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Shoot Stock On Assignment

Creating stock photography while on a commissioned assignment isn’t as easy as it once was, but done right, it can still be a great way to boost the bottom line
Shoot Stock On Assignment

Clients typically want full rights to all images you take while on assignment, but it’s possible to shoot stock if you negotiate this upfront with the client and create a clear distinction between images for the assignment and those for stock. One way to create such a distinction when working with models is to do a complete wardrobe change before shooting stock images. Photo by Inti St. Clair

It’s been said that by the end of a fruitful career, a photographer’s catalog of images can double as a retirement fund—licensing and re-licensing the best photographs, passively earning income as one sails off into the sunset. That’s a great idea, for sure, but why wait until retirement to start earning income from licensing? Why not start adding stock photo shoots onto assignments? Done correctly, it can be a great way to grow the bottom line now, while adding to an archive that continues earning for years to come.

Advertising and stock photographer Inti St. Clair says that adding stock shots to assignments used to be easier, but large-scale changes to the industry have made it more challenging than ever.

“In past years, I knew quite a few people who were able to leverage assignments into stock,” St. Clair says, “but there has been a big shift, and now it’s become harder than ever. I suspect it has something to do with this new age of digital marketing and clients (and agencies) wanting both exclusivity and unlimited usage. There is a greater sensitivity for brands when it comes to having their own unique content. Everybody wants to own the photos and not have to deal with pesky licensing terms. At the same time, the perceived value of photography is much less than it has been. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the trend definitely seems to be that photographs are much more of a commodity. Clients are requesting usage rights to all of the images from a shoot. They want an image library they can pull from whenever they want, for years to come, without concern for licensing usage terms, and they have budgets that are increasingly smaller.”

Though it may be an uphill climb, St. Clair says, adding stock to assignments is still doable—as long as you’re deliberate with what and how you shoot, as well as the way you arrange the details with the contracted client. Stock and assignment photographer Christian Lagerek, who has been adding stock to assignments for two decades, agrees. He enthusiastically suggests more photographers take up this practice; it’s the linchpin in his own business model.

“That’s how I operate,” Lagerek says. “I am an assignment photographer working on commissions, and while doing so I am shooting all my stock for agencies. Most of my pictures would not be possible to get if it wasn’t for the fact of being commissioned from ad agencies or clients. It takes a lot of mutual trust between myself and the client to be allowed to shoot stock on assignments.”

First Build Trust

Lagerek says trust is the first thing you need when adding stock to assignments. The client has to be familiar with you and your work, and trust you implicitly. Otherwise, why would they allow you to photograph on their premises for work they’re not going to use? (That’s also why incentives are important. More on that later.) A good relationship between the photographer and the client is crucial, and it takes some time to establish.

“It’s important to know the client and build up a mutual trust,” Lagerek says. “I normally do this after, say, three assignments. That’s enough to get to know the client—as long as photographer and client are happy with each other.”

While any subject can work for stock, St. Clair says not every assignment is equally suited to it. Is she casting professional models or is she working with amateurs? The latter is much more conducive to stock.

Shoot Stock On Assignment
You can use the same model for your client’s assignment and your stock images—just remember that for stock, a model release signed by the model herself or himself is always necessary. Have separate agreements with the model for both shoots. Photo by Inti St. Clair.

“One major factor is talent,” she says. “Most modeling agencies either don’t want their models to do stock or want a very high rate for it. Royalty rates in the current stock market are at an all-time low, and it would be impossible to break even, much less make a profit, based on the model fees alone.”

“There are a few exceptions to this,” St. Clair continues, “the biggest one being editorial. Editorial rates are low, and as such, there’s no exclusivity to the images. As long as I can get a model release and a property release signed, I can submit the images to stock after publication. Another exception is for smaller productions for smaller jobs in which I’m in charge of all the production and the client wants ‘real’ people or non-pro talent. In those cases, I’ve been able to offer the model a bit more money to shoot for an hour or two longer. I’ll choose different wardrobe and completely different concepts and get some images for stock that way.”

Make The Stock Look Different

St. Clair makes a point to change the wardrobe on her subjects between assignment and stock sessions simply because it’s one very clear way to distinguish between the assignment and the stock. A clear delineation between the two is imperative to keep from violating the agreement with the client and irritating the client when they see too-similar images used as stock.

“From a client standpoint,” St. Clair says, “they’re paying for exclusive content. These days it seems more often than not clients are choosing to hire a photographer to shoot for them because they either can’t find what they need in stock or because they’ve been burned by the lack of exclusivity with images licensed from stock. Companies are wanting to lock down exclusivity on the shots they end up licensing from a given shoot as well as ‘similars.’ The idea behind the different wardrobe is making images that are truly different from what the assignment client has requested. I also make sure to shoot different scenarios, too.”

“This is the most important of all,” Lagerek agrees. “Never take a chance that a stock shot will be identical or similar to a shot given to the client. If you’re unlucky, this could result in bad problems, even legal problems. One day, perhaps, your contact will quit their job and a new art director or editor will come along who perhaps isn’t as liberal and willing as the old one. One has to watch out for these things. The fact that you’re spending a few hours shooting stock should be enough to get different shots.”

Choose Subjects Carefully

“Make sure the places, exteriors or interiors, are commercially viable,” Lagerek advises, “or else it’s a waste of time. This comes with a bit of experience.”

Commercial viability comes from subjects that are in demand, of course, but also those photographs with limited supply. And that limited supply is often a consequence of limited access. Lagerek, for instance, works in heavy industry for clients whose properties and processes are largely off-limits to the general public and, more importantly, to the population of photographers who constitute the competition. It’s this exclusive access that inherently makes Lagerek’s photographs more valuable as stock.

“Any commercial assignment can lend itself to stock,” Lagerek says, “but of course places that are otherwise closed to the ordinary photographer are all the better. In my case, it’s industry and technology. Particularly in the oil and gas industry, where I’ve been commissioned for many years by Shell, ExxonMobil, etcetera, on- and off-shore oil installations. The stock from these commissions has earned me a fortune, simply because these places are completely closed unless you have assignments there.”

Shoot Stock On Assignment
Christian Lagerek frequently works for industrial clients who provide access to areas typically off limits to the public. Negotiating a discounted rate in exchange for the opportunity to shoot stock gives him the advantage of access to these otherwise restricted locations and subjects. Photo by Christian Lagerek

Offer Incentives

So how does Lagerek convince multinational oil and gas companies to allow him to photograph inside their facilities for stock images that he’ll sell to others? Simple: He offers incentives. And what’s a better, more universally beloved incentive than money?

“I make a deal with them,” Lagerek says. “They get a discount on the commission in return for letting me spend a few hours shooting for myself. ‘Listen, I have a good deal for you. How about if I cut my rate by 25 percent and in return you let me spend a few hours after finishing the commission and let me take some shots for my photo agencies?’ The answer will always be, ‘Sure!’ But you have to promise not to include any logos or trademarks and so on. And they can view my pictures and give their OK with a promise of never letting the pictures be published in a negative manner. This has to be respected 100 percent by the photographer.”

Another incentive is positive PR for the client’s industry. By limiting the usage of images to those that show the business in a positive light, Lagerek is able to assure his customers that any images he licenses will essentially be providing positive publicity to the industry as a whole—which is, of course, good for the client.

“I always stress that it’s very beneficial,” he says, “based on the fact that my shots will sell as educational, advertising, PR, etcetera, and on the whole promoting the oil and gas industry. ExxonMobil sent out a small catalog for promoting jobs in their company; they used all my stock shots of people at work, and sure enough, they got a lot of applicants.”

One thing Lagerek stresses is to ensure any images shot for stock that are provided to the paying client are licensed as stock in an effort to keep them from falling under the agreement made for the commissioned work. “Never sign away a stock shot to the client,” he explains, “because that could mean they own the copyright since they have paid for it. If a client wants to use one of your stock images, they have to rent it. But, of course, at a favorable price.”

St. Clair says she’s traded photo usage for access to a client’s place of business for the purposes of making stock. “In some cases,” she says, “I’ve been able to talk a business into letting me produce a stock shoot at a future date in exchange for images. Restaurants are particularly open to this, as they have a constant need for images and no budget.”

Keep Everything Above Board

At times, while on assignment for a paying client, a photographer may be tempted to snap a few frames with the intention of licensing them later as stock. Both St. Clair and Lagerek agree this is a terrible idea. Instead, keep everything on the up and up, getting permission—in writing—as well as signed releases every time.

“What not to do is trying to shoot stock without permission while on assignment,” Lagerek says. “That could ruin any future collaboration between photographer and client and also end up with legal troubles. And in case of any comebacks, written permission is great. Everything has got to be above board, especially model and property releases. Always ask for model and property releases.”

The same person can be photographed for the client’s assignment and for the stock images, but for stock, a signed model release from the subject—not just their employer—is a must. If the client’s equipment or facilities are in the images, or even if their location is at all recognizable, a property release should be signed as well.

To view and license Inti St. Clair’s stock imagery, visit Blend, Getty Images, Adobe or Cavan. Christian Lagerek’s photographs can be found at Getty Images, Science Photo Agency, Shutterstock, Adobe-Fotolia, Dreamstime, Alamy and Magnum Photos.

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