Turning Rejection into Success

Photography: Markus Merz
If turning photography into income has a downside, it’s this: it doesn’t always work. You’ll pitch for jobs you won’t get, enter competitions you won’t win and submit images to stock companies who will send them back encouraging you to try again.

Dreamstime, for example, receives an average of 100,000 photo submissions a week and rejects about half of them. Fotolia is even stricter. Of the 300,000 images it receives every month, fully 60 percent are turned away. That could lead to a lot of dispirited photographers. Hobbyists taking their first steps in the professional world, in particular, might take those first refusals as a judgment on their talent rather than the suitability of the particular images they submitted. Instead of trying again, they could be tempted to give up and stick to shooting for fun rather than profit.

While for some photographers that might be the best option – at least until they’ve practiced a little more and honed their techniques – for others, it’s a lost opportunity. Rejection might be as much a part of photography as model releases and memory cards but it’s also a chance to spot weaknesses and make your photography better and certainly more commercial.

“As with any freelance career, rejection is a major part of the game,” reassures Michael Connor of Fotolia. “Think from the point of view of the media buyer — is this something that I would buy, and for what?”

The ability to answer that question – to put yourself in the shoes of the buyer — is always going to be a crucial part of developing into a commercially successful photographer. It might even be one of the reasons that some of the world’s leading microstock contributors – including both Andres Rodriguez and Lise Gagne – began their careers as designers rather than photographers. Fotolia itself was created by the owners of a hosting service who saw a need among Web publishers for low-cost, high quality images.

Technical Faults and Commercial Failures

But if you’ve never been in the position of having to use images — and therefore don’t bring an understanding of buyers’ needs to the job — what can you learn from rejection and how can you pick up the lessons that will help you to deliver the sort of photos that buyers want?

In the case of stock imagery, the first place to look is the rejection itself. Some stock companies will explain why the image didn’t make the grade, providing a solid clue to what needs to be improved in order to make the cut next time. Often, that will be technical, with high noise levels among the leading reasons that photos are turned away from stock sites. Those sorts of problems aren’t too hard to solve. Nor are identifiable faces with no model releases or company logos spotted by eagle-eyed reviewers.

An email telling you that those were the reasons that your photo was rejected can simply help to sharpen your eye so that you can meet the basic submission guidelines in the future.

Much harder to fix are problems with the commercial and compositional aspects of the shot. Stock images in particular tend to look a certain way. They need to be more than just good photographs; they have to be flexible enough to be used on advertisements, marketing material and websites. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that the image wasn’t of a high enough quality; it could simply mean that it wasn’t the sort of image that was likely to sell.

The Most Important Lesson is…

Part of the solution to that problem is to spend more time browsing the images on offer as well as those that are in use in magazines, ads and websites. Then it’s a matter of shooting photos that combine your style with the sort of look that stock companies want.

“Stock images have to fit very specific parameters. We take our leads from the marketplace – what images are most likely to be purchased through focus groups, research at conferences and user feedback,” explains Michael Connor.

“[H]one your artistic skills. Be creative with light, composition, angles – find a shot that hasn’t already been taken a number of times. Not only will this increase chances for acceptance — but for licensing as well.”

Stock companies can provide useful feedback. It’s in their interest, after all, to raise the quality of the submissions they receive. For other types of photography, the lessons are a little harder to learn. Show your portfolio to a potential wedding clientand never hear from them again, and you won’t know what it was about your pitch that failed to persuade. Submit a photo to a competition and see the contest won by a photo that you think far worse than yours, and you’ll have no idea what went through the judge’s mind.

On those occasions, the important thing is not to sweat it. While it is possible to learn from rejection, it’s going to happen too often to draw a solid lesson every time. As long as the jobs are still coming in perhaps the most important conclusion you can draw from rejection is that you can’t please everyone all the time.

5 comments for this post.

  1. Markus Merz Said:

    Rule of thumb: It is not worth it to discuss rejections with agencies. But it is always worth to ask for good selling motives.

    Thanks for using my picture as illustration. It fits very nicely to your article.

  2. ssbastante Said:

    good advice.
    another one is to know when to stop trying.
    sometimes a certain site keeps rejecting your work while other equally strict or better accept yours.
    you can frustrate yourself to try and get in by following their play hard to get/never before the 5 times unless you're incredible attitude,
    and beg like all the others who said they got accepted after the 20th time, or you can just say you're not going to play their game.
    simply put, as one mid stock longtime contributor says, "they're not the only site
    to contribute. why waste your effort, if you know you are good!".

  3. Jamie Said:

    Some sites seems to have a huge bias towards a certian type of image, and if that is not your style, your take, then don't change and loose your own personality. Try and take images to match the sites style then go somewhere else!

  4. marcel lemieux Said:

    i am member of quite a few photos sites and only Fotolia accepted one shot out of 10....(other are like groups that give you feedback but don,t sell much)...all of these sites have their own ideas about the market....i think in du time they will realize that a lot of great artists have their work rejected for the wrong reasons...they say the market rules..but peoples are the ones that create the market with their ways of life...it all a question of time and trends...one day a site or company will challenge the market....

  5. Embassy Pro Books Said:

    It's important to remember that art is subjective. I have entered my share of competitions only to scratch my head when seeing the resulting winner. Don't let it get you down.

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