STARTING OUT IN STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY
“So, you want to be a stock photographer, huh? OK. But it’s going to take time, dedication, commitment and a whole lot of patience. “
I recently underwent a gigantic change in my life and have spent the past few months getting used to it. The plan was to take some time to focus on finishing my latest supernatural horror (INCUBUS). But, as always, life takes over and even I was surprised to find that my focus actually shifted fully back to photography. Which means that, sadly, the completion of INCUBUS has now been pushed to 2019. More details in my previous blog post, here.
One of the reasons for the postponement is that photographic assignments have been coming in thick and fast as I take every opportunity to capture thousands of images for use on multiple stock photography websites, such as SHUTTERSTOCK, ADOBE and GETTY iStock.
But then, you’re an avid social media follower of mine so you already knew this and haven’t seen some of the images in questions. Haven’t you? Haven’t you? If you haven’t, fear not, I’ve included some in this post along with some of the highs and lows of my recent experiences in the hope that if you or somebody you know are looking to either get into photography, be that behind or in front of the lens, that you may find them helpful. 😉
So, I’m a firm believer of every day being a school day. No matter how old you are or how much you ‘think’ you know, there’s always so much more to learn out there. And I’ve learned, a lot, especially in the last few months that I’ve spent conceiving and executing some major photoshoots. Which basically means coming up with ideas (or themes), casting them (with models), dressing them, scouting for locations and then, of course, photographing them.
But all of this is just one aspect of being a stock photography contributor since much of the work, believe it or not, is actually in post-production, submission and approval. The latter being one of the most nonsensical and frustrating of all – especially if you’re new to the process.
And this got me thinking.
There are plenty of blog posts about stock photography, but most of the ones I’ve read only deal with the subject in broad terms. For me, these would have been much more useful if they delved further into the nitty-gritty of the process and highlighted some of the basic and somewhat obvious (when you know how) pitfalls to avoid.
And so, given that I’m often asked for advice about photography, I thought it would make sense to write a series of posts I’m hoping will prove useful to those budding photographers (and models) who are choosing to branch out into the commercial world of stock photography. And, I should point out that while I’ll be focussing on this subject from a photographer’s perspective, I would highly recommend the read to any models who are looking to get hired by casting professionals like me. Knowing the photographer’s process and challenges will undoubtedly put you at an advantage when it comes to getting yourself hired.
Of course, like most good stories, it makes perfect sense to start this one at the beginning.
No, not planning what to dress your model in for your shoot, but right at the very beginning. Right around the bit where you’re considering becoming a photographer. The part where I ask you that this simple and thought-provoking line:
What makes you want to be a photographer?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been approached by family, friends and even acquaintances for advice about photography. Specifically, and generally, these people are often asking on behalf of someone they know who would like to get into photography but have no idea which camera to buy.
In my opinion, these people are asking the wrong question. Or, most specifically, the right question but prematurely. The first question they should be asking and the one I generally counter with when asked “my……. wants to get into photography but I don’t know which camera to buy, can you recommend any?” is
What’s their motivation? Hobby? Profession? More than often the general answer is that they “don’t really know.” Well, it’s a pretty important question since, to me, it will more than often dictate the level of investment in any ‘entry-level’ camera.
Or at least it used to.
These days, buying one of these cameras would be ‘nice’ but it isn’t essential. At least not from day one since most of us have access to a smartphone which means that most have a access to a camera with enough sophistication to rival even the most expensive of entry-level cameras.
“Take photos on my phone?”
Of course. Why not? Ultimately, being a photographer is like being a writer. Just as ‘Writer’s write.’ Photographers shoot photos. Filmmakers make movies, Be that with a smartphone or a full-frame camera.
This idyllic seascape in Cornwall was shot on my HTC M8 mobile device. However, while some stock photography website would happily accept this image into their collection. However, uploading it to stock photography website, ALAMY, will not only result in it failing Quality Control but it would also land me a 10 day ban from using the site. More details in the next post
If you are an artist and you have an aptitude for creating images, you will use whatever equipment is at your disposal, and a smartphone is a good place to start. In fact, most cameras aboard decent smartphones now even have a ‘PRO’ mode. This allows the user to move all the camera settings to MANUAL, unlocking total creativity.
Which means that, in my view, this is now the very first place to start. And if you, your prodigy or acquaintance are regularly posting masterpieces on Instagram then that aptitude, that creative compulsion, that all important eye for detail becomes obvious then you’ll know. You’ll know that they would most likely benefit from the additional investment in a dedicated camera.
Generally, the place to start would be what is commonly referred to as a ‘bridge’ (between point and shoot and Single Lens Reflex) camera. That is a model of camera that straddles the traditional point-and-shoot and something that will allow the would-be snapper to have more manual and thus more creative control over their images. There are various models, ranging from a price tag of £100 to £600 ($134.00 – $804). Or you can pick up a bargain on a second-hand DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera at most decent camera stores that offer refurbished units or, of course, there’s eBay.
Then, go create! Have that camera earn its keep.
And what then?
What do you mean, what then?
What happens next?
Well, not everybody is going to end up working for National Geographic. And, it’s not as if the budding photographer can go and get a job at a local paper. He (or she) was retired many years ago. Okay, almost extinct, aided, somewhat ironically, by the smartphone.
We are all reporters and cameramen now. Often broadcasting live from location.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked for an interview about my books that hasn’t been a face-to-face meeting, but over the phone or through an emailed series of questions. Along with the request for a recent head shoulders photo (or selfie) as if I were applying for a job rather than telling my story. That’s right. Not every interview comes with the glamour and full-blown photoshoot of a Sunday supplement!
So, if you aren’t turning your passion into a revenue stream. Then what’s the point, right? Yes, I’m a pragmatist. It’s something that was instilled in me from an early age. I come from working-class Italian parents. Pragmatism along with a very strong work ethic is all we know. In my family, it’s always been pretty much a case of, “Mamma look what I made.”
“Oh, bello? Now what? Are you going to sell it?”
Well, are you?
A few decades ago; highly unlikely. But now, with the exponential rise of stock photography and the….
What do you mean you don’t know what stock photography is? If you don’t, you really should read my last post by clicking here. Otherwise, read on…
Where was I? Yes. With the voracious consumption of stock photography (still and moving images) around the globe, there’s a whole new market that you really should introduce your images to. But, be warned, it too will take some time, dedication, commitment and a whole lot of patience for potentially very little reward (at least in the short term) beyond the satisfaction of seeing your work ‘published’ and potentially returned in Google image searches. I’ve likened it to seeing my book in a bookshop for the first time or, by today’s standard, on Amazon. But, and there’s always a but (remember the whole pragmatic thing), that feeling won’t sustain you in perpetuity and you will ultimately seek validation; actual sales (or downloads).
So, to ensure that happens you not only need to be the best photographer you can be but also the best contributor by appreciating and mastering both the gift and the curses of working with the stock photography collections of stock photography websites around the world.
Getting a hunky man to read your book may well seem like a great idea, but without a property release, nobody is going to want to touch that image. And, there’s something truly odd about having to prove that you own something you spent the best part of a year writing!
The gift and curses
Stock photography websites come in all shapes and sizes. Each with their own platform, upload process, protocols, rules and dreaded approval process. You only need Google to find out who exactly these sites are but some of the most obvious are:
- iStock (owned by Getty)
- Adobe Images (yes. Adobe, as in the PDF and Photoshop people – their image search, if you didn’t know already, is now built directly inside of Photoshop as well as their other applications), and so on.
- Bigstock (owned by Shutterstock)
And so on…
Joining most is easy, apart from Getty – you can’t join. Like an exclusive gentleman’s club, you must be invited. I learned that the hard way, and can tell you that I was somewhat miffed when I was first rebuffed. It was only after I had posted images to other sites that I was finally invited to contribute. And I remember that day as one of the best…
…okay, maybe it wasn’t that momentous, but I can tell you that when I was finally approved and was able to log into the Getty portal, it was like becoming a member of an elite club. One that, by the way, has perhaps the slowest approval times than any of the other sites put together! So, if you’re fortunate enough to be invited to join, be prepared to upload your images, forget about them only to potentially discover, a week or two later, that they’ve been rejected on a technicality. Then, rinse and repeat.
On a positive note, they do at least have the good grace to tell you what exactly is wrong with your batch so that you can at least attempt to fix and resubmit, which is more than I can say for some of the others.
As mentioned, each and every one of the stock photography sites has its pros and cons. No two are the same which means that what is accepted on one site may not necessarily be accepted on another. Conversely, and this is good news, what’s rejected or not permitted on one is often welcomed with open pixels elsewhere. So, don’t be put off by rejection. Instead, learn from it. In particular, learn the foibles of each and every site since support for contributors is either limited, non -existent or, once again, slow. Alternatively, and not surprisingly, all offer help forums so if you’re one of those people who doesn’t mind ploughing through them then you’re in luck.
But anyway, enough of all of this doom and gloom. What happened to all of the creativity? All of the glamour?
As the photographer/producer, that’s up to you. Your shoots can be as glam or as gritty as you want them to be. But remember, if you’re shooting to sell then you’ll need to be minded of this before even scheduling your photoshoot. Ask yourself, what’s your objective? What kind of images do you want the shoot to yield, how many, and how could they be used by prospective downloaders (customers)? Will you be shooting still, moving images or both? And, have you allowed enough time in your shooting schedule for this?
What? Weren’t you planning on drawing up a schedule? Were you just going to wing it?
Are you a glutton for punishment?
Beyond pressing the shutter button, raising a schedule is probably one of the most important elements of any photoshoot. Especially if you’re planning to shoot multiple themes on the same day with multiple locations and wardrobe changes. Without it, well, you’re just asking for trouble. Especially if you’re paying for the location and your model/s by the hour. Unless you have a very clear vision of which shots you want from each of your sets, and you’re familiar with the location, capability of your model and the meteorological conditions. I wholeheartedly recommend that you draw up a schedule. Not necessarily to refer to every five seconds. In fact, I rarely look at the schedule while I’m working, but I do know, thanks to it, at which stage I should be at any given hour. Without it, I’ve known shoots digress to all kinds of creative shots but only a few that can be used commercially.
Plan. If not in meticulous detail then to the point of at least knowing the must-haves that you want to come away from the shoot with. Unless you’re shooting for fun. In that case, Buona Fortuna! Let that creativity flow!
Becoming a Getty contributor and knowing you’re part of an exclusive clan feels like a great achievement, but they also happen to be one of the slowest image approvers in the business and even then, more than often, your images stand a good chance of being rejected if you haven’t meticulously followed the submission guidelines.
What does it pay?
Stock photography sites work like SAAS (Software As a Service) or On Demand. Subscribers select a subscription service and, subject to the level of subscription, can download a specific or unlimited quantity of still or moving images per month. You, as a contributor, will ear a royalty each time your image/footage is downloaded but the amount you receive is determined by the level of subscription that the downloader has. Yet, interestingly, you’ll earn more from a ‘pay as you go’ subscriber than one that pays a fixed monthly fee. This means that the amount you receive from any given image will vary between subscribers and, of course, websites.
So, if you’re looking to get rich fast, this may not be for you. Stock photography is a game of numbers. The more images you’ve contributed, the more you stand the chance of making a sale. Yet the value of that sale will differ between the type of sale (download) and the royalty that each website is willing to pay for that sale. And this is, more than often, a case of cents and not dollars.
Stock photography contribution is a long-term investment and is certainly a case of ‘speculate to accumulate.’ Your models and any location or prop hire, however, are not. Which means that unless you have ready and free access to it, you will need to invest to visualise your idea.
Are you prepared to do that?
If so, check out my next post in this series where I’ll be digging deeper into conceiving photoshoots, location scouting and casting. I’ll also be sharing details of my bestselling images, failed assignments, money pitfalls and run-ins I have had with the locals and even the online community when one of my articles prompted a barrage of abuse.
See you in the next post.