Continuing on with the popular Stock-Wizards interview series, I’m happy to welcome someone you’re all probably very familiar with, Steve Heap, Travel Photographer and Blogger / Author at BackyardSilver. Let’s get started and get even more familiar!
Hi Steve, thanks for taking part in the interview. Even though you’re already well known thanks to your established BackyardSilver blog, please tell us about yourself. Where you’re from, where do you live and how long have you been a stock contributor?
Hi Alex, pleasure to be featured on your blog. I’m from the UK originally, but moved, with my job in Telecoms, to the USA way back in 1994. I moved from Virginia to West Virginia to be near family about 6 years ago.
I started taking photos more seriously when digital cameras became a thing and I got good comments in my local camera club about my work and I, like so many others, thought that I could do something with all these digital images. I started investigating stock in 2008 and uploaded my first images later that year.
When did you first think “Oh, I can actually make some decent money with this?” Was there an Ah-hah moment for you and you decided to devote more time / effort to the business?
Even in 2008, people were saying that the golden days of microstock were behind us, but I noticed that even with a few images online, I started to get sales on Shutterstock, in particular. So that made me start to create images for stock, rather than just uploading what I had already taken. This was all leisure-time activities though. I was the CTO of an international public company and so traveled widely, had many things to do, and it was far more lucrative, obviously. But I took my camera with me on these trips and started thinking more about what I was taking.
Inevitably, in the tech world, things go up and then down, and with a lay-off in 2010, I decided that I would focus more on consulting and also build up my stock photo work as an alternative source of income. Both tracks turned out to be sufficient to keep my head above water. So I guess the driver to putting more effort into stock was that I needed to do so!
You’ve been meticulous uploading your monthly earnings report since June 2011 (161 reports in total). What made you first begin disclosing your earnings and what has been your motivation until the present-day to keep producing such detailed reports?
I saw so many posts in the Microstock Group that said that they had increased their earnings by 50% in the past month, but of course you had no indication as to how real that was. I asked a few times, but no-one would give a straight answer. I also saw so many people trying to get into stock and struggling with basic facts and I decided to create a blog that was open and honest about the risks and rewards of stock photography and to make it real and above board, I would publish my earnings. I was reporting them to the tax people and so I thought I had no reason to keep them secret. I had my book (Getting started in stock) in my mind and so gaining credibility would help me to sell that once I had written and published it.
Which were standout months/years for you and why do you think you were successful then – any particular concepts that worked, for instance?
The early years were certainly easier – adding images usually resulted in more earnings and so up to 2014 or so, it was a steady increase in earnings each year. Then the rot set in! I decided to double down on concepts and create images that the buyers wanted, rather than uploading holiday snaps, and so some of my most successful series came from that period. I’m thinking of my bitcoin images (although buying a few real bitcoins would have been more profitable) and then the opioid shots that continue to sell to this day. More recently, I was very early with some coronavirus images including the one I did using a cinema billboard with various healthcare messages that really took off in early 2020.
When did you first begin producing videos? How about drone footage? Do you think there’s more to be made per hour producing videos or photos?
I think I made some stock videos way back in 2012 or so but they were of me pretending to talk on the phone or something like that. Not very valuable! I did get much better at macro/studio type video focusing on bitcoin, opioids and similar things that could be captured with a zoom towards or around the subject. I bought an Edelkrone dolly that could be programmed to move around a subject in a steady way and that certainly helped the quality of my video work. I’ve also invested in a drone which had given me a new perspective on both photography and video and those do sell well – but as always, it is the subject that is key, not the technique! A boring shot from a drone is still a boring shot! I’ve never really felt as comfortable with video as with still photography though – I do it, but my mind is usually thinking more about how to get good still photos rather than good videos. For instance, I went on cruise in Alaska in June this year and brought back 2000 still images and maybe 6 videos! Just shows where my energies go!
I think videos did have their time in the sun, perhaps 4 or 5 years ago, but the prices being achieved these days are headed down. So, the earnings per hour of effort is a tricky one. It takes longer to take and process on video than perhaps 10 or 20 good photos and I don’t really have a good handle on which would produce the best results. I enjoy photography more and so that is what I tend to do!
Which is your go-to gear for most of your shoots? I read that you recently invested on a 100-400mm that you used on your trip to Alaska.
My Sony A7R3 is the workhorse. I do have a Sony RX100 as well, which is great for just carrying around. The lens I normally use is the Sony 24-105mm, probably the next most useful is the Sony 105mm macro and a 70-200 Sony zoom. I thought that in Alaska, I would likely be some distance from certain subjects and so with 3 days to go before departure, I decided to buy a Sigma 100-400mm telephoto and I took that with my 24-105. It proved to be the right decision and I used it for both wildlife and even landscape shots. I don’t think I obsess about equipment though – I get what I need, but don’t go for F2.8 lenses when F4 or F5.6 ones are perfectly adequate.
Which type of content do you enjoy producing the most? And the least? Why for both.
These days it is landscapes and images that I would like to see on a wall somewhere – see a link to my Fine Art America collection. I am far less focused on concept stuff – not because I don’t think of new concepts, it is more that I can’t be bothered to stage them! I think this is because after all these years (14 now), I’ve become jaded with the antics of the bigger agencies in driving down contributor income. The decision that Shutterstock made to reset the commission percentages each year still shocks me with its total lack of interest in their contributors.
How has your workflow changed during the past 10 years or so? Which software do you recommend.
Probably not as much as you would think. I started in 2008 with processing and keywording in Lightroom with occasional forays into Photoshop for tricky tasks. Lightroom has become more capable over the years and so there are even fewer excursions into Photoshop these days. I became an early user of Stock Submitter to allow me to support 15-20 agencies with no effort at all, and I stuck with Microstockr Pro to watch for earnings and spot trends in the images that were selling. Those have remained my core software applications. I do like the Jixipix applications for painting type effects and you can find various articles on my website about using those.
What’s your opinion on uploading to an exclusive agency, such as Getty or Robert Harding…or even to Alamy as exclusive (perhaps Rights-Managed)?
I never really thought it was a good idea, unless you have really special and unique images that people will search for. So much stock photography is for ephemeral purposes – see it today, gone tomorrow and something that is “good enough” will suffice. So I don’t think many people search widely for the perfect image and so the chance of selling one on Robert Harding is relatively low. I watched people stick with Getty/iStock as exclusive contributors as the world changed around them and I felt at the time they were making a big mistake.
I would guess most of them agree now. It is the same with Rights Managed as well. Of course, it would be great to earn more from a license and then have it renewed year after year if the image is used again – who wouldn’t want that! Well, the buyers don’t want it, and it is hard to push a complex pricing scenario in a market where there are many other simpler choices for the image buyer. I don’t like these developments, but the world of photography is what it is, and I’m never going to change it. I also have no negative thoughts about the worth of my images being devalued because someone paid $0.01 for a usage. I do care what I earn each month and I try to balance my work to maximize that. It can be tricky and we are not in possession of all the facts, but we do our best.
How has been your experience on Print on Demand, is it worth it investing time / energy? Also, how do you go about promoting your work to potential buyers?
It is hard work, intellectually rewarding, and maybe worthwhile! There is a nice jolt to self esteem to realize that someone likes your work enough to put it on their wall. Getting likes on Instagram and Facebook is so easy and so meaningless, but a print sale means that someone spent good money on your work! Now is it worth the effort – I’m not sure. I earn perhaps 10% of my photography income from PoD activities and I spend more time on it, these days, than on stock. Doesn’t make sense perhaps and it is almost like a hobby rather than a business.
I have 2400 images on Fine Art America and over 1000 now on Pictorem and I’ve been trying all sort of marketing approaches. I’ve written at length about some of those and have paid $800 or so for a course from a famous photographer about creating a set of followers who love your work. My conclusion from all this is that you can create a business selling things (including courses) to fellow photographers but few paths exist to actually create a business selling your photographs to the general public. This is partly because very few people actually buy photos for their wall (and that is probably going down over time) and for a photographer like me, there is no common thread in my work that would cause people to want to follow me. Depressing, I know, but that is where I currently am!
As also a keen travel photographer, do you think in late-2022, it’s possible to pay off travel costs purely with stock income? Do you have any tips for those who wish to earn money from travel photography?
Probably not. Almost certainly not! Unless you are very focused on traveling at low cost specifically to take images for stock, it is probably impossible to go on a normal 7 – 10 day vacation somewhere and take enough photographs to pay for the cost of that. I think you are much more likely to be successful taking great images of the areas around you rather than visiting a place (which is likely to have already been visited many times) and trying to take successful images there.
What’s your take about the future of microstock, do you think can you can keep earning enough to justify the effort 5-10 years from now?
The one good thing about stock photography is that a portfolio keeps on giving and so even though I have taken relatively few “stock” images in the past 12 months, the income continues. I don’t see myself putting a great deal of effort into new stock imagery going forward, and I hope the portfolio continues to give back for a few years yet. There is no sign that the basic market dynamics of a few dominant stock agencies faced with millions of potential contributors willing to work for not very much is going to change. The spread of free agencies with a “paid” component is not helping that equation either. So, I guess my answer is that I wouldn’t “Get Started in Stock” now! And the almost zero sales of my book show that many people are realizing that.
What’s your take on creating images using Artificial Intelligence using query searches on such sites such as DALL-E 2 and Midjourney? Threat or opportunity?
I’m sure it is a threat to certain types of stock. Not travel stock so much as conceptual things like an opioid bottle and tablets! I don’t tend to worry though – it isn’t in my nature!
What advice would you give to those starting out as microstock contributors in September 2022?
Get a real job…
Any plans for the next few months/years?
Yes, a visit to Vermont for fall foliage and then a trip around the bottom of South America to see what new Wall Hangers I can create!
Thank you, Steve. Wish you great success and pleasure having you on here.
I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Lisbon, Portugal, on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage. I’ve devoted eight years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.
Most recently I’ve gone all in on submitting book cover images to Arcangel Images. Oh and also recently purchased a DJI Mavic 2s drone and taking full advantage.
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