Interview with Sarah Fix, Blend Images creative director and co-owner.
John: Sarah, you have a wealth of experience in the stock
industry. You were managing editor at Westlight, Manager of Content Development
for Corbis, Associate Creative Director at Picture Arts, and now you are
Creative Director and co-owner of Blend Images.
Talk to any photographer who has had the opportunity to
work with you over the years and you will find a rare combination of respect and
affection. It was a real coup for Blend Images to have you come on board.
Sarah: Thanks for the kind words
John: How did you get into the stock business in the first place?
Sarah: In 1993 I applied to an ad in
the LA Times for a sales position at Westlight, a stock photography agency on
the West Coast that was acquired by Corbis in 1998. I was an account executive
for 3 years before moving into the editing department.
This was a great introduction
into stock photography. It gave me the ability to visit clients in the major
U.S. markets and gain an understanding of what sells and to whom. The owner of
Westlight, Craig Aurness, was a pioneer in the industry, a mentor, and a real
character. He taught me a lot about analyzing sales data and applying it to
This was “old school” stock
photography -- working with 3 million transparencies, faxed research requests,
and computers that ran on DOS rather than Windows. The industry has come a long
way since those early days.
John: As Creative Director at Blend Images what are your
Sarah: I’m responsible for the
creative functions of the company, which include the look and feel of the
collection, marketing, and artist relations.
John: What is your favorite part of the job?
Sarah: The people. I feel so lucky
to collaborate with such a talented group. Blend has a unique company culture
where there is a lot of communication and sharing of ideas -- both with the
staff and photographers.
John: What part is the most challenging for you?
Sarah: Because Blend has a unique
co-op style business structure, resources available for investments in marketing
and new product lines are limited. It’s always a challenge to determine where
best to invest our time and money. While challenging, it’s also rewarding when
those investments pay off.
John: Is working at Blend different than at the other agencies
you have worked at? If so, how is it different?
Sarah: It is a very different
experience working for Blend for a number of reasons.
- Blend is owned by a co-op of
photographers. This creates a culture focused on photographers and their
success, as well as the company’s. The amount of communication, creative
research, and sales data that is shared amongst the community is
unprecedented in the stock industry. I don’t know of any other agency that
is as transparent and forthcoming with information as Blend is.
- We have a very concentrated
pool of photographers that are a part of Blend. There are 23 owners and 48
contributing photographers. We have been very selective with photographer
recruitment to make sure that everyone that contributes is actively and
consistently submitting images. Most agencies have an 80/20 rule, with 20%
of the photographers being active. At Blend, that activity rate is closer to
- Blend is very efficient and
nimble. We have a modern approach to business: hiring the best staff we can
get regardless of where they are located, using the latest technologies for
workflow, data, and communication. We have a small staff, each with a
distinct skill set, extensive industry experience, and willingness to do all
tasks big and small.
John: You have worked with a lot of photographers over the
years. Have you found any particular qualities that make for a good stock
Sarah: I think the basic ingredients
for doing well in stock are: shoot consistently, shoot competitively, and have a
good understanding of the needs of the collection.
The top earning photographers
take it a step further:
- Shoot a range of subjects to
diversify their portfolio. This insures their ability to capture a range of
sales and to keep from competing against themselves.
- Know what sells. They analyze
their sales data very closely to take advantage of re-shooting (in a
different way) their top sellers and use top selling locations and models.
- Shoot with a strategy to fill
- Spend a significant amount of
time in pre-production creating an effective shoot list that prioritizes top
- Craft a shoot with an end
client in mind. It is important not only to know clients’ concept and
subject needs, but also to create a composition that gives the client
flexibility for copy and cropping.
John: The stock industry has gone through some real sea changes
in the last few years, and that change doesn’t seem to be slowing down. We’ve
seen the emergence and solidification of Micro Stock, the over-supply of RF
imagery along with dropping RPIs, and the seemingly non-stop consolidation of
Can you offer any strategies for stock shooters in coping
with these changes?
Sarah: Photographers need not only to
be creative but also to keep solid business principals in mind.
As a creative professional,
shoot with a vision in mind. Put your focus into creating emotional images that
have energy and engage the viewer. As an entrepreneur, be informed. Spend your
money wisely and create a product that is needed. Be media savvy. Understand new
technologies and media use to stay ahead of the curve.
John: Crowd sourcing and Micro Stock seems to be on the tips of
everyone’s tongues. Can you talk about Micro Stock a bit, and it’s place in the
hierarchy of stock.
Sarah: You can find a lot of great
work in micro, but ultimately the success of the model will largely be
determined by its economic viability. Professional photographers must be able to
earn enough from the model to continue, in turn, to generate new content.
What we’re witnessing in micro
is some great work from early adopters. How many of those who are investing in
professional quality shoots will be doing so in two or three years? Hard to
say. Some pros who invested heavily in micro have already decided to pack it
John: Do you think veteran stock shooters should dip their toes
Sarah: From a business perspective, a
top earning photographer who has shot micro would do a better job than I at
explaining the math and profitability of this licensing model. From my
perspective, I think a photographer’s personality should also weigh into their
You have to enjoy managing a
large production studio and shooting volume in order to be successful at micro.
If it makes business sense and fits your personality and interests, then sure,
shoot micro. I think it is a very specific person that would enjoy the
John: Blend has recently introduced Rights Managed imagery with
non-exclusive world distribution. Can you share with us the story of why and
how this innovative offering came about?
Sarah: Blend’s brand position is “the
leaders of multicultural content”. Our royalty free collection has given us a
great foundation. To further leverage our niche, it is important to offer
content across a range of price points that can appeal to a broad base of
clients. To best utilize our core competency, as a group, it made sense to
create a high-end brand.
The rights managed licensing
model is experiencing resurgence. It allows clients to have services that are
not available in royalty free or micro stock (i.e. exclusivity, sensitive
subject approval, and free research).
When Blend decided to create a
rights managed collection, it was shortly after Getty Images moved, The
ImageBank collection, from rights managed to rights ready. This presented a huge
hole in the industry to have the largest and most profitable rights managed
collection changed to another licensing model. Creating a need for new, top
selling, RM imagery in the market.
Every focus group I have ever
seen that focuses on traditional buyers will say that there first priority is
finding the right image, second is ease of use, and third is price. We have
been encouraged by the feedback we have heard from clients and distributors
about the continued need for high quality, rights managed content.
John: This is a tough question, but how do you differentiate
between Micro, RF and RM photos?
Sarah: Yes indeed, this is a tough
question, partly because it is somewhat subjective and partly because it is much
easier to illustrate with visual examples. But I’ll give it a try.
Price point dictates volume
required for profitability. And volume dictatessubject and styles. Micro, with the lowest price point, requires a
very high volume to generate a return per image, or per shoot, that is
profitable for the contributor over time. If a photographer wants to work in the
micro model, his or her imagery has to have wide appeal and applicability, as
the images must be licensed hundreds of times annually for the content to be
In the traditional royalty
free model, the same principle applies; but because license prices are higher
than micro, images can have a more selective appeal as volume of licenses can be
smaller. This is why in RF there is typically a wider range of styles andoften more interesting content in these collections.
The rights managed licensing
model has distinct qualities that influence what content is selected for this
model. It is the only one that is not a straight e-commerce transaction and that
is priced based on the value that the image has to the project.
This creates a wider range of
pricing that addresses the needs of editorial use (which might not be able to
pay the royalty free price) and to the advertising agency licensing an image to
drive a campaign. Rights managed also offers customer services that are not
available with the other licensing models, such as exclusivity and sensitive
Images best suited for this
licensing model are: highly conceptual, more complex story telling within a
single image, and unique moments or subjects.
John: Do you see Blend getting involved with a Micro offering?
Sarah: As a specialized collection,
it would be difficult for us to generate the transactional volume to justify a
very low licensing fee. Thereis, however, opportunity to expand out our collection and pricing
to capture a full range of sales from various clients within our multicultural
niche, licensing everything from value-priced mid-level stock images up to
exclusive rights managed work.
John: Do you have any advice for jaded veterans?
Sarah: It’s completely understandable
how one could be exhausted by all the change. But it is important to accept that
change has been constant in the stock world for the past twenty years. Nothing
was more disruptive than moving from analog to digital for example – and because
there was digital, there was RF.
And now that advertising is
increasingly moving online and pictures are being created and used in more ways
and in more formats and by more people in the digiverse, we have micro. And
there will be more change to come – perhaps all or most stock stills will be
by-products of motion shooting. It is exhausting, but ultimately self-defeating
if one doesn’t see change as opportunity.
John: Are you optimistic about the future of stock photography?
Sarah: I am optimistic that companies
and photographers who adapt to change will thrive.
John: Any words you care to leave us with?
Sarah: A photographer’s greatest
assets are their creativity and ability to speak to the market. What is your
creative advantage? What do you do better than most?
There is always opportunity
during challenging times. Right now in our industry there are fewer images being
created, fewer shoots with higher production value, social networking is making
it easier to give and receive information, the rights managed licensing model is
in need of new content, motion is gaining momentum with affordable cameras that
capture both stills and motion – how do you plan on taking advantage of this
moment? Adapt as the market changes.