Hi Elnur, glad to have you with us. We met you at both the 2011 and the 2013 Microstock Expos and you were familiarly known as the “BP guy”. That’s because as you work on being a world class stock producer you also work full time for BP! Is that possible at all!?
It turns out it is possible, and the key secret lies in having clear priorities and having the right workflow. Since I started my microstock adventure in 2006, my priorities remained the same – BP is a key priority and then if and when I have free time, that goes to microstock. The beauty of microstock, depending on your business model, is that it doesn’t have fixed commitments. When I had busy spells in BP, I had to take breaks from microstock for up to 1-2 months! Another secret lies in organising a team which can work without day-to-day supervision, and my success in microstock wouldn’t be possible without my team.
Would you say that the experience you gathered as a top microstock producer as helped you in your BP job? And how does your BP job influence the way you approach your microstock business?
It goes without saying that my microstock business benefited a lot from my BP experience. Working in a big corporation teaches you a whole range of competencies which are useful in microstock – time management, analytics, staff management, contingency planning, etc. BP did benefit from my microstock engagement too – I started paying more attention to presentation and style.
So tell us, where do you live and where are you from? Is that where you produce your photography? Do you also travel to produce photography?
I live in Baku, Azerbaijan and have been there since my childhood. I’m lucky enough to have a studio next to my apartment – that’s where most of my studio work comes from, but being a lazy person, I often shoot at home too. Also, before becoming a father just about two months ago, I did a fair share of travelling with my wife (we call it “extended honeymoon”) , so my travel photography is also an important part of my portfolio. I never travelled specifically for stock photography, however, looking at some of my sales from overseas trips, I can say that it is a viable business model, and enjoyable too !
You have a very large portfolio (close to 200,000 images on Shutterstock). How do you manage to achieve such numbers? Give us some insights into your workflow.
The key to a large portfolio is an effective workflow. Conceptually, producing for stock is no different than for any other manufacturing process, but I like comparing it to a car assembly line. As a car passes through the conveyor belt, individual parts are attached together to form the car. Similarly, the photo also passes through the assembly line – it has to be shot, processed, keyworded, uploaded and submitted. And you need to watch out for bottlenecks – you can’t afford to shoot 2000 photos a day, but have processing capacity for only 500 images. Easier said than done, though. At the moment, my bottleneck is keywording. I have done it myself historically, because with my volumes and low margins, 3rd party services are cost-prohibitive. Earlier this year I added a part-time “keyworder” to the team, but we can’t keep up – for the last 1-2 years I have had between 8 to 20 thousand fully retouched images which are just waiting to be keyworded.
We actually remember you saying that anything your family members buy first has to pass in front of your lens! Is that still so?
Yes, nothing has changed except that it now takes longer for those photos to pay back the cost of items. Ironically, I have quite a few clothing items and shoes, which I never wore but they paid for themselves a few times over.
When did you actually discover your interest in photography? When and how did microstock start for you?
It was the usual story – I bought a point and shoot camera to take family and travel photos. Then when I was working in Scotland for BP in 2004, two of my friends who were much more advanced in photography, influenced me to buy my first digital SLR in 2004, which was a Nikon D70 (I still have it !). But it wasn’t until 2 years later after I came back to Baku, when I started at microstock.
I shot my first stock photos at home with my trusted Nikon D70 (plus kit lens 18-70mm and SB-800 speedlight). Needless to say, investment in this kit was as profitable as investing in Apple shares in the 80’s. And those photos keep earning !
Has your microstock adventure changed your life?
Yes, it stole all my free time !! But on a serious note, it gave me a huge boost of self-esteem knowing that I can succeed in the area where I don’t have any academic or professional background.
Is there an image you want to share with us and tell us a story about it?
May not be the prettiest by I chose the image of a rope knot isolated on white. We were shooting a “tug-of-war” concept, and had to tie one end of the rope to the softbox stand. On this photo we were testing the lighting set-up, and luckily I processed this image as well. Needless to say, it outsold all other photos from that shoot by a big margin, and generated over 1800 sales. Not bad for a by-product image !
Can you share the revenue chart for this image? What does it tell you?
Yes, sure. The key observation from the chart is that enhanced licences and single sales have a huge impact on your revenue. As we can see, it has relatively stable flow of low-price subscription sales, but if you’re lucky enough to get a higher price sale, then it has noticeable impact on the revenue.
The microstock market is huge. How do you analyse the market? How do you decide what to shoot next?
At the moment I don’t do much of the analysis due to time pressure. It also means that I spend very little time with my photographer to discuss future shoots, concepts, etc. I’m in a desperate need for a full-time manager, who understands the trends, can organise the shoots outside the studio, find the right models, etc. What we currently shoot still pays back, but I’m not satisfied with the efficiency.
With such a huge portfolio, you certainly have the sales volume to learn from it and improve for the future. Do you find it important to understand your sales? And if so, what metrics are important for you?
Despite having a solid background in various economic evaluation techniques, for stock, I prefer to keep things simple. First of all, I use the payback time (time it takes to repay the costs of the shoot). Microstock has now proved its viability and sustainability, so payback method is less applicable now, but it is still very useful. Also, given that our key constraint is time, it is important to maximise the return from your time investment. It is less straightforward than payback, and I have to admit, I often subconsciously prefer to do things I like, and not doing the things which can generate more sales.
Given that most stock agencies do not have upload limits, I have always dismissed the traditional efficiency measures for stock, such as RPI (return per image). What matters is the total revenue. If the costs are the same, 1001 dollar from 1000 photos, is better than 1000 dollars from 1 image !!
Demand for premium stock seems to be growing with customers tired of the classic stock look. Do you agree with this? Does this affect your business targets?
I don’t have much insight, but the appearance of premium-stock agencies and premium collections certainly prove there is a place for it. As I said earlier, without a dedicated manager/art director, I can’t compete in the premium segment, so I see it only as a future opportunity for me.
Do you think one can produce both “quantity” and “quality” now-a-days? Considering your very high volume, I’d like to know which of these two is most important for you and why?
There are quite a few successful teams which do a brilliant job in combining quantity and quality – it is certainly possible !!. While I’m satisfied with the volume we generate, shooting in the studio has its constraints, and at the moment we access the low-margin end of the market. My challenge is to find a way to get out of the studio, and produce more of “on-location”. Have I already said, I need a full time manager??
What does your typical production process look like?
It is a relatively simple set-up. I have, what I call, ”pools” of photos:
- raw images – supplied by myself and one more photographer
- processed images – done my myself and 2.5 retouchers
- keyworded images – done my myself and part-time person.
- uploading images and archiving – done by myself
Production process is merely passing the images from one pool to another and making sure there is constant supply to every pool. This is the “assembly line” concept I referred to earlier. The team works remotely, so we hardly ever meet ! And we use cloud to exchange the files, except for raw images.
Would you recommend photographers to take risks and invest in employees or assistants, or outsource, to help them in their production process?
I’m sure everyone knows the simple answer – if the returns are higher than costs, obviously, yes. The challenge is about calculating the costs and returns, and this is when analytical tools, such as, Stock Performer and others come really useful.
You are not exclusive to any agency. Some agencies offer special treatment to exclusives. Why do you believe in ignoring such goodies and being non-exclusive is better?
I produce mainstream low-margin stock, and my belief is that this type of collection does best when distributed widely across the market. Going exclusive can be justified if you produce narrow niche images. Also, one can go exclusive if the hassle of uploading to multiple agencies is too high. It is a very time-consuming process, and starters often underestimate how much time it can take.
Where do you think the stock photography business is going? How do you see the next years?
I don’t expect drastic changes in the market, i.e. different trends to what we say today. Video will continue to grow, more buyers will switch to microstock, photographers margins will continue to erode, smaller agencies will find it difficult to compete, more traditional photographers will be coming to microstock. However, the concept of microstock is not going to dissapear, and those who can quickly adapt and change their strategies will continue to succeed.
What is your advice to others to be a successful stock photographer in upcoming years?
It is very simple – keep your costs low, produce as much as possible, target profitable segments of the market. Stock nowadays is abundant with quality images on any topic, so don’t expect huge returns if you don’t supply and win sufficient market share. It is like placing an ice-cream booth on a busy street. You won’t have all the sales, but you will have some.
Tell us, when you are not doing photography, how do you relax and enjoy your free time? Do you have free time!?
Until we had a baby two months ago, me and wife travelled a lot, something like 12 countries and 25 cities in past 2 and a half years. Now our best way to relax is enjoying time with our son, although at times it doesn’t feel like a relaxation. Parents will understand me!
Among other things, I play football, watch movies, follow interesting blogs – nothing unusual.
Thank you very much for your time, it was a pleasure talking to you!
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reflect back on my microstock adventure. If I end up hiring a manager in near future, you can credit yourself with prompting me to do it!
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