December 8, 2016

Graham Ashton

Is It Too Late to Jump on the Stock Photography Train?

Photo: Blaine Harrington

At Pixsy, we see more and more photographers trying their skills at stock photography. For some it has become an additional (often a significant) source of income, for others -- a sheer disappointment. We decided to talk about the pros and cons of going down that photography lane with Blaine Harrington, a long-term Pixsy user and a professional photographer with almost 40 years of stock photography experience. In this interview, Blaine shares his tips on how to take the most out of your stock experience and decide if this kind of photography is indeed for you.

When did you start doing stock photography?

After graduating from Brooks Institute of Photography in early 1976, I started working for a number of national magazines while being based in New York. When I got European assignments, I would stay over and travel for 2-3 months at a time. That’s when I started building my stock collection. Around 1980, I was asked to join the stock agency, The Stock Market, that later got acquired by Corbis. I remained there until the licensing was taken over by Getty, this year.

Blaine Harrington III: Sheep and goats being herded over the Zojila Pass as a traffic jam idles trucks because of a landslide; Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir State; India. This image has become somewhat of a “signature” image of mine. It was chosen as a selected winner for the American Photography 32 annual award book. In 2015, it won the grand prize in the Photoshelter Travel Photography competition.

What themes do you focus on in your stock photography?

I primarily shoot travel, but as I started out as a commercial and fashion photographer, and had apprenticed for a number of well-known advertising photographers before, I’m well-rounded in my technical skills and aesthetic approach. That allows me to take on any kinds of photography to best cover a destination.

Because of the variety of subjects, I cover in my photography, some of my best selling stock images are not just traveling shots. For example, some are images shot in hospitals. As I live in Colorado, the first U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana, I’ve shot a lot of marijuana-related photos over the last few years. Now that a number of other states have just legalized marijuana, I am hoping that the images will be used even more.

Blaine Harrington III: A young woman smoking marijuana in a bong (with the Rocky Mountains behind), Littleton, Colorado USA. Colorado was the first state to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use in 2014. I had the idea to light up this glass bong with the setting sun and it took a few attempts to get it just right. It was used as the opening shot of CNBC’s documentary “Marijuana Country: The Cannabis Boom.”

Which stock images are performing best in your experience?

Images that speak to people on an emotional level. That is to say, they usually mean the same thing to people all over the world. Photos which have a little something extra that speaks to them sell best and have what I call commonality. In travel, that’s what makes people want to be “in the picture” and encourages them to want to travel to the place that they’ve seen in my photos.

Blaine Harrington III: Porsche Speedster with surfboard at sunset along the coastal road in Montecito, California USA (Pacific Ocean in background). This is a best selling image. I titled it “California Dream”. The car belonged to a friend of mine in Santa Barbara, California. The Porsche Speedster and the surfboard kind of sum up the California experience. It has been used on book covers, the cover of a major national clothing catalog, etc. (it has also been pirated and was successfully settled as a Pixsy case).

What’s your “winning formula” to planning, shooting, and selling stock photography?

In the early days, when I traveled I made friends in the countries I was visiting. Later on, when coming to places like France or Norway, I would stay with friends and see their country from the inside. I would experience the destination not as someone who stayed in a hotel, but someone who went down to a bakery in the morning and played pinball in a cafe in Paris. Eventually, time became precious. But in these early years, when I was in Paris and it was raining, I didn’t have to worry about going out to shoot -- I just waited for another day.

Later, when I traveled and had to quickly figure out what made a country tick, I was able to rely on all my years of learning the countries from the inside. Today, that experience allows me to do just as good a job when telling a story of a country I’m visiting for the first time as I do with the ones that I’ve visited many times and know well. Now, when I travel, every day of a trip is scripted and I know exactly what I’ll be doing. In case of places I’ve already visited before, I know where to be, what time of day to shoot facades of buildings, etc. If it’s a new place, I figure all of this out in advance -- I ask people, I look at maps, and lately look at aerial views and street maps on Google.

When I photograph people, aside from taking a beautiful photo of someone, I do want to see into their soul. Just a couple of days ago, I was emailing with a woman in Kuwait who was interested in one of my photos. She wrote: "I feel that you're a true artist who captures the soul of the character not only the outside image." In this day, when it seems no one has the attention span to look long enough at one photo to pick up the subliminal meanings, it means a lot to me that some people do look and do understand and that they take something special from my images.

Blaine Harrington III: Maiko (Geisha apprentice), Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto, Japan. This photo was taken while I was working in Japan shooting a travel guidebook. When in Kyoto, I wanted to set up a session photographing geishas but was told by the Japan National Tourist Organization that hosted me that I didn't need that. I knew I did -- there are certain iconic images of a country that you must get. As the JNTO wouldn’t help me, I talked to some other people in Kyoto and learned that there would be a festival going on where all of the top geishas would be there performing and serving food to special guests in a tent. I managed to work my way into the tent. This image was made while the geisha was serving tea and illustrates my point about seeing the country from the inside. Japan was one of the countries I hadn't been to before and had to use my own preconceptions to find the way to illustrate it best.

Have you ever had to adjust your photographic output to match the stock photography market?

It’s important -- I believe in the style that took me many years to create. I have never changed my work because of photographic trends. I have always been able to shoot what I want and sell it.

Blaine Harrington III: Man waving Colorado flag with Marijuana leaf at the center, 420 Rally, Civic Center Park, Downtown Denver, Colorado USA. This is the largest marijuana rally in the world. This shot was the opening spread in a Newsweek cover story “God, Guns & Ganja: Colorado is the Future of American Politics.”

Do you have any advice for photographers who are just starting out in stock photography?

I think if you are just deciding to get into stock photography now, you’re probably too late. First, most of the top agencies have enough photographers, so you either have to be that fantastic, do something differently, or have a specialty like microphotography. Second, this is a numbers game. To make it work, you need to have thousands of high-quality photos, of which some will sell each month, somewhere in the world. I have something like 100,000 images online and shoot sometimes 5,000-15,000 photos per trip.

Blaine Harrington III: "Yoga on the Rocks"; 2000 people doing yoga together at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison (Denver), Colorado USA. The yoga session lasted one hour and sale of the images has been extremely successful. This image was used in the October 2016 issue of GLAMOUR Magazine in the U.S. and in the November issue of “MYSELF” Magazine in Germany.

Has stock photography been profitable for you? What advice would you give to other photographers regarding their expectations?

The fact is, I work harder now, towards the end of my career than ever. Many established photographers are giving up on stock photography. They have either reinvented themselves and moved into something else (like video), or are retiring altogether. Meanwhile, there are thousands of new photographers, especially semi-pros, trying to break in. These photographers still have day jobs, try to make some money on photography, but don’t have to live off of it. I think anyone going into an artistic profession should remember that now it’s more difficult to make a living entirely from it, especially if you’re just starting out.

What's the one thing people should know about stock photography that they don't know already?

I’ve always been very enthusiastic as a photographer, and because I’ve pretty much been able to shoot what I want for my whole career, I haven’t lost that. Some of my friends from photography school took a different route in their careers, and some did get burnt out and lost their creativity because they weren’t in complete control of what they were shooting. I can talk and talk about photography, but at some point, I tell people to go to my website and look at my work, because I think that shows better who I am than me trying to explain it with words.

Blaine Harrington III: Newborn babies in hospital nursery, Danbury, Connecticut USA. My daughter was just born (she is the baby in the second row, far left). Even though my daughter has just been born and my thoughts were about the new baby, I still had to use the opportunity to do some shooting. Back then, I was a film photographer, so to get the photo I had to use studio lighting. I got the permission from the hospital and from the mothers of these babies and the mothers all signed model releases. This image is still selling today and, in fact, has been sold somewhere in the world almost every month, for 21 years.

Have your stock images been stolen in the past? What steps do you take to protect your work from image theft?

In the past, it was easier to control the use of your work, since there was a film original and that was it. Someone used your slide and gave it back to you. I was very happy once I went digital because I no longer had just the "one original" -- in case I had two or even five people who wanted the same image at the same time, I could get them a copy.

The downside of going digital is once I give a file out to someone, I lose control of it. Even within one company, if I put restrictions on how a photo can be used, once it gets out of the hands of the person I gave it to, someone else might not know the restrictions and use it without authorization. It’s important for companies to use Digital Asset Management to be able to track their rights on photos and the ways in which they are allowed to use them. Unfortunately, instead of many businesses try to acquire unlimited rights from a photographer and save money on having an appropriate software or employees responsible for controlling usage rights.

After going digital, I started to register my photos with the U.S. Copyright Office. The procedure has gotten easier in recent years, as you can register your photos in bulk. Ideally, you need to register your photos about four times a year, as published photos need to be registered within 90 days of publication. I covered myself in case I would find a major infringement. Instead, I found many smaller infringements where people have pirated my images and used them on websites without permission or licensing. I had started to collect on infringements via stock agencies but they are not really interested in collecting on major levels -- their fees for infringements in some cases are even less than the license ones!

Once I’ve joined Pixsy and started looking through my matches, I was shocked by how many of my photos were being pirated. Many of these infringements are taking place in countries where it is not possible to pursue cases: China, India, Africa, Mexico and some European countries that Pixsy does not currently work in because of the local copyright laws, like France and Italy. But Pixsy has pursued on infringements of my images in the U.S. and several other countries and we have been fairly successful, wherever it is possible, to seek compensation.

Blaine Harrington III: Hot air balloons flying at sunrise (with the Sandia Mountains in the background), Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque, New Mexico USA. This is one of my most often infringed photos. I have multiple Pixsy cases open for it.


Post by Blaine Harrington, a travel/location photographer, based in Metro Denver (Colorado, USA). He is the 2005 and 2006 SATW Travel Photographer of the Year and has worked on assignment for most major news, business and travel magazines. To see his work check out his website here or follow him on Facebook.

Graham Ashton

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