The View Up Here

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More Guidance

Posted by Tom Benedict on 25/03/2010

One question I’ve been mulling over recently is what I really intend to do with my photography.  For the most part I do photography for myself, the same as any other artist.  But in order to support the habit, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really do have to make money from my work. I enjoy print sales, but it’s a tough market to be in.  Here’s some quick math:

Let’s say you find a gallery who wants to hang one of your photographs.  By the time you’ve made the print, matted and framed it, and have it on the wall, it’s likely you’ve rolled several hundred dollars into the piece.  A gallery will take a percentage of the sale for hanging your piece, marketing your work, and completing the transaction.  This can go as high as 50% or more, depending on the gallery.  For the photographer to get a good return, the asking price for the framed work must be high enough to cover the gallery’s costs, the cost of the print, the mat, the frame, the glass, and their own time as well.  In the end the price winds up being quite high, and a piece may not move for months, years, or ever.  Regardless of how fast or slow the piece moves, before the photograph can even go up on the wall, the photographer must tie up several hundred dollars just to get it made.  And if it doesn’t sell they never see that money again.  It’s a gamble.  And it’s not cheap.

So I started looking at other options, and hit on the idea of doing stock photography.  The idea behind a stock photo agency is that they maintain a collection of photographs that an art buyer or layout editor can purchase.  There are two broad-stroke categories for stock photos: rights managed and royalty free.  Royalty free means that when the art buyer finishes the deal, they own the right to use the photograph for any purpose at all.  If they’re printing postcards, it’s the same price as if they’re printing billboards.  Rights managed, on the other hand, means that the intended use of the photograph drives the price.  If the art buyer is printing postcards, that will carry a very different, and likely much lower price than if they were planning to print billboards.  Put another way, buying a rights managed photograph for billboard use will command a much higher price than a royalty free photograph.

From the photographer’s standpoint, then, it’s in their best interest to shoot photography that’s deemed suitable for rights managed rather than royalty free.  From the research I did, this has a great deal to do with subject, but it also has to do with the quality of the photograph.  If a photograph just won’t stand up to enlargement, isn’t composed so that there’s room for text, suffers from soft focus that won’t look good except on a screen, even if the stock agency accepts the photograph, they’re going to place it in the royalty free category.  But if a photograph comes in that they could see an art buyer at an advertising agency using to spearhead a new marketing campaign, they’re going to place it in the rights managed category.

So there’s some pressure on the photographer to produce high quality work.  It really is in their best interest.  With that in mind I went fishing.  What is good enough?  To answer this question I went through the process to submit a portfolio to Getty Images.

The process was extremely informative.  Getty is one of the top, if not the top stock photography agency in the world.  They set very high standards for the work they will market.  In return, art buyers know that when they select a particular photograph, the quality will be top notch.  If there’s a bar to aim at, that’s the bar.

Their artistic requirements are well worth the read.  I learned more about the photography market in the short time I was signing up to send them a portfolio than I have from cruising any number of photography sites. I won’t go into their artistic requirements here because their requirements will change over time, and anyone wanting to learn about it really needs to get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Their technical requirements will also surely change over time, but for today, they boiled down to this:  18MP worth of image at low noise, good focus, good composition, etc.


My KAP camera is a 12MP compact.  It’s a good compact, but the sensor is still small.  So it’s a noisy 12MP camera.  At the shutter speeds KAP requires, it’s an unacceptably noisy 12MP camera.  So the only way I can create an image that Getty would even consider would be to shoot a 36MP composite, and then downscale it to 18MP in order to address the noise.  To me, this is unacceptable.  Which means that for now, Getty is out of reach for what I do.

But taken another way, I inadvertently wound up getting some more guidance on the direction I’d like to take my photography.  I now know that I need at least an 18MP camera with good noise characteristics, and a wide choice of prime lenses I could use from the air.  I already shoot with an older Canon 20D, and have a fair bit of Canon glass.  I’m not looking to jump ship now, and this would let me use one of my existing primes for a lens.  The Canon 550D (T2i) is an 18MP camera with a 5.4Mp/cm² pixel density that weighs in at 530g.  The other cameras in this weight class are 15MP or less, and the other cameras in this image size class typically weigh at least twice as much, such as the 7D or 5D Mark II.  So this narrows it down to one camera, at the moment.

Switching to a DSLR would also mean a new rig, or at least a substantial changes to the rig I’m using.  The extra weight means larger kites.  Larger kites take up more room in the bag.  So there’s a decision to be made here, too:  At what point is the extra weight and extra gear simply not worth it?  Will the move to DSLR KAP mean I’m no longer mobile enough to reach the subjects I like to photograph?  That’s a bridge I’ll have to cross as I go.

In the meanwhile, this upgrade is likely to cost on the order of $1500, including the camera, rig, and a Flow Form 30 kite to augment the other kites I already own that could lift that kind of weight.  Sure would be nice to be able to earn that from stock sales.  Ah well…  I’ll find another way.



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