The stock industry is about to change.
We’ve heard that before but this time the change, if it happens, will be positive, affect content rather than distribution and will give new opportunities to photographers to shoot not just more images but more interesting images.
The change is coming from Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook’s CEO has teamed up with Getty to promote a new collection of images that portray women in a more positive way. Instead of the usual clichéd stock images of women in suits, women holding babies and women laughing alone with salad, the collection will show girls on skateboards, women in the operating theatre and women planing wood. Even men get a look in with dads now shown wearing the bjorn.
The collection currently contains more than 2,500 images which will be returned alongside the usual results for relevant search terms. Buyers can also search the collection exclusively. Ten percent of the proceeds from the photos will go to LeanIn.org, Sandberg’s non-profit organization.
The aim, says Sandberg, is to change the way women and girls are portrayed in the media and to remove many of the old stereotypes that she believes hold women and girls back.
“When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome,” Sheryl Sandberg told The New York Times, “and you can’t be what you can’t see.”
The effect of the shift in imagery could be huge. The three most-searched keywords on Getty are “women”, “business” and “family” and yet buyers often complain they can’t find the images that portray those keywords in the way they want. Writing in The Cut last November, for example, Emily Shornick produced a slideshow of results for the keywords the publication typically needs to illustrate. “Girl power” and “feminist” returned women, often scantily clad, in boxing gloves and gripping dumbbells and power tools; “career women” stand on cliffs or climb symbolic ladders, hold folders and fall asleep on computers; a “businesswoman” is a multi-armed octopus who can hold a baby, a computer, a frying pan and an iron in her many hands. Despite the millions of images available on stock sites, few of the results produced the “feminine sass” the publication was hoping to find when it searched for “girl power.”
The aims of Getty’s new collection then are laudable. More images of women engineers and female coders in the media and in advertising can only be a good thing for encouraging girls to take up the sciences. They may even come as a relief to photographers looking for a shoot more creative than one that involves telling another model in a business suit to hold a laptop and smile.
Do Advertisers Want Strong Women?
The question, though, is whether buyers will go for these new portrayals. The Cut might be looking for sassy images of girl power but how representative is that magazine of buyers in general?
It’s possible, in fact, that despite the advances women have made in the workplace over the last few decades, art buyers have gone backwards.
In 1981, Lego’s famous ad showed a little girl holding a model made of colored bricks. That ad wasn’t just portraying the creativity that its product allowed children to enjoy. It was also suggesting that its bricks were for all children, boys and girls alike. Today’s toy marketing is much more gendered. Stores now are more likely to have pink shelves for girls and blue shelves for boys. In catalogs, girls brush princesses, pet puppies and play with dolls; boys build towers, push cars and experiment with chemistry sets.
That three-quarters of the more feminist images now included in Getty’s Lean In collection aren’t new suggests the company might indeed struggle to make sales. Those photos were drawn from Getty’s main collection where, presumably, they were passed over by buyers who chose instead to purchase images with traditional portrayals.
For photographers, that represents a dilemma. As keen as photographers might be to produce more positive depictions of girls and women, they have to shoot what sells not what they wish customers would buy (especially if that 10 percent donation to LeanIn.org is taken before Getty has calculated their royalties.) Restaurant owners might wish people would buy fruit juice instead of soda, but if people buy soda, they’ll continue to offer it. This wouldn’t be the first time that buyers have complained about the stereotyped nature of stock imagery even as they fill their shopping carts with it.
Getty Can Make The Market
The real strength of this initiative though is that Getty has thrown its weight behind it. The company doesn’t just supply images to a market. It also tries to influence that market. Each year, its research department issues reports on trends in the stock industry. That tells photographers what they might want to shoot if they want to increase their sales but it also tells buyers what they should be buying if they don’t want their ads to look old and out of date. Getty is influential enough to create trends as well as report on them. Current trends, the company says, include a preference for realistic body shapes and more shots of women at work.
Getty’s collaboration with Lean In is a positive move but photographers will need to be careful. It’s easy for Getty to promote a particular kind of image but if the sales of those new images fail to occur it will be the photographers who are left holding the bill for the shoots. Photographers who find that their traditional portrayals of happy salad eaters and boxing businesswomen make them profits shouldn’t have to risk their revenues to please buyers who are afraid to take risks themselves.
The best strategy will be to continue shooting images that you know can find buyers, keep an eye on the trends and the Lean In collection, and ease more positive portrayals into the shoots as you see those becoming popular.
If the stock industry is changing again, we’ll all need to manage that change carefully.
Moving from photography enthusiast to a photography enthusiast whose pictures earn money doesn’t just take talent, skill and effort. It takes talent, skill and the right effort. Here are eight things that you need to be doing right now if you’re going to make money from your images.
1. Promote yourself on Flickr and 500px
Flickr has gone some way towards rehabilitating itself since Marissa Meyer took over Yahoo. It might face much tougher competition than when it was the only photo-sharing site on the Web but it’s still the best place to meet other enthusiasts and it’s still used by buyers and art editors looking for image ideas for their products. You’ll need to network hard, leave good comments on other peoples’ images and participate in groups but if other photographers are noticing you, buyers will notice you too.
The same is true of 500px. Buyers might drop by this site less often than they do on Flickr but it does have a well-promoted marketplace where people can order prints. You won’t make much money here but if you can build up a good collection of fans, you should make some sales.
2. Build your Instagram followers
Facebook is good for wedding photographers who can earn referrals from image tagging and enquiries from targeted advertising but if you’re looking for some benefits from effort that’s all fun, Instagram is the place to be. If you’re active on the site, posting plenty of good images and commenting on other photographers’ images, you will—eventually—build a big following. That following can turn into commissions from agencies like The Mobile Media Lab or brands that hire those agencies to shoot commercially.
3. Sell your own stock
The saturation of microstock means that while it’s still possible to make a few bucks uploading to iStock and other sites, in practice, you’re unlikely to make enough to cover your expenses let alone a profit. You can apply to major stock agencies (and Flickr provides one way to reach Getty), but the best option is to license your images yourself and take all of the revenues.
Building the site will be relatively simple. There’s no shortage of template sites that include galleries for stock sales. Some even have an in-built pricing calculator. The trick, though, will be to build up a collection of buyers who return to find the specific niche images that you supply.
4. Plan an exhibition
Gallery exhibitions are where sales are made and reputations are built. Gallery owners will show pictures from unknown artists (although they prefer known artists) but you’ll need to be ready artistically and be prepared for plenty of rejection.
An alternative approach is to organize your own exhibition. Cafes, restaurants and community centers are all willing to support rising artists but you’ll have to handle all the publicity and organization yourself, and pay the expenses out of pocket. Expect to pay up to $1,000 — and put in a lot of work.
5. Take a workshop
Even professional photographers continue taking workshops to sharpen their skills, stay up to date with the latest trends and learn from more other professionals with more experience than them. Those workshops though are also great networking opportunities and they teach more than the best way to photograph a wild animal. Spend time learning from a professional working photographer and you’ll also pick up some great advice about marketing your work, if not from the teacher then from your fellow students.
6. Pitch your work
Art directors and buyers at magazines and publishing houses are always in need of images and story ideas for images. Not all of them will take unsolicited photos but many will. Head to a bookshop, take a stack of your favorite magazines and look through the mastheads for the names of the art editor or image editor. Crosscheck on the publication’s website or in The Photographers Market to see if they accept submissions and how they accept those submissions.
You’re unlikely to get a hard promise let alone a commission but you might well receive an agreement to look at your photos. If you’re pitching travel photography, it’s a good idea to make the pitch before you leave. While, again, you won’t get more than an agreement to look at your photos when you get back, you might well be given some clues about the kind of photographic travel story the publication is looking for. That can make a big different to your trip and to the photographs you take on it.
7. Visit galleries
Sometimes the biggest—and the most profitable—fun you can have with photography is when you put the camera down and take a look at other people’s images. Going to galleries—as well as art fairs—will deliver a number of benefits. It will be inspirational, sending you out to try new techniques and giving you new ideas. It will give you an idea of pricing, letting you see how much you can charge for your photographic art. And it will also give you a chance to talk to gallery owners and art fair sellers. That could lead to a pitch to a gallery or a booking at an art fair.
8. Practice and specialize
The most important efforts you make though will be behind the lens. Until your images are professional quality, you will struggle to make sales. And even when your images are professional quality, you’ll struggle to make sales if your pictures are the same as everyone else’s. Yuri Arcurs has managed to succeed at microstock photography not just because he takes a hard-headed business approach to an industry filled with part-timers but because his images have a particular, bleached look. You can always tell a Yuri Arcurs stock image—and so can buyers. They know what they’re buying.
As you practice your photography, practice a unique style or shoot a topic that’s rarely photographed. If you can stand out in the crowded photography marketplace, buyers will find you.