June 7, 2016

Graham Ashton

Where do all those "WTF?" stock photos come from?

Image: Andjress Pidjas

Have you ever come across weird stock photos and wondered, "What was that photographer thinking?" Dozens of communities and blogs post examples of "WTF?" stock photography on a daily basis, and up until now, no one has ever investigated how these seemingly bizarre images were made. We tracked down and interviewed the photographers behind several of the most viral weird stock photos to find out.We not only found out that many of these "bad" photos not only sell well but we also learned more about how important ingenuity, creativity and a willingness to take chances are in stock photography.

#1 Underwater Nun

Image: Dennis O'Clair

Adding new meaning to the term "baptism," this image tops the list on Buzzfeed’s ‘50 Completely Unexplainable Stock Photos No One Will Ever Use’. Viewed more than two and a half million times, the actual photographer behind the image, Dennis O’Clair, only learned of his online infamy after his family forwarded the article to him.

Even Dennis' kids were sharing the image on the Internet. It was ultimately Dennis, however, who had the last laugh:

“The images from this production, including the infamous one, have been licensed hundreds of times and have netted us over $12,000 in income. Take that Buzzfeed!”

There's no easy way to explain weird stock photos. There are many images to choose from (Shutterstock alone houses over 80 million photos...), and such a high demand for niche subjects to capture. It's not surprising that photographers are looking for ways to break the monotony.

Dennis took the image more than 20 years ago, and can’t quite recall the context behind "Underwater Nun," nor the specific instructions given to the model to achieve her divine expression. He does, however, remember the hardest aspect of the shoot: casting the maritime nun herself.

“We had to find a woman who was comfortable underwater, preferably a certified diver, and who looked like a typical Catholic nun. She wore weighted shoes, which helped her stay underwater and we would bring her an air hose from a SCUBA tank between shots.”

Underwater lifestyle and action POV shots like these are Dennis’s specialty and a key part of his 25-year career as a stock photographer. During this time, he’s learned that the business works very differently to other photographic fields. Rather than answering to clients or following specific instructions, you gauge your own success by how well you understand and can adapt to the market, and whether your images of offices, landscapes and yes, even underwater nuns, are trendy enough to sell.

“Generally, photos that go viral aren’t necessarily going to provide additional income for the creator,” says Dennis. “Successful stock photographers don’t chase fads. They create imagery that illustrates concepts and emerging trends. They stay ahead of the visual curve.”

To anyone considering a career in stock photography, Dennis stresses that no matter where your skills lie or what you’re most comfortable shooting, it will take a lot more than just a few images of skylines or of retired couples on the beach to be successful. “In today’s ultra visual world, an image maker has to understand the current visual language, the emerging trends, and the way that images are being used.”

“Creating those images is a serious, thoughtful, and immersive process. The world has enough cute cat pictures. Don’t contribute to the demise of the medium. Create something meaningful, something special and elevate the art and craft of photography. Even stock photography can be art.”

#2 Cyber Corn Woman

Image: Andjress Pidjass

The "Cyber Woman with Corn" series took a life of its own after it was posted on the internet in 2013. It’s one of the most all-time upvoted posts on /r/WTFStockPhotos, became the subject of its own Gawker article, and you can even listen to a dance-rock album named after it.

While he’s pretty happy with the attention his work received, Andjress Pidjass still wonders why most people don’t get the message behind the image. “I actually was only starting to explore a stock market trying to find a niche that is not represented well enough. The idea behind that series was that in the near future we might get some kind of technology that will allow us to improve our life, health, products etc.”

“That particular image earned me about $200 - not bad for such a weird concept.”

Weird stock photos are the perfect example of how a-maize-ingly successful a shot can be even when the setup is quite basic.“I did it in a studio on a white background; nothing fancy,” says Andrejs. “Some props, like the costume, were ordered on eBay. The cyber glasses that model has on her face are actually part of some old headphones”Andrejs has worked as a stock photographer for the last 9 years. He likes that he can shoot whatever subjects he likes, but acknowledges that there’s no guarantee that a picture will sell well, especially in a market that has become over-saturated.Whereas once upon a time a photographer could find success selling pictures of a woman staring lovingly at corn, now weird stock photos that go against the grain (so to speak…) will only pay back in the long term.

“As that happened I’ve changed my visual style in portfolio and started to shoot those themes that are harder to replicate. That approach to get unique images pays back in a long term. I think that’s the only way to survive in the industry if you do not have a huge stock photo production team.”

#3 Greasy Man with Lollipop

Image: Scott Griessel

Did you ever see weird stock photos like this one and wonder, "Would anyone actually ever use this?"“I suppose the answer yes is simple enough. Because they have and do.”Scott Griessel is the creator of "Fat man with greasy shirt holding a lollipop and cigar," and yes, that is its actual title on Shutterstock.Scott’s image was part of a large set of photos set around a "clueless husband or handyman" theme. The odd combinations of props-- in this case the lollipop, cigar, and grease-stained shirt-- are often the result of improvisation, experimentation or outside-the-box thinking during shooting.

“The idea behind the lollipop is lost to history,” Scott says. “I'm guessing it was probably close by so I just grabbed it and handed it to Bill, the actor, and said, ‘Here, do something with this.’ I'll admit that it is very silly. I'm almost in agreement with the awkward stock folks who wonder about who would buy it.”

Scott has worked in the stock photography for about 10 years now. Like so many, he got his start by shooting a few tabletop shoots or taking photos of families – all different ways of testing the system, he says. “I identified that there's a certain geometry, for want of a better word. Even though I made very little, to begin with, I could do the math and see that the more quality images I could produce, the more income potential. I think some photographers call it "feeding the beast."

"We work at what I consider sometimes to be the edges of stock photography. I don't usually do business people in an office or the girl in the call center with the headset. There is already a lot of that out there. Instead, we do humor, period or retro stuff, costume sets and the like.”Getting an image to pay for itself is the primary goal for any stock photographer. It may sound unbelievable, but the 'Fat Man' image made more than enough money to recoup the costs of shooting, post-work, and submission to stock sites. Making additional, long-term profit can only happen with good judgment.

“Stock Photography is a lot more difficult than it seems, and more of a specific commercial art than people sometimes understand.”

“It's not so hard to dabble, but in order to be serious and have stock photography as a part of an overall income, strategy takes savvy and very hard work. Understanding everything that is needed and approaching things like image quality, content, keywording, submissions, model releases, location work, and more takes some time to develop.

Stock photographers retain the copyrights to their work. They sell on a license to stock photography sites, who then charge a royalty fee for its usage. Something that is often overlooked is when weird stock photos go viral, they are often shared around without permission of the original author.

“I'm never happy about out-and-out piracy,” Scott confesses. “In this case, particularly since I'm a confident professional photographer, the re-post of the image as an awkward example of the genre is mostly just amusing."

“Sure, I'd love to be compensated for every time it gets posted. Even so, It's kind of fun to be called out on the carpet some times. Often when it shows up is some funny list, I'm the first to pass it along.”

Now running his own full-service film/video and photography company, Creatista, Scott continues to produce stock photography for a variety of clients. Whilst the market as a whole has stagnated as of late, he says it’s still lucrative enough to provide income and offers plenty of opportunities to provide teaching and advice to up-and-coming photographers.

"I've counseled many people over the years on getting into the business because I believe in it,” he says. “Even so, very few stick with it because of the work and education involved. For those that do, I believe it can be personally and financially rewarding. Plus it's fun because you get to shoot a big guy with a lollipop every now and then and get paid for it.”

#4 Pregnant Women with Football

Image: Luis Luro

Luis Luro started out his career in wildlife photography. He published his own coffee table book of African safari photos in 2003, and has also taken his camera to the Central and South American Rainforests. In addition to this, he also works as a comic book illustrator.So how exactly did he end up photoshopping a football over a pregnant woman’s belly for a stock photography project?

“This is one of my earliest images. I was still learning stock photography, still am, and was trying to think out of the box” says Luis.

“But there’s still a concept behind this image. Football is not a sport anymore, but a business, so the (business) woman represents the birth of the new football.” “Nowadays most parents hope that their offspring would become not doctors, lawyers or engineers, but football players…

Even before birth, I see people making plans now. It’s ridiculous!”Currently producing composite images that combine his love of image manipulation and video games/fantasy, Luis says this year’s stock photography sales showed him you can never know what might sell.

“Even I get confused with some sales, get myself thinking…Why does this bloke need that image? One never knows, but there’s always someone needing something.”

Luis didn’t know his image was a viral hit until we contacted him. Even without the incentive of online success, however, he’s carried on shooting weird stock photos that defy explanation. “They might not sell much, but they are fun to make, and push my Photoshop knowledge further every time”.

#5 Young Woman with Squirrel in Mouth

Image: Andy Reynolds

The last of our featured weird stock photos is titled ‘Young woman with squirrel in mouth, side view’ (just in case the front view didn't quite fit your needs). It’s as every bit as strange as any of the other viral stock photos above, with one exception – this one isn’t photoshopped.

“It is a taxidermy piece I had collected to shoot and the actress put (the squirrel) in her mouth,” explains the photographer, Andy Reynolds. “I shot it as a humour portrait along with an image of the squirrel going into her shirt and she giggles; a nice diptych.”

A professional of 15 years, Andy’s portfolio is full of similar dark humor concepts, as well as various portraits captured spontaneously in his home beaches of Seattle. “I got involved in stock when Getty approached me to add to their creative-rights managed library,” he says. “They assigned me an art director and I then started to produce imagery. I treated it as making promo pieces, and if they sold, good.

Aside from one sale to Russian Playboy, the squirrel image itself ultimately wasn’t a big hit.

“I had zero expectations that it would sell and I think it doesn't belong on those (Buzzfeed) lists. It has a bit more class.”

In fact, Andy noticed that most of the blogs and social media pages who featured weird stock photos would link to his website, but not where the photo was actually being sold.“I am phasing out 'those' stock image sites and no longer contributing. They have been racing to the bottom ever since they started their premium access agreement, and now I see no way they can say they represent image makers.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that stock photography isn't as simple as handing a lollipop to a model. It's a field that requires a high willingness to take risks. The results can be quite rewarding for the photographer, if not entertaining for the viewer.

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Graham Ashton

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