Commercial stock photography is all about problem solving. The first one is, how to make a living shooting commercial stock. One way to do it is to solve other people’s problems. When image buyers go to a Web site, it is because they have been asked to provide a solution to a very specific problem: They have text, they have a layout, they have a concept and they have a client with a message. The task: Fill in the visual space with the perfect image.
This seems easy in theory. If what’s needed is a picture of a tool, get a tool. If it is a concept, it is much harder. A photographer’s job, one that shoots stock, is to pre-empt this problem and solve it. The more common the problem, the more successful the image. Potentially.
How does one figure out what problems need to be solved worldwide? In a way, it is not that hard. As humans living in the 21st century, we share common experiences. We seek solutions to a lot of tasks and issues. Our lives, in a sense, are a continuous search to alleviate problems. And unbeknown to us, many are shared by our peers.
So, photographing our own problems, or at least solving them, is productive. Figuring out what the next problem will be is a better way to be a successful stock shooter. The image of the solution, however, should always be tied to the problem. Once this is understood, that a stock photographer is a problem-solver, a big step has been made. But this is not all. A stock photographer should also know how to create meaning. And for that, we need to dive a little deeper in how the brain functions.
Our eyes, in a way, are very stupid. We receive light, and it bounces into the back of our brains, at the primary visual cortex, which only sees and recognizes basic shapes, like circles, squares, triangle, etc. However, this is not the end of how we interpret a photograph in our brains. It actually goes from there to at least 30 other different places in our brains, some of which we are still figuring out what actually they do.
Things we know
We will skip quickly over the ventral stream, which is the “what” of our brain that recognizes what an object is and what it does. This is sort of the catalogue section of our brain. Photographs share this space, in the frontal lobe, with words, and how we interpret them. We will also fly quickly over the dorsal stream. That part of the brain creates a map of where the object is. A sort of 3D GPS system that puts the object in perspective to its surrounding.
What is interesting is a third location where the information bounces, and that is called the limbic system. This is deep inside the middle of our brain and very old. Old in the sense that it has been with us throughout our evolution. The limbic system is the part that “feels” those basic emotions, from satisfaction to fear. Those three parts are what creates meaning for a photograph and what every single human being has in common, including your potential client.
That is what stock photographers should go after: create meaning. Images should tickle the part of our brain that recognizes, puts in perspective and makes us feel emotions. Why? Because it makes them valued. When a creative director or a photo editor is looking for an image, it is not just a problem they are trying to solve, but a meaning they are trying to convey.
If you look at the stock industry, with photo libraries boasting millions upon millions of images, it is easy to see that maybe 90% will never sell. They aren’t useless; they just have no meaning to anyone.Commercial stock photography, in order to strive, has to offer an emotionally meaningful solution.
This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians” Roger Therond , legendary photo man, once said to a good friend of mine, Eliane Laffont. This blog is about restoring the balance and letting the Bohemians talk.
Paul Melcher has been named one of the “50 most influential individuals in American photography” by American Photo. He is currently senior vice president of the PictureGroup. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog