My Experience with Stock Photography

This post is in reply to a discussion from another site that I was involved with concerning my experience with stock photography….or more specifically, selling stock photography.

First things first. I am represented by The company that started the downfall of stock photography pricing as we know it. I know photographers in general have nothing good to say about istock. For a long time, I was one of them.

This post is not going to address anything about the stock vs. microstock business model….or about how things aren’t what they used to be…..or how I’m helping to kill the market for imagery. These arguments have been around a long time, and I’m not really interested in rehashing them…..

About ten or fifteen years ago, I became interested in getting involved in selling stock photos. I sent images off to every stock agency out there, and was turned down by all of them. It was hugely frustrating (of course, looking back now I can easily see why). Around the same time istock had started, and was undercutting the big stock agencies by huge margins….and gaining a huge segment of the market. I cursed them, seeing that they were cutting into my future earnings (if I could just get into an agency).

At some point, a friend of mine was accepted as a contributor to istock. We had conversations about what they were doing to the market, but when he started to make a little money I started paying a little more attention. Eventually, I applied to istock to see what it was all about. It should be noted here that way back then, it was pretty easy to get accepted – take a test and submit three images that needed to be technically excellent.

Eventually, I started getting images accepted into their collection….and lo and behold, I had a sale! Back then, istock was very different from other stock agencies in that you had instant visibility to your sales (no other stock agency had that ability). I started to sell an image every week or so, making anywhere from twenty five cents to a couple of dollars each time. The more I uploaded, the more I started to sell, and the more money I made. First my goal was to make some extra beer money, then it was my lunch money every day…..and eventually, my truck payment. After that, I aimed for the big time – I wanted to make my mortgage payment (it was around $1000.00 at that time). It took me a couple of years, but I got there. All the while, I was uploading images. Not a lot…..I had maybe a few hundred images over the first few years…..but they kept chugging along. I should add that most of this time, I was on staff, so this was “extra” money that was coming in.

Then, I lost my staff job (I lost the house, too). Suddenly, istock became a lot more important…..

Not only was it my main source of income for a short period, it gave me something to do during the day. It was my “job”. The reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Since then, I’ve been freelance, then back on staff a couple of times, and am currently freelance.

Over the last five years, my stock income has dropped around 50%, even though my number of images with them has increased around 300%. Not a very good return. A lot of people will think it stupid to continue.

I have a few reasons for continuing my relationship with istock:

1. It gives me something to do during the weeks that I’m not working. And, keeps me from going totally crazy when the phone hasn’t rung in a few weeks.

2. It keeps a small amount of $$$ coming in, no matter what else I do.

3. In a few years, my wife and I would like to take a year or two off to drive around/through Central and South America. The work that I put into stock now will pay dividends during that trip in that we’ll still have something of an income while we are traveling.

4. It keeps me involved. When I was younger, I worked with sooooo many photographers that let their passion die when photography became their job. Photographers that shot during the day, and then never picked up a camera any other time. Photographers that worked at the Getty Museum, but never cared to see any of the amazing work that was on exhibition.

5. Stock photography is something that I can, and will do the rest of my life.

6. Eventually, a number of my images have been picked up from istock by Getty Images (they bought istock a while ago), which lends a little more credence when I talk to other photographers.

Stock photography can also be very vexing. The best images don’t sell (at least mine don’t), but random ones do. Here is a great example:

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 9.44.33 AM

Here is a page from my istock account with info for a picture that I took of road construction. I was bored and sitting in my car, and thought “wth”……I jumped out and took the shot. If you look at the bottom, it shows that image being downloaded over 300 times. Yeah……I don’t get it either.

It’s not a horrible shot. It’s in focus. Ugly flat lighting. Shot close to wide open so it has some depth. One of those shots that you would never think would sell once, much less 300 times. But here’s the thing…..It fills a need. There aren’t that many photographs available of road construction signs. Around 2000 on right now. And this one comes up on the first page. Search placement is huge….if one of your images comes up on the first page of a search. It will sell. Doesn’t matter how good or bad it is.

So there you have it. That’s my story. When I was assisting, I talked to a photographer that was making almost 200k in stock….in his spare time…..and I don’t think that was unusual. There are still guys out there making that, but they have specialized and that’s all they do. Nowadays, it’s simply one more revenue flow that helps me to make a living doing what I love.

Thanx for listening.


Lighting Test with Cyclist


I have a love-hate relationship with fill in flash. I love the way that it separates a subject from a background. It helps add depth, lightens shadows. Lot’s of pluses…… But, I hate the way it’s so obvious. You normally get a very distinct shadow, or drop shadow, coming off the back of the subject, or to the right/rear if you happen to be shooting vertically.

If you are not familiar with this technique, it’s normally used when a subject is backlit (or maybe sidelit….or just plain underlit) outside. Normally you would get deep and dark shadows across their face or the part of your subject that is facing the camera….but with fill flash, you use your flash or strobe to “fill” in those shadows so that your subject is more evenly illuminated. Nowadays, a lot of DSLR’s and even point and shoot cameras have a Flash Fill setting that will give you the desired effect.

There are a few ways to get around the dreaded drop shadow that is the normal telltale sign of fill flash. The easiest is to simply point your flash at the ceiling or a nearby wall (if you are inside) or use a bounce reflector that hooks onto your flash (if you are outside). These work somewhat, but they don’t always eliminate the shadow. They also cut about two stops of power off your flash. And, if your flash isn’t adjustable directionally, you are out of luck.

A fellow photographer, Jim Bastardo, was telling me that he had started using a ringflash for some indoor lifestyle/party shoots that he had been doing. It didn’t have the obvious look of an on-camera flash, and didn’t necessitate him having to light an entire party scene to be able to move through it photographing lots of people. That got me wondering about other uses for this tool that is normally used for macro photography. A ringflash (or ringlight) hooks onto your camera and actually surrounds the lens so that the light seems to be coming from directly behind the lens….thereby eliminating any shadow.

I had purchased one, and was looking for a good way to test it out. I really enjoy combining auxiliary lighting with fast moving adventure sports, and  came up with the idea of shooting a cyclist on a road bike during a descent of a hill. I really wanted the photograph to have the feeling of speed, and there were two ways to achieve this.

1. Have the cyclist ride past me while I was on the side of the road and use a “panning” action to photograph him as he rode by. This would work but I was figuring on having to take 20-30 shots to get something that I would be happy with. That would mean my model would have to ride by me 20-30 times, then stop, turn around, and ride back uphill for the next attempt. Most of my friends are pretty good sports, but I figured that would really be pushing the limit……

2. The other option, and the one that I decided to use, was to sit in the back of a car with my camera and have the cyclist follow me down the road. I contacted my friend Justin Jensen who said he was up for modeling for me. I also asked my girlfriend (now wife) Jennie if she would be willing to volunteer her car and her driving skills.

We gathered at the top of the road to our local ski resort, and the three of us had a discussion on how to keep us all safe. Jennie had to drive with one eye on the road and one eye on the rear view mirror making sure that Justin was still behind us and that I hadn’t fallen out of the car. Justin had to keep approximately the same distance from the car the whole time and listen to me as I yelled instructions. I laid on my stomach in the back of the Subaru with the hatchback open and held my camera out, sometimes up to my eye, but sometimes as low as I could get it to the ground to get an aggressive angle.

I thought we might have to make 2-3 trips up and down the mountain, but in the end I was really happy with what we got during our first descent. We kept our speed between 20-25 MPH, and I shot at 1/30 of a second to get a little bit of blur in the background, but minimize it on Justin. The ringlight functioned perfectly, actually working as a keylight as we had waited until we were totally in shadow so that I didn’t have to fight the sun coming from different directions as we made our way around the switchbacks.

As you can see in the photo, Justin is illuminated a touch brighter than the background, which really makes him standout. There also isn’t any shadow coming from the ringlight, thereby eliminating any hints about how it was lit. There is a nice amount of blur in the foreground/background to give the feeling of speed. All in all, everything worked out perfectly and I was extremely happy with the results.

Thanx for listening.