One of the things that’s been going on mostly in the background the last few weeks is I have taken the plunge and I’m now licensing some of my images through a stock agency. The agency I’m working with is Tandem Stills + Motion Stock Agency, which is a smaller house that specializes in outdoor-oriented imagery.
Stock photography as a source of income isn’t what it used to be — it’s been heavily eaten by both microstock agencies and crowdsourced/free imagery out there, but it’s far from dead. It’s a way to potentially generate some income in a mostly-passive way, and since my revenue goal right now is “maybe it’ll help pay for the next trip” it seems like the right move at this time. By handing images off to an agency I don’t have to put time and energy into the business side myself and let them handle sales and marketing so I can continue to focus on the images; I do that realizing that handing that off to others means I’m giving up a cut of the income and potentially giving up incoming using a passive sales model that might appear if I marketed directly and more aggressively.
I still believe that time is my most limited and precious resource, though, and that the upside at doing those is not worth the hours required to do them. Besides, this is a starting point and I can choose to expand and apply more resources and time to this later if I choose to.
Why did I do this now? One of my goals for 2014 has been to focus more on publishing and distribution of my images; that I was acting too ‘safe’ and putting too much energy into creation and processing — basically hiding in plain sight by not promoting my work or attempting to grow my audience or reach. That’s one reason I’ve started publishing the portfolios, as that is a way to force me to start thinking about image selection and the logistics and process of publishing them.
I have long had an interest in moving into stock sales, but every time I evaluated an agency I either didn’t like the terms, or I didn’t feel my images fit into their inventory well (or both). It felt to me that any agency I went in with wouldn’t serve my images well. Then a few weeks ago Creative Live did a class by Ian Shive on photographing the National Parks. Since I’ve been nudging CL on and off for the last year or so over the lack of nature photography in their schedule (there is more to life than weddings and head shots!) I made sure to sit in on the class and bought it so I could watch the whole thing in my off hours. By the way, the class was very well done and definitely worth your time.
Shive, who I hadn’t heard of prior to this, is also one of the founders of Tandem Stock, and as he described the agency, it seemed he had founded it for many of the reasons I’d never felt any of the other agencies fit me well. By the time the class ended, I’d spent some time evaluating their terms (IMHO, quite reasonable) and studying their inventory, I decided it was an agency worth investing some time into. I shoot heavily in a couple of niches — my wildlife refuge work and my bird photography — and with most agencies it always felt like those niches would get lost in the masses, but Tandem Stock it felt like my work slotted in well, and honestly, I felt my images were better than some that were in inventory. They actually had refuge imagery in stock, but mostly from Bosque, so it seemed to me my stuff complemented their inventory rather than duplicated it, but also fit in well with the kind of imagery they were specializing in. What I didn’t know was whether they’d agree…
So I filled out my contributors agreement and prepped up a first batch of images. For those who haven’t worked with an agency, you submit images to them, but they choose whether or not to accept them — you can be rejected if the images don’t hold up to a technical review, don’t fit in with the agency’s inventory, or if the agency feels they already have enough images of that subject (“sorry, we don’t need more yellow daisy macro shots”). Shipped off the first batch of images, and waited to see if any got approved.
As it happened, about 75% were accepted, much higher percentage than I was expecting, and as I’ve been submitting other images, that percentage is holding true. None of them have sold yet — Shive in his discussions at CL noted that stock is a lot like dollar-cost averaging investing, that it’s a long-term play — but the fact that the images were accepted was a nice pat on the back in general. I’m seeing the trends on what isn’t being accepted (birds in action generally yes, bird senior portraits not so much) and that’ll help me shape future submissions.
So I’m a stock photographer, for whatever that means. Yay me.
Doing this has meant a bunch of small changes and mini-projects behind the curtains. I’ve redone my licensing and about-chuq pages to note all of this. I’ve had to rethink my free licensing of images to non-profits, because images available through the agency are exclusive, so my policy has changed, and those images are no longer available at no cost, and that had to be noted. All of the images on flickr and my smugmug portfolio had to be tagged with a note about their availability for licensing, and I had to do some organizing within Lightroom to keep track of what images have been submitted or are licensed through them, which ones I’m considering — necessary bookkeeping to make sure I don’t resubmit images, forget an image that I want to submit, or mess up the licensing when someone should be referred to the agency. Lots of little details to keep this moving smoothly.
My current plan (subject to change) is to build an inventory of 150-200 images there and then see what happens. I may adjust that as I get a better feel what works and doesn’t. Shive had some really good advice on how to leverage trips to maximize your stock inventory (it’s in his other Creative Live class on the business of nature photography — also recommended) and much of that syncs up with the kind of photography I need to do this winter to push my refuge project forward, so as I plan out my goals for my winter trips, I’ll be working on those goals as well. A lot of it boils down to thinking like a travel photographer as well as a nature photographer, which makes sense, but it’s something I don’t do well, so I need to work at it.
If you click through to the Tandem Stock site on the links above it’ll show you the images I have available through them. I’m also displaying that group of images over on my Smugmug portfolio. And I’ve removed the word “amateur” from my description of myself, although that’s more a symbolic gesture than an indication of income levels. I think it’s time to change that, anyway.
One of the interesting side effects of this is that I’ve had to start tracking which images of mine have been manipulated — significant changes to the images such as cloning items out of it. I’m also now tracking whether an image has gone through my normal workflow (Lightroom only) or through an extended workflow that includes plug-ins and/or Photoshop. I much prefer avoiding digital manipulation as much as I can so I rarely clone or do extreme modifications to an image. As it turns out, 60% of the images accepted by them were good to go out of Lightroom without extended processing, while 40% took more tweaking. Only two images accepted so far have been flagged as manipulated, because I decided to clone a particularly noxious branch out of it.
Every image I choose to submit is getting reprocessed, or at least re-evaluated. In many cases I’m finding I’m recropping with a less aggressive crop and putting more space into the image. I’m finding I like the subjects less crowded than when I was a less experienced photographer, but this also gives space so that a buyer can tweak the crop if they want and so there’s space for text across parts of the image without running over the subject.
At one point I also fell in love with the 8×10 format and cropped everything to that. I’m now undoing that as I find them, and I’m using one of two crops — the original camera format or a square format, which I’m finding I really like for portrait-type work, and is sometimes useful out in the field to remove clutter as an alternative to cloning. I’m also standardizing on a very minor (-10 in Lightroom) vignette when I choose to use one because I’m more and more convinced that if you can see the vignette, it’s too strong. (on the other hand, when I process specifically for print, I might boost it more; one reason my print versions are managed separately from the masters).
Some images I’m finding really bloom if I put them under the reprocessing microscope, For instance I think this one is massively better than my last processing attempt — which I thought was pretty good.
That image, by the way, is flagged as manipulated because the baby had some gunk in his fur that I removed — tiny things, but the kind of thing you need to worry about because potential buyers worry about it. For now I’m being careful to flag images that are HDR, that are stitched panoramas, and for manipulation, I’m tracking cloning and significant “gunk” removal like in the gorilla as well as significant color manipulation, like in this image:
The only “manipulation” I did of this image was a major shift of color balance to warm it, but it’s far enough away from an unprocessed raw that it feels manipulated to me.
We’ll see where this goes from here. It’s a big step for me, but just a step.
It does bring up a question we should all ask ourselves — are we just coasting along doing the same thing we’ve been doing for a while because it’s comfortable and safe? Or are we pushing ourselves forward into new territory. It’s easy to get into a habit of showing off images to the same people who always see them and like them; this is one of the traps of places like flickr or Google+ or 500px, that you can create a personal echo chamber of affirmation that is safe and comfortable and gives you good responses on your images. For a while I did that consciously because I knew I needed to work on my craft.
but at some point you have to get out of your comfort zone and start putting your work in front of strangers who aren’t obliged to say nice things about it, because that’s how you grow your audience, reach new people and markets, and get some honest feedback about what you’re doing. And that’s ultimately how you grow as a photographer.
One goal for me in 2014 was to find ways to push myself out of those comfortable spots and see what the cold outside world thought about my work. The results have been, so far, educational and encouraging, and that’s pushing me to push my work in new and better directions as well.
Shouldn’t that be one of your goals for 2015?