The usual order for shooting travel photos is to go somewhere far away then take some beautiful pictures. A competition currently under way at Shutterstock is trying to reverse the order: submit your best travel image and they’ll send the winner (plus one) to South Africa. They’ll enjoy three nights on safari and another three nights exploring Cape Town. The prize doesn’t include plane tickets but it does include $2,000 to pay for them, good enough for someone based in the United States to which the competition is limited. It’s a nice reward for shooting a great vacation photo, and with entries so far numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the odds for photographers with an eye for an exotic landscape aren’t terrible. (Although Felicia Morton, a Shutterstock spokesperson, says that she expects many more entries closer to the May 12 deadline.) Photographers can only enter one image but they retain copyright over it and it won’t become part of Shutterstock, although it may be used to promote the competition.
The judges, photographers Zack Arias, David duChemin and Chase Jarvis, are looking for pictures that are creative, striking and artistic. They’ll review 100 of the best photos chosen by popular vote — a chance for popular photographers to improve their odds, and for the competition to benefit from a little viral marketing as entrants send their pals to the voting page.
“We aren’t looking for specific kinds of travel images for this contest, just ones that are inspiring and creative,” says Felicia. “Every photograph that makes it to the final round will be judged on its unique attributes, its technical quality, its artistic value, and how well it represents the theme of travel.”
Who Wants a Picture of a Japanese Keep?
That makes them at least a little different to the kinds of travel images that sell best on stock sites. Shutterstock has over half a million photos tagged with the keyword “travel” and they include sites that range from the Eiffel Tower to Matsumoto Castle. But however innovative and beautifully shot, those kinds of photos aren’t necessarily the type that buyers want in large amounts. There will only be so much demand, after all, for a photograph of a sixteenth century Japanese keep. Arrange the travel images on Shutterstock by popularity and the first image offered is a shot of an old suitcase covered in travel stickers that looks like it was created in a studio rather captured in the field. The next most popular image is a montage of a plane and a road for which the photographer needn’t have traveled further than the airport departure lounge before rushing back to his image editing suite. And the third most popular travel image is… well, the same idea.
In fact, you have to look past about fifteen generic images of beaches, bags, planes and backpackers before you reach the first photograph of a specific place, a boat in Maya Bay, Thailand. And even that is more about the beauty and serenity of a tropical sea than the place where the movie “The Beach” was shot.
When it comes to selling travel stock then, location doesn’t seem to matter so much as the story the image conveys and the number of ways it can be used by a designer.
“In contrast to personal travel photos, stock library shots tend to be conceptual, useful for many purposes, and shot with great technical skill, often in a controlled environment with models and lights,” says Felicia Morton. “Conceptual images generally sell better than images of specific places. For example, more customers are likely to search for a rock climber than for the name of a specific mountain.”
And stock travel photos also tend to come with model releases that allow them to be used commercially even when they contain pictures of tourists, who are more likely to be posing than genuinely lost.
Conceptual Photography is Commercial Photography
Photographers whose hobbies also include traveling to beautiful places, the type of places they’re most likely to want to bring their camera, are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, they want to shoot the kinds of beautiful, creative, artistic photos that reproduce the unique appeal of a location and sum it up in one shot. These are the kinds of photos that make photography so enjoyable and which Shutterstock’s judges want to see. On the other hand though, if they also want to generate a little income from the photos they shoot on their trips, they’re forced either to push their images as editorial photos to magazines — a difficult thing to do at the best of times, although not impossible — or create the kind of vague, conceptual images that multiple buyers with different messages to communicate want to use.
To create those images, Felicia Morton recommends that photographers pay attention to the photos used in travel advertising, “think about the images that businesses would want to use,” and look at Shutterstock’s most popular photos and the most common keywords on the site.
“Think about images that are difficult to get and that might be of value to image buyers,” she advises.
Of course, it’s not impossible to take more than one kind of photograph on a trip to a beautiful location. It’s possible to take stock shots of the beach or even the airport that strip away the location but leave a sense of travel and movement, and upload them to a stock site, suitably keyworded. And it’s possible too to take other pictures that capture the story of a trip or a place and pitch them to magazines or even offer them as prints when you get back.
Although Shutterstock offers images that cover a wide range of different topics, the company chose travel as the theme for its competition partly as a joint promotion with photography suppliers B&H and travel firm Zozi, but also because photographers are so enthusiastic about the subject. It would be nice if buyers were also enthusiastic about buying the kinds of travel photographs that photographers most want to shoot, but creating commercial conceptual images at the same time isn’t a bad alternative. And your most artistic images can always win you a competition — and another trip.