Jon, can you bring us up to speed on how you got into photography, and stock photography in particular?
I first picked up a camera at age 13 when I was offered the chance to learn how a darkroom worked by our Physics teacher at school. It was a Praktica MTL3. That and some Tri-X and seeing the prints come up in the developer and I was hooked. Cameras gave way to guitars for a long time though - I figured that girls liked guitars more than cameras! But I returned to photography about 20 years ago, and after a couple of years it eventually became my profession.
Around 2003 I was shooting commercial, advertising and editorial images for a range of clients and had just (with trepidation) added digital capture with a Canon D30 (3.1Mp!) which cost an arm and a leg. The Internet was getting bigger and eventually I became aware of Getty, Corbis, Alamy and stock photography in general. I had no experience of stock before then but liked the business model of licensing my work worldwide. I joined Alamy and, purely as a side interest, uploaded a few editorial-based shots, out-of-license shots from some commissions. After a couple of months I landed my first two RM sales for $500. A pair of images destined for a UK sales brochure. I was hooked. The novelty of making money while I slept or did other stuff was too much to resist! So I kept uploading and then started shooting for stock when I had time or when I was out on (or on the way to/from) commissioned work.
You currently participate in stock photography in several ways. Can you go a bit deeper into your various efforts and your reasoning behind those efforts?
A couple of years after joining Alamy, I joined Getty and then Age and a few other exclusive and non-exclusive libraries around. I’m always looking for other ways to market my work. I’m also a bit of a process geek so I kept pretty good stats via spreadsheets on what was selling at the various agencies and it influenced my shooting and placement for each of them, especially the exclusives. Over time, you get a feel for the type of imagery a library is good at selling so I tried to supply that.
I understand that you have been experiencing some significant growth with your stock revenue. Is that true across the board, or with just some of your distribution portals?
I wish it were totally across the board :). We are up on Getty (with one month to come in) by 11% over 2011 and on Alamy we’re up 40% over 2011. We’ve had increasing sales on Alamy YoY from 2007 – 2012. I’m very pleased with this given the perilous state of the world economy! But of course things can go down as well as up! Like everyone, I’m a bit nervous about the future and I do worry about what’s going to happen. I certainly don’t expect to see these kind of high gains over the longer term – but I’m confident that we’re in a strong position to continue growing, albeit a bit slower!
What do you attribute this success to?
Although stock sales doubled for me in 2006 (over 2005) I was so busy with commissions I really took my foot off the gas and didn’t upload much. Then, in 2007 when the current economic crisis hit us all out of the blue and the phone wasn’t ringing as much, I started to upload again and by the end of 2008 I had increased my stock sales by 150%. Of course, I didn’t have so many images back then!
The difference this time was that I took stock production seriously. I often see people say they dump their second or third ‘tier’ images on such and such an agency and then they say: “This agency is rubbish, they can’t sell my work”. Well, it’s not really such a surprise is it if you’re putting all your old junk on there! I didn’t take that approach. I shot, and continue to shoot, targeted material for each agency.
I looked at Alamy, by far my best performing non-exclusive, and realised that though I was making sales there I was mid-pack in what was then a collection of around 8 million images and climbing rapidly. I thought I should be doing better with the imagery I had placed there. So, along with my partner Sarah, who is a professional copywriter (www.sarahnuttallcopywriter.co.uk) and process geek too, we set about making Alamy’s unique “Alamy Rank” way of handling image keywording and search placements work for us. I handled the images, reprocessing some of the older ones, and Sarah handled the keywording and research. Then we re-keyworded all of our images… around 3k at that time. At the same time we put new, better-targeted images up, images which we knew buyers were searching for on a daily basis. Steadily, we worked our way up the pack at each re-rank until, in 2009, we were top half of page one and rising. As a result sales followed and continued to increase.
I know that you also have your own, small stock agency, incamerastock (http://incamerastock.com), which you distribute primarily through Alamy. What led you to creating incamerastock?
To be honest, it was a case of: So what’s next? I’m always looking for something new to do in business! By 2010/11 I was having some very good sales on Alamy and seeing my income from Alamy grow rapidly. A couple of photographer friends who were also on Alamy were surprised and impressed – they just couldn’t seem to make any headway and were buried in the middle/bottom of the pack. By the middle of 2011 I was starting to think: well I’ve got a good rank on Alamy, I’m selling well, so perhaps I can help them do the same and make a go of an agency model. I put together a business proposition and sent it to them and a few others I knew personally who shot stock and who had tried Alamy but never really had success there and that was it, off we went!
How do you choose what to shoot?
We look at what is being used in magazines, to illustrate articles on the web and in advertisements. We also use all the stats available. We shoot for the market and aim to supply it with what it wants, just like any other business. I only started to make good, regular sales once I’d realised that stock was just like any other business supplying a ‘product’ to market, and ditched my art-based photographer’s ego! That freed me up to shoot the stuff people wanted to buy rather than shooting what I thought was a great. And that really is the crux of the whole thing. Obviously, I started off like all photographers – I wanted to shoot amazing things that would take the breath away. But that’s not stock. So now I always make sure I’m focused on the target audience – the buyer and their customers. I’m not thinking about what I want to shoot, what pushes my buttons – I’m thinking about what they want to buy. I might not think what I’m shooting is the most inspiring thing in the world, but if that’s what the buyer wants then it has value to them and therefore it’s worth doing. If I don’t do it, someone else will.
I tend to keep my compositions fairly simple – I do, yes, shoot cut outs on a white background because they sell but I also try to keep all my concept shots simple and clean. In terms of everything else I just make sure it’s vibrant and appealing. I know that if I’m there shooting it that day then it’s something that there is a market for, so I don’t stress too much.
I assume that since you have to distribute royalties to other photographers you track you sales. I track all of my stock sales, but find it frustratingly difficult to extrapolate information that can help in shoot better selling imagery. What, if anything, have you been able to determine from examining your sales history?
That it’s not the things you like or expect to sell that actually sell! I track everything and do graphs and charts and the lot. Over time it’s become pretty clear that stock is, well, just stock. Stock is not generally speaking, art. It’s everyday things, streets scenes, travel shots, objects on a white background, basic concepts, lifestyle model-released people shots, animals etc. Most of it is deeply unsexy. I’m not going to tell you my very top repeat sellers but basically they’re highly unsexy too! I’d love it to be the more exciting and inspiring left-field stuff that sells but it just isn’t. Buyers get that shot on commission ;)
You have recently returned to the UK after a couple of years in France. What prompted the move to France, why have you returned to Britain, and how does all of this affect your stock business?
We’d always planned to live abroad at some point – if only for a few years - and after the financial crisis in 2007 we decided to try to sell our house before the bottom fell out. Not really a very sensible move when house prices were crashing! In the end, after losing a fair bit of money, we did sell it and landed in Brittany, France in 2010. The plan was to buy a place there because I can work from anywhere and Sarah’s copywriting business can also operate from anywhere via email.
However, it became pretty clear after about six months of looking at houses that as Brittany is very rural we were going to find it hard to buy a house in a decent condition for our money with the right set-up, the right broadband and the working spaces that we’d dreamt of! Actually, once we’d decided not to buy somewhere it all became great fun! We were renting a huge, newly converted house with excellent broadband speed and a wonderful, fun, landlord who lived next door. So we just decided to stay for a while! And drink a lot of wine!
The move back was really prompted by work. Alamy has a primarily UK customer base – though this is changing rapidly. Plus, I needed somewhere I was truly settled in to shoot more stuff and do CGI work for Getty. So after I’d shot all the cheese, wine, been all over Brittany and taken a few trips further afield in France, I realised I needed to get back to shooting British themed material. Plus I missed ‘real’ beer and fish and chips! Sad, but true. I think also we are just about 10 years or so too young to appreciate the very slow pace of life in rural France and although it’s an amazing place full of wonderful people, food, wine and scenery, it is very quiet compared to the UK. It’s just not time for the pipe and slippers yet!
Do you participate in, or do you plan to participate in, motion?
No, not at the moment and I don’t really plan to in the short to medium term. I have the ability to shoot it on the DSLRs but I couldn’t tell you how it worked. The reason for this is that I’m not yet convinced that the market is there for motion. I’m not saying it’ll never be there – I think it probably will be eventually. I’m seeing more motion on the web but they seem to be all specific, shot-to-order clips. I’m not seeing much ‘stock’ motion in use and that rings alarm bells. The production of motion is a whole step up from stills time-wise. Essentially, I had a choice in 2009(ish) to dive into motion or CGI and I chose the latter. I also want to concentrate on incamerastock/Alamy and of course my own work with Getty – there’s always a danger of spreading yourself too thin and then not only do you start to stress out but you also cease to give enough attention to the money work – and the money for me is, at the moment at Alamy and Getty. I’m keeping a close eye on motion though!
Where do you get your inspiration?
Stats usually! That’s very sad isn’t it! I shoot with a purpose – always. Alamy gives contributors an enormous amount of statistical information and using that, combined with my own sales data, I plan my shoots. Or rather, from that, Sarah plans my shoots! She tells me what type of things buyers are buying and I shoot it. It’s quite clinical really. We have loads of spreadsheets full of lists of things that need shooting and steadily I just tick them off. I never just ‘go out and shoot’, we always plan it carefully – look at what sells in that area of the country or town and do that. Obviously I enjoy a beautiful misty dawn landscape or a fantastic moody black and white portrait as much as the next photographer but unless it’s going to sell as stock I’m not going to shoot it. And generally, for editorial stock, neither of those two things sell.
Do you have any parameters that you maintain in terms of what you shoot for stock?
Yes, I shoot for the market. I’ve shot plenty of art-based personal work over the years but it doesn’t translate to stock. I only ever shoot for a target audience, which in the case of Alamy is mainly magazines and newspapers secondary editorial and for Getty, designers, marketing agencies and ad agencies. We spend a long time thinking and researching on the net as well as using stats to ensure that we’re shooting things that will sell. Stock is not art. We’d all love it to be but it’s just not. The shots that stock agencies hold up as great examples of ‘creative’ stock images – you know the ones: woman standing in a field with yellow box on her head holding a hawk in one hand! That type of ‘creative’ stuff is not, in my experience the type of thing that sells on a regular basis. In fact, in my experience many of these creative images are not the sort of thing commercial buyers actually buy – they are more what we and the stock agencies like to think they buy. And that’s different. But in reality, commercial buyers – designers, ad agencies etc – only buy stock when they can’t commission something or it’s cheaper and more sensible to buy a stock shot. Anyone who has seen the ad agency briefs from ImageBrief over the past few months will know that the requests are rarely that left-field or ‘creative’.
What is the biggest challenge in creating your own “mini” agency?
I think the biggest challenge is the amount of work involved and the back-end workflow process. I think I had visions of it all being a bit of a doddle, just uploading a few more images than I’d done before. But actually, it’s very hard work and because we genuinely like and respect our contributors we go all out to ensure we do the best for them that we possibly can, making sure that we choose the images that are most likely to sell, getting the keywords spot on and managing them on a daily basis – plus of course all the paperwork and the spreadsheet work. But it’s definitely worth it. I actually get a bigger kick out of them selling images than I do out of selling my own! And, conversely, if they don’t sell as many as I’d hoped, I get quite upset. So it can be a rollercoaster ride.
What about stock photography do find most satisfying?
The money! Is there another answer?! I do love selling images in the middle of the night! After running around all day for clients for years on end, doing exhausting sets of corporate portraits and magazine shoots to deadlines, flogging the folio round etc., waiting months to get paid (!) I do enjoy just only having the money itself to worry about. I also enjoy producing a really good set of images – especially studio or travel. I get a real sense of satisfaction from seeing my images up there on the agencies when they look good. I spend a great deal of time in post processing – I suppose I’m the photographer equivalent of a ‘grammar Nazi’! I am incredibly picky and you will never see any CA or lack of definition or bad histograms or dust spots on my images. I’m a massive perfectionist. I’ve never failed QC at Alamy and as anyone knows, that’s pretty good going! I’m like this I think because I do see stock as a kind of pension scheme! And if they’re as good as they can be now then they have a longer lifespan. And once they are done, they are done for good, so why not make them the best they can be.
What are your thoughts about microstock?
I know lots of people love it and lots of people hate it. I’m neither one nor the other. I don’t do it myself but I have no problem with other people doing it. I think it was a brilliant business model at the start – I’m always looking at things in terms of business – but I think it’s definitely reached its zenith and is falling down the other side. I know the question is really: Has it ruined the stock industry and the answer to that, I think truthfully, is no. If anything, what ruined the ‘good old days’ was that little thing called the Internet. But, you know, if it wasn’t for the Internet most of us stock photographers would still be running around doing commissioned work or down the darkroom with the enlarger breathing in fixer fumes.
What suggestions do you have for those wanting to get into the world of stock photography?
Act like a business person. Don’t shoot what you like and hope it sells, shoot what the market wants. Forget any ego you’ve got, it’s only going to hold you back. There are millions of guys out there that are better than you and they always will be. Learn about stock: go out and buy every magazine on your newsagent’s shelf and look at the photos that go with the articles – ignore the ads with the girls and dresses because those shots are commissioned – they’re not stock. Look at the articles about how to deal with your sulky teenager or where to go on your next holiday or how to save cash on your bills – those are stock – yes, the boring, prosaic ones! And just remember, stock is not art. Businesses and publishers and creative agencies buy stock to illustrate something, a concept or meaning. They’re not buying it to put on their office wall.
Any suggestions for us jaded pros?
Ha ha! You’re hardly jaded! I think all stock photographers can learn a great deal from you and your attitude to business. If I had one main piece of advice for other established stock photographers – not you – I’d say: please stop going on about how it’s all so unfair. Please stop blaming everyone else for not selling your work. And please drop your egos. The problem with some stock photographers is that it’s all about them. And actually, it’s not. It’s all about the target audience, the buyer, the customer. If you’re not selling, look at what you’re submitting. Is it a stock shot or is it art? Is it well processed – and I mean, REALLY well processed. And finally, is it any good? Is it actually a good photograph?
Also, I think it’s very important that all of us, including the big stock agencies, remember that stock photography is not the only game in town. I think it’s really easy to forget that the majority of buyers, especially the ad agencies, turn to stock for budget reasons. They would much rather commission a unique, bespoke shot than buy one off-the-shelf. Even for editorial, if they had the cash they’d commission someone. And frankly, creative buyers do have a hard time convincing their clients that a stock shot is worth the money. We might think they’re getting it cheap (and sometimes they really are!) but their clients – the end user - will never see it like that. They want David Bailey to turn up with his camera or they want the ad agency to hire a big swanky city centre studio and hire some models from Storm – that’s what they see as ‘real’ photography. Many end users think stock is like going to Walmart or Lidl. So there’s another battle going on there for the stock agencies. So us whining all the time about prices etc. doesn’t take into account the real market forces.
But having said all this, I don’t have all the answers and I do understand the frustration because I feel it too some days. Stock can be a brilliant way to earn a living but it can also be uncertain, irrational and deeply annoying. Some days I love it and some days I absolutely hate it. But I’d rather do it than work for someone else in a city-centre office all day – it’s my choice, so I only have myself to blame if I can’t make it work. And that’s perhaps the moral: start by looking at what YOU are doing and whether you can change it – can you shoot something different, learn a new program, change your style or find new markets. Think like an entrepreneur and don’t be afraid to fail.
Do you promote your work on the Internet and engage in SEO?
We don’t sell off our own site but I’m not ruling that out in the future. Before I set up incamerastock I had my own Photodeck, site which I loved. Photodeck is brilliant and the SEO is second to none. But unfortunately, because I’m such a generalist and don’t specialise, I found I had millions of visitors to the site but few sales. I think if you’re a specialist then Photodeck is definitely the best thing out there – or in fact if you’re selling direct to established clients. If you are a generalist like me (or should I say now ‘us’!) you’re going to be better off getting your images in front of a warm audience ready to buy, which means using the larger agencies.
What role, if any, does Social Media play in your stock efforts?
I do have an incamerastock twitter account (@incamerastock) but I’m not on Facebook because I, basically, hate the whole data-mining model and I think it has limited appeal for a B2B producer. I’ve never been on it and I never will – plus I can see no proven business benefit. I think Social Media can be fantastic for the right business – consumer businesses can do very well, but for me, I have no consumer target audience so it doesn’t really feature in my business plans. But, as with everything in business, that might change in the future! I’m on Linked-in under my personal account ‘jonboyes’.
How would you like to see the stock industry evolve?
I’d like to see it evolve into something that makes me very rich but I don’t think that’s going to happen! I think it’s going to become a volume industry – one where the reduction in price is countered by the increase in sales. That’s certainly the way it seems to be going right now. In the long term, who knows. Possibly it’ll eat itself. Perhaps in 100 years’ time people will not be able to understand the concept that when you press the shutter (or whatever it is then) you own the copyright. But I doubt it.
I think my gut instinct is, talking as a Brit, that it will keep on growing and that as developing countries become richer and the middle-classes expand in the emerging nations there will be even more demand for images. One day soon it’s likely that people in developing nations will have extremely high disposable incomes and, as we're seeing a bit of in the UK at the moment, British/European/Western things will become the cool things to have and they will be the cool places to visit for millions more people. And that will have a knock-on effect in terms of selling Western-based images. But also, the market for images of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America is definitely growing so stock shooters based there have an advantage and that advantage is going to grow.
In terms of what’s going to happen to agencies – well I think it’s already obvious that there are three main players in macro-stock: Getty, Corbis and Alamy. This isn’t going to change. It’s too late now. These are the main players and eventually they could be the only players.
How do you decide whether an image should be an RM or an RF image?
Traditionally, I’ve favoured RM because Alamy is currently an editorial portal for editorial clients – but that may change as their market share grows and evolves, so I am making an effort to put more RF on Alamy and mark images as RF more frequently where there’s a choice. With Getty I’ve had great success with my RF work, recently much more so than my RM work, so I’m concentrating on that – usually I shoot concepts with a bit of CGI thrown in.
How is that CGI effort working out?
Slowly. Anyone who has ever tried CGI will tell you how exhausting and disheartening it can be. It’s like learning a programme similar to Photoshop but about 1000 times bigger and more complex. But I’m encouraged by the success I’ve had in terms of sales and I think I’m over the worst part of the learning curve now after about three years off and on. But some days I do still want to kick its teeth in!
For those of us interested in adding CGI to our bag of tricks, and tips…or words of warning?
See above! It’s very, very difficult. I’m very computer program literate but I find it hard work. However, it’s a brilliant feeling when it works out – as long as you don’t mind waiting overnight to find out whether that an image has rendered OK and you’ve not missed something really important like the bottom of the toy house you’ve created is actually sticking halfway through the ‘studio’ floor or the balls you’ve carefully balanced on top of each other that looked fine are actually three inches apart! That’s the trouble with CGI, you can do things you can’t do in real life! You are totally in control of the physics and the light - it’s a photographer’s dream really!
Can you share a favorite stock image of yours and the story behind it?
This (image at top of blog) is a shot of a gas-fired power station and I’ve chosen this shot because, despite what I’ve said in this interview, there are times when stock can be art! It doesn’t happen often but this shot is a happy example of an image that is both stock and art. I love this shot because it shows how amazing these places can be – how powerful, literally, and in a way quite beautiful.
It’s here to stay and it’s got a bright future. Seriously! I’m very optimistic. The Internet means that more buyers want images than ever before. Plus there’s growing expectation in terms of what people expect to see when they read a magazine, go to a website or read a newspaper online. They expect to see lots of images on that site. And that means that buyers are under pressure to publish more and more images – it’s a kind of vicious circle. But it’s a circle we can all benefit from.
Any thoughts you would like to leave us with?
Yes. Keep Calm and Carry On!