It’s a pleasure to interview Brutally Honest Doug Jensen, from Vortex Media, a professional in the television and video production with over 35-years of experience working with major corporate clients. More recently, he has translated his extensive broadcasting experience towards achieving financial success as a stock footage contributor.
Doug has been featured previously in this blog, notably providing critiques to stock footage clips.
Numbers don’t lie, Doug earns on average $2,700 a month by working part-time and submitting his mainly wildlife/nature clips to a handful of agencies, including Shutterstock and Adobe Stock.
Doug is proud of compiling a comprehensive 5-hour / 26-chapter Master e-Class, entitled “How to Make Money Shooting Stock Footage” on the Vimeo platform. See link to comprehensive review on this blog.
Let’s get started with the interview!
Hi Doug, thanks for taking part in this interview. Firstly, please tell me about yourself, how you got into stock footage and how long you’ve been submitting to Microstock agencies?
Hi Alex, pleasure to be here! As you’ve mentioned on your introduction, I’ve been working in the television and video production business for almost 40 years as a producer and cameraman. During the course of my career my clients have included numerous government agencies, dozens of major corporations, all of the American television networks, and many of the most well-known cable channels. However, I don’t consider what I do for living to be “work”. I purposely chose a career that not only pays well but is also something I really enjoy doing. In addition to my regular work, I have always enjoyed just going out and shooting wildlife, sports, and other footage just for the fun of it. In fact, I like to shoot video as a form of recreation the same way some people like to play golf, take photos, go fishing, or sit and watch sports on TV.
About ten years ago one of my colleagues suggested I should submit some of my footage to Getty and start making some extra income from it. He was already doing very well at Getty and so we met with his Getty representative at their offices in New York City. After the meeting I jumped in with both feet and had immediate success. It was great to have a nice passive income stream that didn’t infringe on any of the regular work I was doing. Suddenly, instead of just going out in my spare time and shooting HD and 4K video solely for the fun of it, I now had a way to make extra income from that footage — as long as I was willing to spend the additional time it takes to add metadata (descriptions and keywords) to the clips. I hated that part of the business back then and I still hate it today. I can elaborate more on that topic later if you want me to.
After a couple of years, I became disillusioned with Getty and I stopped sending them new footage. Why? For one thing, the submission process was extremely inefficient and took too much effort. And second, Getty required exclusivity and that prevented me from submitting my clips to other agencies. And third, the money I was making started to drop significantly from what it had been when I got started.
The thing about Getty was that I always had relatively few total downloads each month — maybe less than a dozen sales — but when I did make a sale it felt like I had won the lottery. The average commission per download was in the hundreds of dollars, and one time I earned about $1500 for a single sale. But those days faded way as the number of downloads stayed flat – but the average commission per download dropped dramatically. I think at one time Getty was the 800-pound gorilla in the stock photo/footage industry, but the internet changed all that as other companies began to give them some serious competition. So, although I still have an account at Getty, and I earn money from it every month, I have not submitted anything new to them for several years.
In 2012, I decided to open an account at Shutterstock because it looked like they would be easier to work with and they didn’t require exclusivity. At that time, I didn’t know where else I might decide to submit my clips, but I wanted to keep that option open just in case. Why put all your eggs into one basket? Initial sales at Shutterstock were very encouraging so I continued to build up my portfolio from a few hundred clips the first year to almost 9,000 today. A couple of years after joining Shutterstock I also signed up with Adobe and Pond5, but the income I get from those two agencies can’t compare to what I earn at Shutterstock.
Wow $1,500 for a single sale…those were the good days! Having moved on from Getty, and found success at Shutterstock, why do you think you haven’t been as successful at Adobe and Pond5?
Well, that is due to couple of reasons. First of all, I haven’t submitted as many clips to those other agencies, so the size of my portfolio is quite a bit smaller at Adobe and Pond5. And all things being equal, if you have fewer clips, there’s no question you will earn less money than if you have more clips assuming the quality of work is consistent. I fully intend to send more footage to Pond5 and Adobe but I keep putting it off. I’m not a procrastinator by nature, but for some reason I keep pushing that work to the back burner. My backlog of clips is so large now that I will need to send them a hard drive rather than upload individual files.
A second reason I have done poorly at Adobe is because I allowed Adobe to create the metadata for the first couple thousand clips that I submitted to them. In fact, it was Adobe who asked me to sign up with them, not the other way around. When they contacted me, it was only then that I realized I had done something very, very stupid when I got started at Shutterstock. I had created all the metadata for my first couple thousand clips using Shutterstock’s online system – and then I found out there was no way for me to export that data back to my own computer. So, I had a ton of clips ready to send to Adobe but there was no metadata for them, and I didn’t want to have to do it all over again from scratch. So, Adobe kindly offered to hire a 3rd party company to do the metadata for me. I think the cost was going to be about $2.00 per clip and Adobe would pay for it.
Naturally I said yes to this very generous offer, but once again, that proved to be a huge mistake. Now, you might think that a company which specializes in doing metadata would be great at it. But they sucked. The metadata for those clips at Adobe is absolutely awful and when I compare that group of clips to the exact same clips at Shutterstock (where I did my own metadata) they earn a very small fraction of that income. You don’t have to be a genius to know that if a clip that cannot be found by a customer it will never sell. That is a fact.
After that wakeup call, I now use a spreadsheet for all of my metadata, which makes it much easier to submit the same clips to multiple agencies. I have a very efficient custom spreadsheet that I have programmed that makes metadata creation much faster and simpler than using an online system. So not only do I have a permanent record of my metadata it also speeds up my workflow considerably.
The moral of the story is that you absolutely must do your own metadata or else have a qualified partner who can help you. You cannot rely on someone else to adequately describe your assets, especially if that person/company is also doing the metadata for other contributors. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to have good metadata. I would even argue that having good descriptions and keywords might even be more important that the quality of the footage itself.
There are dozens of agencies that accept stock footage, yet it sounds like you only submit to three of them (Adobe, Shutterstock and P5), why is that?
After investigating many of the other smaller agencies, and reading about other contributor’s results from them, I have concluded that only Shutterstock, Adobe, and Pond5 are the only ones worth bothering with. I think you have shown this to be case many times when you’ve published your own sale figures for stills, right? [Alex reply: Yes, my top 3 microstock photo agencies (Shutterstock, Adobe Stock and Alamy) consistently earn me around 80% of all revenue]
The other smaller agencies are simply not worth my time. Could I make some money from them? Yes, but I don’t think the reward would be worth the effort. Time is the most valuable commodity we have and you cannot get more of it. And I have determined that my time is better spent submitting more footage to Shutterstock, Adobe, and Pond5 rather than running around picking up pennies at the smaller agencies.
That is basically the same reason I don’t waste time submitting photos. Could I make some money from photos? Sure, but I don’t think the reward would be worth the effort that I’d need to put into it. My time is better spent focusing only on footage because that is where the real money is. Why jump through hoops for pennies if you could jump through the same hoops for dollars? I have had this debate with photo contributors many times and not one of them has ever came close to convincing me I could be making the same income from photos that I make from footage.
Myself and other contributors appreciate how you’ve always been brutally honest about how much you earn (SS Contributor Forum: “On My Way to $30,000 this year” thread). Would you break down your total earnings ($180,000 in SS alone!), including how much you estimate you earn per hour?
Yes, I don’t mind being open about my earnings and helping teach and motivate other people to achieve similar success. Why be secret about it? That odds that YOU have footage that will compete with MY footage is very small. There are so many different subjects to shoot and ways to shoot them, there is almost zero overlap between any two contributors.
First of all, I must point out the thread you refer to on Shutterstock was started as a tongue-in-cheek response to another contributor who had started a thread called “On My Way to 10,000 Images This Year” (now deleted). My point was that submitting images is not the goal, it is just a means to an end. How much money you earn is far more important than how many images you can get accepted. Strangely enough, some people don’t understand that basic concept.
By the way, I did end up meeting that goal and earning $33,000 that year (2019) at Shutterstock and the other contributor did not make his goal of having 10,000 images in his portfolio. Even though at the end, he was submitting dozens and dozens of similar photos of himself making strange facial expressions in different costumes. I don’t even know if he is involved with Shutterstock anymore because his portfolio earned virtually nothing. Clearly, submitting a bunch of crap with poor metadata is not a good way of making money from stock.
I’m sure there are hundreds of contributors making more than I do, so I don’t claim to have all the answers or that my way is the only way. But keep in mind that I don’t do this full time. Stock footage is just a hobby that I do a few hours per month in my spare time. In fact, during 2020 I hardly submitted anything new because, despite the pandemic, I found myself too far busy with my regular television/video work to submit anything. Yes, I was still out shooting for the fun of it but didn’t submit anything because I didn’t have time to do the metadata. And that’s why I now have a backlog of about 4,500 4K clips waiting to be submitted.
Here are my statistics for Shutterstock only:
– Since mid-2012 I have earned $181,000.
– In 2020 I earned $33,873 (an average of $2823 per month)
– I currently have 8950 clips in my portfolio.
– My average clip has already earned $20.22 ($181,000 / 8950 clips).
– Only about 1500 of my clips have sold at least once – the rest have earned nothing.
– The clips that have sold at least once have already earned an average of $120 each ($181,000 / 1500 clips)
You asked me how much money have I earned per hour of work that I have spent on stock footage? Well, that depends on how someone wants to calculate that number. I don’t have a staff and I never hire models or pay for locations so almost all of my income from stock is pure profit. In fact, less than 0.01% of my clips have any kind of model or property release associated with them.
I just shoot whatever I feel like it whenever I feel like it. As I said, it is something I do for fun and I was already shooting long before I ever started selling stock footage. So, I do not expect to be compensated monetarily for the time I spend shooting. But if someone else views shooting as work or a chore, then they should include that time in their own calculations. I also do not include the cost of my camera equipment because I already own the necessary equipment and I didn’t buy any of it for shooting stock. If someone else must invest in specialized equipment to shoot stock footage, then they should include that cost in their own calculations.
However, it’s not all fun and games. Creating the necessary metadata is the part of the job I really hate. So, I do keep track of my time in that area and I expect to me well-compensate for it. Having excellent metadata is critically important (more important that the footage itself) and a key part of success. But the creation of the metadata is drudgery for me and I wouldn’t do that part of the job if the financial reward wasn’t worth it.
As anyone who has seen one of my YouTube videos or on Vimeo and course knows, it takes me an average of five minutes to process and submit each clip in post. That includes ingesting the footage, editing, color grading, rendering, creating effective keywords and descriptions, uploading by FTP, managing the process, and record keeping. To tell the truth it is probably closer to only four minutes per clip, but I use five minutes in my calculations just to be conservative.
I have 8,950 clips in my Shutterstock portfolio, so that means it took about 750 hours to create and submit them all (8950 x 5:00). If we divide $181,000 of earnings by 750 hours, we see that I have earned $241 per hour for my time. As I said, that does not include the time I spent shooting or the cost of my equipment, so some people will dismiss that number, but that is how I calculate my own hourly earnings from stock footage. And best of all, those existing 8950 clips will continue to earn for years and years with no additional effort on my part whatsoever. One of the best things about stock footage is that you plant the seeds once, and then reap the harvest from those clips for years and years without any extra effort on your part. It’s like a musician still getting royalties for a song decades later, or an author getting royalties for a book long after the actual work was done. The vast majority of my clips are 4K, so I certainly expect some of them will have a long and fruitful life for many years to come.
If I understood you right, you’re saying that 5 out of every 6 clips in your portfolio (84%) have never sold a single time, so how can stock footage be worth it?
The thing about stock footage is that you can’t predict which clips will be the big earners, so you have to submit as many good clips as you can and hope that some of them will catch fire. You are correct that 16% of my clips have accounted for 100% of my income. But the income from those clips more than makes up for the ones that don’t sell. Another thing to keep in mind is that you can never be sure a clip that hasn’t sold for years won’t suddenly start selling. It is not uncommon for dormant clips that I submitted five or six ago to all the sudden have their first sale. And once a clip sells for the first time, there is an even better chance it will sell again. And then again. And so forth. That is why some clips catch fire and others don’t.
What’s your opinion about Shutterstock’s last year royalties changes which resulted in reduced royalties from January this year? Have you experienced a significant reduction in earnings as a result, both in terms of volume and RPD (Return Per Download)?
I have to admit that the future of stock footage does not look as rosy as it once was. Shutterstock has reduced the percentage of our commissions while also reducing the prices customers pay. So that is really a double whammy to our earnings. So far in 2021 my income at Shutterstock is down more than 35% from 2020. That is a significant drop, but what are you going to do about? All the bitching and moaning and weeping I see on the forums won’t make any difference. Yes, I am earning less now, but it’s still pretty good.
Am I less enthusiastic about submitting new clips this year? Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it when I have the time. I’ve been a freelancer or business owner all my life, and every business I’ve been involved with has had its ups and downs. You either roll with the changes or pack up and go home because there is nothing you can do about it.
As I said, by my calculations I’ve been making $241/hour for my time up to this point. If that drops by half to only $120/hour, that’s still pretty good money for a passive income, right? Even if it drops by 75% to only $60/hour that is still better than most jobs pay. Personally, my threshold is $100/hour. I won’t do anything for less than $100 per hour, so if my income for NEW clips that I submit drops below that figure – then I will quit submitting. I’ll keep shooting for fun, but I’m not going to go through the drudgery of submitting for anything less than $100/hour. The tricky part is that it will take years to track the progress of new clips, so I’ll only be able to tell if it was worth it when I look back years from now. It’s like a farmer planting seeds today but he doesn’t know what the price his crops will sell for when harvest time comes. But he plants them anyway because if you don’t plant them then you are guaranteed to earn nothing at all.
If you would like to answer, which are your best-selling 3 clips and why do you think they’re successful?
I don’t want to get too specific about my best-selling clips, but I will say that they are successful for two reasons: First, because they don’t have very much competition for the same subject matter and shooting style. I believe it is best to submit video that other people can’t go out and shoot easily. If you have a little baby, old grandparents, access to a grocery store, or a farm, or a restaurant, or a doctor’s office, or whatever – you have something most other people don’t have ready access to. That is what you should focus on. Everyone’s “specialty” is going to be different. I advise people not to waste time shooting stuff anyone can shoot and that will have a thousand competing clips on Shutterstock – unless you can do it better or different. I didn’t waste a single minute shooting COVID footage because: 1) That topic doesn’t interest me. 2) I knew everyone else would be shooting it too.
The second thing that makes my clips successful is having good metadata. As I teach in my training videos, it is critical to have effective descriptions and meaningful keywords. And also to leave out useless or generic keywords that don’t relate directly to the content. The greatest footage in the world is useless if a customer can’t find it. I think poor metadata is the biggest cause of some people’s lack of success. The importance of metadata cannot be overstated.
How do you come up with ideas and concepts?
I don’t come up with any concepts or ideas. I totally reject the bullshit that the agencies try to feed us about things that are in demand right now, or certain colors, or styles, or themes that are popular at the moment. Chasing those suggestions and trying to shoot what someone else says is going to be popular is a recipe for disaster. I shoot what I want to shoot when I want to shoot it. Period. I’m not going spend my time hiring actors or arranging special locations. Not a chance. The odds are deeply against you making any money from that kind of investment of time and expenses.
YOU need to take a look at what subjects/locations/ideas that YOU have access to or what YOU can shoot better of differently than what other people have already done before you. Keep your eyes open for opportunities that unexpectedly present themselves. Probably 90% of my top selling clips were just things that happened to catch my eye at the spur of the moment. If you see a house burning down – shoot it. A paving crew working on your street – shoot it. Your new baby taking its first steps – shoot it. Your best friend smoking a cigarette – shoot it. Your dad working on his car in the garage – shoot it. A UFO landing in your backyard – shoot it.
I will also say that you absolutely must be prepared for when opportunities present themselves. You need to work on your shooting, editing, and color grading skills right now. I like to tell people that there is no money in footage of seagulls, but I shoot seagulls anyway so that when a Bald Eagle comes around, I have already honed the skills I need to get some great footage.
Any tips for those starting out in 2021…is it too late?
No, it’s not too late. I’ll admit that things may not be as good as they were in 2012 when I got started, but then again, people told me in 2012 it was already too late! I think stock footage will always offer a good income to anyone who is willing to work smart and efficiently. The truth is, too many people have no clue as to what they are doing, so they want to spread their doom and gloom and bring other people down with them. If you want to shoot stock footage with a phone, you will fail. If you want to run your camera on automatic, you will fail. If you’re unwilling to use a tripod most of the time, you will fail. If you only want to shoot flowers or landscapes, you will fail. If you want to take footage straight off the memory card and upload it, you will fail. And if you don’t want to learn how to create effective metadata that will actually catch the attention of customers, you will fail. But with that said, I firmly believe the opportunity is there for people who are willing to do the work.
You have 5-hour master class available on Vimeo called “How to Make Money Shooting Stock Footage” where you provide valuable tips and information, would you please elaborate on the course and how contributors may benefit?
For the past decade I’ve been producing master class training videos for professional video camera operators and teaching in-person video production workshops at various locations around the world. Inevitably the subject of stock footage would come up, especially when I would be talking to younger people just getting into the television business and they wanted a way to start making money while building up their shooting/editing/grading skills. So, I decided to produce a master class on that topic and share every scrap of advice and information I could think of. In fact, it is the workshop I wish I could have taken before I got started shooting stock. If I had known back then what I know now, I’d be making twice as much money today with no additional work. And that is no joke.
The workshop is broken-down into 26 chapters that cover creating effective metadata, what kinds of footage sells best, recommended camera equipment, the differences between commercial and editorial footage, how to prevent rejections before they happen, fast and efficient clip editing, basic color grading techniques in DaVinci Resolve (a free program), time-saving methods for uploading and submitting clips to multiple agencies, and important steps (that many people are unaware of) that need to be taken after your clips have been approved. I even have a spreadsheet template and other materials for downloading. If someone wants more information, I invite them to check out the 20-minute trailer.
Which type of gear would you recommend for those contributors who may have a smallish budget (<$3,000)?
That is a tricky question because WHAT camera gear you own is far less important than HOW you use it. But with that said, there are certain attributes that a camera should have if you want to get serious about shooting stock footage that will appeal to professional television/video producers who will buy it. Phones and GoPros might be okay for a few shots here and there, but mostly you are going to want to invest in a modern mirrorless camera or a dedicated video camera that can record with a broadcast-quality file format. You’ll need a camera that allows you to control the focus, exposure, shutter speed, white balance and other settings manually. You’ll need at least one good lens and a tripod that will allow you to move the camera smoothly so you follow the action. Video is about movement.
If you are on a budget, consider buying a used camera that is in good condition. A lot of professionals, such as myself, have to upgrade to the latest and greatest cameras all of the time because our regular work requires it. You can get some great deals on gently used professional cameras that are still perfectly good enough for shooting stock. Some older models that come to mind from Sony include the EX1, EX3, FS100, FS700, FS5, FS7, Z90, NX80, and the A7 series of mirrorless cameras. From Panasonic you might look for something like an XF305 or GH5 depending on what style of shooting you feel most comfortable with. All of those cameras offer their own pros and cons, so you’ll have to decide what fits your needs best.
As you’re often outdoors, how has Covid affected your business with restrictions on travel?
Covid killed 90% of my regular television/video assignments last year including the Olympics and several weeks of workshops I was booked to teach. So, I pivoted and found other projects to work on and it actually turned out to be a successful year anyway. But I have to say that it was great having Shutterstock dumping about $2500 per month into my PayPal account without me doing anything in 2020 to earn it. Never underestimate the power of having a passive income that will keep some money rolling in even if you never leave the house.
The pandemic actually gave me more free time to go out and shoot for fun, so that is why I now have a backlog of about 4500 clips that are edited, graded, and ready to be submitted as soon as I do the metadata. Did I mention I hate doing the metadata?
How do you foresee the short-term (1-3 years), medium term (5-9 years) and long-term (10+ years) within the Microstock industry?
I don’t have a crystal ball so I prefer not to make any forecasts about the industry in general. But with that said, I’m sure that earnings per download will continue to drop. But the money is so good right now that it could drop quite a bit and still be worth my time. And the sooner I plant my seeds the more time they will have to bear fruit. Last year when Shutterstock announced their changes some people packed up and quit. But you know what? I have made over $30,000 since they made their announcement, so who is the stupid one? I am on track to make about $25,000 this year. Why would I give that up? I’m going to go right on contributing as my time allows. If I had listened to the naysayers in 2012 who said the glory days of stock footage was already over back then, I wouldn’t have $180,000 sitting in my bank account.
As I have said many times before, there are three keys to success with stock footage:
1) Shoot subject matter that customers actually have a need for. Think about who would buy this clip and how would they use it?
2) Make sure you have good production values (exposure, composition, focus, white balance, grading, etc.)
3) Create excellent metadata (keywords and descriptions) so you help customers find it.
When you tick all three of those boxes, then you will have a sporting chance of making a very good income.
Thanks Doug, for your brutally honest answers!
How to Make Money Shooting Stock Footage Course
Doug has published a comprehensive 5-hour / 26-chapter Master e-Class, entitled “How to Make Money Shooting Stock Footage” on the Vimeo platform.
If you would like to take your stock footage to the next level, we’re nearly there…take advantage of an exclusive offer by the Brutally Honest Blog. When paying for the course, use the code “BRUTALLYHONEST” to receive a 20% discount.
$158.37 $126.96 (20% off)
I’m an eccentric guy on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage. I’ve devoted seven years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer (however, had recently go back into full-time office work to make ends meet!). I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.
I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography