John: Lance, you appear to me as someone who exemplifies the model for success in this new photography world that is currently emerging. You are open to the new business models, investigative in your approach to the market, and both collaborative and innovative in how you have structured your business. With Offstone Pictures you label yourself as a Team Leader and appear to have incorporated a teaching element as well. Your photography is also diverse ranging from fashion and advertising to corporate, portraits, lifestyle, products, documentary and even stock.
Lance: Overview before we get started
(1) I see myself as a jack of all trades and a master of one – photography. I enjoy learning new things and I’m glad that they contribute to my growth as a photographer. For example, learning hairstyling and makeup helps in my work in fashion. Even learning dances like Tango and Salsa got me to be more sensitive to body language such that I was surprised I became better at directing models in posing.
(2) I have plans to start a photo agency and a stock library focused on Asian images Most of it lies in my plans to grow asiaphoto into a platform for Asian photography, and stock photography will be the core of its operations. As such, I am reducing the importance of Offstone as I aim to cut down on assignment work. (3) I believe in teamwork and working in groups as opposed to the common practice of photographers working alone. A big part of this came from my experience in fashion photography and film production work. In fashion, I rely a lot in leading a team of stylists, makeup artists, hairstylists, and assistants to create good shots. In film work, it’s obvious everyone from the director to the gaffer has to be involved to make a good film. I believe the future of stock photography lies in good teamwork.
John: Do you shoot all of those genres yourself, or is that part of the collaboration of Offstone?
Lance: Except for documentary and portraiture work, most of what you see in offstone.com are the fruits of good team work. My area of specialization is in fashion. To create great fashion images, the photographer requires a strong support from various talents including models, makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion stylists, art directors, assistants and digital imaging artists. If any of these team players do not perform well, the fashion image will be flawed in different ways. The photographer has to be the team leader to bring all these talents to work in harmony and to spark the chemistry for creativity.
On certain fashion projects, I will let another photographer handle the camera while I play the role of an art director. Usually this photographer will be a student or an assistant who have been learning from me. By the way, I believe in learning by teaching. When I guide my photographers as an art director, I realize I learn new things about seeing creativity. Sometimes I get surprised by the way my students compose a shot or light up a set differently from what I would have done. This interaction is very enriching, for both the student and the teacher. Sometimes I will also play the role of the hairstylist or the makeup artist. I have just finished a 6-months diploma course in professional makeup and hairstyling. I love playing different roles in the styling team. The only role I do not take up is modeling. I am not photogenic enough for the camera. LOL. However, I do enjoy directing my models in posing and expressions. I’m always hungry for new knowledge, even if it’s outside of photography. They usually contribute back to my photographic work anyway.
John: In either case, what is it that you enjoy shooting the most?
Lance: Professionally speaking, I love shooting for Beauty spreads the most. The immerse thrill from transforming the same model into different looks is beyond words. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the model get delightfully surprised by how beautiful she can be … with the right makeup, hairstyling and photographic treatment.
Personally, I love shooting documentaries. The transsexual photo project has been a very big part of my photography life, personally and emotionally.
John: Can you share with us how you got into photography?
Lance: It started 12 years ago when I was 21. I was in the army and I was performing my tour of duty in Taiwan. Alone with plenty of time to kill, I took up photography as a hobby to document my experience faraway from home (Singapore). As I entered college the same year, I found a vacation job as an intern for The Straits Times, Singapore’s oldest and leading newspaper.
I became a junior photojournalist for the paper for the rest of my college life. That was the start of my photography career as well as a life-changing experience. If not for the experience shooting for The Straits Times, I would not have became a professional photographer.
John: How did Offstone come to be?
Lance: “OFFSTONE” was the term used in British newspapers to define the daily deadlines for all news stories and photographs to be finalized and ready for print. At The Straits Times where I had my first taste of professional photography work, I revolved my daily work life meeting the offstone time (getting my images ready for the stories)When I got to set up my own studio, I decided to call it Offstone Pictures as a tribute to my beginnings as a photojournalist.
John: How big a role does stock play in your business?
Lance: At the moment, stock photography work contributes less than 5% of our monthly revenue but it takes up 30% of our time at work. We intend to increase our stock photography production time to exceed 75% of our total working hours. We look forward to doing that as we see that stock work gives us more creative freedom than most of our assignment works. Once we reach that stage, we will be happy to turn away the bulk of our boring but bread-and-butter assignment works and focus on the truly challenging and inspiring ones.
John: Do you sell through multiple agencies, and if so who carries your stock?
Lance: Currently we are selling our non-exclusive microstock with the usual suspects, namely istockphoto, shutterstock, stockxpert, dreamstime, fotolia etc. We submit our royalty-free images to Alamy.
As for rights-managed images, we are still deciding if we should set up our own agency at asiaphoto.com to focus on the niche of Asian images.
John: Do you sell any of your stock directly?
Lance: At the moment, we are selling our rights-managed images to our clients whom we knew through assignment work.
John: You appear to have given a lot of thought to Micro stock. How do the three models, RM, RF and Micro play out in your own strategy?
Lance: I place great importance in editing photographs and categorizing them. In my opinion, not all images are created equally. Likewise, there are varying standards of skills, technical competency and aesthetic values among the photographers in my team. As we train our junior photographers, we assign them to shoot microstock images as we go for quantities along with quality. It allows them to shoot more and experiment. The rapid feedback on sales in microstock helps them to understand the market faster – knowing what sells and what doesn’t. In my opinion, microstock shoots are perfect training grounds for those who just join us.
Before microstock, we have to take risks in upsetting clients, especially magazine editors, when we push our juniors to shoot for paying assignments. In microstock, the worst that can happen are wasted time and resources when images get rejected or when they don’t sell. In assignment work, upset clients means losing sales channels an
future shoot opportunities. For the more senior photographers in our team, including myself, we prefer to focus on shooting for rights-managed work. But we get ourselves involved in microstock production to guide our juniors in their shoots as well as a way to understand the market demands better.
John: If you shoot for all three models, do you shoot differently for each one and how so?
Lance: Apart from assigning juniors to shoot more microstock and seniors to handle RM work, we also categorize projects according to their costs of production. Getting our juniors to shoot less-experienced models against white background obviously cost less and these images are usually categorized for microstock submissions. We emphasize quantities and variations in such projects. Shooting more experienced models in stylized studio setups and on-locations cost more with higher makeup, hairstyling and more sophisticated production treatments. Such images are usually targeted for rights-managed submission. The emphasis is on quality over quantity.
John: I have heard some people postulate that the Micro stock model is unsustainable, that with the entrance of veteran large-scale producers there will be such a glut of images that no one will be able to make enough money to cover their expenses. What are your thoughts on the long-term viability of the micro stock model?
Lance: Microstock is here to stay and it will keep growing bigger. It will be a natural progression where photographers need to learn how to work in teams. Teamwork is necessary so they can lower the costs of productions yet increase their volume of work without compromising quality.
Look at the film industry. It has an established system where different roles work together to make a movie. I believe stock photographers will benefit by adopting a similar approach. By delegating production work to producers, casting directors, digital imaging artists and an admin team to do key-wording, uploading and marketing, photographers can focus on what they are best at – creating kick-ass images for stock.
However, this does not necessary apply to rights-managed work. Photographers who prefer to work alone may be more suited to do RM work since it places a bigger emphasis on an individual’s competency.
John: Do you think all stock shooters should be “dipping their toes” in the Micro stock waters?
Lance: I have a good understanding of rights-managed stock photography industry as I worked two RM agencies after my photojournalism career and before I went into fashion and advertising work. I believe RM will always remain important especially for photo buyers seeking exclusivity and reward elite photographers for their work. For established rights-managed photographers, if they are flourishing in this area, they should just remain focused on RM work. I’m sure the top RM photographers will continue to do well regardless of how big the microstock segment gets.However, for the bulk of RM photographers who find their earnings affected by microstock, it will be worthwhile to learn more about the microstock phenomenon.It will not hurt to separate out just a hundred images of your images to see how they fare in the microstock segment. The worst that could happen is to lose a fraction of the potential earnings but the upside is to learn from their sales (or lack of it)
For new photographers and professionals entering the stock photography industry, Microstock provides a faster learning curve.
You can shoot and upload on Mondays, get approved by Wednesdays and get your first downloads by Thursdays if you submit to Shutterstock. iStockphoto and other microstock sites might take closer to a week to get approvals and another week or two before you see the first downloads. For rights-managed images, it will take months before you see results. This faster learning curve can be very valuable to newcomers and it can cut their costs of learning the ropes of this industry.
John: How big a role does the Internet play in your business?
Lance: If not for internet, I would not be half as successful and busy with my career. About half of our leads for assignment work come from our web presence. With stock photography, it will be our biggest key to success.
Apart from sales and increase in revenue, the use of internet has also cut our costs of production work greatly. In other words, it contributes to an increase in profit margins. For example, we have fresh models who write to us frequently and volunteers for our stock shoots because of they are impressed by our portfolio. For microstock work, we are blessed that we never had to pay for models with little or no experience. On the other hand, while we pay for professional models in our rights-managed shoots, we manage to lower the fees since we have no lack of modeling offers.
John: Collaboration between photographers has historically been the exception rather than the rule. It looks like you are promoting collaboration…can you talk to us a bit about that?
Lance: Photographers tend to be independent and highly creative individuals. That’s why they prefer to work alone and they enjoy solitary work. You are right about collaborations being the exceptions in history. Rare as they might be, such exceptions gave birth to some achievements we should be all grateful for. Such as the photographers’ ownership of copyrights, that was pioneered by Magnum photographers.
A big part of my preference for teamwork came from my experience in film production. I shoot frequently as a cinematographer and director of photography for indie film, music videos and television commercials. In film production, teamwork and collaboration are very important and I am always fascinated by the outcome of team creativity and problem solving. I often hope to bring the same kind of energy to still photography.
For our stock photography projects, I’m encouraging our photographers and production team to work as if they are working in a film production. The process is pretty much the same – creative story telling translated into pictures.
John: You are offering one-on-one personal photography education. How long have you been doing this?
Lance: That’s the master class series where I give one-to-one coaching for photographers who are clear in their objectives and want to push themselves to their limits.I have been doing this for the past five years.
I always enjoy teaching. In the early part of my career, I was contracted by Fujifilm to conduct photography lessons in Singapore. I have traveled frequently in Asia to conduct workshops and seminars. Among the many photographers in the group classes, some feel that they will learn more and faster if they could have private sessions with me. They tend to have very focused goals, which require special attention and help. That’s how the one-to-one master class came about.
John: What has your experience been?
Lance: Personally, the master class series is a valuable experience for both my students and for myself. Very often, I find myself energized by their passion and drive. Sometimes, I learn new concepts and ideas from my students, especially those who research further in the directions I gave them. I must emphasize that learning is two-way traffic.
Most of my students in the master class series end up as valuable members of our work team in collaborative projects. That certainly beats hiring freelancers you are not familiar to handle critical roles.
John: I see you have at least one sample of a highly digitally manipulated image on your site. Do you anticipate doing a higher percentage of digitally manipulated work in the future?
Lance: Digital Imaging has always been a big part of our workflow, mostly because most of our assignment work has been for fashion jobs. We typically spend more time in digital imaging than in shooting. Each fashion image averages an hour of digital imaging time. However, we cannot
afford that luxury for stock photography, especially in microstock.
In other words, we do not anticipate a higher percentage of digitally manipulated work in future. But we never know for sure. Things might change.
John: Indeed they might!