Getting Started in Stock
This is a question we all ask ourselves, having spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on our hobby! I asked myself that question over 4 years ago, and decided the answer was to sell my images. After a slow start, I have increased my income to a run rate of more than $24,000 a year and I share the steps, the trials and tribulations in the newly revised second edition of my eBook – Getting Started in Stock. You are facing a simple choice – do you want to learn as you go, following the forums and their inconsistent information from people who may or may not know what they are talking about, or do you want to save hours of frustration and learn it all on one easy to follow guidebook?
Buy this new eBook directly from my site through a simple and secure shopping cart and get immediate access to the information you need to make money from your photographs!
We are always looking for something to move our images out of the ordinary to really capture the interest of the buyer (and hopefully the general public) to our stock photo images. Building up expertise in exposure, composition and processing in Lightroom (or Photoshop) helps tremendously, but what tools can give our photographs the edge? I’ve been experimenting with the Singh-Ray Gold-n-Blue polarizing filter which can make some spectacular changes to the scene in front of you – the sort of changes that would be almost impossible to reproduce in Photoshop alone. In this post, I’ll review some examples of the changes this filter can make to your shots. I was lucky to start with a pretty neat scene – dawn light illuminating the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC with the famous Cherry Blossoms framing the scene. In earlier shots I used a flash to illuminate the cherry blossoms (which were in shadow at dawn), but by the time I found this shot the sun was just high enough to light the blossoms in front of me. Because of the depth of field issues, I took three shots in succession, focused on the monument, the left flowers and then the right blossoms, and stacked them in Helicon Focus (this cleverly blends the in-focus elements of the various frames). Here is the natural shot – processed in Lightroom with the basic exposure and clarity adjustments I make to most images:
No Filter – Baseline Image
Then I added my Gold-N-Blue filter – the camera was on a tripod as the exposure was around 1/5th second – and so I could rotate the filter without making much change to the composition. The first one I tried was aiming at a warmer natural look and so aimed for slightly bluer water in this one. Somewhat strangely, you see a normal (albeit modified) image in the camera viewfinder but the Raw files all have a magenta hue. You need to find an appropriate white balance when you are processing – which can often be far away from the normal daylight settings. Here is the first image with the filter:
Gold-N-Blue – Natural
Then I went for the bright gold view on the reflective surfaces. This is a polarizing filter and so it mainly alters the areas that a polarizer would darken – reflections in water, the sky (at 90 degrees to the sun) – and the other elements – the monument and the flowers are not changed as much. Hence you can make a major change to those polarized areas of the image:
Golden morning light
Finally, I wanted something a little more ethereal, and so I rotated to give the water and sky a more blue tint, and then processed it in Lightroom to warm up the monument itself to give a dreamy peaceful feeling – perfect for a calendar, I think!
Dreamy dawn light of Jefferson Memorial
I think this one is my personal favorite – I can imagine this printed large on my wall at home. Perhaps I’ll experiment more on blending (in Photoshop) the different versions to get the gold in the lower sky to simulate the sunrise light with upper areas appearing blue.
One final point – the downside, if you like. The filter is not cheap – $240 for normal filter sizes. It has been mentioned to me that you can achieve similar results using software from Nik, for example and get their entire suite for less than $200. Fair point – I’m not convinced that you can shift individual colors in software as much as you can with this filter. I often find that you get unwanted aberrations around the edge of different colored objects (like the blossoms in this example), but it is always something to think about. I enjoy having my creative juices flowing when I am taking the shots and perhaps that is why the filter works for me – but it is your choice!
I miss being able to present the complex graphs I used to do, but the edict from Shutterstock that you should not provide detailed information on your earnings has put a damper on that for me. I think the line they are taking is not necessary (I’m sure it is to do with analysts trying to estimate their earnings), but they are the ones with the power and I can’t afford to annoy them!
$115 Single on Demand
Anyway, my Shutterstock earnings are continuing along at the same level as before (which is slightly disappointing as I have continued to upload), and I seem to get solid downloads each day, but it is the occasional Enhanced Licenses and especially the large Single on Demand images that either make or break a month. I got one $115 download last month for this image from Germany. You never can tell when these things are going to pop up!
That said, March was my “Best Month Ever” with total earnings of at least $2750. I estimate what I will get from the iStock Partner Program, which is why this is an “at least” figure. My estimate of $155 in partner earnings last month turned into a real figure of $255 after some large partner downloads, and so it is always a nice surprise to see what comes along from iStock. I’ve continued uploading images there now that they allow up to 990 images at once, and so I’m gradually building up my portfolio – now at 3600. Here is my file count at the end of March:
Files per agency
What was pleasing to see in March? Well, I had a single sale of an image for $210 from a commission I sought. Then, I had $207 from three sales on Zoonar – one from their site and a couple from the partners. This is a site that seems to take a long time to show results, but it does get there in the end. If you choose to check it out, here is my affiliate link for Zoonar. I also made $188 from Alamy, $135 from 123RF, $260 from iStock, $106 from Big Stock, $101 from DepositPhotos and $90 from Dreamstime. The rest fell below that cut off. You can reach any of these sites via the links over in the left hand column!
I’m definitely changing my approach these days though. I take more editorial shots (ie pictures with unreleased people or property) and submit those to Alamy and to Corbis (via a partnership arrangement I have) and they also go on my own BackyardStockPhotos website. I’ve been building up images there and am now approaching 2800 or so. More to go, obviously. I mark any editorial shots to make sure it is clear to the buyer that I don’t have releases. An example can be seen by clicking through to my agency through this image that is full of unreleased property!
Cruise Ship in Sydney Harbour
All I send to the microstock agencies now is simple released “microstock” imagery. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, but I think I am now trying to optimize my earnings – get some larger amounts from scarcer photos and continue to feed the machine to get my 50 or 60 downloads a day from Shutterstock.
Finally, I reworked my graph which shows the percentage of my income that comes from different sites. It may be hard to see the smaller sites, but it shows how Shutterstock has maintained its position as my largest contributor of earnings, followed by iStock. The other ones fill in the remaining 40% or so each month:
Percent of Earnings
Sometimes, on a dark winters night, it is fun to just see what can be created from little bits of photos that are already sitting on your hard drive. Here is one such effort, that I think nicely illustrates the concept of “being adrift” and can be used as a stock image for many leadership (or lack of) illustrations.
Adrift without leadership
This could have been a beautifully seen shot with a boat floating on a calm sea, or it could have started like this:
A sort of interesting shot taken on a stony beach on the east coast of England (and, yes, the sky was real and it wasn’t raining….).
The other source image was one of a nice set of clouds I took at home:
First step was to isolate the boat from the background. Because this had nice sharp edges, I used the pen tool to draw around the edges of the boat, then take a copy of the boat onto its own layer. With the clouds, I used a technique I saw in Photoshop User magazine, but there are many other tutorials on the web. Here is one that pretty much explains the steps I took: http://othercubed.com/tutorials/creating-a-cloud-brush/
I split my cloud into two different brushes so that I could create some variety in the results. The small cloud to the left was selected separately to create a more interesting leading line in the final image.
Next step is to create a simple blue gradient in Photoshop from light blue to a slightly darker blue. This is my new sky. I stamped the clouds onto that in a position that nicely balanced the image. Now for the magic. I’ve been playing with a plugin from Flaming Pear called Flood. This only has one purpose – it allows you to create realistic reflections of the top half of an image in a watery surface. You can set the degree of waviness, complexity of the water surface, height above the surface and go from a straight mirror like reflection to a rough sea surface:
I had to do the same to my isolated view of the boat – this creates a similar mirrored image of just the boat and its reflection with similar settings so that the two would look as though they were taken in the same conditions.
Then it was simply a matter of layering the boat over my new “sea” in a pleasing composition to get the final result.
There are some limitations – it isn’t good if the horizon isn’t pretty straight, although there is a perspective control that alters the direction of the reflection and I think you could do some more clever masking to make the edge of a lake look more realistic, but for night time cityscapes over water, it can make for a dramatic, if sometimes not altogether realistic image!
Capitol at dawn in Washington DC
The Symbiostock network has reached a new milestone – 250,000 images now available to license directly from the artist in a simple straightforward process! My own efforts are slowly paying off as well – since I started my own stock photo agency, BackyardStockPhotos.com, I have now sold 12 images for a total of $120. Things appear to be picking up a bit with two full size sales in March for $20 each. This month I’ve sold the following:
Cherry Blossoms and Washington Monument
Skyline of New York City
It is probably much too early to forecast this as the tipping point, but I will keep uploading. I’m taking a different approach these days – the relatively scarce shots – the ones in New Zealand for instance – I’m now uploading to Alamy and Corbis and BackyardStockPhotos. The more RF general type shots are going to the microstock agencies. I’ve got enough images on line to try that as an experiment to see if it is better for earnings. More in a couple of months once I see the results.
As photographers (dropping the “stock” word for a moment) we all like to create artistic masterpieces that truly capture the grandeur of a place or landscape – especially if the sun is rising or setting at the same time. There is just something about the conjunction of colors that automatically attracts us to sunsets! Often such sites are simply to let friends and family see the best shots we have taken – pointing someone to a stock agency and saying “search” is hardly the same! Of course, strangers may also find the site and through that approach you for licensing or prints, but it isn’t often designed for that purpose. For a long time, I used SmugMug to host my fine art site, and I built up many galleries over the years. Their recent price hikes brought that seriously into question and I decided, a month ago, to move myself onto my own hosted site created with WordPress. As I’ve mentioned before, I moved my main stock site to dedicated hosting and so I could create a new wordpress site on the same host at no incremental cost. If you have no web presence at all, you would have to buy a $4.99 monthly hosting package to get started.
Some available Styles
The first big issue I came across was what theme to use? A word of explanation. WordPress is a very flexible content management package that can be customized to look like anything you have in mind. There are free themes that apply customization of pages, fonts, color etc. and then specially designed themes for a particular purpose. You could set about designing your own from scratch,
but that is probably beyond most of us. So I started looking for a Photography theme and typed typical words like “wordpress photography portfolio theme” into Google. If you try this, you get many hits, but most of them are affiliate factories – they list and describe each theme (probably using text from the theme site) and provide an affiliate link via which they can make some money if you eventually buy that theme. As an objective review, they are pretty useless. So my first task was to go to each of the popular (by downloads) themes and do my own research, checking out example portfolios built using that theme, and looking at when last it was updated, was there and active support forum and so on. After much research I decided on the Photocrati theme. It is not the cheapest theme (at $79) but it comes with an unconditional 30 day refund and the artist sites built using the theme were attractive and professional. I think I finally decided that with such a high volume of users, an active support environment, good documentation and a lot of flexibility, it was also the safe choice for me. The only thing I was uneasy about was that the theme doesn’t automatically read the title, description and keywords from uploaded images – I contacted support and immediately got a response saying that they were working on it for a late spring release, but it isn’t there yet. As I found out (and will describe), if you create collections in Lightroom that mirror your site, it will be easy to update images later if you want to have those elements visible on the site.
Out of the box, the theme comes with sixty different styles – colors, frame, approaches etc. You basically start with the one you think most closely matches what you are trying to achieve, and then you can customize it in all sorts of ways to meet your exact needs. For instance, I wanted a black background to make the images pop, then I wanted my own logo, a small menu, fonts that looked more like handwriting than type etc. All very easily modified within the editing system provided in the theme.
So what can you create? My home page is shown over on the right. On different pages of your blog, you can have text – for instance an “about me” page. You can add slide shows, single images, slide shows with image sliders, blocks of image and so on. A collection of images on a page is known as a gallery, and you can add text around it. You can show the image descriptions if you want, and obviously change the timings of slides and the transitions. Each gallery can be stacked inside another page – so your menu will show Europe, for instance, then England, Germany etc. as sub menus. The top level page can have thumbnails of each gallery as an alternate way of getting to the required images. You can play music (I don’t really like that on a website).
Having played around with the formatting until I got the result I wanted, I started to think about uploading images. Several years of uploading to Smugmug gave me quite a collection and, of course, I didn’t keep any local records of what I uploaded! This time will be different! I have all my images in one Lightroom catalog, and after processing, I add a flag to the ones that I like (and also plan to upload to stock agencies). I keyword and describe in Lightroom as well. So my plan was to first create my gallery structure on paper – how many top level menu items, how many sub menus etc. My aim was to keep the number of images in a slide show to around 20-30 or so. Then I created that structure as a series of collections in Lightroom. I added one called Favorites which was destined for the home page. Then it was a matter of searching for the relevant keyword, filtering by the flag, and then dragging the images I really liked into the collection. With the export set to Jpeg, 50 quality and 1200px maximum length I was ready to export the images gallery by gallery and import them into the newly created page on the wordpress site. You can re-order images as needed on the site, and so I just uploaded by date order, but you could sort in the collection. Now, when the new theme release come along I can just import those files again and have the data read and titles automatically appear if I need to. The site is right click protected by the theme, but I decided to use un-watermarked images so that I didn’t detract from the viewing. I also enabled a plugin called Super Cache to speed up display of the site, but that is too complex for this article!
My overall goal in this was to create a single web presence and branch out from there. I have this site, my stock site and my Fine Art America site at the moment and so the design of BackyardImage was to have all those various sites integrated into one story. Hence the three blocks of text on the home page and the menu items that open the other sites when necessary.
Overall, I didn’t find this to be too complex or difficult at all. Photocrati was was documented, and the longest time was spent trying to decide which my best images actually are – you get attached to these things! I still have quite a number of galleries still to add, but I’m very happy with how it is all progressing!
If you want to investigate Photocrati, I did sign up for their affiliate program which is embedded in this link!
I’ve been very slow in posting new information in the past couple of months – but there has been a reason! I was lucky enough to go on a cruise around Australia and New Zealand in late November/December and then a trip to Hawaii in January. As a result, I have thousands of images to process – some of which were completed and uploaded, but the majority are still being worked on. I’m now back at home again and so will keep up the focus on getting these new images online and also increase the number of posts on my blog.
So, what’s new? I sold another print on Fine Art America in January for a profit of around $120. The print was the same one that sold in December – the moon over Washington DC:
Moon over Washington DC
It certainly makes me wonder if getting a sale on that site helps bring the attention of buyers (or the site search engine) to that image again. I notice that quite a number of people always comment on a new sale – perhaps there is some good SEO associated with that as well? I haven’t made good on my promise to upload more images to that site, but as soon as I have sorted out my various holiday snaps I will definitely get some online.
Now on to earnings. January was a very slow month at the start – the first week went by with very few sales. Later weeks picked up a bit, and my overall sales improved. I have around 4500 – 5000 images on most sites now. SS was well below its best at $896. iStock a bit low at $293 and then 123RF did OK with $115. As mentioned Fine Art America had another nice sale in Jan to net me $121. I also sold $93 (net) on Alamy. So, altogether, I came in at $2076 compared to $2101 in December.
My own stock site – Backyard Stock Photos – finally took off at the end of the month – someone from the US congress (House) bought four pictures of Washington. Hope they will remember me for future shots! Only small ones at $3 each, but a start! I wrote about setting up your own stock site back in November.
I’m thinking of moving my personal portfolio away from Smugmug onto a new site on my hosting provider. I haven’t decided yet which package to use – probably a WordPress theme – but I’ll let you know what I decide.
I did a guest post over on Amos Struck’s website Stock Photo Secrets about the life of a stock photographer – a bit hard to cover that topic in a short blog, but I wanted to highlight some of the issues that we face – low commissions – and some of the potential solutions – our own linked Symbiostock sites. The Stock Photo Secrets site is aimed mainly at buyers of images, so perhaps that will strike a chord with at least some of them!
I’ve decided to write a fuller post on my experiences on Fine Art America as I’ve been increasingly impressed with the sales coming from the site and thought some of my landscape/fine art readers may like to know more about this site and the opportunities for selling non-stock [...]
I’ve been pretty quiet for a few weeks – mainly because I went on a long vacation to Australia and New Zealand, cruising on the Celebrity Solstice from Sydney to Melbourne, across to New Zealand and then around the South and North Island – great relaxation and pretty good for photography. I’ll write more about [...]