Being successful in the MicroStock Footage game

My good friend Jake Hellbach wrote an excellent article on the Shutterstock forum about some of the keys to his success in the stock footage business, which you should definitely read.  Besides being extremely talented, Jake is a pretty modest guy.  He really doesn’t like to use the word “successful”, although I think he has been.

The folks at Shutterstock edited his original article a little bit to center on the stock footage industry, but the basic premise that Jake discusses can be used in stock photography or pretty much any “hobby” that you want to monetize.

One thing that I wanted to point out is that while it does make it “easier” to spend the thousands of dollars Jake has on equipment, it doesn’t always make it better.  It’s a short article, so he briefly discusses how important lighting is, but in my experience lighting is pretty much the whole game.  Especially if you don’t have a $3000 camera that makes almost anything look good.  If you are using a camcorder instead of a “Video DSLR”, you are going to run into low-light noise issues.  That’s where having lots of light and proper lighting really helps.

I did a recent shoot in my home studio and I’m spending a lot of time fixing noise issues with dark clothing.  Anything in the image that is light (skin, light colored clothes) looks beautiful, but I didn’t have enough light on the subject to deal with dark clothing.  Lesson learned.  I talked my local library into getting the book “Lighting for Digital Video & Television” by John Jackman.  I highly recommend it, and the library is going to be lucky to get it back from me.

I can tell you from the many, many, many discussions I’ve had with Jake on his techniques and trying to pry details of his shoots out of him (he’s actually very forthcoming), I have learned that Jake plans every shoot as well as he can before any filming actually takes place.  That’s another lesson I learned the hard way this last shoot I did.  I made a shot list beforehand, but I had the talent for 2 hours and I only had about an hour’s worth of ideas on my list.  I lost 15 to 20 minutes during the shoot because I had to stop and think up more stuff for her to do.  In the future, I’ll have a MUCH MUCH longer list that is prioritized on what I really want to accomplish and if everything goes right, we’ll run out of time before we hit the end of the list.

What is not in Jake’s article, but if you were to talk to him he would tell you is that patience is THE most important skill you can have to be truly successful in the Stock Footage game.  If you are just starting out, or you’ve been doing it for a short time, success comes slowly.  Not every clip you produce is going to sell (even if it’s your personal favorite).  In fact, only a small percentage of your portfolio will ever sell even once.  And a tiny percentage will sell on a regular basis.  This business is a numbers game.  The more clips you have online, the better your chance of being seen.

But that doesn’t mean that you can shoot everything you see and uploads hundreds of clips at once to build a large portfolio.  Those days are gone.  Most stock sites are starting to reject clips that are too similar to those already online. Sunsets, time-lapse clouds, time-lapse moonscapes, etc…  Everybody has done it and unless your shot REALLY stands out as unique, it’s gonna get rejected.  It’s a very tired cliche, but “you need to think outside the box” and you need to come up with something new and unique.  Tough to do when everyone has a video camera these days.  But I think Jake’s article touched on something important…

Buyers are looking for a “Cinema Look” on clips.  If you spend time on each clip to color correct it, maybe even do some color grading to make it softer, harder, darker, or some unique artistic look then you’ll have a better chance of standing out in the crowd.  Some sites, like Pond5, will even let you submit the same clip multiple times, but with different artistic looks.  The important thing, however, is uniqueness.  If a buyer searches for “sunset” and your clip is in the middle of thousands of others, it won’t get noticed unless there is something unique and special about it.  So don’t just upload your footage without any kind of artistic touch any more.  Because I already did, Jake already did and so did the hundreds of others who started a long time ago in this business with us.

One last thing for those of you just getting started or who have only been doing this a relatively short time…  Look at the clip count on the home page of each site..  Over 250,000 on Pond5 (congrats, btw), almost 150,000 on Shutterstock, etc…  Your 50 clips, or 100 clips simply aren’t going to stand out in that large of a crowd.  Especially if none of it is unique.  Jake has over 1,700 clips on Pond5 and over 1,000 on the other sites.  So it’s much easier to find his stuff.  That’s where patience comes in…  Until you start getting around the 500 clip mark, don’t get frustrated or depressed because you’re not making $1,000 a month in sales (or even $100 a month).

To paraphrase one of my favorite fish… “Just keep producing, just keep producing, producing, producing”…  As long as you keep producing new stuff your value on each site will grow and you’ll get in front of more buyers and you’ll sell more.

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