Having a Gas

Camera bags in decontamination unit in scientific facility.

That rather murky image shows my camera gear being gassed.

The other week I was taking stock images for a client in a scientific research facility which required all kit I take in with me be subjected to 90 minutes decontamination.

This method is used to decontaminate all kinds of sensitive scientific equipment, so my hosts reassured me my gear would be fine. I’m pleased to say it caused no problems at all, and afterwards I could have eaten my lunch off my camera if I’d wanted. I didn’t fancy that though, so I used a plate as usual.

Speaking of having a gas, I’m getting married this weekend (huge party!), so I’m going to have a blog rest for a couple of weeks. I could probably do with a bit of a Summer blogging break anyway (still available for commissions of course!), but I should be back to regular posts by the end of August.

I shall wish you all a lovely Summer filled with more sun than rain and I will catch you again soon!

News of Frome Views

Earlier this year I left the Alamy stock image library in order to preserve my professional integrity (I won’t bore you with details here), since which time I’ve been giving some thought about my future relationship with stock photography in general.

I’ve never been a great fan of stock photography partly because I always prefer to work on commission, where a client knows what they want and therefore I know I’m taking pictures which have a definite purpose. Stock photos mostly exist for no reason at all and will never be published; the idea of taking photos which just languish on a server somewhere seems sad to me.

Additionally, because stock photography is a numbers game, a photographer has to dedicate themselves pretty much full time to taking stock photos in order to make a living from it. The lack of motivation I have for doing nothing but stock shots all day combined with the exclusion of all commissioned work would kill the joy I have for my job.

Having said all that, I have decided there is room in my professional life to spend time taking pictures which interest me and which might also have a stock image value. I don’t have to offer them through an agency and I can set my own prices, but there is an additional benefit which you don’t get with a stock library, namely that by hosting the photos on my own gallery, I create content which is indexed by Google. It creates another small piece in the search engine optimisation jigsaw.

Even if I never sell a photo, the photos I host will have the benefit of helping to attract search result enquiries. I can adjust, chop and change what I offer, which will also signal to Google that I’m an active, creative photographer based in Somerset. They also show potential clients another side to what I do and might offer inspiration for their next project. All of this can only happen by keeping the images closely tied to my own website. When they’re held remotely by a stock library, the link between the image and the creator is weakened.

The images here are just a small taster, and though the collection itself is very small at the moment it will grow and you can see the full set here.


All Dressed Up…

Not all my work involves taking portraits of business people in offices, though it’s fair to say a lot of what I do is exactly that.

Just before Easter I started on a project with BBSRC, one of the UK’s research councils, to produce a set of images of their facilities for use in their new website, on social media and in printed reports – in fact all their corporate communications. They’re moving away from using generic stock wherever possible and towards featuring their own research scientists and facilities to better communicate what they do.

This first stage of the project required some forethought and planning, because I was going to visit research units where biosecurity is a consideration. In other words, I couldn’t just walk in from the outside, with my camera, and start snapping away.

It wasn’t a full “hazmat” situation, but I was required to take a shower and change into supplied underwear, scrubs, disposable boiler suit, gloves, hair cover and face mask before going in, and although my camera gear was unlikely to cause a problem, I opted to use it for the most part inside a waterproof housing. Not least because at a future date, I’m going to have to use the housing in a facility requiring even greater biosecurity than at this one, so it was a good opportunity to try using the camera in the housing while wearing a face mask and gloves.

Thankfully I didn’t have to spend the entire day shooting like this because an underwater camera housing is rather like a penguin; graceful under water, unbelievably clumsy on dry land. It was great practice and I learned a few things about what I could and could not do when working this way, but it didn’t half make my hands ache as I tried to work the lens and controls through the PVC camera housing. I also discovered that with the face mask, my view into the viewfinder would steam up every time I breathed out. I did a lot of breathing control during this session!

To respect the client’s licensing, I won’t be sharing the photos I took for them here, but as the project progresses I hope I can show you some behind-the-scenes and outtakes along the way.

I’d buy that for a dollar!

That’s one of my favourite movie quotes and comes from Robocop, the story of a dystopian future in which a Detroit cop is brutally murdered by a criminal gang, then resurrected as a part-man, part-machine super-cop. However, one sentence into this week’s article and I’m digressing already. It’s just that quote popped into my head when I became aware of photographer disquiet over the latest stock image launch, Dollar Photo Club.

I’m not entirely sure what the difference is with Dollar Photo Club over other stock image library services, or why they might be seen by photographers as any worse than any other micro-payment library. DPC is an off-shoot of Fotolia, another micro-payment stock image site. They have a promise of any image $1 forever, which I presume will hold until such time as all their competitors are selling images for 50c a pop, but the $1 per image price has been around for years and is possibly the lowest price any library can currently charge if they want to cover their hosting and bandwidth costs, let alone make a salary for their staff and bosses.

You’ll note I’m not including photographers’ fees there, because photographers who supply these agencies generally get very close to $zero for their images, which is why it’s mostly amateurs who have no need to make money from their work who supply the likes of Fotolia (and iStockphoto, Shutterstock and so on).

Screen grab of DPC's twitter feed showing photographers' complaints about $1 photos

A stock reply from a stock agency to photographers’ concerns over pricing

This price promise is spelled out in their own paraphrasing of another movie quote: The first rule of Dollar Photo Club is: all images are $1. The second rule is: ALL IMAGES ARE $1. Clearly there’s a Fight Club fan at DPC.

The other promise DPC make is that they’re exclusive. It’s not clear how exclusive they are. The most I could glean from their site is that they only deal with professional designers, so the images aren’t meant for use in personal websites or blogs, but I doubt very much this is properly vetted. Nor do I think it makes much difference, but it is a selling point they highlight on their site so it must be true.

Honestly I don’t think there is any more reason for photographers to get vexed over DPC than there is for them to worry about why grass grows. Micro-payment stock imagery isn’t going to go away, but I do feel it’s lost a great deal of credibility with clients over the last few years. Most decent designers will advise their clients to organise non-generic stock images for their websites and brochures and this means commissioning photographers to take original photos for them.

And even where some designers are still wedded to the joys of cheesy, generic stock imagery, there are enough discerning businesses out there now who are far more aware of the effect of good photography on their company image to mean the stock libraries are having to sell ever harder to a dwindling client base.

There will always be businesses using micro-stock and amateur photographers willing to supply photos for free, but while this used to bother me deeply I have to say I’m more sanguine now. I’m benefitting from the move away from stock and I see this move by Fotolia as not much more than an exercise in re-marketing old images from the Fotolia library. Nothing has changed and, to mis-quote my favourite novel, “the sky isn’t falling in.”*


*Chicken Little – read it, it’s a ripping yarn!




What the flickr should I do?

The Law of Flickr dictates that for every opinion applied to the subject, there will be an opinion of equal and opposite force. Despite this, I’m going to ask the question, “Should I be on flickr?” and hope for some kind of definitive response.

In truth, I already have an account there, but like many internet things I’ve signed up to over the years, I’ve never got around to doing anything with it.

This is due to a number of reasons. Perhaps the primary reason is I can’t see the point. The secondary reason is it probably doesn’t suit the work I do. Flickr strikes me as the kind of site where you upload a picture of a flower, kitten, sunset and wait for the heaps of praise to come in from your fellow flickrati.

jew's ear fungi

Probably fine for flickr, but will it help my Google ranking?

Occasionally I’ll shoot something just because it’s fun to take pictures. My weirdly-lit, low-angle fungi shots are just that. It gets me out into the woods, gets me in the fresh air, experimenting with light, but I don’t shoot them in the expectation some large corporate organisation will licence the pictures for fantastic sums of money (if you’re a large corporate organisation, do please get in touch). They would be perfect flickr fodder though.

Before you ask, no I’m not posing this question because I’d like to sell my snaps through the flickr/Getty deal. I’d rather sell my soul to someone likely to pay a fair fee than licence any images I take for 6p a download.

If I use flickr at all, it would be with a view to attracting the corporate commissions I rely on as the mainstay of my business. I want to know if flickr adds Googlejuice to my website, if people looking to commission new work (as opposed to buying stock images) use flickr to find someone who shoots the kind of work I shoot, or if it would just be another account to maintain and feed with no real benefit beyond the fun?

Is flickr only (or best suited) to the keen snapper or professional selling prints or stock?

This week, I’m asking you, my loyal and beautiful readers, for your opinions based on the parameters I’ve set out here.

I fear I’ll end up on flickr posting endless corporate headshots and wondering why no one is telling me I’ve got nice bokeh, it’s a “cool capture” or a great use of light. It might be a lonely time there, but if it gets me more enquires for paid commissions, you won’t find me complaining.

Opinions please!

Time to get real

Sorry to bang on about this, but I’m still hearing designers say “our client wants to use stock images for their site because it’s cheap,” and what the client wants, the client gets. And that’s usually where the designer/client conversation regarding photography ends.

The designers tell me they’re frustrated, that they put all this effort into designing a brilliant site only to have to drag the project down by slapping cheesy grins and ever-so-serious-but-utterly-anonymous business faces all over it just to fill the gaps between the boring text. Or how about some pictures of flowers? Or a tree? Or a business man looking at a tree? That’s soooo inspirational.

Hey! Business people! Here’s the news! STOCK SUX! It makes your site look generic. It makes your service/product look exactly as enticing (ie not at all) as all your competitors. Stock has become completely blasé and unconvincing. It may be cheap, but it WILL cost you in sales. So while you’re busy chasing the bottom line, someone else is creaming off what would have been your top line. The less you pay for your photography, the fewer sales your business will make. End of.

I hate all that management-speak about top and bottom lines, but if yours is the kind of business that uses stock imagery for your branding, then you’re the kind of business person that goes to a lot of management and motivational seminars in dull hotel conference suites in Swindon to hear a “guru” tell you lots of buzz words you’ll never quite understand, but which make you think you’re at the “bleeding edge” of your envelope, box, bag of mushrooms or whatever. Yes, go thread the needle of success and let’s make this kite fly, but you’re not convincing anyone, least of all the clients you’re working so hard to win.

So to designers, I suggest turning the conversation around and asking the client if their website is meant to please them or please their clients. If they just want a pretty site to show their mums to make them proud, fine, but if they want to seriously gain market share in an increasingly competitive world, they’re going to have to feature what’s great about THEIR business, not use the same old images that everyone else is using for a million other sites.

If you hide your business behind a wall of fake images of models doing fake stuff, you send out the message that you don’t trust your real business to live up to the expectations of your clients. It also suggests you don’t trust your clients, so your clients won’t trust you. And if that happens, you lose sales.

Or as a business guru might say (if they had a clue about these things), “get real photography to get real business.”

help desk employee

Feature yourself and your colleagues in “getty-esque” style pictures, but with far more honesty and integrity than a “stock” image.

Click! And your money is gone.


man's hands holding camera

Beware the promise that selling stock photos is easy.

It sounds so simple. All you need is the right camera and pretty soon you’ll be rolling around in piles of cash. You won’t know where to put it all. Stuff it under the mattress, and you may find yourself sleeping with your nose to the ceiling.

That is if the BBC technology show Click is to be believed. $480* for a harshly-flashed shot of a boy with his fishing catch. $600 for a photo of a cat and a dog looking at each other. I know photographs can command such fees, even selling for many thousands of Dollars for top-end advertising uses, but I’m dubious as to whether the photos shown in the BBC piece genuinely achieved these figures, or whether they were just plucked from the internet for illustrative purposes. They all looked more like royalty free (RF) microstock pictures to me, whereas the figures quoted reflect rights-managed fees. Hopefully someone at Click can let me know because the stress of not knowing for sure is an anguish to me. No really it is.

The fact is, for the majority of people hoping to turn their hobby into some kind of cash cow, RF microstock is generally their entry into the market. And within this market it is fair to say that while you can be paid money for your pictures, it is but a rare (and fast-diminishing) number of photographers who ever make any kind of income this way. All but those at the very top of their game will receive anything more than a few dollars a year from microstock sales. And I mean literally, a few Dollars.

Seeing articles like Click’s, the temptation is to start taking pictures in order to build up a stock library. You might go out and buy a new camera on the basis of all the untold riches the programme suggests are there for the taking, but exactly as the show says it’s getting harder for professionals to make money from stock, so it’s getting harder for amateurs too as the market becomes flooded with ever more contributors generating hundreds of thousands of images the market simply doesn’t need.

My advice to those who are tempted to take stock images would be to take pictures first and foremost for pleasure. Don’t turn your hobby into a monster that requires constant feeding, constant monetary resources with only the promise of a bigger hole in your finances at the end of it because microstock agencies do not exist to make money for amateur photographers. They exist to make money for microstock agency owners. Contributors to iStockphoto can expect to get a 15% cut from each image they sell. With prices often as low as $1 per image, that’s a lot of sales required to even pay back the shoe leather used to get you to where you wanted to take pictures.

Forget about fuel, the camera, lenses, flash, memory cards, computers, software and snazzy photographer’s vest that makes you look like a professional (idiot). Or the time spent getting your pictures ready for stock, captioned, keyworded and uploaded. Whatever anyone says, when you see an article telling you it’s easy to “make money” from your camera or “get paid” for your pictures, treat it like snake oil. Take pictures for fun; don’t lose the fun of your hobby.

*I don’t know why a BBC show insists on showing the stock sales in USD, but for the purposes of this article I’ve stuck with that. Maybe it’s because the BBC prefers viewers to send in their photos for free, so GBPs aren’t relevant.


Laughing Stock?

black ladies laughing

What reaction does your website get?

When was the last time you gave your web site an overhaul? Or does it sit there, Miss Haversham-like, gathering dust, all dressed up for the big day then left to decay, alone and unloved.

Maybe it’s time to pay the old dear a visit and see how she’s doing. A neglected web site will do nothing to help your business. Dust and cobwebs building up, broken old links. Oh, and that “designed by a toddler” look, just doesn’t cut it any more.

Naturally, when it comes to a spruce up, you’ll want to add some fresh photos to the site, so this and the next article will shine a little light on your options.

As a professional photographer, I’m always going to promote the benefits of proper, bespoke photography for your site. Not just because this is my blog and I’ll say what I damn well like (though it is and I will), but because it’s true.

However, I’ll start with stock images as it is still quite a popular choice. For all its faults, I can’t single-handedly convince the entire Universe that using cheap stock is a Bad Thing, so instead, for those of you hell-bent on using the cheesiest imagery you can lay your mouse on, I’ll give you some tips on how to get more out of it, and how to avoid some common problems.

  • Avoid the Generic:

You know what I mean. Those pictures of Californian business clones in suits, in executive board rooms, laptops and mobile phones at the ready, teeth shining like polished piano keys… Try to think beyond the obvious, and dig a little deeper into the archives of the stock image sites. There are only about 40 million images to choose from.

  • Watch the price:

The headline price of most stock sites will tell you you can have photos for as little as £1 each. This may be true, but you’d need to be buying around 750 image credits a month to get those prices. The average stock image will set you back £10 – £20. Prices are creeping up too as the libraries struggle to turn a profit.

  • Check the T&Cs:

You must read the small print before buying! Royalty Free doesn’t mean copyright free. There are very tight restrictions on how images can be used. In most cases, Royalty Free refers to the fact that you don’t have to renew image licences over time, but you will need to pay again if you want to move or duplicate an image from one project to another, or one media to another. When updating a web site, check if you need to pay to bring old images into the new site.

  • Beware bogus libraries:

Sites which offer very cheap, or even free images, may not be legitimate. They will trawl the net for pictures, gather them up, and offer them as licensed images when in fact they are stolen. Make sure you know who you’re buying from, because you will be liable for any breach of copyright.

  • Google Images is not a stock library:

Google images is great for getting to see a photo of just about anything you can imagine, but you need to assume that everything on the internet is covered by copyright, and using “found” images on the net is theft and you can get caught.

  • If things go wrong:

If a picture on your web site turns out not to have been correctly licensed, it will be you that will get the legal letters, the court orders and the hassle. Regardless of who put the site together, it will be you and your business that will be treated as the beneficiary and publisher of the offending image. It’s then up to you to litigate against the web designer (or whoever put the site together) for any losses caused by their negligence. Seek early legal advice from a specialist copyright lawyer. It could save your business from fatal damages or court costs.

Please use the comments box here to share your thoughts or experiences on using stock imagery in your business publications and website. Next week, I’ll deal with using commissioned photography.

If you would like an independent audit of the photography on your website, which will highlight any likely legal issues, drop me a line for more information.

The growing clamour from web designers!

My Friday Thought – A new feature which will rapidly become a rod for my own back, but let’s see how it goes.

There’s been an interesting, and very noticeable shift in the nature of the conversations I’ve been having with designers recently, especially webby ones.

In the past, whenever I asked web designers about the photography needs of their clients the reply came back, as if transmitted by mental osmosis from one designer to the other, “Oh they don’t have a budget for photography so we use cheap stock photos.” Always different web designers, always the same line.

The fact is, no client has a budget for anything until somebody explains to them why they need a budget for it (ie improved sales!); in this case, original photography which sets them apart from their competitors and communicates more honestly with their clients. After all, my clients have a budget for photography so what do they know that so many web designers’ clients don’t?

Part of the problem has been a misunderstanding of how budgets work. In the case of photography, it isn’t part of the web budget because the images are used in more than just the web site; it comes out of the marketing budget, of which the web site is a part, but many web designers will look at the photography fearing it will reduce their budget to do the design work. It shouldn’t.

I know selling photography isn’t easy. While every business now understands they have to have a web presence of some sort, beyond that it’s not easy to explain that apart from what the web site does in purely technical terms, it also needs good content to convince the viewer of the value of the product or service on offer. It’s the content, in harmony with the structure, which ultimately makes the sale.

And this is where web designers are starting to wake up and smell the cappuccino. There’s a growing realisation that good photography, as well as good copy and design, helps the site to pull together and deliver the message the client wants to transmit. Photos need to be more than just eye-candy on the page. They carry valuable information and can also be used to direct the viewer’s eye to key texts and links.

mitie services vehicles in a field

No Californian models posing here, just a real person representing a real business.

What kind of business in the UK needs a photo of a chisel-jawed American male in a suit clutching a laptop in a steel and glass office with angelic lighting and a patronizing smile? How many more generic stock images of non-people in non-places does the internet really need? And what do these images say about a business any more? Stock images used to be far more expensive, so a business using them tended to look more polished. They’re too cheap and ubiquitous now, and the shine has come off the novelty.

And the cry I’m now hearing from every designer I speak to is, “I am so sick and tired of having to use stock imagery.” Designers want to be proud of the results of the hours and days they spend designing a top-notch site, but having expended blood, sweat and weeks on the site, they are then forced to ruin the entire project either with photos the MD’s wife took, or with stock pictures of someone they’ve never met, taken in a  place they’ve never been to, that has little or nothing to do with the business they’re meant to be promoting.

I’m encouraged by this change of voice, and I’m helping web designers by explaining to their clients how real, unique photography can work for them, doesn’t need to cost the earth, and yet will contribute to the growth of their business.

So designers everywhere! Talk to me, I’ll talk to your clients, and before you know it there will be a budget for photography, and the web site you designed will look as good as you know it should.

I thangyou.