How To Compete With Stock Images

This post is Day 18 of 30 Ways In 30 Days To Redesign Your Life With Photography. This series seeks to provide you with practical steps to get you from wherever you are today, to exactly where you want to be – this year! If your goal has always been to take your photography to a whole new level, hang on and start enjoying a new lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of.

“I love to photograph food, products – things for commercial use. I would love to sell my work to companies for hanging on their walls of for them to include in company magazines, brochures, etc. But I’m finding more companies are turning to micro stock, and I’m having trouble getting my foot in the door. Is commercial photography still a viable business? Or should I shoot micro stock myself?” John

Great question.

I’m currently reading a book I Live In The Future & Here’s How It Works by Nick Bilton. I’m only about half way through it, but something Nick wrote in the first chapter has stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it the past few days.

In it he speaks of the unraveling of Playboy Enterprises Inc. (I know, Playboy? You have to read the book to see how it fits in to a technology book.) Anyway, between 2004 and 2007, Playboy’s revenue was between $330 million and $340 million, and the company was turning a small profit or just breaking even. But in 2009, revenue slid to $240 million – a 30 percent plunge. The company’s stock slid from $25 to $5 a share. And its outlook isn’t encouraging.

Then he writes of the bureaucracy of the organization itself. In meetings, managers don’t talk about “how to be ready for what’s next”; instead they focused on “how can we continue to get people to buy our DVDs and magazines?”

And that really is the underlying problem of what we are facing as an economy right now.

Are You Focusing On The Right Thing?

It’s easy to look backwards and contemplate “what’s been”. Photographers always made a good living shooting on backdrops and selling portraits. Photographers always made a good living working for corporate clients and shooting products.

The problem with looking backwards is you are focusing on what worked in a different era.

When film was the mainstay, every photographer had to shoot, wait, and then evaluate his or her performance. You couldn’t get instant results.

The professional camera equipment truly meant you could take better photographs. It took true talent to create an amazing image.

Fast forward to 2000 and beyond, and everyone is now a photographer.

Have you seen some of the images people create with a digital point and shoot, or even an iPhone? Not bad.

Okay, I agree there is still an art form to it. And I can go through a hundred sites and say “average, average, average”. Until I find the one that makes me say “WOW”. But the problem is there is so much “average” that the consumer has lost sight of the value of the “WOW” image. They simply accept “average” because they don’t know any better.

I read interviews, websites and blog posts all the time by traditional stock photographers who have made a great career out it. Yet most say if they had to start today, they couldn’t make it work. They simply couldn’t compete in today’s marketplace. There isn’t the money here that once was.

Is that true? Or again, are they looking with blinders on because they started in the past, and can only see things the way they used to be?

A New Future

The problem with Playboy is they are lost in the past. They think “DVD and magazine”. They think “blonde, 5’6”, and 120 pounds”. They think yesterday’s norm.

And in today’s highly specialized world, the norm just isn’t good enough.

Nick went on to describe in his book companies that are making it today – in a BIG way.

They’ve broadened their visions, and began thinking outside the box. They focus in on niches that Playboy has never dreamed of. Black women, Latinas, Asians, striped stocking, older women, bigger bottoms, smaller tops, and quirky combinations.

Okay, I can’t say I’m a fan of the whole Playboy concept, but what did fascinate me is the fact that the true winners today are looking forward, not backward. And any business that is fixated in the past will never make it into the future. Things have changed, and they won’t go back to the old ways.

Same with stock. You will never be able to compete with microstock houses, especially with the likes of iStockphoto, which appears to be pulling ahead with its forward thinking views.

Can you jump into iStockphoto today and create a very good income? Yes. Can you shoot commercial work for a customer, and charge enough to make a good living? Yes. You just have to think a bit different.

The problem with stock is you have to take what you can find. Yes, there are amazing photos out there, but again, you have to take what you can find. What if you want something specific? What if you want to showcase your own stuff? That’s where a photographer can be the hero.

Will every company jump at the chance to use your creativity? No, some will never see past the inexpensive options. But that’s a reality anywhere. There will always be some that do and some that don’t. You have to find the clients that can, and want to use you because of what you can offer.

I’ve also blogged about other options here.

Lauren Victoria Burke created a semi-stock site in which she photographs political happenings, and sells them to various media sources for a subscription fee. It’s cheaper for her clients to pay this rather than hire a journalist, and she gets to do what she loves and make a great income at it. She took the traditional concepts, and made a twist.

Or what about Via U? They created a great way to photograph products. A company sends in their product, professionals create the image and send the product back, and they download the photograph the next day. All for a very reasonable fee. The photo studio has little work – their studio is set up and easily maneuvered. They receive products, take images and do a little computer work, and get paid immediately. Simple idea, great twist.

So is there a way to make it in the future with commercial or stock photography? I say yes! You just have to think out of the box, find a way to do what you love, and keep doing it. Again and again.

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We're the co-founders of VirtualPhotographyStudio.com and have been writing on this blog since 2004. We started Virtual as a way to help photographers stretch beyond a part time income, and develop strategies to become a Five Figure Photographer or a Six Figure Photographer. Ultimately its all about lifestyle, and if your goal is to live as a photographer 24/7, we think you should have the knowledge and the tools to do so. Welcome!