How does one market, sell, and distribute stock photos?
The world of stock photography is changing quickly.
Those of us who have been in the game for a lengthy period of time have difficulty with these changes, but I am convinced that in the long run the changes will offer more opportunity than ever before.
The downside is that some of us won’t be able to adapt, and indeed, the new playing field has been leveled as never before. The Internet is changing everything.
Those who want to enter this field will find that in some respects it is easier than ever (distribution channels with little or no editing and open to everyone and/or self distribution via Internet). Digital cameras offer accelerated learning, much more efficient work-flow, and greatly reduced costs.
While on the one hand there is more competition than ever, on the other there are more buyers than I would ever have thought possible just a few years ago, and there are sites, companies and individuals who give away free stock photos. Swell. But whatever the challenges to making a living with stock, the barriers to entry have never been lower. So how does one get started in stock today?
What I will attempt to do in this article is to share my perspective of what is important to consider. I will give an overview including suggestions for determining what to shoot, and making those all-important distribution choices.
Research the Market’s Needs
What to shoot?
In my opinion you’re not going to be successful unless you’re shooting something you enjoy shooting. The trick is to enjoy photographing images that are wanted and needed in the marketplace. How do I figure out what is needed? I look at images. I look everywhere images are used…the Internet, magazines, book covers, billboards and packaging.
You can log onto iStockphoto and search with ranking based on downloads and see what images are the most popular. The idea isn’t to copy anything, for two reasons. One, it won’t be you, and two; it won’t do as well as the original. Seeing what kinds of images are being used is one part, the next is shooting images that have your own unique viewpoint. If you can shoot images that fill the needs of the market place, and do it in a new and unique way, your way, success is assured…sort of.
Distribution is Key
Distribution is also a key element. You can have the best and most needed images in existence and if no one sees them, the images won’t sell. Even ordinary images, if they get a wide enough audience, will sell. So now there is another decision to be made. How do you distribute your stock photos?
A key component in this day and age is your own web site and the time to get it started is now. It is my belief that eventually the biggest market will be the world (as opposed to the current advertising, design and editorial community), and that to access that market you need web representation.
Start it now, it takes time, and a lot of it, to get your site ranked highly in the search engines. Another reason to have your work up on your own web site is to promote that work independently of the agencies. On my site I am in the process of putting up all of my images.
The ones that are licensed through agencies such as Blend, Getty, Corbis, Kimball Stock and others are marked as such. When someone is interested in an image they can see exactly where that image can be licensed, whether it is through me, or through one of the agencies representing me. I am counting on increasing my existing agency stock sales through the additional exposure generated by my site.
Right now, however, agency representation is the fastest way to get the most eyeballs of serious buyers onto your work. You have several models to choose from: Rights Managed, Royalty Free, and Micro Stock. In Rights Managed a history of the image’s licensing is kept and the price is based on a combination of factors including the industry category, the frequency and size of use, the territory and the degree of exclusiveness.
With Royalty Free the image is licensed and then, with some exceptions, can be used for anything indefinitely. The price is usually determined by file size. Micro stock is the newcomer in which the price is again determined by the size of the files, but at much lower prices in (in the $1.00 to $10.00 range).
To choose which licensing model or combination of licensing models to participate in will require additional research. There are a ton of stock forums. You can Google “stock photo forums” and “stock photo blogs” and find a bunch of them.
I currently am favoring the Rights Managed model as I tend to spend more time on each image and look for a higher price point as opposed to the greater volume of sales that is required to earn a good income from the Royalty Free and Micro models. That being said, my second best revenue-generating image over the last six months is an RF image with Blend.
Each model has its challenges. Getting a Rights Managed contract with an agency has become very difficult. But photographers do succeed at doing so…if they have images that the agency thinks brings something new, fresh and saleable to their collection. Again, it has become extremely difficult, but possible, to get a Rights Managed contract with the big agencies.
If you submit your work to an agency and they say no it doesn’t mean you should give up…just as you don’t expect an Art Director to hire you the first time they see your book. Get feedback, understand what the agency is looking for, and persevere. In my experience, agency representation, combined with hard work and creativity, is definitely a recipe for success.
Royalty Free Agencies are easier to get a contract with, but can also be a challenge. I have a number of friends who have been given contracts with Getty for RF images but not for RM images. I find that strange and really hard to justify, but it is what it is. The return per image in Royalty Free has also been plummeting. With what is certainly perceived as an over supply of images, the agencies are also looking for quality and “freshness” in the work of potential new photographers.
Alamy is an example of an agency that anyone can supply images to. However, the anecdotal evidence I have heard would indicate that earning income through Alamy can be pretty elusive. It is my experience that the easier it is to get a contract from an agency, the less money that agency will bring in for you…go figure!
Then there are the Micros…led by iStockphoto. Micro agencies are communities as well as an outlet for your work; so if your looking for camaraderie and lots of feedback (whereas with agencies like Getty there is pretty much no feed back), then Micros might be right for you.
From my research (I have no direct experience in Micro) it appears that only a very few make significant income from Micro stock. In most cases those who do earn good money have their images represented by at least six Micros…though iStockphoto may be changing that with there new exclusivity program.
Do your homework. Research the agencies thoroughly to find the one or ones that best fit your work. I have work with Blend, Getty, Corbis, Agstock, and Kimball Stock. Blend Images does a terrific job of distributing work with ethnically diverse models, Getty and Corbis are the two top general agencies.
Agstock handles my, well you guessed it, agricultural stock, and Kimball Stock does a great job handling my silly animal pictures within their specialty of Animals and Exotic Cars (kind of a strange niche combination…but hey, it works!). Having a number of agencies also helps me feel a little more secure as I am not relying on just one agency for my income.
Stock isn’t as easy to make a living as it used to be. But there are many who are thriving…and there is still room for success for those who approach it with intelligence, thoroughness, and creativity. Just remember to do your homework, research what images are needed in the market place, and make learning an ongoing process and make informed decisions on distribution.
Shooting stock successfully takes dedication and perseverance, but the rewards are a career that can pay enormously well and opens the door for a unique and exciting lifestyle.