An Interview with Stock & Travel Photographer Mike Rinnan

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Photo Summer Flower

Summer flower

When I saw Mike Rinnan’s website I knew that I wanted to ask him some questions about stock and travel photography. He talks about Alamy and new kid on the block PhotoShelter and comes up with some great insights into the state of the modern stock photography market. He gives excellent advice for anyone seeking to understand or work in the business.


How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look/atmosphere/feel do you try and create in your photos?

Depends on if I shoot on commission or privately. When doing client jobs there are always visual requirements to meet that constrain your creative freedom. The job often boils down to supplying images based on the client or designer’s vision. But as much as possible I go for realism.

When doing personal work a lot of it is about details, of highlighting everyday objects. I like to take “portraits” of things.

When did you start taking photos and why? What made you decide to become a photographer?

Dad gave me a Pentax Spotmatic with a 50mm lens when I turned 15. I really enjoyed that first camera and it was a good learning experience. The time from shot to actually holding the prints and seeing how they came out could be weeks. You had to keep written notes on camera settings to be able to analyze what settings did what. Another time, slow time..

The more serious involvement came later at one point when I was jobless and simply answered a job ad seeking a photographer assistant. I got that job through fast talk and not a bit on qualifications.

When did you decide to work in stock photography? How did you start out?

Shortly after the assistant stage,  my brother and I started a offset printing company producing brochures and other marketing material. We often went to local stock agencies looking for suitable images. I soon realized a lot of my shots were similar to what we were buying. Without contacts or a complete portfolio however, I never succeeded in joining the big agencies but sold my images through direct sales and uploading the rest to Alamy Images.

Your photography business involves many aspects including weddings, portraits, fashion and model photography. How does your travel and reportage photography fit into the overall scheme of your business? Are they a major or a minor part of what you do?

These days travel and stock are my main focus, partly because I am engaged in another business together with my nephew. In time though, I hope to concentrate more on studio work and portraits.

I also want to do more “projects”. There is a plan to go on a portrait “tour” through Europe and/or USA but this is a major undertaking and will probably not happen until I “retire”.

What obstacles and difficulties did you face when you started to sell your own travel and reportage photos? How did you overcome them? How are you marketing your business and building your reputation?

The hardest part is always starting. The next hardest part is learning that rejections are a part of the deal. For those who begin now: don’t expect to give up your bill-paying job until after many years, perhaps never.

If you want to be top dog or accumulate a certain status among a group (of peers or clients) reputation opens many doors. Reputation is important in getting high-level commissioned work. For myself, since a lot of the work is personal, reputation has less impact and my main focus is on widening my base of contacts and long-term planning of my projects.

How do you market your work? How important is your website to your marketing strategy?

You must have a website. Period. It is essential in everything from reaching new clients to supplying confidence to suppliers and business contacts. If you don’t have a web presence today you do not exist.

You sell your photos on both Alamy and PhotoShelter. What advice would you give any photographer who would like to successfully sell their work on these sites? Is it possible to earn decent income doing this? For instance, my impression is that Alamy values quantity over quality, the pictorial quality of a lot of their photography is very low and to me that demeans the overall value of the agency. What are your thoughts on this? PhotoShelter is a new venture, do you think they have a bright future?

Although they now have about 10 million images online, Alamy Images can generate quite respectable sales. Alamy is a portal and does not edit on content. A lot of the material online might seem meaningless but Alamy also has perhaps the best image search engine of all agencies. Buyers quickly learn how to filter out unwanted images and find what they are looking for.  In view of this, 10 million images is a strength, and it shows in Alamy quarterly reports as increased sales and profits. Main market is UK and Europe.

At Alamy Images there are three groups of submitters.

Agencies that represent individual photographers, whole collections and sometimes other agencies. You will find these same images through many other agencies. One portion is bulk material, often badly keyworded and somewhat outdated in style. Another portion is good standard stock material with a lot of people and lifestyle shots. Whichever the case, these images account for a large chunk of the 10 million images.

Pro, semi-pro and enthusiast photographers who put in time and effort into their submissions. Here you can find some real gems, both travel and studio/people shots and more abstract material. Usually moderate amounts of images online.

Snapshot and editorial material. Here is another bulk group who often submit loads of similars, from every angle, and lots of “documentary” editorial stuff that is not edited and often looks pretty flat. This often keywords very diligently and gets all the street names and monument locations right. Undoubtedly, this helps their sales. Many have a lot of images online.

The Collection at Photoshelter is a new player that seems to target the US market. They edit and screen images and what gets accepted and what does not may turn some heads. The Collection represents a lot of modern images and many photos are popularly vogue and avant-garde. Images are divided into “pro stock” (normal stock), “contemporary” (modern style grungy contrasty stuff with a lot of angles) and editorial. Rumor has it the contemporary material is attracting the buyers while the standard pro-stock is what sells.

I think they might have a chance to pull it off (long term) but the website needs a bit more work, especially with navigation and structural logic. Time flies though and windows of opportunity are shorter these days. I feel The Photoshelter Collection as a edited prime-material managed modern portfolio is not clearly differentiated from The Photoshelter Personal Archives and this may initially confuse buyers.

Still, the Collection is growing rapidly and the interface for us submitters is great. There is also a nice statistics function. As a submitter I naturally hope the best for The Collection. It is good to have another venue where the pricing of our images feels adequate.

Both Alamy and The Collection are accepting new photographers. Joining is simple.

Image submission to Alamy is all about meeting technical requirements. Your files must equate a minimum of 48 megabyte and not have sharpening artefacts. Apart from that, almost anything goes.

Image submission to The Collection at Photoshelter is also simple through the member interface. Make sure your images do not have any noise, artefacts or copyrighted material and show interesting, eye-catching content. Trial and error will show what they want but odd angles and contrasty punchy images do well. Think young audience magazine material. The Collection has a image rating system where “editors picks” get stars and place highest in client searches.

What changes have you seen in the stock photo industry since you have been working as a photographer? Where do you think the industry will be in five or ten years time?

The stock business is not what it used to be and there are just a handful of shooters that live solely on stock today. There is more competition, less pay, a torrent of incoming images… but at the same time – it is today much easier to get started in stock. The doors are open to most shooters meeting the basic requirements of image quality and fresh content. It used to be the reversed where fresh content came before IQ. The buyer base is also so much wider, so mostly all agencies are diversifying their product range. Getty is getting into music now.

The market is still widening but in five years time I would expect to see some very selective agencies popping up. Perhaps Getty will create a new division where it is almost impossible to get in and that has really superior and exotic work. That is the only way clients will be willing to pay the premium.

I also have a personal plan for the stock industry but it is not something I discuss publicly since it is a business venture. Let´s just say that when the present stock industry have laid all their cards on the table and the business is going stale, this will be the next level in the image market.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in stock or travel photography now?

Once again: don´t quit your dayjob. For most of us, photography is a balance act between creative ambition and meeting requirements to reach the market. f you are a star, you will already have noticed, others will have noticed, and you should concentrate on commissioned work where the pay is better, and reputations are built.

Micro-Stock – Good or bad? Discuss.

Micro-stock is here to stay. It is a sign of the times, much like royalty free music. A lot of the initial scare has gone away though and both market and photographers now realize it fills (or could fill) a niche: low to moderate resolution royalty free generic images.

Unfortunately, some material on the Micro-stocks is too good and would be better off as rights managed material at higher paying agencies. A lot of these images are surplus material from model shoots rejected from the big agencies. Time will tell, but I think we will see a slowing down of prime quality submissions to Micro-stocks.

Name three photographers you like and why.

National Geographic shooters. The whole lot, past and present. They all do a great job in spreading insight and knowledge.

Ansel Adams – not so much because of his photography as for his analysis and methods.

Lennart Nilsson, the Swedish photographer that for decades has pioneered techniques for imaging the human body and life, inside and out, and shown us truly new and revolutionary photography.

Where is your photography and your business going? What future photographic project or projects are you excited about?

I have a couple of bigger projects I want to do. The Portrait Tour is one. I wouldn’t mind a sponsorship with for instance Pentax, so that I can do my project about Airports that has been an ambition for some time. Both are big and lengthy projects.

Tell us a little about your views on child labour? I see you mention it on your website.

It is just one of those things that needs addressing. You are only truly free at one single stage in life – childhood. By free I mean mentally, before real worries and commitments and memories and reality cloud your vision. This should be a time where all is not understood or experienced and life is about discovery. Child labor robs these persons of this relatively short window of opportunity, and exchanges it with hardships and existential worries much too early in life.

Bonus Question: Your dream assignment. What is it?

To follow a performance group of some sort – music or a circus – and do behind the scenes documentary. All of the best portraits I have seen come from these settings.


Mike’s website:

Mike’s collection at photoshelter:

Photo Gallery

Photo Cactus abstract

Cactus abstract – nice spine texture and detail in full size. Good example of shooting with copy space for the buyer in mind.

Photo Iron Horse

Iron Horse – this simple image of a Allen set is part of a series called Boys Toys with posed household tools.

Photo In Transit

In transit – candid in an airport of a business traveler hurrying by. Taken while waiting for my own flight and just fooling around. Quite typical of a lot of my images.

Photo Can of Tomatoes

Can of tomatoes – part of a series about food, contents, packaging, etc. I like this image because it is sort of silly, slightly abstract and is about tomatoes – my favorite vegetable!

All photos Copyright © Mike Rinnan. Please ask the photographer for permission to use in any way.

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