Interview with Lance Lee
John interviews leading photographers about the future of stock photography and other important issues.
Lance Lee Interview:
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.
(2) I have plans to start a photo agency and a stock library focused on Asian images
Asian photography and stock photography will be the core of its operations
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.
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.
John: In either case, what is it that you enjoy shooting the most?
Lance: Professionally speaking, I love shooting for Beauty spreads the most.
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.
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)
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 www.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.
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 and future shoot opportunities.
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.
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 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.
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 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!