Wednesday, August 27, 2008

File storage on the go

Tired of lugging a laptop with you on every location shoot? I was. So for a recent travel shoot I picked up a new card transfer and storage device. I had purchased several of these devices in the past, but was always disappointed by speed, reliability, and battery life. I was hoping that technology had advanced enough so these short comings would now be overcome. I was right.

The model I purchased is the new Hyperdrive Colorspace 0. This card reader has a 3.2” color screen that displays JPG and a long list of camera RAW including Canon CR2 / CRW, Fujifilm RAF, Konica Minolta MRW, Leica M8 DNG, Nikon NEF, Olympus ORF, Panasonic RAW, Pentax PEF / DNG, Ricoh DNG, Samsung DNG, Sony ARW. Backup speed is very fast on a battery life claimed to deliver 120GB per charge. An interesting feature is its card recovery tool for recovering lost or deleted images on a memory card. Fortunately, I did not have an opportunity to try out this feature. If I ever do, I will report the results here.

Hyperdrive comes with drive sizes ranging from 80GB to 500GB as well as a casing only model allowing you to add your own drive.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Image Half Life

Quite often I am asked how long a stock image will live. I have always had difficulty answering this question because, while sales from some images diminish rapidly, other images continue to generate sales for over twenty plus years. After some analysis, I came up with a concept of “image half life” to explain the rate at which stock photo income declines over time.

The term “image half life” is borrowed from physics where it refers to the unpredictable life span of a decaying atom. Similarly, in stock photography a body of work will not just stop earning at one point in time. Instead it will probably follow a course whereby it produces steady income for several years and then gradually begins to diminish over time. The rate of diminishing return varies with a number of circumstances – longevity factor of the individual image subject, the agency where the image is placed, changing photographic styles, changes within the stock marketplace, and numerous other factors.

Simply put, image half life in stock photography refers to the period of time over which the sales from a body of stock images will diminish to half of what it was in its first year of marketing. As an example, let’s say we have a body of newly produced images earning $10,000 annually. If in five years the same body of work is earning only $5,000, and five years after that (ten years from initial marketing) earning $2500, then the image half life is 5, for five years.

Why is image half life important? Stock photographers derive income from royalty payments over time. In order to predict income from a body of work in years to come, it is important to factor in image half life. For purposes of planning retirement income, for instance, you need to know how much income can be expected from a body of work receiving diminishing returns over time.

Once you do the calculations, you will find that it only takes a small percentage of new images added annually to the existing portfolio to maintain its consistent income over time.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Globalizing your stock images

In RF stock photography where the royalty rate is low the name of the game is multiple sales. Internet marketing has made this a breeze for photographers who put their images with agencies or outlets having global distribution schemes. Giving your images a non-specific country look can serve to increase sales globally.

Including any language in a photo is a sure way to localize it. So try to avoid the presence of words. For instance, when photographing a school scene with a blackboard, it would be far more generic to have math problems written on the board.

Check out uniforms, a European nurse’s uniform might be different than an American uniform. Perhaps all you have to do is modify the nurse’s cap. Pay attention to clothing styles and hair styles everywhere, and select your wardrobes accordingly.

Whenever I travel to a foreign country, I make a habit of visiting several large department stores to see what people there are buying and what images advertisers use in their displays. You might learn that including something as simple as a home phone in your photo is a quick give-away that the shot was done in the USA and not Europe, thereby hurting potential European sales of the photo.

Much of this seems obvious, but is often over looked by the stock shooter. Always try to imagine the end use of your images, and keep in mind that the use may be in a completely different part of the world. The more universal you keep the image, the more you increase your chances for multiple sales.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

First things first

To be successful, a stock photo must first grab the viewer’s attention. That’s something of a given. What comes next is something often overlooked by even the most seasoned stock shooters.

Before you ever pick up the camera, you need to know the end use of the image you are about to take. Specifically, this means knowing the industry being served and how the subject of the photo relates to that industry. Let’s look at an example.

The insurance industry needs images for auto insurance, home owners insurance, theft insurance, fire insurance, flood insurance, and on and on. The list is quite extensive. Once the stock shooter has the industry list of needs, the next step is to determine how these topics could be illustrated.

We can divide the coverage into negative and positive methods. For instance, showing a crashed car, burnt home, or the results of any disaster is the negative way of illustrating the point. Showing a person feeling secure because he or she is protected by insurance is a positive was of illustrating the same point. In general, positive images will always outsell negative ones in stock photography. That is because advertisers want to gain allegiance from their customers by imbuing their ads with a nurturing feeling, as opposed to showing them something that scares them to death. Positive trumps negative.

In sum, to create marketable stock photos you should fill the advertising needs of a specific industry, actively illustrate these industry needs in a positive way, and make the image powerful enough graphically to grab the viewer’s attention in a fraction of a second. Note the order here. We don’t start with a photo idea and work towards the industry. We start first with a researched understanding of the industry and work back to a powerful image.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Dealing with Image Glut

It is becoming increasingly clear that the glut of images in the market place is causing downward pressure on individual sales. This does not necessarily have to bring with it the global doom that I’m hearing. A very similar industry downturn occurred when the advent of RF coincided with the stock photo universe coalescing into three large agencies. The reason was the same: Catalog marketing in an analog environment became so overly competitive that individual photographers as well as the smaller agencies could no longer compete successfully. But the end result was a shake out – a shake out of those who were simply riding on the coat tails of others. Those photographers and agencies who continued to bring a smart understanding of the marketplace continued to survive, in many cases even better that before.

The same is true now. Those photographers and agencies who can adapt to the changing landscape will be successful. The rest will fall by the wayside. The demand for stock photography is not going away. The method for fulfilling the images demands must change to meet the changing landscape of the current marketplace, namely the internet and its ability to cope with database glut.

I am seeing one substantial ray of hope out there right now, and that is Alamy. More than any other agency, the Alamy business model has forced it to come to grips with image glut. In recent years the Alamy image base has grown exponentially due to its lack of a controlling editing policy. I have enough images with Alamy to witness the impact this image glut has had on individual Alamy sales. Quite frankly, sales plummeted. Alamy was forced to come to terms with this problem or loose market share because clients would become increasingly turned off having to wade through hundreds, or even thousands, of useless photographs until the right one showed up in a search. This is an extremely damaging position for an agency to maintain. So Alamy reinvented the search with a refined search algorithm they called Alamy search. This algorithm gave precedence in a search to those contributors who consistently achieve the highest click-through coupled with the highest sell-through. Since Alamy has instituted this new search algorithm my sales have climbed steadily to where they are almost back to their previous highs.

In short, now more than ever the key to survival for a photographer will be to adopt strategies to achieve a very high sell-through rate coupled with a high RPI. This is the ONLY way to survive and be successful in the changing landscape. All others will fall by the wayside along with those agencies who cannot cope. The agencies themselves will have to adopt Alamy’s position and invent ways of dealing with their image glut. Otherwise they, too, will die – and I include Getty in this.

What can a photographer do now? First, hone skills to be sharper than ever at producing very market oriented photography in a popular and useful style. Understand the marketplace, namely, the internet and its impact on the customer image selection process. Second, keep an ear to the ground and listen for impending changes in the agency landscape. Third, realize that new images will have to be reinvented on a regular basis to keep them fresh.

New agencies and new agency models will be coming into play quickly now. Photographers must be prepared to ride the successful changes that occur. Will it be a Corbis or Jupiter supplanting Getty as number one? Will it be some agency that doesn’t even exist now? Will we witness the strong return of the boutique agency? Or will it be the micro agencies? More than likely it will be something we can’t even envision right now -- like the new Alamy search algorithm -- redefining the playing field. This policy coupled with a strong image database will be the key to success. We can count on photo buyers to seek out the best image solution at the most competitive price, as they have always done. To be successful a stock photographer will have to make certain that when that image purchase is being made, his or her images are in the forefront to the client’s view.

As always, success remains in the hands of the shooter.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Achieving a click-through

The other day I was sitting at the desk next to my son, Daniel, as he was editing some of his stock images. The images were small, but I could still see the subjects quite clearly from across the room – except for one image, which was a mystery to me. I just couldn’t make out what it was about. I told Daniel that he would probably have trouble selling that photo because it was too difficult to see in a small size.

Here’s why:

Before any stock photo can be sold on the internet it has to achieve a click-through. A click-though is when someone performs a mouse click on a thumbnail image in order to see the image larger. No click-through, no sale. This sounds obvious, but it is something regularly ignored by many stock shooters. The first time a potential client sees your image it will be vying for attention on a page filled with about 30-100 thumbnail photos, each of them about the size of a postage stamp. You have a fraction of a second in which your photo must grab the attention of the client and achieve a click-through giving your photo a second, more detailed, consideration.

Let’s look at a few devices you could use to give you photos a better chance at achieving that click-through. First, you have to realize that the shape of the space allocated to each images is a square.. This is because the programmer doesn’t know in advance whether the photos is a vertical, horizontal, panoramic, or square in format. A square accommodates all sizes. Problem is that most images are rectangular and not square. This wastes valuable real estate on the screen. One method for gaining more attention for your image is to crop it to fill more of the square space allocated to its display. The more of the square space you fill up, the larger your image appears relative to others on the same page.

This doesn’t mean you have to crop all images square, but you should consider using the more practical formats of the 6x4.5 camera. It will present a larger image that the 35mm format, and adapts more appropriately to standard page usage anyway. So you will be aiding the art director while helping yourself. As for panoramas – well, sad to say they lose almost all of their format power because of their reduced thumbnail size.

A second consideration for you image is compositional simplicity. A complex composition with a lot going on in a jumbled mess is no way to make your image easy to read. Remember, you have a fraction of a second to peak enough curiosity to make the person want to take another look. Simplify your compositions. What you exclude becomes as important as what you include. Give your subject space that sets it off clearly. You want the photo to provide a quick read even in a tiny size.

You will notice in the two lobster photos how the one on the left jumps off the page for a quick "read" as to what it is, while the one on the right is confusing and lost in the background. Note, too, how the 6x4.5 format of the left image makes is larger in relationship to the 35mm format on the right.

Third, carefully craft your color palette. This does not mean putting a color cast over the entire image – far from it. Work the colors within the image so they harmonize and complement one another. A unified palette gains more attention. Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren are two masters of using the color palette for marketing in this commercial way. They are also working very close to the current color trends of our culture. Pay attention to what they are doing. Also look at the larger clothing chains for inspiration. This is a way to make your photo look fresh without resorting to negative devices like color casts over the whole image. In the photo of the office worker the background was kept intentionally neutral gray. Even though the image is small, this devise draws immediate attention to the important story-telling detals of the red flowers, candy box, and valentine heart on the card.

You have a fraction of a second to win over your audience. Use your time wisely.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Nikon D3

The Nikon D3 camera continues to amaze me after six months of steady use. I've been shooting professionally for over thirty years. This camera is the best instrument I have ever used. The super-fast 9fps motor drive makes capturing models spontaneous expressions a breeze. I had all but given up trying to achieve fluid, candid movement with my models due to the slow motors and short burst rates of previous digital cameras. It seemed that the scene would just be getting good when the buffer would fill up and the camera would deliver its "busy" signal. Spontaneity lost!

The fast focusing lenses and easy internal focus system of the D3 make the job even easier. I am finding myself literally completing a scene with models in less than a minute -- often in just a few seconds. I have come to depend upon all images being sharp as the fast 70-200mm zoom -- my favorite tool for lifestyle shooting -- keeps every frame in focus. There are hardly any wasted exposures.

The other thing I find amazing about this camera is its image quality. For a 12+mp sensor it packs the quality punch of sensors over 20mp. I've done tests with it against my Canon 1Ds MkIII where both images are interpolated to 50mb size. The Nikon holds its own with equal detail and takes the lead when I begin to push the ISO ratings over 400. The Nikon takes a noiseless image up to about 800 ISO, and I have achieved professional results with some minor tweaking in the noise reducer, Neat Image, with ISO's of 1600 and even an occasional 3200. What is becoming apparent is that the most important determinent of image quality is not the megapixel number but the quality and size of the sensor.

I took the camera on my trip to Prague in June where I was photographing church interiors handheld with ISO's up to 800. This ability is becoming important as more and more public buildings ban tripod use.

At this moment I am awaiting the arrival of my new Nikon D700 from Karen at Samy's Camera. This camera has the same insides as the D3 in terms of sensor and quality, built into the body of a D300, which should make for a very portable travel camera. I purchased it specifically to lighten my load when traveling without sacrificing quality. The fast motor drive is missing from the D700, but I don't need it for travel shooting. I do have the extra battery adapter for the bottom that will kick the motor up to 8fps, which is still one of the fastest cameras out there. I'll report on this camera once I've given it a trial.

As everyone knows, stock images for traditional agencies need to be interpolated close to a 50mb standard size, whereas images for microstock agencies need to be kept to their native size and not interpolated at all. I find it best to up-res the images in Adobe Bridge at the time I am bringing it in from RAW, as opposed to interpolating afterwards.

Nikon introduced two new zoom lenses to coincide with the introduction of the D3. Digital sensors are much less forgiving than film. The angle of light hitting the sensor is much more problematic, particularly with wide angle lenses. The early full frame sensor cameras like the Canon 1Ds series suffered from a lack of acceptable wide angles. The edges were always soft, as these light rays land at the most extreme angle. The new Nikkor 24-70mm and 14-24mm zooms were computed specifically for the larger sensor size of the D3 and produce excellent edge to edge sharpness. Add to these the 70-200mm lens already in production and you have an uninterrupted focal range from 14-200mm. Impressive.

Since this blog is about stock photography, I will be reporting about other cameras and photo equipment from time to time in terms of how they affect the stock shooter.