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I’ve talked and written about how photographers need to look beyond the stock agencies to market their images. There are a host of pros and cons to these alternate business models, but the need to drive traffic to your website is always the tallest hurdle. No single approach will do. Instead, you need to attract attention, and keep it, by projecting your brand across a range of media platforms and by creating mutually beneficial collaborations. Here are some tips for how all kinds of photographers can do that.
Once you have a collection of images, see if you can create an association with other photographers to market a particular class of subjects. Photoshelter makes that easy with their Virtual Agencies, but there are several ways to accomplish the same thing. By grouping your work with that of other photographers, all of you can offer a wider selection of similarly themed work to potential buyers. My work is available alongside images from Thomas Mangelsen and David Doubilet at WILD, our virtual agency.
If each photographer does a good job of file naming and keywording, a buyer is more likely to find your image collection. Online galleries also allow you to display a larger selection of your work than an editor at an agency would allow. This is not an invitation to self-indulgence, however; show only your best or most saleable work.
I steer clear of microstock. If you can produce what the market demands in high volume, there is money to be made there, but it tends to encourage “treadmill shooting,” a mentality of “generate content” instead of creating art. Forgive me if I stick to Rights Managed and Royalty Free.
Once your collective is up and running, or even if you decide to fly solo, contact all your existing clients with the news. Buy and use lists of prospective clients, like those provided by Agency Access and other services. More »
Miki Johnson: How did ILCP decide it wanted to focus more on social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as online community building?
Trevor Frost: As a young photographer and explorer, I’ve had to spend many hours networking to get to where I am now. So when I joined ILCP as the Director of Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions, I thought it would be great to make a online avenue for others like me to meet and work with the accomplished photographers, scientists, and explorers that make up our organization.
ILCP already does a good job at facilitating communication between members, especially our emerging league and experienced fellows. But ILCP members have little communication with others who aspire to be photographers or conservationists, yet are not quite skilled enough photographically to be a member of the ILCP. By providing a social media platform for this communication, we can link less experienced photographers, explorers, and scientists with members of our group who are very experienced. This will help support new talent, create a community beyond membership in the ILCP, broaden the reach of ILCP, and, we hope, lead to higher conservation achievements.
MJ: What online tools is ILCP utilizing to extend its communication?
TF: ILCP is focusing on Twitter and our new online magazine/blog to generate a community and to catalyze connections between conservationists, scientists, and photographers. With the online magazine/blog we hope to create a digital outlet that photographers will want to be published in, something they want to put on their resume. We also hope it becomes a platform for communication and critique, and offers a place to publish stories that have been rejected by traditional media.
On Twitter we are starting off by posting links to websites and news stories that feature ILCP or its photographers, affiliates, and partner organizations. Eventually we will expand this to include a wide range of interesting conservation topics. People only want to follow Twitterers with the most interesting updates.
One major goal of all of this is to drive increased traffic to our websites and multimedia pieces, which help disseminate conservation messages. The increased web traffic should also help us forge new relationships with corporate partners by offering an opportunity for brand exposure. At this point ILCP’s involvement in social media is in its infancy. Aside from our followers and fans increasing on Twitter and Facebook, we have not seen direct benefits yet. We do, however, expect to see benefits over the course of the next year.
MJ: Why did ILCP decide to focus its resources on social media and online tools?
TF: When people ask how they can help non-profits they almost always hear: Please donate. This is frustrating. People want to get their hands dirty. Many of the most successful conservation projects involve citizen science and participation. When people have a chance to work along side well-known scientists or photographers it, makes them VERY excited about the subject and, I believe, it motivates them to become more involved, including donating money.
ILCP membership is based heavily on one skill — the ability to produce stunning images. Thus the ILCP can seem elitist. We realize there are many photographers who take brilliant images and work very hard on conservation who are not quite to the standard of ILCP, but who could still benefit from working with ILCP in some way. Using social media, we can create an extended ILCP community without actually extending membership.
We hope that this will help our followers grow as photographers and conservationists, so at some point they can join ILCP as a member. This also fosters communication, moderated by ILCP, between emerging photographers and the extremely talented members of the ILCP. All of this empowers conservation. The bigger the army, the better!
MJ: Have ILCP members embraced this new social media initiative?
TF: I don’t have any concrete numbers or names but in the last two months I have noticed, especially on Twitter, more of our members tweeting. Even some of members with more years under their belts.
There are certainly a few of our members who are quite skilled with social media tools. Not surprisingly, most of them are our younger members or emerging members. A few names that come to mind are Chris Linder and Ian Shive. Both have helped ILCP produce the first Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition blog (Borderlands RAVE) in addition to a few other projects.
There are two upcoming Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions (RAVE): one to the Flathead basin in British Columbia in July 2009 and one to the Yucatan Peninsula in September 2009. Stay tuned for a RAVE website with field dispatches, the ability to track expedition members, and live photos and video.
Miki Johnson: You are obviously very passionate about nature and conservation issues. Where does that passion come from?
Daniel Beltra: Really since I was a kid I was passionate about nature and photography. I was interested at first in being an agency photojournalist, and I managed to get a staff position with EFE — the Spanish national agency. I was shooting all kinds of stories, but still with a taste for nature. I never finished college but I did a couple years of forestry engineering and four years of biology. Then I got tired of the normal day-to-day photographic work –- from the press conference to the basketball match to a demonstration. I wanted to do stories more in depth. I ended up quitting my job and I started working for Gamma, which allowed me to shoot stories that I selected and to give them more time.
At the same time I started shooting for Greenpeace, which opened this whole world to me as a photographer. That was really an incredible opportunity. All of a sudden I found myself traveling to Polynesia or the Antarctic or to Patagonia. So I was really on the frontier where many of these environmental issues were happening.
I got started with Greenpeace when I was a staff photographer in Spain. I talked to their local branch and they said, we do a lot with the media, so if something is going on in your area we’ll let you know. They called me one day and said they were doing a mammal survey on the Mediterranean. So I talked with my boss at EFE and he said, “Yeah right. What’s the news? And you want to take two weeks to do it?” I ended up convincing him to let me go on my own holiday time. I went with the agreement that if the story was good enough, the agency would distribute it. I was willing to go on my holiday because I was really passionate about it and I saw that it was a great opportunity.
I had a great time, they ended up distributing the story, and Greenpeace really liked it too. They came back to me and said, if you want to work with us, we’d be really happy to have you. But I was a staff photographer and I couldn’t. Then in 1992 I quit my job and started working with Greenpeace in Spain and also Greenpeace International, which is based in Holland. Since then I’ve been really involved with them. From 1992 until I moved to the United States in 2001 I was the Spain correspondent for Gamma. And often Gamma would say, “Are you working for Greenpeace or are you working for us?” Because I always wanted to go on the Greenpeace assignments. Of course Gamma had interesting assignments, but it’s very hard to compete with someone saying, “Do you want to go on a survey of the Arctic for three months on an icebreaker?” That was a no-brainer for me.
Greenpeace is my main client by far. They don’t employ any staff photographers; they work only with freelancers. I think they are clever the way they always want to have names in the industry that are recognized. So there’s a bit of a separation between the activism and the professional journalist that comes in. And in my case I try to keep that line separated, but deep in my soul I am very loyal to Greenpeace. But they don’t tell me what to shoot or anything. Of course they tell me they want a story about the Amazon, but once I’m there they don’t say show this, don’t show that.
Things are really changing with non-profits. I get the feeling that some non-profits can afford to pay regular market fees now. Maybe not 100%, but 75%. I think Greenpeace is very clever…they decided what are the best means to reach the public and inform the most people. And good photography or good video is a great tool. So to put someone that can do a great job in a situation that is very interesting and then they expose that in the media, it tends to work very well.
I feel that my work has more impact now than when I was a photojournalist. Not because I am better, but because of the situations I’m working in. I’m not only documenting what’s happening, but there’s a really strong will to change the situation. Greenpeace has pioneered that.
Celia Gelfman, a technician on the research team, threw down the gauntlet one day while I was photographing in the lab: Capture the beauty of bioluminescence. I followed Celia to the walk-in refrigerator where the tiny crustaceans called zooplankton are stored. Celia presented me with a big jug of water. I could see a few translucent critters about the size of a pencil tip swimming around. Then Celia poured some of the water over a sieve, and wow! For a few seconds after the pour, neon-blue Metridia lit up and raced around the mesh. The challenge was on to find a way to photograph these glowing animals.
The goal of this scientific expedition to the Bering Sea is to understand how a warming climate is affecting the food web. Research teams on the ship are studying phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants), copepods like Metridia, and krill (larger zooplankton that resemble shrimp). These “charismatic microfauna” are found throughout the world’s oceans, and they are food for other zooplankton, fish, birds, and even whales. Among the many zooplankton species that scientists have collected on this expedition, one has a very special trait. Metridia, when disturbed, give off a neon blue light like an underwater firefly. This is called bioluminescence.
I enlisted writer Helen Fields to hold the sieve over the sink and we started experimenting. First, we turned off the overhead lights and blocked the fluorescent light leaking out from under a counter. In order to record only the light from the copepods, I needed the room to be dark. Next I set up my Nikon D700 and a 105mm macro lens on a tripod and aimed it at the surface of the sieve (using a flashlight to manually focus on the sieve). I was assuming that, just like lightning, the neon trails of moving Metridia would burn bright lines into a dark background during a long time exposure. The first exposure confirmed that they would indeed show up. It took a few more tries to find the perfect shutter speed (four seconds) and the best way to hold the sieve (duct tape, of course!) Lastly, the Metridia had to make an interesting composition. It took about an hour to make this image.
Tonight (May 11th), we arrive in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where this journey began nearly six weeks ago. I’d like to extend a big thank you to our sponsors, the National Science Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, for supporting the most important and fulfilling work I have ever done. I would also like to thank the RESOLVE blog for helping me get the word out about climate change science in the Bering Sea. What’s next? This July I’ll be trading sea ice for mosquitoes when I travel to eastern Siberia to document researchers studying arctic rivers and lakes. Visit the Polaris Project to follow our adventures.
In addition to documenting the tools and techniques scientists are using to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem, my other mission here on the icebreaker Healy is to showcase the beauty of this otherworldly environment. A key part of that environment is sea ice. Sea ice is formed from the freezing of seawater, as opposed to icebergs and ice shelves, which are formed on land as compacted snow and ice and slide into the ocean. Sea ice ranges in thickness from paper-thin to up to ten feet. Most of the ice we have encountered has been between 1-2 feet thick. Seals and walrus use sea ice to nurse their newborn pups. Ice cores reveal brownish-green ice algae growing on the underside of the ice, which nourishes tiny animals, which in turn feed the rest of the web of life. Without sea ice, the Bering Sea would be a very different place.
You might imagine that ice pretty much looks the same-it’s all frozen water, right? Turns out that when water with salt in it freezes, it actually goes through a number of different phases, each one of them quite beautiful. While it’s hard to say which type of ice is my favorite (I’m an ice junkie; I love them all), I am particularly drawn to the broken up bits that mark the ice edge, where waves from the open ocean cause the floes to bump into each other and crack up into tiny jagged pieces, giving the ocean surface the look of a big jigsaw puzzle. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a stormy place. Cloudy days and gray skies have been the norm. So I am often looking for scene-setting icescape shots at the edges of the day just after sunset and before sunrise when the sky glows blue.
One of the tools in a photographer’s bag of tricks is the ability to stop action or blur it based on their choice of shutter speed. One evening as I watched the broken up chunks of ice slide past the side of the ship, I got the idea to shoot ice in an impressionistic way that conveyed that motion. I set up my tripod and connected a cable release. My first attempts, using just a several second shutter speed, rendered the ice as long wavy lines streaking across the frame. It was interesting, but almost too surreal. I needed to see some definition in the ice while retaining that sense of motion. A little pop of light from a Nikon SB-900 speedlight zoomed to 200mm gave me what I was looking for. I set it to a slow, rear curtain sync mode and blasted away at the moving ice again and again, hoping that just the right shapes would come into view at the right time. After a few dozen tries this composition floated into my frame.
After 22 days photographing daily stories aboard a 420-foot ship, I can tell you that I’ve used up all of the obvious vantage points. I’ve climbed to the aloft conn, the highest point on the ship, for night shots of the ship moving through ice and low-crawled around the main deck to shoot instruments being hoisted into the air. There are very few places I haven’t poked my camera.
For one story we covered the seabird and marine mammal observers. They work in one of the most difficult places to shoot: the bridge. This is where the crew drives the ship. It is high up and lined with giant square windows from end to end, which let in a lot of light. Since this is the only light source, you’re faced with a monster contrast problem. Add to this the fact that these observers are, well, observing. That means that they are pressed up against the windows with binoculars stuck to their eyes. This leaves you with a rather predictable side shot or a very unflattering back-of-the-head shot, both with a washed out sky background.
As I was pondering this dilemma, I watched a bird fly by and I thought –- that’s it! I’ll shoot them from a bird’s perspective—outside the windows looking in. Well, it turns out that there is no way to look in those windows from outside unless you’ve got wings. Plus it’s a good 50 foot drop to the deck. However, there is easy access to the roof, which is also called the flying bridge. So I thought, what if I lowered a camera from above?
I decided to use a monopod to lower my camera to window level. I attached my Nikon D700, with a 14-24mm lens set to 14mm, to a Gitzo monopod using a Really Right Stuff monopod head. Then came the tricky part. We were steaming at about 10 knots when I took the shot, into a 20 knot headwind. That makes 30 knots of wind in my face (which is roughly 35 miles per hour). The air temperature was about 22 Fahrenheit, so the wind chill was in the flesh-numbing range. Yes, I could have done this in calm weather and better light, but I had just thought of it and that day’s story was due in a few hours. So I had to make it work.
I tied a line from the camera to a railing so that if anything went wrong I wouldn’t be dropping thousands of dollars worth of gear onto a very unforgiving deck. I prefocused the lens and set the exposure manually so that ambient light coming through the viewfinder wouldn’t bias the exposure. I set the interval timer to click off a shot per second. Laying on the deck, I gradually lowered the camera four feet down, until it was level with the windows below. I bracketed the composition by slightly turning the monopod as the camera clicked off the shots. The first attempt was a failure because Liz, one of the observers, couldn’t stop laughing when she saw the camera (which in all honesty, had the very unsubtle look of an Inspector Clouseau spy camera). On the next round I tried Marty, and he was so intent on his work he didn’t even notice the camera. Those were my best frames — they create a completely candid portrait of a bird observer at work.
After two weeks on an icebreaker in the Bering Sea, science writer Helen Fields and I have settled into a comfortable groove, cranking out photo essays every night for the Polar Discovery website. This is our process for turning out daily news with an ice-bound, two-person team.
The goal of the Live from the Poles project is to tell stories about how scientists study the polar regions. Our stories fall into two broad categories. If something unique happened during the day, the photo essay will be a “Wow, this amazing thing happened today” narrative. To keep the website fresh and interesting for 40 days, we also sprinkle in stories that draw photos from different days, like the one we’re working on today about the different types and shapes of sea ice. So while I may be shooting for a “daily news” story, I will also have about a dozen other future stories rattling around in my head.
For example, I may be photographing a graduate student analyzing the contents of a mud sample from the seafloor. I’ll shoot not only the storytelling shots showing her doing the work in the lab, surrounded by mud and equipment, but also a few tightly cropped portraits for a possible future story featuring graduate students, plus some close-ups of her mud-covered gloves for a story about working hands. As I walk from the lab back to my stateroom, I notice a textbook example of newly formed sea ice glinting in the light of the setting sun, and I snap that for today’s post about ice.
Throughout the day Helen and I compare notes on our theme and the list of potential photographs that will illustrate that story. I typically take between 500 and 1,000 12-megapixel RAW photos during the course of the day. After dinner I download the images to an external hard drive and edit, deleting the junk and moving keepers into appropriately named collections using Adobe’s Lightroom software. This takes roughly two hours.
Once I have a collection of 20-30 photos, the haggling begins. Helen and I sit down and discuss what shots best tell the day’s story and the order in which they should appear. This means that some of my pet shots don’t make the cut because they don’t fit the story. Conversely, sometimes Helen has to do extra reporting so we can include a really outstanding image.
While Helen is writing, I do some basic tone and color corrections, size the images for the web, and email the photos to the editor and web designer back at our home base, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The entire process is usually finished by 10pm. Then I format the compactflash cards and head back out on deck to catch the last hour of light and some nighttime science operations. It always pays to work ahead because there are no days off until we get back to the pier on May 12.
It’s 11pm, and the sky has just melted into the electric blue of twilight. I’m covered head-to-toe in fleece but the wind is still sneaking chilly fingers down my back. Stretched out in front of me is 420 feet of US Coast Guard icebreaker, and at my back is the ice-covered water of the Bering Sea. The crew has just turned on the icebreaking floodlights, and the beams stab out into the night like dueling light sabers. All I need now is for the ice to cooperate. Too much sea ice, and the vibration of the ship’s hull crunching through it, will destroy my 6-second exposure. I wait, gloved finger on the cable release and my other hand on a tripod leg, until I feel the vibrations subside. The ship turns, the full moon slips behind a cloud… Click. Mirror up. Click. Shutter open. Thunk. Shutter closed, mirror down.
This first week has taught me that the best light in the Bering Sea happens after the sun goes down. For the first five days, we had nothing but lead-gray overcast skies. I can only do so much with a plain white, no-contrast background. Night to the rescue. As soon as it started to get dark on that first night, the deck lights came on and bathed the scientists and sea ice with beautiful light. Since then I’ve spent as much time as possible shooting the “available darkness” between dusk and dawn.
Speaking of dusk, it’s getting late, the ship is stopped, and instruments are about to go in the water. It’s time to zip up the exposure suit, pull on my waterproof, steel-toed boots and hard hat, and hit the deck with shutter blazing.
The fifth Live from the Poles expedition starts on April 3 and runs through May 11, 2009. Science writer Helen Fields and I will be joining a large research team studying the impact of climate change on the Bering Sea ecosystem aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking ship Healy.
The Bering Sea is one of the most productive regions of the world’s oceans, accounting for nearly half of the total U.S. fishing catch. Climate models are forecasting substantial warming for the southeastern Bering Sea shelf region, which will dramatically alter the distribution of species of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. Understanding this ecosystem and how it will respond to rapidly rising temperatures is of critical importance to both commercial and native fisheries. The 40+ researchers aboard the Healy will be deploying instruments and collecting samples in round-the-clock shifts for six weeks straight. Our two-person media team will be in the thick of the action, whether it’s collecting cores of sea ice or lowering high-tech plankton microscopes into the icy water.
In addition to the still photography, I plan to spend more time collecting professional-quality audio during this expedition. Although I have collected ambient sounds during previous trips (see the Polar Fun pages on the Polar Discovery website under each expedition), for this trip I plan to add interviews. I will continue the time-lapse photography I experimented with on the last few expeditions and perhaps even dabble with videography.
All of the photographs I take on this expedition will be tagged with the latitude and longitude using a GPS tagger, which will make them particular useful to the science team. But the core objectives of the project will remain the same—to deliver cutting-edge polar science to the public online through professional still photography and science writing.