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Shinjuku pedestrian crossing

The photography industry, and in particular stock photography, is barely recognisable since the introduction of digital. What was once the field of a few elite image makers, is now a free for all for anyone with a camera and the inclination to get involved.

There is so much media around these days that buyers are spoilt for choice and prices have dropped accordingly. Before anyone had ever conceived of royalty free pricing, buyers were prepared to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to licence an image. Now they baulk at having to pay double figures and it is not uncommon to pay only a few cents per use.

With agencies taking their own cut of sometimes over 50%, many photographers have either given up on the stock business or are seriously considering it.

So, is it still worthwhile? Answer: depends.

If we are talking about earning a living purely from stock photography, it is no longer possible except for a select few. Even then, earnings are not likely the be anything more than just a living. Photographers are continually diversifying into less traditional ways of supplementing their income, such as teaching or leading tour groups. Often this becomes their main activity while stock photography becomes the income supplement, and this is where stock photography can still be of some value.

For the photographer shooting assignments, often stock becomes an option for images made either during a shoot, or from personal projects. Rather than sitting around on a hard drive, they may as well be put to use. It also helps if the photographer has a staff to help, as the preparing of images to each agency’s specifications is time consuming and a major factor in weighing whether stock photography is a viable option. Many “one man or woman bands” also choose to enlist the services of a keywording specialist company to reduce their own time spent.

Stock photography, despite all the industry doomsayers, is still a good way to supplement income. It is just not a full time job on its own anymore. The trick is to find a way to move images into the market quickly and easily.

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worlds most photographed cities

I came across this article recently over at Photo Licensing Options. The article discusses the world’s most photographed cities according to Alamy, Getty and some other well known stock agencies. It’s no surprise that the top four are made up of London, New York, Los Angeles and Paris, but the thing that hit home for me reading this article was the sheer number of images available in each library of these locations. Alamy alone had 804,468 images of London in it’s catalogue and expects this to jump significantly due to the upcoming Olympic Games. It makes you wonder if there is anything left to photograph in the world that hasn’t already been photographed.

It’s a daunting idea for a travel photographer, who for the most part is busy trying to find some way to distinguish himself or herself from thousands of others who have been there before. You think that there can’t possibly be an angle that it hasn’t been covered from. I figure there are  a few ways to approach this:

1. Get off the beaten path. Even somewhere like London, with its icons and landmarks, there are still undiscovered neighbourhoods. Places that will never be on any tourist map, and others that are, but are forever changing. Somewhere like the famous Portabello Road or Borough markets are visited by hundreds of thousands every year, yet no two visits are the same. Stall holders and their wares change. In places like this it’s almost impossible not to make an original photograph when you add your personal vision to the mix.

Antique suitcases

Antique suitcases at London’s Portobello Market. An image like this is unique because it’s subject is unique. Once sold, these suitcases may never be photographed again.

Some lesser known areas might not provide great images for tourist brochures, but is that all you really want to photograph? Everyday life on the street can be as facinating and rewarding to shoot as the icons of a big city. These images have market value, they just have a different market. You might find that your images end up accomanying news articles or editorial pieces rather than glossy magazines.

2. Go with it. There will always be a market for images of well photographed places. Guidebooks and such publications republish every few years to keep the information up to date and relevant. This also means keeping images updated and relevant. An image of people atop the Empire State building dressed in bell bottoms just isn’t going to cut it, but a current image that features people looking out from the viewing platform has market value. While the location or landmark (think Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower) don’t date, images like these that include people do. The fashions and hairstyles your models are wearing may be current now, but how long before they start to look old? Trends change quickly and this can actually help your image saleability (is that even a word?). Sure you have the image you made a few years ago that is coming to the end of its shelflife along with many others, but you also have the image that you made last week that you may see as similar, but shows the location as it currently is. This in it’s own way is a unique image of a much photographed subject.

People shopping on oxford street

Shopping on Oxford Street London. An image like this that features current fashions has a more limited shelf life.
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One of the most time consuming and laborious tasks of preparing your images for the marketplace once you’re done with the fun part of taking the photos is to attach keywords so that your images can be found by people who may wish to license them.

Occasionally I get asked how I go about it, and it’s a difficult question to answer without coming off as disingenuous. Because it’s actually really simple- I think of words that describe the photo. So rather than trying to complicate what is a simple process, I thought I would instead list a few considerations that I feel are important when keywording images

  1. Use one process – If you are preparing images to submit to more than one stock library, the chances are that those libraries will have different requirements for their keywords, such as the amount of keywords they will allow per image. If you can find a method of keywording that fits the requirements of all the agencies you are submitting to, you will save a great deal of time.
  2. Search engines are clever – Gone are the days where you need to include plurals of words as well as the original word. To save time and space, only use “dog” instead of “dog” and “dogs”.
  3. Most photo buyers use search engines first, agencies second. – Most search engines list guidelines for keywording. Use techniques recommended by Google, Yahoo et al as these search engines also capture results from within stock agency sites.
  4. Be specific- Describe exactly what the image is. If you have an image of a couple in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris at night, include keywords that describe all of these elements in the photo. Also group them into search phrases. “Couple at Eiffel Tower at night” will not be searched as many times as “Eiffel Tower”, but when it is the results will be much narrower and so your image has a much higher chance of a. being seen, and b. being used as it is specifically what the searcher asked for.
  5. Think conceptually- Image buyers are often looking to represent a concept, rather than simply a scene. The image of the couple at the Eiffel Tower could also be used to illustrate love, or romance.
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