum visibility.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

SEO Advice for Photographers

A woman executive stands at the top of a lighthouse in an urban setting scanning the horizon for opportunities and risks in the world of business and finance.
If you want to be found on the Internet by people searching for photographers then good SEO is essential!

Google, (or any search engine) is looking for the best site to send to a searcher.   So, of course, if you want to get on the first page of the search engine results you site has to convince Google or whatever search engine is being used that your site is the best or at least close to the best.

Google doesn't rely on just your website, but also looks at the links on other websites that point to your site. For instance, if someone searches for "photographer" then Google goes and looks through its database and finds websites that are related to "photographer".  Let's say Google finds 10 sites that are tied for 1st place.  All ten are really good sites. To break the tie, Google will look at how many links are pointed to the sites, what the links say, and where the links come from and it will assign a score for those links.  The links from the most important websites will count the most. Links from unrelated sites are worth almost nothing.

There isn't much you can do about the links from other sites. Unless you are buddies with the owner or something you most likely will not be able to have the links say what you would like them to say.  You would like them to contain the keyword phrases you are trying to get a good ranking for.
The only place where you have control is on your own site. Once you have a "perfect" site, (search engine wise), then you need those good links.  If your website is really good, other sites with related content will link to it. But again, all you can do is make the best site you can and let the links happen!

So let's see what you can do about your own site. Google looks at 200 variables to makes its decision on where to rank your site. This includes things like spelling and grammar; good sites don't have a lot of miss-spelled words and/or poor grammar.  It checks to see how many pages the site has, how many of those pages are related to the keyword phrase being searched for, what the keyword density is, what kinds of ads if any are on the page, how cluttered the page is, etc.  Nobody (outside of Google) knows for sure what the 200 variables are and how they are rated. 

You can have a great website, but unless you tell Google about it you still won't rank well. For good SEO, all you can do is make sure your site is really good, is easy to use for humans, and can communicate that to Google.

If I was Google, I would first look at the title of the website.  If I were looking for a photographer for a book cover, I would not bother with a website that had the title: History of Mesopotamia.   However, if I spotted a website titled " John Lund, Professional Photographer, Sausalito, California, then that might be worth taking a look at. The search engines will look to see how often "photographer" is used on each page, and if your site has the word on 3 pages but someone else has it mentioned on 48 pages then they will probably get better results than you.  But that is just one variable of 200...

If a keyword phrase is in the title, it should be in the text of the page at least once. Each page on your site is a chance to optimize for a keyword phrase, maybe two, but not more than that.  It should be good reading for a human. So you might have a page related to "business photos", and one titled "Financial Concept Photos" and one "Photoshop Composite Photos" etc.  If you have lots of pages, each optimized for a phrase or two, Google begins to think maybe you are an expert.  That gives you better ranking.

When you look at the source code of your page you will see near the top of the page something like this:

Best Photographer In The World

That is the title tag and is in the "Head portion of the page".  In other words it has to be between the tags and also in the head portion will be the description tag... put it under the title tag:


Pictures have an alt tag you use to tell people who can't see the picture what it is about.  Google reads it.  It's for blind people and people that have text only browsers etc.  Put a good detailed description of the photo in the alt tags.

Typical alt tag (for the picture at the top of this blog):

alt="A woman executive stands at the top of a lighthouse in an urban setting scanning the horizon for opportunities and risks in the world of business and finance."

HTML has something called headings. H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6
H1 is the most important heading. Use it only once on a page.  Google thinks it’s more important than regular text. H2 is next in importance... you can use it once or twice under an H1 tag. H3 and lower you can use lots of if you want to. But they are for headings of paragraphs, nothing else. If you are going to work on your site I would suggest you take a few online tutorials about HTML.

So, as far as SEO goes...
Make as many pages as you can about different aspects of your business.
Include as much text as you can on each page... between 250 and 500 words is good.
Put the keyword phrases in your title, alt tags, body text, use headings with the phrases in your body text, and don't use the phrase too often.  Usually 1 to 3 times in the body text is good. 10 times is too many for 250 to 500 words.
Google has to spider your site before it can index and then rank it.  So be sure there are links on your pages that Google can read so it will know about all your pages, or make a sitemap to tell Google what pages you have.

Join Google's Webmaster Tools.  It tells you everything you need to know about how to rank well at Google.

Use Google analytics.

And there you have it, my webmaster's sage advice on SEO for photographers…have fun!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Attitude Is Everything

A man drowns in a sea of photos from social media and online photo sharing.
Attitude is Everything!  Too many stock photos? Be inspired! I make a conscious decision to be inspired by my fears rather than to drown in depression. I made this image for Blend Images.

Many Ways To Become Depressed

There are so many ways to become depressed in this business! If I start perusing other photographer’s work I can quickly become despondent over the vast numbers of really creative work. Or I can become near suicidal over the even vaster numbers of crappy photos that threaten to, or actually do, bury my own images in a sea of mediocrity (and yes, some of my images are crappy too…I admit it.)

5-Cent Sales And Big Cancelations
Sales reports can be a great source of depression as well. On my last sales report I had a 5-cent royalty for an RM image. I also had a $1,500.00 canceled sale…and that sure doesn’t help my frame of mind!  A few days ago I spotted one of my still images in an ad on television. It is a little hard to spot because it is one of many images used and goes by in the flash of an eye…but nonetheless…there it is on television. It is an RF image which means it is kind of hard to track down how much I got paid for the image…but the largest sale for it in the last several months is $14.00. Swell.

Waiting For Images
Waiting for images to go up is another great way to ruin an otherwise good day. Images occasionally get lost, often take forever to get online, and get rejected for ridiculous reasons.  My favorite “lost” image story happened with Getty. I submitted an image, forgot about it, and it popped up one day in my collection…three years after I submitted it! It sells pretty well…and is a tad depressing thinking about all the sales I missed out on during those three years!  I have been watching Corbis lately and while I may be exaggerating, it feels as if I haven’t had a new image go up there in months!  Though I did see a Corbis image of mine used in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that might net me anywhere from $1,000.00 to $5.00…who knows (do I seem a tad bitter today?).

The Importance Of Attitude
My point here is on the importance of attitude. If I let all that stuff get me down then my productivity will surely follow in a downwards arc. Instead of being depressed at the vast number of awesome images out there I need to be inspired to create even better ones of my own.  Rather than being depressed by the endless waves of mediocre, or worse, images that threaten to drown out my own sales, I need to have the resolve to create images that are so on-target, relevant and visually interesting that they rise above the vast morass.

I'LL Show Them!
The emotional shock of a low sales report is energy I can use to motivate myself to create new work. “I’ll show them” is a lot more productive than “Why bother?” Any of us who have participated in stock photography for any great length of time know that there are up months and down months…and that the up months have gotten progressively more challenging to achieve. But those up months are still available provided we have the motivation not just to create new images, but also to do so in a very thoughtful way. We can no longer afford to just create images, now we have to pay attention to what the market needs and wants and where the buyers are going.

Still Making A Living And Having Fun
One of the few things we can have control over is our own attitude. By making a conscious decision to have a good attitude we can turn negatives into powerful positive forces.  Despite the constant barrage of arrows and darts that seem to continually find me, I am still making a good living at stock photography, and when I don’t allow myself to succumb to negative emotions I realize I still am having a great time creating fun images and enjoying the community of my fellow stock shooters.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Choosing A Stock Photo Agency

A man wearing safari clothing and clutching binoculars hacks his way through the jungle with a machete in a metaphor for search. 
It's a jungle out there when searching for a new stock photo agency!

Choosing A Stock Photo Agency
There are hundreds of stock photo agencies out there, and more seem to spring up every day. In the volatile and every changing stock photo industry it can be important to diversify. You never know when an agency may fold or undergo a dramatic turn for the worse, or when some upstart agency (remember iStockphoto) will come along and upset the apple cart. Even a gradual shift in the client base of agencies can sneak up on you and leave you scrambling. Whether you are looking for your first agency, or an ancillary one, or perhaps one that offers penetration into a new market segment, here are thirteen important points to keep in mind (I have to give credit to Rick Becker-Leckrone, CEO of BlendImages, for bringing these points to my attention). 

1.         How will the agency ensure that your work is viewed by the maximum number of potential customers?  How extensive is their sales network?  Does it include the highest producing agencies like Getty, Corbis, Shutterstock, and Masterfile? If the agency is not relying on distribution, how much are they prepared to invest in marketing?

2.         If the agency offers direct sales opportunities, how does their search / retrieval system and e-commerce platform function?  Be a secret shopper.

3.        What new licensing models and innovative ways does the agency have for getting non-traditional buyers to explore and license your work?

4.         Who else’s work does the agency represent?  Any shooters you know and admire?  Call them and get their perspective on the agency.

5.        What kind of systems do they have for editing and ingesting content? Can you upload edits from anywhere in the world 24/7?  Can you upload high-res and model releases?

6.         Will you have an editor to work with in generating shoot ideas and to provide sales statistics and feedback on how different types of imagery are performing?

7.         Will they represent both your stills and motion stock?

8.         What kind of experience does the agency personnel have in delivering results in the stock photo industry?  Look for at least 15 years industry experience in an editor and even more from senior management.  

9.          How well placed in search will the content be on sales partner sites?

10.       How big is their overall library?  If too large, your work will get lost.  Look to see how much work exists in their collection that is similar to yours. 

11.      How long will your images take to get to market?

12.       Will the agency have face-to-face photographer meetings and provide creative research reports on a regular basis?  What does the agency provide in terms of support outside of basic editing? What is the overall level of transparency of the agency?  Do you have any idea what their gross revenue is?  How many images in the collection?  What the goals of the agency are?  Who the owners are?  Good to know all of these things.

13.       Does the agency understand the legal requirements of stock and carry a robust E&O policy?  If there are legal complications, do they have the knowledge, legal counsel, and wherewithal to defend the agency from lawsuits arising from models / clients?  Do they carefully vet model / property releases?

Getty And Blend
My own agencies of choice are Getty Images and Blend Images. Getty, being the largest of the traditional agencies, is an obvious choice. But Blend is a very interesting one as well (Disclaimer: I am a co-founder and owner of Blend Images).  With Blend my images not only get a wider audience with both RF and RM content on Getty, Corbis, Masterfile, Superstock and God knows how many other distributors, but I also get my images up on Microstock sites at macro prices. How cool is that? The eyeballs appear to be migrating to places like Shutterstock, Fotolia and others. With Blend Images, without any additional work, I get representation on Shutterstock, Fotolia, iStockphoto and others. In addition, I can actually call Blend and get a person on the phone! I might add that I know other Blend non-owner contributors who have the same experience…and not just with art directors and creative directors, but with all of the staff right on up to the CEO, Rick Becker-Leckrone. Finally, Blend gives me art direction, research reports, and creative meetings as well. As a matter of fact, I head off Thursday to a two-day Blend meeting and workshop focusing on motion stock.

A Word About Royalty Splits
If your goal is to make as much revenue as possible then it is important to look beyond just your royalty split. Running an agency is expensive. Shutterstock, for example, is reported to have spent $40,000,000.00 on advertising last year. An agency that gives photographers an unrealistic share of the royalties won’t have the funds to run effectively, and it is important to remember that 50 or more percent of nothing is…well…nothing! What is a fair royalty split? I don’t have an answer to that question. But that may not be the best question to be asking.

Consistent Production The Key To Success
Once you have signed with an agency the key to success is producing your best work consistently. It is consistent production more than anything else that will eventually lead to success. It is a universal truth with stock photographers that big royalty checks motivate us, and small royalty checks tend to sap our creativity and motivation. You have to be aware of that and move beyond it.

Seeing Results
One final note.  In my own experience (and I don’t have experience with micro agencies) it takes time to see results. Give it a good year of consistent production before judging the success or failure of the agency.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Question For Photographers

Photo of a woman facing a sunset and melding into a star field symbolizing the journey of looking withn.
For photographers the search for ideas is a never ending journey and one that is often best served by moving into unexplored territory.

The Search For Ideas
As a stock photographer I am always searching for ideas. The search for ideas is endless and can be a real challenge. There is a tendency, at least for me, to go back over my existing work and checking my sales database for what is selling and for which images and ideas have been more successful than others. But it is vitally important for my long-term success to ask myself just what ideas have I not done yet.  More than that, what techniques and styles have I neglected to explore?

Images You Haven’t Created
Of course, ideas that I haven’t done have no track record and no sales to peruse to judge their success. But what that question might do is enable me to push beyond my current boundaries and come up with something that might well be very successful and that won’t “cannibalize” sales from my existing image base. It only makes sense that expanding your library of images into new areas and categories, categories that don’t compete with your existing images, are a primary method of growing your overall income. But the exercise of determining what image areas that you haven’t yet created has other benefits as well that accrue even if the images don’t turn into best sellers.

Creating Images And Expanding Skills
By creating images that are different than what you have already created you will expand your photography (and other skills), learn more about what is valued in the marketplace, and hopefully put a little more distance between you and burn out. This is often referred to as moving outside your comfort zone. I know that pushing myself out of my own comfort zone has brought some huge, and unexpected, rewards. Creating new kinds of work keeps the creative fires burning and promotes the growth that is necessary to avoid becoming irrelevant.

Diversity And Investment
Additionally, by broadening your offering, you will help insure that if a given style or
Approach goes out of style the impact on your own revenue will be minimized. Diversity, after all, is a cornerstone of investing whether it is in the stock market or the market of stock photography.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ladder To Success: The Strategy Behind A Stock Photo

Teamwork and success are the primary concepts behind this unusual photo of a man climbing a human ladder stretching high above the clouds and on to infinite possibilities.
An old idea with a new twist, a businessman climbing a ladder created from people standing on each other's shoulders is an example of a stock photo strategy that has paid off for me.

Strategy Of A Stock Photo
While there doesn’t seem to be any sure fire way to guarantee that a stock photo idea is going to result in a successful (financially) image, a strategy that has generally worked well for me is to start with an iconic symbol and add a new twist. If you can add into the mix just enough ambiguity to provide for more than one concept, then the odds of an image generating a good profit increase dramatically.

Iconic, Boring, And Potentially Compelling Imagery
Take for example the classic, iconic symbol of a businessman climbing a ladder. What could be more common, hackneyed and even, at this point, boring? Yet such an image has the advantage of being a quick read, something that is burned into our subconscious and can be powerfully compelling when presented in a new and different way.

Images With A Twist
It was with this idea in mind that I decided to create an image with a significant twist, a ladder created from people standing on each other’s shoulders and using their arms and legs as rungs.  A cool thing about such an image is that the concept broadens from the classic “climbing the ladder of success” and “challenge” to include “teamwork” as well. By adding a background of high altitude clouds we can even bring in the concept of “the sky is the limit” and “possibilities”. 

Photo Of A High Altitude Cloudscape
Adding the high-altitude cloudscape in the background helps raise the potential of this concept image by providing a background that most of us seldom see unless we happen to be seated at the window of an airliner at a very opportune moment.  This cloudscape background image is actually the combination of several different captures combined in Photoshop.  Any time we see something that we don’t see very often it tends to be more compelling.

Over A Dozen Separate Photo Shoots For One Image
The models who are creating the ladder were each photographed separately for a different project…a human DNA chain, which by the way has not sold despite being online for over a year now…oh well.  So, to put this image together we have something like a dozen photo shoots of models (albeit for different images), shooting out the window of a jet (headed back to the Bay Area from a shoot in Mexico), and probably two days of Photoshop work between putting a cloud image together as well as compositing the human ladder and so forth.

Time, Effort And Pay Back
Ultimately the question for me, as a professional stock photographer, is whether such images are worth the time, effort and resources that go into them. It really comes down to whether the image will pay me back sufficiently for my time and effort. While some images, such as the DNA image, clearly don’t work, many others do. I expect that this image will bring in at least $5,000 or more over the next five years, and if it does I will consider it successful. If it brings in a return significantly below that amount then my strategy will have failed me.  While it is impossible to know what the future will bring, to this point creating images like this human ladder have served me well.