Behind-the-scenes: Nature Picture Library

This blog is the first blog in a ‘behind-the-scenes’ series that I am going to do as I gradually learn more about individual industries within the field of natural history documentation (i.e. wildlife film and photography). They will pop up sporadically over the next year while getting the opportunity to work in this highly competitive, yet extremely rewarding, field.

I was able to do work experience for 2 weeks recently with Nature Picture Library (NPL), an independent stock library specialising in nature and animal photography. For those who aren’t quite sure what a stock library is, it is an organisation that collect photographs and brings them to clients such as magazines, ad agencies, and newspapers. A marketing service, if you will, that through keywording on its website or by actively promoting your photographs, gets your images published and seen. Other names in the stock photography business include Getty Images, Corbis Images and Minden Pictures.

NPL Placard

How does it work?

A photographer will approach one of the NPL staff and submit their images once accepted as a contributing photographer (anything from a hundred to thousands of pictures, though they prefer around the mid-hundreds). They will then select some they want in their library (it is important to upload your images well-captioned and with their desired specs). Once accepted, these are then subject to minor editing before being uploaded onto the website with appropriate keywords.

They then get photo researchers either downloading the images off their website, or they will approach people/companies with suggestions for a set of photos (a story) that might interest different audiences. NPL works with all sorts, from book publishers to general interest and wildlife magazines to charities like the WWF. Their clients are not just limited to the UK – about a third of their income comes from abroad through working both directly and also through local subagents who promote their work in e.g. Germany, Italy or Japan.

NPL rarely sell exclusive rights to clients, and photographers can put country restrictions on their images if they have agents in those countries. With some bigger clients who purchase a set, such as calendar clients or book clients, or some smaller clients such as charities, there is scope for negotiation price-wise.
Their personal marketing is successfully done word-of-mouth, as well as  by attending a select few tradeshows (like one just past in Frankfurt), e-mail newsletters with links to their ‘highlights of’ collections, and some print mailouts eg desk calendars, They also work in close collaboration with some projects such as 2020 Vision in the UK or Wild Wonders of Europe.

NPL website

This go-between step is extremely important in the publishing industry, as it provides a necessary link between the artists themselves and the people who reproduce this work in print. It takes a significant amount of work off of photographers’ hands, allowing them to spend far more time in the field than would otherwise be possible. However, this type of service comes at a cost to the photographer (i.e. they don’t receive the full amount for each image sold) and therefore most photographers do not rely on stock photography sales as their main source of income.

Why Nature PL?

First of all, NPL is a small and specialist library. This means several things:

  • Good relationship with both clients and photographers. They have a full-time staff of about 10, with an additional 3 or so part-time, all of whom have a specific task – photo processing, cataloguing, accounting, sales tobooks & magazines, conservation groups etc.
  • They target their audience effectively: they know how to find the appropriate clients and their clients know how to find them. Their SEO puts them at the top of search engines and, having been successful for over 10 years, they know anyone worth knowing in the business.
  • They have a progressive attitude in a business that is dwindling (stats show that e.g. Getty Images’ sales have been plummeting for years). They are in the process of giving their website a facelift and are also developing a video stock library to be released in a few months’ time with short video clips to meet the growing multimedia market demands.
  • They have also started supporting charities (a different one every few months), with emphasis on smaller, localised organisations that are in desperate need for funding. Currently they are supporting Save the Rhino.
  • They source images from the cream of the crop – UK photographers such as Andy Rouse, Mark Carwardine and Peter Cairns to European legends Ingo Arndt, Juan Carlos Muñoz and Edwin Giesbers to those further afield: Anup Shah, Jack Dykinga and Yukuhiro Fukuda.
  • Most of the staff has been in the industry for years, and consequently know what they are doing and talking about.

What about their competitors, or photoshelter?

From what I can gather, they have a good relationship with their competitors, and know each other reasonably well. If there is an issue, they tend to work it out in person and quickly.

Photoshelter allows photographers to create their own stock library under their personal name and sell images directly to clients. This means that full profits are received by the photographers themselves, and their images can easily be found (if correctly captioned and keyworded) on the general photoshelter search page. Whenever I mentioned it to anyone at NPL they were very positive and said that it was a great resource. Many of their own photographers sell their images that way. And they even said it was important to have one! NPL recognises the pitfalls of these web resources (images aren’t screened for quality) and that their clients, who tend to be more traditional, choose NPL because they will reliably provide them with only the best quality images.

Finally, NPL is also up against  microstock agencies which sell images very cheaply. However many NPL clients require a service and need to be sure of accuracy of captions, this assurance  just isn’t available from microstock agencies.

How do I get my photography out there?

They don’t take on many new photographers, as they choose to support the quality photographers that they are already in partnership with. This doesn’t mean that the aren’t interested in new work, but they are more selective about it – with a strong interest in subjects that haven’t been shot to death (if you’re photographing a lion, there’s a good chance the well-established photographers have already done it well), an image that has been taken from a new angle, or a photo story, where the photographer goes deeper into the lives and issues animals deal with. Plus it’s important to show that your high-quality images aren’t just a one-off but are going to be a regular contribution, because the rule-of-thumb is that you need to have over a thousand images in a library to make any money off of them.

What did I learn?

In my two weeks I learnt more about the commercial side of things than anything else – about what sells. There’s only so many things an inexperienced image sourcer can do in 2 weeks, and my lack of knowledge of what the client wants was another issue. But I did get to source an image for the BBC, as well as for calendars, and it seemed to me that those images that have been shot to death (as mentioned above) are the ones that sell the most. Or images with a human-relationship story to them. Or pets & farm animals.

Different photographers choose to specialise in different areas within wildlife photography, which will appeal to completely different clients. There are photographers who choose to photograph animal portraits, animal behaviour, animals in their environment. Photographs with lots of empty space, known as copyspace, can be used across a range of purposes. There are photographers who approach wildlife photography from a more artistic angle and all scientific content can be stripped away but the light, shapes and mood is the essence of the image. Or there are those who choose photojournalism, to expose environmental and conservation issues, which can be extremely powerful and newsworthy but is for a different client than someone who is looking for images to make into calendar on animal babies.

Gaining a reputation for yourself is also extremely important if you want to make it at all as a freelance photographer – people will then buy your images not purely for the image but also for the name of the person who took it. And the most obvious and quick way to do so? Competitions. The big ones. I’m talking Veolia Environnment Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the British Wildlife Photography Awards, GDT’s European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. See a list in progress on my events page.

Finally, as mentioned in answer to the question above, it’s important to show your clients that you have projects lined up, and that the end of one project won’t mean an undetermined hiatus from photography all together.

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