Onward and which way in the world of stock photography (part one of two)

I make my living primarily as a stock photographer meaning most of my income comes from licensing the publication of existing images. This is compared to being primarily an assignment photographer or a teacher of photography (though I do plenty of both.) The stock photography business is known to be increasingly competitive, with too much supply and not enough demand, the classic signs of a declining market. A few recent experiences served to remind me which parts of the market for stock photography are still doing reasonably well and why!

In order to know when new images of mine are licensed and go on-line, I use Google Alerts to track when my name shows up somewhere new on the Internet. You can read more about this very useful and free service at: http://www.google.com/alerts As it says on their site:

Google Alerts are email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic. Some handy uses of Google Alerts include:

* monitoring a developing news story
* keeping current on a competitor or industry
* getting the latest on a celebrity or event
* keeping tabs on your favorite sports teams

Some people put a celebrity’s name in Google Alerts to follow the news about that person. The most business savvy photographers I know set up an alert for their own name, in order to be updated when an image of theirs is on the web. That assumes the image is credited to the photographer on the web (or in the metadata of the posted image.)

Google Alerts recently alerted me to some stock photos that recently went on-line. That started me thinking about which images were being licensed and why. Here are three examples of links to recently posted images, that Google Alerts directed me to:

http://www.forbes.com/2009/12/18/cities-property-value-lifestyle-real-estate-foreclosures-median-prices_slide_11.html?thisspeed=25000

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200909/sri-lanka

http://www.time.com/time/quotes/0,26174,1955989,00.html

One reason I use Google Alerts is that the agencies and portals that license my images almost never notify me when an image has been licensed. They track that for their own billing purposes and they tell me about the various image uses when they pay me, but that notification can be many months later. This has long been true in the agency business and actually has nothing to do with the increasingly rapid pace of the Internet.

One of the interesting things is how I used to do this same kind of image tracking informally (and subconsciously,) when I would visit a newsstand every Monday morning for years, back when I was doing full time magazine work. I would thumb through many magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, Fortune and Forbes to name few, looking for my photos. I was also looking to see what work of my peers (and competitors) was being used. Then, I was doing what we now call market research. The great thing about Google Alerts is that they are looking on my behalf at all hours and in all corners of the Internet.

Looking at the images in the articles at the end of the links above, I can draw a few conclusions about what kinds of stock images are still being licensed (at least on the editorial side.)

• All three images are somewhat unusual. I am not saying they are brilliantly executed (though I like to think they are.) What I am saying is that if you look on line you will find thousands of images of the Eiffel tower, for example, available at any of a dozen stock agencies/portals. These three images are not as common so the end user had fewer options, which worked in my favor.

• I have been looking at some of the other images I have licensed recently, especially through Alamy, which claims to have the web’s largest stock photography site, at 17.73 million stock photos. Though Alamy portrays itself as a resource for commercial imagery, their primary market is editorial. The images of mine that are licensed there most often are also not as common so the end user had fewer options. Some of my most successful images are from out of the way parts of Bangladesh, a place that not as many photographers get to, as compared to say, the Eiffel tower.

• All three images were made as parts of different personal projects, so I made them for me first and the market place second. To some degree I would have made these anyway, because they are important images to me. I like to think that my passion for the subject and the photographs comes through strongly and that is why the images are strong.

• I have also made plenty of stock “best sellers” working on assignments. For a long time one of my best sellers was from an assignment I did or Fortune magazine photographing a convention for African Americans with MBAs. When I did this assignment, years ago, there were not that many for African Americans with MBAs, so I had relatively rare imagery.

In all cases, I brought energy and interest to whatever I was photographing and I think that showed through in the images I made, on my own or on an assignment. So, if someone asked me about the status of the business of stock photography, I think I would answer saying something like: “Stock is not dead, just inundated.“ With that in mind, working and aspiring stock photographers should be asking themselves what is it about my images that makes them not so common?

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