Junk shops

One of the strongest influences which led to my venturing into the stock photo business was once when I could not source some pictures for a series of brochures and websites a few years ago. In particular, when preparing a community project, I discovered that there were themes and issues for which I just could not find the appropriate images. In the process of finding and choosing images, it also became clear to me that many traditional all-round photo agencies were horrendous junk shops. Images churned out by thousands of photographers with different models of completely different origins, cameras, locations, different light settings, finishing and more. All of which, if just blindly put together, ultimately spoil the overall impression and produce a finished product that shrieks out to anyone who has the slightest sense of atmosphere. I could not stand this.

Once the files of traditional photo agencies pass the 10 million images mark, they become guilty of focusing primarily on quantity and random selection from far too many photographers with different styles. With the current consolidation among the big photo agencies and price pressure on the photographers, I believe that niche photo agencies, such as my own, will experience a renaissance. Some customers prefer more focussed bureaus with styles that appeal to them, so it is important to consider what added value you can offer. This is where the compatibility of the pictures is without doubt a major factor for many customers.

One of the reasons why a guy like Yuri Arcurs (internationally known Danish manufacturer of great stock photos) has gained so much popularity is no doubt that his images, apart from being of very high photographic and technical quality, are also very compatible. He uses a harmonious group of models, and his images can be classified into a handful of styles, which makes it very easy to find pictures that match each other perfectly for a brochure, website or similar. Similarly, I have used a relatively small number of harmonious models, but a slightly greater spread of styles. Going through my sales files, I can identify 8 styles which cover more than 90% of the images. There will always be some exceptions, and so there should be in the interests of development and experimentation. Today I use about 5 different styles. The very concept of what constitutes a style is pretty diffuse, but for me it is a combination of the technique itself, including, particularly, the use of light, and finishing.

When you have photographed for many years, and your archive of images for sale is similarly produced over a long period and can be counted in thousands, it’s not unusual that there are images from the early years, which need to be sorted out. Photos from the days when technology and skills may not have been the best or which simply are too banal and not material you would want to be associated with. This is an on-going process for me. Rather show a reduced number of high quality images, than produce a greater volume where some are of questionable quality.

It was during one of these clean-up sessions that I began to look at my archive with the same eyes as when I started using photo agencies. And what a shambles! Themed galleries with a wonderful mix containing all different styles from high-key studio shots to everyday pictures in natural-looking light mixed with concept art and montages. Horrible!

Immediately that same evening I started a new project where the entire archive was equipped with style identification, making it possible to define searches by individual styles. This project is almost finished, and I really look forward to seeing the final result.

Another project is also progressing steadily. It involves updating titles, descriptions and keywords for all the images. It is the alpha and omega, for a picture archive such as mine that people can find an image, and in this process keywords and descriptive text are crucial. Previously they were only assigned by me and rather vaguely, since it is a pretty time consuming process if it is done properly. Some months ago I decided that this would end – getting irritated by this nagging task – and I engaged a few Indian firms for the job to supplement my own work. I chose two different vendors, plus myself to provide keywords and descriptions for different parts of the photo archive. This gives a greater spread of concepts, synonyms and closely related words, so I reached a bigger market of potential buyers. We are about halfway through, and around October I expect the entire archive to be updated. The results are already evident, though. In recent months I have had a monthly growth of 75% in the number of users of my image archive. Naturally I am now considering whether certain parts of the descriptions and keywords should be translated into other languages to improve hit-rates in eg Spanish speaking countries. More about this in a future posting.

Outsourcing

20101107_MG_5345It is almost 18 years since I went independent and established myself as an independent operator – with all the financial uncertainty this entails. Since then, I have probably made the same mistakes as everyone else – and hopefully learned from some of them.

One of the classic mistakes I have seen many independents make, myself included, is trying to do too many things that are not part of the core business, yourself. In the beginning, when orders – and thus money – are scarce, it might make sense to some extent. But once business picks up, and there is enough to do using your specialised talents, it would be wise to start thinking about which areas should to be out-sourced.

These include wages, accounting, call handling, telemarketing, promotional materials, websites, cleaning, decor, photography :-), IT operations, property management and so on. Depending, obviously, on the nature of your business and your area of expertise.

In our multibillion empire 😉 we very soon entrusted these activities to others. Strangely enough, I made the abovementioned mistake yet again with the photography side of the business, which is probably a combination of my countryside thriftiness combined with solid professional stubbornness.

Over the years I have optimised my workflow considerably – from ideas to photographing, finishing and the necessary paperwork. There are two tasks which are obvious areas for outsourcing:

Keywording

When images are sold as stock photos, whether you do it yourself or through photo bureaux, keywording is essential. Broadly speaking, each image must include a title, description and 30-50 keywords that describe the image content, and will ensure that it will be picked up in a search of photo databases.

Over the years I have done a lot to simplify this task. Among other improvements, basic keywords are automatically assigned based on the model and overall themes. I also have a comprehensive listing of all the common keywords that I use for different themes. But each and every shot still needs individual treatment regarding the title, description and the unique keywords that apply to just that image. This process is time consuming and not exactly the most exciting for a photographer.

Keywording services are offered by several companies around the world, with prices in the region of 50c – US$1 dollar per picture, so I can’t afford to spend many minutes on the task. I have assigned my very last keyword to a picture!

Retouching

To a photographer, the finishing of the image is at least as important as its capture. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it represents half the finished product.

Finishing entails giving the picture the prominence and radiance you are seeking, and often getting the characters in the picture to look attractive. The latter includes things like removing skin imperfections (pimples, scars, birthmarks, etc.), smoothing out the skin, turning the eyes and mouth slightly, whitening teeth, moving the chin and/or cheeks a little and generally whatever it takes to make it all look just that much better.

The image’s overall appearance is undoubtedly the job of the photographer – it’s as much a part of my style as the composition, lighting, background and characters.

An individuals’ physical appearance is however very much a question of having an eye for what looks good and good old-fashioned Photoshop talent – that is to say, apart from the things which are best dealt with with make-up and powder puff BEFORE taking the picture. With only a limited number of hours available per year for the production of images, one should therefore weigh up what proportion of these hours you want to use in front of the screen with Photoshop – or if you prefer to spend more hours behind the camera instead. Regarding the latter – facial retouching – this is a task which can be relatively easily outsourced to specialists – and who might happen to live in countries where labour rates are more reasonable.

With prices of around 30-35 dollars for ordinary retouching there is a limit to the amount of time I can afford to spend on Photoshop with this time-consuming work.

I should probably also admit, hand on heart, that when it comes to facial retouching, I’m probably just too involved in technicalities and documentation. It pains me to violate reality in order to falsify a character into something he/she is not. Despite the fact that I know how important it is for the finished product, I don’t go the extra mile, where I perhaps should. So paying others to inflict the violence could even perhaps give things the extra oomph they deserve.

I’m currently in the process of testing several external suppliers of retouching services and so far it looks very promising. An update will follow.

Later I will be writing more about the technical aspects I have chosen to out-source – even though I am capable of doing them myself.

Copyright Hell

20110123_MG_7877 copyCan this photo ever be a stock photo?

The question is obviously rhetorical and the answer is no. The picture can be sold as art on paper – or as an editorial image which cannot be used commercially.

Why? Because there are newspapers in the background with headlines, text and images which to a certain extent can be recognised and attributed to copyright holders.

At the same time, the image is a good expression of the frustration that stock photographers often experience when it comes to copyright.

Everyone who produces stock photos knows that final images may not contain recognised trademarks. It is the first rule for stock photo agencies that brands such as company logos are strictly prohibited on images. It is a very simple rule which could also be classified as common sense. Naturally, companies’ trademarks cannot be included in pictures sold for other purposes.

Danish, and most European, legislation is based on common sense, and both the interpretation and the common perception thereof may be considered reasonably pragmatic. Unfortunately the stock photo industry is largely based on U.S. law, since most stock photo agencies are American or trade with the U.S. and must therefore respect their laws.

Common sense suggests that trademarks, artwork and recognisable designs may not have a significant impact on the image, unless permission from the trademark owner has been obtained. In Denmark, it would hardly be considered a problem if a stock photo showed the easily recognisable Carlsberg beer bottle in the background or if a person wore clothes that can be recognised as a Danish Post Office uniform, or where a discreetly placed Hummel logo appeared. At least as long as the image is used in a context which can neither be misunderstood or grossly misused. But it is due to exactly the fact that nobody knows how a stock photo will end up being used, that has led to the control of brands becoming pure madness.

Over the years I have experienced rejections of images on situations where I, despite my awareness of these conditions, had not considered some very small details. Like for example, the pattern on the back of playing cards which formed a small part of the subject – the pattern is a piece of art and therefore copyright protected. Or the text on the spine of a book. Or a small piece of visible text (two or three lines) from an old book, which similarly formed a small piece of intellectual property.

It inevitably makes you wonder when an item is visible and/or recognisable enough to be a problem. How recognisable is an arbitrary piece of IKEA furniture on the photo and how centrally located need it be in order not to be a problem? If I compose an image around Jacobsen’s “Seven” or “Egg” chairs, I can easily understand that this may be a problem. But what about cheap everyday furniture, which is after all copyright protected to some extent? Not easy to answer.

What about ordinary interior design objects that may have been purchased in a supermarket, but nevertheless has been designed by someone who earns an income from that design? Including not least the murals which form the blurred background image? Equally difficult to answer and must be considered a total grey area in the industry. For this very reason I even produce paintings with the sole purpose of forming the backgrounds in my compositions. I also often create unique book covers, computer screen images, bar codes, tattoos and the above-mentioned playing cards, for the sole purpose of avoiding any problems with copyright violation.

How recognisable must the design of a car or a laptop be before it becomes a problem, even when there are no visible trademarks? Clothes are in a category of their own. There are probably very few who think of the fact that there are logos and trademarks on shirt- and trouser buttons, on the edge of the frames of spectacles and on the face of a wrist watch. There are – believe me  🙂 To fine-comb an image for trademarks, and preferably before the picture is taken, is a huge task. Patterns are a grey area. When is a shirt- or tie pattern artistic enough to be copyrighted? Not to mention the patterns on a carpet or wallpaper. Generally, simple designs could not be – after all no-one has a patent on dots and stripes. But when are stripes and colours so special that they form a recognisable and protected design? Difficult to answer unequivocally, and I am most likely to interpret the rules in favour of any copyright holders.

In their eagerness to avoid possible litigation stock agencies have recently gone a step further. Several have announced that they now not only check the images for copyright violations but also descriptions and keywords. Now you may not use words in the metadata which in any way can indicate a connection between the image and a product or brand. You can also expect that these rules will be rather strictly interpreted.

Buildings are of course also included, as these are often private property. Generally, the better-known buildings are exempt – for example, most major bridges could be included in the background of an image without a problem, as well as official buildings such as The White House or Edinburgh Castle. This also applies to e.g. the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower – in daylight. At night the Eiffel Tower is illuminated and considered a work of art, and copyrighted. There are also works of art which are exempt – such as those found on bank notes. Pictures of banknotes are fortunately still allowed as long as you comply with national banking regulations not to reproduce banknotes in a form which can be considered counterfeit. Unfortunately, Photoshop includes a banknote recognition algorithm, which is sometimes a little strict, so even here it is difficult 🙁

This ends an article which provides more questions than answers – because there are not many clear answers in the fringe areas of these issues. Hopefully it can be a help to aspiring stock photo photographers to avoid some pitfalls and thus avoid wasting their time on images that risk being discarded by photo agencies.

The image in the introduction is obviously not an accident. It is not designed to be a general stock photo. If it had been, I would have avoided any composition detail in the papers which would be recognisable, thus losing the point. Alternatively, I would have used newspapers so old that all copyright holders had been dead for at least 70 years, which obviously is a little difficult. Or even have produced fake newspaper pages, but this would only leave me with the problem of explaining this fact to each and every photo agency to whom I sold the picture.

Or I can choose to classify the picture to be filed in the archive of editorial images or conceptual art. Thankfully, the margins here are truly wide 🙂

PhotoShelter synchronization

I’m a very happy user of PhotoShelter. PhotoShelter provides me with easy online presentation of my work, extensive administrative functions with galleries and collections, search functions for the customers, advanced pricing profile setup and a complete shopping system with payment transactions, billing, download etc.

They do unfortunately lack a few features. The most important one is the ability to synchronize the online photo archive with my local files.

The way I work, I often make changes to older photos in my archive. Minor color corrections, removal of small skin blemishes, changes to the cropping and now and then also the addition of images that were once discarded. The most frequent change is adding keywords and descriptions to images – a task that is often taken care of weeks later than my first publishing of the image.

Without the ability to automatically synchronize my local files to the PhotoShelter archive I would have to do this manually. Export the new image from my local administrative software (Adobe Bridge), locate the corresponding file on PhotoShelter, manually replace the file and wait for the upload to complete. Then carry on with the next file…

With thousands of images in my archive, this would be a tedious and time consuming task. One of those things that would slowly kill me – and indeed kill all motivation to improve my online archive.

Fortunately I’m also a programmer… A few months back I started digging through the javascript code behind the PhotoShelter administrative interface to find out how they handled the manual update of files. Based on that I created a script that would run on my own machine and make batch updates of the PhotoShelter archive. It have worked very well ever since 🙂

The script requires PHP 5 on your local machine to run. Instructions on use can be found at the top of the script.

This script is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU Lesser General Public License for more details.

You can download it from:

http://www.jhandersen.com/psupdate.zip

I have since then made an improved version that will not only update the exported JPEG files, but will also update titles, descriptions and keywords stored in either XMP, PSD or JPEG files. Very soon I will clean this up (remove code that is of no relevance to anyone but me) and make it available for download.

Until then – happy updating! 🙂