Interview with Photographer, Art Director and Editor Scott Libolt
Thank you John for the opportunity. It’s a privilege to be interviewed by a top shelf photographer such as yourself. In efforts to be completely candid, I must preface this interview by stating these are simply my current opinions, they are ever changing, and in no way represent the viewpoint of any stock agencies I have ever worked for. Not everyone agrees with me all of the time …not even myself.
Scott, I have only been art directed on stock shoots twice in my life, and once was by you. I have to say it was a great experience and I remember thinking during the shoot that you were saving my… well, lets say your contribution to that shoot saved the day.
Ah, yes… our famous Lowrider shoot. Good times… we’ll have to do another one soon.
Still, I don’t really know a whole lot about you. I know you shoot stock and you have been (and are) an editor/art director for Blend images. Can you fill us in on your journey to being both an art director and a stock shooter?
My first photo gigs were in the early 90’s shooting publicity stills on film sets (mostly horror films) in Los Angeles. This was one of the most interesting photography experiences of my career. I learned a lot about filmmaking and the camaraderie on-set is wonderful …but I couldn’t see myself growing old in Los Angeles eating junk food and smoking cigarettes in-between takes.
Inspired by travel photography, I became curious about stock photography and employed myself at Westlight (one of the top five agencies at the time). Westlight was formed by National Geographic photographers, lead by Craig Aurness. Amazed by the people and photography that surrounded me, I strayed from the assignment path completely and by 2000, I began shooting stock under the pseudonym, “PBNJ Productions”. Simultaneously, I held Editor and Director positions inside agencies such as Corbis, Brand X Pictures, Jupiter Images, Blend Images, and SuperStock.
You could say I bring a unique combination of skills and experience to my profession now as I shoot for as many stock agencies as I have worked inside. The rounded perspective has made me a well-informed advocate for photographers and agencies alike. I currently divide my time between shooting stock, assignments, creative consulting for photographers, and freelance photo editing for Blend, SuperStock, and the Green Labor Journal. My wife and I just moved to Miami Beach last year, which we are very excited about.
Scott, how does your experience as an art director change your approach to photography?
Not so much the directing, but the overall agency experience has made me a much more profitable stock photographer for sure. Knowing what makes a stock photo sell is the key to success in this business. Evolving one’s style with the changing times is also very important. My only complaint is that after 14 years in this industry, it becomes harder for me to shoot subjects like fine art, edgy self-promos, editorials, etc.. I developed a bad habit of questioning the commercial value of whatever I was working on. This is really bad for the creative process and I’ve had to distance myself from stock in the past to redefine my inspirations and renew confidence in my creativity.
Does your experience as a photographer improve your ability to communicate and work with other photographers in your capacity as an editor/art director?
Consulting photographers on making better pictures actually started with my employment at professional photo labs in the late 80’s and has been a quest ever since. My experience as a shooter and skills with Photoshop further enhance my art directing abilities. I believe that by knowing the scope of creative options and how to achieve them gives me an edge. I must say, I have my challenges as well…. I often find myself directing a photographer to shoot a scene as I would shoot it myself. It’s very hard sometimes NOT to impose my own personal style and vision onto the project even though its actually my job to do just that. Twisted, huh? With that said… my efforts have been both praised and criticized.
Do you ever want to just take the camera out of a photographer’s hands and shoot the damn shot?
Yes, and I’ve done it a number of times …though always at the photographer’s request. I’ve requested specific f-stops and lighting techniques too. Some photographers have boundaries while others commend the experience and team effort. Everyone’s different and one of the important skills of art directing stock photographers is knowing the level of participation that is expected. Years ago, I flew to the tropics to art direct a photographer for Corbis. When I arrived, the photographer told me, “I usually just shoot whatever I want” …so, I was completely hands off and the photography was beautiful. Whatever it takes… I don’t mind lugging C-Stands or ordering lunch.
Do you have any observations about having your own work edited by someone else?
Because of my experience, I provide very tightly edited shoots to my agencies. As a result, my acceptance rate is pretty high and RPI is above average at most agencies. I know what my best-sellers will be and I think it’s important not to give an editor any opportunities to choose bad (less sellable) images. Equally important, I don’t want editors to over-select by choosing too many unneeded frames. Each picture costs me time and money in post-production and I don’t want to clog up my workflow with low or non-selling similars. I do really like being art directed on a shoot. It takes off a lot of pressure and frees me up to be more creative.
What do you like to shoot the most?
This is a hard question for most stock photographers as many are generalists. With stock, I mostly like the constant changing of subject matter and strategizing new challenges with each shoot. My wife and I shoot most of our projects together. Our inspirations are similar and our specialty is People/Lifestyles. However we both find more personal fulfillment these days when shooting spontaneous travel and fine art. When I’m shooting, I think equally about the composition, the feeling, and the authenticity conveyed within the image. Hitting the target with all of these crucial aspects gives me much joy and satisfaction …and this feeling is why I shoot.
Coming up with a constant stream of ideas can be pretty daunting. What is your approach?
When seeking subject matter for stock photography, it’s best to keep a calendar of events. Start by outlining everything that is in some way participated or celebrated…. Holidays, Sports, Travel, Weddings, Babies, School, etc… Nearly everything humans obsess on is cyclical. The same goes for needs of art buyers. If photographers can hit with the right subjects at the right time, they can maximize the life and profit of their images. Once you have made a subject calendar that is in-line with your inspirations, locale, and resources… you must shift the whole schedule backwards to account for advance art buying (about 3-4 months) and your “time-to-market”. Time-to-market varies depending on your own workflow and that of your agencies. You can plan your whole year out in advance and use it over and over. If I only followed my own advice with this process, I’d be… well… probably not sitting at my computer right now.
To what extent do you research your shoot ideas?
Films, fashion mags, and real life are my top places for inspiration. Really great styling, quirky documentaries, unique people, and interesting places turn me on. It’s so important to take time and soak up the things that surround us every day. I mean really soak it up… you might realize that you are missing quite a bit.
For ideas (other than the handy subject calendar), I suggest looking everywhere EXCEPT at stock agency search results. Look there ONLY to see what your competition is. Do not make a shot-list from what already exists. Photographers must shoot outside the redundancy found in agencies if they want their pictures to be noticed and licensed. Working with a good art director or editor can help you develop your ideas and steer you into a more original space.
How do you go about finding the “holes” in agency collections?
Your editors should be able to give you a list of holes …or you can research them pretty well yourself. With our travel photography, we simply do destination-specific searches, break-up the trips into cities, and portion out to the agent with the least amount of relevant search results. Same process can be done with lifestyle shoots by searching subject, concept, and ethnicity to find the agency with the least coverage.
How do you prepare for a stock shoot?
I like to get all the production tasks locked-down first before I let myself indulge in the creative part. Location, casting, crew, permits, props, wardrobe, rentals, lunch, and logistics first. Then hopefully, we’ll have a couple of days left for creative but not always. By this time, I’ll have likely accumulated the key shots in the back of my mind or on little scrap notes I stuff in my pockets. Production can be stressful but it’s also a distraction that allows for the creative process to manifest itself without too much pressure from me to be brilliant or to be doubtful.
Tell us about your experience with Blend. Has working with Blend been different for you than with past or other agencies?
Working for a progressive company like Blend is awesome. Many of Blend’s employees work from home (which is great for the planet and the bottom line). I’ve worked with Sarah Fix and Rick Becker-Leckrone, in many capacities and at many agencies, for the last 13 years. For the last few years at Blend, I’ve been responsible for editing, managing, and preparing all promotional imagery on Blend’s website and eNewsletter. My part-time schedule allows me to set my own hours and gives me time for personal projects.
You and Cristina work as a team. How do you divide up your responsibilities?
Yes… We live, love, work, and fight together 24/7. I usually drive the original concept of our shoots whether stock, portfolio, or assignment. We both share pre-production tasks and Cristina takes a lead on post-production and marketing. During our stock shoots, we both are shooting simultaneously using different focal lengths. The night before, we coordinate who will shoot what, when, and from what angle and lighting. This method has proven very successful as we generally get an equal amount of selects with two styles of coverage. It just takes more crew to assist but it is totally worth it.
In your opinion, what makes a great stock photo?
A great stock photo is fresh, unique yet familiar, can be cropped horizontal or vertical, and has space for client’s text/logo. For best sales potential, stock photos must have context and end users should be able to apply a multitude of concepts. The ever-growing trend for realistic advertising also dictates a more respectable aesthetic.
What qualities does a photographer need to succeed in stock?
A trust fund… perhaps a second job? Just kidding (kinda) …but we all have our own definitions of success. In my opinion, professional photography is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a profession. The satisfaction from making photographs is part of our profit and should be factored in (but not taxed).
It doesn’t matter what you are shooting these days (stock, editorial, or assignment), revenues have declined considerably. The hay days of the late 90’s – early 2000’s are finished and we need to get over that. The truth is however (in stock at least), the revenue back then was too high to sustain itself and a market correction was inevitable. Very few agencies actually reached high profit margins due to the overhead and marketing it takes to function and compete. I’m not saying that the current revenue average is appropriate either… the economy must factor in. I believe active shooters will see a noticeable bounce this year.
So, what qualities are needed to succeed in stock? A thoughtful and realistic approach to managing a creative business, flexibility during economic slumps, lots of research, trend awareness, and an annual production plan to create specific imagery intended to provide solutions to art buyers. Sound easy?
What are the most common mistakes you see stock shooters making?
1. New photographers shooting what they “think” stock should look like: When an agency signs a new photographer, many times it’s because of their best portfolio work (which may not look like stock at all). The photographer then believes they must change their personal style to fit “the bland and generic mold of stock”. They remove the personal flair that attracted the agency in the first place which results in a lack of feeling in their work and prevents their photographs from standing out. Don’t change your style! Instead, apply it into the commercial subject matter you are now faced with.
2. Opportunistic shooting without context: This is another mistake made by photographers new to stock. Instead of developing a commercially viable subject to shoot for stock, photographers often end up shooting what falls in their lap. A model needs headshots so a trade shoot is discussed and executed without much effort spent on making it contextual, conceptual, or even commercial. This results in a whole bunch of portraits of a model being a model. Pictures like this are in abundance and easily get lost in search results because of very little keywords associated. Put your model into a commercial role that fits their type.
3. A great shoot but no post-production: I see this more and more now that photographers are out-sourcing their processing/retouching in large batches. I understand the need to cut corners but be sure you approve the batches before submitting finals…especially if you are spending less than a dollar per image. I’ve seen whole shoots that are too dark, too muddy, bad color, poor retouching, no retouching, etc…. If the images don’t pop as thumbnails, they will get over-looked and sales will suffer. You must polish them until they are shiny and bright.
4. Wait and see: A common occurrence with new photographers is they do a few shoots, get maybe 100 pictures on-line, and then stop shooting until they see some revenue. This makes it near impossible to kick-start the royalties into anything substantial. Stock photography takes time and while you are waiting for royalties to come in, the best thing to do is keep shooting. If you want to test the waters, that’s fine …just dedicate a couple of years and make 500+ images before you analyze your earnings potential. By all means, shooting stock isn’t for all photographers but you have to jump in headfirst like you would with any other profession.
At this point in the stock industry, we generally have three choices: Rights Managed, Royalty Free, and Microstock. Do you contribute to all three models?
I actively shoot RM & RF imagery. Depending on how a shoot looks after editing, I make a choice where to direct the content. I don’t do Microstock because I can’t justify the expense vs. profit potential. I like my photography to retain a high production value… This could be in the quality of models, location, post-production, or all three. These things cost me money and I can’t lower my standards so my content can be sold for less money. I would surely lose all satisfaction from my craft. This isn’t to say it’s not right for other, hard-working individuals who are able to produce high volumes of low-touch content.
Where are you putting your most effort and why?
While we’re waiting for our assignment world to resurrect, we are shooting primarily for portfolio and then repurposing it for stock. I’ve found this to be a great way to stay creative and after using this strategy for over a year now, I don’t like to shoot anything for stock unless I can also see it in my portfolio. That means it can’t look a thing like stock. It’s my self-inflicted rehab from years of commercial compromise. And funniest thing of all… the agencies love the content. My editor at Blend remarked he had not seen a submission with so much soul in a long time. This also changes our subject line up for the year because we shoot to attract specific clients …so we shoot with a dual purpose which doubles the value of our photographs and without losing site of client’s needs.
There are many who question the long-term viability of the Microstock model. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I think Microstock is here to stay and the prices will likely continue to rise. I believe it is a price-point dictated partially by an actual consumer need but mostly by individuals who started with a simple, short-term plan of building a low-touch, high-traffic, content purchasing website with only one purpose… to sell it and get out. Geniuses in that respect, I must say… but polar opposite to an agency founded by photographers who have longer-term goals.
Any other thoughts on how the stock industry might look in coming years?
The thought of trying to predict it exhausts me. We have had so many surprises in this industry. If you think about the string of events: Stock first undermined editorial assignments with an RM licensing library and separated the stock photo industry from what was previously known as clip art. Then came the RF option to balance out the playing field and even offered whole CDs of content at a further discount. We can’t forget the subscription frenzy who saw profit potential with unlimited usage of whole collections (for an annual fee). Agencies started production companies to achieve the breadth and depth required to have such wholly-owned offerings …and then comes Microstock and other low-level price points. All the while, acquisitions, productions halting, staff cuts, office closures, fire sales… and you ask me, “what’s next?”
My prediction: With so many price adjustments happening with microstock going up, RF going down, mid-level collections forming, I see the possibility for two major things happening:
1. A merging of price points. If large portions of RF content continue to move downward into a mid-level offering and microstock continues to be marked up, we will inevitably be creating a huge, possibly unmanageable pool of similarly priced content. Hopefully, the cream of the RF crop will retain integrity and remain at current rates with swift and easy access. Otherwise, art buyers looking for content might have experiences much like shoveling snow in a blizzard. I believe RM will remain pretty safe and stay somewhat like it is now. Some agencies have already added varying price points to RM which is fine as long as it’s all clean, readily available, and not confusing. The future challenge will be in managing the zillions of cheaper pictures efficiently.
2. As these aspects of the industry become blurred together by price merging, possible collection mergers, acquisitions, non-exclusive cross-over, etc… There will be a few beacons of light in the dense fog: Niche agencies that retain specialty aspects and highly organized collections of top-shelf content should be able to cleverly set themselves apart from the growing masses. What could be better for an art buyer than the salvation of a few great specialty shops where they can get in, find exactly what they need, and get out quickly. The “positive experience” of licensing content will become increasingly important for agencies to provide. Veer had this strategy figured out long ago with their tightly edited collection and award winning marketing...and they were really just another general collection that sold fonts. Going forward, I believe it may take a lot of clever marketing on the part of the specialized agencies to solidify awareness and redirect the traffic to them. They must make a big push now to change the habits of art buyers as the larger “super collections” are becoming weak and overwhelming, it might just get a little easier to grab much more of the pie. The David & Goliath era is here and other industries are experiencing this same phenomenon.
We hear an awful lot about stock footage these days. Photographers are doing some very creative things with video shot on DSLRs. The Red One has almost become a cult obsession, and who hasn’t spent too much time on YouTube? Has the time to shoot video arrived and do you participate in, or have any plans to move into, stock footage?
I thought about getting into footage ten years ago when cinematographers were making great money…however, I was quickly uninspired when I heard that a lot of the subjects I was interested in were already covered. Agencies were limited at that time and were no longer accepting stuff like time-lapse, slow motion, street scenes, nature scenes, artsy stuff, etc., so I decided to stick with stills. Now, with new HD cameras flooding the market, Internet streaming, and websites hungry for video content, it’s certainly reopened the door. Footage is a highly accessible media with a larger marketplace than ever before and agencies need to replace a lot of their old film footage with newer looking digital coverage.
Knowing what we know about the evolution of stock stills, you can guess what my concerns might be if the prices of footage continues to be unregulated by the filmmakers and offered below RM prices. Web usage fees are currently very low (even for footage) and it probably should be …but we can’t propagate another medium where the cost of production takes a year or two to recoup before seeing profits. I love motion and often reflect on my time spent on film sets. I’d love to shoot and direct stock footage…so I’d love for my worries to be put at ease. Filmmakers need to unite and hold firm on licensing fees. UNIONIZE.
Do you track your sales results? If so, what kind of information are you looking for?
I use to keep very elaborate records for many years. I tracked all my shoots… production cost, revenue per shoot per year, revenue per image, best selling images, etc…. I gained a lot of helpful information and could see which shoots did well, which didn’t, longevity of images, rate of decline, seasonal peaks, etc… My spreadsheets were beautiful works of art.
In 2008, I stopped tracking everything except my average Revenue Per Image (RPI) and my average Cost Per Image (CPI). That’s really the bottom line for me and the simpler I can make things, the less time I have to sit at my computer. Once you know your average RPI (from all agencies combined), you just have to keep your CPI well below. I like to keep my CPI at 50% of my average RPI so I can be somewhat assured that the shoot will reach profit in the first year. The agency with the highest individual RPI usually gets first look at our shoots. As these averages fluctuate, so do my investments in shooting.
Assuming you know which of your images are best sellers, how can you use that information to your advantage (try as I might, duplicating best-sellers has never proven particularly successful for me)?
Well, for example: Say you have a testimonial portrait of an African American male café owner and it sells really well. Sure you can copy the shot and use a female or another ethnicity male. Sometimes it works really well but it’s not a sure thing. Depends a lot if the shot is concept driven or if it relies on the model’s charm. Often enough, the model is the single most important thing to a client. Could also be the timing of the first shot that made it hot…then, after a year or two, the concept isn’t as relevant to our society.
The common thread in my best sellers is that they are all very conceptual, usually rare in the industry, or if not rare, they are best-of-class executions …meaning they are better (or more up-to-date) than the best of what’s on the market. I could duplicate them all and make out nicely but I find it boring to repeat myself. Duplication can be good but only after your original image has lived its life out. If you duplicate your shots too soon, your images are in competition with each other. This does little to diversify your collection and is not an efficient way to increase your profit or the profit of the agency. It’s like playing multiple bingo cards… you want to cover as many slots as possible (not the same slots, multiple times).
Do you do any direct sales?
Not any stock sales but my wife and I are launching a fine art website by end of this year.
Do you think that direct sales will be an increasing part of the puzzle in coming years?
Definitely …but I think it is an either/or type of business model. Having agencies sell for me frees me up to do things other than stock photography. If selling stock was my only passion, I’d probably sell direct too. I think it will become increasingly easier to make direct sales provided your website is optimized for visibility. There are so many new image search tools being introduced so Google will become more effective in time. If you decide to market stock directly, it doesn’t mean you have to stop selling through your agencies. Diversify your collection as much as possible.
As I work on my SEO and increase my web traffic, people are finding and licensing images from me. They are finding my images through Google searches. So far that is the exception rather than the rule. Do you believe that such online searches will become increasingly important for buyers to find stock photos, or will such searches remain on the periphery?
Finding photographer’s images directly is bound to increase but I think sales will remain periphery in comparison to agency websites unless the photographers have enough money and time to continue a vigorous marketing and SEO strategy. So, it’s a matter of doing the math and comparing the net profits same as we do with all of our agents. In the end, I think it is still wiser to sell through as many viable portals as possible.
Do you have any thoughts about utilizing Flickr to gain an audience for stock images?
I don’t have time for social networking sites and even if I did, I don’t believe in using these websites for monetary gain. I can’t believe that a client I am trying to attract actually has time to “friend” or “follower” me. I have no interest in virtual fame or popularity. I believe publicity seeking on these sites goes against the initial concept of sharing content and ideas. At least this is how they started …and the whole Internet for that matter was based on sharing. I know that we rely on the Internet now to make a living …but Americans shouldn’t try so hard to commoditize everything. Instead, make time for real life contacts, tangible experiences, and real friendships.
Scott, a young photographer visited me in my studio this afternoon and asked if she should pursue stock for a career. In the past I always would have been encouraging, but today I just couldn’t sing the praises of the industry. What do you, or would you, tell young photographers if they ask about a career in stock? What advice would you offer to those new to, or just beginning their careers in stock photography?
Stock photography can be really fun, creative, and rewarding. It’s what you make of it really. Work on your online portfolio! Your website isn’t just to help you get assignments…. It will also help you get contracts at agencies, attract models, and give you industry respect when collaborating with stylists and negotiating access to locations.
There are two main strategies to making stock photos. Some shooters concentrate on quantity in hopes that a lot of pictures will sell for a little bit each while others concentrate efforts on making single images, usually very conceptual, that will sell fewer times but for bigger amounts. Find the method that best fits your personal inspirations, skills, and lifestyle.
The first year in stock is very hard as there won’t be much money coming in. Stock takes time so you must be patient and set yourself goals as to how much money you can invest to kick-start that revenue. Be sure to choose an agency who has a good RPI. Look on their website and contact some photographers who are shooting similar content for them. You should try to make at least 200-300 selected images in the first year (per agency). If you do your research, listen to your editor, shoot smart subjects with commercial models, and spend not more than $5000 - $7000 doing it, you should be in great shape and inline to increase your goals for the 2nd year. If you can achieve more than 300 selects, your experience will be more rewarding. Your revenue expectations must be realistic and your faith will be tested more than once.
Do you have any advice for us old dogs about how to survive this image-glut and the twin terrors of Microstock pricing and the recession?
It’s a very hard time for the advertising industry as a whole right now. One good thing is that recessions are cyclical …so our economy is as sure to recover, as it is sure to fall again in 5-7 years. We all need to understand that we are in a non-necessity industry making every one of us extremely vulnerable during economic slumps. Therefore, we must not live beyond our means. As for microstock’s affect on our livelihoods, I don’t think there is anything to do except to adjust and evolve our business models to accommodate the changes. With good quality images flooding into these lower price points, all we can do is make better pictures so we can continue to justify a higher price and make our pictures stand out among the “glut” as you put it.
Is there a positive note you can leave us on?
I think there is a renewed sense of hope for the Rights Managed licensing. RM built the foundation for this industry and I believe we are coming full circle to embrace it once again. My personal RM revenue has seen the least decline and the most stability over the last decade …so in the long term; I think that’s a pretty smart place to invest. I believe there will always be a large enough quantity of clients who prefer licensing RM imagery through a respected source rather than wade through a rising sea of lower-level imagery. If RM’s higher standard of quality remains in place (meaning if agencies don’t flood it with similars and mediocrity), it’s armor will shine brightly and continue to provide an outlet for professional stock photographers and sophisticated art buyers alike. It’s up to everyone’s ability to uphold the integrity and prestige of RM…or the perception at least. Based on our experience with what is happening to every other price point, we have no choice. I have a similar hope for very high-end RF imagery with proven sales records. While most agencies are spending time identifying lower-end imagery to sell at a discount, I think it’s just as important to use efforts to identify the highest quality and push it forward. There is a fog coming and agencies need to work hard on their shine and allure.
A similar circumstance with stock footage… the integrity of the filmmakers will be challenged by low prices and limited licensing options through big agencies. Footage has a lot of possibilities if filmmakers come together and form outlets for direct sales similar to how Blend Images formed as a unity of photographers interested in retaining control of content.
Thank you John for the opportunity to inform, inspire, anger, and vent. I hope you enjoyed my ranting. I’m always open to comments and invite criticisms. Photographers seeking creative consultations, please drop me a note on the contact page of my website: http://www.redinger-libolt.com