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Stock Photography part 1

If you're more interested in taking pictures than selling them, consider putting your work with a picture library. In part one we help you choose a library.


If you're more interested in taking pictures than selling them, putting your work with a picture library could be the answer to all your prayers. Lee Frost has been doing that for over a decade and in this, the first installment of a two-part feature on stock photography, he explains why.

One of the major problems associated with freelancing on a part time basis is lack of time. If you have another job that occupies you from Monday to Friday, the only periods left in which to take pictures are evenings, weekends, and the few weeks every year that we're entitled to for holidays.

If you add all this time up it actually looks pretty respectable, but to make money from your photography you can't just take pictures, you need to sell them as well, and that in itself can be very labour intensive. If you have a family, there will also be an extra pressure on your free time, so you need to make best use of what you have.

A further obstacle that trips up many photographers is actually knowing how to sell their wares - there's little point in posting off pictures willy-nilly to magazines and publishing houses if you don't actually know what they want and when they want it. If you do, chances are those pictures will be dropping onto your doormat again within days and you will have achieved nothing except waste time and money.

A great way to overcome both these problems is by lodging your work with a picture library, so all the selling is taken care of for you. This in turn frees you to spend the time you have doing what you do best - taking pictures.

What you get in return
Most libraries operate along similar lines - photographers submit work on a regular basis, this is edited, the library keeps the shots they think will sell, then they go about marketing them to anyone who needs pictures - publishers, advertising agencies, TV and radio stations, businesses, travel companies, and so on. Many of the bigger libraries produce glossy colour catalogues of their most saleable images which are shipped out to regular clients and sent overseas to other libraries around the world who act as agents and sell the stock in their respective countries. More and more libraries are also investing large amounts of money in developing websites, which allow clients to search and order images on-line.

In return, the library usually takes a 50% cut from all sales and the photographer gets the other 50% - a good deal considering the number of markets your work is exposed to.

A numbers game
The most important thing to bear in mind before approaching any library is that stock photography should be thought of as a long-term investment.

Many would-be contributors think that all they have to do is send off their latest batch of holiday pictures then sit back and wait for the cheques to roll in. Unfortunately, it ain't quite that simple. When a new photographer joins a library it could take many months before their work is even integrated into the filing system properly - everything is done by computer these days, and many libraries re-mount and re-caption everything they take on. After that it can also take one, perhaps two years for the pictures to start selling, if they sell at all, and as much as five years before you see regular returns.

For this reason, most libraries stipulate a minimum retention period of two or three years. If they didn't, some photographers would recall their work after 12 months because it hadn't sold, wasting a vast amount of time, effort and money on the library's part in the process.
Equally important is the need to increase the number of pictures held by the library on a regular basis. If all you do is send off an initial batch of 200 shots then leave it at that, you may never make a single sale. However, by going out and shooting pictures specifically for the library as often as possible, your stock will build up rapidly and that's when you'll start to see the financial benefits. It's a case of the more pictures you have on the files, the more you're likely to sell.

I personally know amateur photographers who have anything between 5-10,000 pictures with libraries that they've built up over a number of years, and make thousands if pounds annually in sales - enough to pay for all their equipment, film and processing, and to finance stock trips to some very exotic places. I also know professional photographers who shoot stock full time, travel the world, and have 50,000 or more pictures with libraries.

Choosing a library
Deciding which library to leave you work with can be a frustrating business, mainly because you won't know if you've made the right choice for several years, by which time it's a little late to regret your decision.

To prevent this happening you need to study the market and come up with a shortlist of libraries that may be suitable. The annual Freelance Photographer's Market Handbook in the UK features a whole section on libraries and is an excellent reference guide, also check out the stock libraries in ePHOTOzine's directory section.

If you specialise in one subject area, such as sport, natural history or travel, it may be worth looking at libraries that specialise in that area too, as they will give your work exposure to the right people. Most libraries, however, cover all subjects and deal with all facets of the publishing, advertising and media world, so in theory they offer a much bigger market for you.

Does it matter where the library's based? Well, yes and no. The bigger picture libraries are usually based in or close to capital city of each country, mainly because that's where the heart of the market is - all the big book, newspaper and magazine publishers, all the major advertising agencies and TV stations can be found there. With that in mind, it makes sense to go for a library based in the capital. At the same time, if you specialise in subjects that are relevant to a specific area you may be better of looking at libraries in other cities in the same region, because they're likely to have a ready-made market for your work.

Also, there's nothing to stop you contributing to overseas libraries. If you live in the USA, for example, you could supply a library based in London, Tokyo, Sydney or Munich, and vice versa. I know one photographer who has pictures with ten different libraries throughout the world, and finds that this is more profitable than placing all his work with one library as they all have particular preferences in terms of style, format and subject.

In terms of library size, it's tempting to try and get in with the biggest and the best, thinking it will automatically make you rich. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. The bigger libraries do have a bigger market, higher turnover, perhaps better overseas distribution and possibly the ability to charge higher fees, so in theory the sales potential of your work is increased. But at the same time your work will be competing for sales with that of hundreds of other photographers, and these days the bigger libraries are so clogged with images, especially travel and landscapes, that they take on very few new pictures.

If you have several thousand top quality stock pictures available now, trying to get in with one of the bigger libraries may make sense because you can make a reasonable impression from the word go. However, if you're more or less starting from scratch, you're better off looking for a library that's maybe still getting established, so you can grow with it. This may mean you have to sacrifice sales in the early days, but long term it will pay off because you'll be able to shoot on demand and fill the files with pictures that people are requesting, rather than pictures you fancied shooting.

Once you've put together a shortlist of perhaps half a dozen libraries, it's then worth getting in touch and asking them to send out any information packs they might have for new contributors, plus a copy of their latest catalogue and contract. Libraries that don't produce catalogues should be put to the bottom of the list. They may be successful, but as much as 75% of the business is generated by catalogues, so they represent a massive earning potential.

After that it's a case of making a final decision. If you have a lot of pictures it's worth visiting the library offices - so they can see your work and you can suss-out their set-up. However, if all you've got to offer is the minimum submission, you're just as well sending it by registered post after checking that it's okay to do so, then waiting for a response. If you're accepted you can then arrange a visit to look around the offices, talk to the picture editors and get an idea of the library's immediate requirements - which you may be able to respond to.

Finally, a word of warning. Avoid like the plague any libraries that charge a 'registration' or 'membership' fee to new contributors. Reputable picture libraries don't need to do this as they make their profit from picture sales, not gullible photographers.

To help prevent this kind of thing happening there's a regulatory body known as BAPLA (British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies) in the UK - similar bodies exist throughout the world. If the libraries you're looking at are member of BAPLA, then you know you're dealing with a reputable company.

Stock Photography part 1: Stock Photography part 1
Travel is the most popular subjects that picture libraries receive, so if you want your work to be accepted and actually make sales, it must be of the highest standard and depict popular subjects and scenes. Even then you may find that the bigger libraries turn you down because they're got similar work coming out of their ears.

Stock Photography part 1: Stock Photography part 1
Pictures of children can be great stock seller if you come up with something different. So experiment with different lenses, camera angles and techniques such as cross processing.

Stock Photography part 1: Stock Photography part 1
You can't always be jetting off to exotic locations, so between trips it pays to photograph subjects that can be tackled at home. These three shots are all simple tabletop still-lifes, costing next to nothing to shoot, but all could be good stock sellers.

Stock Photography part 1: Stock Photography part 1
Make the effort to exploit local subjects. There's a recycling centre in my home town, for example, so I asked permission to take some pictures and shot several dozen new stock images in the space of a few hours.

Stock Photography part 1: Stock Photography part 1
Lifestyle subjects are the biggest earners, so why not ask family members, friends or colleagues to pose for your camera. This shot of my wife's friend pretending to be chatting on the phone was set-up specifically as a stock image, along with various others.

Next month
What to shoot, coming-up with ideas for saleable shots and what you can make.






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