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Interview Series: Steve Cole

This week we introduce you to Steve Cole, an amazing iStock exclusive contributor. Steve has been in the stock business for a long time and has navigated through the digital revolution with success. There is a lot we can learn from him! You can find his portfolio here.

Tell us, where do you live and where are you from? Is that where you produce your photography?

I’m a southern boy, southern United States, Atlanta, Georgia – I’m one of the few people here in Atlanta that is actually from Atlanta. I can take that a step further, I am a 3rd generation Atlanta native and also a 3rd generation photographer, following my grandfather and father’s foot steps.

As far as producing stock images, I produce 80% of all my stock photos right here in Atlanta. I do venture out to other areas of the USA & also travel abroad to other countries. I think in 2012 I traveled to 5 or 6 different countries shooting exclusively for iStock.

When did you discover your interest in photography?

Around 1973, when I was 12 years old my father left his Yashica 35mm camera on the sofa, like any 12 year old boy I played with it & quickly learned that the 35mm wide angle lens unscrewed from the camera, I replaced the wide angle lens with a normal 50mm lens – the difference to me was mind blowing, amazing…. that’s all it took, from that moment forward I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

By the time I was 13 I had my own darkroom & was efficiently working & perfecting B&W printing using the Ansel Adams Zone system method. Forty years later I’m still learning photography!

How did you find microstock and why did you get involved? Has it changed your life?

I made the decision to get into microstock around 2007, before that time I was shooting traditional RF stock; images sold for $250. I kept an eye on this new microstock RF market & thought there just simply is not a way to sell an image for a dollar & make a 20 cent profit. So I waited for prices to simply come up to a reasonable level. I saw a see-saw effect with my stock sales, buyers leaving the traditional RF market & switching to the new micro stock market.

Like any good business person would do, I simply followed the customers to the new microstock market & left the old RF market behind.

Did it change my life, you bet, it’s much harder! The old days I would shoot, send my files in, done. Now I shoot, edit, process, retouch, keyword, upload, archive and analyze the sales.

Thank you for image! What inspired you to take this picture?

Road trip images always sell well, it represents a new start, vacations, travel, adventure, friendship, carefree and couples. This shot was taken out of another car’s sunroof with my assistant driving. We shot the car & couple for about two hours & got 20 or so different shots, this has been one of my better selling images.

What does this image’s revenue chart tell you?

From the revenue chart I can tell how well this image has done based on the season of the year and also it gives me a good representation of how the file has done year to year. Some images like this are almost timeless, meaning it has a long lifespan and the only reason it will go down is simply due to competition.

When analyzing this image based on its chart I can tell that at the end of 2013, sales have really dropped quite a bit, so we need to make a choice to move on or re-shoot: re-shoot using different models, a different car, different location, what about two men? or two women? one man & his dog? father & son? The list goes on & on.

Did you expect such a revenue chart? Are you happy with it?

Yes I’m very happy! This image was uploaded in April 2010, like all new images sometimes it takes a few weeks or even months to start selling. This imagehas stayed consistently in my top 10 sellers list for 2 years running, although looking at the revenue chart I can see a decline of sales in the past 12 months most likely due to more competition in the marketplace.

The microstock market is huge. How do you analyze the market? Is it an important part of your workflow?

Yes, the micro stock market is huge. With the internet one can research just about anything you want, read the forums, read what others have done, what makes them successful or not. All this is good, but is reading the forums really accurate? I personally never use forums to determine which direction I should go.

I use Stock Performer’s collections to quickly determine how good a shoot is doing, selling? making a profit? A shoot may only last a couple hours or a it may be a more expensive 3 to 4 day shoot. If it is not selling as expected, then I look closely at that collection to find out if the keywords are accurate, if the images are outdated, too unique, too processed, wrong props etc..

Do you believe in “quantity” or “quality”? What is most important for you and why?

With so many stock photographers in the market you have a choice, to produce quantity of images or quality. I do both. I never wanted to be a big stock producer, have employees & shoot 5 days a week. I had a chance to have employees, a full time producer, stylist, assistants, a couple shooters or more etc… but that’s not for me.

So I choose to be small, have a very limited staff, hire freelance when I need, focus on quantity of images for some shoots and for other shoots I focus on unique images that have my style & technique applied to them hopefully separating my images from the rest.

What does your typical production process look like?

I always start out checking my analytics and analyzing the past performance of my files and look closely at images that used to sell but have declined in sales. If they were a big seller in the past, chances are they can be a big seller in the future, we just need to figure out why the decline. How can we reshoot or update this image? Perhaps using a different model? Using current technology props? Shoot the same concept but with different colors or a different processing technique?

On other shoots I start off productions with a pencil & sketchpad, drawing storyboards & coming up with several ideas for the same shoot. You’ll be amazed the ideas that you come up sketching on paper. The more ideas you have, the better the shoot, and the more images you get out of that shoot the better chance of selling & being successful.

I use a stylist on shoots that require wardrobe. The stylist will go wardrobe shopping based on the model’s size & pair all wardrobes to match. I’ve tried using no stylist in the past and depend on the models bringing their own wardrobe, but that rarely worked out.

Typically I do my own processing and hand off the metadata and uploading to my assistant. If I get way behind I’ll hire someone to help process & retouch.

Would you recommend photographers to take risks and invest in employees or assistants, or outsource, to help them in their production process?

Go it alone when you first starting out, use family & friends to help out. You’re still learning the tools and tricks of the trade and mistakes will be made, but the only way to learn is from your mistakes.

Mistakes will make you a better photographer. After you get going and start earning money then start thinking about other help.

Where do you think the stock photography business is going? How do you see the next years?

With the advent of digital cameras there are more stock photographers in the market than anytime in the history of mankind. Almost anyone with a camera think they are a photographer, some actually make it, good for them.

It’s also going to be more crowded and more competitive than ever, using every resource you can get to give you and your images an edge is imperative. Stock Performer for me is part of those resources, it’s an extension of my business. You cannot be successful if you cannot analyze your inventory.

I also see the video market growing at a steady pace. That’s one area we focus on with most shoots.If we are producing a shoot with models, locations etc… we may as well shoot video too. That’s one reason we do not shoot with flash or strobe anymore, we use LED or tungsten lights and shoot video and stills at the same time, time is money.

What is your advice to remain a successful stock photographer in upcoming years?

Diversify, diversify, diversify your stock portfolio, with as many different subjects as you can find. Diversify with lifestyle, still life, healthcare, business, homes, adventure, the list goes on & on. Diversify with stills and video too.

There is also a huge percent of buyers out there that do not even use microstock, they use Rights Managed. 75% of what we do is micro stock, which involves not only stills but video, the other 25% is Rights Managed.

I have done a few speaking engagement talking with stock photographers about the market & the first thing I ask them is what is their biggest business asset? Camera, studio, lights?

None of the above, their biggest asset better be their “production skills”. That’s what is going to make you a more successful stock photographer, how well you produce, find the right models, that great location, the right props, and let’s not forget about their great ideas.

Cameras & lights are just hammer & nails to me, just tools. Focus on your production skills is by far the best advice I can give you.

Tell us, when you are not doing photography, how do you relax and enjoy your free time?

Ha! What is free time… anything that is active, road biking, mountain biking, cross-fit training, tennis. All this sound so healthy, but you can easily catch me out on my back patio with a beer, cigar & listing to Johnny Cash!

Thank you very much for your time, it was a pleasure talking to you!

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