Interview With Stock Shooter and Agency Owner Tom Grill

Posted on 3/20/2010 by John Martin Lund | Printable Version | Comments (0)

John: I bet you have more experience in stock photography than any other photographer alive.  You are a founder of Comstock, A founder of Blend Images, the founder and owner of Tetra Images.  You have also been truly generous with your knowledge and have spoken to photographers countless times sharing your wealth of experience. 

You are not just the most experienced stock shooter ever; you are also one of the most successful and an innovator as well. Over the years I have also been impressed with your thorough and methodical approach to everything from cameras to sales data to shooting approach. 

I know of no one else who has as broad and thorough knowledge of the stock photography business.  I am truly honored to have this opportunity to interview you.

Can you share with us some of your experience and how that experience might give you some unique insights into the business of stock?

Tom: Probably the most important aspect of my experience is that I am a stock photographer who has also spent most of his career on the stock agency side.  So I have an agency perspective of the stock business to share as seen from a photographer’s point of view.

John: The world of stock has changed almost incomprehensibly since you first began shooting.  What do you view to be the most significant changes and their impact on us all?

Tom: The two most dramatic shifts in the stock business came from an opening up of the client base due to technological advances.  The first was the advent of making duplicate transparencies and catalog marketing.  The second, and more recent, was the advent of internet marketing.  With each of these changes there was a huge jump in the customer base.  This was also caused through the increase in the use of color imagery in advertising, which was brought about by lower printing costs and finally internet marketing itself.

Both of these changes increased the demand for commercial stock images, but the supply eventually out-paced the demand as the advancing technology in cameras made it easier to take photographs.

John: Micro Stock and crowd sourcing are the big buzzwords right now.  Can you give us your insights into Micro stock and its long-term implications?

Tom: Micro stock has been around long enough to have established a permanent presence.  I liken the advent of micro stock and its impact on traditional stock as what happened when the advent of RF had on RM when it first came upon the scene.  Prices of the new product were absurdly low and the new marketing models – RF then, micro now – are laboring in an uphill slog to raise prices.  You’d think they would have realized from the beginning that it is always easy to lower prices, but very difficult to raise them.  Anyone who would have purchased an image for $1 would probably have purchased it for $5 if that had been the starting price.  Now the micros are stuck in a tough task of slowly raising their prices, which is happening across the board. 

We tend to forget that at its initial offering, RF prices were about $9.95-$19 per image.  They’ve come a long way since then to a point where the average returns from RF and RM are almost identical.

For micro to survive successfully it will have to raise prices substantially.  Their further success will depend upon their ability to attract a higher quality of material.  This means images with higher production value.  The value cannot be put in by photographers if they don’t receive the financial returns from their efforts.  It simply doesn’t make sense as a business model. 

John: You have at least done some investigatory participation in Micro stock, what have you learned so far and do you plan on getting further in to Micro?

Tom: At this point in my career I don’t see any advantage to my getting involved much further in micro.  This is not to say it is not a profitable arena.  It can be, if you understand how to work it as an adjunct to your traditional work.  I have been advising new photographers to make micro a part of their portfolio.  But I advise them to be very mindful of the returns on their investment as it relates to their production costs.   Basically, I advise them to produce quality material first for traditional.  Then, if they have any images left over or can reproduce a shoot script in a cheaper way, they can put into micro.  This way they can actually increase their over all RPI, which leads us to the next question… .

John: I know in the past you have been a big proponent of tracking RPI.  Is that still the case, and if so, can you share your thinking on that?

Tom: Keeping track of RPI is more important now than ever as a guide line to a successful career in stock photography.  RPI’s have been in a free fall over the past two years.  I doubt that this will reverse itself anytime soon if at all.  Photographers are going to have to learn how to build their business models on lower RPI numbers.  I briefly touched on one such strategy above.  I call it working towards a “situational RPI”. 

We tend to put a lot of work into the pre-production planning of our shoots.  We also tend to produce to the same or similar scripts over time.  If we have a good stock script, we might want to shoot it two or three times using different models, props, locations, etc.  In the first shoot, we use the best of everything and submit it to the traditional agency where we get the highest RPI.  The second time we produce the script a little more economically.  This time it goes to an agency where our RPI is solid, but less that our top agency.  Finally, we shoot the same script very cheaply, maybe using friends as a source of free models, etc.  This time it goes to a group of 6-10 micro agencies.

Let us say for the sake of our example that our RPI with the top agency is $10 per month, $5 per month at the second agency, and $2.50 with the micros.  That means the shooting the same script three times with decreasing expenses each time,  gives it a “situational RPI” of $17.50 per month for very little more effort and expense.

John: I am hearing a lot of buzz about the resurgence of Rights Managed Stock.  Do you think there really is resurgence?  Are you devoting any of your production to RM?

Tom: I do a little RM work because of an old contract I have, but left to my own devices, I would shoot none at all.  My alternate strategy is to shoot an RM quality image for RF.  This keeps my RF RPI very high and cuts out any of the competition I would have from micro. 

As for occasionally making what I call a “lotto” sale through an RM buyout, I make those anyway.  Every year I receive several requests to for buyouts of one of my RF images.  I won’t agree to the sale unless the agency moves the image over to RM and gives me an RM royalty rate. 

John: For someone just starting out in stock would you recommend trying to get contracts with Getty, Corbis and the like…or to move in through Micro…or some other approach?  If it is important to get a contract with a major agency, any advice for how to accomplish that?

Tom: I am constantly training new photographers and always urge them to have several agencies as outlets for their work.  Today I am recommending they get a large agency (Getty, Corbis, etc.) contract, a contract with aggregator agency like Blend or Tetra, or preferably both.  Finally, I suggest that they develop a portfolio of 6-10 micro agencies.  Micro will probably be more important in the future than it is now so they should have a toe hold.

All this is aimed at augmenting their situational RPI as I’ve outlined above.

John: Do you see direct sales by photographers becoming an increasingly important piece of the puzzle…say through Google Image search or the like?

Tom: It takes a lot of money and effort to begin and maintain this type of marketing.  Photographers will have to ask themselves if that same time and effort might not provide a better return by increasing the agency outlets they already have.

John: I have always known you as someone who has traditionally “found the holes” in stock collections and set about filling those holes.  Are there any holes left, and if so, how does one go about finding them?

Tom: Holes are constantly coming into existence as styles change.  So images might exist on a specific topic, but the style of imagery might be out of date.  That presents an opportunity to refill a hole brought into existence through obsolescence.

John: What are some of the traits of a great stock photo?

A great stock photo must address a specific concept in a commercial industry.  If you can picture who will use the photo, and what headline they might apply to it, you are probably looking at a successful stock photo.

John: What do you see as the most common mistake stock photographers make?

Tom: Shooting without a plan. 

A photographer needs to know before picking up the camera, exactly why he or she is taking the photo.

John: I once heard you say that whatever your plan is, stick to it.  Do you still feel that way?

Tom: Yes, but that doesn’t mean sticking to an out dated plan.  We institute an annual plan at the beginning of each year and hold a semi-annual modification meeting in June to fine tune the plan. Plans are adapted to large changes in industry conditions that have been observed to be true over time.  You don’t want to change with every new trend. 

John: What advice would you give the aspiring stock shooter, and would you give veteran shooters different advice?

Tom: With declining RPI’s it’s becoming more difficult to earn a substantial living from stock photography.  Now is a good time to honestly access your talents and resources relative to what it will take to make a go in the tougher times ahead. 

John: I know you stay up on equipment.  Can you share with us some of your most essential and favorite gear?

Tom: That’s easy:  Nikon, Nikon, Nikon, and Nikon – and by that I mean the entire Nikon professional system of the D3, D3x, D700, and D300 in that order.  I own all of them. Each camera fills a different niche shooting area.

The D3 is my workhorse.  It has superb quality, a super fast motor at 9fps, a large image buffer (45 images with the optional Nikon upgrade), and is perfect for capturing fast moving subjects.  I have always said that a model in motion will always outsell a static model.  The D3 enables me to keep the model in constant motion and capture very spontaneous moments in motion that would have been lost to a camera with a slower motor and lesser focusing system.  The D3 has increased the number of takes I get from a shoot and has probably paid for itself right there.

The D3x with its 24mp sensor is what I use for scenic and still life.  Once I saw how good the D3x was, I sold my medium format Hasselblad.  That more than paid for the D3x.

The D700 has the same sensor as the D3 but in a much smaller body.  I use it for travel photography when I don’t want to carry a large camera with me.  You can also attach an inexpensive auxiliary battery and motor on the D700 that boosts its speed to 8fps.  That makes it a good, less expensive backup to your D3.

The D300 is the same body as the D700 but has the smaller dx sensor.  It also takes the same auxiliary motor as the D700.  The dx image multiple factor of 1.5x makes it a good choice for animal photography.  Your standard 300mm lens becomes a 450mm and the 8fps is more than enough to capture any moving action.

The thing I like best about Nikon is that its cameras work as a well thought out system – each addressing a separate need.  I shoot a very wide variety of subjects.  Additionally, Nikon has wisely made all of these cameras operate in similar fashion with similar controls.  So it’s very easy to switch between them.  As a result, I use all four Nikons along with one superb set of Nikon lenses.

John: Any other thoughts, advice or observations you would like to leave us with?

Tom: Follow the old stock market adage of getting out when the market is high and jumping in when the market is low.  NOW – in this time of severe economic downturn -- is the time to buy stocks in the stock market as well as pour images into the stock photo market.

Visit Tom Grill's web site:

Copyright © 2009 John Martin Lund. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

John Lund has been shooting professionally for over 30 years. John was
an early adopter of Photoshop, first using version 1.0 in 1990. He
began using digital capture in 1994. John has been active in the stock
photography world since 1989 and is a founding member of BLEND IMAGES
and long time contributor to Getty, Corbis, and, more recently
SuperStock. He specializes in shooting stock photos including a mix of
funny animal pictures with anthropomorphized pets (including dogs,
cats, cows, elephants, monkeys and more), and concept stock photos for
business and consumer communications. His work can be seen at

John has lectured on digital imaging and stock photography, has been a
columnist for PICTURE and DIGITAL IMAGING magazines, and has a
WITH JOHN LUND. John has been a frequent speaker at Photo Plus and
other venues and has taught workshops at Palm Beach Workshops and
Santa Fe Workshops.


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