© SCOTT ROBERTSON/TANDEM STILLS + MOTION
Cabin. Olafsfjordur, Iceland.
Opportunities to make money from stock are still plentiful, but a lucrative partnership between an agency and a photographer requires finding the right fit.
The founders of three new independent picture agencies offer a fresh look at the evolving stock photography industry from three very different perspectives. What they share in common is having been willing to take a chance on a good idea that is paying off thanks to hard work, enthusiasm and perseverance.
Greater Vancouver, BC, Canada
011 (604) 346-3178
Adrian Brown, Senior Photographer/Senior Editor
“Creating N49Photo from nothing proved a massive learning curve,” says Adrian Brown. One of the biggest challenges came in assessing digital asset management software, choosing one, and then having to learn coding to configure and customize it to his specifications. Surviving that, Brown was free to focus on what he knows best: pictures. He spent 18 years as a freelancer, followed by a job in the London Bureau of Bloomberg News as a photographer and photo editor. With vast experience in many areas, Brown had particular expertise in the fields of documentary photography and international reportage.
In 2006, he relocated from London to Canada, where he had lived years before. A large, wealthy nation reported to have the third largest oil reserves in the world, Canada—a member of the G8 and the G20—is nevertheless a country where national events go mostly unreported in the international media. Attempting to sell Canadian content to the international market seemed a futile endeavor, so Brown set about exploring options for distributing his Canadian images within Canada. In doing so, he discovered an empty niche: Canadian imagery with international implications—particularly around topics such as water, climate, the energy sector, the oil sands and arctic sovereignty as well as technology and health care—and in 2010, he filled that niche with the launch of N49Photo.
“During my time as a freelancer,” says Brown, “I gained extensive experience contributing to a number of agencies including Polaris Images, Sipa Press Bloomberg News and a wire service.” That experience has proved invaluable, although N49Photo is neither a typical stock agency nor a wire service. It has no members, no affiliations and offers no subscription service. What it does do is serve as what Brown describes as “a daily picture service with a growing archive with local, provincial, national and global relevance.” The images, all rights-managed, are licensed exclusively for editorial use.
Contributors must be news media or related publishing industry professionals, and as such they earn a highly competitive percentage on licensing sales of their respective images. The agency aggressively markets its images on a daily basis to a wide range of news media outlets, where potential clients can browse files of reportage and documentary projects and images related to political, business and environmental news. Contributors are also required follow a specific Style Guide when captioning and filing images. For example, let the photo editor in search of an image decide, suggests Brown, whether a crowd is big or small, angry or jubilant. Presenting accurate truth in captions without editorializing is a top priority for him.
Anticipating that N49Photo as a picture agency would attract photographers who travel frequently and cover international events, Brown tailored his growth plan to include international content in addition to Canadian. For that reason, he encourages contributors from all over the world to submit work.
Despite his many hats, Brown is a photographer first and he’s made N49Photo as photographer friendly as its possible to be. The agency offers advice and suggestions to help germinate ideas. Following business news for inspiration is one such suggestion, since so much of that news has to do with the environment and renewable energy resources. “Just going out the door to an assignment often presents other photographic possibilities,” Brown points out. Explore, he says. Be curious. Visit places you have never been, drive down roads that appear to lead nowhere. “They frequently lead to interesting photographic possibilities or offer ideas for another time.”
But the real key, Brown says, is optimism. Not getting bogged down in cynicism over the difficulties created for publishing and photography by the Internet and digital technology. “Instead of decrying technological change,” he says, “why not ask, ‘How can we make it work for us?’”
OJO Images Ltd
+44 (0) 20 7780 7000
Chris Ryan, Chairman
With a large royalty-free collection and a small rights-managed collection, OJO has no specialty, per se, except perhaps for the one labeled “Good.” The only requirement is quality. But when they say quality, they really mean it. “We believe that the market has been awash with mediocre imagery attempting to sell at too high a price point,” says co-founder and chairman Chris Ryan. “Micro-stock pricing has eroded the sales of those images even more. Anyone can say we are going to produce ‘quality’ or ‘premium’ images. But saying it is a lot easier than doing it. We restore those levels of value to royalty free with our collection.”
Always on the lookout for new talent to join as contributors, OJO admits to being choosy. “We only accept and sign photographers whose work we consider truly exceptional,” Ryan says, “and we only select images from them that we feel will generate meaningful sales for them.”
Photographers who do get signed with OJO find themselves in a highly supportive atmosphere. The agency will help with creative research, shot list construction and offer art direction for ongoing image creation. “In pre-production we interrogate every aspect of a contributors shoot for relevance and sale-ability,” Ryan says. “We carefully check styling, casting and location. We ask that our photographers get the best help on set to create their images, with good stylists, hair and make-up and producers.” OJO scripts each individual shot with the photographer, always allowing the freedom for spur-of-the-moment ideas along the way.
“We are a new breed of agency,” Ryan says. “It’s not about a desperate race for image numbers or size of collection. We believe that is an old philosophy.”
OJO began as an idea hatched over beer by a group of experienced stock photographers—Rob Daly, Chris Newton, Justin Pumfrey, Martin Barraud, Matt Hind and Chris Ryan. They wondered if a co-op agency could work, run by the bunch of them. “Six photographers? Like herding cats,’ we were told,” Ryan says. Nevertheless, there was too much good sense in the idea to let it fizzle. “We imagined the joy of having our very own creative department to steer us, producers to make all our shoots happen, and retouchers to polish and conform the images,” Ryan recalls. The allure proved irresistible, and the six photographers decided to go ahead and herd the cats.
Each of the six partners took on specific key subjects in order to avoid redundancy in the images they created. Each invested equal work time, output and start up capital. They also agreed to share their profits equally, and their first images went to market on June 16th 2007. “It takes a certain leap of faith and trust for a group to do this, Ryan says. “But it has worked extraordinarily well for us.”
Sales are entirely generated by OJO’s distribution partners, and the agency has grown fast, with a superb collection of approximately 23,000 images and a staff of 15 people. “Pro rata per image, we are the world’s best selling royalty free stock collection,” Ryan says. “This enables us to secure excellent search return positions on our distribution partners’ Web sites.” In 2010, OJO’s overall business grew by 40 percent.
A little advice for the potential stock photographer: “Think before you shoot,” Ryan offers. “Stop and ask yourself these questions: What message and keyword am I communicating in this picture? Who will buy this picture? Why will they buy this picture above other similar pictures?”
There are a lot of doom and gloom stories centered on stock photography income. But Ryan insists that getting the images and search return exposure for them right will deliver a decent payoff. Most important of all: only the images of top quality make the real money. “Killers,” says Ryan. “Not fillers.”
Tandem Stills +
Los Angeles, CA
Ian Shive, CEO & Founder
A second-generation photographer who grew up around the stock business, Ian Shive contributed images to stock for a decade before starting his own agency. It could be said that Tandem Stills & Motion came about thanks to disillusionment put to good use.
“I was grossly disenchanted with the lack of photographer-friendly agencies out there,” Shive says. “People forget it’s a blend of art and commerce and most agencies forget about the art.”
As a full-time professional photographer, prior to Tandem, Shive was a real pro; prolific, driven, and frustrated with the state of big business stock. He decided to create an outlet for his own work and for that of his colleagues, keeping to the areas of interest he had always loved best, such as travel, the outdoors, geography and adventure sports. This spring he unveiled a new picture agency with something pretty new: Motion.
“Motion is the future,” says Shive, who anticipates the market to grow by leaps and bounds over the two years. He has prepared for that growth by developing his own software, capable of handling the fast-growing market of motion clips. “If you are a photographer and not participating,” he says, “you should consider early retirement or a change of careers.”
To position his agency at the forefront of this new genre, Shive and his team created their software in rapid time, with stunning results. It is software that rivals the best, cable of blending motion and stills together in one search algorithm, in a seamless, scrolling search function that allows buyers to keep looking without every having to hit ‘next page’. With a clientele of editorial outlets worldwide, Tandem is building a brand that will not dilute its content by sharing with affiliate agencies or partners. They’ve already licensed dozens of motion clips from a small but growing archive and tapped into the iPad/mobile business in stills, motion and pairs. Other early success has come through sales in the video game industry and the financial sector.
Contributors to Tandem have everything to gain. Assets are 100 percent safe on the world’s fastest and most reliable servers, and photographers are paid higher percentages in royalties than at other agencies, with Tandem offering 50/50 split with contributors on their images. “If you refer a sale to us,” Shive adds, “we only take 25 percent and the contributor gets 75 percent. We want lasting relationships that develop careers or help people at the far end of a successful career achieve their goals.”
Another innovation here is the branding of the licensing model; one that simplifies the buying process for clients. “We call it Rights Specific (tm),” Shive explains. “It eliminates negotiation from the buying process.” Apparently, research shows that most buyers can’t stand haggling over the price of anything. “No one likes buying a car,” Shive says. “Buying a photo shouldn’t be the same.”
He has plenty of solid practical advice to offer potential stock photographers, too. Remember that every potential shoot has countless subsidiary possibilities. For example, going rock climbing in Peru? Don’t just photograph the climb. “Document the entire journey like a storyteller,” he says, beginning with the airport. Photograph the cities passed through, meals enjoyed and people met on the way to the rocks, and then photograph the rocks. And when looking for the right agency, Shive advises, “Do your homework and read the fine print! A lot of agencies are super sneaky. They claim to take a certain percentage but then have a hidden service fee on top of it.”
Shive speaks for many in acknowledging the tough business that stock photography is, in flux along with the rollercoaster economy. “Buyers need to realize there are families and people on the other end of the photo, that making great photos is expensive and they can’t get them for free,” he says. “Photographers need to realize that budgets are also very tight and compromise. It’s a balance.”