Stock Photography

For the 2008 edition of Photographer’s Market, I interviewed Paul Henning. He is the owner of Stock Answers LLC and has an extensive background in the stock photography business. In the excerpt below, Paul shares some advice on how to succeed in the stock photography business today. The entire interview is available in the 2008 edition of Photographer’s Market.

Can smaller stock agencies be successful competing against the giants like Getty, Corbis and Jupiter? What advice do you have for these small agencies to succeed?
My clients ask me this question often: Do we have a future? And the answer is… maybe.  Now, that might sound like a cop-out, but it’s not. The truth is that today’s small niche agencies that are extremely focused and do what they do better than anyone else within that niche have a great opportunity to succeed–depending, of course, upon how you define “success.”  On the other hand, any agency that doesn’t have a very well-thought-out identity, or isn’t the best at what they do, or lacks expertise in dealing with down-and-dirty business issues like marketing, personnel and finances, will die a slow and painful death. 

This is the era of the specialist, not the generalist; narrowcasting, not broadcasting; customized solutions, not one-size-fits-all.  There’s a great opening for niche players, but they have to be really smart about what they do and how they do it.  Sure, the Wal-Marts of stock are doing great, and there’s a sizable place for them in the stock universe.  But don’t forget, there’s a negative reaction to Wal-Mart in some quarters; and don’t think that it’s any different in our business. 

Can photographers be successful targeting individual photo buyers and photo researchers? Or are these photo buyers simply getting their stock photos from the big agencies? Any advice on how individual photographers can reach these buyers and persuade them to buy their stock?
Corbis and Getty are well established; they often have “deals” with the big publishers; and they are habit-forming.  But I think picture buyers are extremely schizophrenic.  On the one hand, they like the Web sites of the Big Boys, and they like the ease of making purchases with them.  At the same time, I have also heard them say that they are bored with seeing the same images time after time. They don’t feel the Big Boys have a sufficient depth of material (at least in the editorial sector), and they are turned off by their methods of doing business. 

Further, don’t forget that art buyers are under constant pressure to come up with something new, different and more creative than their competitors.  How creative and different can you be if you’re always using the same two picture sources as everybody else? That is a huge issue that I don’t think gets nearly enough recognition, including by The Big Boys’ competitors!

Can individual photographers exploit this and market directly to these image buyers? Sure, if they have the time, energy and smarts to do it right.  It takes real work to market directly to picture buyers on a consistent basis, and some shooters just don’t have the skills to do it.  In other cases, it’s not even a good use of a photographer’s time: Perhaps she is far happier and far more profitable concentrating on making images rather than marketing them.  But that’s where a photographer has to analyze what they do and how they do it to determine what works best for their specific scenario.

What are some trends in stock photography today? How can photographers keep up with the trends?
One of the jobs of a stock photographer is to stay tuned into the needs of the marketplace.  In other words, what are the trends, both in terms of subject matter and photographic style? And, of course, the really successful photographers are the ones who set the trends, not just follow them.  Spend time at the magazine stand scanning images, watch what’s being broadcast on cable or satellite television, read the Wall Street Journal, read books or rent books-on-disc about the changes taking place in business and society in general.  For example: What’s the fastest growing ethnic minority in the United States? Answer: Hispanics. One of my clients focuses on people and lifestyle images for stock.  He makes sure that at least 50 percent of everything he shoots includes Latin American models, and he’s making a killing because the demand is rising so dramatically for these sorts of images.  Remember: Stock has to mirror the world around us, so any photographer who wants to be successful has to produce images that are representative of what the world looks like at the moment, not several moments ago.  

How have styles of stock photographs changed over the years? Is there a “shelf life” for a typical stock image?
Styles change much faster now in stock photography.  Stock has to be very trendy, very “of the moment” and reflect current fashions, hairstyles, accessories, etc. Today, anything goes as far as technique: black & white, tilted horizon lines, soft focus, extremely shallow depth of field, in-your-face close-ups and action. There seems to be a place for just about anything and everything.  But if there are people in the image, then obviously there is a definite shelf life to a stock shot.

2 thoughts on “Stock Photography

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