The photographer's work is going through a revolution. At the time of the transition from analog to digital photography, it might have seemed that once it occurred, the industry would stabilize and remain the same for another 100 years.
In reality, smartphones and internet 2.0, made up of social networks, influencers and users who claim that everything is free, has changed the work of the photographer much more than the transition from film to digital did.
In a world where everyone feels like they are photographers, those who know they really are can only feel sad. However, when the latter put their pride in front of the need to adapt, the only consequence is extinction. Fortunately, there are also professionals like Andrea Delbò, whom I interview below and whose story proves that there is still hope.
Who wrote the introduction
My name is Daniele Carrer and I teach photographers and video makers to sell their photos and videos online in microstocks.
I do it thanks to my podcast, my course and my books, and also by telling the stories of some contributors who have achieved important results by selling stock images and stock footage.
Who is the photographer who tells his story
Andrea Delbò is a professional photographer who has been selling his photos and videos in microstocks in recent years.
He made a video of 8 seconds that only Shutterstock allowed him to earn $4200, and he has a portfolio of 15,000 contents among stock images and stock footage.
Studies and early work
Can you tell us a little about your career as a photographer?
I started to get passionate about photography when I was attending high school: I bought a reflex and took a course in Milan. I used a 50mm lens and shot only black and white photos that I printed in a basement. Years of passion and big dreams have led me to deepen the art of photography more and more.
During my second year of University, I decided to take some time off and attend the Italian Institute of Photography with Riccardo Bauer where I graduated in the Fashion Course.
It was still the time of film, and we worked for a year in a professional print development room. One of the lessons that was given the least importance was that of Photoshop. Digital was around the corner and the school followed traditional teaching methods which, however, were very useful for me to learn about photographic technique.
Once I graduated, I finished the remaining two years with the Faculty of Sociology, and then I gave myself some time to try to become a professional photographer. The most difficult thing wasn't understanding how to take a good picture, but finding someone to pay you to shoot it.
At the time, I lived with my parents and earned some money by working as a photographer's assistant in an important studio in Milan, where I saw photographers working on advertising and fashion campaigns.
Then I joined a photo agency: I worked as a freelancer for the main Italian national newspapers and started to understand how to transform my passion into a job.
Within three years, I became a journalist and started earning and living from photography.
I liked the work of the photo-journalist because I was always on the go and saw a thousand different worlds. I followed the news, politics, music, the economy, various kinds of events, and every day I was in a different situation. I shot events such as the earthquake in L'Aquila and started being in the places that made the news.
The press crisis was already underway, and over the years, I also started working in the entertainment and fashion sector, and for television. My photos started being published in the weeklies.
I used to shoot situations such as the Milan fashion week and television broadcasts, and I took photos of celebrities. Over time, I became the official photographer of Martini and other companies, and I was chosen as an in-house photographer for publishing houses such as Mondadori, Conde Nast and WWD America.
In this way, I went from taking pictures, hoping they would be bought by some newspaper, to working after being commissioned by a client.
How to become a photographer
Collaborating with such important brands and companies is the goal of many young people who dream of becoming photographers.
How did you succeed?
Knowing how to photograph is the basis of everything, even if, with today’s technology, it is easy to take a photo exposed correctly.
Passion is also very important. But... Who doesn't like taking pictures?
Turning a passion into a job is more complicated than you might expect. When people say, "I like to photograph and I would like it to be my job", they think how beautiful it is to take a picture of what they like most. That’s what I did when I was 18 to 24, shooting with my reflex around the world in black and white.
But making photography a real job actually involves a change of perspective, except for some great artists who know how to communicate and make art with their images and decide what and how to photograph, like Salgado does; most others are regular workers who do what they have to.
The work is not exactly what people dream of: in addition to being able to take pictures, there are many other attitudes that you must have. These will obviously differ according to the type of photographer you want to become: a nature photographer has different skills and abilities from weddings and sports photographers.
I have always had a strong motivation that made me become a professional, and for years I have put my work in front of everything: I remember when I followed the crime news in Milan, and it often happened that I had to go out at night for a car accident or for some other bad news. Certainly not the idea of the photographer I wanted to be, but it was the beginning of my journey, and I did it with my blind passion.
While working, I began to understand who might be interested in a photo, and I started meeting people who were looking for my professionalism (companies, press offices, individuals, publishing houses, etc.), developing a network of clients with whom to collaborate on various kinds of projects.
Being a photographer in the 21st century
How has the photographer's business changed today compared to when you started?
I have been working as a photographer for 17 years, and although this is a short time span, many things have changed.
I started working a few years after the advent of digital photography, and I still remember my older photo-journalist colleagues who, up to two / three years earlier, took photos, printed them in the agency and ran to newspaper offices to sell them. They told me that when they followed an event outside Milan, in Sicily (1200 kilometers away), for example, they went to the airport in the evening and gave a passenger on the flight to Milan the rolls to be delivered to some colleague who was waiting for them on arrival.
With digital, we started to send photos to editorial boards directly via ftp. At the time (early 2000s) a single photo in a newspaper was paid € 46 and € 110 in a weekly. It was a job that, if done full-time, also gave economic satisfaction.
With the growing success of the web, newspapers went online, starting a race to the bottom on the purchase price of the photos. At first, on paper, they kept the prices in place and started paying less only for publishing online. If your photo was chosen for the internet, they gave you only €10 but, given that online publication was usually made of galleries with dozens of shots, the situation seemed good. In reality, there was a general and progressive decline in prices from which there would be no turning back.
When I wrote to you for the first time (editor's note: message quoted in episode 15 of the podcast "Sell Your Photos and Videos Online") I told you that I was one of those photographers who, given his job position, would never have agreed to sell a photo for $ 0.10, but in reality, in a decade of crisis, we have increasingly moved towards a radical cut in sales prices.
At the same time, the importance of social media such as Instagram has grown, flooding the world with photographs. Bloggers have begun to be more attractive than professional photographers to clients. Everyone shoots, and it is easier to find pictures for free. Competence and professionalism count less and less.
A few years earlier, I could photograph Flavio Briatore and his then girlfriend who gave the news of the sweet expectation by doing a posed photo shoot on a yacht in Monte Carlo (I took the backstage image that day). Now, the newspaper that previously paid to create that type of service could still use the same kind of photos, but taken for free from the protagonists' Instagram profile. In today’s magazines, there are many photos with Instagram credit on display, while photos purchased from a professional usually do not even mention the photographer’s name.
Before that, you could work with a show business VIP and earn money. Below is a report I made for an Italian journal with photos of Elisabetta Gregoraci (Briatore’s then girlfriend) in a shop where she buys a bed for her baby.
If you knew a famous person, it was possible to organize a service that could be easily sold (Elisabetta and I had decided together to do a semi-stolen shoot of her shopping).
Now the VIP takes the same photo with the phone, they post it on their Instagram, and the newspaper downloads it for free. Once VIPs needed photographers to get the news out. Then they started doing everything themselves or through their press offices without the need for us.
In many businesses, not only in photography, cost cutting has become an imperative, and you have to stay on the market if you want to keep on being a professional photographer. Adapting produces a change, which is not something bad. It means accepting new challenges, starting new projects, studying something you never thought you had to study. For this reason, a negative event can be the beginning of something new and positive.
Without this industry crisis, which was followed by the pandemic, I would have continued to take the same photos for years to come. Adapting to change has meant learning how to make videos, fly a drone, use new software and approach work in a totally different way—a nice boost of enthusiasm for those who want to grow and learn as much as possible.
When my son was chosen for a Bono and Zucchero clip, thanks to microstock
Let's go to the mother of all changes: March 2020. In less than a week, we went from normal life to lockdown. Most photographers suddenly saw their earnings disappear, still having to pay their bills and pulling out a salary to live on.
My impression is that at that point, instead of exploiting the new scenario, starting from the enormous potential that microstock had in that moment, photographers closed on Facebook to complain.
What did you do instead?
I already had a profile on Shutterstock since a few years earlier: while observing the decline of the photography business, I was looking for new ways to continue my beloved work. I had first uploaded a few thousand photos of famous people that I had. Seeing some slight earnings, I had begun to upload other photos taken in my long travels around the world.
I studied the microstock business more and more seriously to try to understand if it could make sense even for a professional. I read a lot but, at the same time, I was working in my sector and I didn't have the time to start producing stock images effectively. Also, I sold many photos, but my earnings remained low.
Then, as a result of changes in my family life, the possibility of working full-time ceased. Before, whether it was an earthquake or a party event, I was ready to go. I had heard, thanks to your advice, that those who produce stock footage used to get higher revenues and I started to consider the idea of approaching videos, buying the equipment to start and a drone to add new possibilities to my shootings.
When the pandemic started, I had plenty of time to seriously start practicing with a method that I hoped would enable me to become a good contributor. I started by shooting the pandemic at home, being able to record my son and me in home life situations in the new reality. A few days after making the first videos, the neighbor rang the doorbell to tell me that she had seen my son on the news. A clip where he was playing the flute with the mask on the balcony of the house was used in the video of a song by Zucchero and Bono dedicated to the pandemic (in this YouTube video you can see a live clip of Zucchero where the same footage was used): at that moment I realized that I could try to believe in is new project.
Given my working habits, I struggled to work without having a client behind me, be it a newspaper or a company: seeing that the video had been purchased by a prestigious music production and broadcasted by various media has opened my eyes to the potential of what I was doing. The balcony and the house have become a slice of reality to be filmed every day. I think it was a unique moment: never before was there such a high demand for images and videos of a topic of which there was nothing (pandemic and total lockdown), moreover in a phase in which no new content could easily be shot by productions around the world.
At the same time, being a freelance journalist, I was able to leave the house and do my job even in the strictest lockdown. I was very excited to shoot the squares of Milan completely deserted. I saw a completely different city than the one I was used to. In those moments, although I was not there for any newspaper, I began to feel with pleasure the possibility of working the way I wanted. Furthermore, I was not taking pictures as my habit, but filming or flying with the drone around the Duomo.
I was starting to get passionate about something I never thought possible: changing my shooting workflow completely, something that can be difficult for a photographer, and switching to another kind of business. Any previous good work was on hold, and I thought I was very lucky to be able to still work during the emergency situation.
So I produced stock footage for months and started learning a new job.
The microstock: shooting what, how and when I want
During the pandemic, you shot yourself on the terrace with your son playing football (soccer). To date, you have earned more than $4,200 from that 8 seconds-long video.
Were you looking for a video that generically described the moment that the whole world was experiencing, or did you conceive that shot after a careful study of news trends and content already on sale in microstocks?
At that moment, I didn't have much idea of what I was doing: mainly, I was trying to carry on my work and make the most of my time.
The event in front of us was scary, but I had been running from morning to night for many years, and I felt being forced to slow down could be positive. In making that video, I used the typical ability of a photo-journalist who translates news into an image, but I was not yet using analysis software to decide what to shoot.
I was shooting what I could, and I had many options: I could go out to Milan to do my job in the area most affected by the virus in the world, while at home I could shoot scenes of everyday life with the essential help of my son. When I started, he was 5 years old, and now that he is 7, he plays better and better in every scene, and if I am the protagonist of the video he is the director behind the camera.
Today, I'm trying to produce stock footage with greater consistency. I start by doing research before choosing a subject and then write a step by step plan of the scenes to shoot to optimize the work.
I still have to improve, and I find it very useful to read what is happening in the world around us and to use tools that help me understand the saleability of one subject rather than another.
In which agencies do you sell your content?
Currently, my reference is Shutterstock: I have a portfolio of 10,500 stock images and 5,000 videos. I don't use any upload and keyword services. I also upload to Pond5 and Adobe Stock.
The results are good; during the pandemic, I did a targeted job, and I have to understand if there will still be room for working in this business once this long period is totally behind us.
What tools do you use to produce better contents?
The old school system of reading as much as possible and getting information: starting from that, I develop ideas that can represent the concept, topic or news, and create a shooting.
One of the main characteristics of a photographer is curiosity, and starting from this, I find the ideas to produce content. In this sense, microstock has given me a good breath of fresh air: It is giving me the opportunity to shoot what I want, when I want, how I want.
Questions by Daniele Carrer, answers by Andrea Delbò, andreadelbo.com. November 2021.