Continuing on with the interview series, it’s an absolute pleasure to exclusively interview here on the Brutally Honest Blog, Paul Hardy, a creative conceptual Microstock Photographer and Videographer, also known as “Concept Stills and Motion”.
Paul is a veteran of the Stock business, shooting for over 25 years. Below, he shares some insights on how things were in the “good old days” compared to now. He also gives some tips on how he came/comes up with his highly profitable concepts and which agencies he submits them for sale. Let’s get started!
Paul, please tell me about yourself, how you got into stock footage and how long you’ve been submitting to stock agencies?
Hi Alex, thanks for having me on here!
To answer your first question here’s a fun video I’ve put together below telling my story and how I got started in photography and eventually into Microstock!
Cool, thanks for that great introduction! So tell us about the ethos behind Concept Stills & Motion?
I love creating strong themes be it stills or footage, often with a message, such as:
– Working late;
– Memories; and
– The future etc.
In other words, ideas that “say” something rather than “of” something. Often these concepts take some planning and cannot be rushed. For instance, the following 8 examples demonstrate well what I’m all about. Please see the slideshow below.
What I’ve learned from once-upon-a-time working closely with my editor (more on this later), publications always needed some art direction. I always thought all you needed was one perfect image from a certain theme and no need for 6 horizontals and 6 verticals, for instance!
I see you also started out as a travel photographer! Can you tell us a bit more about that and then how you specialized in conceptual content?
In 1993 I decided to go travelling around Europe by rail. I decided in the end to go to Italy, notably Pisa, Rome, Florence and Venice in order to build up my portfolio.
When I was in Rome I bumped into two photographers, which I got chatting and they both happened to be also shooting stock. One was with Tony Stone Images. (The number one agent at the time, which later became Getty Images.)
Wow! I thought, real stock photographers! It was like meeting my pop idol at the time! We all swapped numbers as there was no social media back then! We kept in touch after that, and then later they asked me if I would like to go on trips with them, which was great. I am still in touch with the guys I met on that bridge in Rome. We went back to Rome 15 years later together to shoot stock, and stopped at the bridge, and reminisced.
Later that year I travelled to New York and Cairo. At the end of those trips, I had enough images in my portfolio and I went to apply to join Zefa in London. They saw potential in my work and sent my portfolio to their sister company, The Stock Market in New York and they took me on.
Through them I was introduced to other stock photographers who have since become good friends. We travelled a lot together for company and to share the costs and sometimes for motivation. As you probably know, travelling can otherwise be quite lonely. We always went to shoot stock, it was a job, getting up at dawn often and doing business shots, thinking constantly about ideas.
Wouldn`t have been fun to travel with someone who was not a stock photographer as it’s not like being a normal tourist. Not much fun being in a city on your own with 4 days of rain which I`ve had in the past!
I certainly agree that traveling alone for long periods can be lonely. Very interesting how you went down the traditional route at The Stock Market, a Midstock agency, before Microstock was even mainstream. Could you expand how the relationship with that agency?
When I joined The Stock Market in 1996 I was only 23. The Stock Market were based in New York and I live/lived in London so that then seemed like a big achievement at the time! I felt like I had made it.
Microstock wasn’t even around then, to give you an idea iStock started around the year 2000. Therefore, all the agents I knew were licensing images as Rights Managed, which has been overtaken by Royalty-Free now.
My experience was great as I kept traveling a lot and sales snowballed quickly, which meant that I got to travel more! In those days the Internet was just getting started. Therefore, the agents were basically huge libraries full of images in catalogues. Each year they would bring out a flagship catalogue showcasing their best work and I remember how it was always a mad rush to get images submitted before the deadlines. Otherwise those images might not be seen as much.
Royalties were huge compared to now and getting 10 images into catalogue would be worth 1000s of images now at the Micros, literally. Eventually the technology improved and the agents brought out CDs with images, which was when Royalty Free became more common. Soon after the catalogues went online. In 2000, The Stock Market was acquired by Corbis, which was set up by Bill Gates. Corbis were huge then and only 2nd to Getty. But unfortunately they closed in 2016, which was hugely surprising.
Important to take this as a lesson for those submitting to places like Wirestock and Blackbox, you never know what`s round the corner. I thought Corbis would be around forever, and they closed down with little warning. As per the terms of the acquisition, my work was migrated to Getty, which felt great since I always dreamed of working with Getty. However, soon the excitement wore off as the high prices I saw in the late 90s were slashed considerably and sales were not as consistent. To make matters worse, I was locked into an exclusive agreement with Getty.
How did one go about being accepted at one of these agencies in the 90s?
In the days of photo agents when everything was on film, they would only accept you if you had a large portfolio to start with. Many agents then, minimum submission was 500 images. So they wouldn’t consider you unless you had 500 images ready to submit. Their thinking was it would not be their worthwhile to accept you if you only had 100 images and maybe not high chance of selling their either! Often then though you’d have a portfolio of 500 and they’d only keep 50!
So the initial hurdle to get through the door of agents then was quite hard, and took time to build up your portfolio first. Took me a couple of years. Not like now where you buy a camera on the Monday and join an agent on Tuesday. Not like nowadays there’s practically no barrier to entry.
I remember going in to the NY office to sign the contract at The Stock Market, returning back to meet my friends at the hotel restaurant with a big grin thinking I’ve done it! Although, of course, that’s just the beginning!
How does that relationship compare with nowadays with the Micros and how would you change if you could?
The relationship has changed drastically, for the worse.
How would I change things if I could?
1) Bring back photo-editors;Back at The Stock Market, I worked closely with my editor for 16 years (which is unheard of now) on ideas, composition an art direction. I used to send her low-resolution images and she would reply with detailed notes on the images. She used to often say to me, “I’m never afraid to tell you what I think, it is only then you know what you are capable of”. Can you imagine that now? People would be so offended if the editors make constructive criticism of their work.
I think photographers can be their own worst enemy, and it is good to get the opinion of their work from others. Often, photographers think their work is perfect, when it would be useful for an editor to say, “I don`t think it is there yet, can you reshoot it?” I had total faith in my editors comments, I thought at the end of the day, if the image is better it will sell more?
2) Only accept the best content;
3) Set a fixed price, say small, medium and large and that’s it;
4) 50 – 50 split between artist and agent. I’ll expand on the last point.All the undercutting has lead the problem with have now, where prices are almost so low and cannot get much lower. 15%-25% for the artist just seems unfair. When editing is done by AI by machine, I think what are the agents doing for their 85%?! There seems a big difference between what the agents want and what most contributors are submitting. On the front page on most agents websites are mostly high production value lifestyle images. However, most contributors are submitting images of flowers and sunsets, for instance which have very little commercial value. By agencies accepting everything it has given contributors a false sense that they will sell all their images, when many may never sell! I think agents should only accept images they’d be happy to have on their cover page.
Completely agree that agencies are contributing to an unsustainable business model for contributors. Perhaps exclusivity is a way for contributors to earn higher returns…how do you feel about exclusivity with one agency?
With a heavy heart I decided to leave Getty in 2019, so that I could submit my images non exclusively to any agent I choose. Therefore, I feel strongly that the days of exclusivity to the image seems like a thing of the past.
The only way to survive now is to have your eggs in all baskets. I have learnt the hard way about having all your eggs in one basket. Another photographer I knew well, used to say to me, “what would I do if Corbis went to the wall?” I had no answer.
Staying on the topic of royalties, you mentioned that royalties have dropped considerably in the past few years. Could you please expand on how much you were earning, in the late 90s and early 2000s?
I still have all my sales reports! There was a time long ago when you used to wait for the postman to deliver your sales report on about the 20th of the month and not know until you opened it how many sales you had! Perhaps Getty kept this way of reporting until today except now it’s obviously all digital.
My first ever sale in 1996 earning me $250 net!
My best years were around 2005 – 2010
In the early days, all my effort and creativity went into creating images for Corbis. I could have tried to join Getty at the time, but thought it was really hard to split my efforts and creativity at the time. Looking back, maybe I should have tried more over at Getty.
Back then for Rights Managed, Getty then Corbis were the big two. I was happy being with the number two and I thought I was lucky having a great editor. For those that don`t know, compared to Royalty Free, with Rights managed, the client had to state how they were going to use the image and then the agent would give them a price.
So in simplified way, the more eyes that would see an image, the higher the fee. From a few dollars to my highest sale ever of $30K! (I got 40% though!) My sales reports read like:
– Eiffel Tower $500;
– Big Ben $50;
– Power Station $150;
– Businessman in rain $1250, etc.
With a description of the image, the client and how it was used. Eiffel Tower, Newspaper, United Kingdom, 50 000 print run etc., similar that would you would see at Alamy if you license Rights-Managed. It was always interesting seeing where images were used.
Those are some very nice average prices! Please go on and tell us how your images have been used?
I`ve had images used on TV, (QI on BBC in UK.) Newspapers, stamps, Olympic bids and toll gates to mention a few. And the strangest thing I`ve thought how many people have seen my images? People have said to me, when will you be a famous photographer? I think I was, but no one ever saw my name.
Say 5 million people have seen my image on TV, 10 million in newspapers, 1 million for stamp, 10 million for books, 1 million on toll gate. So that’s say easily 30 million people have seen 15 of my images used in 15 sales. Now times that up over 15 years. The amount of people who might have seen my images?100 million people? I have no idea, but that thought is fascinating.
When the going was good, why look elsewhere? Was my thought? If I’m making $5 – $10K a month from one agent, why spend any effort for a couple hundred dollars extra elsewhere? That’s net, from just 500 images and they were selling regularly for years.
I had two images in the top 100 highest grossing images of all time with Corbis. Up there with images Marylin Monroe and Albert Einstein. I believe it was only because I knew my editor well that they shared than information with me. Would the agents share that sort of information with you now I wonder? Probably not.
Now I sell across all platforms probably about 200 images a month. With a portfolio of about 300 images. It’s a viscous circle, perhaps I could make more by producing my images but I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm with such low prices and as for videos, don’t know exactly how many clips I sell, since I don’t count.
Luckily sales have continued even through lockdown although they have dropped considerably in the past few days. It will be interesting to see post lockdown how sales pickup.
How do your sales from then compare with now? Has it become unsustainable for most contributors?
So although I’m selling 200% more images than I did then in the early 2000s I’m earning 10% of what I was earning then roughly.
What else apart from music has prices dropped so much?
I don`t get a free t-shirt when I enter a clothes shop? Clothes prices have gone up. Train fares go up every year. Production costs, model fees all go up.
Yes, it’s become unsustainable and I wish I could talk to the agents to know what they think, but do they care?
I sometimes think that maybe it is because digital images don’t actually exist anywhere unlike say a t-shirt. Therefore, the perceived value is less even though it may cost a lot in time and money to produce.
The internet and digital photography probably lead to the demise of stock because it lowered the playing field for entry with digital cameras being so much more user friendly than medium format, for instance. So although digital lead to the demise of prices in stock, eventually, I think I became a better photographer when I went digital too.
Nevertheless, it just seems really sad that I can’t continue doing the thing I`ve spent my life so far doing and thinking about through no fault of my own.
Seems to me we have to work harder just to stand still, and then the agents decide to change the t n c`s again next year in their favour even more. Corbis changed their terms I think once in 16 years. I think nearly all the agents have changed their t n c`s in the last 18 months.
With royalties dropping, how has this changed your professional outlook? Do you foresee that royalties will keep dropping?
I still sell images every day, but for peanuts at micros. Sometimes I sell an image for $10 and I think wow! I read about others and their sales and think if only you knew what the industry was once like.
So I’ve done some calculations and taking an average of 25c sale per image, which is the way the industry is heading –
Just to make $10 an hour, would equal 40 sales.
30 hours a week, x 4 weeks = So that’s 5000 images a month. Roughly.
Just to make an average wage.
How many people are selling 5000 images a month?
Let’s say that I go to London to do a night scene. That would be $20 for rail fare, $10 for food.
How many sales just to cover costs? Perhaps 120 sales?
By which time the ranking has moved on to another image.
As for the future? It’s sad to think prices will probably continue to drop, unless of course there is a change and a revolution in this industry. I’d recommend that everyone stop submitting for a few years, then see if there is any change.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about how you create your art. Could you please expand on which gear you use most of the time and why?
Like many people in the 80s and 90s, I started out shooting in film. I had the first Canon EOS in 1988 when I was at school and moved into medium format about 5 years later. Firstly the 645 then 6 x 7.Shooting with a Pentax 6 x7 which is like a huge SLR that shot medium format. Then Mamiya RZ67.
Then as soon as Canon introduced the first DSLR, the Canon EOS 1DS 11 MP, I knew this was the future and was so excited! I sold my sports car to buy it! It was such a novelty to be able to see the image straight away at the time!
I was shooting a lot of concepts at the time and thought about the immediacy of digital was going to be brilliant to see how the image looked before I finished. Then I upgraded with each camera Canon brought out, 1 DS 2, and 3. Then Canon brought out the 5D2, which as most people were aware of at the time, revolutionised cinematography and film making. I’d always been interested in film, and stock footage would be the next step, but before then it was too expensive for most people to begin. Now the barrier of entry was easier.
I shot some real-time but mostly time-lapse, which was a big learning curve but also very exciting, I was always excited to see a finished time-lapse once it had been rendered. To see things you wouldn’t see at the time. Bridges bouncing, clouds moving in different directions at different heights etc.
I began to think that I wanted better quality footage. I then moved on to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K.Great footage but more post work. I would love to have stayed with Canon, but at the time the camera that I would love to have owned the 1DC was too expensive.
But as I got better and the subjects I was shooting changed to more lifestyle I began to see limitations to using it and it also didn`t shoot 4K either and felt that I needed to start shooting 4k too.
I then upgraded to the Fuji XT2.It was also quite a novelty because of the retro feel to the camera. It was a great camera that shot 4K, I would have loved to have had better slow motion capabilities though at the time. The lenses were great too.
I had the 10-24mm, and it was so sharp, and it was so wide with no distortion at the edges, lines were straight rather than banana shaped, it was a great lens.
Sold it all in December! Time for a change.
How many images/clips do you currently have for sale?
Currently I have about 300 images and about 1700 clips. The images are with Adobe Stock and iStock, as well as a few others. Video are with Pond5, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock, as well as a few others.
With Corbis in the end I had about 700 images. Probably about 200 film scans 100 editorial maybe. So moving my portfolio over to micro stock, no worth bothering about scanning film.
On a positive note, are there any particular agency you would recommend?
Mainly Adobe at the moment, but I think it also depends on what you shoot. As my images are quite strong graphic images, maybe that is what designers prefer. If you are shooting editorial, maybe Alamy might be better. But I just can`t recommend one over the other anymore.
How do you create some of the concepts while staying on top of visual trends? Briefly tell us about how you research such concepts, in addition to how you execute the work?
As discussed earlier, I started out shooting travel with only some concepts. Then, when I went digital and learnt about photoshop I began to do more composite images. In other words, images that couldn’t be created any other way. It was also fun doing travel images digitally. Cranes, I can remove them now. Sunsets? I can make that better. Faces, car number plates, I can remove them now too!
Soon, I started to specialise in images that “said” something, not “of” something. Themes that “said” ambition, love, destiny, future, childhood etc. I used to think where I might see the image used, such as billboards at airports etc.
In addition, it’s important to shoot with diverse models in a gorgeous location.
As for execution of the concepts, here are some walkthrough on how I created some of my most popular concepts:
I see you use yourself as a model many times (and you have a unique / interesting look), do you find that this is the only way to keep costs down?
I did often use myself as a model 🙂 I often shot travel but incorporated myself into the shot too. Businessman lost in in the city during rush-hour, etc as below. So always useful to pack my suit as well! For a time it worked and there were regular sales.
Any tips for those wishing to start out as a stock photography/footage contributor in 2021?
Don`t bother! The good times have gone. For anyone starting out now I just think what could you possibly shoot that hasn`t already been done before? If you have no experience of styles and what sells I just think it probably is not worth getting into.
Find something else more meaningful with better returns. Just spend more time taking better pictures of your loved ones.
Maybe have a look at stock in 5 years. If everyone stopped submitting images for a few years, it would be interesting to see how this would play out. At present it just seems like there is too much work for too little rewards.
I`m not busting my back for 10c, 24c, 74c a time.
My most successful years were my least happiest looking back for personal reasons, and it’s strange thinking about the successes at the time that I feel like I didn`t enjoy it as much as it could have been. Now that I have two beautiful children, and they will never know about the time I was a successful stock photographer.
But if things were still as good as they were in the past, would I still be happy to travel a lot? I don`t know, definitely harder with kids. But it is a thought that is always on my mind…
Would you mind sharing your future career plans?
All I’ve thought about since 1988 is stock, maybe it’s time for a change. All I thought about was the next image. I couldn`t stop.
It’s strange with lockdown this last year, as I have completely changed direction, and gone into clothing design. Mainly women’s’ clothing. If anyone is interested, here’s the link. Would I have created this had I not been in lockdown? I often wonder.
It’s early days yet, but I have a new excitement for the future, and my future is my hands rather than an agent, that might suddenly decide to keep more of the pie. I look around at artists and musicians, and more often that not they change direction with each album. Maybe this is the best way to be artistically, and for success too. Taylor Swift for instance has gone from country, to pop now to Folk. Maybe this is the way to go.
I just want to continue to be creative in one way or another. At one time I just wanted to be a stock photographer forever, I never thought things would turn out as they have! Hindsight is a wonderful thing! Now I see that maybe things move in shorter cycles than they once did. If the industry dramatically changes in years to come, I might dip my toe back in, but now I think, what could I do that hasn`t been done before, and will it make any money? I love taking pictures, I had great satisfaction for creating great images, but I`m not doing it for love! I think I was lucky in timing, jumping in with digital early on and before there that much competition and image saturation. To my peers I was like the new kid on the block and felt like I was 5 years too late from the good times of stock.
End of interview
Thanks, Paul for this insightful interview which has given me a lot of thought about the future (or lack of) in this industry. Wish you all the best in your career and keep creating fantastic content, as well as your new business venture!
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 to go back into full-time office work in late-2019 to make ends meet, which fortunately will end very soon!). 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