In this unique interview, yours truly, Alexandre Rotenberg will be interviewed about the challenges of modern blogging and what he has learned along the way in this journey.
A lot of us photogs accumulate significant experience while dealing with content production and it is quite natural to think about sharing this experience with the rest of the world in the form of blogging. This interview will be about Alex as a blogger and hopefully, it will help others who contemplate creating their own blogs to take the first steps and set the expectations. Let’s jump right in, in the most brutally honest way!
You mentioned numerous times that being a technophobe doesn’t make things easier for you when it comes to dealing with technical stuff. Tell us how difficult it was for you to set up an efficient and convenient blogging platform and how steep was the learning curve.
Hi Elijah, thanks for compiling these excellent questions – I’ve enjoyed answering them!
In terms of overcoming my self-confessed technophobe traumas, I take lessons from a fascinating book called Strengthsfinder by Tom Rath. In one of the first lessons, the Author convincingly argues that “We should forget about fixing our weaknesses, and go all in on our strengths instead.”
By now I know my strengths very well and they certainly aren’t related to web design and coding / programming, but I’m fortunate to have friends / colleagues who are experts in such vocations, such as yourself, Elijah! So, I take the lesson that if there’s something that I don’t know much about and would take a considerable amount of time/effort/$ to learn, best to hire a professional.
In terms of setting up the blog, it was straightforward thanks to WordPress’s templates and customer support, as well as choosing a unique domain name. In the beginning I experimented quite a bit with the layout and have finally settled on something that I think looks great and is easy to work with. I also really like WordPress’s metrics to see which posts are performing well and to see where traffic is coming from.
A lot of people fall into the trap of trying to please everybody with their posts thinking that this is a recipe for success and a clear way to gain more traffic. You clearly avoided this trap by writing in your own uncompromised, brutally honest style and being straight with your readers. Was it a hunch, an impulse, a desire to fill in the void of honest journalism or some other reason that made you develop this style?
The brutally honest ethos, that drives the blog content, was and continues to be to combat those annoying “get rich quick” click-baity blog posts / vlogs which unfortunately pollute the stock industry universe. No wonder many contributors eagerly begin submitting their crappy photos to stock agencies only to give up after a few weeks/months due to their extremely high expectations being shattered.
My goal has always been to show a realistic side of the contributor experience, one that takes a hell lot of determination, hard work and a desire to improve. Even with those crucial ingredients listed, it may still not be enough to cook up a decent meal since external forces make it increasingly difficult to earn a decent return on the work put in. Be it the fault of the market, due to oversaturation and/or agencies cutting rates and loosening up licensing terms.
Trying to please everybody, without offending anybody, is a sure-way recipe for disaster for any blog. A successful blog, first and foremost needs to have a distinct style and personality. The author should come armed with strong opinions which may inadvertently upset/offend some people (mainly the “snowflakes”)! Therefore, I welcome any open discussion about any topics no matter how “politically incorrect” and reply to each and every comment. I’m a huge believer in free speech and speaking one’s mind. In fact, one of my favorite quotes:
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” ― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
However, being opinionated and controversial isn’t enough by itself though as a successful blog needs to focus on a niche and target a specific audience, otherwise it won’t grow (plus nobody appreciates a loud-mouth).
Tell us about frustrations and bumps along the road with your blogging experience. Was it a rough ride in the beginning? I think a lot of people need to set their expectations straight when it comes to understanding what is involved in producing a successful blog.
Few people know this but the brutally honest guide/blog all started from a short blog post on Linkedin in Sept 2016 called “Why I’m Frustrated with Stock Photography and There’s Light at the End of the Tunnel”. Those days when I drafted the post, I was super frustrated at how little I was earning – only around $100/month. So the post was a sort of therapy for me to unload with what I thought was nothing to lose and perhaps something to gain. However, almost immediately to my surprise, the post received dozens of useful comments (and over 1,000 views), including from Clemency Wright who I now regularly collaborate with on keywording articles.
The above post became the catalyst for others which I published called “Why Microstock Has a lot in Common with Uber, Airbnb, Netflix and Tinder” about the rise of the crowdsourcing gig-economy and “How to Take Criticism to Improve as a Photographer”. Those eventually became chapters in the Brutally Honest ebook, which was published in June 2017.
So to answer your question, it wasn’t ever a rough ride since I was writing mainly as a sort of relief to clear my frustrations and put my thoughts in order with no other major ulterior motives (Ok, being brutally honest, it’s always nice for the ego to receive positive recognition). At the time of starting the blog, I had savings since I had just finished a two-year Oil & Gas project in Italy, so I suppose I didn’t have financial pressure to earn from the ebook/blog, which certainly helps. If someone goes into a blogging venture solely to earn money it’s probably going to fail or at best be frustrating as there must be more to motivate us, I reckon!
I think at this point we can safely state that you’ve reached impressive credibility within the microstockers’ community and your name is widely recognized by many established photographers. How difficult was to get to this point. Did you engage in specific promotion efforts or was it just an organic way of achieving goals over a period of time?
My first blog post was in June 2017, so readers need to know that any sort of “impressive credibility” didn’t happen overnight!
It was very very slow going at first, even though the ebook was selling quite regularly via the blog and on Amazon. I recall that even if traffic was low, I felt fine as I was busy doing loads of traveling and of course shooting. I knew that it’s a “marathon, not a sprint” and continues to be.
The first blog post to receive considerable traction was “Top 5 Best Selling Photos and Why”, published in late-2017. Funny looking back now but in those timid first days I was reluctant to disclose how much I earned for each image and instead only mentioned downloads (Shutterstock has a weird clause on the contributor contract that prevents such disclosure). How times have changed…now I don’t care, even about the copycats.
Around the same time, I managed to land a nice feature on Amateur Photographer magazine.
With the interest generated by these posts, I thought I was onto something…it seems as if most readers were/are dying to know about my earnings. At the time I knew that Steve Heap over at BackyardSilver was regularly publishing his earnings and had a nice following. However, at that junction (around late 2017), I still felt that I wasn’t earning enough to really merit a proper earnings report, a sort of “impostor syndrome”. I thought that people just wouldn’t care about such little earnings from a small-time contributor.
So, I set myself a reasonable target that by the beginning of 2019 I would publish my first earnings report, which gave me just over a year to work hard to get some content uploaded and sold! I recall that I had $500/month in mind as a minimum before I started publishing, so I put a bit of pressure on myself to achieve this first milestone. Lo and behold, my first earnings report was in February 2019 and at the time was my best-month-ever, when I earned just over $1k and I’ve been publishing monthly ever since! Ironic how my average monthly earnings have dropped so much since early-2019, but that’s for another discussion.
A lot of your blog posts rank high on the first pages of organic Google search. For me (an internet marketer and web designer) this is an extremely impressive result. Some of your posts take the first position on the first page of search results, which is truly amazing. Tell us how did you get there – special promotions, paid ad campaigns, networking with like-minded professionals, connections within the industry, powerful friends in the government or just persistence and being true to yourself?
Oh, that’s great to know that my posts rank highly! Honestly, as always, whenever I write for the blog I don’t think about the types of keywords / phrases. I try to write in the most natural way that will engage with the audience and I suppose that Google loves my content as it’s unique. For guest-posts, the editors demand more specific keywords / phrases to be used.
As for specific promotions efforts, my traffic is 100% organic. What I have done since the early days is engage with other bloggers / contributors and collaborate on creating content and of course exchanging back-links, which Google loves. In addition, I’m active on the Microstockgroupforum, Alamy Forum and Shutterstock Forum, which generate a considerable amount of traffic to the blog and build some goodwill that way.
I completely shy away from any sort of paid marketing, be it Google, Facebook, Instagram as it’s both expensive and probably fails to achieve quality traffic, which defeats the purpose of any sort of campaign.
A lot of things seem really effortless when you look at how great professionals do it – Kobe Bryant’s plays seem so effortless at times that almost everybody thinks ‘I can do it too!”. Your style of writing is effortless and easily relatable, yet nobody can replicate it. Did you develop your writing skills over time or was it something that you possessed right from the start?
Oh, it’s certainly not something I possessed from the start! In fact, English isn’t even my native language, I’m from Brazil and learned Portuguese as my first language. I only began learning English at the tender age of 8. I look at writing as a sport and if anybody wants to reach the top-levels they must practice for years and years. In fact, since I’ve been outside Brazil for so long my Portuguese has deteriorated considerably (especially in writing), although being in Portugal has helped to recover a bit.
Some 15 years ago, I completed a Law degree in the UK (followed by a postgrad in Law), and then have worked in the legal industry ever since, most recently in Oil & Gas, which requires a lot of reading/drafting! Even though legal writing is completely different to normal writing, it’s a good skill to possess since it helps to structure the logic in a certain way for the reader to understand. Plus it gives me an expanded vocabulary which means I can use adjectives other than “good” or “bad” to describe my images. I suppose this also comes in handy in captioning / keywording.
Whether anybody is able to write proficiently without much practice, probably not. It goes back to that Strengthfinder lesson as some people are far too weak at writing to make it worthwhile to try to improve to even a mediocre level. Would just take too long and would be too much effort. That’s why for non-native English speakers it may be best to start a vlog on YouTube and there are a handful out there that I follow regularly.
I pushed you quite hard to monetize your blog thinking that this is an accepted norm these days. You resisted it vehemently even though I can be both – persuasive and pushy. Tell us what stops you from doing this and what is your stance on ads in your blog.
You sure did! I’m open to monetizing since I believe that value-added content should be rewarded…after all I’m not running a charity! As I’m a self-confessed technophobe, I’m all ears when it comes to different types of monetization strategies.
As for ads, that’s where I draw the line as I find them extremely annoying / distracting and even if they would generate a few $ every month it’s not something that the readers would appreciate. Plus it feels outdated and slows down the site, like something from 2003, no? I’m also not a big fan of paywalls and patreons as I think that content should be open to all (with an option to donate). Seems to be the most user-friendly strategy these days and even stock photography seems to be heading this way with some of the free-sites.
Some of your posts have an option to donate. Do people actually do it these days? Covid, difficult financial situation, and other exacerbating factors make it difficult for people to show appreciation. It would be understandable if people would not be willing to do that… how is it going?
I’ve had a donate option only for the past 6 months and I’m pleased to say that I receive regular small donations every month, including recurring ones. I’m not asking for a spare kidney, only enough to buy me a coffee/beer so I don’t buy this whole “Covid difficult financial situation” narrative especially since many professionals have been working from home for two years and saving on commuting costs as well as other expenses.
Readers may show appreciation in different forms, such as a useful comment or sharing/liking the posts on social media. To me that’s worth much more than the price of a coffee/beer since it will help to grow my brand.
I always hated English lessons in high school and especially these teachers whom I considered grammar Nazis that could punish you for every missed comma or punctuation mistake. I ended up re-educating myself at the later stages since typos, poor readability and incoherently formulated thoughts can be a huge turn-off for lots of readers. It practically kills any good content. Would you recommend new bloggers to pay special attention to it?
For legal writing, yes these mistakes can be costly…I have a friend who is dyslexic lawyer and struggles to keep jobs, he really needs to pursue another career but is stubborn as fuck. However, as for casual blog writing, I don’t think typos / misplaced commas are a big deal since most people wouldn’t notice these small mistakes anyway. We have to keep in mind that people’s attention span is so short as it is and becoming even shorter…that’s why I try to keep blog posts under 1,000 words.
We’re fortunate these days that there’s a lot of software out there to guide us with correct use of grammar/spelling/punctuation. However, there are degrees of “bad writing” though and as long as you’re making an effort to write properly and most importantly, to proofread your work (by a third person ideally), no issues. A misplaced comma is very different to contradicting yourself in a thought-process, thus confusing the reader.
From the vast experience that you have accumulated at this point – what would be your general advice for new bloggers that want to get started with blogging?
I would say that blogging is probably an outdated medium precisely for the reason stated above, notably most readers have such short attention spans. Best to seriously consider vlogging on YouTube and/or on TikTok. Without being a hypocrite, vlogging on YouTube is something that I’ve been meaning to do for a long time but never got ‘round to it!
If someone is insisting on old-fashioned blogging, my advice would be to focus on writing about a unique niche and stick with it! What’s a unique niche…that’s beyond the scope of this answer as would take far too long to answer but as an example, most recently, I’ve added the interview series (of which this post will duly belong) to my blog and this has become a sub-niche within my blog post, as an example. Perhaps someone is really into macro photography and wants to put together a detailed review of different macro lenses to shoot insects.
Suffice to say that there are far too many generalists out there publishing boring articles about creating Rule of Thirds and tips on shooting at Golden Hour, for instance. Those put me right to sleep. Unless you can write about something unique, fun and useful, don’t bother. Oh and use loads of visuals to break down the text.
Lastly, I’d suggest that authors adopt a fun and casual approach to the post. It’s something I often try to do, such as with my Turd of the Month agency nominations within my earnings reports and the January 2030 spoof earnings report where Jon Oringer is killed by a dime (or penny, I forget) that falls off the Empire State building right on his head, among other predictions.
What is your take on social networks when it comes to spreading the word about your blog? Do you find social networks an efficient tool for getting wider acceptance or do you do it on a pro-forma basis because it is rather an accepted norm these days? Do you see bigger success and more engagement on some social platforms than the others?
A considerable amount of my traffic comes from social networks and I consider it as an integral part of my marketing strategy, notably Facebook. Other platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, Flipboard, Pinterest, etc. do generate some traffic, some of the highest-quality traffic comes from posting links on stock photography forums, notably the Microstockgroupforum, Shutterstock Forum and Alamy Forum. I’ve disclosed my long-term traffic later on in this interview – keep reading! 🙂 .
These days I’m trying not to post many links myself in forums and I hope someone else will do it for me as this creates credibility for my brand.
Do you do guest blogging? What’s your experience with contributing to other blogs or internet resources and how it relates to making your name more recognizable?
Yes, I currently guest-blog at StockStudio and Xpiks on a regular basis. I’ve also guest-posted at MyStockPhotos. Guest-blogging is a fantastic way to build my brand as it will reach a wider audience. In addition, there will be back-links inserted to my blog posts which helps to increase my blog’s visibility on Google for certain keywords / phrases.
Also worth noting that StockStudio and Xpiks pay me per guest-post, so a great way to generate some income to offset the lower stock earnings I’ve experienced in the past few years.
I have received quite a bit of interest in publishing more guest posts but the problem I currently have is the lack of time as I’m holding down a full-time job. Perhaps I’ll have more free time soon as my current gig is over.
“Build your own brand”, “Differentiate or die” – those are the mantras that are repeated over and over when you talk to marketing pros about gaining an edge over your competition. What is your opinion on this?
As for “building your own brand”, that’s crucial. It’s what you represent and you must stay consistent in your message to your audience. The brand must also be positive…no point upsetting people for the sake of it. Eventually you may want to branch out and do some commissioned work for clients, which would be immensely more profitable than stock income.
As for “differentiate or die”, I certainly agree that one needs to be unique out there to stand out from the crowd. There are many stock blogs and vlogs out there but most aren’t very useful or just click-baity / scammy. Therefore, the good news is that even if you present something that is moderately useful you’ll be miles ahead of most of the competition. Another example where I’ve tried to differentiate is to discuss the types of images I’ve taken alongside my hobbies, notably poker and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu…and of course my work in creating book covers for Arcangel.
Tell us about the traffic that you get – what is your audience, which countries they are from? Do you see an increase in traffic year over year?
As for traffic, it seems to have stagnated since 2019 and I’m on pace to match levels reached in 2019 and 2020. For me this is fine since 2020 and 2021 have been weird years. I expect a significant uptick in 2022.
I’m quite sure there are lots of intangibles when it comes to making articles readable and generally interesting for people. Any secrets to share?
As mentioned earlier, most readers are interested in how much I’ve made for any given content and how they can realistically replicate this sort of success themselves. Quite simple. I’m sure that if I was earning $20,000 a month I wouldn’t have as many readers since most people would think it’s unattainable. Instead, I earn a reasonable $1k/month which most contributors can probably achieve within a few years (or could back in 2013 when I started lol) with hard work and determination (plus some luck, of course).
Being relatable is important as I’m not shy to share my mistakes and failures along the way in a sort of tongue in cheek kind of way and I think readers appreciate this truthfulness. Most recently, there was the tale of the Painter from Salamanca that tracked me down and threatened to sue me because I took some pictures of him in public. Also the time the police in Portugal forced me to delete pictures also taken in public. Or when I was kicked out of a William Hill bookmaker in London right after obtaining this shot which has sold very well.
Theo recently told me a story about how he attached a GoPro to the hood of his car and it fell off a bridge into the water when he was recording! Now, wouldn’t that make for a great story with some lessons learned? I think he pitched that to Xpiks and hope he’ll be able to write about it and with those earnings he can pay for a new GoPro
Since your style is to be honest with your audience and you do not spare peoples’ feelings in some cases… I’m quite sure you get some vindictive snowflakes and some politically correct people who express their displeasure in the strongest terms (to put it politely). How widespread is the issue is and how do you deal with it?
The current culture we find ourselves in is full of “snowflakes” that feel like victims and are looking for someone to blame for their misfortune. Sometimes I get the wrong end of the stick and have to take some abuse, which comes with the territory. Actually, I embrace haters as they generate a nice discussion surrounding often a quite serious point. I’ll give you an example.
Back in 2017, I posted about my lack of sales on the Alamy contributor forum and asked for advice (also mentioning that I, god-forbid, duplicate the images at microstock agencies). I received a lot of abuse from the Alamy veterans then but frankly, I understand where the hatred came from since earnings at Alamy have also come crashing down and many of the contributors put their blame squarely on microstock. I realized that the comments weren’t directed at me personally but at their own frustration. Often we try to attach greater importance to ourselves than we deserve and that’s when it’s important to try to leave our ego at the door.
Other types of criticism I have received, funny as it’s usually from anonymous people, is that my photography isn’t very good and I have no place writing about it! OK, let’s see your amazing work then?! 😀
Lastly, another politically correct camp is from people who think that I shouldn’t profit from taking pictures of homeless / vulnerable people. I think that’s reasonable but they don’t know that I often give donations to such people after taking their picture, unless they’re unconscious and I never intend on waking them up.
Other than the above-mentioned, 99% of people are positive and supportive. I’ve met great people along the way.
I’m quite sure you made quite a lot of connections with interesting people while doing interviews and writing blog articles. You have interviewed people from all walks of life, did it help you to expand your horizons to some degree? Was it a rewarding experience?
Loads! I’ve met you for instance and dozens of others which I could list but I’m scared I might miss someone out! Everybody has taught and is teaching me lots about how to improve my work, for instance taking lessons from Doug Jensen on creating stock footage.
More specifically I’m seeing a clear pattern by the people I’ve interviewed that they’re experts in a certain niche, Joas for instance in architecture, Emeric Le Bars in Timelapse photography and Paul Hardy in creating unique (often humorous) concepts. This is clear evidence that the photography industry and the wider world doesn’t need generalists and it’s a good lesson that we must avoid the temptation to be a “Jack of all trades and master of none”. Not sure if this expression translates into other languages but basically means someone that does a little bit of everything as a generalist and is not an expert in any specific thing.
Of course it’s been a rewarding experience and I look forward to expanding on the number of “Stock-Wizards” I can interview!
Following on from the success of the Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography, do you have any plans for a new ebook?
As for a new book, I’ve been brainstorming lately on putting together a new book, combining my legal background with photography. Although it’s still very early days, it will be on country-specific rules/regulations as a street photographer within the top-50 most visited countries, with a twist on what landmarks and types of content can be licensed editorially at stock agencies.
A practical guide to stay on the right side of the law (or as close to as possible) and avoid any unnecessary risks and protect yourself in case of “harassment”. May also throw in info on up-to-date drone regulations as this is a new exciting development. Let’s see!
What are your plans for your blog for the future?
As mentioned earlier, I’m looking to take some of the content from the Brutally Honest blog to YouTube to create some vlogs. This is a more contemporary platform to reach a wider audience.
As for the blog itself, I’m looking to interview more and more superstars from the industry! Oh and perhaps if someone is interested in publishing a guest-post, I’m open to hear ideas!
In addition, as soon I’ll be heading into drone territory, I’ll surely be posting interesting stories (including tales of failures) from my drone adventures. Stay tuned!
If you would like to mention anything else that is not covered by the questions here, please share, otherwise – good luck, we all love your work, keep going!
Sure thing. I would like to thank those that have followed me on my journey since the beginning. I feel like the best yet to come, so keep following me 🙂
This blog is very important to me to express myself as an outlet and I’m fortunate that I’m able to even earn a little on the side while doing what I love….and bashing those greedy turdy agencies while I’m at it! Thanks, Elijah.
I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Madrid, Spain, on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage, when things go back to normal (Late-2021??). I’ve devoted eight 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