Stock photography and other commercial applications

So the weekend turned out to be a bit of a washout here. Lots of rain, and the threat of a thunderstorm was always there, so I didn’t get out to the beach area to hit the shots I was planning. I did some setups at home, but nothing has really grabbed me from those images yet. So feeling pretty bleak – I like to get things done when I’ve identified them, ‘cos that fantastic image you see in your head often turns out to be like the memory of a dream, and can slip away very quickly.

What I did find over the weekend, and what excited me, was a stock photo company that for the first time laid out a great set of explainers on what they are looking and what you should be doing when you shoot your stock and when you sell it. So rather than posting an image here from the weekend, I’m going to run with the stock stuff.

The first tip: stay away from microstock photo sites

This may be a bit counterintuitive, but when you hear the reasons you’ll agree, I’m sure. I haven’t uploaded any of my shots to a microstock site, but there are reasons for temptation: these sites accept just about anything, from anyone, and you can vary your pricing. This makes sense to the amateur who’s looking to move up to semi-pro or pro. The thinking is “Hey, I’m shooting good pictures, people like looking at them, I’m sure a designer could use them”. Trouble is, people with no experience of selling images (or of selling commercial images) tend to make a mistake and undervalue their images, which is why microstock sites start their pricing at $1, and why the shooter gets a paltry 20%. BUt the thing is that if you think a designer or picture editor can use you images, you are implicitly thinking that a designer can pay for them, too. And they will have a budget, so you need to think about that right from the start: if you think you’re good enough to sell you shots, you need to sell them a price that’s fair for other pro shooters, and to yourself. Quality images take time and effort, so take that into consideration (preferably before the shoot, so you can get a better strike rate while you're out making the images).

So why stay away from the microstock sites? Surely they represent a viable segment of the industry? Well, yes, but it’s not the shooter that’s getting the viable segment of the industry pie here: by and large, these sites are royalty-free (meaning that anyone who buys your shots will get them for the rest of their lives, to re-use and re-use, endlessly, for whatever purpose and in whatever manner they choose, for the 20 cents that you would get from that shot. Now that may sound good to an amateur (Hey, I wasn’t getting anything before, right, so even 20 cents is worth it) but it’s making life tough for the pro shooters out there, and it is leading to market dilution.

Also, although the shooter may not get a lot out of the deal, just think how much the microstock web site is making out of the deal: it gets to keep 80% of your money, for providing very little service except that of a marketplace (which is provided by professional-level stock companies at less of a handling fee, but more on that later). So using these sites means that someone is getting a good deal, but it sure as hell won’t be the photographer.

Best practices for stock agency sites:

So good stock sites will allow you to keep more of your percentages, while allowing you to charge more and to tailor usage licenses for your buyers. That way, you’ll still be able to allow small companies and mom-and-pop design teams to use your your images if they want to (which is the usual argument for microstock sites- you’ll put these people out of business. Whoever heard of a mom-and-pop ad agency, though?) but you’ll have creative control of your images, and you’ll be contributing to the industry rather than undermining it. It’s a good deal for you, too, as you get more of your image value.

Look for agencies that offer you non-exclusive hosting of your image: this means that you’re free to give your image to other agencies. What it means in reality is that your stock agency has confidence in its business contacts and its ability to get your image sold – they don’t mind other people trying to sell it, ‘cos they’ll get it sold first.

Best practices for stock shooters:

This means that you may need to raise your own game a little, though usually just in terms of formats and sizes. It’s a good idea to find out the requirements for submission before you shoot the picture, because some agencies don’t allow image upscaling. A good basic to keep in mind is that most companies require a 6 megapixel image, minimum – in my experience even upscaled images need to be a base size of this before they were upscaled. It’s also a good idea to shoot in RAW format (they were big when we only had a 512 MB scandisk, but now you have no excuse), but failing this ability stick your camera on its highest setting and keep it there. If you are shooting JPEGS, remember that this is a lossy format, so don’t keep reopening your original, as each time you do you are throwing a bit of it away. Also, if you are cropping, you’ll usually need to keep your pixel ratio at 3000 by 2000 at least, so bear that in mind - depending on the agency, as some do accept other variations.

Obviously, you should always shoot clean, sharp images: keep noise out of the image in whatever way you can, and keep your camera steady and focused. If you have a smart camera with all sorts of in-camera sharpening and saturation bells and whistles, turn these off and keep your shot as neutral as possible: the designer will want to have the most options available with your image, so leave them the most room to work inside your image. They’ll also be using a much more powerful editing computer than your camera has inside it, so leave it to them.

And last, but definitely not least, you need to work hard. A lot of agencies ask you for between one and two hundred varied images, and each one of them will have to be inside the submission guidelines. Then, you’ll be expected to know how to negotiate your licenses, and how to price your shots. This means that you need to get a good handle on the various types of stock license available, which means that you need to know the meaning of these terms:

Model release: if you’re going to use a photo for commercial purposes, any recognizable person in the photo has to give you permission to use their image. For editorial (news) photos, it is not usually necessary to have this release, but often it’s good ethical practice.

Rights Managed: RM images are bought for use in specific and clear ways. Any deviation from that use will necessitate another puchase agreement. Usually, the price is determined by taking into account the intended use of the photo: if it’s intended for a large audience, it will have a bigger price tag. The purchase agreement will also give a limited timespan for the image’s use.

Royalty Free: The buyer buys the right to use the image without paying the photographer again, as many times as they like, and in as many ways as they like (barring certain minimal restrictions, such as resale). If you’re a photographer doing this, your giving away all control over your image, and you may well regret it.

Buyout: This term can be confusing, since there is no legal definition, but in practice it means that the purchaser will hold all rights to the image, including copyright and the right to license the image. If you sell your image under these terms, you should price high and get all you can, as you will have no rights after the deal has gone through.

Editorial usage: This is the part of the newspaper or the magazine that is not “hard” news, but more “background”. Nice definition? These areas are never clearly defined, and you can find problems in the grey areas here. Just remember, if you’re using the image as part of a story about the people or the place specific to the photo, its editorial. If you have the story, and then look for pics as an afterthought, they may well be commercial. This is a tough one to outline, but experience can help you. Especially experience in shooting stock images: when you know what it is to shoot stock shots, you will feel the difference between stock and editorial images.