Stock photography is dead. That’s what everybody told me, anyway, until I met Inti St. Clair. She’s a lifestyle photographer who got her start in stock more than a decade ago. Stock photography, she assures me, is alive and well, even if it isn’t always treated with the respect it deserves.
“Stock photography over the years has gotten a bad rap,” she says, “as being ‘stocky.’ That translates to cheesy, basic, uninspired and formulaic. While there is a ton of that out there, there is also a lot of stock that is unexpected, interesting and beautiful. For me, sometimes I go into meetings, I show my book at an advertising agency, and they talk about clients they have that my work fits for, but they can only afford stock. And that’s great for me, because I’m like, ‘Oh, fantastic, here’s a link to my stock.’ And they’re blown away, like, ‘Wait, this quality work is in stock?’ Absolutely. I can send them links directly to my content so they can license them. Definitely a win.”
St. Clair proves that stock photography remains a viable career path, but the industry is certainly not booming like it was a generation ago. The 1980s and ’90s were, according to many photographers, the golden age for stock. But then the digital revolution happened and all those newly minted photographers led to the introduction of dirt cheap microstock, which flooded the marketplace with photos. Images that once sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars could now be had for pennies on the dollar. Then, when the economic downturn of 2008 happened, the stock industry all but collapsed.
“It has changed immensely, for sure,” St. Clair says. “There’s a reason that I now do a bunch of assignment work. I’ve always loved shooting stock, but when the economy took a huge dive in 2009, my stock went down about 70 percent from one year to the next. I was making a full-time living in stock, and then all of a sudden I was not. And that was industry-wide, not just me. That was a confluence of the economy taking a nosedive, everyone freezing their budgets and microstock being introduced. Pre-microstock, getting a contract was actually very difficult. As soon as microstock happened, all you needed was an email address. You could be anyone in the world, not pro, just have a camera and an email address and start submitting pictures.”
Slowly but surely, the stock industry has rebounded. New agencies are popping up, and there’s most definitely room for talented photographers who make authentic, natural-looking imagery—like St. Clair. She says her business is once again going strong, unlike many photographers who tried to make it work with microstock.
“I don’t shoot for it,” she says of microstock. “I never have. I do know some photographers who did both, and I think shame on me for not just jumping on the bandwagon at the beginning because if you were someone who shot microstock at the beginning and knew how to produce volume, you made a fortune. That went away, though, and now I think it’s very hard to make a full-time living in microstock at this point. There’s just so much imagery out there, so much competition.”
That’s why St. Clair instead focuses on licensing images via a handful of agencies that value high-quality work and charge reasonable, sustainable fees for it. She also augments her bottom line with the addition of assignment photography for corporate clients, editorial and advertising. After all, her natural style of lifestyle photography is in vogue across all platforms.
St. Clair is strategic when it comes to balancing stock with assignments. With stock, she can shoot what she wants when and how she wants. But instead of a scattershot approach, she regularly consults with editors at her agencies (Blend, Getty, Adobe and Cavan) to learn what they’re in need of and what trends they’re spotting. It helps her determine where to focus her creative energy so she’s not wasting time. It all comes back to maximizing the bottom line.
“I would say it’s a three-pronged approach,” she says. “Sure, I try and deliver what the agency is asking for, what they say they want. I also shoot what I know is going to sell. At the end of the day, I’m looking to make money. It’s what I know is going to sell, what I have access to because when I am self-producing, I’m looking to keep my costs as low as possible. I don’t usually even hire an assistant. It’s me, I pay for my talent, I get the location and I take pictures. It’s kind of like what can I produce that’s not going to cost me a fortune and still be saleable and worthwhile? Where do I think the holes are in my portfolio to get the assignment work I want?”
It’s a brilliant approach to both stock photography and portfolio building. Being able to monetize a portfolio shoot is so simple it borders on genius.
“I make a very good return on my stock imagery,” she says, “but I also shoot a lot of stock in my downtime between assignments to drive the kind of work that I want to get for assignments. I am always striving to create the imagery that I want to create. For example, last year I didn’t have a lot of fitness in my portfolio. Can I shoot fitness? Absolutely. But nobody is going to hire me to shoot fitness if I can’t show them that I shoot fitness. You have to show the work you want to get hired to shoot. There have been periods of a few months throughout my career when I didn’t shoot stock because I was so slammed with assignments, which was amazing. But then as soon as the downtime came—and I think that most photographers have periods of downtime throughout the year—I just went, ‘Oh, hey, I don’t have anything the next couple of weeks,’ so I booked a couple of stock shoots.”
St. Clair also adds editorial work to the mix because it comes back to help other aspects of her business.
“I often do editorial that, frankly, doesn’t pay,” she says. “I mean it pays, but it’s very limited. But I do it so that I can make connections in the community. You never know who you’re going to meet who ends up having a beautiful house, a beautiful office space, whatever. Maybe they do cyclocross on the weekends, and you’re like, ‘That sounds so cool, and I’ve never shot that before.’ It’s always about making those connections because you never know where it’s going to lead you. I’m always looking to meet new people and see what they do.”
Looking at St. Clair’s portfolio, it’s almost impossible to distinguish which shots are stock and which were created for a client. That’s the way she wants it. Still, there are differences in the way she approaches these shoots.
“When I’m doing an assignment,” she says, “I’m really trying to get the imagery that the client wants in the end. Whereas for me, for stock, I’m getting whatever I want or whatever happens. I can let it be a lot looser. That said, I’m also focused on getting as much content as I can because that’s how you make the biggest return. It’s a volume industry. And I think my experience in stock really lends itself to me being a great lifestyle library assignment shooter, which is great because there’s definitely been a trend in companies wanting that over the past few years. I’m not that photographer who says ‘Oh, we can only get 10 shots today.’ I’m like, ‘No, we can get 40, we can get 50, no problem, let’s do it.’
“Usually when I do an image library for a client,” she adds, “they come to me with the 30 shots they’re looking for. And then it’s sort of like, ‘Let’s see what you can get above and beyond that.’ So maybe in the contract negotiation, they’re actually licensing only 30 pictures, but then I’ve created all this other imagery that allows for additional potential licensing. And if the client has a low budget, sometimes they’re willing to say, ‘OK, we want the selects that we make exclusive to us, but then the outtakes you can use for stock.’ So for me, it’s always a win to create more imagery.”
The biggest difference between assignment work and stock, frankly, is the production budget. The stripped-down approach she takes with stock means it’s important that she can make magic with less, and out of less-than-ideal lighting situations.
“Shooting for a client, you have a budget,” St. Clair says, “you have a grip truck, you have all the lighting equipment you could ever want. And it’s so funny because I often don’t use much of that. I shoot all the time for myself, and I know how to get what I want with little ‘support.’ I like to shoot natural light as much as possible. I have tons of lighting equipment and will use it depending on the aesthetic of the job, but my style is very natural-light driven, and that’s my preference.”
In the last couple of years, like many photographers, St. Clair has branched out into video. Not only does she encourage others to do it, but she also hopes more photographers will consider shooting stock photos and video as a means for boosting their business’s bottom line.
“It’s definitely where things are going,” St. Clair says of video. “Look, I’m a still shooter, I love shooting stills, but as artists, we always need to expand what we can do and stay current. Video is more popular than ever, and the market isn’t nearly as saturated. Video can be really fun to shoot, too. It’s important, though, to future-proof your video as much as possible. Straight HD is just not enough anymore. You have to shoot 4K.
“When I tell people how much money I make in stock, their jaws drop. And I know plenty of shooters who make far more than I do. Stock photography pays my baseline every single month. Period. It pays for the baseline of what it costs to run my business and to pay myself a salary. That passive income stream and security are amazing. It allows me to not be stressed out when I’m not getting assignments, and it allows me the luxury of saying no to assignments that I don’t think pay well enough or that I’m just not interested in.”