Interview with Jonathan Ross
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Jonathan, I know that you and your wife Amy are a team. How did that come about?
We met in a Commercial Photography program in college 20 years ago. I held the door open for her on her first day of class, smartest thing I ever did. Chivalry can pay off sometimes. We finished school and opened a studio right away. Well it was really a garage but it had our sign on the door. That’s where the Andersen Ross name came from, our surnames before we married.
How do you divide up your responsibilities?
It was first decided by some of our client base. 20 years ago we only shot commercial work. Believe it or not some clients didn’t want a woman as their photographer, not easy for us to accept at the time but we needed to keep the doors open.
Then we started to realize Amy was much more business minded than me and I was more comfortable with an AD over my shoulder while shooting. Amy is still an amazing photographer and I think once our kids have moved on she will become the real artist in the family.
I know you and Amy as pioneers and powerhouses in the Royalty Free arena. You two are also founders of Blend Images, an agency offering both RF and Rights Managed images. You guys truly have a wealth of experience in the stock photo marketplace. Now I understand you are dipping your toe, or maybe your whole foot, in the Micro stock waters.
Blend has been a great part of our career not just from the financial side but especially through the amazing people we have gotten to meet and work with, as well as make great friends and mentors. By surrounding ourselves with such strong photographers we raised the quality level of our work. I have always found it better to play ball with players more skilled than yourself if you want to improve your own game.
Blend was really the birth of community stock photography. Similar to what Micro has become today, just on a much larger scale. Before that stock was a very private business.
We are also fortunate to be owners in Cultura Images a collection of European Lifestyle imagery run by another incredible group of professionals.
We have collections in every pot. RM, RF and Micro. Every year we spend some time and budget on R & D. Just like 10 years ago when Macro RF began we tested the waters and found it a good investment. This year was Micro and we shot a few thousand images to get a good feeling for this emerging market. We still produce for all stock models but feel it is important to stay involved and understand the changes in our marketplace.
Micro stock has been around for awhile now. Certain stars, like Yuri Arcurs, have established themselves and can earn truly impressive amounts of money. Traditional shooters from the RM and RF markets are also moving into Micro. The landscape for Micro stock is changing.
It is changing almost daily it seems. I don’t know where the future of Micro is going but we felt it was important to be involved in the evolution. More eggs in more baskets, that’s our motto.
Can you talk a bit about the opportunity that exists, as you see it, in Micro?
I love to crunch numbers and that is in large part why we produced Micro this past year. We want straight relevant data so we can invest properly in the future. I have seen an increase in Micro returns but they haven’t passed our Macro RPI’s, yet.
I see changes in the future of Micro. One change I see that could take place is more niche style Micro sites. Like Blend Images is a multi ethnic collection and Cultura is based on European content. I see something to that effect around the corner to make it easier for buyers to find the images they need in Micro.
Also Micro agencies being more selective with their content and with whom they have as image providers, much like Macro is today. Right now just about anyone can upload content to Micro once they pass the technical qualifications. Possibly we will see Micro collections that are by invitation only to the strongest image providers. Tomorrow is another day and unfortunately my crystal ball is at the shop being repaired.
Do you think that everyone needs to be in Micro?
I think that is a question that can only be answered by each individual as they experiment in this newest stock model. Not everyone is cut out for every market. I find in Micro the best sellers for us are really the meat and potatoes of stock so you can see numerous sales. Not every photographer wants to shoot meat and potatoes.
What should photographers from the RM and RF world of stock know before they move into Micro?
A lot. They are different models and they need to be approached differently. When we shoot for RM we might only get 10-30 images selected from a days shoot. Micro we can shoot 200 in a day but it takes a great deal of choreography to get that kind of shot count and not be redundant.
Keeping cost down is a big part of the Micro world. There is also the technical side such as key wording and uploading to many sites at the same time that takes some practice to work the bugs out.
The up side about Micro is there is a feeling of freshness and excitement from the photographers that is sometimes hard to find from Macro shooters these days and I find that very motivating.
How is your approach different when shooting for RM, RF and Micro?
RM and RF really depend on the image and how specific it is for our buyers. If the image is highly produced but may only be of interest to a smaller group of buyers that are willing to pay well to obtain that unique image, then we tend to put it in RM. Macro RF is again a higher production value than Micro with less similars but it appeals to a larger audience than our RM. Micro is our least expensive production per image and that work is very broad in it’s applications, so to try and lure as many buyers as possible and reach a vast market. We find simple straight and clean works best in Micro. We are making a very conscience effort to keep our Micro and Macro styles different at this time.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing stock shooters today?
There are many challenges in stock and there always have been. Now I think with the evolution of technology and the ability for the entire world to pick up a camera for cheap and take a good photo is much easier than when I started. If 100,000 people shoot all year and each one gets 5 great photos that is 500,000 great images added to the market with little return for each of those 100,000 photographers. For the full time stock shooter that makes competing more difficult.
Diversification of agencies representing your images, watching the pennies and shooting the right content buyers need I think is the best way to stay strong in this business today. Old dogs need to adjust to this market even in RM and Macro RF not just Micro. Woof!
How are you dealing with that challenge?
The last two years I just worked like mad to keep my income up at the same level where it had been in the past as returns began to drop. I realized this winter that I personally was burning out and not loving what I do nearly as much. I have just taken 3 months off for the first time since we opened our doors 20 years ago and feel reborn.
We dropped our staff down to just one producer and hire on as needed when shooting. We also dumped our huge studio and moved into a smaller office space since we shoot primarily on location. Between these two cut backs we reduced our overhead by over 65%. I now can shoot less and spend more time creating images that are harder for the average photographer to produce. I am also having fun again and that is so important. If you’re not having fun it shows in your work and quality of life.
How do you choose what to shoot?
It starts with research. Sometimes it’s collaboration with one of our editors to fill a need they have. We also spend time searching for holes in the collections where images need updating. Then trying to stay involved with the trends in society from what colors are popular to how the world is changing and what images best reflect those changes. Sometimes it is based off a location we gained access to that is hard to acquire.
One good reason for shooting lifestyle is that after a few years the same shots need to be reproduced to keep up with social change. We chose lifestyle partially for that reason but also because we love working with people. They add to the days work so much,It is a team effort. From model to producer to photographer, it’s a blast. This year’s efforts are on creating believable slices of life that capture raw emotion and focus on a positive future in a global market. Boy, that was a mouthful.
What do you enjoy shooting the most?
People are my favorite subject because of the interaction that takes place between the models and myself. I love to motivate people and share positive energy. On a good shoot the energy level is through the roof, it takes me hours to come down from the buzz. I love it. Kids top the bill for me, they aren’t afraid to show who they really are. Their walls seem to come down much quicker than adults.
Do you participate in the Fine Art market?
I don’t really at this time, however that is my plan for spending the last chapter of my career in image making. I don’t want to rely on my fine art or possibly documentary work to have to pay the bills. I’m concerned that it will keep me from creating what I see instead of what I think others want to see, does that even make sense?
How does Andersen Ross handle post-production?
I have a great post producer I contract with. I do the edit, set the basic color and density and crop the image on a small file then send it to the magician that makes it perfect. I used to do all my own processing in the beginning but over time we found the more I was clicking the camera the more we could produce and offset the cost of a post-production person while increasing our revenue. I still do post for my personal work.
Do you have a staff?
Just my producer is with me now Laura Marchbanks and of course Amy my wife, they really keep this company moving ahead. We hire everyone else on an as needed basis to help keep the costs down. I would prefer to keep a full staff but that is all part of adapting to the changes in the market. It also means I don’t have to shoot nearly as much to cover the overhead, which leaves more time for the family.
Any plans to get into video?
Yes, that is our R & D for this year. We are working out an arrangement with a production company that shoots the Red One. They have been working in film production for years and will help us get up to speed from the get go.
Instead of just jumping in and spending more money we saw this as an opportunity to see how much we enjoy the work while at the same time getting an education and still producing income. The video company has been trying to find a door into stock and how to produce it and that is what we can provide them with. It looks like a
win - win situation.
How do you get your models?
I would say that is one of our stronger areas of production, we have a deep casting book of great talent thanks to my producer Laura Marchbanks, a Brooks graduate. We do test casting days in studio to try out new talent just to see how and what they could be used for. We try to use the right model for the shot be it their energy or their look. We use every source these days from street casting to Craigslist and professional modeling agencies. My children used to model for Pokemon cards but their rates are too high these days.
Have any photographers been influential in your career?
My head professor in photo school Bart Attebery changed my life and we stayed friends till his passing this last year. He was one of the original Art Center graduates. I have always loved having mentors, people that push you and believe in you especially in those times you question yourself.
I have to add that when I was just starting my career I read an article in PDN about this guy that was making these conceptual images in something called Photoshop. These images were so fresh and exciting they really opened my eyes to the future of what photography could be. That was you John and I still follow your work like a schoolboy. The rest are painters not photographers, Dali and Peter Max had a big effect on me as a child.
Long term, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the stock photography industry?
It’s all I want to do so even if I am a bit skeptical at times I am not going anywhere. One thing for sure, everything in life changes and keeping up or even ahead of those changes can be viewed as either a hassle or an inspiration to push yourself, I prefer to choose the latter.
Any words of wisdom to leave us with?
If I have one concern with stock I would have to say it is in need of reevaluating the price point on small web images. When stock started online with Macro RF the agencies established a set of price points based on the size of the file. That was fine 10 years ago when the web was just a baby. Jump forward ten years and now many web sites reach far more buyers than print does. Yet we still have these very low price points for small files that are more then adequate in size to be used by companies represented on the web.
I feel it is time to make a change in that area of stock pricing and sizing. Either to bring up the prices on small web sized images or remove the small size all together. I do not understand why a printed publication pays more than a website does in this day and age. It should be based on something other then image size to establish the appropriate price point.
My local newspaper just went off press to only web two weeks ago and I think we are going to see more of the same in the future. If photographers are going to be able to stay in business I think these price points need to be addressed for the change in how our culture is exchanging information and how advertisers are reaching their buyers.
For the next while, as this stockpot continues to bubble and churn, I would say keep costs down. Don’t buy that new camera this year unless it makes you more money. Research is a bigger part of the game, more then ever before. Do your homework and get your ducks in a row before you spend your money on a shoot. Invest in R & D and try to stay true to your vision instead of just copying what you see working for others or that you have already shot yourself. Most of all have as much fun as possible, that always brings the largest rewards, financially and personally.