Continuing on with the Stock-Wizards interview series, I’m happy to welcome to the blog, Vanessa Skotnitsky, a veteran book cover photographer / Illustrator at Arcangel Images who has licensed hundreds of book covers to date.
In addition, Vanessa has kindly shared interesting insights into some of the threats / opportunities associated with “creating” content using Artificial Intelligence algorithms. Let’s get started!
Hi Vanessa, thanks for taking part in this interview – Let’s start from the very beginning of your professional journey. Please tell us about yourself, where you’re from and how you got started in book cover photography at Arcangel?
Thanks for inviting me, Alex.
My name is Vanessa Skotnitsky, I live and work in British Columbia, Canada. I began taking photographs when I purchased an old film camera from a flea market around 2006. Eventually I moved to digital, became interested in learning photoshop and heard of a stock site called Imagebrief on a photography group on Facebook. Imagebrief isn’t around anymore but the basis of the site was that they would post specific briefs by companies looking for images and then contributors would submit to them. Upon checking it out I found a couple briefs asking for book covers. That’s the first moment I was introduced to book cover photography. My first few covers were sold through imagebrief, I specifically shot for the briefs but all the other work I was creating needed somewhere to go so that is when I turned to Arcangel.
I did what I think a lot of early creators do, submit a handful and see what happens… It’s terrible advice, I realize that now. I think it was just dumb luck one of the images in my first submission ended up getting licensed 6 months later for around $1,000. That convinced me to continue uploading.
Nice sale after just 6 months! You’ve amassed an impressive 3,778 accepted assets on Arcangel, how long has that taken you? Any tips for those contributors starting out?
Things for me have changed over the years. I now work at a portrait retoucher, have started a YouTube channel, and taken up some illustration, started a Redbubble shop, along with a new interest in AI art and where that is going. So I do not have a monthly or yearly goal for Arcangel anymore. These days I just upload if I happen to do photos that I can repurpose for book covers. As for percentage of accepted images I have also noticed a decrease in how many get accepted. In my mind it is a push for me to want to create better images, or be more intentional with my post processing. Instead of straight portraits now I wouldn’t add editing to make it more desirable as a book cover, for example blurred aspects of a portrait make it more thriller-y.
The photography is getting very saturated so I started submitting illustrations. The acceptance rate on those I’d say are reversed, it’s usually only one every now and then that gets rejected.
My first images licensed though Arcangel was about 6 months after submitting my work. I only had 30 images in my gallery at the time, I think that was the minimum number to submit to become a contributor. I think it was luck more than anything, having a small gallery is not recommended. It was a photo of myself wearing a red wig, it was licensed for a true crime book. Here it is below.
How many book covers have you sold via Arcangel? Would you kindly share some examples before and after?
I’ve lost count of how many I have licensed; I would guess a couple hundred books by now. Here’s one before and after.
Oh, I hope to also start losing count of my sales soon! Do you submit your images to elsewhere, such as Trevillion or other stock agencies? If not, why not?
I don’t submit my images to other stock agencies like Trevillion, mostly it’s personal preference of not wanting to spend my time dividing it up, I wouldn’t expect rejected images to get accepted elsewhere so I work with only Arcangel at the moment.
How has your experience been on selling your art on Print on Demand? I see that you have set up a Redbubble shop.
My Redbubble shop started because I wanted to use my work in as many ways as I could. I was originally uploading other things like sayings and digital paintings, I decided to stop doing that and focus on it being more branded towards my photography. I don’t make a ton of cash though POD, that probably has to do with the fact my images are not created with the thought of t-shirt design in mind. So while it’s not particularly lucrative it’s more of a why-not zone. Of course if I took it more seriously I would have better results.
Where do you draw your inspiration for your excellent concepts? I see that you’re big on fantasy themes
I was obsessed with fairies when I was a kid, when I was around 9 years old I read this book I got from the scholastic book fair called Self-Portrait with Wings, by Susan Kohn Green, In the book a young figure skater draws a picture of herself with fairy-like wings and wakes up the next morning with wings. So of course I started drawing pictures of myself with wings hoping it would happen to me too, I guess I didn’t grow out of that, lol.
I enjoy anything fantasy, nature themed settings, pretty stuff, but also creepy scary things too sometimes though I can’t watch horror movies because I get nightmares. Anything that’s not average everyday stuff, that bores me.
Here’s a cool behind-the-scenes tutorial I found from Vanessa’s YouTube channel:
Many of your images feature at least one model, are they professionals or do you use yourself and/or friends/family?
Mostly it’s me and my kids, the occasional other family member. I have met up with people from model mayhem twice, i prefer working with my kids or by myself. I’m just really introverted, there’s no other reason beyond that.
Stunning shot! Also, how do you arrange for the old-fashioned / fantasy clothes, props and make-up to suit your shoots?
Any themed shoot that I have done is based on a thrift store find. The prop/dress or whatever it is, becomes the piece that starts it. l I build around the clothes or props rather than trying to find pieces for a theme. I source clothes and props from thrift stores, occasionally Wish or Amazon, and then lastly sometimes I make things.
How do you find the right locations? I see you’ve shot many times at a lake in Beautiful British Columbia.
I shoot with whatever local locations I have available to me. Where I live has lots of lakes, I have shot at Cultus Lake BC, and Shuswap and Mara lakes in the Shuswap area of BC. I really like shooting with watery backgrounds, and lakes are my favorite, though I always want to shoot more with waterfalls.
Unfortunately, many contributors give up after many rejections at Arcangel. Do you have some technical tips for images to be accepted within the Arcangel collection and eventually sold?
Technically speaking, submit your best, highest quality work, aside from that the best advice I can give is to do market research, look at a lot of current or to be published covers, there are usually trends there that you can spot and jump on. When you are starting out it’s important to not just shoot what YOU LIKE, try to shoot what THEY NEED.
Great point, I’m super guilty of sometimes only shooting what I like! What’s your go-to camera and lens?
For years I was shooting with Canon Rebels, I can’t remember which ones. One that came out around 2008, and another from 2016. I had a 35mm macro lens that was my fav, it was versatile, I could do portraits, or macro still life stuff for covers, it was light and easy. I rarely took it off my rebel. Unfortunately I upgraded bodies to a Canon 6D and that lens doesn’t work on the full frame body, now I’m using a 50mm f1.8… the super affordable nifty fifty. It’s fine while I decide what lens I want to get next.
Any other special lighting equipment? I see that you sometimes shoot models indoors. Also, any tips for still life?
If possible I use window light, I do have a couple umbrella light stands, ones that hold 4 daylight bulbs, I only use it if I have to, I like natural lighting the best. That would be my tip, natural lighting is great.
I’ve also experimented with other light sources, dollar store led lights, strobe lights, a projector, Christmas lights, those fiber optic things etc, play around you never know what you will like. You don’t have to spend a lot of money either, just see what you have around the house.
Which software do you use for your illustrations and why?
I use Photoshop and Procreate. I know my way around photoshop, it has lots of features and I love it, but the full version isn’t available on tablet so the downside is being stuck at the computer, Procreate is awesome for when I want to draw while laying in bed or on the go. Both are great!
How would you compare both the creative and technical execution between creating illustrations and photos? Which do you prefer?
In high school I selected photography as an elective and didn’t get in, they put me in art class and man was I salty about it. Lol, but I started painting, and particularly fell in love with oil painting. When I had kids it wasn’t practical to have oil paintings and supplies around so photography started to win out and at one point it was all I was doing. Fast forward a few years, my kids are bigger and not going to eat wet paint so I picked it up again one day and amazingly I was a BETTER PAINTER after years of not touching a brush. All the photography and photoshop I had done, my understanding of shape, light, shadow etc all transferred into painting. I was kind of shooketh. Then of course I got into digital illustration which is kind of the love child of photography and traditional art. It’s fun to see how I flop around over the years, I don’t have a preference, I just listen to my gut and if it wants to illustrate then I do, or if I want to focus on photos I do. It’s all very connected to me.
Arcangel encourage only a light-touch post-processing. How far are you willing to push your post-processing? Do you use many filters (such as VSCO) or prefer to keep it more natural?
This is a balancing act in my mind, because on one hand a less altered image might be used in more ways, on the other hand, designers might not see the potential for their project. For myself I stay away from filters, they tend to date an image because filters also have trends that come and go, so color wise I try to keep things natural with the exception of any fantasy themed images. Editing to me aside from correction purposes comes down to pushing the image towards a genre. Adding a crack to a wall or a broken mirror so that it has that uneasy feeling of a thriller novel for example.
On your YouTube channel, you’ve delved deep in the threats / opportunities associated with creating concepts using query-based Artificial Intelligence programs, being featured recently at Petapixel. Briefly, do you see more opportunities or threats with this new type of emerging technology?
I’m super interested in AI and trying to stay up to date on it all as it grows and takes direction, I don’t see as much of a downside to AI as many other artists do. I look at it like new territory to be explored. Technology has changed the way we live so much within our own lifetimes already I think It is futile to resist change. Personally I plan on positioning myself to be able to create with or without AI.
I feel like it might level the playing field between digital photography and illustration, time-wise illustrations currently take way longer to produce than a photoshoot. Especially for stock purposes it doesn’t make sense to draw one illustration thats intricate and takes a week to produce, only to potentially get licensed one day for a couple hundred. I hold myself back on illustrations trying to keep them to something simple that takes 20-30 mins.
AI has the potential to change this.
Comparing Midjourney and DALLE-2, which do you prefer and why? Also, are there any other “agencies” emerging offering similar query-based services?
I actually have only used Midjourney and I really like it so I don’t think I will spend much time exploring other options unless a good reason to presents itself, Stable Diffusion is available as a plug in on Photoshop, which might be a slightly better advantage because I usually end up bringing my generated images into photoshop to edit anyways, but for the time being I’m happy with Midjourney.
How optimistic are you about the future of the book publishing niche? Do you have future plans within this niche or any other types of photography projects?
I think book publishing isn’t going anywhere and it will probably always be part of what I am doing to various degrees and I move forward. Currently I am more focused on submitting illustrations for book covers because the acceptance rate is so much better than photography and illustration on covers seems to be a trend that isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I still have photography projects on the go though, this year I held my first fantasy themed portrait session and booked clients to have their pictures taken with a bunch of my fantasy props and clothes.
I had lots of fun doing that and hope to do more in the future. I like to do a scary themed shoot with my kids every fall, so I have that on my mind. And of course constantly thinking of ways I can combine AI art with photography that’s not just a typical pasted background. I’m leaning towards trying out some collage type of creation that blends photos, AI, and other art mediums together.
Thanks, Vanessa for taking the time to bring readers valuable insight on your work and your thoughts on AI. Wish you continued success!
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 and finally getting some regular sales. 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
Thanks, Vanessa, great interview. I’m one of these guys who actually failed in producing book covers, so yes, you’ve got some valid points here!
Great interview and great photos. Her point of view about working for agencies, only with Arcangel, is very interesting! To rethink some things…
Her youtube channel also has very good information. I suscribe!
Thanks Alex and Vanessa!