Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Getting a start in the world of stock photography

 I've been meaning to write this post for some time now. In fact, after receiving a number of emails this fall and winter with questions regarding how to get started in stock photography, I did begin to write this article, and then lost it before I could post it. So here goes again.

Often times people ask me how it is that I afford to travel with such freedom. While there are many factors, including my inherently vagrant nature and an aversion to adult responsibilities, it is my work as a stock photographer that allows me the freedom to split my year between teaching photography at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography and traveling. In 2009 I spent more than half of the year traveling and living in nine different European countries. That freedom is a large part of what I love about my profession as a stock photographer. Given a laptop, an internet connection and my camera, I can shoot and sell my photographs from anywhere in the world. Moreover, as I travel I have found the relationship between photography and travel to be one of symbiosis; while my photography pays for my travels, my trips (among other things) take me to places that inspire me photographically and allow me to continue photographing and strengthening my portfolio of stock images. While it is certainly possible to teach yourself, for me it was my education at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, and participation in the Summer Intensive program in 2005 that really propelled me into a more serious career in photography. 

My aim in writing this post is simply to share my experiences over the past three and a half years as a stock photographer. I'll do my best to answer a few of the questions that I have been asked regularly by students and friends who are interested in getting into stock photography, as well as a few of the questions that I wish someone had been able to answer for me when I was first starting out. If you don't already have a general understanding of what stock photography is, you can easily wiki/google it and find lots of good information (along with plenty of biased rants). Here's a quick overview of some basic terms relating to stock photography.

**Disclaimer. I am biased. I love iStockphoto and Getty Images. I reference these companies more than any others because they are what I know and what have worked for me. I encourage you to do your own research and find what works for you.**

Your Questions:

Do I need model releases?
Yes. Start getting them now, even if you haven't started submitting to an agency. Your homemade model releases won't cut it. Each stock agency has their own release. Some accept other agencies releases, some don't. If you're not sure what release to use, I would use the Getty release (which is accepted at iStock as well).

What are the Minimum Camera Requirements?
 Each agency is different. If you have better than a 6mpx camera you should be fine with most all of the microstock agencies. Getty and Aurora are stricter.

What photos should I submit?
For your initial application, submit images that are technically sound and illustrate some sort of concept or evoke emotion without being cliched. View them at 100% to check the focus, dust spots, noise, trademarks, ect. Once you are accepted, continue to submit technically correct images, but also try to submit images that are unique in subject matter. There are probably 100,000 stock photos of pretty flowers out there. It doesn't matter if you have the prettiest one of all - no one is ever going to find it. What do you have access to that other photographers don't? What are trending issues in the world? Stay current, take a unique perspective.

Do you hold some photos back or do you sell everything as stock? 
Yes I do hold some photos back. If I am wanting to sell photos to a magazine or use them in a personal project, I will not sell them as stock. Magazine editors want to know where your photos have been used previously. Also, if you are always thinking about shooting for stock it can become oppresive. Sometimes I shoot just for me, I process the images just for me - technical requirements and model releases be damned. It helps keep me fresh.

When you signed up did you go exclusive?
No. Most microstock agencies do not require exclusive rights to your images. Rights Managed agencies require that the images you send them are exclusive to their site. iStock also offers the option for you to sell your images exclusively through them, in return for a higher percentage in royalties.

I noticed you are with Getty and iStock. Is there a reason other than exposure that you are with 2 different agencies? Exposure is a big part of it. The folks who license images from Getty are not (for the most part) the same as those who license images from iStock. I also feel like it is a good idea (if possible) to have diversity in the way your portfolio is licensed. By licensing images through both* Getty and iStock it is possible to have images that are licensed in the traditional RM fashion, as well as tapping into the burgeoning RF market.
*The images on each site are exclusive to that site. It is not possible to submit the same image to Getty and iStock - I have to choose which site I think it fits best on.

How did you come to choosing those [Getty and iStock] over all the rest that are out there?
Initially I signed up with shutterstock, fotolia, istock, and dreamstime. After about 6 months I was tired of submitting to 4 different agencies. I then went exclusive with iStock. I did this in part because I felt the agency had the best long term model (images seemed to have a much longer lifespan on iStock), the community and forums were very supportive, and there was a potential through exclusivity to eventually move from earning 20% to 40% of royalties (currently I earn 35%). After selling my first 2,500 photos on iStock I was eligeble to submit to Getty's Royalty Free collections; however, I was rejected from Getty's RM collections twice, as well another agency called Aurora (which was my first choice). Getty ended up finding me through iStock and invited 50 of us to begin contributing to the Rights Managed Stone and Image bank collections. In October of '09 they again selected 30 of us to come to Istanbul to learn about shooting Editorial.

Are you able to make a living off of stock photography or do you have other income within photography as well? While I do work at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography 6 months out of the year, about 85% of my income in 2009 came from stock photography.

How did you learn the keywording lingo? 
I learned by reading articles, and watching what other people were doing. Search for images similair to yours. Don't copy them, but take note of the sorts of keywords that other people are using. Certain descriptors (beautiful, flower, person, ect.) will come naturally. Other keywords that are more specific to designers you will learn quickly enough.  Don't spam (use unnecesary keywords). Be concise and relevant in your choices.

Do you have any pointers for me about getting into stock? 
Talk to a lot of people, read up on it, but don't get intimidated. At some point you should just start. Don't leave your images collecting digital dust waiting for the eventuality of your hard drive to crash. Also, don't get too attached to your images. Your favorite photos will never sell, your least favorites might sell 1000 times. Take this silly picture of carrots for example. It's sold over 500 times, while the photo of Trecy has never sold. While I like the picture of Trecy better, the photo of the carrots is of a much more universal and generic nature, and though there's nothing particularly special about it, it fulfilled the need of a lot of designers. 

Things I wish I'd known when I was starting out: 

What agency should I choose? Rights Managed (RM) or (RF) Royalty Free?  
When you are starting off I suggest that you submit to a few different agencies. I am not interested in the debate between the old Rights Managed models vs the newer MicroStock (Royalty Free) agencies. There are plenty of forums and blog posts where people are bitterly hacking this out. I think there is a place for both, and I currently submit both to the Royalty Free collections at Getty and iStock as well as the RM collections (Stone and The Image Bank) at Getty. That said, it is very competitive to get into the prestigious RM agencies like Getty, Corbis, Aurora, Veer, ect. For someone beginning to get into the world of stock photography, I would suggest applying to some of the RM agencies, but to count on getting in with a RF agency or two where you can begin to learn the ropes of what stock photography entails; both aesthetically and technically.
*As an aside, Getty now owns iStock, and if you are an exclusive contributor to iStock (meaning you don't have images on any other stock site) with more than 2,500 image sales you are eligible to begin submitting to certain collections on Getty. Thus if you prove yourself on iStock, there are a number of doors opening at Getty.

Initial Fears.
When I first started out I was worried about letting go of my images...What happens to my photos when I sell them as stock? Who buys them? Where do they end up? Looking back these seem like silly questions. But I understand in making the initial leap into stock, they are real fears. In general terms, you don't know who buys your photos, how they are used, or where they end up. My images have been purchased roughly 22,000 times. I've seen them used in advertisements and articles in National Geographic and Men's Health as well as a number of other smaller publications, websites and designs. The images that ran in those ads were purchased on iStock - for anywhere from $1-100. Could I have made much more if I had licensed them myself, or negotiated a Rights Managed deal for their usage? Yes. Did those images sell thousands of times on iStock and end up making that much anyway? Yes. Once I got over the initial fear of putting my images out there, the returns far outweighed any inhibitions. Moreover, I found that instead of sitting on old photos that I thought were really great, and would someday make me famous, I handed them off to my agencies, and moved on to creating newer fresher work.

Do I still own the copyright to my images if I license them as stock? 
Yes, you still own the copyright to your images. You are just selling people the rights to use them in certain ways.

Time and Patience. 
Building up your portfolio with an agency to the point where it generates significant and reliable returns takes time and patience. Initially you may only be able to submit 10-15 images a week. Half of those will probably be rejected. What's important is that you get started. Look at it as investing your photos. Rather than having them sitting on your hard drive doing nothing, put them to work for you.

How long before it pays off?
With the huge volume of images out there, you need a decent sized portfolio (say 100-250 strong images) before you can begin to get an idea of what sort of returns you'll see. I would suggest sticking to it for at least a year before evaluating if it's worth the time and effort.

Stop twiddling your thumbs.
After months of reading up on stock, and feeling totally overwhelmed about choosing an agency, meeting their guidelines and passing their initial tests, I decided to just go for it. It wasn't until I actually "went for it" that I started to learn what stock was about. I was continually surprised when my favorite images didn't sell, while seemingly mundane ones did. I was surprised at the images that got rejected. I learned to keyword, remove logos and get model releases. It wasn't a quick process, but there was a steady evolution and constant growth in my portfolio of images, and it is a learning process that can't start until you end your procrastinating and get after it!


Useful Links:
- If you get approved to contribute to istock, it is a huge help to your work-flow to download deepmeta
- This is a useful article on Keywording
- A decent breakdown of a few of the bigger microstock sites

Please feel free to share additional thoughts, comments and questions in the discussion below...


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. great stuff Forest! I appreciate you putting your experience up here on your blog and for giving me advice when I was trying to figure out the stock "thing" a while back. It's cool that you are willing to share.

    And, in case anyone else reads my comment here, i'd like to reiterate Forest's words, "Stop twiddling your thumbs." I think I read every website that had anything to do with stock, and still only learned a fraction of what I learned by going through the process myself. While I am not quite traveling the world like Forest, I have a much better idea of what it takes to get there.

    thanks again Forest.

  3. @Chad - thanks man! Glad you found it helpful :)

    @Andy - Yes! I should have don't have to travel the world to do stock photography. It can be done from anywhere, and can be a great way of just supplementing your other incomes.

  4. Great article Forest. Hope all is well for you. What are you at these days? NC? Look forward to chatting real soon.

  5. Thank you so much Forest for sharing your experiences with us. I enjoy your images very much and often wondering what would it looks like if I was one of the "model" in your shots. Need Asian faces for Asian stock market?? Give me a call!! :p

    Wish you the best and hopefully I can have my stock images pay for my travel one day as well.


  6. @Eileen - NC for the time being. Schemin' on the next adventure!

    @Sabrina - Thanks and I'll give you a shout if I'm in San Fran.

  7. Great post and great work, Forest. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences. I hope winter is treating you well.


  8. This is a really good thorough list of answers to common questions for photographers who want to get started. The shots within the post are really great as well.

    One site that offers photographers a way to see exactly what buyers want is Buyers submit requests for photos (with description, price, date needed) and photographers can sign up to be notified of those requests and participate in any that catch their interest.

  9. @Doug you bet, happy to share. Winter has been very cold, but very productive. Looking forward to heading to warmer climes before too long...

    @Rebekah Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post. Just checked out focalpop - looks like a good site and a really cool idea. Thanks for posting!

  10. Just wanted you to know that this post is what finally got my photos off my computer and into the stock world. Happy to say that all photos I submitted were accepted and I'm not sure what any anxiety I may have had was all about. Self criticism perhaps? Keep inspiring, teaching, and're making a difference. Thank you!