Stock Photography…the Highest Form of Commercial Photography

Originally stock photos consisted of out-takes from assignments…the “seconds” if you will.

Stock photography has always been considered the ugly stepchild of commercial photography.  Originally stock photos consisted of out-takes from assignments…the “seconds” if you will.  The strategy for success for a stock shooter was to get as much content into the collection as possible…not a methodology for gaining a reputation for quality!

Bringing “Quality” To Stock

Along came Tony Stone (Tony Stone Images…now Getty Images) who changed the approach from how much material is in a collection to how good the material in a collection is.  He pared down the number of images keeping only the very best, made lots of dupes of a given image (back then you had to send out transparencies…so with more dupes of a given image that image could be in front of more potential buyers at once), and became enormously successful.  My original stock agency was a company call AfterImage.  When Stone purchased it the first thing that happened was that they sent virtually all of my material back to me and only kept a handful of images.  The second thing that happened was that my sales tripled! 

Getty bought Tony Stone Images and began to apply business principles to stock photography. It looked as though stock my finally start to be looked upon with a little more respect…then RF happened.  And again, the emphasis shifted to how much material one could get in.  In some cases photographers would sell their entire archives for a set price.

The Saturation Of Images In Stock

Now stock photography is saturated with a gazillion photos…some of amazing quality…and a huge number of well-executed but repetitive lifestyle and business image.  With crowd sourcing and the entry of non-professionals into the market through agencies like Istockphoto, stock is still the ugly stepchild of commercial photography…but not to me.

Creative Freedom

For me, stock is the highest form of commercial photography.  It gives the photographer something truly valuable…creative control.  As a stock shooter I am able to choose whatever I want to photograph.  I get to photograph my subject in whatever way I want to do it.  Unlike assignment photography there are no limits…no Art Directors to satisfy (or rely on), no account executives to please, no clients to impose their own perceptions on your work.  No limits! 

That isn’t to say there aren’t any challenges…there are challenges galore!  While there is no client to impose limitations…there is also no client to bankroll the shoot.

While there are no limits to what you can shoot…no one else is coming up with ideas for you.  While there are no Art Directors to impose their visions…it is up to you to have that vision and be true to it.

The Challenges of Creative Freedom

Creative freedom is something that I think is a core need of every photographer.  But along with that freedom comes challenges. Few things require us to use that “creative” muscles as much as stock.  We need to be creative in coming up with what to shoot.  We need creativity in virtually every aspect of stock.  Creativity in how to arrange access to a difficult subject, creativity in how to shoot without the financial resources of a client…and creative decisions need to be made on where and how to place the work.

As I write this I have a list of a hundred or so images that I want to create for stock. Sometimes it takes me two years for my subconscious mind to finally figure out how to make something work under the budget and access limits that I have.  That brings up another great point about stock.  There are no arbitrary deadlines…only the ones I set for myself. 

An example of an idea that took time for me to solve the budgetary restrictions on…and the need to exercise creativity in how to get the shots, can be found in a series of stock photos I did with elephants as the subject matter.  I originally came up with the idea because I wanted to be close to an elephant…to be able to touch one and just hang out with it for a while.  So I came up with a few “elephant” ideas.  When I found out it would cost me $5,000.00 just to rent one elephant I put the project on the back burner.  A year ago I planned a trip to South East Asia.  I was going to shoot in Myanmar (Burma) for a couple of weeks.  I would be flying to Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, out of Bangkok.  I began to wonder what I could shoot in Thailand as long as I was going to be there anyway.  Then it popped into my head…elephants!  Perhaps it would cost less to rent one there.  Yes…one elephant cost me $450.00.  For a whole day!  Well, I got to hang out with, and touch, an elephant.  And in the eight months that I have had the resulting images in the market place I have already earned almost $20,000.00 from those images! 

Stock pictures of animals

Because of stock I have had the opportunity to “hang with” a lion, a tiger, and an elephant…I’ve had the chance to shoot a baboon in my studio too.  Animals, of course, are not the only “perks” I have been able to enjoy from shooting stock. I spent a week (and made a nice a profit off of) one of the swankiest Penthouses in Buenos Aires, a magnificent “casa” in Mexico, …heck, I have even rented a disco (also in Buenos Aires) and had a crazy fun time shooting what in effect was a private disco party complete with a crowd of dancers, throbbing music, and smoke machines.  Cool!

For me stock is the highest form of commercial work.  It requires discipline, creativity, and guts (hey…it can take real guts to spend large sums of money on a speculative shoot).  But as they say on late-night television infomercials; wait…there’s more!  There is the friendship and fun factor.  For me, it is a lot more fun shooting stock where there is no “outside” pressure to perform and no one but myself to answer too.  Also, for a number of my shoots I have invited other photographers to join me.  For the disco shoot I shot with three other photographers.  We all shared in the cost and worked together…but each producing our own set of images.  A “creative” way to reduce the expense of our shoot, to spread the production time and labor out…and to get to work with some close friends.  When was the last time you invited some close photographer friends to shoot with you on an assignment?

Well, there you have it.  My view of why stock is actually the highest form of commercial photography.  It is all on your shoulders…and with the only limits being those you place on yourself.  You don’t have to add to those gazillion images of business people on cell phones…or laughing couples on the beach.  Sure you can…but you can also allow give yourself amazing challenges with rewards that are commensurate.